Public Schools Create Citizens In A Democratic Society

Our guest author today is Jeffrey Mirel, Professor of Education and History at the University of Michigan.  His book, Patriotic Pluralism: Americanization Education and European Immigrants, published in 2010 by Harvard University Press, is available in bookstores and online.

How do you get people who hate each other learn to resolve their differences democratically? How do you get them to believe in ballots not bullets?

What if the answer is “public schools” and the evidence for it is in our own history during the first half of the twentieth century?

In the years spanning about 1890-1930, two institutions—public schools and the foreign language press—helped generate this trust among the massive wave of eastern and southern European immigrants who came to the U.S. during that time. This is not a traditional “melting pot” story but rather an examination of a dynamic educational process.

The majority of these immigrants were dramatically different from the native born Americans they encountered here.  Most immigrants knew no English, worshipped at synagogues or Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches, and had little knowledge of democracy.  Many native born Americans viewed this “invasion of immigrants” as akin to the onslaught of the barbarians who destroyed Rome.  Indeed, some argued that these newcomers were genetically incapable of becoming Americans.

The “us and them” attitudes of many Americans toward immigrants could have set off a fissure among groups, which might have rivaled the factions that have fought for generations in the Middle East. Take Syria. Thomas Friedman (in a February 8, 2012, New York Times article) notes that Syria’s fractious religious and ethnic groups lack the political trust that is vital for creating democratic societies.  America, Friedman argues, provides an example of how diverse groups, many of which have deep resentments and anger about one another, still can work together politically for the good of the country.  Friedman has been making that argument for many years and he is correct.  And it may have been leaders of the public schools who engineered the mechanism that nurtured trust and tolerance among immigrants and native born Americans.

Public school leaders, particularly those in America’s great industrial cities, believed that their institution could transform the immigrants and their children into committed and loyal American citizens.  In the K-12 and adult education programs, these educators promoted three main things: speaking English; learning American history, particularly about such American heroes as Washington and Lincoln; and gaining knowledge about democracy as well as the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship.

Many historians have described the interaction of schools and immigrants as something like an abusive relationship, in which immigrants and their children were bludgeoned into assimilation.  But my research on the foreign language newspapers in Chicago and Cleveland, documented in my book Patriotic Pluralism, tells a different story, drawing on the voices of the immigrants themselves. The editors of virtually all the major foreign language newspapers serving such groups as Czechs, Greeks, Hungarians, Italians, Jews, and Poles in these two cities endorsed Americanization but on their terms.  They firmly supported key elements of Americanization but always with an ethnic twist.

For example, they all strongly supported adults and children learning English but they were adamant about teaching their American-born children to speak and read their ancestral tongue after school and/or in weekend schools.  The newspapers urged their readers to learn American history but they routinely supplemented the grand, national narrative with stories about immigrants who played important parts in that history. Czechs, for example, pointed proudly to their defense of the Union in the Civil War;  Greeks described American democracy as the apotheosis of Greek culture; and, on the 4th of July, Poles celebrated Washington and Jefferson but also two Polish heroes of the American Revolution, Thaddeus Kosciuszko and Casimir Polaski.

Lastly, these papers encouraged immigrants to become citizens, which would help them individually and increase the political power of their group.  These stances were not examples of cultural separatism but rather evidence of how these immigrants and their children became patriotic Americans and proud ethnics simultaneously. Several newspapers simply declared that the “old country” was their mother and America was their spouse.  They loved them both.  They were patriotic pluralists.

Can this kind of both/and consciousness develop amid the violent religious and ethnic struggles that we see in such places as Syria? I am less sanguine than Friedman about that possibility, but I agree with him that the only way something like patriotic pluralism can emerge in the Middle East is for us to support people there who, as he put it, “deeply long to be citizens."

- Jeffrey Mirel


Well, 1890 to 1930 was the precise time when public schooling was intensely racist and anti-Catholic. A more praiseworthy set of schools from that time period would be the thousands of black schools (often called Rosenwald schools) that were common then.