Professional Biography

A former Peace Corps volunteer and public school social studies teacher, Dr. Zimmerman holds a Ph.D. in history from the Johns Hopkins University. His scholarship has focused broadly on the ways that different peoples have imagined and debated education across time and space. He has authored books about sex and alcohol education, history and religion in the curriculum, Americans who taught overseas, and historical memory in public schooling. His most recent work examines campus politics in the United States, including controversies over diversity, sexual assault, and “political correctness.”

Zimmerman’s academic work has appeared in the Journal of American History, the Teachers College Record, and History of Education Quarterly. He is also a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New York Review of Books, and other popular newspapers and magazines. He came to Penn GSE after 20 years at New York University, where he served as chair of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences in NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. Zimmerman received NYU’s Distinguished Teaching Award, its highest recognition for teaching. His former Ph.D. students have held positions at Carleton College, George Mason University, Brown University, and many other institutions.

Zimmerman has received book and article prizes from the American Educational Research Association, the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, and the History of Education Society, where he served as president in 2009–2010. He is co-editor of the American Institutions and Society book series at Cornell University Press and also of the History and Philosophy of Education series at the University of Chicago Press. He has received several research awards from the Spencer Foundation, which also supported a kickoff conference for his University of Chicago book series.

Research Interests and Current Projects

Dr. Zimmerman recently completed a book (co-authored with Emily Robertson) on the teaching of controversial issues in American public schools, which was published by the University of Chicago Press in April 2017. He is also conducting research for a history of college teaching in the United States, entitled The Scholar at the Blackboard. Drawing upon student evaluations and other unpublished manuscript materials in dozens of university archives, the book will provide our first in-depth examination of how undergraduate teaching practices in the United States took root and changed over time.


B.A. (Urban Studies) Columbia University, summa cum laude, 1983

M.A. (History) Johns Hopkins University, 1990

Ph.D. (History) Johns Hopkins University, 1993

Areas of Expertise

History/Politics of education

“Culture Wars” in American and global contexts

Sex, sexuality, and schools

Campus protests

College teaching

Education and historical memory

Selected Publications

Zimmerman, J. (2018). "Education in the Age of Obama: The Paradox of Consensus." In J. E. Zelizer, (Ed.), The presidency of Barack Obama: A first historical assessment. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Zimmerman, J., & Robertson, E. (2017). The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Zimmerman. J. (2016). Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know. New York: Oxford University Press.

Zimmerman, J. (2016). Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Zimmerman, J. (2012). “Uncle Sam at the Blackboard: The Federal Government and American Education.” In To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government, edited by S. Conn. New York: Oxford University Press.

Zimmerman, J. (2011). “‘Money, Materials and Manpower’: Ghanaian In-Service Teacher Education and the Political Economy of Failure, 1961–1971.” History of Education Quarterly 51(1): 1–27. DOI: 10.1111/j.1748-5959.2010.00308.x

Zimmerman, J. (2010). “Simplified Spelling and Efficiency in the ‘Progressiv’ Era.” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 9(3): 365–394. DOI: 10.1017/S1537781400004102

Zimmerman, J. (2009). Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Zimmerman, J. (2006). Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Zimmerman, J. (2002). “Ethnics Against Ethnicity: European Immigrants and Foreign-Language Instruction, 1890–1940.” Journal of American History 88(4): 1383–1404. DOI: 10.2307/2700602

Zimmerman, J. (2002). Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Zimmerman, J. (2000). “‘Each “Race” Could Have Its Heroes Sung’: Ethnicity and the History Wars in the 1920s.” Journal of American History 87(1): 92–111. DOI: 10.2307/2567917

Zimmerman, J. (1999). Distilling Democracy: Alcohol Education in America’s Public Schools, 1880–1925. Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas.

Zimmerman, J. (1995). “Beyond Double Consciousness: Black Peace Corps Volunteers in Africa, 1961–1971.” Journal of American History 82(3): 999–1028, 1995. DOI: 10.2307/2945109