Children of a New World: Society, Culture, and Globalization

By Paula S. Fassdear | Go to book overview

3
Creating New Identities
Youth and Ethnicity in New York City High
Schools in the 1930s and 1940s

In the early years of the twentieth century, educators moved vigorously to expand and rationalize schooling, and to extend the age of attendance well beyond childhood into adolescence. “The period of adolescence,” the famous progressive educator, Elwood Cubberly, noted, “we now realize is a period of the utmost significance for the school.”1 This period, newly encoded as a life stage and coincident with high school age, was increasingly viewed as a strategic period for socialization as well as education.2 The new emphasis on adolescent schooling was in good part a response to the immense growth of the immigrant population in cities and the social issues this presented. The possibilities that schooling offered for assimilation were not new, of course, but in the first two decades of the twentieth century schooling was newly viewed as the solution to various social problems, making its urgency among immigrant youth seem ever more obvious and necessary. As schooling expanded to incorporate the children of immigrants during their important transition from childhood to adulthood, indeed as it helped to create this transition,3 a genuinely new kind of educational environment was created, one in which young people contended within schools for control over student behavior, allegiance, and identification. By the 1930s, and certainly by the 1940s, the attendance at high school of large numbers of the progeny of the great early twentieth-century migrations marked the arrival of a new common school era. In contrast to its nineteenth-century predecessor, the common school era of the early twentieth century concerned adolescents, not children, and in large cities it replaced the pious air of Protestant respectability with a complex cosmopolitanism.4 In cities like New York and Chicago, the high schools, like the neighborhoods in which they flourished, became ethnic (often multi-ethnic) enclaves. In this context, the high school as a fundamental

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