Hartman on Petrzela, 'Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture'

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela
Andrew Hartman

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela. Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. 336 pp. $35.00 (e-book), ISBN 978-0-19-935846-5; $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-935845-8.

Reviewed by Andrew Hartman (Illinois State University) Published on H-1960s (October, 2015) Commissioned by Zachary Lechner

More Than Spitballs

The fire-breathing conservative Max Rafferty, California’s superintendent of public instruction from 1963 until 1971, was the virtual super-ego to the famed student movement that shook up the 1960s. To wit: Rafferty once described an education at the University of California-Berkeley as “a four year course in sex, drugs, and treason.” He believed his role as California’s chief of schools was to help bolster the nation’s defenses against the godless communists who threatened to extinguish the flames of liberty. In 1962, he made the case that an educational system grounded in the classical principles of Western civilization was the best bulwark against the global secular humanist threat: The era in which we find ourselves is, unhappily, one of blood and tyranny and vice. A race of faceless, godless peasants from the steppes of Asia strives to reach across our bodies for the prize of world domination. They are armed with all the sinister science which a psychopathic society can produce. To defeat their purpose will require more than our present brainpower and our transient will. It will demand the massed wisdom and understanding of the great minds that have gone before us.”[1]

This is the same Max Rafferty who in 1965 worked to bring bilingual education to California schools and even traveled to Mexico to secure textbooks for the growing number of Spanish-speaking students attending the state’s public schools. That an outspoken right-winger embraced an early instance of bilingual education is a historical irony begging for explanation. Luckily, we have historian Natalia Mehlman Petrzela’s smart new book, Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture, to help us make sense of Rafferty’s curious support for bilingual education. As we learn from reading Classroom Wars—a history of how sex education and bilingual education were key fronts in California’s escalating culture wars during the 1960s—support for bilingual education only became a left-of-center political position after the Chicano movement made it central to its agenda. Prior to that, bilingual education seemed like a sensible way to help young Spanish speakers assimilate to English-speaking American culture.

Mehlman Petrzela’s book reinforces an old argument that remains a solid one: the 1960s were a transformative era, and what made it transformative were the millions of people who joined movements seeking liberation from the constraints of American culture. When Chicano activists walked out of schools in opposition to racist curricula and teachers, and when they made bilingual education central to their plans for overcoming such discrimination, conservatives like Rafferty thought better of their support for such programs. Bilingual education fell into the vortex otherwise known as the culture wars, where the middle ground falls apart.

In her historical analysis of how conservatives came to oppose bilingual education, Mehlman Petrzela is one of the first scholars to bring together two flourishing bodies of historiography: the now massive literature on the rise of the modern American conservative movement and the smaller but expanding corpus of work on Latino/a Americans since the landmark 1965 Hart-Celler Act. That so few historians have yet to couple these two topics is surprising given that hostility to brown-skinned Mexican immigrants has become one of the defining sensibilities of contemporary American conservatism. Mehlman Petrzela breaks important new ground here.

The sex half of Classroom Wars is more familiar since a lot has been written on the history of sex education in relation to the conservative movement. As is widely known among specialists, fundamentalist preacher Billy James Hargis’s Christian Crusade helped launch a national movement against sex education in the 1960s. Hargis’s lieutenant, Gordon Drake, authored a pamphlet—“Is the Schoolhouse the Proper Place to Teach Raw Sex?”—that purportedly sold ninety thousand copies in three months. In his stock speech, Hargis claimed that sex education was inclusive of a larger plan hatched by progressive educators to “destroy the traditional moral fiber of America and replace it with a pervasive sickly humanism.”

But again what makes Mehlman Petrzela’s argument unique is the way she imbues a well-known story, in this case about conservative resistance to sex education, with an analytical twist. As she writes: “a growing number of Americans fused conventional values about family and personal morality with an Anglo jingoism" (p. 3). In other words, the moral struggle over sex education was part and parcel of the battle to keep the United States from becoming a predominantly nonwhite nation. The boundaries between moral certainty and ethnocentrism are porous.

The borders that separate culture from economics are also blurry, as Mehlman Petrzela contends in her book’s conclusion. As opposed to the conventional wisdom on display in Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (2004)—that the culture wars were merely a way for power-hungry politicians to distract voters while their corporate overlords robbed them blind—Mehlman Petrzela argues that cultural and economic conservatism go hand in glove. Moreover, she contends that her history of California curriculum politics is the key to understanding how these two seemingly disparate strands of conservatism came together. When nearly two-thirds of California voters passed Proposition 13 in 1978, a law that massively reduced property taxes thus shrinking educational revenues, straightforward anti-tax sentiments were not their sole motivating factor. Rather, if Mehlman Petrzela is correct, many Californians also wanted to starve the government beast responsible for sex education, bilingual education, and other wrongheaded experimental programs.

Such a conclusion seems intuitively correct, but it remains conjectural. Much more evidence is needed to prove that Proposition 13—and indeed the ongoing national revolt against taxes—was grounded in a traditionalist rejection of liberal cultural change. But such a hypothesis raises a number of interesting historical questions: How have cultural and economic politics interacted? Why did American culture grow more liberal as economic policies became more conservative? Why did the left win the culture wars yet lose control of the political economy? Can the United States have both cultural revolution and social democracy? The very fact that Mehlman Petrzela’s excellent new book raises such questions is one of its many achievements.


[1]. Quoted in Andrew Hartman, Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 189.

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=44291

Citation: Andrew Hartman. Review of Petrzela, Natalia Mehlman, Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture. H-1960s, H-Net Reviews. October, 2015. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=44291

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