Thursday, April 9, 2015

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela's "Classroom Wars"

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is Assistant Professor of History at The New School and a former public school teacher. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, and The Huffington Post.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture, and reported the following:
The words “Some Kind of Precedent” lead page 99 of Classroom Wars. They title the last chapter of the book’s first part, “Language,” and intimate the “so what?” of Classroom Wars as a whole: that the vitriolic wars over sex and bilingual education in the 1960s and 70s were a turning point in American political culture, and that their contemporary legacy is mixed. Today’s schools have been shaped by the victories of progressive education as much as by the triumphs of traditionalism, and we can better understand our contemporary context – and the meaning of that vaguely defined precedent, about which I will say more in a moment – by exploring how schools interacted with two of the era’s most signal developments: the sexual revolution and civil rights movements.

Specifically, journalists who covered the Lau v. Nichols case in 1974 repeated the noncommittal phrase “some kind of precedent” endlessly in their coverage of this precedent-setting Supreme Court case. Lau followed the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, strengthening the federal requirement that schools address the needs of foreign-language learners, policies resulting from the efforts of a surprisingly inclusive cross-section of activists, educators, and lawmakers ranging from Brown Power Chicanos to moderate Republicans, all of whom realized that the influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants after 1965 represented an urgent challenge – or an opportunity, depending on your politics – for American schools and society. As the more radical elements of this uneasy coalition took ownership of the bilingual education cause, “a conservative resistance,” as page 99 describes, “gained strength precisely because of this success.”

Such journalists, shying away from definitive pronouncements about the implications of this bilingual education activism, foreshadowed a reticence among historians, who explore many facets of the educational culture wars, but who either ignore bilingual education completely, or see its troubled course as merely another step in the uninterrupted forward march of late 20th-century right-wing conservatism.

But the rise of the Right isn’t the whole story – nor is page 99. The second half of the book, “Sex,” argues that sex education, like bilingual-bicultural education, was another initiative paradoxically energized by the counterculture and simultaneously tasked with mitigating its nefarious effects on young people. Classroom Wars explores the strange and intertwined histories of these two very different initiatives, and raises questions about what they might mean to our present.
Learn more about Classroom Wars at the Oxford University Press website and Natalia Mehlman Petrzela's website.

--Marshal Zeringue