1930s Multiculturalism: Rachel Davis DuBois and the Bureau for Intercultural Education

By Lal, Shafali | Radical Teacher, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

1930s Multiculturalism: Rachel Davis DuBois and the Bureau for Intercultural Education


Lal, Shafali, Radical Teacher


Note: The late Shafali Lal, our colleague on the board of Radical Teacher, had planned to write an article for this issue of the magazine, based on her dissertation-in-progress, a study of how race was made and remade in the United States, through a variety of institutions and struggles. She would have drawn upon a chapter titled, The Development of Education in Human Relations, 1934-1954." With advice from others working on this issue, I have lightly edited and somewhat condensed the first half of that chapter, here. Although Shafali would surely have told a fuller story and helped readers see how that story fit into a larger account of race, we think the present version includes much of what she would have wanted to say about one progressive educator in the 1930s, whose work foreshadowed a much broader effort in the 1960s and after, to build what eventually we came to call "multicultural" teaching and learning. Shafali wanted to contrast the multiculturalism "from above" (my term, not hers) that she describes here with the multiculturalism from below that rose out of 1960s political movements.

Rachel Davis DuBois (no relation to W. E. B.) is not much remembered today. Shafali's research is a welcome review of DuBois's educational work against prejudice, through appreciation of what various national and racial groups had contributed to American culture. This excerpt will also help us remember the intelligence and decency of our valued friend and colleague.

Shafali had not finished work on the chapter; her references were incomplete. We have not attempted to reconstruct them, but will note that she extensively used the Rachel Davis DuBois papers (1917-1974) at the Immigration History Research Center, University of Minnesota; and that she referred often to DuBois's autobiography, All This and Something More, and two other books by DuBois: Get Together Americans and Build Together Americans. We hope others working in this field will be able to follow her leads.

--Richard Ohmann

The Bureau for Intercultural Education was the brainchild of a young school teacher, Rachel Davis DuBois. Over its twenty-year history, from 1934 to 1954, the Bureau attempted to understand the "problem of the second generation"--i.e., children of immigrants--and offered a vision of an intercultural nation tolerant of diverse peoples. In so doing, the Bureau originated a cultural idea of psychic civil tights. While the intellectual meanings attached to race would change over the BIE's history, it never lost its investment in ascertaining taxonomy of the nation's native and foreign-born inhabitants and their troubled, immature, or prejudiced minds.

Rachel Davis DuBois's early life structured her later work. Born into a New Jersey farming family in 1892, Rachel Davis was schooled in the Quaker principles of seeing "God in every man." In her autobiography, All This and Something More, Davis describes her early farm life as rich in cross-cultural experiences. Watching work, learning songs, and playing games with the black and Italian hired hands was, for Davis, a critical part of coming-of-age. As she wrote:

   Perhaps such experiences were
   the beginning of my lifelong
   interest in race relations and
   intercultural education--my
   concern that people from different
   backgrounds be encouraged
   to share the best of their
   traditions and customs, thus
   building a richer culture and
   having fun doing it.

This idealistic vision of sharing traditions-those games and songs that were appealing to her as a young child--would structure Davis's life work. After attending a simple common school, she entered Bucknell University in 1910 and majored in the natural sciences. Seeing no professional prospects for a female scientist, she accepted a job teaching high school algebra, biology, and American history at Glassboro (New Jersey) High School in 1914.

The Great War quickly impinged upon her classroom and her consciousness; Davis became an ardent and active pacifist. …

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