W.E.B. Dubois, Thomas Jesse Jones and the Struggle for Social Education, 1900-1930

By Johnson, Donald | The Journal of Negro History, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview
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W.E.B. Dubois, Thomas Jesse Jones and the Struggle for Social Education, 1900-1930

Johnson, Donald, The Journal of Negro History

Donald Johnson [*]

Between 1912 and 1918, Progressive educational reformers initiated a radical restructuring of secondary education that included, among other changes, a shift in the general curriculum from History to Social Studies. The educational leaders who shaped the field of Social Studies in the first years of this century worked out their reforms in the midst of a massive transformation of American life from an agrarian to an urban-industrial society and the largest influx of immigrants in the republic's history. The millions of immigrant children, mostly from eastern and southern Europe, attending high school for the first time, caused educators to rethink the 19th century belief in the desirability of a common curriculum for all students. How could children of immigrants and African Americans, a majority of Progressive era reformers asked, be expected to understand the traditional texts or to compete intellectually with older native-born "Anglo-Saxons?" Moreover, they reasoned, how could study of the historical past contribute to the creation of a compliant, cheap labor force which the expanding industrial system required? Might not the new Americans, together with the millions of African Americans, undermine the century-old democracy and threaten the survival of the republic?

As part of the Progressive debate on what was the best educational system to address the two imperatives of socializing a disciplined and reliable work force as well as creating a population that would be safe for democracy, several questions centered the discussion. Should the assimilation process include a general inclusive education for all students or would it be better to track students into several curriculum strands? Should the new mass education carry on a focus on the humanistic tradition featuring history and humanities or should a new vocational curriculum be developed for new immigrants and African Americans who would not go on to college? And, finally, Progressive reformers asked how could teaching and curriculum materials best address the vast spectrum of varied learning styles and abilities that they were convinced separated the native Anglo-Saxons from the new student clientele?

Race and Culture in Nineteenth Century America

Progressive educators who grappled with these large questions brought to their reform agenda a system of cultural categories they had inherited from their nineteenth century mentors, and most of them infused these unexamined assumptions into their new reform mission. The predominantly northern European population that had created American society in its formative centuries embraced the theme of American exceptionalism, rooted in the metaphor of the "New Jerusalem," coupled with the belief in Aryan supremacy. The construction of Aryan supremacy owed much to the early architects of republican virtue such as Jefferson, and grew out of a fascination with the Germanic origins of democracy brought to the "New World" by Anglo-Saxon settlers. 19th century history textbook texts offered students a consistent message of American exceptionalism and Aryan supremacy. Typical of the textbook presentations is Warren's widely used 1843 text; "The Caucasian or white race stands decidedly at the head of the different races. T hey are superior in the arts of civilization, in physical enterprise, and in personal beauty and symmetry, and also in intellectual and moral improvement." [1]

Soon after the Civil War, many of the founders of social science and "scientific history" returned from their post-graduate years in Germany with new racial and cultural categories rooted in biological evolution. Lewis Henry Morgan, generally regarded as the father of American anthropology, constructed an evolutionary set of stages and postulated a single evolutionary line of progress that placed the world's people into one of three stages: savagery, barbarism and civilization. Each stage was characterized by a similar kinship system, shared religious beliefs and the dominant values imposed by that particular cultural epoch's stage of development.

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W.E.B. Dubois, Thomas Jesse Jones and the Struggle for Social Education, 1900-1930


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