#Lang30: Natalia Mehlman Petrzela Explores America’s ‘Classroom Wars’

To understand the polarization of American politics, you could visit the halls of Congress.

But it would be just as instructive, says Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, to visit the country’s classrooms, where partisan animosity often plays out in debates over Spanish-bilingual and sex education.

“America’s public schools are the central crucible to the creation and contestation of important polarizing questions: What is America? Who do we want our children to become? What lessons do we want to teach our children in taxpayer-supported schools?” says Petrzela, a professor of history at Eugene Lang College who explores those questions in her first book, Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture. “A really good way to understand how we arrived at political polarization is to look at the way people fight over issues in public schools.”

Petrzela will celebrate the launch of her new book at a reception on Monday, April 20, 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm in the Orozco Room, Alvin Johnson/J.M. Kaplan Hall, 66 West 12th Street, Room A712.

Moving her magnifying glass over California (she received an MA and PhD from Stanford University), Petrzela discusses how the state and its citizens navigated massive changes brought about by the 1960s, including the sexual revolution, school desegregation and a dramatic increase in Latino immigration. Citing ethnicity as an example, Petrzela notes that before that time, “The dominant paradigm was assimilation; in other words, you might be different, speak a different language and have different beliefs, but you can be assimilated into Anglo culture.”

She adds, “After the 1960s, there was a demand among Latin American immigrants that their language and culture be part of the classroom.”

The upheaval of the status quo, Petrzela writes, led to mounting tensions over educational progressivism, cultural and moral decay and fiscal improvidence. Petrzela reveals how a growing number of Americans fused values about family, personal and civic morality, which galvanized a powerful politics that engaged many Californians and, ultimately, many Americans.

“In doing so,” she says, “They blurred the distinction between public and private and inspired some of the fiercest classroom wars in American history.”

Watch Petrzela’s interview on the Brian Lehrer Show: