Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Frances Kellor, Universalism, Particularism, and Culturism

Where do our historic Americanization movement and culturism fall within the spectrum of particularism and universalism? The answers are not so obvious and nearly counter-intuitive. Particularism says that cultural groups, such as the Jews, should focus on what makes them unique. Universalism holds that groups should find that which is common to all humanity within their cultures and basse their identity on those features. Clarifying this distinction is crucial in understanding our personal and national identities as well as our national policy.

Frances Kellor lead much of the Americanization movement which greeted the first wave of heavily contested immigration from 1906 to 1921. You could say that she advocated what might be termed a “multicultural nationalism.” During WW I, on the 4th of July, under the banner of ‘Americanization Day,’ she held loyalty parades. On that date, annually, hundreds of thousands of immigrants, in over 160 cities, marched in their native costumes to demonstrate their community’s loyalty to the United States and the allies. Thus, initially, one might see Kellor as the precursor to particularism.

Culturism defines itself as the opposite of multiculturalism. More specifically, culturism holds that majority cultures within a nation have the right to define, protect, and guide themselves. Most nations are culturist. Saudi Arabia guides itself on its principles according to its traditions and history; China does the same. Domestically, culturism parts with multiculturalism in saying that the West too has a particular culture and a right to protect, promote, and guide itself within its borders. Since this philosophy has a precept which gives the same right of sovereignty to all nations, people could nearly mistake it for a form of universalism.

The difference between Kellor’s vision of Americanization and culturism comes in the form of boundaries. Kellor, in fact, was pulling a trick. Her main technique of Americanization implemented John Dewey’s idea of melding citizens via democratic participation in reform efforts. Thus her curriculum called for community activism. And, if one read the details, nearly none of her Americanization curriculum concerned American history or the celebration of ethnic cultures. Kellor did not mind if you held on to your ethnic heritage. In point of fact, she did not care at all. Kellor, like Dewey, self-consciously sought to guide folks into the modern industrial age. She actually had a faith that all such differences would ultimately become insignificant.

Culturism, as the name denotes, takes culture seriously. The book, Culturism: A Word, A Value, Our Future, devotes two solid chapters to history. Its belief that the West has a core culture to protect, ties it to Europe. In an ultimate act of particularism, culturism holds that democracy, freedom of speech, the separation of church and state, and other such values are not universal, they are western. China’s government censors the internet as it sees fit, culturists do not assume that this nation’s ultimate desire is for democracy; this is a western political virtue. Culturism does not hold that Islam’s goals tend towards freedom of religion; this, again, is a western value. Thus culturism holds that international cultural particularism is not only important, but real.

Kellor’s Americanization ignored culture. In this it aligns with today’s multiculturalism. It considered culture ephemeral and reduced it trivia such as food, festivals, and fashion. Culturism, on the other hand, considers culture very significant. Culturists believe that cultural values can greatly influence economic and educational achievement, as well as the fate of nations. And so while Kellor’s Americanization movement would make no cultural distinctions in terms of immigration laws or which culture would be taught in schools, culturism would base its policies on the promotion of our particular western culture.

As schools of all nations, culturism holds that our schools must teach our heritage. Again, multiculturalism holds that we have no western core heritage. Our land is just a neutral space where various ephemerally distinct cultural groups play out universal values. Multicultural policy holds that if we emphasize our apparent-but-insignificant cultural diversity, we will arrive at universal agreement. Culturism, in taking values seriously, would expect cultures within our shores, if left to themselves and not taught the western historical narrative, may naturally turn anti-western. Thus culturism, possibly counter-intuitively, holds to particularism, and Kellor’s form of multiculturalism rests on the philosophy of universalism.

John Kenneth Press, Ph.D. is the author of Founding Mother: Frances Kellor and the Quest for Participatory Democracy. has more information


Lexcen said...

Dr John,maybe it's too early in the morning for me but I find the distinction between Particularism and Universalism hard to grasp.

Anonymous said...
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Culturist John said...


Thanks for reading through to the end. Particularism is how much of your particular Old World heritage you celebrate with in the West. And universalism would be akin to assimilation.

The article came from a late night brainstorm and perhaps showed it. Lately I have been struck by the convergence and divergence between Kellor and culturism. As you know, it has reverberated with corporate culturism too.

I am, honestly, not sure where to go with it. But, I continue to be fascinated by the spectrum of individual to group to universalist assimilation identity. I think it is something the West really needs to pay attention to.

Thanks for the comment!

Ducky's here said...

I would say that multiculturalism also maintains there is no monolithic "western" culture or if there is it's going to be damn hard to define.

The "culturist" argument still seems a stealth promotion of exeptionalism.

Culturist John said...


Nothing stealth about it. I think that the West is exceptional. I believe that progress has happened and that not all cultures are the same. We have come to a rare place with our sense of democracy and rights and freedom of religion and conscience.

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