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Schooling America: Assimilation

by Patricia Albjerg Graham

During the last century, what we Americans wanted and what we got from our schools shifted through four distinct periods, which I call Assimilation, Adjustment, Access and Achievement. Assimilation covers the early years of the 20th century; Adjustment, the middle years of the century including WWII; Access, the period after Brown v. Board of Education until 1983; and, finally, Achievement includes the years after 1983 until the present day. The following pictures help illustrate this tale of shifting assignments to America’s schools and the reluctance, sometimes wisely, of America’s educators to complete the new assignments as fully and promptly as the public and, later, policy-makers, wished.

Assimilation: 1900-1920
Assimilation_victor_photo_1The first picture is from 1900 and shows my father, Victor, as a little boy of eight years old. He entered a rural Minnesota school that, like many rural schools in Minnesota then, served largely children of European immigrants or recent immigrants. These children, like Victor, spoke little to no English and his teacher insisted that only English be spoken in the classroom and punished those who spoke their family language.

The teacher undoubtedly had been taught that the most important task of the school was to make these immigrant children into Americans, and English was the vehicle for that transformation. Victor was unusual. Despite his difficulties in this strange setting, unlike his eight brothers and sisters, he came to enjoy school and persisted through all the grades his community offered.

Assimilation_victor_grade8_graduation_phNext is Victor’s eighth grade graduation picture from his school in Ottertail County, MN, in 1908. This grade marked the culmination of formal education for nearly everyone in Victor’s community and throughout much of the United States before World War I.

Minnesota’s rural schools, like rural schools across America at the time, offered a curriculum emphasizing English, penmanship, arithmetic, patriotic lore including some American history, and a smidgen of science. Assimilation_cleveland_immigrant_languagIn the cities the curriculum was similar, since it was seen as appropriate both for the native-born and immigrant children. But, as this poster from the Cleveland Immigrant Language Study in six languages illustrates, many cities turned their schools into learning centers for adults as well, particularly adult immigrants, who came to learn English and for exposure to American culture. Schooling in early twentieth century America was a means of making patriots.

Making patriots, particularly in America’s rapidly growing cities, led to serious problems of over-crowding. To confront the problem of over-crowding, schools often increased regimentation of school programs. Assimilation_boston_public_classroom_191This led to the rigidity displayed in the photograph of a Boston school in 1917, a circumstance that lively children found distasteful. In turn, many American children of this era managed to attend school erratically for only three or four years before quitting altogether.

During World War I group intelligence tests emerged as a means of separating recruits into groups with the intellectual capacities to become officers while the remainder served as enlisted men. Schools soon adopted this technology as a way of identifying children with superior intelligence who could benefit from special school programs. Although the tests were alleged to be “culture free,” in fact, children from well-educated and affluent families did disproportionately well on them.

Click HERE to read the next installment: Adjustment 1920 – 1954!

Patricia Albjerg Graham is the author of Schooling America: How the Public Schools Meet the Nations’s Changing Needs and the Charles Warren Research Professor of the History of American Education at Harvard University.

Photos courtesy of 1) Patricia Albjerg Graham 2) ibid. 3) Smithsonian Institution Collections, National Museum of American History, Behring Center, Division of Home and Community Life 4) The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

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