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Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century

reviewed by Christine A. Ogren - January 25, 2008

coverTitle: Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century
Author(s): Jonathan Zimmerman
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674023617, Pages: 312, Year: 2006
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In Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century, Jonathan Zimmerman’s main interest, like Mark Twain’s in the book’s namesake, is “the Americans themselves, whose overseas experiences underscored their shared attributes” (p. 18).  Zimmerman examined letters, dairies, and other primary documents housed in an impressive variety of state, university, and denominational archives, in order to understand the worldviews of the 150,000-200,000 Americans who taught at the elementary or secondary level in Latin America, Asia, and Africa–“the so-called Third World” (p. 3)–during the twentieth century.  He argues that these worldviews shifted between the century’s early decades and the post-World War II period due to the rise of “the culture concept,” or “the notion of America as a distinct culture–with its own values, symbols, and beliefs,” most especially universalistic “rights”–which increasingly chafed with the concurrent notion that other societies “were also endowed with ‘rights’ to cultural recognition, respect, and preservation” (pp. 6-7). Through his treatment of the experiences and reflections of overseas teachers, Zimmerman thus continues the inquiry into the contested terrain of American culture in twentieth-century education that has shaped much of his scholarship.

In the introduction, Zimmerman sets up a framework of three groups of teachers, all of whom were predominantly white, middle-class, and inexperienced: “colonial” teachers worked in government schools in United States territories during the first third of the century; “volunteer” teachers served in developing nations through the Peace Corps and other secular agencies after World War II; and “missionaries,” who were more likely to have training and experience than the other two groups, taught overseas on behalf of mainline and evangelical Protestant as well as Catholic organizations throughout the twentieth century.  Rather than organizing his narrative around these three groups or presenting a conventional chronological account of successive generations of expatriate teachers, Zimmerman moves among the three groups in six chapters focused on three types of “American Dilemmas” and three types of “American Critiques.” He argues that the teachers’ dilemmas and critiques contradict scholars’ presumptions, “The more their leaders declared America’s unique role, indeed, the more that American teachers came to doubt it” (p. 4). These innocents abroad “added a welcome dose of skepticism to the smug arrogance, duplicity, and ethnocentrism that permeated so much of the American Century” (p. 19). Still, Zimmerman is critical of each group of teachers for taking “little interest in the actual perceptions and wishes of foreign peoples” (p. 208): missionaries imposed religion, colonials imposed American civilization, and, most vexing of all, volunteers neglected American values to impose the celebration of their own conception of indigenous culture.

Zimmerman’s main concern in Part I, “American Dilemmas,” is how expatriate teachers dealt with the incompatibility of spreading American ideals with appreciating other cultures, or “the question of America in the world” (p. 22). The first chapter looks at the dilemmas of instituting progressive methods of child-centered, activity-based instruction and informal discipline. Zimmerman argues that American teachers tended to revert to rote methods and strict punishment, which colonials blamed on the supposedly inferior mental capacities and character of tropical races and which volunteers justified by invoking indigenous culture and casting progressivism as ethnocentric. Chapter 2 focuses on curriculum, specifically the dilemmas of teaching practical skills to students who were far more interested in academic learning. Pre-World War II teachers persisted with Hampton/Tuskegee-style industrial education based on their belief in its moral virtues, and post-World War II teachers tried to convince locals that vocational training best fit their needs; teachers throughout the century occasionally bowed to demands for “bookish” education, but were successful in spreading knowledge of American sports and hygiene.

In the third chapter, Zimmerman discusses expatriate teachers’ dilemmas over racial and gender equality.  In the colonial era, Americans stressed schooling for all and “demonstrated” an especially “stubborn commitment to female education” (p. 92), and yet most of the teachers were white and only missionary women teachers had real authority. In the later period, Zimmerman explains, “Americans often denounced their hosts for discriminating along the lines of race and, somewhat later, gender. But the very triumph of the egalitarian ideal in the United States made other teachers wary of criticizing their colleagues and students, even for deviations from egalitarianism” (p. 83). Here, as throughout Part I, Zimmerman’s treatment of the Post-Word War II volunteers is more nuanced and compelling than his discussion of colonial and missionary teachers. He thoughtfully describes how, when it came to race and gender, as well as disability, volunteer teachers faced “a difficult but inescapable choice: defer to local sentiment or expand human rights. Try as they might, they could not have it both ways” (p. 109).  Zimmerman thus refuses to accept the “new ‘culturalist’ defense for adopting local practices” (p. 42), arguing that Americans were paternalistic to anoint themselves “arbiters of what was truly ‘native’ to the natives” (p. 49), that no culture is as uniform as they assumed, and that human equality, like the ability to reason and good health, are in fact universal ideals.

Zimmerman opens Part II, “American Critiques,” by pointing out “the strong element of self-critique at the heart of the twentieth-century culture concept” (p. 113). He goes on to carefully dissect missionary, colonial and volunteer teachers’ criticisms of three aspects of American culture: the problematic professional status of teachers (chapter 4), the separation of church and state (chapter 5), and empire-building (chapter 6). Early in the century, administrators of colonial and mission schools sought to hire candidates with professional training and experience in teaching, but those who taught overseas rarely had such credentials and even displayed a “consistently antiprofessional spirit” (p. 118). The mostly male teachers in the government-run schools argued that training was of no value and that supervisors used professionalism as a ruse for control, while the mostly female teachers in denominational schools fretted that their academic background was not adequate for their teaching assignments, and many members of both groups approached teaching as only a stepping stone, the colonials to more lucrative pursuits or adventures and missionaries to spreading Christianity. The situation reversed itself following World War II, as officials in the Peace Corps and other volunteer and denominational organizations themselves doubted the value of Western notions of professionalism, and thus intentionally recruited candidates with liberal-arts backgrounds and no teacher training. And once in the field, volunteers and missionaries were often impressed with the European-style education they witnessed and frustrated by their own lack of skills, spawning “a new, grass-roots respect for professionalism in education” (p. 139).  “Sandwiched between a nation that maligned their profession and a world that embraced it” (p. 151), these expatriate teachers–like those early in the century, albeit for the opposite reason–turned a critical eye on their culture’s view of teaching.

Missionary teachers were most concerned with church-state issues throughout the century. After the first several decades, when liberal churches concentrated on social services and generally accepted state restrictions on religious instruction and conservative churches were known to close their schools rather than abide by restrictions, most missionaries after World War II pragmatically championed state support for religious schools and teaching religion in public classrooms abroad. Conservative Protestants even went a step further to hold up other countries “as models for church-state relations at home” (p. 179). All expatriate teachers struggled with “the problem of empire,” Zimmerman’s subtitle for the last chapter. Before World War II, as they labored to spread “civilization” and thus create a distinctively American “educational empire,” some colonial teachers voiced racist concerns that host populations were not capable of uplift, and many missionaries questioned the benevolence of policies that discounted native languages and culture. Following the War, teachers embraced “political as well as cultural freedom for colonized peoples” (p. 198), and “increasingly indicted ‘the West’ as a whole,” especially “the alleged avarice and materialism of the United States” (p. 202); to counter American “cultural imperialism,” these expatriate Americans “took it upon themselves to determine what was ‘authentically’ African” (p. 207), or Latin American, or Asian. As in Part I, Zimmerman points out flaws in “the culture concept” by dissecting teachers’ critiques of the U.S.: denying natives of other countries access to American commercial culture was as imperialist as forcing “civilization” upon them, and acceding to church-state integration in other countries could ultimately undermine church-state separation at home.

Whether they wished to celebrate or to stamp out other cultures, Zimmerman suggests throughout his discussion of “American Dilemmas” and “American Critiques” that American teachers abroad were wrong to assume that they were the ultimate arbiters of local culture. His indictment reflects not just historical research, but also soul-searching, as he himself served in the mid-1980s as a Peace-Corps volunteer in Nepal. Zimmerman explains in the introduction that he tried to protect residents of his village from a Christian proselytizer even when they expressed interest in his message, but now wonders, “wasn’t I just as ‘imperial’ as he was? . . . I presumed I knew what was best for them. I presumed that I knew their ‘real’ culture, in other words, whether they knew it or not.” (p. 12). In doing so, he and other American teachers also made the mistake of assuming “a basic, essential difference between their students and themselves” (p. 209), which,

blinded them to diversity within the cultures they encountered and–especially–to values they might have shared with their hosts. . . Worst of all, the culture concept sometimes made teachers reluctant to promote their own values in situations where they should have done so. (p. 216)

In brief reflections at the end of each chapter and at greater length in the epilogue, Zimmerman elaborates (at times rather didactically) on the urgency of moving beyond these traps of the culture concept in a new, post-9/11 century. Americans, he says, “might wish to rethink which values are ‘American,’ which ones are ‘global,’ and why” (p. 219). He ends the book by imploring,

We can and should respect human differences, but never at the cost of human dignity. . . We mock and constrict this common human identity by linking it to our own narrow national aspirations. In an age of globalization, especially, we can no longer pretend that a single nation holds a monopoly on the human universals that should bind us all. (p. 223)

Through historical analysis and comments on teaching in the new global age, Zimmerman gives readers of Innocents Abroad much to consider.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 25, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14928, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 12:47:41 PM

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About the Author
  • Christine Ogren
    The University of Iowa
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTINE OGREN is Associate Professor at The University of Iowa, specializing in the history of K-12, higher, and women’s education in the United States. She teaches in the Social Foundations and Higher Education programs in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. Chris is the author of The American State Normal School: “An Instrument of Great Good” (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). Her most recent publication is an essay on the historiography of American higher education in Rethinking the History of American Education, ed. William J. Reese and John L. Rury (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), and she is currently beginning research on the Simplified Spelling Movement of the Progressive Era.
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