Melting Pot

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The Metaphor of the Melting Pot
Peggy Ruth Geren

The melting pot has been used metaphorically to describe the dynamics of American social life. In addition to its descriptive uses, it has also been used to describe what should or should not take place in American social life. How did the term originate? How was it used originally? How is it used in contemporary society? What are some problems with the idea of the melting pot? How is public education connected to the idea of the melting pot? How does the melting pot function in American cultural and political ideology? These are some of the questions considered in the following discussion.

The Statue of Liberty is by now a universally recognized symbol of American political mythology. She stands at the entrance of New York harbor, wearing a spiked crown representing the light of liberty shining on the seven seas and the seven continents. The statue was a gift to the United States from the people of France in 1884. It is made of riveted copper sheets, only 3/32 of an inch thick, ingeniously attached to a framework designed by Louis Eiffel. Its construction is such that it will not be stressed by high winds or temperature changes (The world Book Encyclopedia, pp. 874-875). The symbolism of the statue is reinforced by Emma Lazarus’poem “The New Colossus”, which is inscribed on a plaque at the base of the statue.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of exiles. From her beacon hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the tempest-tost to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” (Emma Lazarus, 1883)

The Statue of liberty, dedicated in 1886, became a visual symbol of American ideology. Between 1880 and 1930, 27 million people migrated to the United States (www.pbs.org/fmc/timeline/eimmigration.htm). Most of them entered by way of Ellis Island in New York harbor. Most of them would have ended their long six weeks’ journey with by seeing Miss Liberty come into view. These immigrants were about to enter the “golden door.” What lay behind it? What opportunities were imagined? What kind of life was imagined? How were these turn- of- the- century souls to become part of America?

A Brief History of the Common School

One powerful social institution that played an important part in the integrative process of immigrants, beginning in about the middle of the 19th century was the common school. Horace Mann, the first state school superintendent in Massachusetts and a strong advocate for a number of social reforms, including a system of public education, articulated the ideology of a common school in his Twelfth Annual Report of the Board of Education in 1849 (Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1849). He says:

It (a free school system) knows no distinction of rich and poor, of bond and free, or between those, who, in the imperfect light of this world, are seeking, through different avenues, to reach the gate of heaven. Without money and without price, it throws open its doors, and spreads its table of bounty, for all the children of the State. Like the sun, it shines, not only upon the good, but upon the evil, that they may become good; and like the rain, its blessings descend, not only upon the just, but upon the unjust, that their injustice may depart from them and be known no more.

This flowery description of the possibilities inherent in a system of free schools was to become part of American political ideology. Public schooling was seen as having the power to recreate and reform European immigrants...
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