Education and the Politics of Global Capitalism: Tracing Imperial Trajectories from the Late 19th through the Mid-20th Centuries

Endorsed by the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA) and the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE)

Friday, April 3, 2020, 10:00 AM - 11:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Business and Economy; Education; International Relations


In the decades following the Civil War and Reconstruction, many political leaders in the U.S. promoted a national policy of mass education as a strategy of economic development for the impoverished agricultural South and as a means of economic and political integration and consolidation for the nation as a whole. At the same time, national leaders increasingly came to see education in global terms, as a system that could be exported to overseas territories, with potential consequences for matters of economic and political power and influence internationally. By 1907, some of the same federal officials who promoted a national system of education in the U.S. in the 1870s and 80s were busy “spreading the empire of free education” in Puerto Rico and the Philippines. What was the relationship between these projects? How did educators and political leaders frame those connections? How did efforts to export educational institutions and structures overseas play out and with what consequences? What was the practical economic and political significance of education in the historical exercise of global economic and imperial power and how did those dynamics carry over into the 20th century?

In a 2016 historiographical essay, the historian Paul Kramer suggested “politics of capitalism” as a frame for “connecting more localized and nationalized histories of American capitalism outward.” Seeking to bring together two different, but currently vibrant and potentially complementary, historiographies on the history of capitalism and the history of imperialism, Kramer argued for reframing the effort as a project of “political-economic history.” Such an approach, he suggested, would allow historians to “denaturalize” economic relations, recapture the “politics of capitalism,” and trace “imperial trajectories” both “within and across national boundaries.” Kramer himself, as part of outlining the potential of that project and also as part of his larger body of work, identified education as operating within that transnational political space. And yet, a focused analysis of the significance of education in relation to the politics of capitalism and imperialism remains a largely unmet challenge.

This session addresses that challenge. Tracing “imperial trajectories” between and within the U.S., Spain, Argentina, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, the four papers presented here focus on the significance of education in several types of economic relationships, including: global commodity markets, international labor markets, and colonialism. They also uncover some surprising and somewhat counterintuitive relationships “within and across national boundaries” and across time. For example, although the significance of education in international economic development is often conceived as a late 20th century policy concern, papers by Beadie and Cantos analyze 19th century versions of such imperial policies in the U.S. and Spain upon which later policies built. At the same time, papers presented by Lefty and Leroux complicate our understanding of such policies by challenging common assumptions about the direction of influence, for example highlighting the efforts of Argentine elites to invite US educational influence and the influence of U.S. colonial experience in Puerto Rico on domestic U.S. education and economic policy at home.

Papers Presented

Schooling for Global Capitalism in the “Oldest Colony in the World”: The Puerto Rican Origins of the Educational War on Poverty

When Lyndon B. Johnson discussed the War on Poverty with his advisors, he implored, “This is going to be an education program. We are going to eliminate poverty through education… people are going to learn their way out of poverty.” While the idea of schooling one’s way out of poverty was not new to the era—indeed it had a storied history in the United States—the postwar incarnation of this idea had a more recent and unexpected model: Puerto Rico. As a self-described “showcase of democracy” in the Caribbean, a model for United States-style development for the Third World, and a handy foil to Soviet-backed Cuba following the 1959 Revolution, Puerto Rico played a key if oft-forgotten role in the development of U.S. foreign and domestic policy. It was also a colony of the United States.
This paper examines links between economic policies in the U.S. and Puerto Rico from the 1940s to the mid-1960s, considering how the island’s development program Operation Bootstrap served as inspiration for aid programs abroad—particularly the Alliance for Progress—before circulating home to the Great Society. In particular, I emphasize the strategic role education played as “the only valid passport from poverty” first in the context of rising Cold War nationalisms and then domestically when racialized poverty and black nationalism posed similar threats to the capitalist system. Conversing with recent scholarship that engages links between the politics of capitalism and the politics of U.S. imperialism, I place schooling at the center of that story.

Presented By
Lauren Lefty, New York University

Overseas U.S. Teachers as Migrant Workers in the Late Nineteenth Century’s Global Imperial System

This paper explores how teacher migrations to Argentina were shaped by growth of global capitalism and national and imperial projects in the Americas. Returning from diplomatic service in the United States in 1868, Domingo Sarmiento declared his intent to become Argentina’s “Schoolmaster President” and enacted plans to import key features of U.S. public education to support economic modernization and political consolidation. Sarmiento’s attempts to engage North Americans in this educational project (akin to Victoria DeGrazia’s concept of “irresistible empire”) were only partly realized. The Argentine government failed to capture interest from U.S. politicians, but it successfully harnessed the exploitable republicanism and aspiring global cosmopolitanism of unorganized, underpaid white women teachers. In exchange for transmitting lessons of individualism, moral self-mastery, and social mobility at the core of U.S. public education, women teachers earned salaries far greater than they could at home. Dispersed to distant provincial capitals, their employment provoked some community opposition but also elicited support from elites whose interests were served by transnational webs of educative and economic relations. Although they did not depart the United States identifying as migrant workers, some came to recognize how well that status described their condition. Aware of the vicissitudes of educational labor markets, these teachers made strategic use of chances for accumulating personal savings and cultural capital abroad. With much to gain from growth of U.S. and Argentine state power and global capitalist expansion, they represented a distinctive constituency of midlevel workers in empire, who experienced both vulnerability and opportunity in development of global imperial projects.

Presented By
Karen Leroux, Drake University

Modernization, Economic Progress, and Education in Nineteenth-Century Philippines

Convinced that education would promote social order, economic progress, and cultural stability, nineteenth-century reformers used schools to cultivate national identity and political unity. This was the case in Spain, a nation in political and economic turmoil and an imperial power on the decline. Influenced by the Enlightenment ideals of progress and rationality, desirous of regaining status among European powers, and desperate to hold onto its Philippine colony, the country encouraged the foundation of economic societies [Amigos del País] to support scientific and agricultural pursuits.
While officials attempted to modernize and systematize government institutions in the Philippines, economic societies focused on ways to modernize and improve the economy. Education would serve both endeavors and became the cornerstone of colonial policy making. Universal education would train a native workforce to help administer the increasingly bureaucratic colonial state. Vocational schools would prepare Filipinos to participate in the colony’s economy, which would ultimately benefit the metropole. Nineteenth-century colonial education was a key component in the imagining of a modern, economically solvent Spanish state.
Historians have largely neglected Philippine education in the second half of the nineteenth century, instead focusing on the American colonial period. However, it was during this earlier time that education was expanded and secularized to serve a national agenda, a policy that continued into the American period. Utilizing legislation, government reports, and Amigos del País records, this paper addresses the imbalance in the Philippine historiography by tracing Spain’s efforts to utilize education for economic and political integration at home and abroad.

Presented By
Erin Cantos, University of Wisconsin-Madison

“Annexing the World:” Education as National and Imperial Policy in a Competitive Global Economy, 1876–1907

Beginning in 1876, with the U.S. Centennial in Philadelphia and continuing at the Paris exhibition in 1878, leading members of the National Education Association, together with federal officials, invested heavily in describing U.S. education in national terms for an international audience. That international context in turn became a source of pressure for political leaders seeking to establish a federal system of education in the United States. Citing France, Belgium, Prussia, Russia, Austria, and Japan, Senator Henry Blair in 1887 warned that other nations were “accelerating their pace” in mass education while the U.S. pace was stagnant or declining. Great Britain, which once lagged in school provisions, had established a national system and extended it to “every vacant lot on the globe.” Wherever Great Britain “sends her ships she carries her institutions and her laws,” Blair explained, with the result that she had now “annexed the world.”
Scholars of U.S. political economy and government have largely ignored education as a domain of national policy-making in the late nineteenth century. Arguably, however, education played a more central role in how leaders imagined the nation’s future during this period than it had before or has since. Drawing on national reports and congressional debates, as well as on analysis of the politics and structure of schooling in U.S. states and territories, this paper builds upon literature on U.S. political economy and politics to illuminate the significance of education as national and imperial policy in a competitive global economy from 1876 to 1907.

Presented By
Nancy Elizabeth Beadie, University of Washington

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Adam R. Nelson, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Adam R. Nelson is Professor of Educational Policy Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He received his Ph.D. in History from Brown University. His publications include Education and Democracy: The Meaning of Alexander Meiklejohn, 1872-1964 (2001); The Elusive Ideal: Equal Educational Opportunity and the Federal Role in Boston’s Public Schools (2005); Education and the Culture of Print in Modern America, co-edited with John L. Rudolph (2010); and The Global University: Past, Present, and Future Perspectives, co-edited with Ian P. Wei (forthcoming, 2012). He is currently writing a book titled Empire of Knowledge: Nationalism, Internationalism, and American Scholarship, 1780-1830. His research has been funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard, the Advanced Studies Fellowship Program at Brown, and the Vilas Associate Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He co-directs the “Ideas and Universities” project of the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN; see

Presenter: Nancy Elizabeth Beadie, University of Washington
Nancy Beadie is Professor, Chair of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies in the College of Education, and adjunct Professor in the Department of History at the University of Washington. Beadie's research focuses on historical relationships among education, economics, and state formation at local, state, national, and international levels. Her current book project, Paramount Duty of the State: Education and State Formation in the U.S., 1846-1912, analyzes the significance of education in federal policy and the process of state (re)formation during the rise of the US as a global economic and imperial power at the end of the 19th century. Previous publications include Education and the Creation of Capital in the Early American Republic (Cambridge University Press, 2010), which won the Outstanding Book Award from the History of Education Society and Chartered Schools: Two Hundred Years of Independent Academies in the United States, 1727-1925 (NY: Routledge Press, 2002), co-edited with Kim Tolley, as well as a numerous articles in US and international journals. In addition to the politics and economics of education, Dr. Beadie has written extensively on the history of women in education. This work includes two articles for which she received the prize for Best Article Published in a Refereed Journal awarded by the History of Education Society. Other publications include an essay on the rise of national educational systems in North America, for the Oxford Handbook on the History of Education, edited by John Rury and Eileen Tamura, scheduled for 2019 and another on federal education policy and the rise of social science research published in the Centennial Anniversary Volume of the Review of Research on Education, 2016. Dr. Beadie is currently senior editor of History of Education Quarterly. She has also served as President of the History of Education Society (U.S.) and as Vice-President of the American Educational Research Association for Division F (History and Historiography).

Presenter: Erin Cantos, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Erin Cantos is a joint doctoral candidate in Educational Policy Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her research centers on the history of education in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Southeast Asia and the United States, and explores issues of identity, nationalism, assimilation, and exclusion. Cantos’ dissertation, “Revolutionary Teachers: Colonial Schooling and Nationalism in the Spanish Philippines,” traces how universal education gave rise to internal conflicts for Filipino teachers that produced new forms of anti-colonial resistance. Her project contends that to understand how Filipino teachers got involved in cultural and political rebellion is not only to understand the ultimately “incomplete” Philippine Revolution of 1896¬, but also the “incomplete revolution” of universal education itself as a worldwide modernization project in the nineteenth century. Her work on Philippine educational reform and language policy has appeared in European Education: Issues and Studies. Cantos was a finalist for the 2018–2019 National Education Association/Spencer Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship and the Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship. Prior to graduate school, she worked as a nonfiction children’s book editor in Chicago.

Presenter: Lauren Lefty, New York University
Lauren Lefty Lauren Lefty is a doctoral candidate in the History of Education focusing on education policy and activism across the Americas, Latinx education, and global and urban history. Her dissertation “Seize the Schools, Que Viva Puerto Rico Libre” examines connections between education politics in New York City and San Juan, Puerto Rico between 1948 and 1974, considering how both high level policy and grassroots activism were shaped by border-crossing interactions, a colonial context, and Cold War imperatives. Ultimately, this project argues in favor of a transnational and hemispheric approach to understanding postwar education reform, including key milestones such as the War on Poverty and ESEA, community control, and bilingual/bicultural education. Lauren is also the co-author of two books with NYU Professor James Fraser on the recent history of teacher preparation in the U.S. and around the world: Teaching Teachers: Changing Paths and Enduring Debates (Johns Hopkins, 2018) and Teaching the World’s Teachers: A History, 1970-2017 (forthcoming, 2019). Lauren is also the recipient of the 2016-2017 National Education Association/Spencer Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship. Before beginning graduate studies, Lauren worked as a middle school teacher on the Texas-Mexico border, a high school teacher in Brooklyn, New York, and as a policy planner for the NYC Department of Education.

Presenter: Karen Leroux, Drake University
Karen Leroux is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Drake University where she teaches US history and modern world history, with particular interest in histories of women and gender, and has been honored with the Arts & Sciences Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award. Understanding women, work, and education has been the focus of much of Leroux’s historical research. This work has been published in the History of Education Quarterly, the Journal of Women’s History, International Labor and Working-Class History, and several other venues. Two of these publications have been recognized by the History of Education Society with the award of the Henry Barnard Prize in 2005 and honorable mention for the Best Article Prize in 2016. Teaching modern world history influenced Leroux to reconsider her subjects in transnational frameworks, leading her to explore education in foreign and domestic policy, and, most recently, North American teachers’ migrations and their lives and work overseas. Her current book project, Leaving Eden: North American Teachers in Argentina, 1869-1892, illuminates how nineteenth-century women teachers participated in a wide-ranging labor economy that extended from local to global. It argues that US women who taught overseas should be interpreted as economic migrants and contributes to the project of restoring women teachers to US labor history. Leroux earned a B.A. at Northwestern University, a M.A. at the University of British Columbia, and a Ph.D. at Northwestern University.