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Jeffrey E. Mirel, Patriotic Pluralism:..

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Review: Jeffrey E. Mirel, Patriotic Pluralism: Americanization Education and European Immigrants. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2010. 378 pp. $45.
Elena Tzenkova (Sofia University)

The intention of this book is clearly stated at the beginning – to examine
the role that education played in the Americanization of immigrants and
their children who arrived in the United States between the 1890s and the
early 1950s. It deals with the impact that these over twenty-two million immigrants had on the politics, culture, economics, and demography of their
adopted country and the modes and means of their assimilation/integration
into their new “great society,” one not unmixed with the problem of the immigrants’ group identity and political allegiance in times of national crisis. It
is not surprising that Americanization education should have provoked such
a passionate nationwide debate and remained a question long after: it is
well-known that, of all the developed countries, the United States has had
the longest experience with immigration and its consequences.
Mirel’s study belongs to the fields of the history and philosophy of
education. It focuses on the period 1890-1925 when, as a result of the
“changing urban context” of the biggest cities in the United States (especially Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit) and the great American belief in the power of education to solve social problems, a vast array of institutions devoted time and energy through Americanization education to accommodate the “flood” of immigrants into society.1 Prominent intellectuals, educators, and political leaders tried to reform the public school system in major American cities along progressive lines, bringing some new elements into the curricula of both the K-12 and adult education levels. The book deals primarily with the two main institutions involved in civic and citizenship education: the public schools and the foreign language newspapers. It scrutinizes a lot of facts and written materials about the economic, educational, and political activities carried out on the federal level, but it primarily concentrates on local developments and describes case studies which acquired national importance.
The author claims that historians of education have missed some of the
most interesting and important trends leading to the shift toward a more culturally inclusive approach to Americanization, in general, and to the teaching of American history, culture, and citizenship, in particular. He is convinced that negative views of Americanization – considered as a unilateral, compulsive process of assimilation – are based on historical accounts that are inconsistent or at least incomplete. This book challenges the dominant interpretation of Americanization education and upholds an alternative view of Americanization called patriotic pluralism.
In his study Mirel holds his ground while approaching the object from
various angles: through a definition of the key elements of Americanization
education;2 in the context of the struggle between ethnic and civic nationalism; 3 by giving examples from local practices in immigrant communities; and, most of all, through the account of immigrants’ response to Americanization education. The latter was reached through a detailed description and analysis of the editorials and articles of the foreign-language newspapers, considered as a powerful educational institution.
Chapter I, entirtled “The Single Greatest Factor in the Americanization
of Immigrants,” examines “the conflict between ethnic and civic as it relates
to education,” which takes central place in the study. Mirel argues that “the
most important debate about Americanization was not, as many scholars
have maintained, between restrictionists, assimilationists, and amalgamationists, who advocated Anglo-Saxon racial and cultural supremacy, on the one hand, and cultural pluralists, who espoused cultural and racial equality, on the other.” Rather, he sees “the great debate of this era as being between people who believed that education could play a major role in Americanizing the immigrants (i.e. assimilationists, cultural pluralists, and amalgamationists) and those who believed that race alone was the crucial factor in determining who could become an American (i.e. racial restrictionists).”4
While the former were united in their respect for a civic nationalist creed
that remained at the core of Americanization education, the latter did not believe that education could transform “inferior races” into Americans.
The author compares historically the character, content, and intensity of
Americanization education undertakings and their results, in relation to the
changing socio-political, economic, demographic, cultural and educational context.
The facts speak for themselves. In the period from the early 1890s to the
mid-1920s there were no quotas and few restrictions on immigration. As a consequence, the lowest and most illiterate members of “alien” races came to the shores of America. The assimilation of such people – with little in common with American modes of thought, customs, and traditions – was almost impossible.
But ‘Word War I’ boosted “patriotism” (more precisely, fear of dual loyalty)
and provoked “a zealous nationwide movement to Americanize adult immigrants from all backgrounds,” especially those ten million people (of the thirty two million immigrants) who came from families with close ties to the Central Powers.5 The study reveals that although there was a “mess,” no consensus about the goals, content and methods of Americanization, activities in public schools and on the political scene sought to build a “Pluribus Unum” by transforming immigrants into “good” Americans.
Struggling against the supporters of racial restriction who regarded the
new immigrants as a dangerous demographic and cultural threat, progressive educational reformers succeeded in changing the educational governance structure of every major American city and, by 1920, every school system with large numbers of immigrant children had woven aspects of Americanization into all areas of the curriculum at the K-12 level and in programs for adults. Inspired by Dewey’s progressive ideas, school reformers argued that the great genius of the United States was its ability to combine numerous cultural traditions in the creation of the national “spirit of America” and that curricula, like cultures, should change in response to interaction with the environment.6
The book examines how Americanization education was implemented
on the K-12 and adult levels and how immigrants responded to and reinterpreted these efforts. It provides evidence that despite the feelings of failure, Americanization in public schools and the socialization of the newcomers and their children had worked successfully across the country (cf. Chapter II, “Americanization and the Public Schools, 1890-1930”). Despite huge disagreements between assimilationists and cultural pluralists about the degree to which immigrants should abandon or assert their previous cultures in the process of becoming Americans, education contributed to social unity and maintaining a common language, common ideals, and a uniform interpretation of citizenship. The conclusion is that between 1890 and 1930 the view of Americanization as a strengthening of Anglo-Saxon cultural hegemony dominated over the one of national unity and social mobility that acknowledged the contributions of cultural diversity.
The study reveals how the confluence of economic, political, and educational factors in the major cities of the United States made the free public schools attended by immigrant children, because of the innovative pedagogical programs, methods, and learning materials they used, some of the best educational institutions in the world. In school, the children of immigrants sought to identify with their classmates, whose parents had merged into this social and political milieu at an earlier stage – evidence that instead of coercive and aggressive forms of assimilation (the “100 per cent Americanism” in World War I and the immediate postwar years), Americanization education should rather “provide these students with the knowledge and skills that would enable them not merely to survive, but to thrive in the New World.” But in pursuing the goal to unite the nation through rapid Americanization, common public schools were “undermining traditional relationships between parents and children.”7 Intense Anglo-American cultural immersion (teaching English and patriotism) disregarded the cultural backgrounds of the foreign-born. The history and traditions of immigrants’ native lands did not find a place in classrooms until a new vision of American identity – not uniform, but based on the composite character of the United States – came about. American identity – based on common democratic ideals – changed from a fixed standard to which the immigrant must adapt to a dynamic, evolving process to which immigrants could contribute.8
As a result of these developments, most of the school leaders in Chicago,
Cleveland, and Detroit sought to balance the competing demands of
teaching disciplinary knowledge and civic citizenship education. Educators
responded to the need for more engaging methods in the “teaching of citizenship” and introduced new units and lessons that fit the social studies framework.
While focusing on topics of immediate interest to the students, they
emphasized cooperation, loyalty, and group consciousness – the key components of citizenship. Developing effective, age-appropriate teaching methods and creating more relevant class materials was especially important in the evening public-school programs – the best providers of Americanization education for adult immigrants with day jobs. One of the most popular courses was the Citizenship course developed in 1913-1914 in Cleveland, which helped immigrants to prepare for naturalization. The rapid growth of night school attendance was stirring a new social, political, and educational dynamic and presented the problems of finding qualified teachers, changing curricula, and maintaining attendance. Mirel presents very intriguing facts regarding these issues. In the great industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest, Americanizers established coordinated educational and social networks linking schools and major corporations (the Detroit Board of Commerce, for example).
In order to boost enrollment for the school year 1915-1916, the English
first campaign made every company employing more than one hundred
workers encourage non-English speakers to register for night school programs in English and citizenship. Bringing classes into the factories became one of the most important innovations in Americanization education, not only in Detroit but across the nation as well. But employers quickly realized that they could not simultaneously satisfy the demand for increased war production and the demand for Americanizing workers.9
The move toward a more culturally inclusive form of Americanization
in public schools (multicultural education) based on recognition of the substantial contributions (the “cultural gifts”) that diverse people and races made in building the nation had a profound impact on how foreign- and native-born Americans viewed themselves and their country. Due to growing political power and the constant effort to maintain their home languages and cultures, immigrant communities succeed where native-born educators failed.
In Chapter III, “Americanization and the Foreign Language Press,
1890-1930,” Mirel examines the foreign-language press as one of the most
powerful agents of Americanization. Instead of opposition, editors and writers from immigrant communities demonstrated strong support for the
Americanization education movement and the Anglo-centric public school
curriculum. They recognized that knowing English was vital to success in
the United States and “intelligent” citizenship. Mirel aligns the journalists
with the best progressive educators. Because they knew their communities
well and literally spoke their language, they could easily focus on issues of
immediate interest and employ culturally relevant examples. The foreignlanguage newspapers co-constructed the Americanization curriculum and taught its key elements to their readers. From a patriotic-pluralistic stance that combined deep devotion to the United States with a commitment to the native lands and cultures, they educated immigrants on how to become good Americans. The foreign-language press survey shows the major immigrant groups as equally proud of their cultural and linguistic backgrounds, yet eager to play an important role in American life. They walked a fine line between assimilation and cultural pluralism and accused coercive Americanization programs of being un-American. The foreign-language newspapers upheld patriotic pluralism as representing the true essence of American democracy.
They sought to revise American history in a way that legitimated
their presence in the United States. The combination of idealism and instrumentalism was characteristic of the foreign-language newspapers. They inspired immigrants to utilize the schools to acquire the skills, knowledge and linguistic competence for successful integration. At the same time, they redefined the term “Americanization” and promoted a new, more inclusive vision of the United States. To adapt, yet to preserve the best was their motto.
The special value of Mirel’s book consists in its challenging but ultimately
successful project of revealing the true nature of Americanism as simultaneously patriotic and pluralistic and of elevating an idea of the inclusiveness and universalism of cosmopolitan Americanism. The American nation was “born” out of the fragile balance between the demands for naturalization (and allegiance) and the desire to keep the cultural distinctiveness of its constituents. The “story” of the United States is the reconciliation of the patriotic pride of being the citizen of a free, democratic country and the recognition of the fact that people from diverse races and cultures had stood shoulder to shoulder with native-born Americans to secure and expand freedom and, by participating in the nation’s democratic processes and institutions, had imported
valuable contributions to its civilization. A cosmopolitan country had
been created and enriched by people from diverse backgrounds.
The Chicago foreign-language press survey gives an account of the
immigrants’ response to Americanization and Americanization education. It
reveals that most of the newspapers sought to discredit “cultural imperialism” inculcating “white supremacy,” for this stance considered immigrants as mere “victims.” Alongside the integration of East and South European immigrants into the broader national culture, a process of reciprocal influence was going on. Due to the collective communities’ efforts, especially those of the editors and writers of the foreign-language press, the dominant interpretations of Americanization changed over time. In contrast to the coercive Americanization during World War I and the immediate postwar years, Americanization education in the period between the 1930s and 1940s was a remarkable success. The attempts of European immigrants and their native-born allies to rediscover American history, culture, and identity in a more inclusive perspective engendered a new, cosmopolitan vision of the United States – as a country composed of different ethnic, religious, and racial groups, united in their commitment to their home country and its democratic ideas. Mirel argues that “[s]uccessful Americanization involved more than merely integrating into American society; it also involved changing the way Americans in general conceived of this country.”10
By articulating a commitment to patriotic patriotism, the book proves
that, nowadays, no single nationality constitutes a majority in the United
States and that American cosmopolitanism is a historically grounded reality.
A new and distinct conglomerate American identity and nationality was
slowly but surely being formed. Being American is to appreciate the principles of personal and spiritual liberty bequeathed by the great founders of the nation, to recognize the contributions and progressiveness of people from different racial, ethnic or religious backgrounds. It was not the homogenizing “melting pot” that made Americans, but rather the multicultural “spirit of America”: the love of liberty and honor of traditions; the fundamental ideas of equality, tolerance and minority rights, which make some people better Americans than others, even if they cannot trace their lineage to the Mayflower. Successful Americanization education proved to be a negotiated exchange. By teaching a new version of American history and culture to both the majority and minorities the Americanizers engendered a distinctly different vision of the nation’s growth and development and made the Americanization of immigrants a great privilege and a great honor. But in the process of becoming Americans, the newcomers changed the way America understands itself.
1 Jeffrey Mirel, Patriotic Pluralism: Americanization Education and European Immigrants (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2010), 16-18.
2 A catch-all term that includes a wide variety of goals.
3 People’s ethnic characteristics vs. the nation’s political creed.
4 Ibid., 15.
5 Ibid., 21.
6 Ibid., 18-20.
7 Ibid., 57-58.
8 Ibid., 63-68.
9 Ibid., 86-91.
10 Ibid., p.160