During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (ca. 1820s–1920s) the US and British governments utilized elementary education as a tool of assimilation. Huge numbers of Indian and Irish children confronted educational systems designed to separate them from local cultural values. Much top-down official evidence is available for scholars seeking to understand the nature of these campaigns. However, the problem of finding the voices of those at the receiving end—and of attempting to discover pupil agency, as the recent paradigm in childhood research advocates—is especially severe for historians. Unlike anthropologists or sociologists, historians cannot observe or interview as children those whom they study. Occasionally evidence survives of pupils' voices of long ago. But often the historian must rely heavily on autobiographical reminiscences recorded decades later. This article suggests that by employing five critical tests we can use autobiography to gain some sense of narrators' earlier experiences as schoolchildren and of them as active agents in their own lives. Indeed, we often have little else to provide historical perspectives on assimilationist schooling “from the bottom up.”

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