- Learning to Forget: Schooling and Family Life in New Haven’s Working Class, 1870–1940
When studying immigrant Italian families in New Haven, Connecticut, re- searcher Vittorio Racca found that some families compared school to the folk medicinal remedy castor oil: America forced their children to swallow it, but school, like castor oil, would not influence their lives.1 In Learning to Forget, Stephen Lassonde shows that this opinion reflected parents' hopes more than it accurately portrayed the changing relationships between schools and Italian families in New Haven. Using oral histories, local reports, school archives, and other sources, Lassonde argues that compulsory schooling created an institutional space for childhood that challenged the traditional relationships between immigrant parents and their children. He concludes that the dialectic between schools and immigrant families resulted in working-class parents accepting, while not fully embracing, the middle-class idea of sentimental childhood. Thus, as immigrant children learned individualistic middle-class values through school, they increasingly forgot the traditional, family-centered lessons their parents hoped to impart.
Lassonde organizes his book to parallel a child's life course and experience with schooling. Early chapters detail late-nineteenth century moves toward compulsory education, while later chapters develop a spatial argument as Lassonde follows immigrant children through secondary schools that were removed from their neighborhoods. At each stage, he shows that formal education challenged the traditional notions of the parent-child relationship that immigrant Italian parents brought to New Haven. Immigrant parents' notions of education stemmed from the practical lessons of working in the field, tending to livestock, or performing the domestic chores that made the southern Italian economy function. Compulsory education meant that children spent their time in the classroom instead of participating in the family economy learning the values [End Page 194] of hard work under the watchful eyes of parents. By sending their children to school, parents relinquished control over their education and their labor power. Lassonde convincingly shows that compulsory education fundamentally challenged immigrant Italians' traditional notions of childhood. The idea of a utilitarian child who participated in the family wage economy gave way to the sentimentalized child who consumed resources instead of contributing to them.
In the last three chapters Lassonde traces New Haven's immigrant Italian youth through adolescence and high school. Based largely on interviews and family histories, the chapters suggest that the length of schooling directly affected Italian Americans' acceptance of American cultural norms. He shows that continuing education beyond the compulsory age limit opened the social space to challenge parents' beliefs of education and dating. While parents continued to view formal education with a wary eye and tended to favor the educational values of work, children increasingly accepted schooling as a route to social mobility where the high school diploma marked a symbol of achievement. High school, Lassonde concludes, marked the point where immigrant Italian families lost the ability to mold their children's identity, aspirations, and values. The broad interclass and interethnic social milieus of high school provided a key point where youths unlearned the family values parents hoped to instill. Lassonde concludes that this process of "learning to forget" facilitated Italian American acceptance of middle-class cultural norms.
By arguing for the primacy of the school as the space where Italian Americans worked out their identities, Lassonde challenges other key interpretations of immigration and ethnic history. Where Kathy Peiss, Lizabeth Cohen, and others argue for the key role that consumption and leisure played in shifting ethnic identities, Lassonde treats them peripherally.2 Perhaps more problematically, Learning to Forget suggests that New Haven's Italian American youth adopted individualist, middle-class cultural ethos during the Great Depression. Other ethnic and labor historians argue that it was precisely traditions of community and family self-help that propelled the activism of the 1930s. Historian Michael Denning shows, for example, that educated second-generation immigrants fueled the radical and collectivist culture that proliferated during the 1930s.3 In key places, Lassonde's evidence privileges the individual, which...