Sarah Engell

Penn Humanities Forum Undergraduate Fellow

20152016 Forum on Sex

Sarah Engell

American History, Political Science

College of Arts and Sciences, 2016

Sarah is a History major with a concentration in American history and a minor in Political Science. Her general research interests include cultural history, the intersection between public policy and culture, and public health policy. The summer before her junior year, Sarah spent two months teaching and travelling in Ghana. The following semester she participated in the Penn In Washington program, interning in Senator Elizabeth Warren’s office. Sarah’s honors thesis, Moral Education in Public Schools, builds on her experiences and exposure to public policy and her interest in cultural history. She examines localized cultural and political factors that influence a community’s understandings of the role of public education, looking specifically at the teaching of history and sex education in the United States in the 1970’s. Sarah’s thesis is motivated by her fascination with the influential role education, specifically history and sex education, plays in personal development and public dialogue. In addition to the Penn Humanities Forum, Sarah is also a Penn Program for Democracy, Constitutionalism, and Citizenship fellow.

Replacing Periods with Question Marks: A Study of the Role of Public Education in Kanawha County, West Virginia

In 1974 the proposal and adoption of new language arts textbooks, that sought to emphasize themes of multiculturalism and egalitarianism, sparked a violent year-long protest in Kanawha County, West Virginia. The opposition perceived the texts as overly sexual, anti-American, and intrusive while supporters celebrated the diversification of narratives and information.  
The ability of newly adopted language arts textbooks to spark an explosive controversy reflects the impact of textbooks and, more broadly, public education on creating a sense of identity and belonging. Through objecting or supporting the textbooks and the language they contained, the citizens of Kanawha County were bitterly fighting to protect their own definitions of what it meant to be a good student, parent, teacher, community member, and American. Furthermore, through protesting and ultimately reworking the process of textbook adoption and inclusion, the citizens redefined who and what was included in their notion of a good public school education.
The research seeks to understand how a community’s perception of public education and the role it should play in a child’s life impacts the inclusion of the public in academic decision making as well as the insertion and definition of controversial matter in the classroom. In addition, the research seeks to better understand the triangulation of rights in public school between students, teachers, and parents.