chapter  2
9 Pages

Educating the Democratic Citizen: Frederick Jackson Turner, History Education, and the University Extension Movement


Frederick Jackson Turner, one of the most famous historians at the turn of the 20th century, argued that the American frontier and the continued availability of free land had driven the formation of a distinctive national identity. “The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization,” he said at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and its effect has been felt most “in the promotion of democracy.” Turner concluded his address ominously by arguing that “the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the fi rst period of American history” (Turner, 1893/1994b, pp. 33, 53, 60). With the closing of the frontier, the development of large corporations and factories, the impressive growth of cities, and the striking stratifi cation of social classes, the United States was in the midst of a profound transformation at the turn of the 20th century. Along with other scholars and reformers, Turner wondered how Americans would cope with such sweeping changes. What would stand in for the frontier and help Americans navigate the transition to a new century, Turner asked; and for much of his career he had been considering ways to foster democracy and an American identity in a country no longer teeming with free land. As a young history professor at the University of Wisconsin, Turner looked to mass education and the study of history as a way to deal with the challenges of a new century.