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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“If You’re Planning to Have Sex…”

What should schools be teaching America’s young people about sex?  This is a question that has snarled culture-war arguments about public education for decades.  Sex ed proponents often insist that they can teach a morally neutral approach—just the facts.  This attitude is ridiculously oversimplified.  There is and can be no morally neutral approach to a subject that is so intimately wrapped up in religion and ethics.

Let me be clear at the outset: I personally believe public schools should teach a comprehensive curriculum in sexuality that includes discussions about both the mechanics and morals of sex.  But the common argument that sex ed can be done in a morally neutral fashion relies on a woefully naïve self-understanding.

This liberal tradition begins with a powerful argument in favor of public-school sex ed.  Many sex ed proponents make the strong case that sex is a potentially deadly game.  Since kids are going to do it, they need information to stay safe and avoid unintentional pregnancies.  With the prevalence of HIV and possible pregnancy, the argument goes, this is literally a life-or-death situation.  Refusing to educate young people about sex in a frank and open manner would be a nearly criminal malfeasance on the part of responsible public-school educators.  Yet due to dunderheaded conservative opposition, many sex educators feel, this vital information is often censored.

Perhaps the most famous example of this position was the beleaguered Mary Calderone.  As historian Jeff Moran described in Teaching Sex: The Shaping of Adolescence in the 20th Century, Calderone headed SIECUS, the Sex (later Sexuality) Information and Education Council of the United States beginning in 1963.  The stated goal of the organization, in gendered 1960s language, was “to establish man’s sexuality as a health entity.”  Calderone wanted sex to be understood as a positive thing.  “We must block our habit of considering sex as a ‘problem’ to be ‘controlled’,” she wrote in 1963.  Rather, Calderone argued, “Emphasis must be on sex as a vital life force to be utilized.”  In spite of the reputation Calderone gained as a wild-eyed sex maniac, Calderone remained relatively old fashioned.  She believed sex ed should encourage the ultimate goal of healthy marriages, for instance.  The SIECUS plan insisted it took a “moral-neutrality” approach.  It promised to deluge students with information, not preaching, about sex and sexuality.

Like that of SIECUS in the 1960s, the rationale of sex-ed advocates in subsequent decades has often gone as follows: sex educators in public schools do not encourage young people to have sex.  They merely suggest that if students are going to have sex, they must have the knowledge to do it safely.

For instance, as Laura Sessions Stepp has argued in recent days about a New York City program to provide the “morning after” pill to public-school students without parental consent, merely making information and even contraception available to young people does not encourage sex.

Whatever scientific evidence may suggest, however, proponents of sex ed in public schools often utterly misunderstand the thinking of religious conservatives.  It is difficult for those of us who support public-school sex ed to wrap our minds around the conservative position.  But if we are going to have respectful, productive discussions about sex ed, we must make the effort.

In short, for many religious conservatives, sex ed can never be a neutral message.  Having an adult, perhaps a teacher, stand in front of a group of young people and say, “If you’re going to have sex, here are some ways to do it safely,” suggests that having sex is a legitimate and respectable option for young people.  It encourages young people, some religious conservatives think, to think of themselves as people who might be having sex.

How can we make sense of this conservative position?  We might start with a few analogies.
For example, imagine a parallel situation in Family and Consumer Science, the class formerly known as Home Ec.  Imagine a teacher planned to inform students about the importance of kitchen hygiene.  “If you’re planning on making a ham-and-cheese sandwich,” the teacher might say, “here are some ways to do it safely.”

It is not difficult for us to imagine that a student from a Jewish background might not want to make a ham-and-cheese.  And, with our understanding of the goals and nature of public education, we can agree that such a student should never be forced to make a sandwich that breaks his or her religious rules.  Such a student could make something else.  Or he could be exempted from the class.  No big deal.  Simply because we do not share the student’s understanding of what may be offensive, we do not force the student to abandon that understanding.

In cases such as this, we should remember the words of former Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court Warren Burger.  In Thomas v. Review Board (1981), Chief Justice Burger argued that those who are not compelled by religious rules are not the ones who should decide whether or not those rules are reasonable.  “It is not for us to say,” Burger argued, “that the line [Thomas] drew was an unreasonable one.”

Granted, the case was not about public schools, or sex ed, but the principle remains important.  It is not the role of those who are not offended to declare whether or not certain ideas are offensive.

Perhaps another way to understand this case might be to imagine some permutations.  Consider, for example, how we would feel if a teacher told a class, “Now class, if you’re thinking about killing someone, here are some ways to do it safely.”  Clearly, when we agree that behaviors are beyond the bounds of morality, we agree that public-school teachers ought not be suggesting safe ways for students to engage in them.

That may be the position of religious conservatives.  If an action is entirely beyond the bounds of morality, the notion that young people need to be taught how to do it safely makes utterly no sense.  Simply broaching the topic implies that sex would be a legitimate choice for young people, a position their religion explicitly forbids.

So how can public schools provide information without offending conservative religious families?  It will make a start to understand the complaints of conservative parents as legitimate.  Just as we would not question a Jewish student’s aversion to making a ham-and-cheese, so we should not attack a religious student’s aversion to hearing about safer ways to have sex.  For many sex-ed liberals, myself included, this is a difficult pill to swallow.  It feels as if we are allowing some families to stick their heads in the sand, to restrict their children from hearing vitally important safety information.  Nevertheless, if we honestly respect the home cultures of students from conservative homes, we must allow them to draw the lines between offensive and acceptable.  We can never insist that our understanding of “morally neutral” must be accepted by those who disagree.