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Schools for New Citizens (1941)

 Schools for New Citizens

  by Viola Paradise, an article in  Survey Graphic, Vol. 30, No. 9, (September, 1941) 469-473.

September . . . a new school term. Not only for America’s millions of school children, but for some two and a half million adults, as well. Under the sponsorship of local school boards, WPA, settlements, unions, churches, they study subjects ranging from simple English to international relations, from Diesel-engine operators to dietetics. A class may be homogeneous—like one where thirty native Americans stand crowded in a Mississippi kitchen to learn to read and write their own language; or, in Arizona, where a group of Americans still speaking the language of their Spanish ancestors (who established missions in that territory in 1629) are now discovering their native tongue; or it may be a New York City school room, where students of a dozen different nationalities are also learning English.

But whatever the place and pace of learning, whatever the sponsorship, the classes have this in common: adults are eagerly acquiring knowledge in which they are absorbed or for which they will have immediate use.

Into this set-up comes the refugee.

He presents no new problems to the school systems of the country. Only some minor adjustments. For a while the public schools of New York and several other large cities did provide special refugee classes, both in day and evening schools. It was soon found, however, that nearly all the newcomers could fit into regular classes. And though some public schools and many private organizaons still arrange special instruction for special groups, by and large public education takes the refugee in its stride.

The new refugee is in many ways easier to teach than the earlier immigrant. Schooling has been an important part of his life. Most of the adults have had the equivalent of our highschool education. Many have had university training. Visit almost any evening English class and you will find a refugee engineer, chemist, scholar. But though many of the emigres had acquired a little book-English in the course of their education and wanderings, most of them have still to learn to speak with ease, to think in English and, added one teacher, recalling many stories of horror and hardship, “even to forget in English.”

The American school helps him forget. He has come expecting something rather forbidding. Instead he finds friendliness and individual attention. And a chance not only to pronounce words, but to contribute his own ideas.

Learning the American Language

 Suppose you visit an advanced class in speech improvement.

It is a little after seven. Twenty students have taken their seats. Others will be a little late, because of their working hours.

A new pupil presents his registration card. He clicks his heels and bows from the waist. His eyes are guarded. “In a few days,” the teacher tells you, “he will come in with an easy American ‘Good Evening.’ Like these.”

A Czechoslovak couple has just entered, the woman ahead of the man. “It is not only our language idioms they must learn,” she continues, smiling, “but the idiom of our manners. Sometimes it is harder for a man to let his wife precede him into the room than to get words in the right order in a sentence.”

The Czechoslovak couple—from the Sudetenland—appreciate the joke, and explain it to the new student in German. He thaws a little.

As the teacher writes a list of words on the board, you look at some of the other students. Afterwards you learn that the handsome white-pompadoured woman with earrings was a teacher in Italy; that the hollow-eyed German is an anthropologist who spent two years in a concentration camp; that the bowed bald man—once a Berlin factory owner—had almost starved on his then fantastic but now almost commonplace odyssey, via Poland, Lithuania, the whole width of Russia, Japan, and finally across the Pacific to the United States; that the distinguished looking man with the deeply lined face and long pliant fingers is a Hamburg surgeon, here only nine weeks, who must wait five years and become a citizen before he will be allowed to practice.

You see, too, many others, long in the United States: A Greek fruit store owner, spurred by the Alien Registration Act into a realization of the value of citizenship, is trying to learn the language he has been mispronouncing for two decades. And, with a start of surprise, you recognize a good sprinkling of American-born students.

A pronunciation drill begins the session. This, those, thirty, thirsty, nothing…. Will these tongue-biting words ever be conquered ? And which will be hardest-for the Hamburg surgeon to change his sirsty to thirsty, for a Hungarian butcher to think instead of tink, for a sad-eyed Viennese anthropologist to transform nossine to nothing; or for an American machinist to wrench free of his life-time habit of saying thoity and nutt’n?

But before your very ears some amazing improvements are accomplished, and more are promised.

Next comes reading, with a current events magazine as text. The students read in turn, the others following silently with their lips, alert for the teacher’s corrections, stopping for definition and comment. Then a lesson in dictation—a rather difficult poem. You feel sure it is beyond the ability of the class, but you are pleasantly surprised at the number who get it with only a few mistakes. The newest comers and the most backward students of course make a good many, and one or two have given up after a short try. The teacher looks at a number of papers, and chooses one student to copy his upon the board. The others compare and correct, and those who could not get the poem from dictation, copy it into their notebooks for home study.

Then the class moves on to its favorite stage—discussion.

Who will volunteer to give a two or three minute speech? A pause. Then a plump Italian gets up and makes an impassioned plea for all-out aid to Britain. The teacher interrupts only near the end, to call time, and to point out a few of the speaker’s errors. An Irish-American woman—about fifty—is next. Twisting at her dress like an embarrassed little girl, she tells how she gets people to give bundles for Britain: she helps them clean out their closets. Next a shy girl, whose nationality you never learn, suggests that somebody speak on what to do about subversive propaganda. Now one of the Americans gets up. “I’m a subversive guy,” he begins, and makes a speech maintaining that this is not our war. There is much head-shaking at this but no violent discussion, and most of the students write down the twelve books which the subversive guy recommends—books ranging from “In Place of Splendor” to “Red Star Over China.” Next a White Russian, veteran refugee in many lands but only now come to America, answers in gentle but badly broken English. “You are mistakit. You are been foolished wit propaganda,” he begins. Next the Greek makes a three sentence contribution. “Here in America is free speech. Here in this class everybody speak how he think. Nobody mad.” Then the American machinist gives a brief and intelligent talk on unemployment insurance.

By now they all want to speak, but the bell rings. The hour-and-a-half is over. The teacher reminds them of an imminent expedition to the Museum of Natural History. They gather their notebooks and leave, some to go into other classes, some for home. They’ve learned a good bit, and they’ve had a good time.

Free Speech, Unafraid

One or two of the teachers took advantage of having a visitor present to invite special discussion. Many refugee students were eager to talk about differences between life and customs here and in the countries they used to call home.

“The hardest,” said a young German, “was conversation. Not the English, I learned enough for talking in England. But what to talk about? People asked me only, how was it in a concentration camp? Or how did it feel to be bombed? Or do I like America? Then comes the silence from nothing more to say. You feel how—the way—you are classified, alien. But now, since I come to school, now I have much with Americans.”

“Yes,” said another. “In school for the first time I feel I belong to a country. What happens in your newspapers, even your history, they are for me, too.”

“Your history,” said an older man. “At home we were taught it is too new to count. But here we learn that a few years of American history can make much for civilization. Because your history, it is the history of an idea, an ideal. Liberty—that was once only a word. Here it is something, even for me.”

“Even yet,” said another, “I am not easy with liberty. When people talk against Hitler, out of habit my head turns. Suppose someone listens!

“It took one year,” said another, “not to tremble when someone spoke to criticize the President. Even now, when a cartoon makes fun with him, then I know I am not yet Americanized to think such freedom should be. That is, I think it should but—don’t feel it.”

“For me,” said another, “the hardest was to lose old life, before Hitler. Here I am nobody.”

“Oh, he will change,” a young woman interrupted “Soon we let go of the past. Soon we don’t have to tell people how important once we were.”

“There is even a joke about that,” said another. “An American dachshund met a refugee dachshund. ‘So you’re a refugee dachshund,’ he said. And the refugee dog answered, ‘Yes, but in Germany I was a St. Bernard!'” And they all laughed.

“Even laughter,” said another, “we find again in America. Only not our right jobs. That is the hardest. And besides English so many new things to learn.”

The refugee has indeed many things to learn; to travel by subway, to use our telephones, to buy our groceries—new brands and grades, weights and measures, new foods, especially vegetables; and new cooking. He must learn, too, a whole new code of American manners: the small change of our conversation; how to behave in a restaurant; that we have no equivalent of the European coffee house, where one cup of coffee entitles one to spend the whole evening over newspapers and talk. He must learn, too, how to take his children’s Americanization, and America’s way of treating children. “Why,” said father, “when I came to school to register, the principal not only asked me, he asked my child to sit down!”

But they learn quickly. Many attend not only the WPA or other public school classes, but seek out special classes sponsored by private organizations.

Perhaps the most outstanding of these private organizations is New York’s Committee for Refugee Education with which twenty-one social service groups cooperate—Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, non-sectarian. This committee’s work has a significance quite apart from the fact that in its fifteen months’ existence it has given instruction to some 3,400 refugees: it has pioneered in the collection and development of teaching materials. Its “Guide to Materials for Teaching English to Refugees,” prepared by Fanne Aronoff, Gilbert Convers, and Nora Hodges is endorsed by state and government bureaus. It has become a valuable contribution not only to teachers of refugees, but to the whole adult education field. It is useful, too, to teachers in public schools, especially in communities with little money to spend, for it reveals an enormous amount of historical and other educational material which can secured free or for a nominal charge.

This committee and the public schools and libraries work closely together. Indeed the whole field of education for the refugee and for the older immigrant—national and local, public and private—offers inspiring examples of cooperation. The Office of Education in Washington the WPA education service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service of the Department of Justice; all pull together to promote good citizenship among America’s foreign born. English and naturalization classes under every kind of sponsorship make good use of the excellent federal textbook on citizenship, “Our Constitution and Government,” published by the Immigration and Naturalization Service of the Department of Justice. Other teaching materials developed in one part of the country are made available to other parts, largely through the services of the WPA.

A whole article might be written on the WPA Americanization and Citizenship program. This is only one part of the WPA education program, in which, in January 1941, 956,163 adults were enrolled. In its 4,187 naturalization classes, 78,691 foreign students are learning, besides English and American history—

their rights under the constitution and their duties as citizens… how our federal government operates and how the state and local governments operate. They learn about the Supreme Court…. They learn our American customs and American ideals. They learn to outgrow old nationalistic and prejudices…. They become friends with their neighbors from other lands.

They are taught in terms of adult thought…. They learn: “This is a democracy,” instead of “I see a cat.” They learn “I am free”—”I have a job.” They learn about things relating to their own adult lives. They enjoy themselves while learning to become good American citizens.—From a leaflet, The WPA Americanization and Citizenship Program, published by Works Progress Administration, Washington, D. C.

The friendly spirit which the refugee finds in Americanization classes he finds, too, in other American institutions—our public libraries, for example. These are a revelation and a boon, especially to book-starved scholars who for years have been denied the use of libraries in their native countries—often, indeed deprived of their own books. Many of them had read translations of certain American authors—Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis—and out of these had up a spotty picture of American culture. In the libraries they fill out the picture. They want books on American history, customs, all phases of American life. To meet this need a descriptive list called Interpreting America and a series of regional lists to be distributed to refugees who are being “resettled” in different parts of country, have been issued by the Readers’ Advisers of the New York Public Library. “The public library,” says the head of this service, Jennie M. Flexner, in a paper on “Readers’ Advisers Work with the New Emigre,” “offers the first real touch of freedom…. Books are a way to learn to live among us…. Among books these men assume again the stature of men, and the librarian has the privilege of taking part in restoring to these emigres the sense of belonging… which will enable them to make their real contribution to the life of the country.”

A Fresh Accent on Patriotism

There is a little danger of giving the impression that all refugees are extraordinarily intelligent and adaptable. There are of course many who find the going hard, the language baffling, the new customs bewildering. But these are in the minority. For the most part the refugees take up their new life with determination, face their new hardships with courage. “I used to teach philosophy,” said one. “Now I must develop a new—how do you say?—a new brand. I go to California to become a butler. Now I must hope to be a good butler, till my better chance comes. And it can come—no?—in this democracy.”

Last June, at the graduation exercises of New York City’s elementary evening schools, a Czech refugee, a chemist, made the valedictory address. When he said, “We owe a special debt to this country whose adherence to its guiding principles of democracy and humanity has snatched us… from the misery and brutality of a world gone mad. Our many nationalities and creeds are fused in a common objective—to serve this, our adopted country,” every word rang with meaning. And it found a moving response among the other 1,400 graduates, representing seventy-five nationalities and many degrees of culture.

And, at the graduation exercises of an elementary day school, a fourteen-year-old refugee child said in her essay on “What It Means to Me to Be an American.”

America! … My heart leaps with gratitude…. I am here in this new country after the terrible hardships I have seen and endured in a land ruled by a dictator…. I can walk in the street without any fear of being mocked at or called names…. I should be thankful for all my privileges, the Bill of Rights, the Amendments, the Constitution, for which so many patriots sacrificed their lives “that this nation, under God, might have a new birth of freedom.”

These two quotations express the feelings of most of the 150,000 refugees from Nazi controlled countries, now in the United States as candidates for citizenship. They are a tiny fraction of our population of a hundred and thirty millions. Small, even among our five million aliens. But though the refugee is statistically almost negligible, culturally he is important. It would be hard to find, in any other group of comparable size, so large a percentage of persons with a contribution to make to the arts, the sciences, and the general culture of our country.

And perhaps even more valuable to us than the cultural contributions the refugee brings to America is his enthusiasm for what he finds in America. The historic words, liberty, democracy, justice, custom-blunted in our ears, recapture their old real content when they are spoken by these emigres, whose appetite for freedom, like that of those earlier refugees, the Puritans and the Huguenots, has been whetted by persecution. The refugee brings to America a fresh accent on patriotism.

Republished from: New Deal Network

This work may also be read through the Internet Archive.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Paradise, V. (September, 1941). Schools for New Citizens. Survey Graphic30(9), 469-473. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from


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