• Faculty

  • Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

    Associate Professor of History


    Office Location
    N - 66 Fifth Avenue

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    Natalia Mehlman Petrzela


    I am a scholar, writer, teacher, and activist. As Associate Professor of History at The New School, I study the politics and culture of the modern United States and am especially fascinated by issues of gender, race, identity, and class. My first book, Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (Oxford, 2015), explores the roots of the culture wars in American public schools, specifically amid heated battles over sexuality and bilingual education. My forthcoming book - FIT NATION: The Gains and Pains of America's Exercise Obsession - explains how and why Americans have increasingly linked fitness regimes to the pursuit of self-fulfillment as access to affordable and free fitness has declined. These scholarly pursuits are closely linked to my activist work in schools, other community institutions, and the fitness profession.

    I also believe the public benefits from more historical insights, and I am a co-host of the weekly history podcast Past Present and host and co-producer of the podcast Welcome To Your Fantasy. I am a columnist for the Observer, and my writing has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Nation, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. I’ve been featured as an expert historian in diverse media venues such as CNN, Good Morning America, Dr. Phil, Brian Lehrer TV, The History Channel, and The Atlantic. My work has been covered by many publications including the New Yorker, the Guardian, the BBC, the New York Times, Univision and more. Find more about my scholarly and popular work at my website.

    Degrees Held

    PhD, 2009, History, Stanford University
    MA, 2004, History, Stanford University
    BA, 2000, History, Columbia College 

    Professional Affiliation

    Society for U.S. Intellectual History
    History of Education Society
    Organization of American Historians
    American Historical Association

    Recent Publications


    Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America's Exercise Obsession, Chicago University Press, 2022

    Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture, Oxford University Press, 2015 (paperback 2017)

    Peer-Reviewed Articles and Book Chapters

    "Family Values Feminism," in Kruse, Kevin, and Zelizer, Julian, eds., Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past, Basic Books, 2023.

    "From Performance to Participation: The Origins of the Fit Nation," Transatlantica, 2020.

    "The Siren Song of Yoga: Sex, Spirituality, and the Limits of American Countercultures," Pacific Historical Review, 2020.

    “An Intellectual History of the Gym, (Thanks, Gender!),” in Haberski, Raymond and Andrew Hartman, eds., American Labyrinth: Intellectual History for Difficult Times, Cornell University Press, 2018.

    “HealthClass2.0: Crossing Boundaries Through Campus-Based Civic Engagement,” Anthropology Now, Vol. 7 No. 2

    “Revisiting the Rightward Turn: Max Rafferty, Education, and Modern American Politics,” The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics, and Culture, Vol. 6, No.2.

    With Sarah Manekin, “The Accountability Partnership: Writing and Surviving in the Digital Age,” in Dougherty, Jack, and Nawrotzki, Kristin, eds., Writing History in the Digital Age, University of Michigan Digital Humanities Series

    “Before the Federal Bilingual Education Act: Legislation and Lived Experience,” Immigration and Education: A Special Issue of the Peabody Journal of Education, Vol.85, No.4., 406-424.

    “’Sex Ed… and the Reds?’ Reconsidering the Anaheim Battle over Sex Education, 1962-1969,” History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 2, 203-232.


    Selected Recent Public Writing

    "The Quick Study" column, Observer, March 2022-present.

    "The Birth of a New Brand of Exercise Fetish," The Nation, December 2022.

    "Why American Kids Grow Up Hating Exercise," Slate, September 2022.

    "Overzealous Covid Measures are Hurting Education," Chronicle of Higher Education, August 2022.

    "SEL Doesn't Have to Be a Classroom Culture War," CNN, May 2022.

    "School Culture Wars Stirred Up Voters For a Reason: Classrooms Really Did Change," Washington Post, November 2021.

    "Goodbye to the Cult of SoulCycle," New York Times, February 2021.


    Performances and Appearances

    For a complete selection of recent performances and media appearances, please visit my media page.

    Research Interests

    20th-Century U.S. history, especially of politics, society, and culture, with a focus on gender, sexuality, race, and identity. My first book project focuses on the emergence of and battles over the teaching of Spanish-bilingual and sex education during the 1960s and 1970s as a lens through which to contemporary politics. My newer work takes up a different facet of American social politics, exploring the enduring but evolving presence of self-help cultures and the pursuit of wellness in U.S. history.

    Awards And Honors

    Best Podcasts of 2021 Lists for "Welcome to Your Fantasy," including Vogue, New York Times, Financial Times, Esquire, GQ, The Guardian.

    Robert L. Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies Research Grant (2016-17)

    Provost’s Office Faculty Research Fund (2016-17)

    Mellon Foundation Civic Humanities Pedagogy Grant (with Verso Books) (2016-17)

    Roy A. Hunt Foundation Grant for HealthClass2.0 (2014-16)               

    Frederick Lewis Allen Memorial Room Writer, New York Public Library (2014-15)              

    Provost’s Office Faculty Research Fund, The New School (2014-15)               

    Multiple Civic Engagement and Social Justice Grants (2012-14)                     

    Rockefeller Foundation/New School for Public Engagement Collaborative Innovation Grant for HealthClass2.0 (2013-15)       

    Mrs. Giles M. Whiting Foundation Dissertation Fellow (2008-09)         

    Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Summer Seminar Fellow, “Sequels to the Sixties,” Cambridge, MA (2008)

    Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Dissertation Fellow (relinquished) (2007-08)           

    Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellow (2007-08)

    Centennial Award for Excellence in Teaching, Stanford University (2004)




    Future Courses

    Independent Senior Project
    LHIS 4990, Fall 2024, Spring 2025

    Independent Study
    GHIS 6990, Spring 2025

    Independent Study
    LHIS 3950, Fall 2024, Spring 2025

    Past Courses

    American Youth Cultures
    LHIS 3042, Fall 2023

    Fit Nation
    ULEC 2935, Spring 2024

    History of American Education
    LHIS 2807, Spring 2024

    Independent Senior Project
    LHIS 4990, Fall 2023, Spring 2024

    Independent Study
    LHIS 3950, Fall 2023, Spring 2024

    Independent Study
    GHIS 6990, Spring 2024

    Senior Thesis Seminar
    LHIS 4900, Fall 2023

    When History Met Podcasting
    LHIS 3425, Fall 2023

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