Immigration and the Rise of the Nanny State
As the industrial revolution socialized production and moved it from the home to the factory, the rise of educational factories, in the guise of compulsory state education, and the socializing of childrearing has likewise undermined family authority.
The school has appropriated familial functions and assumed the role of a surrogate parent. I have argued elsewhere that education is primarily the responsibility of the family. But statist schools have gone far beyond reading, writing, arithmetic and the teaching of basic facts. Functions as diverse as vocational training and the household arts, instruction in manners and morals and sex education—all this training and much, much more has been commandeered by the state and fills the days of America’s youth as they aimlessly wander the halls of our public schools.
Not frequently considered is the role played by mass immigration in the rise of compulsory education and the nattering Nanny State embodied in the helping professions.
It is commonly assumed that our 19th Century ancestors were backward rubes. But by 1840, prior to the rise of compulsory public education, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 91% of the white population could read and write. In Massachusetts, home of Horace Mann, the literacy rate stood at an astounding 98% prior to the state's compulsory education law. Barry Simpson writes, “Between 1800 and 1840, literacy in the Northern States increased from 75% to 90%, and in Southern States from 60% to 81%.”
Starting around 1840 what had been a trickle of immigration became a flood. “The years from 1845 to 1854 saw the greatest proportionate influx of immigrants in American history,” writes historian George Tindall. Approximately three million immigrants entered the United States during this period, nearly 15% of the total population in 1845.
“Beginning with the Irish in the 1840’s,” writes Christopher Lasch, “the immigration of politically backward elements, as they were commonly regarded, sharpened the fear, already an undercurrent in American social thought, that the United States would regress to a hated old-world pattern of class conflict, hereditary poverty, and political despotism.”
Into the breech and eager to manipulate these legitimate anxieties were the likes of Horace Mann and Henry Barnard, who were able to receive a hearing for compulsory education. From that point on the need to acculturate and “Americanize” alien populations became central to the American educational regime. Education thus became a form of social control, and schools developed into institutions designed in part to initiate immigrants into American life and culture.
Fearful of surging Catholic immigration, some northern cities like Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia developed publicly-sponsored education for children. Massachusetts passed the first compulsory school attendance laws in 1852. New York followed closely behind in 1853. A tidal wave soon followed and compulsory education soon became the norm in American life.
Likewise, the rise of family therapists, social workers, and experts in “marriage and family life” arose in the 19th and 20th centuries to bring “salvation” to the family with the undergirding presupposition that families could not provide for their needs without assistance from the helping professions and beneficent state.
According to Lasch, these experts “distrusted the immigrant family and saw the parent-education movement as part of a wider effort to civilize the masses” by Americanizing immigrants. Mass immigration thus became a blunt instrument in the hands of the enemies of the family.
Much too often Americans are cowed by the canard that immigration is a symbolic representation of freedom; that our essential nature and identity as a free people is inextricably tied up in the “liberty” of those who wish to “become Americans.” Unfortunately it is often the case that mass immigration undermines trust and social cohesion thereby becoming an excuse and a tool used to limit the freedom of Americans by augmenting the power of the state to manage ethnic conflict.