Today we're pleased to present an excerpt from Jonathan Zimmerman's Inncocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century, a book that examines the work and attitudes of the hundreds of thousands of American teachers who fanned out across the globe during the twentieth century. Seeing as we're living in time when America's image around the world is taking a beating, it's worthwhile for us to take a look back at the men and women who have served as the nation's "face" to so many millions around the world. With his eminently readable style, Jonathan Zimmerman is just the person to guide us on this tour, so enjoy...
On July 23, 1901, the U.S. transport ship Thomas set sail from San Francisco Bay for the Philippines. On its previous voyages, a local newspaper noted, the USS Thomas had left the bay "laden with warriors and grim armaments." But now it carried "a peaceful army of gentle pedagogues," whose only "ammunition" would be schoolbooks, pencils, paper, and chalk. The 526 teachers aboard the Thomas included 346 men and 180 women, hailing from 43 different states and 193 colleges, universities, and normal schools. Ten of the teachers had served as soldiers in the Philippines, which had come under American rule three years earlier; several others had taught in Hawaii, another addition to the new American empire. For the rest, however, the trip would provide their first taste of the "tropics"--and of America’s unique mission there. "Our nation has found herself confronted by a great problem dealing with a people who neither know nor understand the underlying principles of our civilization, yet who, for our mutual happiness and liberty, must be brought into accord with us," declared teacher Adeline Knapp, as the Thomas departed. "The American genius, reasoning from its own experience in the past, seeks a solution of the problem, a bridging of the chasm, through the common schools." Unlike other world powers, which used force to subdue their conquered populations, the United States would rely on education.
With a whoop and a cheer, the teachers pushed out of San Francisco’s placid harbor and into the rocky waves of the Pacific. By nightfall, many of them were seasick. "At 6:00 P.M. we rather pretend to eat for most of us begin to expect to feed the fish soon, some practicing stomach gymnastics most fervently already!" Frederick Behner recorded in his diary. Behner would soon join them, retching off the side of the boat for several hours. Over the next few days, as their stomachs quieted, the teachers settled into a noisy routine of social activity. Mostly recent graduates of large state universities, they sang their school songs and shouted "college yells" long into the night. Others formed chapters of their college fraternities or new "state teachers’ associations," developing their own evening rituals and antics. "Yickety Yackety Yockety York--New York, New York, New York!" screamed the largest state contingent, numbering about sixty. A few men played poker and scandalized the more conservative passengers, who denounced the practice at the first meeting of the teachers’ Young Men’s Christian Association. Most of all, though, the teachers flirted--with the ship’s army officers, with the crew, and with each other. “In the upper deck, some of the men and young ladies are working up what appear to be pretty bad 'cases,' " wrote Blaine Free Moore, three days into the journey. By the time the Thomas docked in Honolulu, four days after that, rumors of several impending marriages were already sweeping the boat.
The rumors would escalate in Hawaii, where the teachers made a big splash during their brief layover. One local newspaper announced that thirty couples from the Thomas had married in Honolulu; even more salaciously, another paper claimed that some male teachers had taken wives from "the fair daughters of the Paradise of the Pacific." The accounts turned out to be a hoax, but not before they caused a small scandal back on the mainland—particularly among the fiancées that several new "grooms" had left behind. Meanwhile, the teachers met with American school officials to gain insight about the education of "brown people," to borrow the Americans’ favored phrase. "The fact that so much had been done for the civilization and uplift of the Hawaiians gave us courage to believe that a similar mission would be crowned with success," wrote Anna Donaldson, recalling her "first glimpse of the Tropics." The teachers also visited the Bishop Museum, Honolulu’s premier institution in the expanding science of ethnology. Then they lay down in the grass outside of the museum, under a big palm tree, and sang their college songs again.
Returning reluctantly to the ship, the teachers would sail for another two weeks before they finally sighted the Philippine coast. They dropped anchor in Manila Harbor on August 21, but remained on board for another two days to receive medical inspections and vaccinations. Then a steamboat ferried the teachers onto the shore, where horse-drawn carriages took them to their temporary quarters at the Manila Exposition Grounds. Herbert and Elizabeth Priestley received an eight-by-fourteen-foot room in a thatched-roof hut, with two bamboo beds and a U.S. flag for a door. Here they would fight off new bouts of stomach distress--"no more fatal than our good old green apple malady," Herbert Priestley wrote, "but it hurts a slight more"--and await word of their school assignments. The teachers also received visits from dignitaries such as Indiana senator and imperialist firebrand Albert Beveridge, who praised them as the advance guard of a global American dominion. "There may be a question as to whether the constitution follows the flag but it is no longer a question whether or not the American teacher will follow the American flag," Beveridge told the instructors. "Cuba, Porto Rico, the Hawaiian Islands, Alaska, Guam and the Philippines all prove my statement." Wherever U.S. soldiers went, Beveridge declared, an army of schoolteachers would march behind them.
This book examines the work--and especially the worldviews--of Americans who taught in the so-called Third World in the twentieth century. With the rise of the United States’ overseas empire, thousands of instructors went to the Philippines and other new territories to teach in U.S.-sponsored public schools. After World War II, a second generation of teachers fanned out across the globe under the auspices of volunteer agencies like the Peace Corps. Throughout the century, a vast array of American missionaries taught in religious institutions. All told, between 150,000 and 200,000 Americans served as elementary or secondary teachers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Across the American Century, as Time publisher Henry Luce dubbed it in 1941, these teachers represented their nation to tens of millions of children, parents, and colleagues. More than diplomats or merchants or journalists, teachers put a human face on America as it assumed new powers and prominence on the global stage.