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Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture

From Cultural Appreciation Days to Gay-Straight Alliances to cafeteria menus featuring “ethnic options,” twenty-first century American public schools bear the unmistakable mark of the diversity that has come to define the nation in the last fifty years. At the same time, it is also in public schools where citizens continue to organize most passionately to limit the influence of this heterogeneity on our curricula and classroom culture. Classroom Wars explores how we got here. Focusing on California’s schools during the 1960s and 1970s, historian Natalia Mehlman Petrzela charts how a state and a citizenry deeply committed to public education as an engine of civic and moral education navigated the massive changes brought about by the 1960s, including the sexual revolution, school desegregation, and a dramatic increase in Latino immigration.

In California, where a volatile political culture nurtured both Orange County mega-churches and Berkeley coffeehouses, these changes reverberated especially powerfully. Analyzing two of the era’s most innovative, with national impact, and never-before juxtaposed, programs — Spanish-bilingual and sex education. Classroom Wars charts how during a time of extraordinary social change, grass-roots citizens politicized the schoolhouse and family. Many came to link such progressive educational programs not only with threats to the family and nation but also with rising taxes, which they feared were being squandered on morally lax educators teaching ethically questionable curricula. Using sources ranging from policy documents to personal letters to student newspapers to course evaluations to oral histories, Petrzela reveals how in 1960s and ’70s California — and the nation at large — a growing number of Americans fused values about family, personal, and civic morality, blurring the distinction between public and private and inspiring some of the fiercest classroom wars in American history, controversies that help explain the bitterness of the battles we continue to wage today.

On April 20th, the History department celebrated the release of Classroom Wars: with Petrzela joining Jeremy Varon and Claire Potter of The New School, and Jonathan Zimmerman (NYU) in discussion.

Zeyno Ustun

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