What Should We Teach Our Children About American History?


A slot in the American public school system was one of the first professional jobs that rising immigrants secured as their communities accumulated some local political clout—when the Irish dominated the American school system in the 1920s and ’3Os, for instance, and the Jews did in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. If Tom Sobol seems to be playing to a political constituency, isn’t that a very ordinary thing for an ambitious political appointee to do?

I’m not sure previous attempts at meeting political demands were quite as harmful to immigrant children who depended on the public schools to make their way into the larger society. The Irish and the Jews relied on their communal traditions to preserve ethnic loyalties. They did not try to impose Eirocentric or Judeocentric curriculums on the public schools.

We tend to think that the American public school system is what did the assimilating. I wonder whether it wasn’t a combination of the American school system, the American economy in its great mass-production era, and the relatively homogeneous character of a large and not too economically differentiated middle class.

I would agree on all of that. The fact that there were jobs In mass-production industry for unskilled labor was very important. But the relative homogeneity of American mass culture didn’t just happen; American culture was transformed by the immigrants while they adapted and adjusted to it. The extent to which non-English strains have affected American culture explains why we’re so different from England today. One of the problems now is the loss of mass-production jobs in the private economy. I have the old New Deal prejudice against welfare and in favor of the federal government as employer of last resort, and that prejudice looks all the more compelling when we recognize that the work of assimilation and integration has been done through the economy as well as through the schools. After all, there are plenty of jobs available for relatively unskilled labor today in rebuilding the national infrastructure along the lines of the Work Projects Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps of my youth.

Still, the schools were the prime mechanism for assimilation. Take someone like Mario Cuomo, who never spoke English until he was enrolled in public school. People adapt quite rapidly in that environment. The first generation of immigrants kept their native cultures. They read their own press and ate their own cuisines. But the pull of the host culture was immensely strong for their children. I think that this attraction still exists, that the unifying forces are still in the ascendancy. But in the meantime these efforts to re-create separate ethnic and racial communities increase conflict, and now it’s not just whites versus nonwhites. It’s blacks versus Hispanics in Miami, Hispanics versus Cambodians in Long Beach, California, and so on. The reason we avoided much of this in the past is in large part that there was a massive shared commitment to the ideal of becoming American. I think that ideal remains essential in a multiethnic society like ours.

We avoided a great deal of conflict in the past because there was a massive shared commitment to the ideal of becoming American.

These are imaginary communities that we choose to become part of. There is nothing inevitable about the decision to think of oneself as preeminently an American, or an African-American, or an urban American, or middle class; one can build a bleak or a cheering case for any of these choices, and you have made the point that for most of the last two hundred years, most Americans have chosen one of these imaginary communities over the others. But this also suggests that the decision to be an American rather than a member of a fractional community is not necessarily the “natural” choice.

It’s obviously in the self-interest of people like Al Sharpton and Leonard Jeffries to stress the “naturalness” of a fractional identity in order to develop constituencies for their own egomania. Such people are always going to find enough embittered, confused, and angry people to provide the appearance of such a constituency. The question is, How large will that constituency be? It is difficult for an Italian- or Jewish- or Polish-American of the fourth generation to live in any authentic sense preeminently as an ethnic. The patterns of employment, of assimilation, of movement, of falling in love, of a common national culture cross ethnic lines.

But it is sadly the case that a black American has less of a choice. There is no question that America has been historically a racist society, and one can understand a black or Indian or Asian who has read American history deciding that the world is stacked against him.

This raises a crucial point about assimilation, which is that assimilation and integration are two-way streets. It is foolish to ask only, Why don’t they join us? The responsibility of assimilation rests at least as much on the smug majority as it does on the sullen minority. The majority has until very recently excluded and rejected racial minorities to a degree that makes any minority wish to assimilate irrelevant.