Required Reading: Classroom Wars

What should schools teach?  How should they teach it?  Who gets to decide?  These are the questions that keep SAGLRROILYBYGTH up at night, and now we have a great new book to shed light on the infinitely complicated ways they play out in real life.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela’s new book, Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture examines battles in California over bilingual ed and sex ed during the 1960s and 1970s.  As Petrzela explains,

This book focuses on bilingual (Spanish-language) and sex education in California in order to understand how grass-roots citizens came to define the schoolhouse and the family as politicized sites during the late 1960s and 1970s.

Full disclosure: Petrzela and I are friends and colleagues.  We’ve worked together for several years now, and we’ll be doing some presentations together in upcoming months at academic conferences about history, education, and culture wars.  Even if we weren’t friends, though, I would love this book.   petrzela classroom wars

For one thing, Petrzela’s careful examination of California’s educational politics shows us the ways culture-war politics are not somehow “natural,” but rather develop over time due to specific historical circumstances and activism.

For example, as she describes, in the early 1960s bilingual ed had lots of support among conservatives.  Arch-conservative Max Rafferty pushed for it, and even as late as 1968, many California legislators touted bilingual ed as the “American thing to do.”  Soon, however, bilingual education was tied together with leftist radicalism.  Students in 1968 staged huge “blow-out” protests in LA, carrying “Viva la Revolucion!” signs and demanding that all Anglo teachers be fired.  As Petrzela puts it,

In the two years following the BEA’s [Bilingual Education Act] passage and the blowouts [student walkouts], bilingual-bicultural education evolved from a relatively uncontroversial issue that garnered significant bipartisan support to a lightning rod dividing and defining conservatives and liberals.

Among activists, too, we need to be careful before we assume too much.  In the education bureaucracy of California, for instance, Petrzela introduces us to the complicated positions of folks such as Eugene Gonzalez, associate superintendent and chief of the division of instruction.  Gonzalez was close with conservative leader Max Rafferty, and like Rafferty he spoke out against the methods used by radical student protesters.  But he also continued to push for better and fairer education for latino/as in California schools.  Other Mexican-American activists, such as Alfred Ramirez, refused to go along with the protesting students at all.  He pushed Gonzalez to crack down on the Latino protesters and to get rid of bilingual programs entirely.

Nor were California’s educational culture wars a simple, stereotypical battle between progressive teachers and students on one side against conservative activists on the other.  That may often be the case, but as Petrzela recounts, in 1970 conservative teachers in LA founded their own union, the Professional Educators of Los Angeles.  And, though one conservative teacher lamented her position as a “minority among educators,” Petrzela also reveals that students, too, were split.  In at least one case, a group of conservative students gathered to denounce the “leftist-liberal bias” of their teachers.

We also see in these pages a clearer-than-usual vision of what conservative activists wanted.  At root, Petrzela shows us, conservatives felt as if they had too often been frozen out of discussions of sex ed and bilingual ed.  They felt they had not been included, not been consulted.  Many times, conservative activists and parents worried that a blundering school administration was trying to insert itself between parents and children.

When this wasn’t the case, many conservatives did not protest against sex education.  In conservative San Diego County, for example, sex ed was not at all controversial.  Part of the reason was because the teachers had a strong reputation in the whole community as family women with “high moral standards.”  By the end of the 1970s, Petrzela tells us, policy-makers had figured it out.  By then, most sex ed curricula were no longer so ferociously controversial, largely because parents and conservative organizations had been consulted beforehand.

Petrzela also tackles one of the toughest questions of these educational culture wars: Who won?  She argues that over all, over time, progressives tended to score victories.  In about half the cases of controversy over sex ed, Petrzela found, California districts actually expanded their sex ed programs after the blow-ups.

In every case, Petrzela makes her case well that schools matter.  As she puts it,

In the 1960s and 1970s, militant Chicanos in East Los Angeles, suburban housewives in Anaheim, and political aspirants as varied as Max Rafferty and Julian Nava all pinned their hopes on the public schools as the primary institution for cultivating an ethical, informed, moral next generation.

For all of us who want to look beyond the headlines of America’s continuing educational culture wars, this book is a good place to start.

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