- Backroads Pragmatists: Mexico's Melting Pot and Civil Rights in the United States by Ruben Flores
Ruben Flores's Backroads Pragmatists explores a transnational flow of ideas about education and ethnic difference that were exchanged among intellectuals and school officials in Mexico and the United States during the period 1920–1950. The "backroads pragmatists," as Flores calls adherents to John Dewey's experience-based educational philosophy, were specialists in rural education who worked in remote settings in the southwestern United States, "where they struggled to understand the meaning of the modern nation in the context of localism and difference" (11). As they sought out ways to best serve Mexican-American students, and then later to achieve racial integration in public schools, the pragmatists looked to Mexico's example of how to use the school to bring marginalized rural groups into the national fold. Flores points out that the backroads pragmatists' now-forgotten political activism was an important part of the U.S. civil rights movement. In segregation cases involving Mexican-American communities in California and Texas in the 1940s, these same figures served as expert witnesses arguing for integration, and in their testimonies Flores finds evidence of the impact of Mexican rural educational policy on their arguments.
Flores first introduces readers to the U.S.-educated Mexicans who implemented Dewey's ideas in Mexico. Beginning in the 1920s, individuals like Moisés Saénz and Manuel Gamio worked in the newly reorganized Secretaría de Educación Pública (SEP) and used Dewey's philosophy to design policies to bring education and literacy to the country's large, isolated rural population. In the SEP's rural schools in this era, students learned practical skills from a curriculum tailored to their local context. Admirers of Dewey in the United States traveled to Mexico to tour these rural schools that so thoroughly implemented pragmatism at a national scale, something they could only dream of in a U.S. context. Flores argues that this contact with Mexico profoundly shaped the backroads pragmatists' research and thinking for decades.
To trace this impact, Flores introduces a range of characters who traveled south to Mexico to observe rural schools, usually led by SEP officials. Drawing from a rich historiography of education in Mexico, he reconstructs what the visitors saw in rural schools and the messages they heard from Mexican officials. Flores then focuses on the careers of three key figures. Loyd Tireman, an education specialist working in New Mexico, set up experimental schools for Spanish-speaking children that were structurally, philosophically, and even visually similar to Mexican rural schools. [End Page 300] George Sánchez, historian and educationist, wrote frequently about Mexican education and lobbied for U.S. education policymakers to learn from the Mexican example. Finally, Ralph Beals, an anthropologist based at UCLA, came into contact with Mexican schools in the course of his field-work, in which he studied questions of acculturation among indigenous groups.
These figures shared the conviction that the state could foster national integration without erasing cultural difference, and they believed that the school was the most important tool at the state's disposal to unite a multiethnic nation. These beliefs spurred them to advocate on behalf of Mexican-American communities in the United States in school segregation cases that laid the groundwork for the better-known Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).
Flores is a careful student of his subjects' heterogeneous intellectual production, examining their official reports, academic theses, personal letters, courtroom testimony, and published works for indications of Mexican influence on their thought. The book could have highlighted the context in which these "backroads pragmatists" developed their ideas. There is little mention of the fact that the handful of Western social scientists he studies were not the only ones who traveled to Mexico in the post-revolutionary decades; in fact, many well-known U.S. artists, writers, and political radicals made pilgrimages to Mexico that...