Jonathan D. Bloom


In December 1925 A. J. Muste, chairman of the faculty at Brookwood Labor College, received a letter from his friend Norman Thomas asking his opinion of "these conferences on adult education being promoted by the Carnegie Corporation." In his reply, Muste reported that he and Arthur Calhoun, Brookwood's Director of Studies, had just returned from one such meeting in New York City. "We here at Brookwood are very doubtful indeed whether we are going to go along with the American Association for Adult Education, which it is expected will spring out of these conferences." Those present at the gathering, Muste went on, "pretty definitely represent a point of view, whether consciously or unconsciously. That point of view is not the same as ours."(l) A little more than a year later, Calhoun put it more sharply at Brookwood's annual conference of teachers in workers' education: “There can be nothing but war between the Adult Education movement, with its 'civic' aims, and the Workers' Education movement, with its class mission.”(2)

By that time, a rather major skirmish, if not a war, had broken out within the Workers' Education Bureau (WEB) over a $25,000 grant negotiated by its secretary, Spencer Miller, Jr., from the Carnegie Corporation. There was opposition to the grant on the WEB Board, and at the 1927 WEB convention, delegates from the Boston Trade Union College proposed a resolution to "disapprove the acceptance by agencies for Workers' Education money or other assistance from such institutions as the Carnegie Corporation, the General Education Board, or other organizations fundamentally opposed to the working class." Although after a lengthy debate the resolution was defeated by a vote of 40 to 20, it indicated the depth of many worker educators' wariness toward the new movement.(3)

What accounted for this wariness and hostility by worker educators toward adult education? And, what was the "point of view" Muste alluded to-the "class mission" Calhoun claimed for Brookwood and workers' education? How did they perceive it as different and contradictory to that of adult education? Finally, if worker educators were ready to turn down support from sources such as the Carnegie Corporation, where did they expect to obtain support? What was the institutional base of Brookwood Labor College and the workers' education movement?

Worker educators mistrusted adult education because of its close association with the Carnegie name. "There are certain names that become symbolic, Muste wrote to Thomas, “and we are inclined to think that the psychological effect of linking up the workers' education movement with the Carnegie Corporation is going to be pretty bad.”(4) He voiced similar thoughts in the WEB convention debate, asserting that “a good many workers. . . associate these foundations with the open shop company union interests in this country. I think the effect of making our educational institutions, our workers' educational institutions, dependent to any considerable extent upon financing from these organizations, is bound to have a bad effect upon thousands of workers and their confidence in the Workers' Education movement.”(5) Even the remarks of defenders of the Carnegie grant revealed a deep sensitivity to the name of their proposed benefactor. As one said, "I will take [their] money to advance this movement, because I am only considering that we are getting a little back of that which was taken from us and our ancestors." Another argued that Samuel Gompers had, in his memoirs, exonerated Andrew Carnegie from responsibility in the Homestead strike.(6)

The particular moment of the adult education movement's emergence also accounts for worker educators' anxious reactions. The new movement's overtures came at a time when workers' education seemed vulnerable to takeover. A half decade of defeats for labor, and conservatism in the nation, had taken its toll on the workers' education movement. While Brookwood, Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers, and other residential programs were well-established by the mid-1920s, dozens of local labor colleges had been forced to retrench or close. The flourishing movement of the post-World War years was foundering and short of funds. Defenders of the WEB Carneg1e grant argued that the Bureau should accept money from any source so long as it came without conditions. But Muste privately wrote: "I am personally concerned. . . that the workers' education movement, and particularly the Workers' Education Bureau, [could] become merely another adult education venture which could be just as effectively carried on by the universities."(7)

What was Muste trying to preserve? In the early 1920s, the movement's dawn, he and a number of others addressed the question "why workers' education?" in numerous articles and conference papers. One such statement was a thirty-page pamphlet titled "How to Start Workers' Study Classes: A Primer to Promote Workers' Education," by Broadus Mitchell, a professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University and instructor at Baltimore Labor College and the Bryn Mawr Summer School. The purposes of workers' education, Mitchell wrote, were "to make workers understand the labor movement and stand by it . . . to fill workers with faith in the cause of labor and devotion to it . . . to surround them with an atmosphere and influence which will create loyalty to the labor movement and to the working class."

Workers' education instructors needed to be, in Mitchell's words, "thoroughly acquainted with the labor movement, not merely from a theoretical but also from a practical point of view . . ." and needed also to have "a deep intellectual and emotional faith in the rightness of the labor movement" The object of study in workers' education, he continued, was “to orient the worker, to place him in possession of the principal facts of his environment, to help him interpret the world in which he lives and to make him articulate.”(8) Workers' education, in short, was purposeful. It was, in the words of another movement publicist, Arthur Gleason, “a means to the liberation of the working class, individually and collectively.”(9)

When Muste looked at adult education he saw a vaguely defined movement "imparting instruction" rather than equipping students to learn for themselves. Its scope appeared to him to include "every organized effort to impart instruction to, or secure the moral development of, persons too old to be classified as infants, children, or adolescents," including every form from "the movies to radio concerts' and lectures, Americanization activities, the teaching of English to foreigners, the extension divisions of colleges and universities, open forums, correspondence schools, the educational activities of YMCAs etc. etc. are all lumped together and called Adult Education." While these forms were answering a popular thirst for knowledge, edification, and entertainment, "voices of authority" were delivering the material, in Muste's view.(10) This was fundamentally different from workers' education, in which the teacher was, as Arthur Gleason had written, "a comrade" of the students, learning as much from them as they did from him or her.(11)

Workers' education also had developed, by the mid-1920s, a particular kind of institutional base. Brookwood had wanted all its financing to come from labor, and set out from the moment of its founding in 1921 to secure endorsements and scholarships from local, state, and national unions. It vested policy-making authority in a Board of Directors whose majority were "Labor Directors," all officials of AFL unions. (Faculty, student, and alumni representatives comprised the rest of the Board.) Unions providing scholarships were eligible for representation on the Board.

However, the 1920s were "lean years" for most unions, and union and tuition funds were not sufficient. The school soon turned to two other sources for support: sympathetic individuals, including one who also gave considerable assistance to adult education, Dorothy Straight Elmhirst, and a maverick foundation, the American Fund for Public Service or "Garland Fund." These three sources--union funds, private contributions, and the Garland Fund--were the financial base not only of Brookwood and other labor colleges but also of a number of kindred institutions of the period, such as the Pioneer Youth, an organization of summer camps for workers' children; the Federated Press, a labor news service; and the Workers' Health Bureau, a pro-union occupational health group.(12) These and other organizations shared beliefs and board members, and all were "independent" in a specific sense. They were controlled only by their staffs and their supporters. They were neither affiliated with, nor dominated by, radical political parties, the national AFL, universities, or government, though they did not necessarily disdain cooperation with any of these.

In Brookwood's case, for example, faculty members were willing, during the 1920s, to teach occasionally at the Socialist Party's school in New York,. the Rand School, or at the Communist Party's Workers' School. Brookwood also did not turn away students who were members of these and other parties. But the school was determined to stay out of the orbit of any political party, even the postwar Farmer-Labor Party in which most of its founders had been active. With respect to the AFL, Brookwood sought to win the confidence and support of all unionists, including those on the AFL Executive Council, but it did not offer direct representation on its Board to the AFL national leadership.

During the 1920s, the "independents" generally survived and grew, with the exception of the local labor colleges mentioned earlier. In the 1930s, however, their relatively narrow base was shaken by the Depression. All three of their sources cut their funding considerably, and forced them to consider other paths.

Hilda W. Smith of the Bryn Mawr Summer School turned to government sources for possible assistance for the Summer School and Vineyard Shore, the year-round labor college she had established in the late 1920s. She whimsically recounts in her memoirs how her trip to Washington, D.C. in the late summer of 1933 resulted instead in an offer to launch a workers' education program under the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA).(13) There she began a new phase of the workers' education movement under the aegis of the New Deal which lasted nearly a decade and which Joyce Kornbluh has described in her book, A New Deal for Workers' Education.(14)

At Brookwood, however, the idea of turning to the state for support never took root. Although a number of graduates and several faculty members individually participated in the FERA and WP A workers' education programs, most Brookwooders viewed the New Deal programs, to quote one faculty member, as "isolated from the labor movement ideologically and financially."(15) Brookwood struggled through the Depression years until its collapse in 1936-1937, at the very moment of the CIO's historic breakthroughs in the automobile and other industries. The school closed in 1937, suffering the same fate as other independent workers' education projects begun so hopefully in the early 1920s.

By World War II, workers' education gave way to labor education, a quite different--perhaps fundamentally different-movement.




1. Norman Thomas to A. J. Muste, 17 December 1925, Muste to Thomas, 21 December 1925. Brookwood Labor College Papers, box 27, folder 18, Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University, Detroit (WSUD).

2. Arthur Calhoun, "The Meaning of Workers' Education," in Adult Education Vs. Workers' Education: Fourth Annual Conference of Teachers in Workers' Education, 18-20 February 1927 (Katonah, N.Y.: Brookwood, 1927), 52.


3. Workers' Education in the United States: Proceedings of the Fifth National Convention of the Workers' Education Bureau (Boston: 22-24 April 1927), 87ff.


4. Muste to Thomas, 21 December 1925. Brookwood Papers, box 27, folder 18, WSUD.


5. Workers' Education in the United States, 94.


6. Workers' Education in the United States, 91, 88.


7. Muste to Elizabeth Gilman, 30 November 1925. Brookwood Papers, box 27, folder 17, WSUD.


8. Broadus Mitchell, How to Start Workers' Study Classes: A Primer to Promote Workers' Education, Workers' Education Pamphlet Series, no. 1 (New York: Workers' Education Bureau, 1923).


9. Arthur Gleason, Workers' Education: American Experiments (With a few Foreign Examples) (New York: Bureau of Industrial Research, rev. ed., 25 June 1921), 6.


10. Muste, "Building a World View," The Survey, 15 February 1926, 544.


11. Gleason, Workers' Education, 5.


12. Angela Nugent, "Organizing Trade Unions to Combat Disease: The Workers' Health Bureau, 1921-1928," Labor History (Summer 1985): 423-446.

13. Opening Vistas in Workers' Education: An Autobiography of Hilda Worthington Smith (Washington, D.C.: privately printed, 1978), 231.

14. Joyce Kornbluh, A New Deal for Workers' Education (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987).


15. John Martindale to Leon Cousens, 13 July 1935. Brookwood Papers, box 80, folder 20, WSUD.



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