Workers’ Education and Labor Colleges: Education of and from the “Militant Minority”
When labor strikes, it says to its master: I shall no longer work at your command. When it votes for a party of its own, it says: I shall no longer vote at your command. When it creates its own classes and colleges, it says: I shall no longer think at your command. Labor’s challenge to education is the most fundamental of all the three (qtd in Altenbaugh 19).
–Henry De Man, New Republic (1921)
At the same time anarchists were experimenting with libertarian education, radical labor activists began their own efforts to create autonomous educational institutions to train labor organizers and activists. Radical unionists and intellectuals echoed many of the anarchists’ critiques of public education and its role in producing docile and submissive workers. Following repeated attempts to reform the public schools and make them more responsive to the needs of labor, labor activists sought to create their own education in the form of labor colleges (Altenbaugh 22). But labor colleges were more than a place to provide education to workers; they were created with an explicit political purpose. As Richard Altenbaugh argues in Education for Struggle: The American Labor Colleges of the 1920s and 1930s, the labor colleges “were institutions clearly formulated to serve a counter-hegemonic function…Their goal was to train a cadre, that is, activists, propagandists, and leaders who could organize workers and sharpen their awareness of the potential for a society controlled by workers” (8). The daily experiences of workers at the onset of the twentieth century helped to convince them that the promise of the American dream and individualism was reserved for the “prosperous and wellborn” (Montgomery 2). In order to develop a collective and class-conscious approach, a “militant minority” of labor activists understood the necessity of education and consciousness-raising. As David Montgomery has written, for this militant minority, “[c]lass consciousness was more than the unmediated product of daily experience. It was also a project” (2). That is, class consciousness was not something that corresponded directly with one’s class position; it had to be cultivated as part of political struggle. Labor activists created a wide range of political and cultural forums to foster a sense of class unity, but the labor colleges stood as the most direct attempt to cultivate a culture of class struggle.12
For labor radicals, the need for autonomous worker education to promote class-consciousness and working class organization was two-fold. First, public schools were serving the interests of bourgeois society. As Charles Howlett suggests, the founders of the labor colleges knew that “something had to be done to counteract the efforts of American educators who sought to imbue future workers with a sense of loyalty to their jobs, convey an individualistic and anti-union work ethic, and teach a sense of career that would lead to permanence in the workplace” (Howlett 24). James Maurer, president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Labor and a socialist, argued that working class children were being “trained like dogs and ponies” and that public schools “together with the vicious propaganda on social and economic questions…produce just the results that the conservative and reactionary elements of the country want, namely, uniformity of thought and conduct” (“Labor’s Demand” 87-88).13 As James Berlin has argued, emphasis upon uniformity of thought and conduct “manifested the assembly line in education” and the “triumph of the scientific and technical world view” at the end of the nineteenth century (Berlin, Writing Instruction 62). Maurer and others were not only concerned about the regimentation and rationalizing of schooling. They also recognized that public schools were, in many cases, explicitly anti-labor. In his autobiography, It Can Be Done, Maurer recalled:
Workingmen’s children return from school with accounts of indictments of the labor movement made by their teachers or by propagandists who have been allowed to address the pupils. Horrible stories have been told about Bolsheviki, and in the next breath the suggestion has been made that the American labor unions are filled with such people. Children have been led to feel that their own fathers, as active unionists, have been made the dupes of treasonable conspirators (qtd. in Altenbaugh 77).
Maurer was not alone in his critique. In her autobiography, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, an IWW organizer, recalled the way that the public school system responded to the Lawrence textile workers strike in 1912.
The efforts of the…schools were directed to driving a wedge between the school children and their striking parents. Often children in such towns became ashamed of their foreign-born, foreign-speaking parents, their old-country ways, their accents, their foreign newspapers, and even their strikes and mass picketing…Some of the teachers called the strikers lazy, said they should go back to work or “back where they came from” (Flynn 135-6).
It is not surprising, then, that radical labor activists would see education as a deeply political site. Some public school educators used harsh measures to ensure that working-class students would obey these social habits. As Helen Todd wrote in her survey of child laborers in 1909, “Of some 800 children questioned, 269 gave as their one reason for preferring a factory to a school, that they were not hit there” (75-76).
In addition to labor discontent with the public schools, public school teachers were becoming more aware of themselves as workers. In second half of the nineteenth century the largest teachers’ organization in the U.S. was the National Education Association (NEA), which was organized primarily along professional lines and did not include classroom teachers as members until 1912 (Murphy 4). In 1916, in part a response to teachers’ growing discontent of the newly “industrialized” schools and in part due to the vitality of the labor movement, teachers organized the American Federation of Teachers. Based on a trade union model instead of a professional model (2), many of the leaders of the AFT, such as John Dewey and George Counts, would also become active in the workers education movement and the labor colleges in particular.14 Dewey’s pedagogical theories were also deeply influencing both progressive and radical activists, linking education to questions of democracy, industry, and justice. Thus education was highly politicized as radical unionists sought to create their own schools.
The second reason radical labor activists saw the need for labor colleges was what they perceived as the failure of union leaders, especially in the American Federation of Labor (AFL), to widen the labor movement beyond the narrow issues of wages and working conditions. Radicals, influenced by socialists and in large part by the “social unionism” of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), believed that unions could be the lever of social transformation. As Susan Stone Wong explains, “social unionism” was an approach to union organizing and movement building that extended beyond narrowly defined economic issues, which was the trademark of the AFL under the leadership of Samuel Gompers (Wong 43).
The ILGWU saw their union as addressing a wide range of its members’ concerns, including “recreation, education, health care, and housing” (43).15 Writing in 1929, David Saposs, an instructor at Brookwood Labor College, argued that the trade union movement was as responsible for the lack of a militant labor movement as was capitalism (Altenbaugh 156). Saposs echoed the critiques that radicals levied against “business unionism” charging that the AFL and union leaders were all too comfortable within the structure of capitalism. What was needed, argued Saposs, was the creation of a “labor culture” that could serve as a basis for an “effective” labor movement capable of ushering in a worker-controlled society (156-57). The labor colleges were to be places that such a culture could be built and nurtured. Such a culture could not be limited to bread-and-butter issues anymore than the value of an individual could be represented solely in terms of her or his wage.
The challenges of creating independent educational institutions to serve the labor movement while at the same time critiquing both the public school system and union bureaucracy, required more than political propaganda. The labor colleges would have to meet the needs of workers from a variety of backgrounds and educational levels. They developed an educational program that was based on what Altenbaugh calls an “ideological-confrontational” curriculum that “emphasized social-class conflict and working-class solidarity” (92). In general, the labor colleges offered courses in five areas. First, they had formal education classes that provided basic education skills for workers with little schooling experience or poor English skills. Second, was a series of academic courses, primarily in the social sciences, that cultivated class-consciousness and geared toward struggles that students were involved in. Third, “informational courses” and lectures focused on building skills to analyze the problems of the working-class and society. Fourth, “tool courses” stressed more practical skills of labor organizing and strategies for building political movements. Finally, since the labor colleges could not accommodate more than a few dozen of students an any given time, they developed informal activities both on and off campus that could reach more workers (93).
I turn now to arguably the most successful, independent labor college from the period of 1903-1936: Brookwood Labor College in Kantonah, New York. Brookwood saw its role as educating a militant minority to serve a labor movement thought capable of bringing about a fundamental social transformation.
Brookwood Labor College: “Bringing the labor movement a contagious idealism and fervor”16 Brookwood Labor College began as a progressive school modeled after Dewey’s pedagogical philosophy and laboratory schools (Howlett 9, 16; Altenbaugh 70). Brookwood was originally founded as the “Brookwood School” by William and Helen Fincke on an estate they purchased in Katonah, New York in 1919. William Fincke, a minister whose experience as a non-combatant in World War I had convinced him that capitalism was fundamentally anti-Christian, became a leading advocate for Christian socialism. At first, the Finckes did not see their school specifically as a labor college. They saw it as a school to educate working-class students of high school and college age in the principles of democratic socialism and pacifism (Howlett 14-15). However, in the years immediately following the opening of the school, they developed a close relationship with progressive and radical union members who saw Brookwood as a place to train labor activists. Shortly after the school opened, the Finkes found it increasingly difficult to fund its operations. Given the interest labor unions has shown in the school, it was decided to turn Brookwood into a full-time labor college headed by leading progressive, socialist, and radical labor unionists. By building a connection with these unionists, Brookwood would be able to sustain itself through union scholarships and would be guaranteed a steady stream of students. Despite a crackdown against labor during the school’s first two years, the Finckes gathered in 1921 with leaders in progressive workers’ education programs and donated their estate to found the Brookwood Labor College.
The 1921 conference not only led to the founding of Brookwood Labor College, but also the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers and a national coalition of workers’ education advocates, the Workers’ Education Bureau.17 Brookwood was deeply critical of workers’ education for the purpose of training labor bureaucrats or for assimilating workers into bourgeois ideology. As A. J. Muste, Brookwood’s first director explained, the AFL’s commitment to craft and business unionism could never bring about improved conditions for the working class. He argued that “workers would never solve their basic problems unless they strove for a radical reorganization of society” and part of workers education was to develop a consciousness among workers that “such a reorganization is possible” (Muste 93). But for Muste and the other founders of the college, convincing workers that such a reorganization of society was possible should not be merely a theoretical endeavor. Brookwood created a curriculum of praxis in which students would “learn how to keep minutes and write resolutions, conduct a meeting, organize a strike, and be able to provide relief and secure fair publicity for the cause” (Howlett 54). Brookwood set out to provide skills in organizing workers, public speaking, and labor journalism along with a conceptual grounding in socialist theory.
Brookwood built upon the workers’ education programs established by Juliet Poyntz and Fannia Cohn of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. In dialogue with the women workers of the union, Poyntz and Cohn developed a workers education program that foregrounded the role of labor unions as a lever of social transformation. As Cohn put it in 1921, “It has always been our conviction that the Labor Movement stands, consciously or unconsciously, for the reconstruction of society…where society will be organized as a cooperative commonwealth” (qtd. in Wong 46-7). The work of the National Women’s Trade Union School in Chicago, led by Mary Kenney O’Sullivan, also provided models for workers’ education that connected training labor organizers and leaders with early feminist movements.18 It made sense that Brookwood would turn to these other educational models in constructing their own curriculum. Brookwood was located on a large country estate just outside the small town of Katonah, New York. Located in the lower Hudson Valley, the school was not far from New York City, which was a growing hotbed of radical labor activity in the textile factories. Both the ILGWU and the National Women’s Trade Union School were primarily geared toward educating women workers in the textile industry. Although, I would argue, Brookwood did not do enough to encourage women from the textile industry to attend the college, over one-third of the students enrolled were women, the largest percentage of women workers of all the labor colleges (Howlett 56).19
Brookwood was administered by a “Labor Cooperating Committee” that consisted of ten representatives from trade unions including Fannia Cohn of the ILGWU. The link to labor unions was important in recruiting students to the college. Students attended the college free of charge thanks to union scholarships and a donation from the American Fund for Public Service and other independent donations (55). While the Labor Cooperating Committee created a strong link between Brookwood and labor unions, this did not mean that labor bureaucrats were happy about the relationship. Brookwood faculty and members of the Cooperating Committee were deeply critical of the AFL, charging the Federation with racism, sexism, and conservative politics (vii). While Fannia Cohn had worked incessantly not to alienate the AFL leadership, Brookwood faculty and students were unabashed in their public criticism.20 Brookwood’s harsh criticism of the AFL became one of the major factors leading to the closing of the college in 1937, but its insistence on fighting both the indoctrination of workers through formal education and the conservative politics of the AFL spoke to the incredible hope it placed in the ability for education to be a force for creating a radical democratic society led by workers.
For radical educators today, especially those in literacy studies, two aspects of Brookwood’s educational program are of interest. First, Brookwood faculty enacted a pedagogical praxis that built off Dewey’s educational philosophy and anticipated Freire’s notion of dialogic classrooms.21 As Joyce Kornbluh has reported, the Workers’ Education Bureau, from which Brookwood drew its pedagogical principles, laid out four major principles for establishing curricula:
(1) involving participants in developing curricula based on their own needs and interests; (2) opposing the isolation of schooling from the real world; (3) building learning experiences around real-life situations; and (4) viewing the education process as a means of social change (Kornbluh 14).
These principles of the Workers’ Education Bureau echo the influence Dewey’s Schools and Society and Democracy and Education exerted on radical labor educators, with one significant difference. Brookwood faculty did not place the same faith in “rational” education as did Dewey and other Progressive educators.
Brookwood’s mission statement clearly outlined a political, and activist, orientation of the school and its understanding of workers’ education:
Brookwood must be closely linked with its graduates in the field. Its educational work should be related as closely as possible to actual struggles of the workers and farmers, employed or unemployed. It cannot always draw a fine line between “educational” and “organizational” work. It cannot purvey “neutral” education in trade union situations, for example, where racketeering, corruption or autocracy are involved. It must “take sides” (qtd. in Kates 12).
And the curriculum proved to be true to its mission statement. The school’s approach was, to borrow a phrase from the more recent movements against corporate globalization, to “educate to mobilize.” Success at Brookwood would not be determined by how well students mastered course material, or their ability to pass standardized tests and exams, but rather by their future commitment to the labor movement. In composition classes, for example, Susan Kates argues that “while one of the primary goals of these courses was to graduate students who would be effective writers and speakers, the expectation was that rhetorical training was to be used, not to make money or gain employment outside the factory or mine, but to aid others whose exploitation might surpass their own” (Kates 91). This was to be achieved by a pedagogy of praxis, of action and reflection. While students gained practical experience in organizing, running a meeting, writing for labor publications, and maintaining worker solidarity during a strike (Howlett 54), they were also educated in socialist theory and the role of unions in achieving a socialist society (74).
Susan Kates’s study of the rhetoric curriculum at Brookwood demonstrates how Brookwood classes stressed the importance of valuing working class experience, building a sense of collective identity, and leading students to practical social action. Brookwood’s rhetoric instructors made the vernacular language of their students an integral part of their instruction, arguing that denigrating the daily language of working class people reproduced patterns of cultural oppression that dominated formal schooling (Kates 82). But there was also a more practical reason for encouraging students to use working-class vernacular. Helen Norton, who taught labor journalism, discouraged students from using “academic language” in their writing because it would not be as effective in communicating with workers (82). Language, Norton taught, was part of building communities of solidarity between labor activists and the working class (83). Unlike more traditional writing instruction, Norton and other Brookwood faculty did not imagine the “public” to mean a bourgeois public. Rather, the literacy practices students learned in her journalism class were meant to be persuasive, but persuasive to members of the working class. The goal was not only to convince workers of a particular position, but to build a sense of shared struggle in the process of union building. Louis Budenz’s course “Field Work,” asked students to consider the history of rhetorical strategies used by the labor movement in organizing successful strike campaigns (84). As Kates explains,
Budenz urged his students to consider a work force in America composed of many people of different nationalities and cultural backgrounds. The organization of such a diverse group of people was an immense task, and the future of organized labor depended very much on workers’ abilities to assess and respond to particular rhetorical situations. An understanding of how specific rhetorical strategies had failed or succeeded in strikes was crucial (84).
So while the trend in American colleges at the time was toward assessing students’ proficiency in Standard English primarily in a written form, Brookwood faculty recognized a diversity of language practices and gave as much emphasis to oral communication as they did writing. Writing was always situated within the context of the labor press and other media that privileged the written word. Oral communication was seen as vital for students to learn if they were to be successful organizers. Josephine Colby taught a course on public speaking that helped cultivate students’ verbal skills in delivering speeches on working-class conditions, running union meetings, and confronting management with a sense of confidence and authority (Altenbaugh 96).
This is not to say that faculty did not stress the importance of Standard English. Mary Goff, a Brookwood student, recalled that her English classes taught her “how to formulate sentences correctly and to writing compositions [sic]” (qtd. in Howlett 65). However, this was only one aspect of the classes. She also learned how to get to the root of social problems and how to analyze “what are the forces behind conditions that create uprisings among the workers, who creates those conditions and how they are to be met” (Howlett 65). The ability to use Standard English, like working-class vernacular, was a strategic question. In addition to learning how to organize workers, Brookwood sought to train labor leaders who would be able to frame the interests of labor to a broader public in terms of the welfare of all, or most, social groups (70). This meant that students would need to address broader publics with the sanctioned language conventions of the dominant culture.
The faculty understood that the process of education was as important as the content of the courses if Brookwood were to contribute to building a sense of solidarity among all workers—men, women, black, and immigrant. Collaborative learning was integral to most of the classrooms at Brookwood (66). Students actively took part in peer critique (Kates 89), worked together on research projects (Howlett 66), and strove to create a community by approaching courses through the lens of students’ experiences (Altenbaugh 166). Classes at Brookwood emphasized activist literacies that students would be able to use in their practical activity as labor organizers. But the faculty took a dialogic approach to this instruction emphasizing literacy practices that would not only be successful in organizing workers into a union, but would encourage union participation with the goal of achieving a socialist society. In contrast to the AFL’s utilitarian organizing methods that were geared toward increasing membership but maintaining a hierarchical union structure, Brookwood enacted practices of participatory democracy. In his course on union organizing, David Saposs wanted students to think of union organizing as a tool for building a radically democratic community through struggle. He saw organizing campaigns as creating “educational ferment” that could help build a radical labor culture regardless of the immediate success of a campaign (94). He argued,
Agitation must be supplemented by education so as to create a permanent interest in the labor movement and in social problems. It makes no difference whether the situation turns out favorably or unfavorably, intelligent handling and effective follow-up work with extensive and intensive education will bring results (qtd. in Altenbaugh 94-5).
As Altenbaugh argues, Saposs and many of the Brookwood faculty believed that “consciousness-raising superseded the actual outcome of a strike because the workers’ most difficult struggle was long-term” (Altenbaugh 95). The process of building solidarity through activity and language would lead to a strong, radical labor culture.
It was fairly common for students to begin courses in composition or journalism by writing “employment autobiographies” (Kates 88; Howlett 64). These assignments required students to examine their own work histories with a critical eye toward their working conditions and the sense of alienation they felt (Kates 89). Even at Brookwood, students were encouraged to write and revise their texts for other students to read and respond to. Beyond sharing their autobiographies with other students in their classes, Brookwood encouraged students to publish their essays in the school’s newspaper, Brookwood Review (89). Employment autobiographies privileged the lived experience of working over and above students’ abilities to write “well.” Yet at the same time, Brookwood teachers knew that it was important that workers learn to be effective communicators. Encouraging students to publish their autobiographies gave them a concrete audience that would be sympathetic and would be more apt to share their histories. In the classroom, students were organized into peer groups to read and respond to each other’s essays. Students with more formal schooling would be dispersed among the groups, which encouraged students with more formal schooling to serve as teacher-students, again for the purpose of building solidarity (Howlett 66). Instead of the primary authority being the teacher, the classroom was set up to practice solidarity through peer responses to their writing.
Finally, students were also expected to develop literacy skills in social science research methods. While there was no doubt that socialist perspectives dominated the social science courses, Brookwood, at least formally, tried to discourage dogmatism. Instead they emphasized an open inquiry into the problems of labor from a range of political perspectives (214). But no matter the political perspective, students were not encouraged to simply appropriate course material for later regurgitation. Students had to learn how to use, critique, and translate theoretical material in ways that would be useful for their labor work. For example, in her guidelines for writing an assignment in her labor journalism course, Norton instructed students to “comb all the specialized ideologic phraseology out of your vocabulary and translate Marx into the thought and habit patterns of the locality” (qtd. in Kates, 83). This strategy was in keeping with Brookwood’s mission of creating labor activists and not a labor elite. Like Work People’s College, Brookwood was ideologically opposed to the Communists’ call for creating a vanguard party that would lead workers to revolution. Brookwood saw social change emerging from the bottom-up, through a vibrant and radically democratic labor movement.
Brookwood’s closing in 1937 was brought about by several factors, most immediately by a financial crisis provoked when the AFL and other international unions’ withdrew their support for the college. In the context of Brookwood’s faculty and students’ increasing radicalization and critiques of the AFL’s conservativism, and the AFL’s desire not to ruffle the feathers of New Dealers, Brookwood was attacked as being a hotbed of Communist indoctrination (Howlett 219-220). Brookwood faculty were unable to articulate their vision of a radically democratic institution in the face of red-baiting by both the AFL and mainstream media. There is no doubt that many Communists and communist sympathizers attended Brookwood. However, this did not mean that Brookwood had become an institutions under control of the Second International. As Bessie Goren, a former student at Brookwood wrote to A.J. Muste, “Since Brookwood is a democratic educational institution…it is only natural that among those coming to Brookwood there should be communists…And just as Brookwood did not make a communist out of me it also does not change the opinion of communists” (qtd. in Howlett 220-221).22 But in the context of government and popular backlash against Communism, Goren’s understanding of democratic education would not fly with AFL officials or the public at large.
Brookwood, like the labor movement itself, was growing increasingly factionalized in the 1930’s. Conflicts raged over socialist strategy, craft v. industrial unionism, and the use of violence in achieving revolutionary change. More conservative faculty and students critiqued Brookwood as being soft on Communists and urged purging them from the school. Communists and radical left-wing unionists charged the college of being too accommodationist (Kates 94-5). Conflicts were sharpened beginning in 1929 when A.J. Muste and other labor leaders founded the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA), which sought to organize unorganized workers, eliminate racial and religious barriers to union membership, form a U.S. labor party, and to actively opposed U.S. imperialism (Altenbaugh 205). Communists, including a long time Brookwood teacher Arthur Calhoun, saw the new organization as marginalizing them by not adopting policies more in line with the Communist Party. Fannia Cohn and others saw the formation of another organization contributing to the fracturing of the labor movement (205-210). Slowly the faculty either left Brookwood or took sides in opposing camps.
Altenbaugh argues that one of the most significant factors that led to the downfall of Brookwood was their autonomy (9). He suggests that other workers’ education projects that aligned themselves with universities and labor unions were able to weather financial turmoil because of support from these institutions. While it seems clear that a lack of financial stability contributed to Brookwood’s closing, I think Altenbaugh wrongly attributes the school’s commitment to autonomy as the primary cause of its demise. He rightly acknowledges the backlash against the left during the first part of the century and internal strife as contributing causes. Suggesting that the school’s autonomy was its ultimate downfall begs the question: downfall from what? That is, the school may have closed its doors because it could not raise enough funds to cover its operating costs, but this had much to do with the problems associated with creating independent institutions within a capitalist framework. As long as the entire mode of production was organized along the lines of private property and production for profit, the cards were stacked against its success.
What I find more telling about the school’s demise is its inability to move beyond the immediate context of organized labor as its primary constituency. The CPLA was a move in this direction, but it raised more questions than it provided answers. If the CPLA was to address questions of race, the unemployed, the unorganized, how did that fit within the prevailing socialist ideologies concerning the primacy of wage labors as agents of social change? Kates suggests that a fundamental flaw of Brookwood was its inability to address issues of cultural diversity and difference with the same vigor it did class (Kates 92). For all its radicality, it was remarkable that relationships with the feminist movements at the time were tenuous, at best. Likewise, despite the fact that the school made overtures to radical anti-racist activists and unionists such as Lucy Parsons and W.E.B. DuBois, race did not receive substantial attention at Brookwood. Given the mission of Brookwood, it would have been incongruous for the college to try and become all things for all people. However, this only points to the narrow way in which labor was defined. In this sense, labor schools like the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers were challenging narrow conceptions of labor and opening up considerations of what is in labor’s interest to a wider array of issues. Brookwood’s commitment to being autonomous, however, made it possible for teachers to take their cues from social movements and not from colleges, universities, or the State institutions that supported them.
As a final example of autonomous institutions, I will now turn to the Highlander Folk School. Like the labor colleges, Highlander was firmly grounded in labor struggles. But unlike labor colleges, Highlander addressed issues of difference in much more complex ways.
Highlander Folk School: “Yeasty” Education for Movement Building Highlander Folk School has been on the scene of radical American education since its founding in 1932 by Myles Horton and Don West.23 Originally based on the Danish Folk and Workers’ Schools, Highlander has maintained a commitment to teaching for social justice until this day. In the 1930s, after struggling for several years to develop a bottom-up pedagogy for building poor and working-class political organization in Appalachia, Highlander cooperated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations to help build a radical southern labor movement among miners, textile workers, tenant farmers, and other industries based in Appalachian regions of Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, and North Carolina. In the late 1940s and 1950s, recognizing the creeping conservatism of the labor movement, Highlander staff shifted its emphasis to Civil Rights organizing. In the late 1950s and 1960s, Highlander became directly involved in assisting the Civil Rights movement, establishing Citizenship Schools for Southern Blacks, hosting workshops for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and working with poor people in Appalachia to form a broad-based, multi-raced coalition. As Civil Rights became a full-fledged movement, Highlander turned its attention to building a poor people’s movement of and for Appalachian residents.24
One of the fascinating things about the history of Highlander is that it has not gained the same recognition among radical teachers that the work of Paulo Freire has, despite the fact that Horton and the Highlander staff developed similar pedagogical practices well before Freire’s work became know in the United States. Ironically, Myles Horton suggests that it was not until Freire’s work in adult education became known in the United States that Highlander was even recognized among academics as being an educational institution (Horton and Freire 201). This is not to say that Highlander has been completely ignored by academics. But the study of Highlander has remained primarily the province of Southern Studies, Appalachian Studies, and in some cases Adult Education.25 Perhaps this has to do with the on-going invisibility of Appalachia in American political consciousness, the lack of a sense of American radical political traditions, or the appeal of the exotic Other—where American academics continue to look “out there” for new sources of exploitable knowledge. Whatever the reason, Highlander has been one of the most sustained experiments in radical education in American history and deserves the attention of radical teachers.
The story of Highlander’s founding is told almost uniformly as the story of Myles Horton’s educational development and his search for a model for radical education that could be applied in the mountains of Appalachia. Raised in a rural religious community that emphasized Christian deeds and service to the community rather than salvation in the afterlife, Horton learned early on that a commitment to Christianity had less to do with how closely you obeyed the preacher than how much you did to serve your community (A. Horton 12). Horton recalled his mother’s response to his disagreement with the Calvinist ideology of predestination that was taught in his local church. His mother laughed and told him “don’t bother about that, that’s not important, that’s just preachers’ talk. The only thing that’s important is you’ve got to love your neighbor” (M. Horton, Long Haul 7). This early lesson seemed to fit well with ideologies of individualism and independence that were strong in his community (Glen, Highlander 10). The other early influence on Horton was his direct experience with exploitation. Working in a variety of low-paid industries during high school, Horton gained a quick education in the necessity of collective organization to combat the singular power of employers (M. Horton, Long Haul 8-9).
Horton went on to college, first at Cumberland University then later to Union Theological Seminary in New York and the University of Chicago. Thanks to teachers and preachers who encouraged Horton to work on his ideas for a school for social change, Horton was introduced to Harry Ward and Rheinhold Neibur, Christian socialists at Union who provided Horton with a theoretical framework that went beyond traditional Christian ideology (Glen, Highlander 13-5). At Chicago, Horton became more committed to opening a school in Tennessee, even though the specifics of such a school were still vague. Horton visited Jane Addams’s Hull House several times and Addams encouraged Horton to build from the work of settlement houses that were devoted to community education (16). His conversations with Addams and Park helped him “realize that learning which came from a group effort was superior to learning achieved through individual efforts,” and he “began to understand how to use conflict and contradictions to promote learning” (M. Horton, Long Haul 47). Horton also became further convinced that any kind of education that hopes to contribute to social change must promote organization and movement building. To focus only on individual empowerment would keep people powerless in the face of social forces (49).
In 1931, Horton met Aage Møller in Chicago, a Danish minister who encouraged students at the university to use his church for square dancing. Møller introduced Horton to the tradition of Danish folk schools and encouraged Horton to visit Denmark to learn more (16). In September of 1931, Horton traveled to Denmark and spent several months visiting the remaining Danish folk schools throughout the country. Danish folk schools were established by Bishop Nikolai Grundtvig following Denmark’s defeat at the hands of Prussia and Austria in 1864-5 (Glen, Highlander 17). The folk schools sought to create a sense of Danish nationalism among the country’s oppressed rural peasantry by promoting a sense of shared culture, offering technical information useful to peasants, and encouraging both individual expression and collective solidarity (16-7). Horton thought that the similarities between Danish peasants and Appalachia’s rural communities would offer a model that could serve as the basis for his folk school.
In his notes on the folk schools, Horton thought many of the school’s techniques could be useful in setting up an Appalachian folk school. In particular, he noted the school’s emphasis on “peer learning,” “group singing,” “freedom from state regulation,” “nonvocational training,” “social interaction in a nonformal setting,” and a clear stance on what the school stood for and what it opposed (M. Horton, Long Haul 52-3). All of this was combined in a residential setting in which students and teachers lived and worked together cooperatively (52). However, Horton became increasingly uncomfortable with the way that these folk schools continued to rely upon a nostalgic past as a means to build a sense of shared cultural identity (Glen, Highlander 19). The only folk schools he found to be forward looking and responsive to economic changes were the new urban folk schools for industrial workers in Copenhagen and Esbjerg (19). As Glen explains, “these schools effectively addressed the specific problems of Danish laborers and farmers while maintaining a commitment to far-reaching social and economic reform” (19). When Horton returned to the States, he was determined to found a school with the cultural vitality of the Danish folk schools while maintaining a firm commitment to collective movement building.
Horton immediately began raising money for what he called a “Southern Mountain School” (20). With the assistance of Reinhold Neibuhr and several other Christian and non-Christain socialists, Horton was able to gain the support of John Dewey; the head of the ACLU, Roger Baldwin; and the president of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Frank Graham (21). Horton also began looking for a location for the school. In his search, he was introduced to Don West, a “mountain socialist” who had also visited the Danish folk schools and who was interested in establishing a folk school in Appalachia (24). West knew of a woman named Lillian Johnson who established a community school in Grundy County outside Monteagle, Tennessee, but was looking to retire and find new people to run her program. West and Horton met with Johnson in 1932 and convinced her to invest in their vision of an Appalachian folk school (22). Skeptical at first, Johnson eventually transferred ownership of her home and estate to Horton and West, and Highlander was born.
Pedagogy for Movement Building Aimee Isgrig Horton points out that Myles Horton described Highlander’s pedagogy as interconnected “educative environments” that represented complex networks of relations (A. Horton 38). In particular, Horton saw Highlander as having a role in two distinct, but related, educative environments.26 The first was the community itself. This community was not a fabricated or idealized community, but rooted in the lived history of the people living within a particular geographic area (38). Highlander’s location in Grundy County was an especially fertile environment for Highlander’s work since the county was riddled with struggles against poverty, exploitation, and dependence. Grundy County was once a prosperous coal and timber region, but these industries had collapsed well before the Depression. The major industries left residents with exhausted coalfields, clear-cut forests, and the accompanying unemployment, poverty, and sickness (A. Horton 33; Glen, Highlander 23). According to State records, during Highlander’s first three years, more than seventy percent of all Grundy County residents were on some form of government support (A. Horton 34). Despite the residents’ shared conditions and ethnic homogeneity, the “tradition of individualism” among these mountain residents contributed to a lack of any indigenous political organization against their dire conditions (35). Instead, families vigorously competed against each other for scarce jobs and the once vibrant cultural activities among residents had retreated to family spaces (36). In addition to the devastation left behind by the coal and timber industries, the few mining and lumber companies that remained grew increasingly brutal in their repression of workers’ attempts to organize.27
Horton’s second educative environment was the future equitable and just society that Highlander’s faculty sought to achieve. This “new society,” could be enacted by Highlander’s democratic practices, cooperative education, and direct involvement in struggles waged by Appalachian residents (38). But Horton was adamant that Highlander would not be a utopian project. During the summer of 1930, he visited the Oneida colony in upstate New York, the Rugby and Ruskin cooperative living experiments in Tennessee, and the New Harmony cooperative in Indiana and found them all to be little more than idealist endeavors designed more to fulfill the desires of their middle-class founders than to contribute to building social movements (Glen, Highlander 13-4).28 Horton also visited Brookwood, but thought it too structured for the kind of school he envisioned (13). If Highlander was to serve poor Appalachian communities and contribute to movement building, it would have to build its curriculum and its ideals with the people of Grundy County and throughout the South.
The problem was how to bring these two educative environments together in a way that did not oppose community to a future new society. Horton was clear that he did not want to start a school that would simply supplement or reproduce the goals of formal education. If the school was going to contribute to linking the historical rootedness of the community with a future, radically democratic society, Highlander would have to help cultivate activists. Unlike the labor colleges, however, organization would not necessarily come in the form of a labor union—although that was clearly one of Highlander’s early goals. Horton was clear that a school the size of Highlander could not possibly reach all the people in even the immediate community. Highlander would have to be a place for developing activists-educators who were not only capable of being effective organizers, but who would teach others in the community to become activists as well. As Horton put it,
if you’re going to work with small groups and your aim is to change society, and you know that you need masses of people to accomplish that, you have to work with those people who can multiply what you do. It isn’t a matter of having each one teach one. It’s a matter of having a concept of education that is yeasty, one that will multiply itself. You have to think in terms of which small groups have the potential to multiply themselves and fundamentally change society (M. Horton, Long Haul 57).
The Highlander staff accomplished this by integrating participation in local struggles with the school’s educational programs.
The central defining characteristics of Highlander’s educational programs were their emphasis on experiential education, community-based knowledge production, and cultivating what Gramsci would call organic intellectuals. This approach seemed fitting since the teaching staff had to go through their own period of experiential learning for the school to be effective. During the first year of the school, the staff learned the hard way that no matter how much formal schooling they had, nothing had prepared them for educating poor people in movement building. As Horton recalled,
The biggest stumbling block was that all of us at Highlander had academic backgrounds. We thought that the way we had learned and what we had learned could somehow be tailored to the needs of poor people, the working people of Appalachia. We tried unsuccessfully although as creatively as we could to adapt those things we knew…We all thought our job was to give students information about what we thought would be good for them. Whenever they had a problem, we would try to figure out what in our bag of tricks would apply to that problem, and we would adapt it and make it fit the problem. We ended up doing what most people do when they come to a place like Appalachia: we saw problems that we thought we had the answers to, rather than seeing the problems and the answers that people had themselves (M. Horton, Long Haul 68).29
In his dialogic book with Paulo Freire, Horton talks about this early difficulty in adjusting to the demands of liberatory teaching as one of the most important things that he had to learn. Formal schooling had taught him that it was necessary to come up with a model, an already existing program, before one could enact it in practice. Such an approach only reproduced patterns of exploitation that had been going on in Appalachia for generations (M. Horton and Freire 54). Highlander teachers had to learn how to respond to people from where they were, to accept their own experience and knowledge as limited, and that a truly liberatory pedagogy could only be worked out in the process of education (53).
Highlander avoided a missionary approach to liberatory teaching by not going out into the community and preaching social change or seeking converts to the mission of the school. Rather, from its earliest community programs right up until the school’s present work, Highlander identified local organizations and leaders that were actively trying to enact some form of social change (A. Horton 257). For example, during Highlander’s first couple of years, the staff did not go out to the community to recruit students. Aimee Horton argues that the many accounts of the schools first classes suggest that they emerged “informally, sometimes almost accidentally” (40). Shortly after Highlander opened its doors, the school held “community nights” in which members of the staff and community would play music, sing, and gather for informal discussion. The school also provided a space where community members could gather to hold Sunday evening religious meetings. During these early events, Highlander staff introduced discussions of social conditions and ideas of the “social gospel” in the spirit of Christian socialism (39). In general, the first programs were devoted to becoming part of the community in which they chose to locate the school. Highlander’s use of music and song continued to be a fundamental part of solidarity and community building in all of its programs.30
One of the first classes to be offered was a course in psychology that was started after a woman from the community was talking about difficulties she was having with her child. Other courses in geography, social and economic problems, and religion and social change all had their roots in discussions the staff had with members of the community (40). But Highlander emerged as a recognized force for movement building during a strike by timber workers in the summer of 1933. Up until the strike, the Highlander staff saw their efforts as only partially successful. Building a strong relationship to the community and becoming part of the fabric of that community was vital for building trust and beginning to understand the specific issues the community faced. However, for the school to assist in movement building, a situation would have to arise that the community perceived as a crisis (47). The workers who went on strike did not have a union, nor were they setting out to form one. The issue had to do with the low pay workers received for cutting three hundred cords of bugwood—poor quality timber that was used for distillation—for the Tennessee Products Company of Nashville. Workers figured out that the wages they would be paid for the labor intensive work amounted to between fifty and seventy-five cents for a ten-hour day (Glen, Highlander 34). John Glen writes that “the strike gave staff members their first opportunity to respond to a perceived problem within the community and develop a labor organization that could be the basis for broader reform” (34). Workers met at Highlander to strategize about how best to gain higher wages and reasonable working conditions. Dorothy Thompson, one of the school’s more radical instructors, helped workers form their own union, the Cumberland Mountain Workers’ League. The workers were unsuccessful in achieving higher wages or official recognition of their union, but the year-long strike provided a context for workers to gain confidence in their abilities to organize and build solidarity (35). Highlander teachers encouraged workers to define the strike in broader terms than winning recognition. They continually had workers focus on defining the strike on their terms and using organization as a means to redefine their relationships to each other, the logging industry, and the needs of their communities.
In the years that followed, Highlander’s staff followed the same process of getting involved with local struggles and social movements. Like Brookwood and Work People’s College, Highlander sought to develop leaders who could contribute to social transformation. Unlike the labor colleges, however, Highlander did not bring a ready-made curriculum to its students. The issues and the strategies for struggle emerged from below. The Highlander staff clearly helped facilitate discussions and direct community members toward resources, but they were vigilant not to become decision-makers for the community. The principle behind such an approach was not rooted in the kind of libertarian faith in the “true individual” that would emerge spontaneously if freed from the constraints of formal schooling that was typical of the Modern Schools. Rather, oppressive social conditions created conflicts to which individuals and communities were forced to respond. The problem was only that people had been conditioned to distrust their own capacity to collectively organize to address problems themselves. The bugwood workers’ strike gave the Highlander staff concrete practical experience in the kind of education they hoped to create. This practical training also demonstrated that the academic knowledge they possessed was useless unless it was rooted in the specific language and struggles of the community.
Being committed to “yeasty education” also meant that Highlander would not take a leadership role in any social movement. Its programs were designed to cultivate leadership up to the point that an organization could work effectively on its own. For example, one of Highlander’s early efforts in support of the struggle against segregation was to assist in setting up Citizenship Schools that taught Southern blacks the literacy skills that were necessary to register to vote. In a memorandum to Highlander staff members who were working on setting up Citizenship Schools, Horton wrote,
Highlander’s educational resources are available for the use of any agency or organization which shares its views about the need for Citizenship Schools…it is prepared to receive supervisors and teachers sent by any one of these agencies to hold workshops in which these people will be trained for organizing and conducting Citizenship Schools in their local communities (qtd. in A. Horton 233).
The schools were remarkably successful and within a few short years more schools opened and black voter registration began to rise. Highlander staff worked closely with local black leaders, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and local educators in setting up the schools. As a matter of policy, neither Myles Horton nor any other white Highlander staff members taught in the Citizenship Schools. Highlander held residential workshops on its campus for black leaders and educators, but it remained separate from the actual teaching—these schools were to be run by black community members from the start (Adams 227). By 1961, Highlander had transferred all responsibilities for the schools to the SCLC. All told the Citizenship Schools taught about 100,000 people how to read and write in preparation for registering to vote (227).
Similarly, beginning in 1954, Highlander invited black and white college students to the school to discuss segregation and whatever other problems were of concern to them (A. Horton 240). In 1960 the tenor of these workshops shifted dramatically in the wake of the sit-in movement initiated by four black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina. Two months following the Greensboro sit-ins, Highlander held the Seventh Annual College Workshop and encouraged students and sit-in leaders to use the school as a resource. In his opening remarks, Horton underscored that “we are here to help you do what you decide to do, not to try to get you to join with us” (qtd. in A. Horton 241). The workshop was attended by seventy-five student sit-in leaders—fifty of who were black—dedicated to coordinating their efforts into a more cohesive movement (A. Horton 241-2). By the end of the workshop, students proposed the creation of a student organization to further build the student movement and the strategies of civil disobedience. Two weeks after Highlander workshop, student sit-in leaders, many of whom had attended the Highlander workshop, met in Raleigh, North Carolina and formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (245-6).
In each case, the Highlander staff served as a resource for the emerging Civil Rights movements and provided an alternative space to gather and learn some of the skills of movement building. Highlander did not attempt to steer the movements in a direction that the staff saw fit. Rather, they used the same kind of bottom-up educational practices they had learned with the community during the bugwood strike. As these movements established themselves, the Highlander staff turned to look for the next emerging movement that it thought could benefit from their work. It is this kind of flexible, responsive educational practice that has allowed Highlander to continue its work until this day.
Despite Highlander’s close affiliation with labor unions, Civil Rights organizations, and even the federal government during the New Deal, the school remained vigilantly autonomous from external control. The decision to remain independent from formal education systems and other institutions stemmed from Highlander’s understanding of their purpose as promoting revolutionary social movements. Horton and others broke from many Progressive educators who thought radicals needed to work within the system in order to change it. Staff members at Highlander came to a different conclusion. According to Myles Horton, they argued “reform within the system reinforced the system, or was co-opted by the system. Reformers didn’t change the system, they made it more palatable and justified it, made it more humane, more intelligent” (Horton and Freire 200). Critics of Highlander have seen Highlander’s education-from-below approach to be anti-intellectual or doing something other than education. But as Frank Adams argues, those critics “overlook the fact that Highlander is dedicated to helping develop the fulfillment of democracy, not to the preservation of academic discipline” (234). Despite these dismissals, Highlander has consistently maintained that its sole purpose was education—not idle musings or organizing. The fact that Highlander was not recognized as an educational institution until relatively late in its existence required the staff to constantly revisit and rework their concept of education.
Highlander gained a reputation for being an organizer’s training school given that many labor and Civil Rights leaders in the South had at one time or another attended Highlander. But Horton contends that Highlander never tried to train organizers specifically. Rather, Highlander taught people how to “analyze and perform and relate to people” (116). In effect, Highlander taught process, not the technical skills of how to organize. Horton gives an example of how he understands the difference:
If you were working with an organization and there’s a choice between the goal of that organization, or the particular program they’re working on, and educating people, developing people, helping them grow, helping them become able to analyze—if there’s a choice, we’d sacrifice the goal of the organization for helping the people grow, because we think in the long run it’s a bigger contribution (116).
By remaining committed to this model of education, Highlander was able to maintain a certain autonomy from the influences of external organizations.
As I suggested at the beginning of this section, Highlander developed pedagogical practices that are strikingly similar to those of Paulo Freire. However, the degree to which Highlander insisted on remaining an autonomous institution is markedly different from Freire’s experience. For example, Freire worked as Director of the Department of Extension at the University of Recife, was appointed to the office of President of the National Commission on Popular Culture by the Brazilian Government, and as an advisor to the government of Guinea-Bissau. Yet, I would argue this has little to do with a fundamental political difference between the work of Highlander and Freire. It has to do with the social and political contexts of their work. Freire worked in official capacities for populist and revolutionary governments at a moment of Third World revolt against colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism. By contrast, Highlander worked with radical social movements that did not have governmental support. If anything, the U.S. government collaborated with industry to suppress and undermine these movements.