U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Are the Culture Wars History? Part III

The following guest post, by Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, is the third in our AHA roundtable on culture wars historiography. For an introduction to the roundtable and the first entry, by me (Andrew Hartman), click here. For the second entry, by Adam Laats, go here.

Petrzela_Classroom_cover_v2-684x1030New Perspectives on the Culture Wars: The View from California

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, The New School

* this essay is of my remarks at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta, GA on January 7, 2016.

Are the Culture Wars Still a Useful Concept?

This is the question animating this exciting panel, and I must begin by emphatically saying YES. Like any well-worn phrase – multiculturalism, rise-of-the-Right, progressive education, to use a few that figure heavily in several of the books featured on this panel – it can lose its meaning or become too rigid over time. But I think that even as we continually reimagine the definition of “culture” and of the “wars” waged to control this protean concept, “culture wars” is a useful term to understand both the series of skirmishes in the 1980s and 1990s to which the label is usually applied as well as a longer durée of cultural conflict, in the case of this panel in U.S. history writ large, and in my case, over three decades, the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, particularly in the California public school system. The risk is taking our current polarization for granted and imposing it on the past rather than seeking its origins and exploring the contingencies that created it.

One long-ago iteration of the dissertation phase of my book was titled “Seedbeds of the Culture Wars” and for the purposes of this panel, I’d like to return to that idea, and specifically the claim that in California in the early 1960s, we see the formulation of the political polarization that characterized the national political climate within a decade and arguably continues to do so today. Now why California? For one, in a time of tremendous social change, California is a place of great national interest. The cast of characters, often making the nitty-grittiest of decisions, is a seriously big-name roster: think Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Leon Panetta, to name a few. All of these people are shaping their worldviews, which will in turn shape the nation’s, in the context of California politics. The political spectrum in California is also notable, and spans Berkeley coffeehouse radicals to Orange County conservative housewives, and I argue, many versions in between that actually defy these stereotypes. This diverse populace was negotiating the sexual revolution, major immigration after the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, and multiple civil rights struggles. In many ways, California is hashing out the issues that would come to the forefront of the national agenda in the ensuing decades. One especially interesting California juxtaposition in terms of polarization is that despite being completely divorced in the historiography, the radical Chicano civil rights movement and western populist conservatism emerged in close geographical space and were intimately intertwined with one another. If Donald Trump’s comments about Mexicans – which are met with cheers in 2015 – aren’t the culmination of this dynamic, I don’t know what is!

So how to study this fascinating but messy landscape? The schools provide the ideal lens. Though education in the United States is famously local, California in this era had a surprisingly centralized educational bureaucracy, and was one of the largest state systems in the country. As well, it was exceptionally pedagogically adventurous. One policymaker commented proudly that in the 1960s, it took only 3 months for ideas to make it from the educational journals to California’s classrooms. The superintendent of California schools from 1962-70 was Max Rafferty, who cultivated a national media persona that was somewhat akin to Glenn Beck, really fanning the flames of the emergent culture wars and always using California schools as either a shining example or a cautionary tale. Yet I discovered that early in his career – as late as the mid 1960s – this nationally recognized right-winger expressed views on education that were radically progressive ten years later. Thus California education actually helps us shed light on how schools germinated the culture wars.

Then there is the treasure trove that any educational historian knows schools represent – they keep a lot of records! Because of this paper trail, I was able to witness, through school board minutes and photos and student evaluations, the way that classrooms both reflected these dramatic social and political changes and sought to manage them. This looked different in different districts. In a San Francisco classroom, a 1969 holiday celebration responds to the influx of Latino students demanding cultural recognition by placing a sombrero atop a visiting Santa Claus. In Azusa, a district responds to the growing number of pregnant teenagers by setting up a “continuation school,” relaxing the old approach of expelling pregnant teens, but still contains them in a separate classroom where their peers are sheltered from their immoral behavior. LIFE magazine ran an ambivalent feature on this program in 1971, showcasing the way these culture-wars issues were gaining national traction –recall that this is before Roe v. Wade but during a teen pregnancy scare.

What the California question brought to light was also that in terms of schools during this era, our discussions of diversity have focused overwhelmingly on desegregation. These struggles are central to our historical narrative for good reason and were the backdrop for the issues I engage – Spanish bilingual education and sex education – but we’ve got to look at a broader slate of issues to comprehend how schools shaped the culture wars. On the face of it, the issues I take up are quite different:

Sex EducationBilingual Education
*No federal or even national oversight* Federal Bilingual Education Act (1968); Lau v. Nichols (1974)
* white issue* minority issue
* Very few hours of instruction* Could be a whole school or curriculum
* Negligible impact on jobs* Major impact in privileging Spanish speakers

Yet examining the two rarely synthesized topics – which were front and center in California in this era and which have become national lightning rods in the culture wars, reveals evocative links. Both emerged from social revolutions of 1960s, inspiring opposition from an emergent right wing. Each introduced previously silenced topics – a foreign maternal tongue and sexual expression – into the classroom, indirectly promoting the Deweyian notion of “fitting the school to the child.” They also reveal how the contemporary concept of “family values” was wrought and racialized; when Latino parents demanded their cultural and linguistic heritage be recognized, they were told the school was a neutral civic space and that such protests were inappropriate. By contrast, when largely white parents protested the discussion of sexuality in the classroom, their parental prerogative was mostly affirmed. Finally, though these curricula inspired bitter fights, close examination reveals that many of the curricula were actually quite moderate, upholding conventional ideas about patriotism and gender. Finally, one of the quintessential culture wars events remembered by historians is Proposition 13, the California tax revolt of 1978. The conventional interpretation is that the revolt, which spanned similar ones nationwide, was the death knell for California public education. This isn’t wrong, but a close look at educational politics shows that concerns over public education were actually crucial to the passage of Prop 13, that public schools were not just a casualty of a policy centrally about taxes and property values.

I mentioned contingency, and it’s worth looking back to understand how these educational programs came to generate such controversy. Bilingual education, though today most often associated with Spanish, was actually pioneered by the German-American community in the nineteenth century, when they used public funds to teach German language in midwestern schools to little controversy. After 1965, however, it became defined centrally as a “Mexican-American problem,” which was actually the terminology used in policy and official correspondence. That said, in the early and mid-1960s, a surprising range of liberals, radicals, and moderate and even conservative Republicans were on board with new curricula to serve a growing population of Latinos. Even Rafferty, who I mentioned above, met with the Mexican minister of education to encourage teacher and textbook exchange, and said that he thought that Anglo children had as much a responsibility to learn Spanish as Hispanic children to learn English.(!) This kind of biculturalism was forward-thinking in an age when “No Spanish on the playground” rules still abounded, and as the lines in the culture wars hardened in the coming years, would be absolutely untenable for a conservative of national prominence. Finally, this close look and openness to contingency revealed a whole category of actors that has been absent, as far as I know, from the otherwise rich field of Latino history: Latino Republicans and moderates. We know of the radicalizing La Raza movement inspired by Black Power, but what I saw were centrist and even conservative Latinos deeply ambivalent about the presumption that they, historically an “in-between group” that enjoyed quite a bit of racial fluidity, would identify primarily as brown.

At the risk of periodizing predictably, I venture that 1968 was really when things began to polarize. Bilingual education is instructive. First, the federal Bilingual Education Act is signed into law as Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act on the first business day of the year, officially making it part of the Great Society legislation conservatives already reviled as classically overreaching big government. Then, in March hundreds of Latino high school students march out of school, demanding, among other things, more culturally sensitive curricula and the hiring of teachers and administrators of color. They are inspired and supported by the Black Power movement and college students in the radical group the Brown Berets. While bilingual education advocacy gained power from identifying with a range of New Left causes like the antiwar and black freedom struggles, the bottom drops out of the broad, bipartisan coalition that had backed bilingual-bicultural education just a couple of years earlier. For the radicalism of the protestors’ demands, however, many of the new programs implemented were narrow English-acquisition programs that exhibited an assimilationism consistent with programs that had been around since the immigration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The content of the curriculum didn’t much matter, however. The battle lines of the culture wars, still discernible today, were forming.

At the same time, a very different set of controversies were brewing: throughout 1968 and 69, communities all over California (and the nation) were embroiled in fights over sex education programs. While sex education had been taught in some form since the Progressive Era, the programs of the 1960s had a decidedly different cast from the “social hygiene” curricula popular at the beginning of the century. Instead of focusing narrowly on disease prevention and reproduction, they discussed relationships, family, values, and – to the consternation of many conservative parents – masturbation and homosexuality. Though most of these programs were intended to guide children into heterosexual marriage and conventional gender roles, conservatives were apoplectic. Especially when recent Supreme Court decisions prevented prayer in school, these new Family Life and Sex Education programs (titled so to deemphasize the “sex”) seemed like a manifestation of godless Communism and the sexual revolution in the schoolhouse rather than a curriculum meant to safeguard against these very changes. Much like bilingual education, the content of the curriculum mattered very little, or at least less so than the conservative interpretations of the snippets of these curricula they actually did read. The idea that powerful “outsiders,” sometimes embodied by the World Health Organization, or UNESCO, or the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), or just “Sweden,” were colluding to corrupt American children defined this activism, earned national attention, and even succeeded in running a few pro-sex education officials out of their jobs.

One of the remarkable things about doing a bottom-up study of the culture wars was seeing how these issues, though they tended to engage different districts, were attended to by policymakers and bureaucrats who might find themselves tamping down the passions of demonstrating La Raza activists one day, and on the next fielding the concerns of carloads of sex education “Antis” who trekked to Sacramento to flood a school board meeting. These people and these issues – as well as social studies, science, literacy, and religious studies – came together in the formation of a small but fascinating body, the Moral Guidelines Committee, tasked in 1968 by Governor Reagan to “lead California out of the moral decay into which it is descending… the single-most important task facing the state.” Reagan perceived the proper resolution of these curricular battles as core to the moral health of the state and he and Rafferty packed the committee with their appointees, hoping to codify, in these moral guidelines, the kind of anticommunist, anti-secular humanism, patriotic sentiment that opponents to progressive education reform were articulating so loudly. The first stumbling block was that due to the Engel v. Vitale Supreme Court decision I mentioned above, the guidelines could not mention God. The second was less expected.

The committee quickly drew up a set of moral guidelines that spelled out the kind of conservative worldview Rafferty and Reagan expected it would. Given that letters from all over the country had not just expressed support for these “patriots” but also expressed that they were lone voices in a world “moving fast and far to the left,” perhaps they should have anticipated what happened next. In short, the state board of education rejected the guidelines, dismissed the most far right member of the committee, and reconstituted the group to include more moderate voices. Long story short, the document the MGC finally released upon its dissolution in 1974 (6 years later!) was in an entirely different tone, devised by liberals, progressives, and even a couple of the turncoat Reagan/Rafferty appointees, including Reagan’s pastor, Donn Moomaw, who acknowledged that the seventies might truly call for a whole “new kind of morality.” The new, adopted guidelines, maintained that faithfulness to country be paramount – what I call a “patriotic morality” – but rather than blind jingoism, the document advocated studying America’s unrealized potential for equality and the contributions of its many ethnic groups, as well as pushing back against indoctrination and orthodoxy. These guidelines represented in many ways precisely the opposite of Reagan and Rafferty’s vision.

Now, the impact of this small committee is debatable – they ran out of money and basically failed to implement the guidelines they took six years to produce. However, the process and outcome is relevant in that it signals fissures in the “rise of the Right” narrative that has become so popular in the last decade or so.

The fates of bilingual education and sex education throughout the 1970s also arguably reflect the entrenchment of certain aspects of progressive education, or at least certainly not the crushing defeat assumed by some accounts of the culture wars. Let’s take San Francisco’s historic Mission High School, where bilingual-bicultural activism shaped the climate tremendously. An alumnus who had graduated in the 1950s proudly recalled that the best indication of Mission High’s quality was the fact the neither he nor any of his classmates sent their children there; they had all left the ethnic neighborhood for the suburbs, a badge of assimilationist success. By the 1970s, the climate at the high school and the culture at large had transformed. Chicano art decorated the halls, Latino history was part of the curriculum, and San Francisco politicians regularly held press events at the campus to showcase their support for the city’s growing Latino community. This is just one vivid example of the way that the multicultural paradigm was becoming ingrained in our social fabric during this period despite the best efforts of the Right.

Similarly, with sex education, to the extent it makes an appearance in political histories of this period, it is without exception to show that progressive programs were destroyed by the forward march of cultural conservatives. While these conservatives certainly won some rhetorically intense battles, the story of sex education in the seventies tells a very different story. Even in towns that had suffered the most brutal attacks on sex education, such as Anaheim, the “Antis,” as they came to be called, began to be perceived as a comical and hysterical minority. Student newspapers ran editorials trumpeting students’ support for the programs and the need to resist the “tyranny” of those who believe the “dynamic duo of Satan and the Communists” was intent on corrupting innocent schoolchildren. Moreover, and perhaps unsurprisingly in the age of Roe v. Wade and Our Bodies, Ourselves, sex education programs proliferated in the 70s – one headline described as “this thing is spreading all over California” – and were far more adventurous than their more controversial predecessors just a few years earlier. And notably, the resistance, at least as expressed through letters to the Board of Ed, was far less abundant and less strident. Think less, “Communists are turning my child into a masturbating sex slave,” and more “Our class had two homosexual speakers last year. Perhaps this year, just one would be more appropriate?”

The story I tell is not one of progressive triumph. After all, Proposition 13, which I mentioned earlier, was a successful conservative expression to roll back progressive educational reforms in the public schools. Supporters of this initiative privileged educational concerns in one of their rallying songs, “Battle Hymn of the Embattled Taxpayer” “We pay for education, fire, and police too/ And we place these three priority one and not priority two.” Prop 13 is a turning point, and not only for its fiscal implications. After 1978, there emerged a broad sense of disaffection with the public schools across the political spectrum, and the loci of the culture wars changed. While in the period on which I focus, radical Brown Berets and conservative Catholics all perceived the public schools worth fighting for, after Proposition 13, disillusion grows in all quarters and the theaters of war shift from classrooms, at least on questions of language and sex.

The point, then, is not that either side “won” the culture wars, but that this concept continues to be a powerful interpretive framework to consider the battles that germinated in our classrooms to shape our culture, and vice versa.

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Natalia, I love this essay — you’ve drawn a sketch here that points to the incredible complexity and importance of California’s weird amalgam of politics and culture(s), especially in the 1970s. And I love how you interpret battles over morality (sex ed) and multiculturalism (bilingual ed) right alongside (and in light of) battles over fiscal policy — all three were contests of value(s).

    The effects of Prop 13 on schools (and public libraries) were devastating, and unevenly so — I know the school systems in the central San Joaquin valley were slammed. No money for books, no money for “coached” non-athletic extracurriculars (speech and debate), no money for educational field trips or bringing in cultural events and performances locally — concerts, plays, exhibits. Maybe not a huge deal for the most affluent districts where private philanthropy (and family resources) could fill some of the gap. But in a region with yearly seasonal unemployment topping 20%, Prop 13 struck a heavy blow.

    It’s important to see — as you have explained here — that the “fiscal war” was a cultural conflict. And that war on public tax support for public schools was, unfortunately, one of California’s biggest exports in the decades to follow.

    Great essay — just ordered the book.

  2. Great essay! I really appreciate as well the emphasis on Prop 13, one of the major political events of the 1970s and one with profound (if devastating) and continuing effects.

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