The Autobiography of Citizenship: Assimilation and Resistance in U.S. Education

The Autobiography of Citizenship: Assimilation and Resistance in U.S. Education

The Autobiography of Citizenship: Assimilation and Resistance in U.S. Education

The Autobiography of Citizenship: Assimilation and Resistance in U.S. Education

Synopsis

At the turn of the twentieth century, the United States was faced with a new and radically mixed population, one that included freed African Americans, former reservation Indians, and a burgeoning immigrant population. In The Autobiography of Citizenship, Tova Cooper looks at how educators tried to impose unity on this divergent population, and how the new citizens in turn often resisted these efforts, reshaping mainstream U.S. culture and embracing their own view of what it means to be an American.
The Autobiography of Citizenship traces how citizenship education programs began popping up all over the country, influenced by the progressive approach to hands-on learning popularized by John Dewey and his followers. Cooper offers an insightful account of these programs, enlivened with compelling readings of archival materials such as photos of students in the process of learning; autobiographical writing by both teachers and new citizens; and memoirs, photos, poems, and novels by authors such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Jane Addams, Charles Reznikoff, and Emma Goldman. Indeed, Cooper provides the first comparative, inside look at these citizenship programs, revealing that they varied wildly: at one end, assimilationist boarding schools required American Indian children to transform their dress, language, and beliefs, while at the other end the libertarian Modern School encouraged immigrant children to frolic naked in the countryside and learn about the world by walking, hiking, and following their whims.
Here then is an engaging portrait of what it was like to be, and become, a U.S. citizen one hundred years ago, showing that what it means to be "American" is never static.

Excerpt

In his 1867 poem “When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” Walt Whitman rejects the academic structure of American education, which was undergoing a sea change in the period following the Civil War. the poem’s speaker becomes “tired and sick” after hearing a popular lecture on astronomy and leaves the lecture hall for the great outdoors, where he can learn by gazing “in perfect silence at the stars.” Emily Dickinson similarly rejects a hierarchical educational model in “If the foolish call them ‘flowers,’” a poem whose speaker suggests that educated people—mere “Stars, amid profound Galaxies”—should not assume that their ostensibly superior terminology is the only way to identify truth. These poems about education speak to the student-centered perspective and the spirit of “hands-on” learning that were emerging alongside rote education in late nineteenth-century America.

Beginning in the 1830s, nineteenth-century educators began to consider what type of moral and religious education common schools should provide to American children, a development that became increasingly urgent as the us population expanded, urbanized, and diversified during the second half of the nineteenth century. Most early common-school reformers agreed that schools should give “all children of whatever origin a basic education to form them into good Americans, which meant civically moral, patriotic, English-speaking Protestants.” Beginning in the mid-1850s, common-school reformers responded to an increasingly diverse us population by developing the “one best system,” which would impose a “uniform course of study,” “standard examinations,” and a “systematic plan of gradation” on urban public schools.

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