A Happier Hour Literary Salon with Natalia Mehlman Petrzela & Dana Goldstein
It was a sweaty, sticky New York City evening. A summer storm was brewing, spitting significant rain in certain pockets. Two brilliant historians/authors showed up at my home: Natalia Mehlman Petrzela and Dana Goldstein. We indulged in a little preliminary chit chat and then a wonderful group of women began to arrive.
My favorite Upper West Side independent bookstore Book Culture was here to sell two beautiful, important books: Natalia's Classroom War; Language, Sex and the Making of Modern Political Culture; and Dana's The Teacher Wars; A History of America's Most Embattled Profession.
When the time came, we all gathered in my highlighter yellow living room to hear the authors speak about their respective books and paths to publication. The discussion that followed was insightful and rich and left all of us thinking more critically - and creatively - about the history and future of American education. Thinking back to Tuesday evening, there is so much I want to say and convey, but this admittedly limited list of takeaways will have to suffice:
1. Go narrow or go broad.
Dana's book is broad, covering a vast sweep of American history while Natalia's book is more narrow in scope, mainly looking at about twenty years (the 1960s and 1970s), two controversial curricular subjects (bilingual education and sex education) in one state (California), but both books offer tremendous insights and lessons.
2. History is illuminating.
A theme on Tuesday night: To better understand (and address flaws inherent in) contemporary education, we must look to, and build upon, its history. The past contains valuable clues.
3. Personal stories often beget professional projects.
Both Natalia and Dana came at the topic of eduction from a place of personal passion. Natalia told stories about her exceedingly positive experience with school, her observations about diversity twenty years ago that she went on to explore and tease out in her book, and also spoke about her time as a public school teacher here in New York City. Dana spoke about coming from a family of public school teachers and growing up in a household where discussions about education and teaching were common at the dinner table. She also told us how she became more curious about education after her journalistic coverage of the Obama/Clinton primary whereby she saw how the topic of education could be so splintered even within a single political party.
4. The classroom can be a window into culture.
Classrooms are not just classrooms. In many ways, they can be windows into culture, controversy, and politics.
5. We all care about education.
No matter how much we know about education or its roots, or what ultimately we believe when it comes to how education is carried out, we all care about education because these are our kids, because this is the future of our nation.
6. "Wars" are inevitable.
I joked at the outset about how anyone who plans to pen a well-received and impactful book about education should use the word "wars" in the title, but in all seriousness, the word is apt because the stakes are high and there will always be tensions, conflicts, differing beliefs. The tricky question is what to do in the face of these historical and contemporary theoretical and practical wars, how to better understand them, and learn from them. Reading these two fantastic, and complementary, books is a good place to start.
I am so thankful to Natalia and Dana and everyone who came out on Tuesday night to support these authors and this salon series. These evenings have come to mean a great deal to me and I continue to be amazed at how beautifully they have evolved. The women who come month after month are nothing short of amazing. I dumped out the little glass jar of business cards I've been collecting on these nights and just smiled as I arranged the below mosaic, just a small sampling of the many fabulous and inspiring members of the growing Happier Hours community.
I'm still hard at work tweaking the forthcoming Happier Hours website, which I will launch very soon, and after a few months off, I will host my next salon in September.
If you live in the New York City area, are in the book world or just a lover of books, and would like to hear more about these evenings and how to attend or sponsor one, please feel free to email me at aidandonnelleyrowley [at] gmail [dot] com.