Metropolitism & Cosmopolitan

David Wiles, Eaps 760

There are many who argue that the meaning of modern America began with the aftermath of World War II as opposed to the start of the 20th Century. Certainly, the forty year impasse of the cold war meaning of nuclear age and the space age paralle l could be argued as distinct. The end of colonial dependency and the proliferation of new nations speak to a watershed of modern. Within the United States the rise of suburbia and new meanings of national transportation networks (e.g., the interstate h ighway system supplementing the older railroad system) occurred in the past half century.

The issue of "modern origin" may depend upon whether recent changes have simply overwhelmed evidence in the fledgling beginnings in the first part of the century. We have seen, for example, that national policy to create emergency refo rm can be traced to the early 1930's. The belief in centralized controls and mass scale carried over to World War II military application. The post World War era of global consortiums (e.g., the United Nations or NATO) and rationales to strengthen the federal Executive (e.g., the National Security Council and CIA) could be argued as extensions of previous activities. When events are compressed upon one another, it is difficult to determine what is a more sophisticated iteration of a previous pattern and what is a truly novel transformation. Truth is probably an issue of predominance instead of an either-or situation in most cases. Yet, there is no denying the unprecedented "shock of the new" of the atomic bomb and, especially, in many innovations o f the past three decades.

For educators, the argument for beginning the discussion of "modern" might be the fact that "going on to college" applied to roughly fifteen percent of students in high school prior to World War II. It was not until the end of the second world conflict and the G.I. bill for returning veterans that the idea of universal access to postsecondary instruction became popular. Second, before and during World War II, the "lighthouse" public school systems were found in the largest cities of t he country. Descriptions of best included the systems with the largest central office bureaucracies and most developed professional teacher associations. New York City, as the "home" of the National Education Association (John Dewey helped start it) an d 110 Livingston Street, was a top contender. Third, the idea of organized teachers meaning a worker union similar to other parts of municipal government or the private sector is a post world war phenomenon.

Another change that has become common to the description of the past fifty years is metropolitianism. After World War II, the conventional thinking of rural and city environments was dramatically modified by the suburb. The suburb was a place for those "upper and middle class" fleeing the city to achieve the new American dream and those who could live in "bedroom communities" but still work in the traditional cities. Both stratification and mobility patterns of suburbia broke the co nventional assumptions of intergeneration stability and moving "out" in concentric rings. Long Island and Westchester county became the national illustration of a metropolitan relationship with New York City. Public school systems for suburban developmen ts (e.g., Levittown) were created whole cloth or in uneasy alliances with previously remote rural schools.

Suburbia helped create a new form of American cosmopolitanism. Middle class became the norm for living well, while "upper" middle class became the expectation of economic and social progress. Suburbs also implied racial isolation for w hites. The cities were seen as the magnet for domestic migration from the rural south and people in war torn parts of the globe. While cities were perceived as remaining the centers for "arts, museums and theater" such cultural concentration was balanc ed with the images of concentrated poverty and perceptions of low quality of life.

By the end of the Harry Truman and IKE (Dwight Eisenhower) era (beginning of the 1960's) rural, suburban and city public schools were identified and described in very different terms. City schools were described by their central offic e "red tape," "militant" teacher organizations and "unruly" (blackboard jungle) students. Rural schools were "inefficient", "provincial" and in need of consolidation, merger and elimination. Suburbs and private schools were where good k-12 schooling occ urred. Yet, at the same time, there was growing awareness of the interdependency of American life, what Morton Grodzin called the "marble cake" realities of issue description. The "layer cake" of strict separations between local-state-national politics or rural-suburb-city politics were impossible in the United States of the late 1950's.


  • Joel Spring, The Sorting Machine Revisited (1978).