“School Begins” seeks to show us how the U.S. government apparently accepted “The White Man’s Burden” and decided to bring “civilization” to the new territories. We see how there is an African-American boy working in the classroom, a Native American student reading a book upside-down, and a Chinese boy attempting to come into the classroom but seemingly excluded. Even as the American ideal is being extended to some, it is simultaneously corrupted or denied to others. The territories acquired from the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) are also represented, as quiet, studious Anglo-Saxons rather than as Spaniards or Mestizos.
The American people, those of Anglo/European descent, at least, had to meet their supposed responsibilities as “properly civilized” people and extend civilization to those less fortunate. The depiction of the territories acquired from the Mexican Cession of 1848 as white is also indicative of an assimilationist attitude which continues today. Those who cannot assimilate in appearance or culture to the mainstream (White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants) are deemed as failures or undesirables, definitively identified and separated from the rest.