History, Department of


Date of this Version

April 2008


Paper presented at the 3rd Annual James A. Rawley Conference in the Humanities — Imagining Communities: People, Places, Meanings. Lincoln, Nebraska, April 12, 2008. Sponsored by the University of Nebraska–Lincoln History Graduate Students’ Association. Copyright © 2008 Svetlana A. Rasmussen.


American education theory in the twentieth century is characterized by a split between proponents of assimilation, Americanization, and conformity, on the one hand, and proponents of diversity, cultural pluralism, and open society, on the other. The Progressive movement of the turn of the twentieth century espoused an American cosmopolitanism built on the basis of Anglo-American culture, yet ironically its simultaneous support for the equality of the cultures of immigrants made possible the further development of pluralist ideas. Horace M. Kallen in the 1920s introduced the idea of preservation of differences, a pluralism of cultures as opposed to cosmopolitanism, that presumed equality and assimilation. Kallen’s cultural pluralism recognized the inherent value of differences, and the need to preserve them. This division between the “Americanizing” Progressive educators and the adherents of cultural pluralism has shaped the ensuing debates between right-wing and left wing educational and political theorists. Conservative intellectuals, seeking to safeguard Anglo-American cultural traditions, have adhered to the views of the Progressives, suggesting that assimilation to the dominant culture is the most significant factor of success for American ethnic minorities. Intellectuals on the left have rejected the need for imposing a common assimilationist culture, and have embraced ideas of cultural pluralism. This paper considers the positions of Nathan Glazer and Richard Pratte (among others) as they relate to cultural pluralism, individualism, theories of the “melting-pot,”and multicultural and multi-ethnic education.

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