Public Schools in the Twentieth Century: The “Melting Pot” for Immigrants

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“Into this continental reservoir there has been poured untold and untapped wealth of human resources. Out of that reservoir, out of the melting pot, the rich promise which the New World held out to those who come to it from many lands is finding fulfilment.”
                 -- Israel Zangwill, The Melting Pot, 1908

In 1908, a play called “The Melting Pot” first released in America. Written by Israel Zangwill, a Jew from England, the play was set in America and portrayed a touching love story between a Russian Jew, David Quixano, and a beautiful Russian Christian immigrant named Vera. The Melting Pot did not receive much attention until Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, watched the play and was impressed by its idea of “melting” different ethnicities, races, and religions together to create a united citizenry. President Theodore Roosevelt believed that assimilating immigrants’ culture to create a homogenous citizenry was the vital key for a united nation’s future, and immigrants who identified to “Italian-American” or “Asian-American” instead of “American” are not “wholly American.” In his Foreign Policy, Roosevelt advocated that “Some Americans need hyphens in their names because only part of them has come over, but when the whole man has come over, heart and thought, and all, the hyphen drops of its own weight out of his name” (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1917, p. 743). Since then, the political and generalized view of the melting pot metaphor created a trend of completely fading new immigrant’s culture and Americanizing immigrants into citizens that benefit the United States’ economic, political, and social welfare. The “melting pot” trend raised a debate of various perspectives of American cultures and consequently changed the US education policy and school experience for immigrants. Therefore, this paper is going to investigate the origination of the melting pot metaphor in US educational policy, and how reformers used it to change schooling for immigrants.

Cover of Theater Programme for Israel Zangwill’s play “The Melting Pot,” 1916

I argue that since the early twentieth century, advocates started to associate the “melting pot” metaphor with public school educational policies to promote the cultural assimilation of immigrants. During the late phase of the Age of Mass Migration from Europe (1850-1920), Americanization programs including English-language education and American citizenship curriculums were introduced to public schools, one of the essential “tools” for cultural assimilation, and were promoted through the nation. However, Americanization was not optional. State governments forced Americanization programs into the public school system, and reduced options for low-income immigrant parents to send their children to private schools. Consequently, most immigrants children were “sent” to the public-school system and “melted” to become American.

While the “melting pot” is a metaphor that used to represent the fusion of foreign cultures from immigrants and American culture, schools are one of the vital “tools” that many advocates promoted to “melt” the immigrants’ cultures and Americanize the foreign population. Before the actual application of blending immigrants into the United States, advocates from different industries had already promoted the action of Americanizing immigrants through public school education. In the 42nd Annual Meeting of the American Bar Association, George T. Page (1919) proposed that one of the significant difficulties that would threaten the American government was immigrants who were born under governmental institutions that are “ignorant and untaught as to the meaning of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ and wholly ignorant as to the quantity and quality of responsibility that rests upon the individual” (p. 158). Due to the “ignorance” of the foreign population, Page (1919) stated that schools should act as a “melting pot” that not just teaches the immigrants English, but more importantly, educates them about the “new liberty and democracy” that makes them “wholly American.” If the immigrants refused to be Americanized, they need to be sent back to their countries (Page, 1919). Another example, C. Alphonso Smith (1912), an English professor at that time also stated his concerns about the large immigrant population in America: “The most serious [danger to American’s national identity is] the coincident coming to our shores of great hordes of unassimilable immigrants” (p. 250). Smith (1912), however, believed that if immigrants come as children, Americanizing immigrants through public education would be possible and the potential risk of immigrants could be under control: “Though education can do little more than bring out what is already latent: breed, at least, is more than pasture” (p. 250). Thus, advocates like Smith (1912) believed that immigrants’ values would alien them from American, which impair their loyalty to the country and divided the united nation. In order to remain regime stability, immigrants’ culture needed to be “melted” so that they can develop a new identification to the United States. Assimilating immigrants, on the other hand, could be achieved through continuously educating them about American values from generation to generation in the public-school system. Therefore, since the early twentieth century, advocates such as Page (1919) and Smith (1912) started to connect the “melting pot” metaphor with the educational policies in public schools, and in consequence, changed the schooling for immigrants in America.

Noticing public schools’ ability of “melting” immigrants, state governments started actively forcing immigrants to become “wholly American” by requiring Americanization programs in public schools. At the 1911 report of United States Congress Joint Immigration Commission, the Congress first use the word “Americanization” as a synonym for “assimilation.” This word shift reveals the goal of Americanization programs – assimilating immigrants by “melting” their cultures and ethnicities to reconstruct an “American” identity. After that, over thirty states passed the law requiring Americanization programs in public schools (Good, 1956). The programs mainly contained two dimensions: English-language education and American civic education. Frank Trumbull (1915) of the National Americanization Committee was quoted in the New York Times as stating:

It has come to us that we are a country full of unassimilated groups within groups with varying social ideals, varying ideas of American citizenship and loyalty to America… Americanization is a complex matter… But there can be no doubt about the first steps – the English language and the principles of American citizenship.

In order to assimilate immigrant students through English-language schooling, state governments passed the law to restrict foreign language education and introduced English as the required language for public school instructions. For example, chapter 249 of the Nebraska Sessions Laws of 1919 forbid public schools to hold any foreign language curriculums before the students completing their eighth grade: “No person, individually or as a teacher, shall in any private, denominational, parochial or public school, teach any subject to any person in any language other than the English language.” (Siman Act, Session Laws of Nebraska 1019). Minnesota also passed a law in 1919 stating that “A school, to satisfy the requirements of compulsory attendance, must be one in which all the common branches are taught in the English language, from textbooks written in the English language and taught by teachers qualified to teach in the English language” (Minnesota Laws of 1919). After World War II, California passed laws that required non-English speakers to take Americanization courses and prohibited foreign language instructions in public schools, especially in Germany (Ziegler-McPherson, 2000). Therefore, by viewing foreign-language education in public schools as a violation of the law, state governments used legal coercion to cut down the language connection between the first-generation immigrants and their America-born children, which they believed could “melt” the immigrants’ foreign identities and assimilate people with different races, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds to the American values. By requiring English-language schooling and restricting foreign-language education, they were able to create a national unity among Americans and immigrants.

Figure 1. Percent of Children Ages 10-16 Speaking English, 1910-1930 (Lleras-Muney and Shertzer, 2015) Notes: The data was retrieved from Lleras-Muney and Shertzer’s (2015) study: “Did the Americanization Movement Succeed? An Evaluation of the Effect of English-Only and Compulsory Schooling Laws on Immigrants.” Samples included non-black children aged 6-16 years from the 48 continental states. Children whose parents were both America-born were in the “native parent” group; children were considered as “first-generation” immigrants they were not born in the US; as “second-generation” immigrants if they were born in the US but their parents were not (Lleras-Muney and Shertzer, 2015). During 1920, there was a significant increase in the number of children who speak English across all groups.

For civic education, state governments compelled immigrants to take American citizenship courses to further assimilate them in the “melting pot”. For example, Iowa passed a law that forced all public high schools to teach American citizenship curriculums that describe American history and civics (Lleras-Muney & Shertzer, 2015). Kansas, New Jersey, South Dakota, and Nebraska also had similar requirements for educating immigrants about “American values” (Lleras-Muney & Shertzer, 2015). For example, New Jersey authorized courses in high schools schooling American civics and democracy whereas all primary schools needed to give courses to immigrants in geography, history, and civics of the state (Rider, 1920). Furthermore, on May 9, 1918, Congress approved the Bureau of Naturalization to publish a citizenship textbook called “Student’s textbook. A standard course of instruction for use in the public schools of the United States for the preparation of the candidate for the responsibilities of citizenship” (Atzmon, 1958). Besides the basic unit of conversion, handwriting, and cultural activities such as important holidays, the textbook also contains general information of the nation, states, and the government. The story of the flag is shown, the steps in naturalization are told, and pieces of American history are described (Bureau of Naturalization. & Crist, 1918). The citizenship textbook became widely distributed across the country and was accepted by many states, such as California and Nebraska, for Americanization programs (Atzmon, 1958). Therefore, by requiring immigrants to take American citizenship courses using a textbook that educated in American history and civic, state governments legally pressured the immigrants to learn and identify to “American values.” Inside of the public schools, “melting pots” for cultural assimilation, states governments forced immigrants to develop loyalty to the United States and became citizens who are willing to shed “the more concrete bonds of family, religion, neighborhood, custom, and so forth whenever these intrude upon their commitment to the communities of interest which they share with others whom they know but cannot see” (Kaufman-Osborn, 1984, pp. 1158-1159).

However, although immigrant parents had the freedom of sending their children to private schools to prevent being “melted,” their financial status and the public-school financing regime made the “freedom” nearly impossible to act on. During the Age of Mass Migration from Europe (1850-1920), eighteen million immigrants from Europe, Mexico, Asia, and every corner of the world crowd into the United States. In the country that was described as a paradise full of opportunities, those “new American’s” lives were not that pleasant as they expected. In “Life and Community in the ‘Wonderful City of the Magic Motor’: Mexican Immigrants in 1920s Detroit,” Zaragosa Vargas (1989) portrayed the struggles that Mexican immigrants faced during the early twentieth century. Because of the lack of education and the limited job opportunities, male Mexican immigrants in Detroit were only able to work at sugar factories or Auto factories at a very low income. Half of the female immigrants were able to find a job to support their family while the rest of them could only stay at home and do some housework. The local Mexican community was so overcrowded that an entire family needed to squeeze in a room of an apartment. The large population made finding a job extremely difficult for immigrants, leaving a large number of immigrants unemployed (Vargas,1989). Therefore, in the early twentieth century, most immigrants in the US are in a population with limited educational background and fierce competition within the community, causing their poor financial status. Moreover, since the public-school financing regime would not cover the expense of private schools, immigrant families could not afford any way of education other than the public school education. As a result, losing the “choice” of sending their next generation to other educational institutions that could help them preserve their cultures, immigrant parents had to send their children to public schools, where they were Americanized in the “melting pot.”

Nevertheless, it is important to notice that immigrants might also have the desire of being “melted” to become American. Weinberg (1976) analyzed a biography from an Italian immigrant named Constantine M. Panunzio to reveal immigrants’ lives in the United States in the early twentieth century. Italian immigrants living in the South faced an extreme cultural barrier between their identity and American values. Conflict – cultural, social, and class – is the major topic that Panunzio included in his biography. Values like social responsibilities and norms within the community became so disturbing to Panunzio that he decided to be “melted”: he was hired by the United States government and became an associate director of the Foreign Language Service, a vital Americanizing agency in the 1920s. English-language courses were also embraced by immigrants since more advanced language skills enabled them to understand their foremen’s instructions and work more efficiently (Weinberg, 1976; Hill, 1919). Therefore, the Americanization programs were welcomed by some immigrants as a way of “better” adapting to the new country. However, immigrants in the early twentieth century were not completely helpless and had their ways of controlling their lives. To the opposite of Panunzio, Italian communities in New York and Chicago were highly organized and successfully preserved and recreated their traditional culture (Weinberg, 1976). Therefore, rather than being assimilated to the “American values” defined by the governments, immigrants have their own expression of being American. However, state governments still applied legal intimidation to mandate Americanization among immigrants, although some of them did not have the need of being assimilated to “American values.”

This is an interesting photo that recorded what happened at the graduation ceremony of Ford’s English School. Graduates of Ford’s English School wearing their “native clothes” walked into a large pot labeled “The American Melting Pot.” After experiencing a virtual smelting process, the graduates’ immigrant identity disappeared, leaving a new citizen wearing American clothes and waving American flags who walked out of the pot (Melting Pot Ceremony at Ford English School, July 4, 1917).

In conclusion, during the early twentieth century, advocates believed immigrants’ cultures did not fit into the American ideals, so the US had an increasing urgency of assimilating immigrants who poured into the country. During this period, the “melting pot” metaphor was connected to public schools, leading to their future educational policies that convey “American values” to immigrants. After the word “Americanization” was used as a synonym of “assimilation” in 1911, state governments started to pass legislation that force immigrants to take Americanization programs that aimed at teaching immigrants English as well as American citizenship in the public schools. Foreign-language education was also restricted to promote English-language schooling. Furthermore, although some immigrants embraced Americanization programs and viewed them as a way to “better” adapt to society, most immigrants had their own idea of being American meanwhile preserving their cultures. Nevertheless, immigrant families’ low financial-status made it almost impossible to send their next generations to places other than public schools for education. Public schools, however, were assigned Americanization curriculums. As a result, immigrants were thrown into the “melting pot” by the governments, the schools, and the society to discard their traditions and accept an “American” identity.

Researching this topic allows me to generate some personal insights. “Melting” immigrants in the “melting pot” does not fit into American’s ideal of liberty. Liberty is the freedom in society without being oppressed by authority on one’s ethnicity, religion, and way of life. “American values” should not be determined by the higher power and Americanization should not be forced by the law. The definition of American and the way of being an American ought to be defined and chosen by every civic in the nation. An Asian-American and an Italian-American are the same as an American-American, as part of a united nation. Invasion of immigrants’ liberty should raise the alarm for every citizen in the United States, because at the end of the day, the authority may have the power of determining whether you are an “American” or not depending on your political views, religious beliefs, or even lifestyles. Someone’s yesterday may become someone’s tomorrow. Therefore, every citizen’s, including immigrant’s, liberty should be valued and protected. Rather than “melting” the immigrants in a “melting pot” that destroys their identity as an individual and erases the diversity of the United States, America should become a “salad bowl” that allows every citizen to define the American values corporately. As a concept that represents multiculturalism, “salad bowl” suggests the possibility of having diverse cultures co-exist in a society instead of “melting” them into a homogenous culture. The “salad bowl” encourage coalescing of immigrants and meanwhile respect their liberty of preserving their traditions, customs, and cultures. Various distinct components can combine to make a salad as various Americans can work together to build the United States. The “melting pot” might have its historical function, but as we look forward to the future, it is the “salad bowl” that preserves each individual’s liberty of being who they are as part of a smaller group, as well as a component of the United States.

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Backpack Full of Cash: Is Charter Schools Building or Destroying Better Education in America?

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Matt Damon, Backpack Full of Cash, 4:41

This scene of a shabby school crest appears at the beginning of Backpack Full of Cash. The bright red crest containing the words “wisdom,” “industry,” and “initiative” seems still reminding the audience about the glorious past that the school had. However, the school crest now was covered with dappled marks, implying the difficulties that the school is facing. The person standing at the left corner of the crest is the principal of South Philadelphia High. He stands still but alone, trying to support a public school that struggles at the cliff of broken and protect the vulnerable students who want to receive a decent education from the public school system. This scene at the beginning of the documentary movie heralds the main topic of the film: how does the school reform of privatizing public schools build inequality within the public school system and restrict venerable students by plundering resources from public schools to Cater schools.

This scene is right behind a direct quote from Rhonda Brownstein, the executive director of The Education Law Center of Pennsylvania. According to Brownstein, the public school system in Philadelphia is “ground zero”: “the school reform movement is happening very rapidly in Philadelphia and leading the public school system into a very difficult financial crisis” (Matt Damon, Backpack Full of Cash, 4:02). This shabby school crest followed seems to present her words vividly. Moreover, after the school crest scene, the filmmakers present scenes including hurried students entered the school, crowed students in the hallways, hardworking students carefully taking notes during the class, to show a group of vulnerable students who are fighting for their future but are restricted by their limited resources. Therefore, by using this scene at the beginning to lead the presentation of financial crisis in South Philadelphia High, the filmmakers successfully portray the difficulties that public schools are struggling to overcome and make a solid foundation for the future presentation of the theme of the movie: Charter schools did not prove the failure of the public school system as people expected; instead, privatizing public schools implicitly creates inequality in the school system by pillaging the public resources from public schools, consequently causing the failure in the public school system.

However, the movie does not present the views from students and teachers in the Charter schools and local governors who support public school privatization. In other words, as a movie that coitize the process of privatizing public school, Backpack Full of Cash did not give Charter Schools an opportunity to argue for themselves. The only quotations from the Charter School principals are about the resources the school has. Therefore, if the movie can also present the perspectives from people inside or support the Charter schools, the audience may form a more comprehensive understanding about privatizing public schools and its influences on the public school system.



Mondale, S. (Producer), & Aronow, V. (Director). (2016). Backpack Full of Cash [Motion picture]. (Available from