Catherine Casey


Workers' Education does not say "Come and be comfortable." It cannot be dressed in the garments of success. It demands the impossible. It calls for hard and clear thinking, for lonely work, for slow results and unregarded growth. The faithful servant of this calling may read "his victory in his children's eyes," but he will not live to see the day of its advent. He is building for a long future.

Arthur Gleason, New Republic, April 1921




The period from 1890 until the first decades of the 20th century was a time of intense social and political ferment in America, of rapid industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. Distant and isolated communities were being linked by railroads and communication systems and notions of nationhood were taking root in public consciousness. As the process of nation-building consolidated, international expansionism emerged as the new frontier. The modern industrial economy competed successfully with Britain, Europe, and Japan, and American global influence began to ascend.

Social thinkers, civic leaders, and reformers fueled public debates over the order and direction of American society. A popular theme was the need for efficiency in social organization, for productivity and individual responsibility, and for the elimination of social problems marring the march of American progress. These years were a period of contest among ideas that would set in place political choices, directions, and culture in 20th century America. In Europe, socialism, nationalism, and trade unionism were growing social movements. It was a period of militancy, social change, and fiercely contested political ideologies.

Within the labor movement, workers' education(1) was seen by some activists and writers as a central part of the contest. It provided an arena of radical political practice. By 1921 prominent union educators were proclaiming the success and hope of workers' education as the way forward for labor. Arthur Gleason, a prominent labor educator, argued in the New Republic that ". . . it [workers' education] is the instrument of control and the path of advancement of labor,"(2) while Fannia Cohn, the President of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU), celebrated the ". . . promise. . . of workers' education now being conducted in this country."(3)

Like labor education, the wider adult education movement was experiencing a period of expansion at the turn of the century. Many of the ideas and experiments in educational reform, in schooling, and in social settlement work influenced the development of adult education. Much of the focus in adult education was reformist and directed toward the Americanization of new immigrants. Beyond reformism, labor leaders and educators viewed worker's education as an agent of social transformation for the building of a new social order in America. In the words of union educator Fannia Cohn: "It [the Labor Movement] strives toward a new life. It dreams of a world where economic and social justice will prevail. . . where society will be organized as a cooperative commonwealth. . . . To attain this end it is necessary to develop a social conscience and a sense of responsibility in the labor movement. With this end in view, we set out to organize our educational work."(4)

Numerous activities, programs, classes, and longer-term courses in residential labor colleges were established within two decades. Many thousands of American workers participated in educational programs in a wide range of subjects that included both specific union-organizing matters and courses in literature, social science, and the arts. Many of the students in the programs went on to become labor leaders and educators. For women, workers' education programs provided opportunities previously unavailable to them, and many women successfully entered positions of influence and activism in the labor movement.

However, by the 1930s the flowering of workers' education in America faded. Labor schools and colleges closed their doors, and many shorter programs and centers folded. As the Depression worsened, organized labor consolidated its power in a struggle for wages and work. Educational activities were marginalized and neglected. Looking back from the late 1980s, questions arise over what happened in labor education in those early years: What were the ideas and themes in the early years of labor education that nurtured the burgeoning programs? What were the factors in the struggle for ascendancy between social reformist and social transformationist ideas? What did labor education achieve during the Progressive Era for American workers and, despite the decline, bequeath to later generations of working people?

This paper traces, first, the historical context of the early union and adult education movements in America and the sources and transmission of ideas for social change. Following a discussion on the programs and projects in worker education, it provides an analysis of the decline and repression of radical labor education.




In America, the first organization of workers resembling trade unions emerged in the late 18th century. In 1778 and 1779 two major strikes of printers and seamen occurred in Philadelphia. Shortly afterward shoemakers, carpenters, and cabinetmakers successfully established craft unions. By the early 19th century organizations of craftsmen were common in the eastern cities. Various workingmen's groups and small parties sprang up in some areas, and progress was made in the organization of women workers. The men and women of the needle trades formed a joint union in 1835, and seamstresses, tailors, binders, and related trades established a combined female union in Philadelphia in the same year.

By the mid 1830s a small group of unions attempted to form a national union organization in New York. They called a convention to "advance the moral and intellectual conditions and pecuniary interests of the laboring classes, promote the establishment of trade unions in every sector. . . and to unite and harmonize the efforts of all the productive classes of the country."(5)

The attempt at a national union organization did not succeed. Recognizing the prematurity of the move, labor leaders turned their efforts to promoting individual unions in many more cities. A rise in unionism accompanied increased industrial prosperity. Likewise, the unions encountered organized opposition to their formation and advancing influence among workers. In the 1920s historian Mary Beard stated that a "systematic effort was made to crush unions during the years from 1829-1842 when there were. . . prosecutions for criminal conspiracy."(6) Later histories of labor support her view.

The early ventures made some ground, but following the Depression of 1837 most union organizations were effectively destroyed. Not until after the Civil War did renewed efforts to establish labor organizations meet success. The Knights of Labor, founded in Philadelphia in 1869, drew together workers of all backgrounds, skilled and unskilled, organized and unorganized. The Knights sustained support and high membership until their eclipse by a rival labor body, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) established in 1886.

Throughout the remainder of the 19th century and into the 20th, fierce contests for political influence and control were waged within the labor movement. Some parts of the movement were strongly nationalist and, following the Depression in the 1830s, hostility among native-born Americans against European immigrants was revived. Many of the new immigrants brought with them radical social ideas along with cultural and religious differences. With experience in European labor movements and with the desire to build a better collective life for working people in the New World, the immigrant radicals provoked strong reaction both from within the American labor movement and from the state and employers.

Traditional American unionists were more interested in securing better wages, shorter hours, and protective laws than in cooperative and profit-sharing schemes offered by the radicals from Europe. Unionism that advocated wider political ends and called on working-class Americans of all races and occupations to work for political influence was not a popular movement. The AFL, under the long-term leadership of Samuel Gompers, stood firmly on a platform of "simple trade unionism." But minority factions were strong and competitive. After the demise of the Knights of Labor, the Socialist Labor Party struggled for influence in the AFL. The hostility, bitter disputes, and factional rivalry within the labor movement hampered the development of labor education until the early 1900s. Fewer disputes might have allowed preparation of the groundwork for worker education to occur earlier. As it was, internal conflict dominated the labor movement's agenda for many years. Worker education straddled a line between the labor movement and the wider adult education movement. It did not become a major focus for either movement, despite the efforts of some educators to achieve that.

            Alongside the history of the labor movement, the story of adult education in America followed a different, less turbulent path. Adult education had occurred through many informal channels for many years. The Christian church's early interest in providing education for working people arose out of a wish to enable people to read the Bible and write their signatures. Later, with industrialization demanding more skilled workers, employers' interest in some form of adult education became apparent. In the late 19th century the emerging progressive movement produced a number of socially-minded persons from church and community groups interested in providing adult education classes to alleviate the harshness of poverty and the problems of mass immigration.

In 1926 the growth and popularity of the movement, and the interest taken in adult education by the Carnegie Corporation, brought about the establishment of the American Association for Adult Education (AAAE). The political implications of Carnegie's philanthropic involvement were important. The corporation's involvement inevitably led to a role that provided "guidance and control" along with substantive funds.(7) By 1926, a strong professionalization theme was emerging as the dominant paradigm in adult education. This theme was developed by the new AAAE organization.(8) The "scientific" notions that marked so much of Progressive Era thinking on education also permeated adult education. Adult education became focused on the "useful, functional and pragmatic"(9) as the standards for knowledge.

For Malcolm Knowles, adult education was part of the "maturation of a nation"(10) then occurring in America from the late 1880s to 1920, a view characteristic of much of the thinking of the Progressive Era itself. Adult education was organized and offered through a plethora of institutions: schools, clubs, YWCAs, study circles, churches, settlement houses, and community associations. Many of the activities in those years were intent on building a well-organized and managed society and shaping adults to be responsible in personal and civic life. The prevailing character was reformism--improvement through education and efficiency. The movement enjoyed many successes; yet, not all educators accepted or operated within that paradigm. Some radical educators worked for wider social change and a different vision of American society. In addition to working within the major providing organizations, many radical educators sought involvement in labor education, working alongside radicals from within the labor movement, to use education as the way forward for labor and for socialism.




An examination of the inheritance and formation of ideas in adult education, and specifically, workers' education, casts important light on the contest that emerged between social reformist and social transformationist ideas. For many progressive reformers, the concept of an ordered and educated society with a regulated, but not planned, economy would lead America to the prosperous democracy of popular aspiration. Their conflict with radical socialists who sought a democratic socialist America--although there were many competing views of socialism debated at the time--was largely over the role of social class as tool of analysis and as a guide toward goals. For radicals, the vision was of a transformed social order in which the capitalist economic system was rejected and in which the structures of social classes would be eliminated. For reformers, the task was to construct a welfare society built on national prosperity and responsibility for others. Adult education was an arena in which these competing visions and agenda were contested. For most reformists, adult education was a vehicle toward the Americanization of immigrants into productive and orderly members of the existing social order. Underlying this position was a focus on the improvement of the individual as a moral and spiritual being. Beneath the conflict between the viewpoints lay a conflict of culture and a deep mistrust of "foreign" or European ideas and activists. The cultural factor was exploited by conservative forces in opposition to both movements. Popular pejorative images of illiterate peasant immigrants depicted as inefficient industrial workers were commonly published in advertisements and cartoons of the time.

Nonetheless, there was a confluence of ideas between adult education and labor education that can largely be attributed to the involvement of certain key individuals who saw labor education as part of the wider adult education movement. Workers' education owes a substantive debt to the European labor movement from which many of the ideas and early experiments can be directly traced. In the late 19th century many European and British socialists and union activists entered the American labor movement. Most were involved in union organizing and in labor organizations, but others became active in educational pursuits. They encouraged union-sponsored classes and discussion groups on social and economic issues. For these activists, worker education was a site of political activity. In some areas of high immigrant concentration special schools for workers of specific ethnic groups were established. The Finnish Work People's College in Duluth was one such project.

In addition to the significant influence of European ideas, the American labor movement had a strong tradition of supporting public education. Long before mass public education was available to all American citizens, the value of education and the claim for public schooling was on the agenda of many sectors of the labor movement. Early labor leaders looked upon education as the "real hope of workingmen in their struggle to improve their lot."(11) In 1829 public education was the first demand of the Workingmen's Party of Philadelphia. In the early decades of the 19th century, labor worked for the establishment of free libraries in towns and cities "for the use and benefit of . . . workingmen."(12)

With the resurgence of labor organizations in the latter part of the 19th century, the labor movement promoted education, especially vocational and industrial training.(13) In its efforts in support of free public education, the labor movement was "thinking mainly of equal opportunity for the children of the workers to rise from the ranks of manual toil."(14) Since 1881 the AFL had publically supported education, especially schooling for the young. It also urged the introduction of curricula that would "teach the dignity of manual labor and give a proper understanding of the labor movement."(15) Notwithstanding, the AFL leadership often took an ambivalent, and at times obstructive, stand on the development of workers' education that promoted the advancement of workers as agents in the construction of a new social order. The longstanding leader, Samuel Gompers, supported industrial education and job training, but little direct AFL support for wider workers' education was evident in the early years. It was not until after the First World War that the AFL developed any significant interest in workers' education. Its position on workers' education largely remained vocational and reformist, in support of an economic unionism that was essentially nonideological. Before the War, the major activities in worker education took place outside the mainstream of the labor movement. These activities were influenced most strongly by ideas from Europe and the work of American radicals and intellectuals who advocated them.

In 1885 a residential labor college was founded in Trenton, Missouri modeled on and named after Ruskin Hall in Oxford, England. Shortly afterward, the Breadwinners' College, a Fabian-inspired school, opened in New York. This was followed in 1906 by the opening of the Rand College, a socialist school for socialist education, also in New York. These ventures were directly inspired by European experiments, but their alliance with branches of organized labor was weak. In 1903 the National Women's Trade Union League (NWTUL), again a replica of a British organization, was established. This organization played a significant role in organizing worker education for women, as did the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers' Union of America (ACWUA). The women activists and intellectuals involved in these projects worked vigorously for the advancement of women workers and for an improvement of women's lot in all areas of life. Consequently, feminist and women's suffrage ideas came into the debate. As these programs developed and participation dramatically expanded, questions over what workers' education was for, and what its curricula should contain, were more intensely debated.

At the same time, the AFL was being challenged by the rise of other, more militant, union organizations. The wider sphere of adult education adopted a predominantly reformist, adaptive model deflecting the more radical intentions inspired, for instance, by the British Plebs League, whose members were active in America. Joseph Hart, commenting in the early 1920s,(16) identified the prevailing view of adult education as efforts to reform or complete the uneducated or malformed adult in American society. The assumption, according to Hart, was that the deficiency rested with the individual and not with the wider social order. "Our refusal to deal with our educational problems as if they were social and real is repeated in all other aspects of American life. Education is in practice conforming and shaping individuals, it is not adequate to the needs of a democracy."(17)

The debate involved a contest for the kind of democracy that Americans wanted. For the early radical educators, the vision of workers' education was not an adaptive or reformist model, but essentially one that sought to enable working-class Americans to shape their own lives and to build a socialist society. From Europe and Britain, social ideas and educational experiments filtered into America. Immigrants brought new ideas with them, and American activists developed informal networks during their frequent visits to Europe.

These ideas contrasted with reformist views concerning goals and political objectives of education, the role of the state, and the nature of American democracy, but sorting out the key actors into clearly labeled ideological positions would be misleading. For some individuals and groups, clear location through their own description is possible. But for others, the complex interweaving of ideas and projects produced some curious alliances between reformers and radicals and makes simple classification misleading.

In part, this feature is a result of the eclectic, nonprogrammatic character of American socialism. A prominent, mildly left-wing journal of the period, the New Republic, published the writings of John Dewey, more usually identified as a progressive reformer, as often as those of Arthur Gleason and Fannia Cohn, radical socialist educators. There was an element of fluidity and experimentation that surrounded the prominent voices of the ideologues and activists from both broad perspectives that is evidenced in some of the projects undertaken in the name of workers' education. A more comprehensive analysis of these interactions and processes is beyond the scope of this paper.




Historians have selected some projects and persons in adult education to be remembered more popularly and generously than others. Despite the confluence of ideas and actors, adult educators have paid little attention to workers' education in the early decades, preferring to honor the contributions of reformist educators that led to the establishment of the American Association for Adult Education. When workers' education is remembered, it is usually the settlement' house projects or the labor colleges that are discussed. Yet, often preceding and outlasting these important developments were the educational activities of other persons and groups in trade union organizations.

Alongside the influence of European ideas, the other major contributors to workers' education in America were several women unionists and educators working in the early years of the 20th century. In particular, programs initiated by the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers' Union, and the National Women's Trade Union League in 1903 were significant. The work of the NWTUL has been surprisingly ignored by most historians, especially its role in the development of workers' education. From its outset the NWTUL had a difficult relationship with the AFL and its leader Samuel Gompers, who at one stage sought to replace the League with an AFL committee.

Prior to the establishment of the Workers' Education Bureau (WEB) in 1921, which aligned itself with the AFL, workers' education had been going on outside the mainstream of the labor movement. Most of it was being organized by and for women workers in both unionized and non unionized work places. The NWTUL was formed in 1903 to organize women into trade unions which would work for labor law reform and the improvement of working conditions for women. It developed educational programs for both women and men, believing that cultural and leisure programs were also a part of workers' education.

By 1913 education emerged as the NWTUL's primary focus. It offered courses in social issues and economics, public speaking, writing letters, and organizing skills. Most branches of the League sponsored various social, recreational, and cultural activities, which built allegiance to the union at the same time that they enriched the lives of working women and girls who usually left school at 13 or 14 years of age. In 1914 the NWTUL organized a project in the Training School for Women Organizers, the first residential workers' education program offered in the United States. Its curricula included fieldwork in union organizing as well as academic study. In 1915 the school changed its name to the School for Active Workers in the Labor Movement to describe more accurately the education it provided. Its work was disrupted during the War and, like most others, it eventually closed in 1926. The League's journal, Life and Labor, provides an excellent record of the School, the League's other activities and programs, and its philosophy of worker education during these years.

The leaders and educators of the League's school were deeply concerned with the need to unionize women and to involve them in the wider associations of the labor movement. The AFL rarely took up women's interests. Writing in 1925, Margaret Hodgen, a strong advocate of workers' education, recalled that "of course the AFL never went to the length of excluding working women from membership. It merely treated the solution of their problems. . . as a subject for public declamation and private neglect."(18) Hodgen's statement summarizes the exclusion and sense of marginality most women workers felt toward the AFL and their general collective experience in the labor movement.

Among the NWTUL's training school's first participants was Fannia Cohn, a socialist and president of her local of the ILGWU in New York. Cohn spent her life in workers' education in association with the ILGWU. The school experienced problems over curricula. Tensions between middle-class "allies" and educators, on the one hand, and working-class unionists, on the other, persisted. Nonetheless, it successfully trained many women workers in the skills of union organization and promoted the importance of education for workers. As a pioneering experiment it influenced the development of a number of other projects, in particular the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Working Women that began in 1921.

Another important contemporary activity was the development of educational programs within the ILGWU, half of whose members were men. The ILGWU gained considerable experience in union organizing and industrial disputes, especially following the Triangle Shirtwaist Company strike in 1909 and the disastrous fire there in 1911. In 1915 the ILGWU set up an educational department with Juliet Poyntz as the director. The department developed a comprehensive program, which focused on education about labor problems and union organization. Its purpose was to advance the social cause of labor and build a better social order. Poyntz was succeeded by Fannia Cohn in 1918. Much of the educational activity took place in community or union local groups. Unity Houses, established at public high schools, provided places where workers gathered for lectures, shop meetings, and courses. In 1916 the ILGWU also set up a Workers' University to conduct classes on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Once again, the curricula offered a mixture of union-­focused subjects and wider education in culture, politics, and literature.

"For some years, workers' education based on a vision of social transformation burgeoned. In 1921 a convergence of several events and forces saw the organization of the Workers' Education Bureau and the launching of the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Working Women. Some labor colleges were founded in the same year, following others established during the previous decade. In 1919 a labor college opened in Rochester, New York, and by the early 1920s labor colleges operated in Boston, Wisconsin, California, Amherst, Denver, Washington, New York, and Philadelphia. The history of these colleges deserves to be told separately. There were many differences in style and operation, but their distinctive shared characteristic was their independence from the control of universities whose involvement was solicited only in an advisory capacity. Many worker educators were suspicious of universities, in part because of their traditional bourgeois character. Losing control of worker education programs to the universities was likely to bring about the embourgeoisment of workers--an end contrary to the wishes of these labor educators.

The various summer schools, of which Bryn Mawr is a prominent example (others were established at Barnard, Washington, Boston College, and elsewhere), featured strong university involvement and were usually noted for their intention to improve and 'embourgeoise' the working-class student. Nonetheless, the programs enjoyed a good level of success and popularity. It is difficult to measure the degree of embourgeoisement. Many unions benefited from the skills their members gained in the programs, and clearly many individuals experienced a level of education and social life that benefited their personal lives enormously. In the short personal accounts of student experiences in these schools, which appeared regularly in union newspapers and the New Republic, readers found conflicting claims about the worth of the programs in contributing to the social transformation.

The labor colleges--early examples being the Rand School in New York and Finnish Work People's College in Duluth--sought an independent worker education that upheld working-class culture and enabled working people to shape the world, not simply cope with it and adjust to it. This commitment to social change was shared by most union-based workers' education, but was not proclaimed by the university-sponsored programs. The latter in the words of the Bryn Mawr declaration in 1921, “. . . shall not be committed to any dogma or theory but shall conduct its teaching in a broad spirit of impartial inquiry.”(19)

Other union groups were beginning to organize educational programs of their own. The International Workers of the World (IWW) had formed a Trade Union Educational League within the AFL. Other groups of ethnic workers were organizing workers' education, notably some Jewish study groups in New York. The Labor Temple was also offering various educational programs, again in New York City. In an effort to draw together the threads of workers' education emerging among unions and organizations, to develop policy and to coordinate activities, a group of worker educators came together in Apri1 1921 and formed the Workers' Education Bureau. For most, the task at hand was to spread the belief that worker education was the way forward for the labor movement.(20) Despite some opposition, the WEB sought alignment. and endorsement of the AFL. Although the AFL was slow to appreciate the value of workers' education, its endorsement seemed necessary in order to gain wider labor movement support.

These pages have briefly sketched the story of workers' education which developed in the 1910s through the early 1920s. Contemporary commentators recorded the rapid growth and interest workers' education generated. In 1921 Fannia Cohn concluded: “No experiment in adult education has taken hold more promptly and with greater promise than the experiments in workers' education now being conducted in this country. From a movement of practically no significance as recently as five years ago, it has grown so rapidly that it is only a matter of a few years before every important industrial city will have its own classes.”(21)

Of course, Cohn's enthusiasm and bias may well be attributed to her central role in, and public commitment to, workers' education. Later historians have not expressed as much excitement about the role of workers' education in labor history--an omission that is perhaps an expression of another bias that has overlooked the role women activists played in the labor movement. However, there is little doubt that workers' education grew rapidly and expounded 'great hope for the labor movement until the mid­1920s. A number of factors contributed to its decline.




Throughout the years of promise and reform during the Progressive Era, an undercurrent of repression and control operated against various radical leaders and organizations. Employer groups and the state generally made little distinction between radical groups and their various causes. They regarded all labor organizations as being tinged with radicalism, and therefore, a threat to the state. Mobilization of employer groups against organized labor reflects the long struggle between capital and labor. In addition, employers viewed socialism and other radical ideas such as anarchism, syndicalism, and communism, as European, foreign, and fundamentally anti-American. As suggested earlier in this paper, many of these views resulted from cultural and religious prejudice against predominantly Jewish and Catholic immigrant communities. Certainly the interactions of both sets of forces led to a strong campaign of opposition to the advancement of the labor movement and workers' education. The commentators and records of the period convey a sense of the intensity and severity with which unionism, socialism, and other dissenting viewpoints were repressed.(22)

Repressive measures against unions and their activities began in the late 19th century, but events of the 1910s paved the way for more extensive and effective repression in the early 1920s and 1930s. The First World War provided an opportunity for the state to act against union organizations. The labor movement was divided on its standpoint toward the War. The prominent socialist labor leader Eugene Debs publically declared his opposition to the War and America's involvement in it, while Samuel Gompers eventually supported it. The United States' entry into the War added fuel to the fire of anti-foreign sentiment, which was already active in American society. The AFL, seeking to advance the interests of native-born American workers, supported moves to stem the flow of immigration to the United States. Legislation passed in the 1920s ensured the ebbing of the tide.

Passage of the Espionage and the Sedition Acts in 1917 and 1918, respectively, made it illegal to speak or publish views contrary to the United States Government's declarations. Consequently, the socialists, who were vocally opposed to the War, came under attack. Raids on persons and offices led to prosecutions and' convictions.(23) Under the Espionage Act, 105 Wobbly leaders were tried in Chicago and thousands of members were arrested and harassed. Despite the disintegration of the Wobblies, a "red scare" swept the nation after 1917 as news of the Bolshevik victories in Russia arrived in America.

During the War years most of the attacks against labor were directed against the "radicals" and "reds," not at more traditional or orthodox unions. By the 1920s further attacks against the wider labor movement occurred. Trade unionism had advanced during the War years despite the purging of radical organizations. More workers were unionized than ever before. Major gains in labor legislation had been achieved, providing the 10-hour day for women workers and child-labor reform in most states. Workers' education was gaining ground in a number of larger unions and gaining recognition from established national bodies in many cities.

Workers' education, more closely linked with the fortunes of the labor movement than with those of the wider adult education movement, was inevitably adversely affected. In 1921, as several new programs opened, workers' education came under attack. In a report to the New York Legislature, the Lusk Committee (Joint Legislative Committee Investigating Seditious Activities) classified "various trade union enterprises for adult education as seditious and un-American".(24) Although direct evidence of raids on union educators or classes is lacking, the effects of the investigations and the "red scare" obstructed the efforts of educators in attracting workers to educational programs.

As the decade of the 1920s progressed, anti-labor activity increased. The New York State Legislature declared elected members who were members of the Socialist Party ineligible to hold their seats. Mobs of ex-soldiers and civilians raided union and Socialist Party offices. Strikes and rallies during the post-War Depression were regularly broken up by the police with the assistance of employer-hired strike-breakers. By the mid-1920s, with the combined effect of the legal and economic attack, membership of labor organizations had dramatically declined.

Some union educators blamed not only the forces of opposition, but the lack of initiative on the part of the American working class. According to Gleason, "We like mass entertainment better than hard thinking, discussion and the habit of book reading . . ."(25) In the NWTUL and the ILGWD, leaders lamented the high turnover of working women in their classes as they left education to enter the demands of domesticity.(26) Still others worried about the curriculum and the problem of control in workers' education. The factors leading to a decline were complex and extensive.

In addition to the organized repression experienced by the labor movement, thinkers, activists, and civic leaders identified with the Progressive Movement also experienced harassment. For progressive reformers not aligned with the socialist or labor movements, the success of their movement had been secured in areas of legal reform and public education. Either their visionary zeal had been fulfilled, or it had been dampened by organized opposition to remaining tasks. For many, a wish to consolidate change, to slow its pace, and perhaps, just to rest, led to a decline in activity. The relative prosperity of the 1920s and the supremacy of business did not provide a supportive atmosphere, and the progressivism of the liberals and radicals waned as the 1920s advanced.

For adult education, the formation of a national organization and a substantive injection of philanthropic assistance tied to organizational control, led the movement away from a popular base into a growing emphasis on professional training. The remaining radicals in adult education were themselves subject to investigation by state commissions. By the late 1920s most of the labor colleges, all of which had been plagued with considerable financial problems, had closed. The various university-sponsored summer schools were experiencing similar financial troubles, and a fall-off in membership. These events, combined with the general decline in unionism, resulted in a period of retrenchment for worker education. Within specific unions and organizations worker education continued to be offered, but in the wider labor movement its progress to the central agenda was halted. For the next few decades workers' education remained peripheral and neglected.




Education has never been freely provided, nor has it been equally extended to all classes, races, and groups in society. The extent to which organized education has excluded is as significant as the achievements among those it has included. When education began to be provided to adult working-class people in the 19th century, a feature of the development was the careful control of the curricula and administration in the hands of the upper-class providers. Working-class people were welcome to attend adult classes for their betterment, but were not invited to participate in the boards and councils that set the curricula. Workers' education, as it developed in America in the early years of this century, sought education for the betterment of workers as individuals and the building of a new social order; equally important, it permitted and expected the participation of worker-students in its organization and control. Tensions and debates ran high, but the commitment to a struggle for democratic participatory structures was upheld. This radical democratic dimension in the practice of early worker education significantly supported the social transformationist theme upon which the programs were founded.

The social democratic theme in adult education and in labor education shares much of its heritage with the pioneering efforts to democratize education during the Progressive Era. Outside adult and worker education, major reforms in schooling were taking place. Public participation in deciding the type of schooling that Americans wanted and how it should be organized was a successful outcome of the Progressive Era reforms. In worker education, these democratic impulses and values were retained during the years of its decline and neglect.

Looking back over those years, the work of women educators and radical intellectuals contributed enormously to the development of workers' education in America. It is interesting to consider the extent to which the programs organized by women educators in predominantly women's unions at a time when women's voices in the labor movement were muted or ignored provided much of the framework and shaped much of the philosophy of workers' education as it was slowly picked up by other union groups. It is also somewhat surprising that most historians of the American labor movement have omitted mention of the educational activities undertaken by these groups and the role they played in bringing women into the labor movement. Workers' education in the Progressive Era may not have achieved the dramatic new social order its advocates envisioned. Beset by profound opposition from both outside the labor movement and within it, it nevertheless made a significant contribution to the long revolution in the struggle for democracy, and social justice.




1. The term 'workers' education' was used during the Progressive period. In post WWII years 'labor education,' covering the terms 'worker education' and 'trade union education,' has become the usual expression. I have used 'workers' education' when discussing the activities of the period and other terms where appropriate.


2. Arthur Gleason, "Workers' Education," New Republic, 20 April 1921, 235-37.


3. Fannia Cohn, "Workers' Education," New Republic, 12 October 1921, 173-74.


4. Fannia Cohn, "What Workers' Education Really Is," Life and Labor, October 1921,230.


5. Mary Beard, A Short History of the American Labor Movement (New York: Macmillan, 1927), 51.


6. Ibid., 52.


7. Law discusses the role of Carnegie's involvement in adult education and suggests that the political implications have been regularly overlooked by adult education historians, in Michael Law, "An Elephant's Graveyard or Buried Treasure? The Syracuse Adult Education Collection" unpublished report to Kellogg Project, Syracuse University, 1988.


8. Ibid., and Malcolm Knowles, The Adult Education Movement in the United States (New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1962).


9. Knowles, Adult Education Movement, 36.


10. Ibid., 34.


11. Beard, A Short History, 40.


12. Ibid.


13. Issues of the American Federationist, the publication of the American Federation of Labor, provide many examples of this position.


14. Beard, A Short History, 196.


15. Warren B. Catlin, The Labor Problem in the United States and Great Britain (New York: Harper and Bros., 1926), 485.


16. Joseph Hart, Adult Education (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1927), 173.


17. Ibid., 195.


18. Margaret Hodgen, Workers' Education in England and the United States, (London: Kegan Paul, Trubner & Co., 1925), 197.


19. Editorial, New Republic, 18 May 1921, 337.


20. Gleason, "Workers' Education," 235.


21. Cohn, "Workers' Education," 173-74.


22. Beard, A Short History; Hodgen, Workers' Education; Ruth Kotinsky, Adult Education and the Social Scene (New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1933).


23. Sidney Lens, Radicalism in America (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1966), 281.


24. Hodgen, Workers' Education, 265.


25. Gleason, "Workers' Education," 236.


26. A good example of the NWTUL's ambivalence toward 'losing women to marriage' is cited in Robin Miller Jacoby, "The Women's Trade Union League Training School for Women Organizers, 1914-1926," in Sisterhood and Solidarity: Workers' Education for Women 1914-1984, eds. Joyce Kornbluh, and Mary Frederickson (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984), 5-35.




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