- Learning to Forget: Schooling and Family Life in New Haven's Working Class, 1870–1940
Learning to Forget is a wonderfully complicated work. It draws on half a dozen disciplines. It catches that many perspectives and more: immigrant and native-born, parent and child, male and female, middle-class and working-class. Above all, it connects studies—notably of families and of schools, which scholars have pursued separately for a generation and more. Learning to Forget is richly appreciative of the tensions, contradictions, and fraught uncertainties of coming of age in America.
It is an immigrant story. The book's power lies precisely in the pungent specificity of its analysis of the assimilation, and resistance to assimilation, of the Italians of New Haven from 1870 to 1940. But it is ultimately an American story, and not just because we were all once immigrants. Natives and newcomers, tenth-generation and illegals, we all learn to forget. We all leave behind the lessons our parents taught us.
Stephen Lassonde weaves the disparate and often discordant elements of his tale together with vivifying artistry. In swift prose and with illuminating insights, he provides us "a stereoscopic view that brings both [school and family] into focus" together. In the eloquent voices of the parents and their children, he captures the conflict between the morality of the Mezzogiorno and the very different values of the American middle class.
For the contadini who came to New Haven, children were to be willing participants in a family compact that put claims of kin before aspirations of one's own. Childhood was but a brief period of dependency. Youth began wherever opportunity to work, and to contribute to the family economy, first presented itself. Compulsory schooling challenged the very premises of that immigrant outlook, both economically and ethically. It cost the family income it needed. Education inflicted a feeling of idleness on the young that deprived them of the pedagogic function of early labor and misfitted them for their futures. More [End Page 298] than that, it offended the contadini expection that children's primary responsibility was to attend to the needs of the family and to contribute to the collective effort toward family advancement that was the enduring core of common life. Education also challenged the prerogatives of the elders in moral instruction. It instilled upon children the wrong lessons about obligations to others, and in the deepest sense it was considered amoral.
Lassonde is at his best in detailing the dodges by which Italian youth went to work despite the demands of the compulsory education law. He understands that what the schools deplored as truancy and vagrancy was, for the young, merely the consequence of occasional employment in the irregular juvenile labor market. Lassonde grasps that the episodic school attendance of working-class students made the age at which they once and for all left school a measure of far less significance than it was among their middle-class peers. But he also sees that obligatory schooling carried consequences. If it did not steal the child from his parents, as so many immigrant elders thought, it did undermine their traditional authority.
Over time, according to Lassonde, working-class Italians came to accept the schools' assumption that childhood was "sacred space" for psychological development. Paradoxically, a period of prolonged dependency ensued by extended schooling—to fourteen after 1900, to sixteen and even eighteen by the end of the Great Depression—which reinforced middle-class values of meritocracy and individualism. A genteel ideal of sentimental childhood found increasing purchase among Italians in the first decades of the twentieth century.
The conception of the family as a sphere of sentiment more than as an economic collective was a novel one for Italian immigrants. So was the sense of youth as "discrete, sequenced phases of preparation for adulthood," which Lassonde says followed from those new notions that youngsters learned in the schools. Italian teenagers began to keep their earnings for themselves instead of turning them over...