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Literacy and the meaning of citizenship in American education.

When viewing the landscape of learning and literacy, politics and policy often intersect. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, literacy is one skill which progressives sought to expand and others historically used to restrict access to immigration, jobs, and civic participation. During the closing decades of the nineteenth century, just as the recognizably modern American school system emerged, learning and literacy also emerged as contentious political issues. These historical conflicts are worth examining as the issues debated then reemerge periodically in much the same form, and sometimes, as in the case of English only teaching in 1890 and 1987, with astonishingly similar political results.

The so-called Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, the period of American history stretching from approximately 1880 to 1920, saw transformations not just in education but in many aspects of American life. Large scale immigration swelled America's cities, but also held down wages during the depressed period of the 1890s, eliciting a nativist reaction. Many states passed laws requiring compulsory school attendance during this period but often attendance changed little as children sought paid work instead of attending school. To aid the cause of both education and labor, Progressives sought laws restricting child labor and strengthened compulsory school attendance laws. Educational opportunities for minorities and immigrants expanded significantly during this period and true universal education seemed at last a possibility.

Policy debates around the civil meaning of language and literacy, and the rights conferred or denied by virtue of fluency and literacy, has a long and contentious history. While many argue that the ability to speak the language of one's choice, the right to an education, and the right to civic participation are inalienable human rights, history suggests otherwise. Historically, civil policy and community norms, often legally sanctioned, have governed each of these rights, thus effectively rendering them civil rights. Public schools are one place where each of these policies and practices intersect and as might be expected, debate has ebbed and flowed over the course of the last century.

Americans have long held the notion that widespread literacy is indispensable to popular government. From the writings of educational pioneer Horace Mann, in the nineteenth century, to the Department of Education document, A Nation at Risk, in the late twentieth century, to Common Core in the twenty-first century, writers have viewed literacy and education as the pillars of democratic government. As Bernard Bailyn observed, "Literacy is a basic index of cultural attainment" (Bailyn 1972, 83). Others have noted that a common language is one component of national identity (Montero-Sieburth and LaCelle-Peterson 1991, 301). As the age of mass-literacy dawned in the United States in the nineteenth century, common literacy joined common language as a part of national identity. Many Americans in the late nineteenth century believed "the ability to read and write was an essential characteristic separating the civilized from barbarians" (Chambers-Dalton 1991, 545). Historically, in the United States, one might add the ability to read and write in English.

Throughout the nineteenth century, already high literacy rates among white, native born Americans continued to increase, with one caveat, "except the South" (Best 1996, 40). Regrettably, until the 1960s, the South insisted on maintaining two racially separate school systems which, given the cost of duplication, often meant no schools at all. Thus, literacy rates for all ethnicities remained lower in the American South than in the rest of the country until the late twentieth century. As we shall see, literacy, or the lack of it, was widely used in this section of the country to restrict civil rights and civic participation in unique ways not seen elsewhere.


Throughout the nineteenth century, industrialization and expanding cities began to transform a previously rural nation. The growing industrial cities of late nineteenth century America housed large numbers of impoverished factory workers and their families, and many of these workers were first or second generation immigrants. Concerned reformers saw education as both a means of acculturating the children of immigrants and instilling social values, such as respect for property, among the poor. Harper's Weekly commented in 1880, "The conviction ... grows ... that the mere ability to read and write one's name is not an education" (Harper Brothers 1880a). The emerging idea of schooling envisioned a state sponsored institution in which attendance was increasingly compulsory.

In 1871, William McFadden, a city school superintendent wrote, "In some quarters there is opposition to public schools but ... the prejudices are gradually being removed and a more general cooperation is being secured." He also observed, "Out of 5,000 children between 5 & 15 years of age 2,000 have not attended any school. With this lamentable fact staring us in the face it seems to me that some law ... should be passed offering greater encouragement and greater inducements to parents to educate their children." McFadden warned, "If nothing is done by the legislature these 2,000 children will grow up in ignorance and will be unable to compete successfully with intelligent labor and the State will be compelled in the end to take care of them as convicts" (McFadden, 1871). Such concerns generated demands for compelling parents to enroll children and assure that recalcitrant pupils attended the public schools. Yet many local school officials complained that compulsory attendance laws, "having never been ... popular ... with the people ... remained a dead letter upon the statute book" (Carr 1879, 14). Harper's Weekly in an article titled "School or Jail" asked, "Which shall it be?" (Harper Brothers 1871, 62). Proponents of compulsory schooling argued that State expenditures on education, conferred the economic benefits of an intelligent labor force, and savings in law enforcement. Fred Campbell, California's Superintendent of Public Instruction summed up this new role of schooling when he wrote, "Education by the State is simply the determination of the State to protect itself, and secure the safety and progress of society" (Campbell 1880, 25).

Compulsory school attendance laws were on the books in twenty-five states by 1889. Seven additional states passed compulsory attendance laws during the 1890s. The remaining states, mostly in the lower South, passed school attendance laws by 1918 (Gordon 2003, 264). During this early period uneven enforcement of the laws resulted in only small increases in actual attendance. At this time public schooling was not free since parents still needed to buy all of their children's school textbooks and this imposed a heavy burden on poor families. By the early twentieth century additional laws, including child labor laws and the provision of free textbooks in elementary schools, resulted in ever increasing rates of attendance.


Near universal attendance in public schools, at least through the grammar grades, became the social norm in much of the nation by the end of the nineteenth century. As one proponent observed, "Education ... is generally diffused ... schools are brought near to everyone. Reading and writing are not neglected; almost every citizen can add and subtract, or tell the time of day. They can count their gains and calculate their wages" (Harper Brothers 1886, 78). Many native-born Americans feared that in order to "secure the safety of society," another group of students needed schooling, as well (Campbell 1880, 25). As Harper's editor, Eugene Lawrence noted, "Our illiterates are chiefly foreigners, or the children of foreigners" (Harper Brothers 1886, 78). During the 1840s and 1850s 1,700,000 Irish immigrants arrived in America (Irwin-Painter 1987, xxix). The Irish tended to congregate in the large cities were they created formidable political organizations including Tammany Hall in New York. Soon Irish candidates were being elected to office in large numbers causing one opposition journal to comment, "not only are almost all men voters in this country, but the Irish part of the population . has a peculiar taste for political offices and employments" (Harper Brothers 1889, 427). Harper's, based in New York, found this troubling because the city was dominated by Tammany Hall, a Democratic political machine and Harper's consistently endorsed Republican views.

During the 1880s an additional 3,200,000 immigrants arrived (Irwin-Painter 1987, xxxii). Unlike previous arrivals, many of these new arrivals were non-English speaking coming from southern and eastern Europe. This aroused fear among nativists. Eugene Lawrence exclaimed of these new immigrants, "They soon learn enough, at least, by example, to teach them how to buy and sell. But one lesson they seem never to learn. At the common schools, children are taught the elements of cleanliness, good order, and a sense of propriety. In these things our foreign population are wholly unlearned" (Harper Brothers 1886, 78). Many saw a new role for the common school, namely to teach immigrant children hygiene, civics, and "a sense of propriety," in other words, middle-class values (Harper Brothers 1886, 78). In the nineteenth century, attitudinal and behavioral norms of propriety and respectability, rather than purely economic criteria, were essential in defining middle class status. This helps explain why during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, social improvement provided much of the social justification for education. By the early 1880s few educated people doubted that, "Our republic rests upon knowledge," and that, "its founders proposed to make every citizen cultivated, intelligent, and fit to hold any public office" (Harper Brothers 1882a, 59). People increasingly presumed that a primary and grammar school education should be universal, and that opportunities for high school education ought to be expanded as well. Labor unions began campaigns to encourage schooling and thereby limit competition from child labor. Industry valued child laborers not only because they were paid less than adult workers, but because they were easier to manage and generally did not strike or join unions. Child labor laws not only increased literacy but helped increase the wages paid to adult workers. By the end of the decade of the 1880s schooling had changed from a privilege of the elite to a rite of passage for many American youth.

Compulsory education clearly reflected dominant social values. Acknowledging this consensus, the United States Commissioner of Education noted, "The necessity of systematic instruction in morals" in the public schools (Eaton 1880, xxv). Schoolbooks had previously infused moral lessons throughout the curriculum; now schools treated it as a separate subject. The school law in California required that "instruction in morals and manners shall be given in all grades and classes through the entire school course." In Maine, teachers were to instruct pupils in "the principles of morality, justice ... love of country, humanity ... sobriety, industry, frugality, chastity, temperance, &c." In Minnesota students were to receive "instruction in civil government, social science, good morals and patriotism," in New Hampshire, "religion, piety and morality are to be encouraged, also humanity, general benevolence, public and private charity, industry, economy, honesty, punctuality, sincerity, sobriety, and ... generous sentiments;" and in Oregon, "morality and cleanliness" were encouraged. Much the same curriculum was required in Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, West Virginia, and Montana (Eaton 1880, xxv). Education of the masses, hitherto designed to produce an educated and literate electorate, now assumed a social reform agenda.

Educational proponents also held out hope for social betterment through education. Proponents of universal and compulsory education asserted that the "knowledge" imparted in the public schools "would spread general comfort, health, industry, contentment; would diminish the spread of disease, banish pauperism, repress vice, build clean cities, ... and promote and enforce the public welfare" (Harper Brothers 1882a, 59). In other words, in cities largely populated by immigrants bringing a variety of cultures, common schooling would instill middle class values and morality. The dramatic expansion of public schools during the closing decades of the nineteenth century, made education more widely accessible, at least among native-born White children, and in most of the country more accessible to Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans, as well. In time, ideals of literacy and new notions of who should hold full rights of citizenship eventually merged.


Rising levels of literacy among native-born children, combined with increased immigration, transformed the discourse on educational policy and literacy. The notion that literacy was essential combined with nativist insistence on instruction in the English language and led some states to legislate English only requirements in public schools. Other states imposed literacy qualifications for voting. What notions justified and made such actions politically possible during the Gilded Age? Moreover, how have such notions persisted and even resulted in the passage of similar legislation again in the late twentieth century?

Rising immigration during the late 1840s, and early 1850s, particularly the immigration of Irish Catholics, created a groundswell of nativist political activity. Catholic insistence on an equitable division of school taxes for parochial schools focused political attention on the perceived Catholic threat to the public schools. During the 1850s, nativism and anti-Catholicism contributed to the rise of a number of new political organizations, among them the nativist and anti-Catholic "American Party" the so-called "Know-Nothings," which flourished briefly before passing from the political scene.

Social reform efforts within the schools stimulated proposals for political reforms outside the schools as well. During the 1880s, a rising tide of immigration from southern and eastern Europe transformed America's cities. Near universal primary schooling and the resulting level of literacy attained by native-born American children by the mid-1880s, combined with increased immigration to generate demands for an educational qualification for voting. The social notions that linked literacy and citizenship extended to encompass the notion that only literate citizens could safely be allowed to vote.

Increased immigration and efforts once again to obtain a division of the school funds in the northeastern states during the 1870s, and 1880s, divided the two major political parties over issues of religion and schools, and caused a revival of the "American Party" or "Know-Nothings." The issues surrounding the public schools in both eras involved many of the same divisive issues of religion, curriculum, and notions of social morality, voting and taxation. In both periods Catholics seeking a division of the public school fund for parochial schools generally identified with the Democratic Party. Opponents of division of the school funds, portraying themselves as defenders of the public schools generally identified with the Republican Party, and for the enthusiast there was the "American Party." The main plank in the platform of the American Party stated "emphatically, that no person who cannot read and write the American language intelligently is fit to be entrusted with the ballot" (Craig 1889d, 6). Clearly schooling and literacy were the foundations upon which the American Party sought exclude the illiterate voter. Nativist "Americans" sought to make literacy a requirement for voting. The San Bernardino Weekly Times carried an article in 1875, titled "Know Nothingism Revived" although few additional mentions appear until the mid-1880s (Issac 1875). Scipio Craig, an ex-school teacher in San Bernardino and the editor of Redlands Citrograph, briefly flirted with a revived "Americanism" and Know-Nothingism in 1889.

H. C. Brooke writing in the San Bernardino Weekly Argus opined, "The subject of Education is of paramount importance. The integrity of the Nation rests with the intelligence of the people." Brooke also believed, "Spelling books and primers are more effectual weapons for the maintenance of good government than swords and bayonets" (Brooke 1873, 1). The October 30, 1886 issue of the Riverside Press and Horticulturalist agreed that illiterate people "by their ... lack of education, are unfit to govern themselves much less to govern the American people by the power of the ballot-box" (Holt 1886, 2). The editor of the Redlands Citrograph believed a literacy qualification for voting, "would put a premium on suffrage, which thenceforward serve to lessen the extent of illiteracy" (Craig 1889d, 6). Echoing the necessity of a literacy requirement for voting, Harper's Weekly told its readers, "There is no state in which provision is not made for public education, yet thirty-two percent of the voters of the country are unable to read the ballots they cast....There can be no more common interest than that of popular intelligence, no more common danger than that of an ignorant ballot" (Harper Brothers 1882b, 578-579). Another issue of Harper's Weekly observed, "In no country is general education so indispensable as in that where every man is voter....The question of illiteracy becomes, therefore, of peculiar importance" (Harper Brothers 1889, 427). Nativists saw literacy as a necessary to assure intelligent voting and preserve the republic.

In Southern California, a group of Mission Indians sought the right to vote. Their eligibility to vote was first noted by the Elsinore News and then commented on by the Perris Leader before appearing in the Citrograph. The Perris Leader was quoted as saying: "The Elsinore News is entitled to credit for being the first newspaper to call public attention to the fact that under recent decisions of the Attorney General the Mission Indians are held to be citizens of the United States and as such are entitled to vote at the coming election." The editor of the Perris Leader, who evidently opposed allowing Native Americans to vote, concluded, "There are about 500 voters and it will require several gallons of firewater to 'inflooence' them" (Craig 1888, 4). Scipio Craig and the Citrograph, using an oblique reference to Catholic Irish immigrants, replied, "The Mission Indians have been under the control of the Catholic Church for more than one hundred years.... Their vote is not one whit more dangerous than that of any other ignorant man" (Craig 1888, 4). The Citrograph told readers on July 27, 1889, "A man be he native or foreign born, that cannot read and write should by no manner of means be allowed to vote" (Craig 1889c, 10). As Craig saw the issue, it was ignorance not race that mattered. Scipio Craig believed that all illiterate voters should be barred regardless of whether they were Mission Indians, immigrants, or native born white men.

Other West Coast publications pointed out that not all "Americans" understood the matter so clearly. Overland Monthly told its readers that the American Party evinced "a desire to have the municipal offices administered only by native Americans," by which they meant native-born Americans (Editor 1886, 551). In a prescient argument Overland Monthly noted, "It brings in however, a discrimination between classes of citizens, which ... must in our judgment, ultimately fall to the ground. So long as, under the law, the newly naturalized foreigner and the thorough American stand on the same ground, discriminations between them will not only prove impracticable, but are not just. They have the grave defect of drawing lines by class instead of by individual qualities." The editorial concluded, "If the public should farther reason that it would not hurt our own people to be obliged to show some such elementary fitness for taking part in government before they are permitted to do so, no harm would be done" (Editor 1886, 551). In other words, all races and classes should be equally obliged to prove "fitness" or else none should be.

The Redlands Citrograph, on May 4, 1889, urged California voters to endorse, "the plank in the National American platform which reads that after a stated period every voter, before he exercises the right of suffrage, shall be able to read the Constitution of the United States in the English language, and to write his own name upon the Register, to show that he is fitted to share in the administration of the Republic" (Craig 1889b, 4). Three months later, on July 27, the Citrograph praised the "Plucky statesmen" of Montana when that state included, in their new constitution, "an educational qualification as a stepping stone to the right of suffrage" (Craig 1889c, 10). Craig could accept Montana's literacy requirement because it was universally applied to all voters.

The San Bernardino Weekly Times observed, "The original object of the public school system was to make intelligent voters and better citizens" (Issacs 1886, 2). The Times insisted, "Every child in the United States should be able to read and write, have a knowledge of the rudiments of the common branches, understand the Constitution of the United States and of the State in which he lives--if it be possible to understand them and know something of the history of the land. And every voter should be required to give proof of such knowledge" (Issacs 1886, 2). It is odd that the editor failed to see the inconsistency of insisting on proof of understating and questioned the possibility in the same sentence. The notion that voters must "understand" rather than merely being able to read the Constitution soon bore pernicious fruit. In the South some voters were required to "prove" such understanding while others were allowed to vote if their father or grandfather could read and write--the so-called grandfather clause.

In 1890, Mississippi imposed literacy qualifications for voting, which were selectively applied, and racially discriminatory, much to the disgust of "Americans" on the West Coast such as Scipio Craig who repeatedly condemned the discriminatory measure in the Citrograph (Craig 1889a, 1889c, 1889f, 1890a). Harper's Weekly commented that requiring "the understanding of the Constitution," in order to vote, as Mississippi did, rather than merely the ability to read it, as Montana did, "was a farce" as learned men disagreed. Harper's observed, "It is evident by the constant necessity of a judicial interpretation of the Constitution," reached only "after long and able debates by learned counsel, that that venerable instrument [the Constitution] is by no means always understood when read by trained wits" (Harper Brothers 1890, 714). They asked, "Who is to determine ... whether the voter understands it or not[?]" (Harper Brothers 1890, 714). Most observers presumed the Mississippi law would apply only to Black voters. Harper's had long expressed, "the belief that it is not the ignorance of the blacks, it is their complexion which is the real disability" (Harper Brothers 1865, 354-355). As early as 1865, Harper's Weekly complained, "It is proposed to make ignorance a disqualification for the franchise.... If reading the Bible or doing a sum in the rule of three are to be the tests of fitness, let everybody be brought to the test .... We have heard nothing of disfranchising ignorant white men" (Harper Brothers 1865, 354-355). Clearly, nativists outside the South had a different vision of the intent of literacy requirements for voting.

Other states also actively promoted literacy requirements and English instruction. In 1889, legislation banning foreign language instruction in public schools passed in Illinois, with the Edwards Law, and in Wisconsin, in the Bennett Act (Wyman 1968). The Citrograph, on April 19, 1890, endorsed the Bennett Act as a way for schools to improve immigrant literacy in English (Craig 1890b). Neither of the major party's platforms satisfied the adherents of the American Party. During the 1880s, however, nativists were never able to create a viable political party, and after attempting a fusion with the Prohibition Party, in 1890, the movement collapsed.

Political efforts to impose literacy requirements for voting continued, however. In 1892, a referendum requiring voters to possess knowledge of reading and writing in order to vote appeared on the ballot in California. The San Bernardino Weekly Courier, on April 22, 1892, told readers, "Popular government is possible only among intelligent people.... The illiterate voter is generally incapable of voting intelligently.... The unintelligent voters are the prey of politicians and demagogues" (Kearney 1892, 4). The referendum on educational qualifications for voting in California passed.

Scipio Craig had predicted, "The spark of American fire ... will, when fanned into flame, sweep over the country with the rapidity of a prairie fire" (Craig 1889e, 5). The prairie fire came, but not the one Craig expected. Another San Bernardino schoolteacher, Noble A. Richardson, a Canadian who came to San Bernardino in 1883, ignited the Populist prairie fire that swept away the American Party when he spoke before the People's Party convention in San Bernardino. Echoing William Jennings Bryan's famous Cross of Gold speech Richardson said, "The American people believe in the Golden Rule, and not the rule of gold.... We are the party of education" (Richardson 1892, 2). Although the Populist message rallied the West, the Populist movements eventually merged back into the two major political parties. The American Party was a political casualty of the Populist electoral defeats.

The California Legislature in 1889 voted to add the study of civil government to the list of subjects required by law. California's Superintendent of Public Instruction, Ira Hoitt, wrote, "In our country, where so large a foreign element forms a factor of our body politic, it is especially imperative that the underlying principles of our government should be implanted in the minds of our youth." He went on to note, "The public school is the nation in miniature ... it is appropriate and necessary that our common schools should find a place for a branch that is so important to the welfare of the state" (Hoitt 1890, 31). Superintendent Hoitt could not have stated it more clearly, civics courses were intended to acculturate the immigrant, and did so for the good of the state. As the "American" Party unsuccessfully sought electoral validation of its agenda, schools were co-opting the movement.

The total population of the United States in 1880 was 50,000,000 and grew to 76,000,000 by 1900. Between 1880 and 1920 a tidal wave of over 24,000,000 immigrants poured into the United States. This flood of immigration helped keep labor costs and wages low and hampered the efforts of labor unions to organize and improve working conditions. Between 1905 and 1914, over 1,000,000 immigrants per year flooded into the United States (Gordon 2003). Literacy education came to be seen by business leaders, educators, politicians, and social workers as a means to "assimilate and amalgamate these people as part of our American race" (Cubberley 1909, 15-16). Nativists eventually sought to slow the influx of immigration. Legislative efforts were made to refuse admittance to illiterate immigrants. Bills to that effect passed the United States Congress in 1913, 1915, and 1917. President Taft vetoed the 1913 bill, and President Wilson vetoed the bills in 1915 and 1917. Congress passed the 1917 bill, which required immigrants to pass a literacy test in English in order to gain admittance, over the President's veto. As a result, immigration to the United States slowed considerably after the First World War (Gordon 2003, 267).

Curiously, throughout the debate, no Southern California paper ever endorsed women's suffrage. In 1890, women in California were allowed to run for office but could not vote. This dichotomy in the law was not lost on national publications. Overland Monthly observed that, "Nebraska gives women full suffrage in all school matters, but does not allow them to hold the smallest school office save that of teacher; while California makes women eligible to all school offices and has for many years elected them to county superintendencies, but shows no disposition to allow them to vote in the smallest school election." (Shinn 1888, 547). While nativists did not endorse women's suffrage, they did raise awareness of the inconsistencies in existing voting laws.


In 1960, Senator Sam Ervin observed that literacy tests for voting still existed in some form in twenty states. In addition to these states, in Nebraska the voter had to sign his or her own name in the register (Ervin 1962). While the courts have since overturned many of the literacy qualifications noted by Senator Ervin, efforts to restrict voting rights based on possession of certain types of government issued identifying documents that tend to be possessed by literate voters and are unlikely to be possessed by the less literate were moving forward in several states as this paper was being written.

During the closing decades of the twentieth century, states removed literacy requirements for voting, but the curriculum changes that occurred as part of that same political milieu remained. The advent of compulsory instruction, the addition of civics, hygiene, and temperance courses to the curriculum, and calls for literacy qualifications in order to vote, were far from independent and unrelated events. All of these changes were part of a broader transformation of the social justification of public schooling, and manifestations of "the determination of the State to protect itself, and secure the safety and progress of society" (Campbell 1890, 25). Schooling for citizenship sought to impart notions of morality and responsibility, as well as literacy.

Scholars observed that, "As societies became more literate, the speech and print cultures regularly interacted; this kept the illiterate and the literate in the same community.... The advance of literacy was, however, increasingly accompanied by a lowered status and greater isolation of the illiterate and by some devaluing of experience" (Clifford 1984, 473). Schools played a major role in the shift from an oral to a literate culture. The high levels of literacy attained in mid-nineteenth century American made written examinations possible. Clifford noted that, "Because most school and college tests had traditionally been oral, the spread of uniform written tests, mostly after 1850, marked a notable shift in educational practices." Clifford also noticed, "Passage rates for completion of the elementary school course dropped to half that reported under the system using orally administered tests and principals' testimony" (Clifford 1984, 476). Today many argue that, "non-reading among a sizable portion of adults puts the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage in the global economy" (Bennett, Rhine & Flickinger, 2000, 169). Concerned educators insist, "If universal suffrage is the political benchmark of democratic activity, then universal education is the foundation that supports and determines the meaning of that activity" (Kaplan 1997, 423). Clearly, the dangers of political participation by the illiterate that worried nineteenth century writers, remains an ongoing contemporary concern.

Universal instruction in English has also persisted as a political issue and as public policy. The Constitution of the State of California, written in 1849, recognized Spanish as an official language. The Constitutional revision of 1879, however, stipulated "all laws of the State of California and all official writings . shall be conducted, preserved, and published in no other than the English language," a restriction that remained in place until 1966 (Art. IV, Sec 24). English only education laws in Illinois and Wisconsin passed in 1889. In 1896, schools in the then Republic of Hawaii introduced English as the primary language of instruction. Following the Spanish-American War, English was introduced to schools in Puerto Rico and the Philippines. In a speech given in 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt said, "We have room for but one language in this country and that is the English language" (Roosevelt 1926, 554). Dramatic reductions in immigration in the 1920s and 1930s allowed linguistic activism to subside for a time.

Linguistic restrictions reemerged in the late twentieth century as immigration rate once again reached levels similar to those of the 1890s. Voters in Dade County, Florida, approved an ordinance stipulating that county business be conducted only in English in 1980. A county commission repealed the ordinance in 1993. In 1981, the Commonwealth of Virginia declared English to be its official language and emphasized "School boards shall endeavor to provide instruction in the English language" (Code of Virginia 22.1-212.1, 1981: Chapter 829 [section]7.1-42, Amended 1996). Similar measures passed in over twenty states during the next two decades. An Arizona Constitutional amendment mandating English as the only officially sanctioned language, passed in 1988, and was ruled unconstitutional in 1998. It was the first such measure to be overturned in the courts since the 1920s. California voters passed Proposition 187 which barred undocumented immigrants from access to benefits and public services, including education in 1994, by a margin of 59% to 41%. The law was challenged and found unconstitutional by a federal court in 1999. In 1998, California passed Proposition 227, limiting bilingual education in public schools by 61% to 39%. Two years later voters in Arizona passed a similar measure, Proposition 203, by an even wider margin. Similar sentiments have since been expressed by candidates in subsequent campaigns. Notions linking literacy in English and citizenship have persisted since the late-nineteenth century. Historical memory of past policy choices and the consequences of those choices can, and ought to, inform contemporary policy debates regarding language and literacy acquisition and citizenship.


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Mark Groen

California State University, San Bernardino

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Title Annotation:ARTICLE 5
Author:Groen, Mark
Publication:American Educational History Journal
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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