The Clare Spark Blog

June 16, 2011

The antiquated “melting pot”

Israel Zangwill, Time cover 1923

The following short statement was posted on H-US1918-1945, June 15, 2011 and was hotly contested in three responses today by academic defenders of social history. This is what aroused objections, including one that demanded to change the subject.

[My slightly revised posting:] One feature of my research (on contending ideologies during the period covered in this discussion group) has been on the move away from “scientific history” toward “cultural history” and “social history.” Although the statement in the first issue of Commentary, quoted below, is dated 1945, Carolyn Ware had already reported to the American Historical Society in 1939 that “scientific history” (apparently materialist in her eyes, and too focused on the individual investigator following the evidence wherever it led) was now displaced by what many call culturalism, a focus on the individual as interacting with groups, and indeed, groups now possessed individuality in her ideology, thus erasing the conflict between the individual and society. I am wondering if anyone on this list has looked into the New Deal Bureau for Intercultural Education, cited in this article quoted below. I noticed that the stigmatizing of the unique individual as the measure of value had begun long before, as I showed in this blog, also in my work on the German Romantic predecessors to what is now called “multiculturalism.” [See  The lengthy quotes from Mordecai Grossman’s article are followed by a comment of mine.

[Mordecai Grossman, “The Schools Fight Prejudice,” Commentary,Nov. 1945:]

“To many school people and laymen, prevailing widespread intergroup antagonisms with their tensions and outbreaks, like the recent school strikes and riots, testify to the school’s failure to date to communicate America’s democratic heritage.

“The intercultural education movement [begun with the New Deal Bureau for Intercultural Education, 1935] in which many teachers, schools and national organizations of teachers…are now joined, is based on two principal assumptions: first, that prejudices are culturally transmitted rather than biologically inherited, and second, that the school can, by one method or another, contribute significantly to the transformation of self-enclosed, mutually exclusive and hate-breeding cultures into open, interplaying and cooperating cultures. We have here a reaffirmation of the faith in education as a force for human progress and in the schools as the principal instrument of education in democratic ideals. A democratic way of life…is one which seeks to provide every individual with the maximum possible opportunity for personal growth and community service, for sharing in the control over the economic, political, and social conditions of group life, and for mastery over his own destiny–for all individuals regardless of race, creed, or ancestry.

“However, inter-individual (man-to-man) democracy is…only one aspect of the democratic way of life. The other is intercultural democracy [that] occupies a somewhat intermediate position between the ideals of “cultural pluralism” and of the “melting pot.” In contrast with the former, intercultural democracy denies both the possibility and the desirability of maintaining fairly intact the ancestral cultures of the varied ethnic groups that came here. But it also denies the possibility and desirability of stamping the 140,000,000 Americans in the mold of a uniform dominant culture–of a “melting pot” Americanism. For a democratic culture is an open culture, continually growing through individual and group interaction. Advocates of intercultural education recognize the survival of elements of old world culture in the new. Such elements of the old world heritage that are at odds with a democratic way of life are to be eliminated.

“But there are others which do not impede the growth of a common democratic culture, and which may even enrich it. These are to be retained…(35). [The Program:]…to contrast democracy with rival ways of life, say fascism…The thick walls which separate the social and ethnic groups in American society consist in large part of the stereotyped pictures that members of the “in” group have in their minds of individuals in the “out” group…[We must study] the tricks the human mind plays on itself, including those of “rationalization,” “projection,” and “scapegoating,” and which others play on us by means of propaganda techniques,
etc. (37, 38)…[T]here is the risk that the gains likely to accrue from the school’s attempt to develop an appreciation of the sub-culture will be nullified by the possible heightening of the sense of difference. Much depends on the way the intercultural program is administered (42).” [end Grossman quote, my emphasis]

[My commentary on the Grossman quote:] For the latest version of this project see All of postwar pedagogy fits into these impossible dreams, schemes to be realized by artful administrators (who would presumably prevent further “school strikes and riots”). But Grossman has distorted the meaning of “the melting pot” as it was previously understood and bodied forth in Israel Zangwill’s famous play of 1908. For Zangwill and his predecessors (including de Crèvecoeur and Jefferson), a new man would be created out of the religious and ethnic mix unique to America, and this rights-endowed individual new man and woman presumably would be fit to judge their elected government representatives with the critical tools of the Enlightenment: analysis of propaganda and access to primary source documents, ending the monopoly of rulers whose affairs were conducted far from the public eye.

By rejecting the culturally syncretic* “melting pot,” Grossman was left with the cultural pluralism he was adjusting, to be replaced by a vaguely defined “intercultural democracy.” There are no autonomous free-standing individuals in his model, only interactive (collectivist) entities. Since he was actually reversing the Enlightenment by replacing individuals with groups (today we would say “community” as a substitute for the group and a corrective to hyper-individualistic loose cannons of all types), he resorted to the contrast of “democracy” with “fascism,” all the while ignoring the statism and destruction of the dissenting individual that was common to both ideologies as realized in the collectivist categories asserted in the New Deal and its progressive antecedents. (For “the individual” or “rugged individualist” was now associated with “laissez-faire capitalism” by statists of every stripe, from fascists to social democrats, though I do not equate them.) And of course Grossman underestimated the grip that authoritarian ideologies and ancestor-worship maintained in the offspring of his would-be democrats.

The editor of this Humanities-Net list, Jeremy Bonner, helped historians on the list with the following addition: “For the record, the papers of the Bureau for Intercultural Education are located at the University of Minnesota. Founded in 1934, it initially operated in New York high schools as the Service Bureau for Education in Human Relations. The Bureau for Intercultural Education emerged out of a reorganization of the original Service Bureau in 1939-1941. It subsequently provided workshop training for teachers and scientific research in human relations through field centers in Detroit, Gary, and Battle Creek. It was dissolved in 1954.

A finding aid can be found at:

*Syncretic means that cultures do not evolve in isolation but frequently fuse with other cultures. For instance, the popular music of the early 20th century was a fusion of mid-19th century middle-class music (often Irish or British in origin), black music, remembered Jewish music, and music from such sources as Gilbert and Sullivan and European opera.

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