Workers' Education in the United States | The Nation


Workers' Education in the United States

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

At the convention of the American Federation of Labor in Portland, Oregon, in October, 1923, the subject that attracted most attention, next to the sensational expulsion of the Communist delegate Dunne, workers' education. Spencer Miller, Jr., secretary of the Workers' Education Bureau of America, estimates that during the past season there were 25,000 men and women in this country in attendance upon classes under working-class auspices. Sixty per centof the American Federation of Labor is in organizations that have affiliated themselves with the Workers' Education Bureau.

About the Author

All this is encouraging to friends of the infant movement. They are not, however, deceived by it. They are aware thatonly a small beginning has been made; that the mass of trade-union leaders and members have as yet no genuine interest in workers' education, at least not such as induces them to put money into it; that a city labor college may flourish mightily one year, and the following year practically die out; that the whole movement is in an experimental stage, and that little effort has as yet been made to check up in scientific fashion on the results.

It would seem that the most valuable thing to do at this stage is to state some of the problems and issues that are emerging in connection with the work, as to which data require to be collected and analyzed.

For one thing, there is the question of control. Shall the various workers' education enterprises be definitely controlled by working-class organizations -- trade unions, political parties, cooperative societies -- or shall they be intrusted to the extension departments of public-school systems, colleges and universities, and private groups of non-working-class composition? In a number of instances institutions or groups such as are here mentioned have evinced a disposition to "offer their services" to the unions under conditions that would imply turning over the workers' education movement, or important parts of it to them. In the main the labor movement has taken the position that while it does not wish to supplant existing educational institutions, the control of the schools and classes that are to train notonly the intelligence but the spiritof the officers and members of the unions (or other workers' organizations) must be in the hands of these unions themselves; and that the labor movement is quite capable of controlling the educational instruments which it is forging for itself. The Workers' Education Bureau admits to affiliation only enterprises definitely controlled by trade unions or cooperative societies. An offer recently made to it by an outside group to carry on teacher training workers' classes was not accepted, and the policy laid down that such training should be carried on under the: auspices of the labor movement, which would welcome the assistance of all individuals desiring to work with it.

It will be easier as time goes on to hew a straight line in this matter of control, because of the position being taken on another subject closely bound with it, that of financing. In a considerable number of cases workers' classes avail themselves of public school or church buildings where this does not involve any control over policy or freedom of teaching. In no instance known to the writer has any money "with a string tied to it" been accepted by any workers' educational enterprise. The extension department of the University of California, carrying on adult education among trade-union members, last year sought affiliation with the Workers' Education Bureau, but it was refused. Subsequently the university handed over the $10,000 annual appropriation for this work to a mittee, three-fifths of whom were trade-union representatives. This committee then turned around and engaged as director the man who had previously worked under university direction. T.he reorganized enterprise has been granted affiliation with the W.E.B. However, the great majorityof workers' schools and classes are being wholly financed by local unions, central labor unions, o r internationals, supplemented perhaps by a small fee from students; and the general disposition on the partof trade unionists is to continue this independent and self-respecting method of financing. The time must come when regular dues are levied for educational purposes as well as for more conventional trade-union activities.

Who are to be reached by workers' education efforts and how are they to be approached and served? On the one hand, there are organizations that lay emphasis upon what is termed "mass education." The effort is made to get the mass of the workers out to great inspirational meetings at which recognized musical artists provide entertainment, plays are given -- possibly by workers' dramatic groups -- mass singing is developed, and lectures are given or debates staged that serve to place before the masses in popular language the significant issues confronting the particular union or the workers in general. As part of such a program speakers may be sent to local meetings to give educational and inspirational talks.

On the other hand, there are the instances where a comparatively small number are brought together to pursue intensive study of trade-union problems, to receive training for specific tasks such as organizing or secretarial work, serious study on the part of the students being required. Such a class is that to which the Executive Board members of Local 25, United Textile Workers of Philadelphia, have belonged for several years. They have studied the problems of the shops and the branch of the textile industry in which they are working, and on the basis of their studies have submitted and argued wage and other demands before employers' associations. A similar type of work is carried on in a resident institution such as Brookwood Labor College.

In addition there are a very considerable number of enterprises carried on chiefly by international unions or city central bodies where the classes (in economics, labor problems, psychology, literature; these last usually the best attended) are composed of a somewhat heterogeneous assortment of individuals who for various reasons have some interest in the subject taught; where the lecture method usually obtains, opportunity for asking questions and a certain amount of discussion being provided; but where the students do not put in a great deal of study and such benefit as they derive is general rather than specific preparation or trade union tasks.

The first type of education mentioned, "mass education," is a that all important social groups, such as churches, engage in. What may justly be criticized is that the technique of such "mass education" has not been well developed as yet by the labor movement and that sometimes it is mistaken for what it is not and regarded as a substitute for the training of officers and active members in the concrete details of their duties. In particular nothing to speak of has been done in a field that offers, to my mind, golden possibilities, that of training officers to preside at shop and local meetings.

Little criticism is offered of the intensive training next referred to, save in so far as here also the technique still requires much development; but of course such training reaches only the few. The most serious questioning at this moment has to do with the classes of the third type. There are certain exceptions, but in the main it is these classes that show astonishing ups and downs from year to year. It is asserted that they are neither "mass education" nor calculated to give intensive technical training, and that consequently they provide only a very mild and vague "culture" to a pseudo-intelligentsia of the trade.

Still another matter calling forth no little discussion is that of the aim of workers' education. These are some, it has been said, who "want the workers to be given culture and a background that will enable them to think for themselves," while others "want the workers trained in the science of overthrowing the present industrial order and in building new order in which the working class shall rule." Others would criticize both these statements. They would hold that "culture" is a vague and misleading term in this connection, that those who stand for it are in of attacking the worker's problem at its circumference rather than its center, of trying to impart to the worker an appreciation of Plato, Browning, and the Venus de Milo which he in the mass is not interested in and could not benefit by. They would hold, on the other hand, unions. That whatever may be the correctness or value of the second of the above statements as a generalization, its outdoes not fit American conditions and it is not of much help in solving the concrete problems of workers' education. They would put it that workers' education could aim to train members and officers of the unions and other workers' organizations to meet their problems and tasks as members of the organized working class more intelligently and efficiently. They would have the workers' education movement conceive of itself as an instrument being shaped by the trade unions for their own purposes, would have the movement take its place inside the trade unions, and say: Here are the unions with a standard of living to maintain or achieve, with hours of labor to be shortened, with strikes to be fought, with negotiations to be conducted, with an open-shop campaign o r company unions to combat, with millions of dollars to expend, with injunctions and court decisions to fight, with problems and responsibilities in the field of more efficient production or of politics, and so on, and here are the members and officers of these organizations-now what can be done to enable these people more efficiently to. handle those jobs? They would say that workers' education is not a brand-new thing dropped outof heaven or graciously bestowed upon the trade unions a few years ago by some college professor; on the contrary, unions have carried on educational work, by meetings and their press for example, ever since there were unions; the educational movement is becoming larger and more complex now simply because the unions have larger and more complex tasks to perform; and the educational work must in like fashion continue to develop as the situation confronting the organized workers unfolds. Incidentally, the propounders of this statement of the case would vigorously deny that such an aim is "narrow"; they hold that only that man is "cultured" who knows his place in saciety and can in some measure fill it, and that unto him all other things shall be added as a vital part of his being and not an extraneous trimming.

The first organized attempt to deal with the extremely important problem of teaching methods in workers' classes was undertaken by the American Federation of Teachers, which during the past winter called conference on the subject at Brookwood. Among the subjects emphasized at this conference were the psychological approach to social, economic, and political problems; the further developmentof the technique of group discussion with a view, fomr one thing, to securing the important and significant contributions that students can make outof their working-class experience and not permitting classes to be "star" performances by teachers; and the developmentof a curriculum which would not consistof subjects or courses to b e taught by various teachers in well-nigh complete detachment from each other, but of social situations taken up one after another, various teachers sitting in at classes and contributing expert knowledge on various phases of the one living, concrete situation under discussion.

The workers' education movement in America is in its infancy ; it has as yet accomplished little; it is in many ways amateurish. But it is not smug and self-satisfied; it is not set and hardened; it is trying hard to improve upon itself; it is fluid, vital, dynamic. The interest on the part of the labor movement is still small, but genuine and on the increase. When the infant American labor movement in the thirties of the last century became interested in the problem of education, it did much for the establishment of our public-school system which, for all that it has been wrested to a considerable extent from its original purpose, has been one of the mightiest forces in our life. Now that American labor is again taking up the problem of education, who knows but it will make another epochmaking contribution?

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.