Color in the Classroom: How American Schools Taught Race, 1900-1954

By Zoë Burkholder | Go to book overview

2
Franz Boas
Reforming “Race” in American Schools

I have always thought of a scientist as a man who works apart from
other people, in the laboratory, where he learns about the forces of
nature. Why should he bother with such things as government, toler-
ance, and democracy?

—Student, 1939

Thousands of college and school teachers throughout the country have
joined together in a campaign of education for democracy. We have
pledged ourselves to protect and extend intellectual freedom, to
strengthen our appreciation of the long and glorious heritage of Amer-
ican democracy, to combat propaganda for racial or religious discrimi-
nation or intolerance, to make our schools fortresses of democracy.

—Franz Boas, 1939

In July of 1939, the New York Times informed Americans that racist Nazi propaganda had been located inside of the cherished institution of public schools, charging: “Schools Rebuked on Racial Errors! Professor Boas Charges Many Use Textbooks That Support Nazi Doctrine!” By this time, educated New Yorkers recognized the anthropologist Franz Boas as the nation’s leading scientific expert on race. Influenced by his background as a German-born Jew, Boas dedicated his professional life to challenging dominant scientific models of racial understanding.1 Featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1936 for his heroic efforts to defend minority groups against pseudoscientific claims of racial superiority, Boas was renowned for his long and distinguished career as a curator at the American Museum of Natural History and as a professor at Columbia University.2 Thanks to the New York Times, the nation now learned that this distinguished anthropologist had discovered a majority of American schoolbooks “misuse the concept of ‘race’ in one way or another,” while an astounding 20 percent “teach what amounts to Nazi doctrines about superior and inferior races.” The Times quoted Boas, who explained: “The myth of the 100 percent

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