The American History of American History
September 17, 2013

This post was written by Adam Steinberg, the Tenement Museum’s Senior Education Associate for Walking Tours and a graduate student in geography at Rutgers University. The topic of his dissertation is historic preservation on the Lower East Side.

Children in class in a Public School on the Lower East Side, circa 1900. Photo by Jacob Riis.

When I was 15 years old, my U.S. history teacher was Mr. Wilson, a cross between Archie Bunker and a Marine drill sergeant. I was in my hippie phase, and he drove me nuts. In one class he explained why the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II was justified under the circumstances. In another, he chuckled while describing Eleanor Roosevelt’s looks. He insisted on saying “Negro” instead of “Black.” He was politically incorrect before that phrase existed.

But I loved his class. After years of history instruction drained of conflict, here was a history teacher willing to provoke his students. And he didn’t just dish it out. He encouraged us to share our opinions, even when we (vehemently) disagreed with him.

Adam Steinberg in the 10th grade in 1986.

It was while working at the Tenement Museum a quarter-century later that I understood why Mr. Wilson’s pedagogy was so radical. Now I know that the history instruction I received in 1980’s Maryland was developed in early 20th century New York City as a way to Americanize immigrant children.

In 1903, reformers in New York City created a common, citywide school curriculum that would save New York City from the immigrant masses. No more would schools merely teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. Now they would also teach children how to be American.

Children play a mock election on saluting the American flag. The seated children are the Board of Election Inspectors, circa 1890. Photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

Much of what we know today as public education began with this reform. The Pledge of Allegiance would teach these children patriotism. School playgrounds would keep them out of the streets, where they risked being recruited by gangs. Because so many children had parents who spoke no English, they would all be taught English grammar.

Italian Immigrant Children Say the Pledge of Allegiance at the Mott Street Industrial School, circa 1900

But the cornerstone of Americanization was U.S. history. At a time when socialists were organizing immigrants, it was imperative that children be taught to celebrate our capitalist-democratic society. Anything that reflected poorly on the United States would be excised, lest it give credence to socialists’ stories. Rather than learn about Eugene Debs and Emma Goldman, these children would be encouraged to emulate respectable Americans such as George Washington and Betsy Ross. This instruction didn’t ignore poverty. But by insisting that America is always getting better, the children would be taught patience and perseverance.

Children in a Brooklyn Public Elementary School in 1913.

Some historiographers deride this style of history. In my 20’s I read with pleasure Lies My Teacher Told Me, luxuriating in James Loewen’s derision. But today I wonder what those immigrant children thought of these classes. Back then, immigrant children, in a hurry to learn about their new homeland, would wait in line to check out all the U.S. history books from the public library. And I’ve never encountered an oral history where an immigrant complained about their childhood U.S. history class. Immigrant children typically faced (and face) much bigger problems.

Immigrant children, many of whom lived in overcrowded and often dirty tenements, also learned proper hygiene as part of their Progressive education.

Maybe my disdain for how I was taught U.S. history is a measure of how far my own family has come. My grandparents were all immigrants. For them, school may have been a valuable tool to learn about the values and expectations of their new fellow countrymen. But I have always taken my American-ness for granted. Selectively rejecting those values and expectations feels like my birthright, though it’s really a luxury for the American-born and suburban-raised.

What did Mr. Wilson see when he looked out on his U.S. history class? Though racially and ethnically diverse, we were almost uniformly upper-middle class with college-educated parents. By challenging us to be passionate about history, he was also giving us the tools we would need to make the most of our extraordinary good fortune. After all, we were not going to grow up to be shopkeepers or factory workers. Instead, my generation would excel in postindustrial professions that required us to be creative, even unique.

The United States today is no longer a country dominated by factories and farms. Increasingly, we’re a nation of educators, designers, and consultants. Even if you have a bureaucratic desk job, social media and portable electronics require you to think in terms of hyperlinks and networks, not assembly lines and corn rows. Perhaps by giving us something to rebel against, Mr. Wilson was helping us become more creative, more flexible, more individualistic – indeed, more American.

Immigrant children honored by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) at a special Earth Day naturalization ceremony at the Bronx Zoo in 2012.

– Posted by Adam Steinberg