Education and Americanization

Democracies seem fragile even to their strongest supporters. If the people can choose their rulers, how can we be sure they will make the right choices, that they will not select con men and charlatans to govern them? Even some of the founding fathers worried that the "people" might dissolve into an unthinking mob, wreaking havoc on a fragile government. For many Americans the only way to ensure that people make wise political choices is to make the people themselves wise. Children must go to school to learn the nation's ideals and duties as well as the rights and privileges of being a citizen. But what kinds of ideals should be taught to young people, and who should teach them? If America is comprised of an ethnically and religiously diverse people with differing ideas about national values, whose notions of those values should be imparted to children?

Americans have argued over the meanings of a public education since the public school movement first gained momentum in the early nineteenth century. In recent years those conflicts have focused on whether students of different ethnic backgrounds should study together, what history students should learn or what languages teachers should use in their classrooms. Yet the most enduring and bitterest of school controversies have been those involving the place of religion in schools: prayers in school, bible reading, and the possible conflicts between religious and scientific explanations of the universe.

Another area of conflict on the education front involves private schooling. When the notion of public funding for education was still new in early nineteenth century America, citizens were not sure whether governments should create their own public schools or provide funds for existing private schools that met proper and agreed upon standards. In many other countries, such as England, Ireland, and Canada, the government supports private, even religious, schools that meet certain criteria.

Catholics sought the same support early in the nation's history. In 1840s New York, Bishop John Hughes demanded public funding for his diocese's parochial schools. At other times, priests and bishops from Lowell, Massachusetts to Poughkeepsie, New York to Faribault, Minnesota tried to work with public schools to provide religious education to students through "released time" arrangements. Anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant nativists not only opposed such arrangements they sometimes even questioned the very existence of parochial schools. They believed such schools nourished foreign and un-American, customs and values and prevented children from finding their way into the American mainstream. In the 1880s, Massachusetts legislators considered a bill to permit the state to closely monitor private schools and in Illinois and Wisconsin state legislatures passed laws to limit the use of foreign languages in parochial schools.

In times of stress or rapid social change, schools become the focus of fears and centers of controversy, for many have come to believe that through the schools people can be taught to do right and order can be maintained. The Antebellum controversies over bible reading in the schools erupted amid a rising tide of immigration, the birth pangs of a new industrial economy and growing sectional tensions over slavery. Laws to control private schools passed in the 1880s and 1890s when worries about labor strife and fears of new kinds of immigrants from Southern Europe or Japan were rampant. Though the origins of the Oregon School bill extend far back into American history, its immediate beginnings lie in World War I. Mobilization for the War tipped over into hysterical loyalty crusades in many American communities. A poll of 1200 school systems in March of 1918 found that one seventh, nearly 200, had removed German language study from their public school curricula.

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Several states, including Delaware, Montana, and Iowa, also banned the teaching of German in their schools. Americans worried not only about German Americans or vestiges of the culture of the German enemy; they suspected all foreigners of disloyalty and thought all foreign languages or cultures were potential threats to American culture. Factories, social settlements, public and private schools all created programs to convert recent Italian, Polish, Slovak and other immigrants into "100% Americans". As the National Americanization Committee suggested: "Let us insist frankly that a man born on another soil has to prove himself for America."

Catholic Church leaders in America were just as eager as any others to prove their loyalty to the United States. The bishops of the United States formed the National Catholic War Council in 1917 to coordinate and encourage Catholic participation in the War. The Council set up Catholic settlement houses in cities across the country to Americanize immigrants and urged every diocese and Catholic organization to set up their own Americanization programs.

Once unleashed by the War, the fear of disloyal foreigners took on a life of its own. In the midst of a postwar depression and a series of major strikes, government agencies began cracking down on foreigners as suspected radicals. State legislatures, still flush with the nationalist emotions of the war and fearful of the new economic upheaval, lost faith in private voluntary Americanization activities and turned to the schools to make "100% Americans" out of Italian, Polish, or Slovak immigrants and their children. By 1919, two states required non English speaking aliens to attend Americanization classes. In the same year, fifteen states passed laws insisting that all instruction in primary schools must be in English.

These school laws were only one battle in the cultural war emerging during the "Tribal Twenties." Congress would severely restrict immigration, virtually excluding immigrants from Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and other parts of eastern Europe. Meanwhile the Ku Klux Klan, reborn on Stone Mountain in Georgia in 1915, grew to over 3 million members by 1924. The new Klan was much more popular in the north and concerned about immigrants and Catholics than the old Klan of the Reconstruction era. In fact, the new Klan's stronghold was not any southern state, but Indiana.