How Immigrants Viewed American Citizenship circa 1939
Dear Mrs. Cohen,
Recently while cleaning out the basement of our house, I came across a letter of commendation written on January 12, 1939 from the Principal of Seward Park High School at 350 Grand Street, New York, New York. On the 6" x 8" stationery, Principal Robert B. Brodie had written the following:
Dear Mrs. Cohen,
This letter of commendation is sent to you because of the excellent rating in citizenship received by your daughter this term.
We congratulate you and trust that Ida's record in the future will continue to merit commendation.
A commendation about citizenship! What a novel idea. The recipient of this award was none other than my mom, who was born in America to an immigrant who fled from the pogroms of Russia.
Staring at this yellowed paper, I realized that I had just gone 180 degrees back in time to a different set of societal expectations. As an immigrant who could barely speak English, my grandmother implicitly knew that citizenship training was vital to the integrity of America. School administrators understood that citizenship instruction was an expected part of the curriculum and that, ultimately, acquisition of this knowledge base was a great source of pride.
We have swerved off course considerably since that time.
The booklet entitled "Learn about the United States: Quick Civics Lessons for the Naturalization Test" would put most of my current college students to shame. Since they don't know what the Bill of Rights is, how can they possibly answer the following?
What is one right or freedom from the First Amendment?*
- petition the government
When asked what economic system we have in the United States, my students scrunch up their faces and tentatively respond with "communism." Thus, capitalism and market economy are unknown concepts to them.
11. What is the economic system in the United States?*
The economic system of the United States is capitalism. In the American economy, most businesses are privately owned. Competition and profit motivate businesses. Businesses and consumers interact in the marketplace, where prices can be negotiated. This is called a 'market economy.' In a market economy, businesses decide what to produce, how much to produce, and what to charge. Consumers decide what, when, and where they will buy goods or services. In a market economy, competition, supply, and demand influence the decisions of businesses and consumers.
Amazingly, most of my students do not know where Europe or India is. Certainly they are unfamiliar with the geography of their own country. So the following would throw them for a loop.
44. What is the capital of your state?
To learn the capital of your state or territory, go to www.usa.gov. Each state or territory has its own capital. The state capital is where the state government conducts its business. It is similar to the nation's capital, Washington, D.C., where the federal government conducts its business. Some state capitals have moved from one city to another over the years, but the state capitals have not changed since 1910. Usually, the governor lives in the state's capital city.
The list goes on, but you get the overall picture.
In this 15-minute YouTube from July 4, 2011 by Anthony Antonello, even this young reporter is flummoxed by the depth of ignorance he encounters. At a Pennsylvania Fourth of July celebration, Antonello wanted to know what the holiday meant to the people walking by. Early on he realized that he couldn't get past the first question about the Revolutionary War. One group of giggly girls proudly stated that they "[were] stupid" and "don't care about learning."
This is the sad state of affairs in the United States.
As a zamler or book collector for the National Yiddish Book Center, I often come across literary gems. A few years ago I picked up a bilingual book entitled A History of the United States by Allen C. Thomas (image here). Printed in 1912 and again in 1916 by the Jewish Press Publishing Company, it was a book intended for the Yiddish-speaking immigrant to assist in learning about American history. With no glossy pictures, this almost-300-page book initiated that the "anxious new Americans to become imbued with the spirit of America. To succeed in this desire, they must master the language of this country and its history."
The new edition's aim was as follows:
... [to give the] main facts of the history of the United States clearly, accurately, and impartially. In the belief that the importance of the events which have occurred since the adoption of the Constitution is becoming more and more recognized, much [sic] the greater part of the book is devoted to the era beginning with 1789. The period of discovery and the colonization, however, is treated with sufficient fulness [sic] to show clearly the origins of the people and of their institutions. The illustrations are not imaginative, but realistic, and the numerous portraits are from authentic sources.
In great contrast to the lack of desire for assimilation that is so popular and current in America, the publisher noted:
As Jews we are proud of the fact, [sic] that our people have from the beginning of the history of America, played an important part in the upbuilding of the country and in the development of its institutions. As Jews, we have our point of view about many matters which are vital in American life. In the present work, however, our aim has been to present the history of America as it is seen through the eyes of Americans. Because of this educational and patriotic purpose, we have refused to offer our readers a history of the United States written by one who is not an American by birth and inheritance.
It is imperative that we incorporate a sense of urgency and pride in our history, or this great experiment in freedom known as America will become an historical footnote. And we will not get a second chance for a very long time, if ever.
Eileen can be reached at email@example.com.