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Storm Over the Schoolhouse: Exploring Popular Influences Upon the American Curriculum, 1890-1941

by Jonathan Zimmerman - 1999

Recent histories of the American curriculum have shown how citizen groups influenced local course offerings and state requirements during the early twentieth century. Using case studies of three subject areas—history, military training, and foreign languages? this article demonstrates that lay activists also affected the content and even the enroll-ment of these courses. The article illustrates the enormous range of citizens who entered curricular disputes, the diversity of strategies they employed, and the disparate results of their efforts. It also suggests a new explanation for the decline of the traditional ? R’s? and the rise of a more “practical,?differentiated curriculum between the turn of the cen-tury and World War Two. Hardly the pawns of school officials, laypeople had their own “practical?reasons for embracing this trend: it opened the door to whatever new agen-das they hoped to inject. Across the ideological spectrum, then, citizen groups joined hands to condemn old-fashioned, academic curricula. Not until the late 1940s would conservative activists rally around the 3 R’s, sparking a new school war that still rages today.

Recent histories of the American curriculum have shown how citizen groups influenced local course offerings and state requirements during the early twentieth century. Using case studies of three subject areas—history, military training, and foreign languages—this article demonstrates that lay activists also affected the content and even the enrollment of these courses. The article illustrates the enormous range of citizens who entered curricular disputes, the diversity of strategies they employed, and the disparate results of their efforts. It also suggests a new explanation for the decline of the traditional “3 R’s” and the rise of a more “practical,” differentiated curriculum between the turn of the century and World War Two. Hardly the pawns of school officials, laypeople had their own “practical” reasons for embracing this trend: it opened the door to whatever new agendas they hoped to inject. Across the ideological spectrum, then, citizen groups joined hands to condemn old-fashioned, academic curricula. Not until the late 1940s would conservative activists rally around the 3 R’s, sparking a new school war that still rages today.

In August 1923, the historian-in-chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans gave his conditional approval to a Northern attack on several popular history textbooks. After a lengthy investigation, dozens of New York patriotic and ethnic societies had condemned the books for “slandering” America’s Revolutionary War heroes, from Hale and Hancock to Pulaski and Kosciusko. From his headquarters in Lynchburg, Virginia, Arthur H. Jennings applauded this assault but blasted its “anti-British” bias. For over two decades, Jennings boasted, his own organization had struggled to keep the same books—and their “false histories” of the Civil War—out of Southern schools. So he decided to support the new campaign against the texts, even as he savaged the “New York Roman Catholic–Irish group” that had started it.1

Jennings sent his remarks to University of Chicago historian Bessie L. Pierce, who was collecting material for a book on the various citizen groups—“strange bed-fellows,” Pierce called them—who affected public school history instruction.2 Published in 1926, Pierce’s book sparked a burst of scholarship about popular influence upon the entire curriculum during the interwar era. From history and English to science and even math, investigators described how ethnic, religious, patriotic, and labor organizations shaped course offerings, textbooks, and, especially, laws.3 This literature typically struck a negative chord, casting lay activists as ignorant hordes who were clamoring at the schoolhouse gates.4 Yet most educational officials also felt compelled to let them in, as numerous monographs and theses grudgingly acknowledged. “Superintendents would like to bar all outside organizations, but . . . in the majority of cases the organizations are admitted,” wrote University of Nebraska graduate student Conrad Jacobson, after surveying more than 400 school officials in his state. “There is a contradiction here between theory and practice.”5

Recent histories of early twentieth-century schools have confirmed Jacobson’s claim, demonstrating how lay groups persuaded local educators to offer new courses like health, domestic science, and vocational training.6 Following Bessie Pierce, other scholars have documented successful citizen drives for state mandates in civics, Bible reading, and temperance instruction.7 This article echoes but also expands upon that literature, explaining how laypeople influenced the day-to-day substance of instruction—not just the official course of study—during the years preceding World War Two. Through case studies of three subject areas—history, military training, and foreign languages—it shows that citizens altered course material and even enrollments, pressing school boards to adopt certain textbooks and students to choose special electives. “The significant change is not in the names given to subjects in the curriculum,” surmised a German–American activist in 1926, “but in the content of those subjects and the purposes to which they are put.”8

The most important new purpose was “good citizenship,” the activist added, highlighting a second contribution of this article: to help explain why traditional academic requirements and enrollments decreased so steadily during the first half of the twentieth century. Most historians have attributed this phenomenon to professional educators, who sought to satisfy the perceived needs of a burgeoning, diverse student population.9 Yet lay activists contributed to the trend, too, since the material they demanded inevitably displaced more conventional academic content. From the American Legion and the American Peace Society to the Knights of Columbus and the Ku Klux Klan, nearly every citizen group heaped abuse upon hidebound, old-fashioned scholarship. “Whether the future citizen knows anything of cube roots or participial adjectives or the names of the planets matters very little to this country,” wrote peace advocate Lucia Mead. “It matters everything, however, whether . . . he is capable of public spirit and gratitude.” While hostile to Mead’s brand of pacifism, a spokesman for the Order of Freemasons agreed that schools should emphasize “important lessons in Patriotism” over “the proverbial 3 R’s.”10 Across the political spectrum, then, citizen groups helped accelerate the shift away from traditional academics. Only in the 1940s and 1950s would right-wing activists rally around the 3 R’s, signaling a new era in the history of American curricula.


Starting in the 1890s, history probably generated more popular agitation than all the other subjects combined. At the simplest level, this development reflected the dramatic growth of history instruction during an era of rapid overall expansion in the American high school. The fraction of secondary-level students taking history rose from roughly one quarter to one half between 1890 and 1926 alone, yielding a total enrollment of more than two million pupils. Yet the main reason for Americans’ exceptional focus upon history lay in its special connection to nationalism, as activists on every side sensed. The multiplication table and the decimal system were “the same in England and in the United States,” a member of the American Legion observed in 1925, “but when it comes to the story of our country, that is one subject that is peculiarly and singularly American.”11

As in other parts of the curriculum, laws represented the most vivid form of lay control. Groups like the Legion won measures in 35 states by 1923 requiring some form of United States history, often in conjunction with the teaching of “patriotism.” Yet such statutes merely set the contours of curriculum, not the content of it. When laws prescribed “patriotism,” for example, they never specified what that meant. Nor did a central government agency define or interpret the term, as was often the case in other countries. In America, historian Cecelia O’Leary notes, that task fell to “organizations and individuals within civil society”—that is, to citizen groups. “Probably there is no word made so susceptible of contradictory definitions as that one word Patriotism,” wrote pacifist Hannah J. Bailey, in the throes of a battle with veterans’ societies. Hence the sharpest debate often began after a “patriotic” law was passed, particularly when school districts selected a textbook to comply with it.12

More than any law, indeed, textbooks defined the actual substance of historical learning in American schools. Since the vast majority of instructors taught directly from a text, “it generally determines the subject matter of the course, the manner of presentation, and sometimes the attitude of the pupil toward further study,” as Bessie Pierce observed. Especially after the First World War, then, dozens of citizen groups fought for history books that embodied their own special notions of American identity. Often, Pierce noted, these groups could only agree about what America was not: Great Britain. Anti-English sentiment united organizations as different as the Steuben Society and the Sons of the American Revolution, all complaining that America’s textbooks were too friendly to its colonial forebear. In the spirit of the so-called “New History,” some texts had tried to present a “balanced view” of “both sides” in the Revolutionary War. As a result, activists feared, students would develop a deep cynicism about the Founding Fathers, a new solicitude towards England, and a blithe disregard for non-British contributions to America.13

The loudest voice in this anti-English choir was the Knights of Columbus, America’s largest Catholic society. Under the direction of Edward J. McSweeney, a trade unionist who had left school at the age of eleven, the Knights’ Historical Commission targeted textbooks by Charles Beard, David Muzzey, Albert Hart, and other “new” historians. In McSweeney’s view, their emphasis on economic power and divisions would undermine children’s faith in America’s historic ideals—indeed, in any ideals. “The[ir] real object [is] to prove . . . that the motives leading to the American Revolution were based wholly upon material interest, moral or spiritual considerations being absent,” McSweeney complained, “that it was not a heroic age, and that the inspiration of nationalism is without justification.” This interpretation had also infected textbook accounts of the continent’s early settlers, which McSweeney found almost as worrisome. “Discovery and colonization were motivated quite as much by economic ambitions as by religious or political aspirations,” he wrote, paraphrasing the Beardsian perspective. “In this manner, they dispose of Columbus. . . .”14

To the Knights, aspersions upon their Italian hero symbolized the textbooks’ larger neglect of non-English experiences in the New World. “Our History is being distorted and polluted and our children thereby deAmericanized,” screamed a Knights pamphlet. “The achievements of the many different races—Irish, German, Italian, French, Scandinavian, Slavik [sic], Polish, Spanish etc. . . . are treated with contempt to the glory of England—the age-long, implacable foe of America.” Textbooks told almost nothing about the Huguenots in Virginia, the Swedes in Delaware, the Dutch in New York, or the Celts in Maryland, McSweeney complained. Yet each of these groups had made a “substantial contribution,” he added, “not alone in labor power but in ancient tradition and customs, which, if known, can be improved and cherished to national advantage.” Here McSweeney denounced liberal versions of assimilation as well as nativist notions of “100 percent Americanism,” since both threatened to bury the nation’s bright ethnic panoply in a bland superficial gauze. Texts should reflect the “inherent differences in races,” he argued, not pretend that one was superior or that all were alike.15

Joining the textbook battle, dozens of other citizen groups sported a similar blend of ethnic and national pride. America was great because it was diverse, the argument went; so “patriotic” texts should stress “the share all races have had in the development of the country,” as an Irish and a German group jointly resolved in 1907. Black organizations concurred, often citing other ethnic groups’ demands as a justification for their own. Quoting an Irish activist’s complaint that textbooks “‘suppressed, ridiculed, and mutilated everything Irish in American History,’” Howard University professor Charles Wesley remarked that “with the substitution of the word ‘Negro’ for the word ‘Irish,’ this sentence would be equally true, if not more so.” Just as white ethnic groups had pressed for texts that reflected their experience, he urged, blacks must “expan[d] the field of history so as to include the Negro.” Wesley and other black activists especially objected to textbooks’ almost obsessive focus upon slavery, to the exclusion of blacks’ African roots or their attainments in America. “The Negro is studied as a Slave,” Wesley wrote in 1925, after analyzing roughly twenty-five history textbooks, “but not as a Laborer, Soldier, American Citizen, and Achiever of Worthy Results.”16

Twice in the 1920s, special municipal hearings gave these critics a dramatic national rostrum. A 1922 textbook panel in New York heard testimony from Jewish spokesman Julius Hyman and black activist William Pickens, complaining that the city’s history texts neglected Revolutionary War creditor Haym Solomon and Boston Massacre martyr Crispus Attucks, respectively. The noisiest book imbroglio occurred five years later in Chicago, where Mayor William Thompson staged a “trial” to dismiss school superintendent William McAndrew. The charge: aiding and abetting “pro-English” texts. “Under McAndrew,” Thompson claimed,

George Washington fell out. Not here. Kosciouski [sic] and Pulaski fell out. Baron Steuben, the great German hero that helped Washington, fell out. Montgomery and Sullivan, the great Irish heroes, fell out. Poor old Christopher Columbus, the Italian, he isn’t in here any more. . . . And in their place the most insidious pro-British propaganda you ever read.17

According to an outraged George Counts, the era’s most careful scholar of school politics, Thompson “cultivated the rich soil of racial and national differences . . . to capture the German, the Irish, the Polish, and the Negro vote.” But these ethnic groups also had their own sound reasons for supporting Thompson’s antics, as one New York journalist observed. During the First World War, they had been forced to “follow unquestioningly the lead of the English-traditioned Americans,” the journalist remarked. Now they were free to develop a “non-English Americanism,” especially in school curricula. “[T]here is nobility back of the screaming farce of Superintendent McAndrew’s trial in Chicago,” he maintained. “It is found in the noble desire of the non-Anglo-Saxon people to make their way up into a fair copartnership in the ideals and aspirations of their country.”18

Unlike McAndrew, meanwhile, most school officials simply surrendered to the loudest textbook critics. In 1923, for instance, a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars visited Dubuque, Iowa, school superintendent O. P. Flower to blast the district’s use of a controversial history book. After a brief conversation, Flower realized that the veteran had not read the text but had only seen a VFW pamphlet condemning it. When other local patriotic societies joined in the attack, however, Flower wilted: privately insisting that the book was sound, he nevertheless removed it from his “recommended” list.19 In states where central text commissions selected schoolbooks, meanwhile, groups applied almost constant pressure upon these panels. After Kansas adopted a “pro-Confederate” text in 1897, for example, local members of the Grand Army of the Republic distributed 10,000 broadsheets against the book and lobbied their governor to remove its supporters from the state text board. If a book decision did not go their way, finally, parents could always exert the penultimate veto. “My boy recently brought home from school a book which . . . no Southern boy should be allowed to study,” complained a Confederate veteran in 1905. “I took my knife and cut out all the pages of that book which treated of the [Civil] war. I said to him, ‘Give my love to your teacher, and say to him if it is necessary for you to study that book you can quit that school.’”20

Yet such confrontations were relatively infrequent, thanks to the powerful lockhold of citizen groups upon the textbook industry. Before a book even went to press, indeed, dozens of groups had already left their mark on it. “As a poor harassed editor, let me thank you for taking up the cudgels in regard to propaganda,” one textbook publisher wrote Bessie Pierce, praising her study of popular influence on school history. “I could a tale unfold, [about] the WCTU, the GAR, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Labor Unions, the banks, and heaven-knows-what other sources.” Like school officials, he admitted, most firms easily succumbed to these “outside” demands. “It really takes a lot of courage to tell these various organizations . . . that we cannot allow them to write our books for us,” he told Pierce.21

Indeed, citizen groups forced changes in almost every popular history textbook after 1890. Frequently, activists found, the mere threat of patronizing a competitor was enough to make wary publishers alter their wares. “When [they] see that they are at a disadvantage . . . these books will be ‘corrected’ accordingly,” advised one group of Germans, complaining that prominent history texts neglected their experience. “If you want to do anything with an American you must attack his pocketbook.” Others put direct pressure on authors, who responded with a mix of fear, outrage, and resignation. After a patriotic society condemned her world history book as pro-English, Harriet Tuell resolved to keep silent lest she stir further controversy. “Feeling on the Irish question in this part of the country is still too highly inflamed for safety to one in my position,” wrote Tuell, a teacher in suburban Boston. Other writers seemed to accept their fate, sometimes leavening it with a dose of humor. “I have this moment finished the first draft of the ‘Book of Lies’ otherwise known as Channing’s ‘Elements of United States History,’” Edward Channing wrote his publisher, after doctoring the text to suit citizen groups. Still other authors actively courted these groups during the editorial stage, encouraging activists to examine their work and “make any corrections or changes” before it even appeared.22

When the same book came under fire from different constituencies, of course, authors and publishers had to decide which group—if any—to appease. Several books were censured by Southern and Northern veterans’ societies, while others earned the odium of patriotic and pacifist groups alike. Prominent text writer Charles A. Ellwood found his book condemned by black groups as “unfair to the Negro” and by Southern whites as “too favorable to the Negro.” Socialists and Southern Baptists both blasted Ellwood for his discussion of Darwinism, labor unions thought he neglected them, and patriotic societies deemed him insufficiently nationalistic.23

In many ways, these attacks simply reflected Ellwood’s popularity: the more a book sold, the more enemies it earned. Hence the most scorned history text of the early twentieth century was also the most successful: David S. Muzzey’s An American History. “Muzzey” (as his book was commonly known) appeared first in 1911, topped best-seller lists through the 1930s, and remained in many classrooms into the 1940s and 1950s. Over the years, its critics included groups as disparate as the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Ku Klux Klan, the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People, and various Catholic organizations. “Professor Muzzey has been buffeted about until only a man of unusual patience and good nature could bear it,” observed historian Howard K. Beale in 1936. “He must almost hate to see his mail come.”24 Yet Muzzey’s text continued to dominate the field, perhaps because “contending groups . . . neutralize each other” (as a leading educator hoped) or even increased the book’s visibility. Indeed, publishers sometimes welcomed controversy “as a cheap form of advertising,” several authors reported.25

Frustrated by their failure to displace Muzzey and other “non-patriotic” texts, several citizen groups finally published their own. In 1923, the American Legion commissioned English professor Charles F. Horne to write “an absolutely honest history,” as Horne described it. Yet the book was marred by factual errors and turgid prose, failing to attract much interest in schools. Instead, it plunged the Legion into internal strife. Southern members condemned its “patronizing and unfair” depictions of Dixie, while others questioned the very concept of a Legion-sponsored text. “[T]here are bound to be . . . honest differences of opinion,” a critic warned. “[N]o one authentic United States history can be written, while there is such a marked divergence . . . covering all sorts of questions from the beginning of the settlement of this country to the present.”26

On one school issue, however, the Legion remained almost completely united. From its inception in 1919, it had pressed incessantly for military training in public schools. Since districts often allowed the subject if enough patrons demanded it, Legionnaires tried to spark interest in military drill among parents, teachers, and, especially, students. Meanwhile, peace groups urged pupils to eschew military training in favor of physical education and other classes. Not content simply to change the texts that students were compelled to read, citizens would also try to affect the only significant choice that American schools allowed: which course to take.


An informal affair for much of the nineteenth century, school military drill did not spark much controversy until the 1890s.27 The issue revived with new vigor during World War One, when dozens of cities inserted military training into their courses of study.28 Congress created the Reserve Officers Training Corps [ROTC], allowing the War Department to supply instructors, equipment, and curricula to local schools. In state legislatures, finally, veterans’ and military groups pressed for compulsory military training. Peace groups countered with their own new tactic: physical education laws. Assisted by John Dewey and other friendly educators, peace activists drew up a “standard” physical education bill for all forty-one state legislatures. The bill stipulated that both sexes would receive physical education in every grade, under the supervision of a state director. “We want not only to oppose the measure introducing military training which is sure to be presented this year,” pacifist Eleanor Karsten explained in 1916, “but we also want to offer in its place a constructive measure of our own.”29

Thirteen states passed compulsory physical education laws during the war; by 1923, a total of twenty-five states required the subject. Several of them also rejected competing military training bills, just as pacifists had hoped. In California, for example, an alliance of labor unions, women’s clubs, teachers’ councils, and education professors—the “Committee to Promote Physical Education”—successfully prevailed upon legislators to choose “health, growth, and development” over “military expediency,” as its literature proclaimed. Physical education laws also received a substantial boost from German “Turners,” the gymnastic societies that had dominated the subject in the years before the war. Although reluctant to abandon their starring role, Turners happily endorsed the new physical education movement and condemned its militaristic rival. “What we need is not army officers in the public schools, but an army of well-prepared physical training teachers,” a Turner journal declared in 1915. “What we need is not ‘playing soldiers’ but real play, suited to the mental and physical development of our growing boys and girls.”30

Even in states where physical education was mandatory, however, individual school districts could still decide to provide ROTC as an elective. As in other subjects, then, new laws simply shifted curricular debate into an older venue: local school boards. In February 1930, for example, New York’s Board of Education hosted a bitter four-hour hearing on whether to offer military training at Jamaica High School. Representatives of the Daughters and Sons of the American Revolution, the Allied Patriotic Societies, the National Security League, and the Queens Federation of Women’s Clubs all backed the proposal; opponents included the Women’s Trade Union League, the Brooklyn Federation of Churches, the League of Nations Association, and the Queens Peace Society. As the evening wore on, discussion “ranged from patriotism, through expediency, educational advantage, ‘un-Americanism,’ [and] effects on discipline and morals, to internationalism and the religious teachings of peace,” one journalist recorded. Out in Jamaica, meanwhile, the same organizations worked mightily to sway local sentiment; at least one group sent a letter to every home in the district. So the war raged in two theaters, another reporter observed, showing no sign of recess in either. “Arguments [in Jamaica] fly thick, fast, and acrimoniously over back fences, bridge tables, and baby carriages,” he wrote, “while more and more imposing groups of experts and influential citizens are marshaled [sic] to compete at the Board of Education hearings.”31

New York was one of thirty-three cities authorizing some or all of its high schools to offer ROTC by 1927, while an additional twenty cities made it compulsory.32 Yet almost every urban school district witnessed a sharp dispute on the subject, typically following the same lines as the Jamaica battle. On one side stood patriotic and veterans’ societies, with the American Legion most often leading the charge.33 On the other stood a shifting coalition of socialists, women’s organizations, labor unions, and, especially, religious groups. In 1925, for example, 200 delegates from forty religious bodies condemned ROTC as “alien to the spirit of Christ.” Six years later, a survey of almost 20,000 ministers showed that 83 percent of them opposed military drill. Liberal and conservative churchmen alike joined in the attack, linking ROTC to another policy they reviled: bans on Bible instruction for public schoolchildren. “Instead of military training,” wrote one activist, “teach them the Golden Rule and the Good Samaritan principles and to follow the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount.” These objections prompted their own protests from ROTC advocates, who mounted a vigorous scriptural defense of the subject. Christ “commended the Centurion, a professional soldier, above every other man,” argued one activist. Jesus “got three throngs [sic] of leather, braided them, [and] upset the tables of the money changers,” another noted. “Christ was no ‘Pacifist.’” 34

Behind the scenes, meanwhile, defenders of military training sought to divide enemy organizations by recruiting allies within them. In 1932, the American Legion created a seven-minister committee to challenge “subversive pacifists” in the churches.35 The effort rapidly bore fruit, as pastors across the country began to break with denominational leaders and back military training.36 Growing numbers of labor, ethnic, and women’s activists also threw their weight behind ROTC, even though their national directors continued to condemn it. After the National Congress of Parents and Teachers officially opposed military training, for example, the editor of its Montana newsletter voiced “shame and disgrace” for her organization. “I am not at all interested in these sappy, soft headed articles,” she wrote in 1937, refusing to publish editorials against ROTC. “The authors should go to China or Ethiopia and talk about being peaceful.” Likewise, black parents displayed a notable penchant for ROTC even after NAACP secretary James Weldon Johnson rebuked it. When Carbondale, Illinois, referendum voters defeated ROTC in 1938 by a count of 442 to 337, for example, the black vote was 77 to 18 in favor. Bigoted opponents attributed this tally to the “ignorance and corruptibility of the Negro,” of course, but black students had strongly supported school drill since the 1890s.37

Amidst this crazy quilt of alliance and dissent, indeed, every side sought to lure students to its cause. “Don’t Be a Slacker, Be a Cadet!” screamed a 1928 sign in a Washington, D.C., high school, erected by a pro-ROTC group. Especially during the Depression, militarists often enlisted students by appealing to their pocketbooks: for every new pupil, the ROTC would provide a new uniform. “Few people seem to realize that they have already bought these [uniforms] with their taxes,” a frustrated Georgia correspondent wrote in 1935. “They really feel that they are getting a good suit of clothes ‘free.’”38

In their dashing new outfits, meanwhile, students were sure to garner the biggest prize of all: attention from the opposite sex. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, many observers remarked, ROTC’s supporters used “sex appeal” to advertise their subject. Schools installed female “sponsors” or “lady officers” in each ROTC unit, ostensibly to inspect uniforms but actually to persuade more boys to don them. Elected by the student body, the female officers were usually the prettiest—or at least the most popular—girls in each high school, a Massachusetts journalist noticed. “These girl officers are frequently installed with much pomp and ceremony,” another critic wrote. “[T]hey lead parades . . . and act as general billboard, advertising the glory of the ROTC and the military machine.” For the girls, meanwhile, an ROTC officership signaled ascension into the highest altitudes of a school’s social stratosphere. “With the girls—well, any one of them would give her dearest possession, maybe even her lip stick, to be a company sponsor,” a North Carolina reporter wrote. “It seems that there’s just something about a uniform.” (Beneath a photograph of a female officer, a caption added, “Right, the work’s all worth it when dress parade comes off and a sponsor as pretty as Marjorie Walters stands beside the captain of Company B.”)39

At the same time, ironically, ROTC’s supporters also proclaimed its advantages as an all-male institution. Military training “provides a masculine contact for the boys in the unit,” declared a citizens’ committee in Peoria, Illinois. “The majority of high school teachers are women, and the masculine ‘tang’ of the ROTC unit furnishes a much needed unit of instruction.” Elsewhere in the state, indeed, boys who eschewed military drill faced taunts for not being masculine enough. After a delegation of high school boys presented the East St. Louis school board with a petition for ROTC, signed by at least 500 students, newspapers reported that some boys had been called “sissies” for refusing to affix their names. Because “group pressure had been used to get some of the signatures,” an observer wrote, the petition tactic “back-fired in a very embarrassing manner.”40

For their own part, peace groups could not offer boys anything so glamorous as feminine attention or a masculine mien. Instead, activists would have to depend on “personal contact” with students and their families, as organizer Edwin Johnson wrote. Once a school board has decided to offer military training, he advised, “get in contact with as many as possible of the prospective high school cadets.” In Glendale, California, peace activists sent a letter to every student who signed up for ROTC. Then they visited each boy and his parents, hoping to change enough minds that enrollment would fall below 100—and the unit would lose its federal funding. Meanwhile, students themselves staged several well-publicized protests against military training. At one New York high school in 1935, demonstrators formed a knot around the school’s entrance while its 500-member ROTC squad jeered. “Are there any Americans in that crowd?” ROTC students yelled. “Vive La Hitler!” retorted a peace speaker, donning a mock mustache. Two months later, 250 New York students picketed against military training outside the city’s Board of Education.41

In the end, of course, each pupil had to decide on his or her own whether to enroll in ROTC.42 Where ROTC was not compulsory, schools offering it generally required that students receive either military training or physical education. No simple pattern governed their choices. In Atlanta, where two high schools offered ROTC, 85 percent of boys at one school and 60 percent of those at the other elected to “take military” rather than physical education, a local official reported. In Salt Lake City, by contrast, just a smattering of students selected ROTC. “Gym classes are far more popular than drill at the West high school,” a teacher observed. “[O]nly 250 [students] are taking ‘army,’ and the rest have signed up for five gym classes each week.” In student referenda on the subject, likewise, a wide range of opinion emerged. Pupils at one Florida high school voted overwhelmingly to institute ROTC in 1937, citing national defense concerns. “Italy’s doing it. Germany’s doing it. It’s only common sense to be prepared,” one student told his teacher. “There’s bound to be another war, and the U.S. can’t help being dragged in.” In Kenosha, Wisconsin, by contrast, students rejected an ROTC petition by a narrow 362 to 275 margin. Anti-ROTC students then circulated a second, mock initiative:

We, the undersigned, hereby petition the Board of Education to establish voluntary courses in hog calling at Kenosha High School. We note that the argument is being advanced that because 275 students have signed a petition for military drill the Board of Education should provide classes in that subject. If this argument is accepted as sound . . . our request should be given equal consideration. We believe that a competent instructor in hog calling could be obtained from the Chicago stockyards. Or possibly the courses in military drill and hog calling could be handled by the same person.43

Across the country, however, school boards did approve military training—and thousands of other new courses—to satisfy popular demands. The mock petition disparaged this development, suggesting that some claims were too absurd to receive “equal consideration” from school officials. With school enrollments booming, though, boards increasingly offered any elective that a sufficient number of citizens requested. “It is and has been a long standing practice . . . for parents—not teachers—to choose the course of study and curriculum to be followed by their children,” declared a New York activist in 1937, urging his fellow Italian Americans to demand instruction in their ancestral tongue. “No teacher has a moral right to deny to a child . . . a course for which that child is competent and which the child’s parents desire for it.”44


Given America’s enormous variety of ethnic cultures, parents probably registered more course demands in foreign languages than in any other subject area in the twentieth century. To be sure, multilingual instruction was almost as old as the common school system itself. Nineteenth-century schoolchildren took dozens of different foreign-language courses, sometimes even studying math, science, and other standard subjects in a non-English tongue. Historians have typically attributed this phenomenon to the “organizational imperative” of educational administrators, who sought to lure immigrants away from parochial academies and into the “One Best System” of public schools.45 Educators clashed periodically with nativist state legislatures, yielding a Byzantine set of restrictions and regulations regarding foreign-language instruction.46 Yet this interpretation neglects foreign-language speakers, who played a critical role not just in shaping laws at state levels (as scholars have correctly emphasized) but also in demanding new courses at local ones. As in other subject areas, then, a focus on the outlines of curriculum blinds us to the activities of citizen groups that operated within them. It also ignores the feverish competition between different ethnic organizations, who fought each other at the same time as they fended off nativist foes.

As early as 1885, for example, German groups prevailed upon the Chicago school board to permit primary-school instruction in their historic language. At least twenty grammar schools and four high schools already provided German to some 3,000 pupils, but now the city’s youngest scholars could also study it—if their families so chose. The board resolved “to take no steps to direct the attention of parents or children . . . to German instruction,” but rather “to wait until parents requested classes” in the subject. It did not have to wait long. Thanks to a huge outpouring of citizen demand, almost 45,000 students took German by 1893. Only about half of the students were of German descent; the rest were evenly split between “Anglo-Americans” and other ethnic groups.47

With the dawn of the new century, these other ethnicities stepped up campaigns for instruction in their own languages.48 In 1912, the Chicago Board of Education agreed to permit any language that twenty or more parents in a school requested. The board initially granted this privilege only to Poles, who had peppered school officials with letters accusing them of “discriminating in favor of the German language.” When the board capitulated to the Poles’ demand, of course, other ethnic groups charged that schools now favored Polish as well as German. The final straw came with an Irish leader’s call for instruction in Gaelic, “a modern language and one from which all other tongues developed.” In a carefully worded response, the school board declared that it would allow instruction in “any living language.” The ruling prohibited Gaelic but permitted Bohemian and Italian, prompting noisy celebrations in the latter communities.49

Almost immediately, however, festivity turned to frustration. For in school after school across the city, ethnic groups found themselves unable to sustain enough student interest in their language. Frequently serving as registration centers for the new courses, ethnic newspapers censured families for the poor turnout. “It required a great deal of sincere effort—in fact a very real fight—to cause the Board of Education to introduce the Bohemian language into those schools which show a sufficient number of their pupils are enrolling,” a Czech newspaper reminded readers in 1913. “This is the time to wake up from our indifference.” Even at Harrison High School, where roughly three-quarters of the pupils were of Czech descent, Bohemian lagged well behind German, French, and every other foreign language. Although several more Chicago schools had substantial Czech populations, meanwhile, none of them could even meet the twenty-student minimum in the subject. “All we can say is that this sad state of affairs is for us Bohemians exceedingly embarrassing and puts us to deep shame,” an editorial wailed. Its headline encapsulated the source of the problem, as leaders of nearly every ethnic group perceived it: “Not Enough Pride.”50

Yet low student enrollment had deeper causes than that, as several news reports indicated. Shortages of qualified teachers forced several schools to delay or cancel new foreign language classes, dimming enthusiasm for these courses almost as soon as they were authorized.51 Especially in the Polish community, meanwhile, the issue exposed sharp tensions between “patriots” and “church-goers,” as one account noted. Since the 1890s, Chicago’s Polish National Alliance had supported public school Polish instruction as an essential stimulus for ethnic consciousness. But the Polish Roman Catholic Union feared it would lure children away from parochial institutions, just as public school leaders planned. “We would disgrace ourselves in the eyes of Americans, Irishmen, and even the Germans, for trying to introduce the Polish language in public schools,” a church newspaper argued, “when formerly we used to defend parochial schools so often and so openly.” After the school board finally authorized Polish courses, church newspapers urged students not to register for them. It also attacked the Alliance press for publishing the names of pupils who did take the course, claiming that they had been compelled to register by overzealous “patriots.”52

Nationwide, foreign-language enrollments appear to have reached a nadir during and immediately after World War One. A handful of states prohibited German instruction, while several others banned the teaching of all non-English languages in elementary schools. Yet this flurry of legislation subsided almost as quickly as it started, prompting ethnic groups to resume their local recruiting efforts. In 1922, for example, New York members of the Order of the Sons of Italy distributed over 50,000 leaflets across the city, hoping to spark interest in Italian-language courses. Newspapers like Il Progresso and Il Corrier de L’America published coupons for parents to clip and send to their schools, where at least sixty students had to register before Italian could be offered. Organizers also sponsored evening “entertainments” of drama and song in Italian, concluding with calls for increased school enrollments in the subject. “The only way to get Italian established firmly,” concluded teacher and activist Leonard Covello, “is to keep the idea constantly before our own people.”53

The indefatigable Covello spearheaded this effort in New York for three decades, constantly imploring his fellow Italian Americans to study their mother tongue. Teaching at DeWitt Clinton, a heavily Italian high school, Covello organized a Circolo Italiano (“Italian Club”) as early as 1914. The circolo spawned student demand for an Italian course, which convened for the first time in 1920—with Covello as the instructor. By 1926 Covello chaired a six-person Italian department at Clinton, with over 500 students in 18 different classes. Meanwhile, he also led drives to form other circolos—and eventually, he hoped, other courses—throughout New York.54

Like most such campaigns, however, this effort quickly came to naught. Although one-quarter of New York’s citizens traced their ancestry to Italy, Italian-language enrollment lagged far behind Latin, French, Spanish, and even German. A similar pattern emerged across the nation, enraging Covello and other organizers. “If the study of German which was almost completely annihilated by the World War, can come back so strong in a few years . . . why is it [that] the study of Italian still finds itself a very bad last?” Covello asked in 1930, when ten times as many Americans took German as Italian.55 He gave the same answer as disappointed activists everywhere: a lack of ethnic pride. “It was a foreign tongue of a foreign people who occupied the humblest position in American life,” Covello explained. “To speak that language or dialect brought one social disapproval, ridicule by word and gesture. . . .” Others noted the “apathy” of Italian parents toward “scholastic achievements” in general, outweighing any desire to defend or transmit their native tongue.56

Even teachers of Italian were generally reluctant to recruit students into their courses, activists found. “The response to the call for volunteers was very disappointing,” Covello told the Italian Teachers Association in 1927, six years after he helped found this organization. “The work of visiting the parents . . . fell upon a very few and we had to depend upon friends and High School boys to do the canvassing.” Although the ITA included both Italian-American and non-Italian teachers of the language, neither showed much desire “to visit the homes and explain the matter,” Covello added.57 Here they mirrored the overall pattern of classroom teachers in curricular politics: frequently members of pressure groups, they were wary of also representing these interests in public.58 So they usually left such matters to educational leaders like Covello or Alberto Bonaschi, a school board official and ITA stalwart who spelled out the case for Italian in a 1936 address. Noting that the standard 3 R’s curriculum often clashed with children’s “natural” inclinations, Bonaschi prescribed native-language instruction as the cure:

In what more efficacious manner can we remedy these . . . devastating misfortunes than by earnestly encouraging children to consider their racial heritages before choosing any language? Why not teach our children a language that is valuable to them in the art of living, instead of giving them a training that will become sterile and dissolute? . . . [L]anguage instruction must be vitalized.59

Lest anyone miss the point, Bonaschi also noted that native-language instruction would promote “family membership,” one of the “ultimate objectives of education” in the so-called Cardinal Principles report on American curricula. Released in 1918 by a team of leading educators, the report proposed that each subject should be judged by its contribution to seven overarching “life activities.” Curriculum was an instrument, in other words, a tool for achieving broader aims, rather than a goal unto itself. The report met “almost universal approbation,” not just among educators—as historians have correctly noted—but also among citizen groups.60 For in the language of the Cardinal Principles—what Bonaschi called curriculum for “the art of living,” “vitalized” rather than “sterile and dissolute”—activists as disparate as the Order of the Sons of Italy, the Ku Klux Klan, and the American Legion would find a rhetorical tool for achieving their “ultimate objective”: the insertion of special agendas into American public schools.61


In 1932, Teachers College doctoral student J. Flint Waller published his own contribution to the growing literature on the effects of “outside groups” in American schools. As Waller admitted, dozens of other scholars had already demonstrated strong lay control over course requirements, electives, and, especially, textbooks. He chose to study how educators coped with such pressure, interviewing 150 school officials in the East and Midwest. Although bitter about the breadth of citizen influence, most respondents also seemed resigned to it. “Many school activities have come in on account of pressures and demands,” one superintendent told Waller. “If we were to take away from the schools in this city what the state law requires us to teach, and what the community demands, we would have very little left.”62

For the past twenty years, historians have vividly described these “pressures and demands” upon the early twentieth-century curriculum. Business and taxpayer groups often sought to constrict new electives like music and manual training, for example, while labor and women’s groups rallied to their defense. What the literature lacks—and what this article adds—is a sense of how citizens affected the actual flesh of instruction, not just the skeleton of courses. Laypeople might well have exerted more influence upon day-to-day content than they did upon the overall course of study, as historian Merle Curti noted in a revealing 1932 letter to Bessie Pierce. In the midst of writing his now-classic study, The Social Ideas of American Educators, Curti warned against exaggerating his subjects’ impact on American schools. “It is hard . . . to determine how influential the social ideas of educational leaders were,” Curti wrote, “often, I suspect, not so influential as the social ideas of captains of industry, Rotary, and other groups.” Like other so-called “social reconstructionists” in the 1930s, Curti often presumed that lay activists in the schools did the bidding—consciously or unconsciously—for business interests.63 Whatever their motives, though, their everyday influence was unmistakable. Rather than simply broadening the boundaries of America’s curriculum, lay citizens left an immense imprint on it.

In setting forth such a claim, this article has aimed to be suggestive rather than exhaustive. By no means does it argue or imply that history, military training, and foreign languages were the only subjects that laypeople affected. Citizen groups exerted strong influences across the curriculum, from spelling and English literature to science and math. The three case studies in this article illustrate the diversity of actors who entered the curricular arena, the range of strategies they employed, and the disparate results of their efforts. To influence history, a mandatory subject in most states, ethnic and patriotic societies directed most of their energy to the adoption and editing of school textbooks. In struggles over military training, citizens pressured school boards to adopt the elective—and students to take it. Foreign language activists devoted almost all of their time to the latter task, finding most pupils unwilling to study their ancestral tongues at school. Hence this last example also cautions us against inflating the actual influence of laypeople upon the curriculum. Just like school officials, their reach often exceeded their grasp.

Despite their divergent goals, finally, citizen activists also shared a deep distaste for the conventional 3 R’s and a corresponding desire for a more “practical,” differentiated curriculum. Since historians generally attribute this development to school leaders, they forget that laypeople had their own “practical” reasons for embracing it: in the simplest sense, loosening the traditional curriculum opened the door to whatever new item citizens hoped to inject. Across the ideological gamut, then, almost every lay group joined educators in blasting old-fashioned, academic study. “I am afraid that many of our educators have forgotten the real purpose of education,” declared a Ku Klux Klan speaker in 1924, in a brief for “patriotic” history instruction. “Our schools have become a training ground of intellect and not [of] character.” Rather than stuffing children full of useless knowledge, another Klansman added, schools should prepare them for “spelling with big letters, LIFE.”64

In the battle over school drill, likewise, militarists and pacifists both argued that schools should emphasize “service to humanity” over traditional academic learning, as one peace activist wrote. The Grand Army of the Republic ridiculed “the idea that schools are for the study of books only”; the Women’s Relief Corps, an auxiliary of the GAR, declared that “[s]chools should fit the child”; and the American Legion called for renewed attention to “moral development” rather than memorization of dry facts. “Educators now realize that a serious mistake has been made by giving [our] entire attention in our school system to scholarship,” a Legionnaire stated in 1927. “[E]xcellence of character is entitled greater weight than scholastic attainment.”65

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, indeed, it was difficult to find a citizen group that did not attack “the renowned three R’s,” as a German leader mockingly labeled them.66 For in the zero-sum game of classroom reality, activists realized, any additional subject would have to displace a more conventional one. Whereas educators denounced traditional academics as irrelevant or even harmful to a widening range of students, citizen organizers added a second, more openly self-interested argument: that the older subjects stood in the way of their own contributions. Not until in the late 1940s would conservative activists join hands with a new generation of educators to defend the “three R’s,” firing the first salvo in another curriculum war that still rages today.

An earlier version of this article was presented at the 1997 meeting of the History of Education Society in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The author would like to thank the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library, the Indiana Historical Society, the New York University School of Education Research Challenge Fund, and the New York University Research Challenge Fund for their financial assistance. Thanks also to Floyd Hammack, Roger Geiger, Joe Giacquinta, Ellen Lagemann, Gary Natriello, Daniel Perlstein, Neil Postman, David Tyack, Joel Westheimer, and two anonymous reviewers for their comments on earlier drafts. This article is dedicated to Margot and Paul Zimmerman, without whom the author would not have been possible.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 100 Number 3, 1999, p. 602-626
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10324, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 5:36:37 PM

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About the Author
  • Jonathan Zimmerman
    New York University
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    JONATHAN ZIMMERMAN is assistant professor of educational history, New York University. He is the author of Distilling Democracy: Alcohol Education in America’s Public Schools, 1880-1925. (University Press of Kansas, 1999).
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