Commentary Magazine

The Study of Man: Good Stocks and Lesser Breeds

Edward N. Saveth here examines the treatment of American ethnic groups in history and social science textbooks—many in common use in American elementary and high schools—and finds some unhappy facts.



It is scarcely in the nature of an exposé to point out that American legislation on immigration in the past quarter-century, up to and including the recent displaced-persons act, has pandered to the myth of “Nordic superiority.” The wellsprings of mind and spirit which feed this myth we know to be as deep as they are dubious—economic competition, social exclusiveness, anti-Semitism, suspicion of the stranger, brute selfishness—and it is difficult to measure accurately the role of any single factor in fixing the myth in the public and legislative mind. Yet complex events may be the result of the coming together of simple forces. A textbook, for instance, of the kind used in an elementary or high school—what could be more simple?

Textbooks have recently been attracting a remarkable share of national and international attention. At the Unesco General Conference in Paris in 1946, a program was adopted for the improvement of textbooks as aids in overcoming international misunderstanding. Last year, the United States National Commission for Unesco sponsored a study by I. James Quillen which reviewed the history of textbook analysis and its influence on the evolution of the curriculum in American schools, and which set forth a plan for an international revision of textbooks. On March 15, the American Council on Education published Intergroup Relations in Teaching Materials, a report of a special committee under the chairmanship of Dr. Howard E. Wilson, which scrutinized 266 textbooks used in American schools (but, alas, refrained from mentioning titles and authors), in addition to other teaching materials, for their attitudes toward minority groups.

Immigration comes up for classroom discussion in the teaching of American history, economics, and civics. This is a large subject, with much ground to cover; the classes are overcrowded; the teacher is busy. More often than educators care to admit, both teacher and student become, without resistance, prisoners of the textbook. And these textbooks, in the great majority, proclaim the innate superiority of the “racial stocks” of Northwest Europe. Racism may be forbidden doctrine in our large newspapers and magazines, on the radio and in the movies. But in the public school—prime mover of the nation’s mind—it is still rather comfortably at home.



In 1930, Bessie L. Pierce published a study of textbooks “most frequently found in the schools,” called Civic Attitudes in American School Textbooks. She discovered that the prevailing attitudes toward immigrants were, to put it politely, uncivic, uncivil, and untrue.

Waddy Thompson’s The First Book in United States History (1923) asserts: “Immigrants that came from the Northern countries of Europe are of a class that make good citizens, and as long as most of the immigrants were of that class all went well. But since the War of Secession most of the immigrants coming to this country have been from the lower classes of Eastern and Southeastern Europe, and they give much trouble. They are for the most part very ignorant, and, having been downtrodden in their homes, they have no respect for law or government. In fact, many of them would like to see the government of the United States destroyed.” Many textbooks, in a dizzy flight into political propaganda, even took it upon themselves to urge the restriction of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe.



This rough handling of the “new” immigrants was in sharp contrast to the gentle treatment of those from the North and West of Europe who came to the United States mainly before the Civil War. Miss Pierce finds the Puritans variously described as “a God-fearing and industrious people,” gentle, kind, possessed of good will toward all men, “even toward the cruel king from whom they had fled, and toward the savages of the forests. They valued so highly the freedom to worship God in their own way that they would not refuse the same freedom to others.” The French Huguenots were “a particularly desirable class of settlers,” and added “a very great contribution to the making of our country.” The Dutch are noted for their “usual firmness,” enterprise, and industry, and the Scotch-Irish are characterized by the author of one popular textbook as “that sterling, hardy race of men,” the best of pioneers, who gave us “some of the most distinguished names in our history.” The industry of the early German settlers is also emphasized.

The Irish, who came to American shores in large numbers only in the 40’s and 50’s of the 19th century, fared not at all well at the hands of textbook writers. Susan P. Lee, in her Advanced School History of the United States (1896), found them “wicked and worthless immigrants” who “often sought a hiding place in the large cities where they swelled the ranks of idleness and vice. . . . Their ignorance of all things American, their inability to distinguish between one state and another, and their want of interest or sympathy for the traditions of the past made them undesirable neighbors to men who loved their own states with a passionate devotion.” But after the end of the 19th century, textbook writers ceased to accord the Irish special treatment in order to consider immigrants more simply under two headings: “old immigrants” and “new immigrants.”

Cornish and Hughes, in their History of the United States (1929), characterize the early immigrants as “Good types of immigrants” but found it necessary to head one section: “The new type of immigrant creates alarm.” Burch and Patterson, in American Social Problems (1929). instruct their readers that Northern Europe is, with the exception of France and Ireland, “Protestant and, generally speaking, accustomed to freedom,” while “the southern area is Catholic in religion, and, as yet, not altogether accustomed to free institutions.”

Blough and McClure, in Fundamentals of Citizenship (1939), decided that a clear-cut tabular presentation would be the most pedagogically efficient manner in which to establish the relative virtues of the two waves of immigration. Their table follow:

Immigrants Early or “Old” Later or “New”
Birthplace Northern and Northwestern Europe. Southern and Southeastern Europe.
Education Mostly well educated, intelligent. Not well educated; frequently unable to read and write.
Occupation Merchants, farmers, skilled workmen, professional men. Unskilled laborers, few merchants.
Location in which they settled Rural communities and small towns. Cities in slum areas.
Purpose in coming To establish a permanent home; to escape religious persecution or harsh government control. To gather wealth; to escape training in the army; to return later to Europe.
Kinds of groups Entire families. Unmarried individuals; few families at first.
Number becoming citizens Nearly all. Small part.

A final ironical accusation: discussing the new immigration from the South and East of Europe after 1880, Morehouse and Graham in their American Problems (1923) complain that one of its most deplorable aspects was the way in which it foisted race prejudice on the beautifully innocent native-born: “The races have brought over race antagonisms with them that introduce new discord into our national life.”



Immigrants from the South and East of Europe do not lack for company as they run the gauntlet through the textbooks. A study of The Treatment of the Negro in American History School Textbooks by Marie E. Carpenter (1941) reveals attitudes toward the Negro, in books for Northern children, not markedly different from those L. D. Reddick1 had found in Southern textbooks. The average history textbook of 1939 contends that the Negroes were generally well-satisfied as slaves, despite all the careful research which has revealed tremendous dissatisfaction on the part of the enslaved Negro population and a great number of slave revolts; they omit all mention of the halfmillion free Negroes in the United States before the Civil War; and, despite the mountain of research into the history of the Reconstruction period that proves the contrary, they continue to blame Reconstruction corruption upon the Negro’s ignorance, unfitness to vote, and credulousness.

The Chinese, according to Timothy T. Lew (“China in American School Text-Books,” Special Supplement to Chinese Social and Political Science Review, VI-VII, July 1923), are also treated as a “problem.” “The Chinese were willing to live in cheap houses and amid poor surroundings,” stated the late and venerable Charles A. Beard and co-author W. C. Bagley in History of the American People (1923). “This competition by workers who were willing to accept a lower standard of living was resented by American laborers.” [My italics.]

This last statement by one of our foremost historians is a concession to that logic by which the evils of a young, expanding industrial capitalism are laid at the door of those who suffer from them. The immigrant, it would seem, came to America with the single-minded purpose of acquiring low wages, slums, poverty, corrupt urban political machines, class conflicts, and other embellishments of the “promised land.” The Greeks and Syrians were reported to have very strong and morbid predispositions in this direction: M. K. Berry and S. B. Howe, in Actual Democracy (1923), told how, upon their arrival in America, “they go at once to the quarters of their fellow countrymen where congestion, disease, and poverty abound.”

Thomas Nixon Carver and G. M. Adams, in Our Economic Life (1932), thought it obvious that the immigrant “does not require many of the comforts of life.” Muzzey’s popular History of the American People (1929), writes of the new immigrants as “content to work long hours for low wages, debasing the standards of the American laborer.” The new immigrants, assert Beard and Bagley in The History of the American People (1928), “were willing to endure slums, long hours, and other conditions bad for their own health and morals and full of danger to the Americans about them.” And if they were not willing to endure them?



To find out where these strange notions come from, and their ultimate effect upon pupils reading these texts, would be an ambitious and long-term (and worthwhile) enterprise, in which a perceptive student might come up with some startling findings. But even a cursory glance at the Zeitgeist reveals some of the impelling factors at work.

It was during the 1920’s and early 1930’s that pseudo-learned books on the “race peril” by Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard, extolling the virtues of the “Nordic immigrants” from the North and West of Europe and assailing the “Alpines” and “Mediterraneans” from Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe, as inherently inferior, had their vogue. At this same time, it will be remembered, powerful pressure groups such as the American Legion and the Ku Klux Klan were pushing their own ideas as to how American history should be written and as to the relative worth of the constituent ethnic groups of the American population. C. F. Home, author of The Story of Our American People, published in 1926 and sponsored by the American Legion and thirtythree other patriotic societies, including the Daughters of the American Revolution, wrote of the new immigrants as learning “little of their debt to our government” and finding “little cause to love it.” He continued: “We thought we were Americanizing the anarchists who came here; we began to realize that they continued hating us.”

While the Ku Klux Klan never actually sponsored a textbook (that at least was spared us), it had explicit and strong views on how American history should be taught: “When America became rich through commercial and industrial life. . .” we read in the “Educational Study for the Junior Citizen’s Club of the Ku Klux Klan” (Kourier Magazine, January 1927), “it very naturally attracted to our shores a flood of immigration from the lands where poverty, tyranny, and ecclesiastical despotism hold sway. . . . This land of Liberty was to them a land of license. They were given the ballot almost before they got rid of the vermin they brought over in their steerage passage.”

The role of sheer human ignorance, stupidity, and lethargy in promoting ethnic bias can hardly be overestimated. Textbook authors themselves are generally not scholars and are frequently unaware of the latest scholarly findings. It was as far back as 1909 that John Bates Clark, in his cogent introduction to the Documentary History of American Industrial Society, stated: “Americanizing goes on effectively when the economic conditions of this country are such as to ensure it. Conaitions take precedence of racial qualities because the change in prevailing conditions is far greater than the changes of race. . . . It is an error to attribute the origin of the difficulty to the races represented by the immigrants or the conditions that prevail in the countries from which they come.”

But many of the textbook writers of the following decades paid little or no attention to Clark, or to scholars of similar stature.



One can understand, then, how bias came to be “respectable” in America in the 1920’s, and we know that its influence was spurred by depression and Hitler in the 30’s. But in the 40’s, after the war in which racist doctrines played such a crucial and disastrous role, one would expect a shift, especially in view of the striking change in broad public sentiment manifested among all classes of Americans in the postwar period. And one would certainly expect that in the larger metropolitan centers, like New York and Chicago, where a sizable part of the population is made up of later immigrants and their children, some concession might be made to their sensibilities—and to the truth.

By this time, too, such scholars in the field of immigration as Marcus L. Hansen, Carl Wittke, T. C. Blegen, Oscar Handlin, and G. M. Stephenson had demonstrated at length how primitive and uninformed the textbook writers were. The concept of the new immigrant as a purely “economic man” in contrast to the “idealism” of the older immigrants from the North and West of Europe was shattered by their findings, which pointed out that the economic factor has always been dominant in immigration, that the ebb and flow of the immigrant tide has always been considerably influenced by the trend of the American business cycle, that the Irish and German immigrants of the early 19th century were in their time also accused of being paupers, radicals, slum-dwellers, and of being difficult to Americanize, that the great mass of immigrants were not radical but conservative in outlook.

In order to obtain some idea of what the situation is today, this writer read through textbooks that have been approved for use in 1947 by the Board of Education of New York City for the day and evening high schools and vocational and trade schools of New York.

On the whole it must be said that the textbooks now in use in the New York schools are not quite so objectionable as those used countrywide a decade ago. Also these books devote less space to the subject of immigration in general than did the books published a decade or more ago—reflecting the fact that immigration, except in the past year or two, has not been a subject of vital public concern. However, the difference is of degree rather than of kind; by and large, this means only that the sharp edge of some of the more biting remarks has been removed. As far as the basic attitudes are concerned, there is no remarkable deviation from older patterns.



For example, James Truslow Adams and Charles G. Vannest, in Record of America, published in 1935 and used in schools in Brooklyn and the Bronx, reward immigrants from the North and West of Europe with the caption: “Our early immigrants come to find homes,” while another caption goes on to say: “Our later immigrants come to find work.” An unsuspecting outsider might be led to the belief that the “homes” first referred to were prefabricated.

Vannest and Adams believe that there are important “racial” differences between the people who came to the United States from the North and West of Europe and those who came from the South and East of Europe. Is it only a quibble to demand today that textbooks use the term “race” correctly and in keeping with modern anthropological findings? No competent anthropologist would grant for a moment what the authors of this book would have high school students learn: that “in Europe the population of each nation is largely of one race.” There is further confusion in the matter of race in Ralph Volney Harlow’s Story of America (1943), where the author refers to the Italians, Hungarians, and Poles as “racial groups.”

Louis Ray Wells’s Industrial History of the United States, though published in 1922, is still on the list of books approved for classroom use by New York’s Board of Education. It justifies the movement towards the restriction of immigration in the following terms: “We have now ceased to measure greatness by mere numbers, and have begun to examine into the qualifications of those who would seek our hospitality. There has dawned upon many a tardy recognition of the necessity of conserving our human resources with a view to the founding of a better and abler type of man.” Not a superman, surely. . . .

Canfield and Wilder’s The United States in the Making portrays the new immigrants as “willing to work long hours for low wages,” and makes the further assertion that immigrants “who settled in cities tended to concentrate in wretched tenements and shanties, thus creating new slum areas.” Finally, they quote Chauncey M. Depew as saying: “The ranks of anarchy and riot number no Americans. The [immigrant] leaders boldly claim they came here not to enjoy the blessings of liberty, but to destroy our government and cut our throats, and divide our property.” Technically, of course, they are merely quoting “a point of view.” One might expect, however, that they give some indication that the “point of view” is a rather wraped one.



It is easy to point an indignant finger at a board of education and a board of superintendents for permitting use of these texts. There is also the publisher’s responsibility for the subject matter of the text, and the factor of the climate of opinion (or state of apathy) in the general community. But beyond this, however, there is the simple fact that well-meaning authors of textbooks (to give them the benefit of the doubt) seem to shed their professional competence when dealing with immigration. The writings of Turner on the frontier and Beard on the economic interpretation of history are, for some reason, more familiar to the man who writes a textbook than the no less significant findings of Marcus L. Hansen in the field of immigration. While this situation remains, the textbook writer will inevitably tend to substitute easy prejudice for the sober truth.

The social psychologist Otto Klineberg has written that to change group prejudices in children, “the only hope is to reach them early, and to give [them] habits of favourable reactions to other races which will stay with them through life.” Our schools even today, by tolerating the kind of history and social science textbooks they do, seem to be doing just the opposite. It is less important to fix the blame for this situation than to work out ways of improving it. Certainly there is no excuse for complacency about this “mis-education by insult,” whereby American children are systematically exposed to a racist evaluation of—in so many cases—their own parents and grandparents.




1 “Racial Attitudes in American History Textbooks of the South,” Journal of Negro History, XIX (July 1934), pages 225-65.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest