The battle over sex and language in California schools

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The battle over sex and language in California schools

by Nadine Ann Skinner on Monday, January 18, 2016 - 12:14pm

The 1960s and 70s were a time of rapid social change, and California sat at the forefront of conflicting visions for the future. 

As the sexual revolution and the civil rights and free speech movements intersected with the rise of a conservative right, California’s voice took on national resonance through progressive leaders, such as Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Mario Savio and Angela Davis, as well as conservative leaders like Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson. In her book, “Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture,” historian Natalia Mehlman Petrzela explores how the battles over these social movements played out in California classrooms. She examines how the family and school came to be seen as political spaces, and argues that the subsequent tax revolutions in California were in part designed to prevent taxes from being “squandered on morally lax educators teaching ethically questionable curricula.”

Classrooms as a vision of the future

Petrzela, an assistant professor of history at the New School, began to explore the history of bilingual education and sex education in public schools in California to understand how Latino activism and the “rise of the right,” which were geographically close but conceptually far apart, may have interacted. According to Petrzela, “classrooms were the places where you could see these big ideas play out in interesting ways.” Prior to Petrzela’s research, the two education reform movements had not been looked at in comparison. However, Petrzela clearly saw the two movements intertwining as they introduced previously silenced topics to the classroom. Both bilingual and sex education “emerged from the social revolutions of the 1960s and quickly inspired opposition.” She also realized the history of education perspective not only deepened but also challenged the “rise-of-the-Right” narrative.

Bilingual education: a contested agenda

A great deal of the historical scholarship on the civil rights movement and education focused on the desegregation of schools in the South and the conflict between Black and White students. Petrzela wanted to understand different types of diversity in education, beginning with an examination of language diversity in schools. Bilingual education existed for years in the United States, but changed after 1965, when it became focused on Spanish, and the narrative became the “Mexican-American problem.” By 1968, debates over bilingual education were already polarized, and there was no clear vision for the future.

Sex education, not sex instruction

If bilingual education was born of the civil rights movement, sex education was a response to the sexual revolution. Even though sex education curricula were connected to the sexual revolution, according to Petrzela, “for all of the conservative push-back… many of these programs were actually quite moderate or even conservative.” Many families feared that sex education was sex instruction, that teachers were poorly prepared to teach sex education, or that any teachers who would want to teach sex education were depraved. Conservative protesters even cautioned that sex education was “a communist plot to turn our children into sex slaves.” The protests led then Governor Reagan to push for a moral guidelines committee in 1968 to fight against moral decay in schools.

Decline of the school

As the debates over bilingual and sex education continued, the role of the school and the family became politically contested. According to Petrzela, “as the public schools fell in collective esteem, the White nuclear family governed by an immutable set of ‘parental values’ became similarly hallowed as infallible. The overwhelmingly White parents and policymakers who protested sex education programs did so on the grounds that parental authority should trump that of educators.

“Bilingual education advocates also invoked the family to support their cause, though far less successfully… they were most often rebuffed—at times by the same people who claimed the primacy of the family in debates over sex education—with claims that the schoolhouse was civic, neutral space, where ‘home’ language and culture had no rightful claim.”

Petrzela argues that this politicization of roles fed into a distrust of schools, which contributed to the growing resentment over big government spending, which in turn led to the passage of Proposition 13 (the People's Initiative to Limit Property Taxation) in 1978. Public schools were no longer seen as the place to resolve conflicts over differing visions for the future. However, while attention moved away from public schools, the bilingual and sex education programs that were the initial cause of the debates quietly persisted.

The debate continues

The dispute that began over bilingual and sex education in classrooms in the 1960s and 70s marked the beginnings of an intersecting and politicalized debate over the role of the school and the family that still has repercussions in today’s classrooms. The backlash over bilingual and sex education that contributed to the passage of Prop 13 caused major financial challenges for California’s public schools—from which they are still reeling today, concludes Petrzela. As the debate of the role of the school continues, California’s classrooms have had to move forward with greatly diminished resources.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is assistant professor of history at The New School, where she focuses on issues of gender, race, class and identity in the modern United States. She is the author of “Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture” (Oxford, 2015). She also researches the rise of “wellness culture” since the 1950s. Petrzela is a host of the history podcast “Past Present," co-founder of HealthClass2.0 and a premiere leader of intenSati. Her writing has appeared in “The New York Times,” “Slate” and “The Huffington Post.” She has a BA from Columbia College and an MA and Ph.D. from Stanford University, all in history. Follow her on Twitter @nataliapetrzela.


PhD Student, International Comparative Education

Nadine Ann Skinner is a PhD student at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education in International Comparative Education. Her research interest is in the intersection between philanthropy, the nongovernmental sector, and education. She has worked for many years for a number of girls' education organizations in the United States and Latin America. She has a Master of Public Administration degree in Social Policy from...