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Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues 8 (2004) 129-136

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Memories of an Intercultural Education 1955-1957

In the autumn of 1955, my fifth-grade public-school class in New York City was hard at work on the social studies unit that would carry us through the school year. It was entitled "People of Many Lands," and our textbook began something like this: "The people of many lands have made our country great." Of course, we were satisfied by this topic sentence, perhaps surprised and comforted, since most of our grandparents had arrived in the United States about fifty years earlier from Ireland, Italy, or Central Europe. The last was a place that no one could leave or enter anymore, because it was "behind the Iron Curtain." Although we were learning to embrace the stranger, the other, whatever land he or she had come from, we were also learning that the stranger in Russia wanted to destroy us and might do so. We had periodic drills in which we crouched under our wooden desks for protection from nuclear attack. "And remember, children, never look up, never look up," so that the hydrogen bomb wouldn't melt our eyeballs. Doom was likely to come, but still immigrants kept arriving on our open shores, just as our grandparents had arrived full of hopes and dreams, which sometimes came true.

"People of Many Lands" was a curriculum designed to build what progressive educators called "education for democracy." It was an earlier version of what we now call multiculturalism. Conceived and developed between the two world wars, education for democracy curricula were widely disseminated during the 1930s and 1940s in urban areas with large minority ethnic populations, primarily by educational institutions set up by followers of John Dewey and their students. Also called "inter-cultural studies," they privileged similarity over difference, with a focus on the "contributions" brought by immigrants that have enriched the United States. All this seems quite tame to us now, almost retrograde. Historians of the movement argue that its leaders were radical in thought, but in action they consciously aimed for mildness and palatability, so as not to offend. Then, as now, intercultural studies were controversial. The movement's attackers charged that it stimulated "Bolshevik leanings, refusal to salute the flag, belief in interracial marriage and support of the 'cult of nakedness.'_"1

Of course, I didn't know any of this at the age of ten. I only knew that my teacher, Mrs. Geraldine Heymann, had traveled in Europe several times, because she sometimes inserted her experiences into our learning. She [End Page 129] particularly loved France. Many years later, I learned that her one brief marriage had been to a Jewish-French photographer. The stories I recall are those that featured tension between a love of Europe and an American identity. She was once on one of those trains where the passengers sit facing each other, as in the old movies we watched on television. Two men were speaking in French about the Grand Canyon. "Merveilleux," one said, "Merveilleux!" Why, boys and girls, didn't Mrs. Heymann join in the conversation? Why didn't she say a word? Because she was embarrassed that she was an American and had never seen the Grand Canyon. So the very next summer, she went.

She traveled every summer, but in 1955 she was staying home in order to save for a safari in Africa. Mrs. Heymann was significantly different from other adult women we knew. She was childless and divorced, both of which attributes gave her a slightly wild, almost exotic air. This was heightened by her quick walk and carelessness with clothes, the way her blouses were always escaping the waistband of her skirt, while her fingers tried continually, futilely, almost of their own accord, to tuck in the offending blouse tail.

That same year, The Family of Man,"the greatest photographic exhibition of all time," comprising 503 photographs from 68 countries, was showing at the Museum of Modern...


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