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Divides in Society and the System that Sought Uniformity: The Public School System during the Progressive Era “To the European immigrant - that is, to the aliens who have been converted into Americans by the advantages of American life - the Promise of America has consisted largely in the opportunity which it offered of economic independence and prosperity.� --Herbert Croly

Emma Fitzelle-Jones


Modern European Honors Poskitt, Rocky Hill School

Table of Contents: Table of Contents…………………………………………………………………..Page 1 Introduction…………………………………………………………………...........Page 2 The First Wave: German Emigration………………………………………………………...Page 3 Irish Emigration……………………………………………........................Page 3-4 Perception of Progress……………………………………………………..Page 4-5 The Second Wave: Italian Immigrants………………………………………………………….Page 5 Italian Immigration and Religion…………………………………………..Page 5-6 Italian Immigration and the Influence of the Family on Education………..Page 6 Jewish Immigration and Perceptions of Education………………………...Page 6-7 Cultural Ethnocentrism as a Product and Instigator of Americanization…………..Page 7-8 The Influence of Racial Identity on Quality of Schooling………………………….Page 8 The Progressive Age and the Educational System………………………………….Page 8-9 A Comment on the Nature of Schools……………………………………………...Page 9-10 The Evolution of the Standards of Wealth………………………………………….Page 10 The Impact of Public Libraries on European Immigrants in the Progressive Era…..Page 10-12 Conclusion…………………………………………………………………………..Page 12 Reference and Photo Bibliography……………………………………………….....Page 13-14


Introduction: Throughout history, humans have slowly conquered the globe and settled even the most remote locations. This is in part due to human migration. There are many impetuses for emigration including oppression; religious, ethnic, and political persecution; lack of livelihood in the native land; hostile weather; or simply the search for economic prosperity. However, while there are many reasons to leave, when groups migrate, or immigrate, to lands with an existing social structure and political system, the result is often a struggle to maintain the existing culture within individual immigrant communities. Likewise, the existing social structure often rejects the new ideas brought by immigrants, and thus, groups within the existing social structure attempt to assert their cultural values in the hopes of perpetuating a specific set of ideals. This collective and understandable drive to conserve traditions divides society ethnically, religiously, and culturally and manifests itself through literature, art, as well as humanities such as education. During a surge of progressive thought throughout the 1800s and 1900s, primary education became a societal imperative and was perceived to be a panacea for the ills of society. During this time, waves of European groups immigrated to the United States. Thus, the urge to protect the “American� culture was intensified. Many Americans perceived this goal as a sign of the purest form of altruism. Therefore, many schools were implemented with the purpose of Americanizing immigrant children; this was done without any concept of cultural pluralism. This was met with resistance by many immigrant groups, as schools were seen as an intrusion into the life of the family. However, the public library system promoted multi-linguistic trends and literacy whereas schools promoted a singular set of ideals. During the Progressive Era, a public library network emerged to enhance an educational system which would serve to Americanize burgeoning immigrant populations in urban centers. 2

The First Wave, German Emigration: The two biggest ethnic groups to immigrate to the United States between 1830 and 1880 were from Germany and Ireland. Between 1830 and 1880, German immigrants alone comprised at least a quarter of all documented immigrants to the United States (Collier, 2000). Similarly to many groups that have immigrated throughout the centuries, German emigration was as a result of economic turbulence. By the early 18th century, the German Rhine River was no longer able to support the agricultural population, which had been drawn to the land for the fertile farming (Collier, 2000). The inability of the river to support the growing population was due in part to widespread changes in climate, which decreased the fertility of the land and therefore led to food shortages (Collier, 2000). In addition, conflicts such as the Revolutions of 1848 in the German states, the Second Danish-German War in 1864, the German Civil War in 1866, and FrancoPrussian War in 1870 disrupted the economic structure of Germany and increased the fear of being drafted (Collier, 2000). Young men who were more susceptible to the draft were more likely to abandon their lives in Germany for lives in the United States. However, those who chose to immigrate to the United States were primarily impoverished farmers who were impacted heavily by increased industrialization in Europe (Collier, 2000). This increased industrialization was both the impetus for emigration from Germany and the force that met the immigrants in America. Although German immigrants generally sought to maintain their agrarian ways, the progressive age left no areas untouched by its influence. The First Wave: Irish Emigration: The other ethnic group that dominated the immigrant community in the first wave of immigration to the United States was the Irish. Ireland had been controlled by England since the 1600s. The English did not want to be responsible for thousands of starving peasants—most of 3

whom grew agricultural goods essential to the Irish economy—so “poor laws” were enacted (Collier, 2000). The taxes for the poor laws rose, until finally, many landlords who owned the land of the farmers decided that it would be more profitable to allow the Irish tenants to emigrate. Doing so would allow the landlords to raise livestock rather than grow food, and therefore increase potential profit (Collier, 2000). The oppressed, starving Irish consequentially emigrated in droves. The First Wave: Perception of Progress: The German and Irish immigrants that constituted the first wave were distinguished in religion, for Irish immigrants were predominately Catholic, whereas German immigrants were primarily Protestant (Collier, 2000). The two groups were also distinguished by their cultural stigmas placed upon progress and change. Largely, the Irish perceived progress as a means to escape the loathsome conditions that characterized the Irish Potato Famine, which had rendered many Irish not only starving, but economically depressed (Collier, 2000). However, many German immigrants viewed farming as the economic and cultural backbone (Collier, 2000). This propensity for farming led to an appreciation for the classical systems of society and a natural aversion to change in educational technique. It is important to note that this first wave took place during the 1800s, a time in which society struggled to reconcile values of the Enlightenment and Romanticism. The Enlightenment supported continued growth in scientific culture, whereas the Romantic Movement rebelled against the idea of rapid progress and instead clung to the notion of the sublime and the simple ideal under God. This ongoing battle between the Enlightenment and Romanticism shaped the perception of education in the 1800s. Despite their cultural differences, these two groups of Irish and German immigrants that are known as the “first wave”


of immigrants formed a cohesive cultural climate that characterized the early 20th century—and the budding educational system. The Second Wave: Italian Immigrants The American Civil War marked the completion of the “first wave” of immigrants (Collier, 2000). However, a new wave soon swelled to replace the initial influx of immigrants. At the start of the 20th century, many Jews and Italians began to emigrate, and many immigrated to the United States. In 1880, 12,000 Italians had immigrated to the United States; yet suddenly, at the turn of the century, this statistic exploded to register 286,000 Italian immigrants residing in the United States (Collier, 2000). This dramatic rise in emigration from Italy to the United States was largely due to the fact that the ban that did not allow Italians to emigrate from Italy was lifted (Collier, 2000). The Italians that emigrated encountered an interesting paradox: America fostered a desire to retain many cultural aspects of Italy within the ideals of new “American” philosophy, yet ultimately certain factors led to the loss of many aspects of Italian culture. The Second Wave, Italian Immigration and Religion In America, the Catholic religion was largely dominated by the Irish (Collier, 2000). This led to a more impersonal relationship with the Catholic Church for Italians in America due to barriers of language and culture. However, this was only one factor that contributed to the general trend of anti-Catholicism in Italian immigrants. To many Catholics, the Church was associated with the oppression that was the impetus for many to immigrate to the United States (Collier, 2000). With the increased secularization of the immigrant community, other aspects of Italian culture were emphasized. To the Italian immigrant community, loyalty was not first to nation or religion, but to family (Collier, 2000). These large family units were characterized by


strong bonds and a patriarchal system. The emphasis on family led to a deep distrust of the American school system, which was regarded as a system devised to undermine parental authority. The Second Wave: Italian Immigration and the Influence of the Family on Education In a world which was driven by tradition and parental control, immigrant families often resented the pivotal role that education played—to Americanize, the very thing that the traditionalist Italian immigrants feared most. In Italy, there were few public schools (Collier, 2000). Thus, the public education system was seen as a foreign and unnecessary intrusion on family life. In Providence, Rhode Island, only 10 percent of children that identified as Italian attended high school, compared to 40 percent of children with Anglo-Saxon origins (Collier, 2000). These statistics showcase the reluctance of the Italian-Catholic community to allow their children to attend public school. As an alternative, many formed their own school systems. These parochial schools became a substitute for many Catholic parents to maintain cultural values and avoid the prejudice that many immigrants encountered in the public school system. The Second Wave: Jewish Immigration and Perceptions of Education The Jewish community was another prominent immigrant community at the start of the 20th century. Two-thirds of the 2,000,000 Jewish immigrants who arrived between 1880 and 1930 remained in the New York City area (Collier, 2000). This provided a dense immigrant population in a distinctly urban society, thus increasing rates of poverty. Although Judaism spans many ethnic orientations and societal structures, Jews have long been persecuted for their religion and ethnic origin. This persecution led to constant transition for many Jews. However, despite discrimination, the Jewish community as a whole placed a specific emphasis on


scholarship. In 1897, approximately 50-75 percent of Jews were literate (Collier, 2000). This scholarship was often non-gender biased, although there was often not enough money in families for girls to pursue education as well. This concept of education as a means of maintaining culture without being a corruptive force was a significant contributing factor to the educational system in the early 1900s as it contrasted the Italian and German perception of education. Cultural Ethnocentrism as a Product and Instigator of Americanization: The quality of immigrant life was subject to the ideologies of the time. The concept of ethnic superiority was given a pseudo-scientifically derived supportive argument during the 1800s in the form of social Darwinism. This concept detailed that certain “races” were inherently superior to other “races”. This cultural ethnocentrism was simultaneously a symptom of the perception that the world was Western-centric and a call to perpetuate and perpetrate the morals of the certain society. In America, this call to perpetrate ideals was epitomized by the process known as “Americanization”. Americanization was essentially the process by which immigrants were introduced to American culture. This introduction often involved a systematic re-rendering of cultural patterns. Many communities remained separate and distinct, resisting this intrusion into personal cultural values. This increased the rift between social classes and ultimately reinforced the immigrant stigma and the perception of poverty. The process of Americanization created an interesting dynamic in which both sides perpetrate and maintain their values, with varying levels of success. For immigrants, the struggle was to maintain their cultural identity. Yet, immigrant communities ultimately shaped the fabric of modern day society. Americans, unconsciously or consciously, rejected the notion of cultural plurality whilst surreptitiously asserting their values through the public school system. Within the immigrant subset, there was fighting between 7

various ethnic groups to retain dominance over small areas. Street gangs often assumed a sense of ethnic pride and discriminatory attitudes towards other immigrant groups (Weiss, 1982). However, overall the early 1900s were characterized by cultural blending; this blending came at the cost of an overt war: a war to remain and persist. For those who were more successful at this endeavor, the process of Americanization came to be perceived as a charitable pursuit (Powell, 1917). Therefore the struggle to assert a certain set of values absorbed an air of altruism, for 19th and 20th century Americans believed that the process of Americanization would allow immigrants to thrive in the new and progressing world. The Influence of Racial Identity on Quality of Schooling: This pseudo-altruistic attitude characterized how the poor were perceived as well. Education was seen as the gateway to success. Thus, the poor (which were often members of an immigrant group) were expected to rise from poverty using the skills that they learned in public schools. However, often underlying prejudices undermined the idealistic goal. The statistics published in the children of American Immigrants in Schools show that white students had a 28.1 retardation rate, whereas total foreign born students had a 40.4 retardation rate (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1911). (Note that in this context, retardation refers to being above the standard age for a particular grade.) This statistic shows the impact of the poverty cycle on the new school system, and the lack of influence of the school system on the poverty cycle. The effectiveness of the school system hinged on its ability to thrive in an increasingly plural society. Yet, increasing industrially influenced standards rapidly changed the pace of education. Education became mechanized and singular—a way to churn out a generation in mass production. The Progressive Age and the Educational System:


Just as immigrant communities influenced the intricacies of the American school system, the rapidly shifting industrial climate continued to have a massive impact on the educational system (Weiss, 1982). In the Progressive Era, industrialization was both a product and instigator of dramatic social, political, and economic change. Socially, people categorized and streamlined human thought and human practices. It was this influence that shaped the school structure, which often operated on a large scale with hundreds of students—all learning like cogs in a clock. A Comment on the Nature of Schools: Schools perpetrate the morals of certain societies through the young, impressionable minds of children—thus securing a new generation that heeds the advice of previous generations. However, at the start of the 20th century, the school system served as a barrier to separate the immigrants and their “corrupted morality” (the idea being that poverty was an aberration and that poverty was God’s punishment for the wicked) from “American” children (Ballantyne, n.d). Oftentimes, the American school system neither allowed for the inability to speak English nor compensated for illiteracy in immigrant children. Thus, lessons revolved around lecture based repetitions of sentences (Weiss, 1982). School attendance was first made compulsory in 1852 in Massachusetts, and it soon spread to other states (Ballantyne, n.d). However, it was only after World War I that mandatory school attendance was enforced. Therefore there were opportunities for immigrant parents to withdraw their children from the school system, and for factories to exploit child labor. Despite attempts to regulate laws that kept children in school, parents were often unable to produce birth certificates for their immigrant children and thus, were able to lie and obtain working papers for their children (Ballantyne, n.d). In many cases Immigrant communities capitalized on child labor for they were often ensconced in desolation. In this way, education—although compulsory—still 9

remained the symbol of status it had always been. With the wealth of non-immigrants, the American standard was forged. The Evolution of the Standards of Wealth: Standards of wealth have evolved throughout time to reflect multiple sets of seemingly arbitrary ideals. Some cultures place increased value on brute ability, whereas others maintain that the most valuable way to serve society is through the study and practice of the humanities. In many cultures, income becomes a way to quantify social status. The Western world places a certain emphasis on scholarship. Those who study in the most advanced fields are more likely to obtain a greater annual compensation for their skills. Thus, those who study at the most advanced level have more protection against the desolation of poverty. Although the educational system was designed to promote social mobility, cultural barriers often prevented immigrants from obtaining levels of higher education. Therefore, many immigrants were not able to obtain the highest positions, or receive a high salary. This inability to become socially mobile is an intrinsic facet of the poverty cycle. Poverty, a singular concept with no singular cure, became a pervasive aspect of the immigrant lifestyle. This reinforced the notion that immigrants and the poor in general were inhibited by their culture, and that the superior American values must be impressed upon the desolate to shed the immigrants of their culture through the process of Americanization. The Impact of Public Libraries on European Immigrants in the Progressive Era: Public Libraries embody a distinctively Western mindset. The concept of freedom is difficult to define and impossible to contain to a singular set of ideals. However, in Western culture, freedom has come to be defined by the ability to seek out information freely. In contrast, the concept of absolutism or dictatorship has come to be defined by a strict and systematic restriction


on information. Although public schooling serves to represent a certain freedom in that those who want to learn are free to absorb knowledge, public libraries are also a symbol of the quintessential American model. By being free and open to the public, Libraries showcase the concept of freedom of information and serve as an equalizer among social Classes. However, the quintessential American model of freedom of information is a provocative concept. There is internal tension between the desire to maintain a standard and progress through further understanding. This struggle, which was epitomized by the turmoil of the EnlightenmentRomantic conflict, was the struggle that many had to face during the progressive era. Although freedom can be defined by knowledge, it is the autonomy of the individual that defines a unique experience in education. Therefore, the public library system was not a forced encounter with the American system, but a willing acquiesce in the name of learning. The elite established public libraries as well as schools to accomplish the overarching goal of Americanization. The rationale behind public libraries was that Americanization could be achieved through literacy (Powell, 1917). This was another manifestation of the idea that education was an intrinsic component of an advanced society. Schools were established for children, and excluded the parents from the teachings. Although the rationale for this was that educating children in turn educated parents, this concept often failed in practice. Certain immigrant groups, most notably the Italian immigrant community, resisted not only the concept of schooling, but the idea that the schools were designed to lessen parental control. Many libraries often held multilingual story telling hours in the hopes that immigrant families would be interested in learning English as well (Powell, 1917). Cultural Pluralism was often encouraged by multilingual libraries (Powell, 1917). This was an alternative to the assimilative nature that Americanization often imbibed. Libraries were also able to reach out to immigrant parents in a 11

way that the school system could not. Thus, whereas the school system was often resented as an intrusion into family teachings, the library was more of a community center, if an elite one. Conclusion: The American school system during the Progressive Age was motivated by the desire to perpetrate a set of ideals. Often, this exemplar of cultural narcissism allowed for prejudice to thrive under the threat of cultural eradication. The American School system was a product of increased industrialization and mechanization in both industry and social structure. The progressive era saw a sharp increase in industrial manufacturing, and thus, a social shift followed. Therefore, at the start of the 20th century, social classes blurred and allowed for a method of schooling to exist when western centric ideals had previously focused on individual education. This was a product of the idea of mass manufacture. To strive for perfection was to create a standard. Thus, the standard was forged based on Anglo-Saxon definitions. Many immigrants emigrated to escape desolation and poverty, yet, the education system that was designed to produce a harmonious world under the standards of education often only served to perpetuate the poverty cycle. Language barriers divided students and schooling was perceived as a divide between parent and child. Public libraries repaired these rifts slightly, and helped to produce a further integrated society. However, the dominant perception of immigrants remained and remains, separate. In conclusion, the experiment with the Public Education System during the progressive age taught that education could not simply exist as a panacea for the ills of society if society, itself, resisted the inevitable mutability of societal structure.


Bibliography: Mondale, Sarah, and Sarah B. Patton. School, the Story of American Public Education. Boston: Beacon, 2001. Print. In the context of the relationship between public education and Immigration, this text helps to show the evolution of public education throughout American history. Thus, the text provides the background information necessary to fully understand the educational system that educated many immigrant children in the early 1900's. Weiss, Bernard J. American Education and the European Immigrant, 1840-1940. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1982. Print This book shows the relationship between American education and European immigration. This book details this relationship as one centered on assimilation into American culture. Collier, Christopher, and James Lincoln Collier. A Century of Immigration: 1820-1924. New York: Benchmark, 2000. Ocean State Libraries E-zone. Web. 5 Apr. 2013. This book explores immigration patterns from 1820-1920. The book explores the roles of different groups in Immigration to America. These groups are predominately European. The book seeks to show the impetus for the mass emigration of certain groups throughout history. Powell, Sophia Hill Hulsizer. The Children's Library, a Dynamic Factor in Education,. White Plains, NY: H.W. Wilson, 1917. Google Play. Google. Web. 5 Apr. 2013. This book explores the relationship between children's literacy and the advancement of society through education. Thus, the relevance of education for immigrant children is maximized.

The Children of Immigrants in Schools... Washington: Government Printing Office, 1911.Google Play. Google. Web. 5 Apr. 2013. This source explores data collected to show the effectiveness of educational systems in relation to students who have immigrant parents.


Abramitzky, Ran, Leah Platt Boustan, and Katherine Eriksson. Rep., n.d. Web. 5 Apr. 2013. This source explores data relating to the income and livelihood of Immigrants. Ballantyne, Paul F. "Chapter 3 (1890-1930s)." Chapter 3 (1890-1930s). N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Apr. 2013. This website shows how schooling and Industrialism impacted Immigrant communities. The source also details the impact of child labor laws on the educational system, and their impact on the children of Immigrants. Photo Bibliography: First Grade Children and Teacher.1910. Photograph. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, Primary Sources - Education. 3 Aug. 2007. Web. 17 May 2013. <>.


The Public School System during the Progressive Era