Archive for September, 2019

Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…

Posted on September 21, 2019. Filed under: What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

There’s been justified uproar over Ken Cuccinelli, the acting head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services stating back in August on NPR that the poem on the Statue of Liberty that reads “give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” really means, or should mean, “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”

NPR invited Kunal Parker, an immigration historian and professor at the University of Miami School of Law, to address this re-interpretation, and in general he does a good job.  But he fails to put the “public charge” sentence of the 1882 immigration Act Cuccinelli was misusing into its full context, as we did back when we posted about the original Cuccinelli interview:

The 1882 “Act to regulate immigration” had three parts. First, it said that 50 cents would be collected from every immigrant who arrived in a U.S. port and the money would be used to create a fund “to be called the immigrant fund, and shall be used to defray the expense of regulating immigration under this act, and for the care of immigrants arriving in the U.S. for the relief of such as are in distress…” Contrast that with what’s happening on our southern border today, or in any city or town where immigrants are living under the threat of roundup and deportation.

Next, it said that any passengers found to be a “convict, lunatic, idiot, or other person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge, they shall report the same… and such persons shall not be permitted to land.” Nowhere in this is a person’s ability to make a living without ever relying on charity—since government welfare did not exist at the time—mentioned. This is addressing debilitating mental illness.

Finally, the Act says that “…from time to time [issue] instructions [best] calculated to protected the U.S. and immigrants into the U.S. from fraud and loss…” –perhaps the fraud and loss of being refused citizenship after taking advantage of social services legally offered.

Unfortunately, few Americans know their own history well enough to recognize these types of misrepresentations. They fall prey to them, and come to doubt our mandate in an especially destructive way: they become cynical. Liberty and justice for all is only quoted to shame the U.S. as representing a mission that we have never lived up to, that we have always deliberately violated. U.S. history is presented as an unrelieved series of crimes and deliberate injustice.

We should also have gone back to the poem on the Statue of Liberty, as it is a powerful context for all immigration to the U.S., but particularly since the Statue was dedicated in October 1886.

The poem is called “The New Colossus”. Its author is Emma Lazarus, born in New York City in 1849. Her Jewish family had come from Portugal to the U.S. at the time of the Revolution, and in her poetry Lazarus focused on the challenges of being a Jewish-American. She was born into wealth, and was publishing her work in her teens. When she was 17, her father had her original poems and translations of European poets published. Through the 1860s and 70s Lazarus read fiction and poetry by and about Jewish Europeans, and when Russia began another series of genocidal pogroms against its Jewish citizens, Lazarus did not just read about it. She became intimately involved in the lives of Russian Jewish refugees who landed in New York. Lazarus worked at Ward’s Island assisting refugees who were detained by Castle Garden immigration officials. In 1882, she published Songs of a Semite: The Dance to Death and Other Poems.

A year later, she was asked to write a sonnet that would be auctioned off to raise money to build the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty that was arriving in pieces from France. Lazarus agreed after some deliberation, realizing it was a perfect opportunity to connect the plight of refugees, who looked so disreputable and unwanted to Americans who sat securely outside their troubles, with the purpose and mission of America itself–the United States existed in order to welcome in all who sought freedom.

The poem was auctioned, and it was published in two New York City newspapers. Then it disappeared from public memory, perhaps in part because Lazarus herself died just three years later, one year after the Statue of Liberty was dedicated. She was just 38.

In 1901, Lazarus’ friend Georgina Schulyer found “The New Colossus” included in a book of poetry in a New York bookshop and led a campaign to make the poem what Lazarus had intended it to be–the writing on the door to America. Two years later, the poem was written on a plaque on the inner wall of the pedestal it helped to fund.

Americans today probably don’t know the title of this poem, but they know the last of its stirring words by heart:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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I just sued the school system–or not!

Posted on September 4, 2019. Filed under: Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

In honor of the start of the school year, we’re rerunning our post on the Prince Ea video “I just sued the school system!!!”

 

We’ve been hearing that argument about public schools in the U.S. being modeled on factories more and more lately. You’ve likely heard it; it’s summed up in the Prince Ea video “I just sued the school system!!!”  The idea is that grade schools were meant to run like factories, brutalizing students by making them sit in rows and raise their hands to talk and move when a bell rang, all so they would be good factory workers. And we, sadly, continue to run them this way today.

Where to start. First, factory workers in the early 20th century did not need to know how to read or write or do arithmetic, so why would future factory workers go to school at all?

Next, children worked in factories at ages as young as four years old, so there was no going to school first, working in a factory on graduation. (See our post Why was there child labor in America?)

Last, factories and child labor within them were established long before the 20th-century version of public school education was created.

So let’s look at U.S. public schools at the turn of the 20th century. These are the sort of images we find of them:

school-1school-2school-3

These schools developed in our early 20th century cities. It’s not how schools in America have always been (the cherished one-room country schoolhouse was the norm). When immigration to the U.S. increased exponentially in the 1910s, we suddenly had millions of children in cities, and most of them had parents who wanted at least some of them to go to school. Sending all of one’s children to school, not just the eldest son or smartest boy, was possible for the first time in America because school was free. If the parents were both working and didn’t need their children to work, too, all of the children could actually go to school.

So because we were—and still are—the only nation on Earth to promise a free public school education to all, we built big schools with lots of big classrooms and put lots of desks in them. How else could a teacher manage a class of 30-40 students? And since classes had to be big to educate everyone, there had to be rules like raising your hand to talk and sitting still and moving only when the bell rang or it would be chaos. It wasn’t to mimic factories. It was the only way at the time to educate everyone. Some big-city tenement blocks in the 1920s had 500+ kids living on them—just one block! The hundreds of neighborhood schools that were built to educate them all had to operate a little like machines just to get all their students through.

To try to shame present-day American schools for still following this pattern, to a certain extent, is ridiculous. First, most grade schools have abandoned sitting in rows at desks all day to allow students to work in small groups, have “rug time”, and other ways of moving around during the day. To a lesser extent, many junior high and high schools do this as well. It’s been a long time since most American students sat down in the morning, got up at lunch, sat down after it, then got up to go home. (In fact, students today are the ones who don’t get recess—a once-standard part of the American school day.)

And another reason it’s unfair to shame the U.S. is that one reason we still have rows of desks is that we are still one of the few nations trying to educate all. To compare us, as is always done, with Finland or Singapore is crazy. Those are small, racially and ethnically homogenous states with no vast income inequalities. It’s easy to teach students who all start at the same place and have the same background and language. And in most of the world, education stops for most children after grade school; in those nations where it continues, by the time students reach the equivalent of U.S. high school, they are divided into students who are going on to college and those who aren’t, and they are educated separately and pretty unequally. The test scores that Finland and Singapore present to the world are just from their college-bound students.

But that’s not how we are. We still try to educate everyone, no matter the differences in race, income, language, ethnicity, and learning ability. We fail. But we still try. It’s still our goal. So any solution we come up with has to work for our situation, which is unique in the world.

Can we change our public schools to make them better? Are there better ideas out there than rows of desks? Yes. But to Prince Ea and all the others, we say reform all you want, but don’t tell people that American schools were developed by evil heartless people to indoctrinate and crush children when it was completely the other way around.

(That said, we liked Prince Ea’s video debunking the concept of race, which is indeed completely made up and not real.)

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