The Hooded Schoolhouse: School Reform, State-Building, and Cultural Intolerance in the 1920s

Thursday, January 6, 2011: 3:40 PM
Room 103 (Hynes Convention Center)
Thomas R. Pegram , Loyola University Maryland, Baltimore, MD
The Ku Klux Klan’s drive to reinforce a restrictive white Protestant American identity involved the hooded order in the politics of school reform, religious exclusion, and expanded state authority in the 1920s.  In one of the odd juxtapositions of interest that characterized the modernizing impulse of the New Era, educational progressives and Klansmen jointly recommended the expansion of state authority in pursuit of cultural unity.  Hooded knights joined education professionals such as the members of the National Education Association in efforts to increase funding for public schools, including support for more generous taxation and bond measures.  Echoing professional educators, Klansmen also agitated for physical improvements of school buildings; called for better teacher compensation; demanded more equitable distribution of school funding across lines of class and community size; advocated compulsory school attendance laws; and, in some locales, demanded free textbooks.  The Invisible Empire also supported the creation of a Cabinet-level Department of Education and federal expenditures for public education.  These positions sometimes cast the Invisible Empire against its supposed natural constituency:  white southerners, rural Americans, and those suspicious of expressions of government authority.
            On the other hand, the Klan’s educational policy was steeped in the intolerant worldview of the Invisible Empire.  Klan leaders envisioned public schools as guarantors of native white Protestant cultural hegemony over diverse ethnic folkways and, especially, Catholic institutional challenges.  In some ways, Klan educational initiatives fit in with the broad postwar demand for patriotic, English language instruction.  But the Klan’s patent attempts to exclude Catholic influence and participation from public education and to throttle parochial schools moved beyond the mainstream of American educational activism.  The Klan movement of the 1920s reflected central debates concerning modern state responsibility and education for citizenship, but its anti-Catholic extremism negated the order’s ability to influence a pluralistic polity.
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