The Great American Melting Pot (?)

You will not catch me dissing “Schoolhouse Rock.”

Like all good Gen Xers, I grew up with the infectious tones of the Saturday morning series permeating my brain. Before I could stop it, “Schoolhouse Rock” told me how a bill becomes a law, informed me that zero is my hero, and explained how an interjection shows excitement or emotion (and starts a sentence right!).

Kids of the last twenty years have matured with a serious gap in their educational and cultural knowledge. Plummeting test scores and rampant student apathy will not end because of laws like No Child Left Behind. For that, we need the immediate return of “Schoolhouse Rock.”

However, despite its emphasis on objective facts and wholesome entertainment, the series thrust itself into controversy on occasion. Well, actually, on just one occasion, and even then only in retrospect.

I’m talking, of course, about the segment titled, “The Great American Melting Pot.” As we celebrate Independence Day, let’s take a look back at this dash of 1970s patriotism set to a soul groove.

One of the lesser known segments of “Schoolhouse Rock,” the segment features a pitch-perfect spokesinger extolling the virtues of immigration (no, really… she does), who then explains how America is a mixture of different races and ethnicities. The singer also belts out uplifting lyrics that praise liberty and the fact that any kid could be president.

Watching it now, however, one has to wonder about the accuracy – and even the appropriateness – of “The Great American Melting Pot.”

Is it a call to racial harmony and an appeal to the common roots that ninety-eight percent of Americans share (i.e., immigrant forefathers?) Or is it a trite, jingoistic anthem created in troubling times that is even less relevant now?

Of course, this isn’t about “Schoolhouse Rock.” The big question is whether the great American melting pot ever existed. And if so, were the perimeters of this ethnic kettle – in reality – confined to Europeans, the occasional Russian, and Jews who changed their last names?

The answer that one gives, and the passion that he or she conveys while giving it, says a lot. What really makes it interesting is that the question doesn’t lend itself to easy left-versus-right debates. Both liberals and conservatives can praise or lambast the melting-pot metaphor, based upon their perspective.

Some liberals love the melting pot for illustrating the quest for equality and the concept that every ethnic group, no matter how recently arrived or troubled, contributes to the American Dream. Or they hate it for its simplistic demand that people drop their customs and heritage to adopt “American ways,” which are inevitably defined by an inflexible majority culture.

Meanwhile, some conservatives grow misty-eyed at the melting pot for enforcing the old up-from-the-bootstraps idea and the supremacy of American society. Or they loath it because it implies that the government should acknowledge languages other than English and that people can’t just shout “Merry Christmas” at everyone.

So which is it? Can the melting pot be both innocent ideal and vile subversion? Is it both inspiring metaphor and insufferable indoctrination?

It shouldn’t be this difficult. We live in a post-racial society, after all… right? We’re supposed to run around yelling, “Hey everybody, it’s the achievement of Martin Luther King’s dream!” But clearly, even looking at thirty-year-old cartoons can prove vexing to that plan. We still struggle with the very idea of what it means to be American. One has to wonder if we will ever come to an answer.

In any case, regardless of your opinion of the segment, and the whole idea of an American melting pot, there is one thing that all Americans can agree upon:

“Conjunction Junction” flat-out rocks.


7 Responses to “The Great American Melting Pot (?)”

  1. July 7, 2009 at 1:44 am

    As a metaphor, it just doesn’t hold up to historical scrutiny. But watching this cartoon made me wonder about the “melting pot” as a future aspiration or dream, one that might someday make room for the nonimmigrants (the indigenous, the slave, and the imported laborer). What a great issue to discuss on the 4th, and what a find! All my memories of “Schoolhouse Rock” and I didn’t remember this one!

  2. 2 coldspaghetti
    July 19, 2009 at 11:17 pm

    I HATE the term “melting pot” — it’s our differences that make us special. We come together as different and distinct pieces, not a neutral center.

  3. August 8, 2009 at 8:16 pm

    I like the idea of a stew more than a fondue as a metaphor.

  4. March 19, 2010 at 8:24 am

    Just found this post through the “Just Posts” links. Here in Canada we use the term “cultural mosaic” which is an idea I love because it emphasizes how many different pieces come together to make the whole. That said, some people argue that the cultural mosaic is an ideal rather than a reality within Canada. Still, I would rather strive for an ideal in which different races, cultures and language groups are celebrated, rather than one in which the goal is to create a homogeneous society.

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