History & Ed Brings Multiple Disciplines Together for “Classroom Wars” Book Talk

Professor Ansley Erickson (left) and Professor Natalia Petrzela exchange a few quick words before beginning the lecture. Photo by A&H Staff Photographer, Margaret Ferrec.

Professor Ansley Erickson (left) and Professor Natalia Petrzela exchange a few quick words before beginning the lecture.


“Schools have been the ‘battleground’ around issues of diversity for as long as they’ve existed,” said Dr. Ansley Erickson, Assistant Professor of History and Education at Teachers College. “Exactly what question of diversity or what type of diversity or what the policy issue at stake was has changed over time.”

In order to further explore these issues and questions in her US Education Policy and Historical Perspectives course, Dr. Erickson organized a book talk, which featured Dr. Natalia Mehlman Petrzela in discussion about her new book, Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (Oxford UP, 2015).

“This book is valuable,” said Dr. Erickson, “because it connects to several policy areas that I know our students already care about. But it also does a very nice job of understanding the nature of historical contestation over these areas. The book focuses on bilingual education and sex education, an unusual juxtaposition. There are communities at TC who are committed through their work on health education to issues like sex education. Then there are other communities at TC, like students in the Bilingual/ Bicultural Education Program or students in the Teaching of English as a Second Language [TESOL] Program, who are often thinking about contemporary practice in those fields but may not have had the chance to think about them historically.”

Indeed, the event brought together Dr. Sharon Chang and Dr. Patricia Martínez-Álvarez from the Program in Bilingual/Bicultural Education (BBE) Program, along with a packed classroom of more than 50 students from Dr. Erickson’s course, other History and Education students, as well as students from the BBE Program at Teachers College and from the New School and New York University. The event was also co-sponsored by the Center on History and Education.

Professor Natalia Petrzela introduces her new book, Classroom Wars. Photo by A&H Staff Photographer, Margaret Ferrec.

Professor Natalia Petrzela introduces her new book, Classroom Wars. Photo by Staff Photographer, Margaret Ferrec.


The animated and quick-talking Dr. Petrzela delivered an enlightening presentation. She opened the compelling yet little-researched topic of progressive and conservative activism in education in California. Dr. Petrzela explained that during the 1960s and 1970s, issues like race and immigration were being tackled in the political sphere, and played out in distinct ways in California’s centralized educational system.

White activists focused on debating sex education, and Mexican and Chinese language communities supported bilingual education. Dr. Petrzela explained that Bilingual education had existed since the 19th century, but by 1965, with concern for the achievement of Mexican-American students especially, it gained new attention. Although conservatives and republicans initially advocated for bilingual education, after the national Bilingual Education Act of 1968 was passed, the topic became a politically contentious issue. Chicano and black students across California staged walk-outs demanding more minority teachers, and conservative politicians abandoned their support for the issue. Between 1968 and 1970, sex education also drew debate between right and left wing politicians. Conservatives painted the topic as being part of a communist agenda, that it was anti-family, and pro-pleasure. Although quite distinct issues, both bilingual education and sex education revealed fundamental disagreements about how family authority in areas of culture and morality would be treated in public schools.

The whirlwind lecture ended with a short Q&A session where students from both BBE and History and Education asked questions about what implications the talk had for their work today. Dr. Petrzela replied that bilingual education and sex education have broad implications and we should always interrogate assumptions about which groups are supporting which causes and why in these situations.

“As long as Americans have been thinking about schools, different groups have had different hopes for what they would accomplish,” said Dr. Erickson. “Possibly that longer view can help students and future educators understand that the fights that they are waging, the struggles they see in their classrooms — they tend not to be new. They might take on a new form, but they go back to core challenges in the enterprise of schooling in a diverse society.”

Professor Sharon Chang (left), and Professor Patricia Martínez-Álvarez listen to the book talk. Photo by A&H Staff Photographer, Margaret Ferrec.

Professor Sharon Chang (left), and Professor Patricia Martínez-Álvarez listen to the book talk. Photo by A&H Staff Photographer, Margaret Ferrec.


Nichole Veach, a BBE alumna and teacher in a bilingual school, is taking Dr. Erickson’s class this semester. She said, “I always thought of bilingual education as being very controversial even from it’s inception. That was a really good take away [from the lecture] — the coalition in support of bilingual education. How progressive it was in it’s original conception of the idea, which is still an idea that I have about bilingual education, which is more about the global citizen and being able to take away the linguistic and cultural resources of different groups of people as opposed to being monolithic as Americans.”

Yao Jia, a student in the BBE program, said of the lecture, “It gave you a clear picture of what bilingual and sex education can be in a certain context. Also, it mentioned a lot of factors influencing the education policy or educational situation at the time, so that was something I learned that can be used in my own program.”

“I hope to encourage educators and education policy makers … to become curious about their work in relationship to communities and people’s lives outside of school, to become curious about what happened previously in the fields that they’re working in now. Hopefully this interesting historical work can help further that curiosity,” said Dr. Erickson.


Dr. Natalia Petrzela is Assistant Professor of History at the New School and author of Classroom Wars. She has authored essays in scholarly journals and The New York Times. She also hosts a history podcast entitled Past Present and writes a fitness history column for Well+Good.

Dr. Ansley Erickson is Assistant Professor of History and Education and an affiliated faculty member at Columbia University Department of History and at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education.





Nori Kato is a Staff Writer and Office Assistant for the Department of Arts and Humanities. She is also a recent graduate of the International Educational Development program at Teachers College.