Americans All: The Cultural Gifts Movement
reviewed by Robert C. Bannister - December 22, 2008
Although the 1920s are often associated with ethnic and racial intolerance, Diana Selig's elegantly crafted study identifies a counter-current in a "cultural gifts movement" (CGM) that celebrated America's ethnic diversity while battling against the prevailing nativism of the decade. Rooted in images of the malleable child going back to John Locke, the movement drew more immediately on developments in the social sciences, notably behaviorist psychology. It was also linked to the crusade for international education spurred by World War I. The result was a liberalism refashioned along cultural lines, a precursor of late 20th century multiculturalism, with both its strengths and weaknesses.
The CGM featured a diverse coalition of individuals, organizations, and publications. Its most influential theorist was Bruno Lasker, author of Race Attitudes in Children (1929). Parents' Magazine, edited for three decades by Clara Savage Littledale, lectured adults on the need for teaching tolerance. Rachel DuBois, initially a high school teacher in New Jersey, pioneered the "Woodbury plan" of school assembly programs that highlighted the cultural contributions of different groups. In 1934 she founded the Service Bureau for Education in Human Relations, and in 1938-39 consulted on a highly popular radio program titled Americans All, Immigrants All. In religious circles the National Conference of Jews and Christians (NCJC, later "Christians and Jews") played a key role. From World War I until its dissolution in 1943, the Atlanta-based Commission on Interracial Cooperation introduced hundreds of thousands of Southern whites to black contributions in music, literature and science.
Columbia Teachers College, a center for liberal ideas in the interwar years, played an important if minor role. After five years at Woodbury High, DuBois began graduate work at Columbia in 1929. There she gained a more sophisticated understanding of the relation of race and culture, discovered behaviorism (now referring to teachers as "social engineers"), and developed tests for measuring the effectiveness of her assembly programs. Moving to New York City she also began to concentrate her efforts on second generation and minority students, although continuing to ignore America's history of racial injustice.
DuBois's shift in emphasis mirrored changes in the CGM as a whole. During the 1920s, white educators sought to give children from the dominant culture an appreciation of the contributions of others. In the early 1930s attention shifted to bolstering pride in second-generation children of immigrants, and by the end of the decade, to economic and social inequalities.
Representatives of these organizations sometimes joined forces. During the 1930s, for example, Everett Clinchy of the NCJC offered encouragement and financial support to DuBois's Service Bureau. But conflict also occurred. Proponents of the "gift" approach felt that "tolerance" was condescending. DuBois's emphasis on separate groups drew fire from those who believed it undermined cultural unity. Lasker thought DuBois's methods ineffectual and possibly harmful. Jews remained suspicious of Christian evangelizing.
Despite her obvious sympathy for the CGM, Selig is not uncritical. Its chief faults, as she states repeatedly, were a selective and romanticized view of ethnic identity, a failure to recognize the nation's ugly racial history, and a tendency to treat culture apart from socio-economic factors. In DuBois's depictions, Italians were "musical," Mexicans "mystic," and the Chinese instinctively happy. While Lasker and others preached that example was more important than prescription, Parents' Magazine undercut its own editorial message in advertisements and other material that rarely featured interethnic or interracial socializing. Race for most of the CGM was a problem that would not go away, despite efforts to minimize or ignore it.
The dust jacket notes that scholars have "neglected" the CGM, and I confess my own guilt at not having heard of it in more than three decades of teaching American cultural history. For this myopia, however, there are several reasons. In a strict sense the CGM was not really a movement" with a central organization, sustained activity, identifiable membership and supporters, or even underlying values, as the clashes within its ranks revealed. Its leading advocates did not identify themselves as part of a broader CGM. Although Rachel DuBois once spoke of the "cultural gifts " of the Jews (p. 85), there are surprisingly few uses of this term in the writings quoted. The New York Times, to take an example not mentioned in this study, contained not a single reference to a "cultural gifts movement" between 1920 and 1950, and used the term "cultural gifts" in Selig's sense only four times. This study tacitly acknowledges this issue in referring alternately to a cultural gifts "impulse," ideal," "approach," "vision," or "philosophy," noting that perhaps "anti-prejudice campaign" is a better term to describe their activities since its proponents were more solidly united on what they opposed than what they favored. The fact that Selig so skillfully weaves these separate strands into a coherent narrative, however, makes her study the more impressive.
For me personally this study recalls my own experiences in the late 1940s in a public elementary school in Hempstead, Long Island, then a multi-ethnic suburb of New York. Although I recall no mention of "cultural gifts," Christmas and Chanukah were given equal time in school holiday ceremonies; our social studies teacher, writing in the school newspaper, outlined a four-part curriculum that I would now term Eurocentric multiculturalism; and a student performance of the still-controversial Ballad for Americans was a centerpiece of our final year. Our 8th grade yearbook celebrated the link between our school and Columbia Teachers College, where our homeroom teacher was doing graduate work. Although these initiatives were at best an echo of the ambitious program DuBois and others advocated, they were notable for their time and place.
The CGM contained the seeds of the civil rights movement, particularly in its emphasis on education and the child (e.g., Brown v. Board of Education). But it also differed in that civil rights activists insisted that educational strategies were insufficient so long as economic and institutional inequities were not addressed. More directly, the CGM movement anticipated the ethnic revival of the 1970s, although modern multiculturalism today exerts a far greater moral force in American society, and has expanded categories of difference to include gender, physical disability and sexual orientation. The CGM and modern multiculturalism, Selig concludes, also share common weaknesses, notably in ignoring the economic and social inequities that buttress racial and class differences.
Whatever the shortcomings of the cultural gifts movement, one leaves this fine study with renewed appreciation of the work of these multicultural pioneers. If Americans today are not fighting ethnic, religious, and even racial battles in their streets, it is, in some small measure, thanks to their efforts.
Lasker, B. (1929). Race attitudes in children. New York: Greenwood Press.