With science as his shield : teaching race and culture in American public schools, 1900-1954 / Zoë Burkholder
Includes bibliographical references (p. 543-553)
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Electronic version from ProQuest
This dissertation is a history of the social construction of race in American schools in the early 20th century. As racializing national institutions, public schools taught specific definitions of the race concept and they also inscribed certain racial knowledge and behavior as symbolic markers of the educated American citizen.This analysis begins with a reform effort led by anthropologist Franz Boas in the late 1930s. Facing the threat of Nazi Germany, Boas launched an initiative to reform how American schools defined race. Boas argued schools used scientifically inaccurate, racialist, and dangerous conceptions of race in everyday pedagogical practice. Boas concluded schools fueled racial prejudice in America and made the nation vulnerable to the influence of Nazi propaganda. Drawing on dominant anthropological models of racial difference, activist social scientists taught that individuals of any background were potentially equal. Importantly, anthropologists insisted that the dynamic concept of culture was a far more useful concept for explaining human diversity than the biological concept of race.The Boasian concept of culture lost traction as it was translated by educators for use in American schools in the 1940s. Poorly trained in social science theory and struggling to mediate volatile race relations in their classrooms, teachers softened the Boasian critique of racism into "palatable" lessons. In most cases teachers simply grafted the language of racial egalitarianism and cultural relativism onto existing models of racial hierarchy. By the end of the war educators consolidated a previously disparate group of white racial minorities into a singular and cohesive "white" race, while interpreting Americans of African and Asian descent as not only biologically or racially different, but as culturally separate as well.Racial discourse in American schools shifted again in the postwar era, as teachers adapted tolerance education to conform to new psychological models of racial prejudice. The result was that teachers deliberately silenced the discussion of race in the classroom insisting that all students exhibit "good manners" when speaking to or about racial others. This universalizing psychological approach is shown to define the history of later 20th century efforts to confront racism in American schools.
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