The World of Self-Betterment

In this terrific FEED post-show discussion connected to THE UGLY ONE, the NY Times journalist Alina Tugend interviews professor of US History Natalia Mehlman Petrzela (The New School) about our society’s obsession with bettering ourselves. In the talk they pair examine the history of the movement in the Unites States and abroad, as well as our current societal desires to live mistake-free lives. All in all, a perfectly meshed response to Mayenburg’s THE UGY ONE. Enjoy!


Alina Tugend (Moderator) writes the award-winning column ShortCuts for the New York Times business section and her book, “Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong,” will be out in paperback in March. A native of California, Alina has been a journalist for 30 years and been published in  numerous publications, including The Los Angeles Times, the Atlantic and Family Circle.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is Assistant Professor of Education Studies and History at Eugene Lang College the New School for Liberal Arts, and a historian of postwar American culture, politics, and society. Petrzela is currently completing a book about battles over sex education and bilingual education in the public schools during the 1960s and 1970s as a lens through which to explore modern conceptions of Americanism. She has published in various scholarly contexts about the problems and promises facing the postwar United States during a period of unprecedented pluralism, and her work has been supported by the Whiting, Spencer, and Mellon Foundations. The “Me Generation” of the 1970s provided the backdrop to Petrzela’s current book project, and first inspired the questions that animate her newer work, a social and intellectual history of self-improvement in American culture. The right to pursue happiness is an embedded and enduring facet of our culture, and Petrzela asks how this pursuit has meant different things in diverse contexts, and how our contemporary embrace of “holistic wellness” and “personal empowerment” is a political project. From the Declaration of Independence to the utopian communities of the 19th century to the “human potential” movement of the mid-20th century to fitness craze of the 1980s to today’s ubiquitous “mind-body” programs, Americans have been tireless in reinventing themselves in ways both empowering and imprisoning. Petrzela has an M.A. and Ph.D. in History from Stanford University, and a B.A. from Columbia College.

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