In the book Outside In: Minorities and the Transformation of American Education, author Paula Fass posits that in order to understand the progressive era in American culture and American education, we must face what reformers saw as the "basic paradox of American culture" that "American existence, expansion, and prosperity depend on the continuous infusion of outsiders, but outsiders threaten to dissolve the culture and its links to the past by their presence" (p. 15). The basic paradox of American culture is described by Fass as the attempt to pursue the assimilation of immigrant children from various cultural backgrounds while upholding the identity and vision of what American ‘should be’ as determined by those who had once belonged to a largely homogenous America. This tug of war between diversity and inclusion and the maintenance of historic roots captured the conflicted efforts of the progressive era reformers as they imagined and designed American education systems for a heterogeneous nation. To date, current education reformers mirror their progressive era predecessors in their reactions to the paradox of American culture and education.
The first question we seek to explore is what education was employed as a medium to tackle the concerns posed by the basic paradox. Fass explains that between 1860 and 1890, an estimated 13.5 million immigrants arrived. This was followed by another 19 million in the following three decades. This influx of immigrants and the diversity of their cultural backgrounds was a source of anxiety for those who sought to maintain the historic ideals and identity of America. However, the immediate and complete assimilation of these immigrants proved to be a difficult task. Upon this realization, reformers diverted their attention beyond the immigrants themselves and towards their children. Fass writes: “the child as future citizen of the state is the fundamental concern” (p. 19). If they could not socialize the parents, they could socialize the child in accordance with the values, morals, and norms they believed were essential to the American way of life. Thus began the progressive era reform efforts towards increasing school enrollment and ensuring that every child, especially the immigrant child, was met with the socialization they would require to be an upstanding American citizen.
Having established why the immigrant child and their socialization through schooling became the primary focus of progressive era reformers, we now move on to discuss the various changes reformers made to education to address the needs of the situation. No longer were schools comprised of children from homogenous homes, languages, religions, and norms. Now, a classroom consisted of students who came from a variety of backgrounds. These children were not only set apart in the cultures they belonged to, but also vastly differed in their everyday realities due to socio-economic class differences. The first effort was to ensure that immigrant children were entering the classroom. Their very enrollment in these institutions ensured that they were accessible enough to be socialized. Once in the classroom, the next concern was of curriculum. With such a heterogenous group of students all gathered in one classroom with different backgrounds and needs, progressive era reformers were met with the difficulties of establishing a single national curriculum. Fass writes, “The more progressives appreciated immigrant diversity and the more they called on the schools to pay heed to the special backgrounds of the pupils, the less acceptable a simple uniform educational system became” (p. 31). What would be of benefit to one child would not necessarily be of benefit to another, so what should be taught in the classroom? Some, such as Robert Woods, proposed that the best way to move forward was to not disrupt the social hierarchy by “fit[ting] the masses for specific and limited future roles and occupations” (p. 32). This would mean offering particular kinds of vocational education to children of immigrants which would prepare them to continue the occupations of their parents. Others, however, were not convinced. Fass explains that “to transform the children of immigrants into carbon copies of native Americans, as Grace Abbott feared, was not only to destroy the strengths provided them by their culture but also to assume that what an American was at any one time was and should be what an American always would be” (p. 33). The curriculum of the schools thereby was torn between the attempt to recognize and appreciate the diversity of each child, while also maintaining social hierarchies. It was a war between a dynamic and a static America. Thus, in trying to navigate these conflicting cultural aims, the reformers did change American education in one greatly profound way: they made schools “more public than common” (p. 33), which, Fass writes, brought “both new power and new hope—and also with a multitude of new problems” (p. 34).
American schools continue to be heterogeneous institutions comprised of children of parents from across the world. The basic paradox of American culture prevails, albeit it has taken new forms of being. While there is a call for diversity, inclusion, and respect for all cultures, the American curriculum continues to fall short when it comes to ensuring that these histories and cultures are equally represented in the classroom. With Black History month being reduced to a single month as opposed to integral to the history of the United States (The Atlantic 2016) and the complete erasure of Native American narratives and histories from our curricula (National Congress of American Indians 2019), we continue to admire the notion of diversity and inclusion from a distance. When school children are frowned upon for wearing their hair a certain way (CBS 2018) or speaking their home language, the basic American paradox becomes more apparent than ever. What is required now, as it was in the 1920s, is a decision to be made about what the American Dream is: static, historic, and homogenous; or dynamic, fluid, and heterogenous? Our curriculum cannot serve two Americas, and in our delayed acknowledgement of the basic paradox of American culture, schools continue to try and fulfill two conflicting aims. The next step is to confront the paradox and decide as a nation: which America do we want to be?
National Congress of American Indians (2019). Becoming Visible: A Landscape Analysis of State Efforts to Provide Native American Education for All. Washington, DC. September 2019
Anderson, M. (2016). Black History Month in Schools—Retire or Reboot? The Atlantic. The Pros and Cons of Teaching Black History Month in Schools - The Atlantic
Kane, C. (2018). Video shows girl in tears after she was told to leave school because of braided hair, family says. CBS News. Video shows girl in tears after she was told to leave school because of braided hair, family says - CBS News
Fass, P. S. (1989). Outside in: Minorities and the transformation of American education. New York: Oxford University Press.