American public schooling and european immigrants in the early twentieth century: a post-revisionist synthesis

НазваниеAmerican public schooling and european immigrants in the early twentieth century: a post-revisionist synthesis
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Michael R. Olneck

Departments of Educational Policy Studies and Sociology

University of Wisconsin-Madison


Historians are important mythmakers.1 Among the central myths of American history is that of the immigrant and the school. The myth that through schooling early twentieth-century European immigrants to the United States were afforded and embraced unparalleled opportunities to achieve social mobility and to “become American” has shaped responses to persisting poverty among African-Americans, informed contemporary education policy toward “English Language Learners,” and, generally, stood as an object lesson for how success in America is available to all.2 Historians, as John Bodnar has observed, have contributed to that myth by depicting immigrants as “cherishing the idea of free public education and the promise it offered for social success...,” and as demonstrating a “‘commitment’ to the American dream of personal advancement through schooling.’”3

For radical revisionist historians, the “immigrant story” of schooling, opportunity, and meritocracy, was among the important myths of American education to be debunked, Colin, Greer, especially, devoted his efforts to demolishing the “Great School Legend” that depicts American schools as having “accommodated, assimilated, and set on the road to [...] success” the mass of foreigners entering the United States before World War I.4 That story, according to Greer, is “staggeringly exaggerated.”5 Rather, Greer argued, the urban immigrant poor experienced widespread failure in American schools, left school as early as possible, and experienced whatever modest social mobility they enjoyed in spite of, not because of schooling.

To Greer, scholars like Lawrence Cremin who regarded the efforts undertaken by schools to “Americanize” immigrant children as part of a broader progressive education reform animated by humanitarian concerns, confused the rhetoric of reformers with reality, and failed to see that, far from offering opportunity to immigrants, schooling was an apparatus designed to subject immigrants to control, and to safeguard society’s existing social and economic hierarchies.6 “The school reform movement,” Greer wrote, “stood solidly in defense of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant dominance.”7

In a similar vein, Joel Spring interpreted the expansion of functions undertaken by early-twentieth century schools to Americanize immigrant children as part the institutional elaboration of a new “corporate order,” in which schools implemented organizationally novel forms of social control.8 Writing of an earlier period, Michael Katz took note that widespread anxieties about the threat to cultural, social, and economic order seemingly posed by large-scale immigration “propelled the establishment of systems of public education; from the very beginning public schools became agents of standardization.” 9 Katz attributed the later defeat of “democratic localism,” and the triumph of bureaucratically organized school systems to “a gut fear of the cultural divisiveness inherent in the increasing religious and ethnic diversity of American life.” 10 In their landmark publication, Schooling in Capitalist America, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis emphasized the school’s role in integrating early twentieth-century urban working-class immigrant children into a highly stratified workplace by channeling them into non-academic paths leading, ultimately, to places at the bottom of the capitalist system of production.11

Other revisionist historians, adopting frameworks less based on assumptions of elite domination or class conflict than those adopted by their colleagues, emphasized the perceptions of social dislocation, anxieties, and uncertainties animating educators’ responses to late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century immigration. Marvin Lazerson emphasized turn-of-century educational leaders’ turn to the schools to constrain the disruption and fragmentation of an increasingly urban, industrial, heterogeneous society that was no longer able to reply on the simple inculcation of common principles to cultivate shared outlooks and recognizably American ways of living.12 In Lazerson’s view, the expansion of the school into kindergartens, manual education (and, later, vocational education), and civic education was to be explained by the beliefs of educators that explicit tutelage in social, political, and economic behavior was now necessary to repair a social fabric experiencing unprecedented strain. For these educators, who idealized an idyllic, harmonious, and natural rural past, the need to counteract the ills of the urban environment and the inadequacies of immigrant families were palpable reasons for the transformation of the school from an institution continuous with family and community to one which sought deliberately and systematically to reconstruct family and community life.

David Tyack, like Lazerson, emphasized the role of late nineteenth- and early-twentieth century educators’ concerns about intensified social conflict and threats to social stability in shaping education reform.13 Tyack, too, highlighted the priority educators assigned to weaning immigrant children from morally corrupting homes and communities, and to systematically training them in industry, temperance, and obedience. More so than others, Tyack situated educators’ responses to the large and persisting influx of immigrant children into American cities within the context of the practical problems those children posed to school administrators and teachers working under enormous new pressures. For that reason, Tyack, though acknowledging the ethnic, racial, and social class stratification that emerged in public schools, was less condemnatory of the testing and classifying practices schools adopted than were some other revisionists. Similarly, Tyack, while recognizing the ethnocentrism with which educators approached immigrant students and parents, and the shame at being “foreign” they sometimes inflicted on immigrants, nevertheless acknowledged the altruism with which they approached their work. The “rhetoric of Americanization,” he wrote, was often messianic, a mixture of fear outweighed by hope, of a desire for social control accompanied by a quest for equality of opportunity for the newcomers under terms dictated by the successful Yankee.”14

Tyack also recognized that whatever the aspirations of the schools for immigrants, the reach of the school was limited, and immigrant children, families, and communities were not powerless in how they appropriated what the schools offered, and in politically pressing for pedagogical and curricular accommodations like the incorporation of non-English languages as languages of instruction or subject matter. Finally, while attentive to important variations among groups in their embrace of public schooling, Tyack rejected arguments that schooling was imposed upon resistant immigrant communities, and concluded that “[n]o brigades of attendance officers could have coerced such masses of children into school if their parents had strongly opposed public education.” 15

Subsequent historical scholarship concerning American schooling and immigrants has, by and large, validated the interpretations advanced by Lazerson and Tyack thirty years ago. At the same time, it has, in some cases, achieved further conceptual and empirical richness, and attained greater analytical complexity. Here I will attempt to synthesize the work of early critics of revisionists’ accounts of immigrants and schooling, and of more recent scholarship, in order to better understand and explain the purposes, policies, and practices with which educators approached early twentieth century European immigrants. I will also examine ways in which immigrants pursued their own political, social, and economic purposes through schooling, all areas of inquiry that early revisionists neglected. Finally, I will call attention to the ways in which social historians have recently recast debates about the role of “culture” and “structure” in the analysis of immigrant school attainment and social mobility through schooling.


Critics of Katz’s Class, Bureaucracy and Schools and Spring’s Roots of Crisis objected to some revisionists’ inclination to infer motives and purposes from the eventual outcomes of education reforms.16 They were more prepared to credit reformers and educators with having the best interests of immigrant and poor students and communities at heart (Kaestle, 1972).17 Irrespective of reformers’ and educators’ motivations, making sense of how they shaped schools to respond to the influx of immigrants requires understanding their ideological presuppositions and value commitments, as well as recognizing broader trends into which the schooling of immigrants fit.

Early twentieth-century education reformers were just that, re-formers. They sought to mitigate the socially destructive effects of the market revolution, and to (re)construct an idealized “republican liberal” society of striving, personally responsible, like-minded, and public-regarding individuals (Hogan, 1985). They sought a society in which the degrading impacts and social fragmentation of the urban slum would be diminished (Fass, 1989). They aspired to rationalize the market society, not to either reproduce or repudiate it. Their approaches, in part harking back to common school presuppositions about the potential of schooling to further moral education, as well as to established democratic ideals about individual opportunity in America, and to long-held assumptions that schooling should prove useful, sought to expand and intensify the scope of the school, to legitimize its broader authority, and to elaborate its internal workings. Immigrants, because they were massively numerous and territorially concentrated, severely poor, often exploited, and foreign, constituted a threat to the moral and social order reformers sought to protect, and, therefore, posed a distinctive challenge to their efforts.

In the view of early twentieth century education reformers, the homes, families, and communities from which immigrant children came were deficient in providing moral guidance, social constraints, and the skills needed to participate in modern, complex, and democratic American life.18 With faith in the capacity of institutions to successfully order social life, to accomplish moral uplift, and to impart socially valuable skills, and drawing on, and going beyond, the precedents established by the activities of the settlement houses (e.g., kindergartens, playgrounds, mothers’ clubs, domestic and trades classes, English-language instruction, home visitations), education reformers turned to the schools to serve as "a central agent in the transformation and assimilation of immigrant aliens into the logic and lifeways of the dominant culture."19 While undoubtedly shaping schools to reproduce the value of dominant cultural capital, and to subordinating immigrants to the verdicts of the dominant culture, education reformers approached the schooling of immigrant children with a view to “sharing” the opportunities and benefits of American life. Schools were to become part of wider processes "by which the foreign population would be modified, elevated, and reformed."20

The deliberate use of schooling to “Americanize” immigrant students was one aspect in a more general expansion and intensification of schooling as a means of civic socialization for all youth. Under capitalist industrialization the workplace had ceased to be viewed as an effective locus of socialization and source of social cohesion, and reformers invested schooling with new significance as a site for cultivating democratic citizenship.21 Civic socialization, however, was inextricably linked with, and sometimes indistinguishable from, socialization for the workplace, and the values and dispositions that schools in the early twentieth-century promoted were not altogether different from those promoted in nineteenth-century schools. Superintendent William Wirt’s efforts in Gary, Indiana, for example, to ensure that schools promoted cooperation, industriousness, thrift, temperance, cleanliness, patriotism, punctuality, self-discipline, self-reliance, and respect for authority among immigrant and native students alike,22 may have differed in methods from the efforts of his nineteenth-century predecessors, relying less on didaction, and more on the social organization of students’ experience, but they did not differ a great deal in purpose.

While historians have readily recognized that American schools have been grounded in, and have attempted to promote, native, middle-class values and world-views, they have only recently recognized the significance of long-term cultural transformations in middle-class views of childhood and personhood for the schooling of immigrants. The lengthening of the period of formal schooling, and the organizational elaboration and standardization of the schooling process, characteristic of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, were impelled, in part, by a broad cultural trend within the middle-class toward sentimentalizing children and childhood, and re-defining growing up to include a lengthy period of formal preparation and semi-autonomy.23 Schooling, Stephen Lassonde wrote, introduced a “powerful new element in the socialization of children, for schooling defined and regulated childhood and youth as discrete, sequenced phases of preparation for adulthood.”24 A significant aspect of this transformation was an increased emphasis on the futures and preferences of individual youths, a process Paula Fass has described as “individualizing destiny.”25 This emphasis clashed with the views of many immigrant parents on the utility of offspring for the family economy and on the value of work, and with deep values concerning the obligations of offspring to their parents. These included the obligation to recognize the primacy of parental authority, as well as to be readily available in times of family hardship. Schooling, consequently, threatened to induce conflict and ambivalence into immigrant families, undermine the “development of family morality,” and “ breach[ ] the continuity of culture that the immigrant habits tried to preserve.”26

“Individualizing destiny” carried with it the implication of differentiating the educational experience of students, while, at the same time, it aggravated the problem of promoting common allegiances and feelings of social solidarity among diverse students. The invention of extracurricular activities, assemblies, whole-school social activities like dances, and the elevation of inter-scholastic sports were intended as antidotes to the centrifugal effects of growing academic differentiation. Extracurriculars became, in Paula Fass’s words, “the repository for the old common school ideal."27 Academic differentiation in the form of formal tracking, based on newly-developed standardized tests that enacted widening expert and popular belief in IQ, was, in the view of education reformers, a scientifically warranted and democratic response to the “individual needs” of increasingly heterogeneous student bodies. As implemented in the schools, however, tracking practices served goals of administrative efficiency more than they did the welfare of many students. Immigrant students, in particular, were often identified as less able, and precluded from academically valuable opportunities.

The practices of the schools in response to the influx of immigrant students in the early twentieth-century, cannot, however, be understood solely as the implementation of political or educational theory, though both formalized theory and shared ideologies made certain responses more sensible and natural than others. During the 1890s and for several decades afterward, teachers in urban schools increasingly confronted large classes of students whose fluency in English, past academic preparation and performance, interest in schooling, and intentions for the future varied enormously, making instruction far more difficult than in the past. Well before IQ testing made its appearance, schools were engaged in grouping students according to criteria intended to simplify the tasks of teaching. In New York City, for example, in 1898, District Superintendent Julia Richman began experimenting with “bright,” “medium,” and “poor” groups at the same grade level. Later, Richman instituted experimental “C” classes, or “steamer,” or “vestuble” classes for learning English, “D” classes for kids going to get their working papers at permissible leaving age, and “E” classes for rapid advancement group, intended for late-entrants who were academically adept, and could move quickly, thus leaving classrooms for which they were overage.28 While not initially widespread, these experiments demonstrate the significance for the transformation of the schools during the progressive period of on-site responses to practical problems, and the role of the immigrant presence in prompting those transformations.

Similarly, the adoption of vocationally and practically oriented curricula in urban high schools was viewed by educators as necessary to engage, retain, and meet the needs of increasingly diverse student bodies. For example, New York’s Washington Irving High School around 1913 had a housekeeping flat, and taught courses on marriage, baby care, personal hygiene, household sanitation, and first aid. “All in all, this kind of high school was a direct attempt to meet the most obvious needs of the immigrant adolescent girls; to equip them for jobs, marriage and urban living, while raising their standards and aspirations.”29 This benign interpretation of increasing differentiation of schooling experiences does not gainsay the stratifying effects by class, race, and ethnicity that tracking and vocationalization produced, but it does caution us against confusing consequences with purposes.

While varying in their appreciation or disdain of immigrant children and their cultural practices, teachers in urban schools almost universally viewed it as their obligation to prepare immigrant children to live according to American cultural norms. Julia Richman, for example, prohibited the use of Yiddish in the schools she superintended, and instructed teachers to assign demerits for its use, even when on the playground or in the bathrooms .30Teachers constantly informally admonished students on the importance of cleanliness and politeness, and attempted to imbue them with native, middle-class tastes, values, ethics, and conceptions of civic duty, as well as promoted these ends in newly adopted courses in such subjects as "Course of Study in Manners and Conduct of Life."31 They did this under the rubric of formal curricula based on principles such as those embodied in a 1903 New York City school curriculum which included inculcating the love of “good literature,” singing “high class” music, and learning history as an introduction to the American “heritage.”32


One question left unaddressed by early revisionist analyses of the role of the schools in the acculturation of immigrant youth is to what extent these efforts were welcomed, ignored, deflected, resisted, or, perhaps most importantly, appropriated to purposes and functions unanticipated by educators. Critics challenging the revisionist model of “cultural imposition have rejected the depiction of “nonelites as powerless victims of unwanted educational arrangements and as acted-upon subjects of imperial tutelage,”33 and have called for research that, in contemporary parlance, examines the “agency” of immigrant youth, families, and communities. Ronald Cohen and Raymond Mohl, for example, concluded from their study of Gary, Indiana schools that, in contrast to revisionist and traditionalist interpretations, "immigrants had a large degree of control and self-determination when it came to educational institutions."34 (p. 108). Stephen Brumberg reminded his readers not to confuse the message transmitted with those internalized by students.35 Paula Fass argued that “outsiders,” including immigrants, have “often through schooling, redrawn the boundaries of the culture which had initially defined them apart.”36 Various outsider groups, Fass argued, have not necessarily acted as educators and the larger public have expected them to, and the efforts of schools to delimit how pluralism was expressed have often been met by the actions of individuals and groups to use schooling for their own ends.

The response of immigrant communities themselves to the “Americanizing” efforts of the schools was mixed, and by no means necessarily resistant.37 In New York, Stephen Brumberg has concluded, the schools’ Americanizing curriculum was a success “due in large part to the active collaboration of key elements in the City's Jewish community.”38 Jewish immigrant parents, no less than educators, favored basic scholastic preparation that emphasized English literacy, as well as acculturation to accommodate children to American norms. Selma Berrol attributed noticeable immigrant Jewish success in New York schools to Jewish parents’ acceptance of the Americanization efforts of the school.39 Jews relied on the extensive provision of supplementary religious schooling to ensure that Jewish identity and commitment were sustained even as their youth availed themselves of the opportunities provided by public schooling.40 Moreover, measures that offended immigrants’ sensibilities could be evaded. For example, in Gary, Indiana, immigrant children ignored the release-time program for religious education initiated by Superintendent William Wirt, and, around 1910, when Wirt refused to institute night school classes using the Polish language, attendance fell off significantly.41 More generally, immigrants could simply ignore the Americanization classes so earnestly provided by educators (Raftery, 1992).42

The desire of some immigrant adults for night school classes provided in their own languageshould not be confused with a widespread desire on the part of immigrant communities to utilize the public schools for linguistic preservation. While immigrant and ethnic intellectuals, writers, editors, and publishers often pressed schools to incorporate homeland languages into their curricula, 43and while community groups sometimes submitted petitions in support of such demands or requested that public school classrooms be made available for after-school homeland language classes,44 with the exception of German-language classes in a limited number of midwestern cities in the late nineteenth- and early-twentieth centuries,45 the responses of the mass of ordinary immigrant parents and students to these opportunities were short-lived and meager, with classes often languishing for lack of enrollment.46

Rather than homeland languages in the public schools being indicative of immigrants’ rejection of Americanization, the pursuit of the inclusion of such languages was part of the processes by which “ethnic groups” were formed, and incorporated into American local politics, and the offering of homeland languages as subjects of study represented recognition on the part of public authorities that a group had become a respected part of the American body politic.47

At times, immigrants’ opposition to the projects of education reformers’ took the form of organized political mobilization and protest. New York’s eastern European Jews, for example, who wanted to ensure that their children’s remained academic,48 collectively, and, in cooperation with other political groups, successfully resisted the adoption of the Gary Plan during the mid-1910s.49 Similarly, between 1917 and 1930, ethnic communities in Buffalo, New York, resisted the establishment of junior high schools, which parents felt would discourage their children from continuing on to high schoo.50

Not all immigrant families or communities found the public schools congenial to their aspirations. In the late nineteenth- and pre-1930s twentieth-centuries, for immigrant communities resistant to anti-Catholic nativist undercurrents, and to the Americanizing and secular agendas of public schools, as well as committed to culturally- and religious-based schooling which their clergy zealously promoted, attendance at parochial schools, particularly those associated with national parishes, was an often available alternative, and for many, a natural and unreflective path.51 Indeed, John Ralph and Richard Rubinson have concluded that between 1890 and 1924, mass immigration accelerated the rate of growth only of parochial schools, and not public schools.52 Though, competition from parochial schools impelled some districts to disproportionately locate public schools within attendance areas served by the Catholic schools.53 In some cities, attendance at Catholic schools represented over forty percent of Catholic students, and was particularly strong among Poles and other Slavic communities who initially looked to schools more for moral and cultural purposes than for purposes of economic advancement.54

Parochial schooling, proved, however, in historical perspective, to be integrative, not separatist institutions. “National” parishes brought together families of diverse regional and local origins, whose dialects often differed, and provided the institutional community through which they might become “German” or “Polish” or some other “nationality,” in short, to become American ethnic groups.55 Over time, the curriculum and pedagogy of ethnically distinct parish schools became increasingly Americanized, and Catholic schools became an English-monolingual path of incorporation into American society based on religious identification, not on national origin. 56

Schooling may well have proven more potent in teaching immigrant youth what “being American” meant than it did in readily transforming them into “Americans,” or, as revisionist scholars emphasize, workers. Quite apart from the emergence of tracking and vocational curricula in the high schools, immigrant youth required only the models of their own parents’ lives, and their own episodic experiences of job-holding to envisions their futures as “workers.”57 Schools provided immigrant youth with models of middle-class American life-ways and new sources of authority, while reminding them of the social distance and boundaries between the worlds they and the “Americans” inhabited. In institutionalizing a trajectory of individual development, schools demonstrated an alternative to the matrix of obligations characteristic of the morality of the immigrant family economy, but only slowly did youth from most immigrant communities come to pursue that alternative through remaining in school beyond the age of compulsory attendance. Once they did, however, high schools, in particular, became sites in which to participate in changing cultural practices characteristic of American youth culture generally, including consumerism, pursuit of popularity, and unsupervised dating.58

In treating “immigrant” and “American,” as a dichotomy, there is a danger of overlooking a central contribution of schools to immigrant incorporation, namely the role of schools as important sites in the elaboration of ethnic identities and associations. While immigrant youth might learn much of how to be Italian, Polish, Greek, or Jewish, in America through life within their own families and communities, they learned and developed the meaning of ethnic identities and associations in relation to others with whom they had contact in the schools.59 In ethnically segregated elementary schools, the contrasts with teachers and staff were no doubt most salient. In more heterogeneous high schools, interactions with, and contrasts between, themselves and native American peers took on greater salience.60 Of significance to broader processes of class formation, in which the urban working class was fragmented and (dis)organized along lines of ethnicity (Rubinson, 1986),61 socioeconomic differences between themselves and native American students were experienced by immigrant youth as “ethnic.”62

Extra-curricular activities, in particular, proved an important locus for the shaping of ethnic identities and relationships, at the same time that they provided opportunities to follow American norms of crafting individual identities. Contrary to the hopes of educators that extracurricular activities would mix students according to interests presumed to be independent of ethnic group membership, Paula Fass found, as I have noted elsewhere, “pronounced ethnic differences, particularly among young men, in patterns of extracurricular participation in New York City's high schools during the 1930s and 1940s. More importantly, the nature of those differences varied from school to school, depending upon patterns of social class and ethnic composition. This latter variation suggests strongly that the dynamics of ethnic participation were not simple extrapolations of traditional affinities, but arose out of context-specific interaction between groups [competitively] seeking a place within each school's prestige and status hierarchies.”63 Extracurricular activities were by no means ethnically homogeneous, but they were differentiated in ways that inter-group contact was mediated by ethnic bonds and by school-to-school particularities of stratification and composition. “Ironically,” Fass concluded, contrary to the idealizations of Americanizers, “the high school not only did not destroy the preschool associations of students, it encouraged, supported and thereby strengthened them.”.64 Thus, the schools were one site in the broader processes of immigrant incorporation that are best comprehended not as “assimilation,” but as acculturation, accompanied by the retention and elaboration of ethnic identities.65


As noted above in the case of successful resistance by immigrant groups in some cities to imposition of the Gary Plan or junior high schools, immigrants were not powerless in defending their interests in educational politics. In the case of the incorporation of ethnic languages into the public schools as either languages of instruction or subjects of study they demonstrated success, as well, in positively pursuing their interests.

The case of ethnic language incorporation into public schools with which historians are most familiar is, of course, the incorporation of German from the post-Civil War period until World War I.66 Less well-known are the successful efforts to introduce Hebrew (Moore, 1981), Italian (Covello, 1958), and Polish (Zimmerman, 2002) into the public schools of some major American cities.67. Interestingly, only negligible numbers of ethnic students enrolled in these courses.68 What is most significant about these efforts is that they were important parts of the processes by which American ethnic groups were formed, consolidated, mobilized, and incorporated into the matrices of American local politics.69 Moreover, insofar as schools perform a “status-conferring function” (Peterson, 1985), 70inclusion of these languages in the public schools represented recognition on the part of public authorities that a group had become a respected part of the American body politic.71

The success of immigrants and their descendants in using the schools to secure recognition of ethnic group status needs to be seen, however, in the context of the separation of home and community from the workplace, and the consequent dispersion of working class power in educational politics.72 In the view of Katznelson and Weir, “[t]he representation of society in ethnic terms imposed limits on what could be said and fought about in political life.”73 The result was not, however, a structure of schooling determined by capitalist power, as Bowles and Gintis claim. Rather, the result is more that “the structure of schooling in the United States reflects the absence of class effects rather than their presence.” 74

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