Into the blackboard jungle: educational debate and cultural change in 1950s America
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This dissertation examines the moral panic over America's education "crisis" in the 1950s. Unlike traditional histories of postwar education, which tend to focus on curricular debates, institutional change, and major events like Sputnik and Little Rock, this interdisciplinary project turns its attention to popular culture. It analyzes everyday depictions of the school crisis that appeared in newspapers, magazines, films, and bestselling books, and discusses these depictions in terms of cultural production and audience reception. Specifically, it explores the ways in which popular culture shaped educational debates and influenced school reform efforts in the fifties. In the final analysis, it also shows how the public school was transformed into a symbol of fear and danger in postwar American culture. My dissertation argues that the democratization of education after World War II, which was spurred by rising enrollments, desegregation, and the G.I. Bill, simultaneously engendered cultural anxieties about the prospect of achieving educational and social equality in the fifties. As public schools grew more diverse along lines of race, class, gender, age, and ability level, they grew more dangerous in the popular imagination. Chapter one traces the origins of the education panic, while chapters two through four discuss three popular narratives about the school crisis. Chapter two offers a case study of a local school crisis in Pasadena, California that attracted national attention in the early fifties; it reads the history of Pasadena's educational conflict as an outgrowth of urban migration, McCarthyism, and the backlash against progressive education. Chapter three explains how both the novel and film versions of The Blackboard Jungle, which focused on racially diverse, blue-collar high school students, significantly influenced public discourse about America’s "dangerous" schools at mid-decade. Chapter four studies popular depictions of the back-to-basics movement—a self-proclaimed antidote to the school crisis—and considers the movement’s rhetorical appeals alongside social anxieties about masculinity, conformity, and rapid cultural change. Chapter five outlines the legacies of the postwar education crisis, demonstrating the ways in which the rhetoric of fear and schooling that was forged in the fifties continues to influence popular debates about public education today.