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

reviewed by Michelle Morgan - March 27, 2017

coverTitle: Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture
Author(s): Natalia Mehlman Petrzela
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Oxford
ISBN: 0199358451, Pages: 336, Year: 2015
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The paradox of 1960s California, where flourishing left wing social movements coincided with the rise of conservatism, has provided fertile ground for scholars searching for the roots of the recent culture wars. In her carefully researched and intriguing Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela locates public schools at the center of this crucible of modern conservatism. Her analysis juxtaposes the debates over bilingual education and sex education. The author posits that these seemingly distinct movements are critical components of the emergence of conservative family values and anti-tax narratives. Petrzela argues that neither of these reforms was inevitably polarizing, but instead enjoyed early support from various constituencies. Integrating these reforms across the curriculum and a backlash against the perceived excesses of liberal social activism galvanized conservative resistance to these reforms.


Petrzela splits Classroom Wars into two parts and the first part traces the trajectory of bilingual education in California. Max Rafferty, the conservative state superintendent of public instruction, was famous for his promotion of patriotic education and attacks on state universities during the middle of the 1960s. He also supported creative efforts to address Limited English Speaker (LES) students. This included a pilot program in 1965 that integrated bilingual students. It offered cultural and language education for Anglo, Latino, and Latina students. These efforts, along with Rafferty’s appointment of Mexican American Eugene Gonzalez as deputy superintendent, illustrate the bipartisan and relatively uncontroversial support of bilingual programs prior to the passage of the Bilingual Education Act (BEA) in 1968. However, these alliances began to unravel shortly after BEA’s passage. The Los Angeles blowouts, where Latino and Latina students walked out of class to protest persistent educational inequalities, combined with the association of bilingual education with Chicano identity politics, undermined the middle ground that had fostered earlier efforts. Even as this middle eroded, Petrzela emphasizes the extent that bilingualism became enmeshed with multicultural curricula during this time. This trend contradicts the popular argument that the 1970s experienced an exclusively conservative ascendancy.


Petrzela intersperses her narrative with district-level case studies of programs in San Jose, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. This strategy enables her to examine the interplay of local environments with federal and state directives. This provides an effective illustration of the shifting coalitions supporting and opposing bilingual programs. For example, the case of San Jose speaks directly to the efforts within liberal communities to assert family authority over educational policy. Although bilingual families were less successful in staking this claim than conservative Anglo families, the broader emphasis on parental authority represented an important rhetorical challenge to public education. The author includes additional case studies of San Francisco and Los Angeles in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Lau v. Nichols (1974). These studies highlight the ambiguous legacy of federal intervention and illustrate the importance of local context. The developments that occurred in these two cities demonstrate how the concurrent trends of desegregation and the presence (or absence) of a substantial African American population shift the educational landscape. For example, in Los Angeles, supporters of bilingual education remain skeptical of desegregation efforts and this threatens to scatter LES students. In contrast, San Francisco has a smaller African American population. It also has more diverse Latino and Latina communities. As a result, this encourages the development of a pan-Latino and a pan-Latina identity to facilitate the integration of multiculturalism. Ultimately, these cases demonstrate that even as schools pay more attention to diversity, fundamental inequalities still remain.


The second part of Classroom Wars discusses sex education. Petrzela emphasizes that objections to sex education programs from the 1950s to the 1960s were concerned with charges that the curriculum was overly detailed and might encourage impressionable teenagers to experiment sexually. During the late 1960s, an open dialog about sex gained acceptance on the national stage. As a result, opponents painted these programs as an attack on the foundations of the nuclear family. The author again draws on case studies to illustrate this transition. Despite previous scholars’ focus on the interweaving of anti-communism with objections to sex education in Orange County, she contends that San Mateo’s experience provides a more accurate paradigm for understanding the emerging arguments. These objections “converged around three fundamental accusations: one, the curriculum threatened parental authority; two, it was taught by unqualified and morally profligate teachers; and three, it represented an obscene burden upon increasingly strapped taxpayers” (pp. 117–18). Petrzela argues that these trends were also evident in Anaheim. However, they were obscured by the vehement anti-communist rhetoric surrounding the opposition to sex education that was occurring at the time. These factors increasingly merged into a broader narrative where sex education posed a threat to the fabric of the typical American family.


Pressure from opponents encouraged politicians to take action. Max Rafferty, supported by the newly elected governor Ronald Reagan, responded by creating the Moral Guidelines Committee (MGC). Petrzela notes an important irony: the committee demonstrated a shift from libertarian conservatism to accepting state intervention in schools when it came to specific issues. However, the radically conservative elements of the MGC lost to a more moderate set of guidelines that articulated an idea of patriotic morality. This idea links ethical behavior to national identity. As a result, it places the nuclear family as the key bulwark against radical social change. The legacy of the MGC is mixed. The guidelines varied in local implementation, although the debate successfully advanced a greater role for parental participation in determining curricula. However, sex education spread throughout the curriculum in a similar way as multicultural education. The author contends that this dispersal contributed to a broad objection to tax support of public education as a whole, rather than a resistance that focused on particular programs. She argues that the tax revolt culminating in the passage of Proposition 13 and its reduction in property tax rates on homes, businesses, and farms had deep roots in contestations over authority in California’s classrooms. Public education was not simply a victim of radical fiscal conservatism. Instead, it was a critical space where both conservatives and liberals debated the extent they were willing to pay taxes that supported the programs they opposed.


The combination of bilingual education and sex education into a single narrative addressing public education with the rise of the right is both the biggest challenge and one of the most important contributions of Petrzela’s Classroom Wars. While she deftly weaves the themes of parental authority, teacher quality, and the use of tax dollars to tie these movements together, her concluding link to Proposition 13 is less meticulously supported than her analysis of the movements themselves. Public schools served as spaces for intense debates over community values, parental authority, and tax dollar use. This might be more of a revelation to scholars outside the field of educational history. Petrzela’s analysis effectively locates these disputes within a particular historical moment. Specifically, it illustrates the confluence of broader reactionary politics with the state and local dynamics of California schools. In doing so, she provides an important re-evaluation of the rise of the national conservative movement and its relationship to public education.


Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563 (1974).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 27, 2017 ID Number: 21881, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 6:28:22 PM

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