Joyce L. Kornbluh


In summers 1934 and 1935, forty residential, six-week teacher-training centers, initiated and administered by Hilda W. Smith under the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) Emergency Education Program, aimed to develop workers' education practitioners for government-­sponsored relief classes. The centers, held on college campuses in 27 states, were the first federally-funded teacher-training programs in the United States. Approximately 1700 trainees and 200 staff were involved. The trainees, all unemployed, included many who had no prior college education. Many staff members for the residential program came from Smith's Affiliated Schools for Workers and YWCA networks.(l)

Smith and her able assistant Ernestine Friedmann, a former staff member at the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers (BMSSWW), hoped to disseminate informal, nondidactic methods pioneered at the residential workers' schools in the 1920s. She and her small national staff prepared vast amounts of materials relating classroom democracy to social and political democracy. These advocated an active and informed citizenry educated through a process of critical thinking about social issues as a way of linking group-centered classroom learning to more intelligent community involvement. At the beginning of the New Deal, the liberal rhetoric of these goals fit the Roosevelt Administration's agenda, although as time went on over the next several years, Smith's pedagogical intentions fit less well with the New Deal's political thrust and pragmatic focus on relief.(2)

The teacher-training program, as well as the rest of the New Deal workers' education activities, were caught in the ideological and organizational cross fire between the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the nascent Committee, then Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIA). It also was in the middle of the battle between the public school establishment and the Roosevelt Administration. Across the country, the centers were also attacked as a federally-funded program that was partisan to labor and infiltrated by leftist ideologues. The teacher-training centers of 1934 and 1935, as a result, serve as a microcosm of several issues facing workers' and labor education at that time, and now: tensions about goals, content, staffing, sponsorship, political support.(3)

The teacher-training centers of 1934 and 1935, initiated to develop workers' education instructors, were the precursor of a national Works Progress Administration (WP A) program of federally-funded teacher training for instructors of all relief classes in 1936 and 1937 and fostered the continued dissemination of progressive and adult education philosophy and techniques to new populations. They were also the impetus for degree-granting adult education graduate programs started in the 19305 at many universities around the United States. The centers served as a pivotal program, linking developments, techniques, and materials from the 1920s' residential programs for workers to later generations of labor education practitioners. They also disseminated these contributions to wider adult education and social science communities.(4)




The concept of teacher training for workers' classes had been proposed and discussed throughout the 1920s at meetings of the Workers' Education Bureau (WEB); Local 189 (the local union of workers' educators founded at Brookwood Labor College in the mid-1920s); and at multiple conferences of the Affiliated Schools for Workers (later called American Labor Education Service - ALES). Then, as now, there was a paramount need to develop practitioners knowledgeable about the labor movement, experienced with informal classroom techniques, and skilled in leading discussions about union and work place issues. One of the most interesting proposals for teacher training was advanced about 1924 by Eduard Lindeman, who recommended that the Workers' Education Bureau initiate a traveling Chautauqua, a bus of trainers and materials that would crisscross the United States, holding workshops and conferences along the way.(5)

Smith promoted teacher training from the beginning of her troubled tenure as director of the New Deal's Workers' Service Program. In a memo sent to government administrators in August 1933, prior to being hired by Harry Hopkins and starting her job in the fall of that year, she recommended "a nationwide program to train unemployed teachers in a new method of experimental education. . . to conduct a department of educational method and research in teaching problems (and) to prepare and distribute suitable pamphlet materials."(6) In multiple memos and meetings, Smith lobbied Hopkins, Eleanor Roosevelt, Aubrey Williams, and others at the national level about the need to develop a federally-financed teacher-training program within the context of the New Deal Emergency Education Program to disseminate the philosophy and methods of progressive education and experiential group work learning that had developed at the residential programs for workers in the 1920s. She recommended holding such a project at the Bryn Mawr campus in connection with the annual summer schools for women workers. She also aimed through such a program to help finance the staff and floundering programs of the ALES that were cash poor in the early 1930s.(7)

The need for persons trained to lead workers' courses in the New Deal Emergency Education Program became acute during Smith's first winter on the job. Requests accelerated for instructors to teach FERA-sponsored classes for workers in union halls, settlement houses, community centers, and public schools. Relief instructors had educational backgrounds ranging from high school dropouts to those with PhDs. New Deal regulations only required that instructors be unemployed, eligible for relief, and have some experience (vaguely defined) in the field to be taught. Very few instructors tapped for workers' classes were familiar with diverse work place conditions, issues facing unions, and the philosophy of the labor movement. Fewer had taught adults with little formal schooling.(8)

Smith's goals for the teacher-training centers were clearly pedagogical rather than rehabilitative. Within the relief focus of the New Deal, they were ambiguous and unrealistic. However, the outline of this program tapped Hopkins' paramount interest in the relief and rehabilitation of white-collar professionals, especially teachers, who were among his main concerns.9 Smith wanted workers' educators to have many attributes:

a sympathetic understanding of the labor movement; experience in unions or workplace groups; a knowledge of economics; a knowledge of their subject; communication skills; willingness to learn from their students; ability to relate their teaching to their own and their students' experiences; intellectual integrity; a broad, nonprejudiced cultural experience; a belief in adult students' ability to learn; an interest in the adult students as individuals; a warm, attractive, sympathetic personality; and q sense of humor.(10)

She spelled out this list, as stated above, in written memoranda, leading some critics to comment on her desire for "integrated paragons. "(11)

This was indeed a tall order, given the administrative difficulties and short time available to organize the teacher-training centers in both summers of 1934 and 1935; in 1934, two weeks' time was allotted because of late federal appropriations and program confirmation. In addition, there were problems of recruitment to the centers; a lack of understanding by many trainees of the nature and purpose of the program; a shortage of faculty and administrators who, on short notice, could staff the centers, support these goals, and fulfill the ambiguities of the training program itself.




Teacher trainees were recruited hastily by administrators in relief offices who were unclear about the aims of the program. The trainees had to pass a means test that certified they were eligible for relief. In some states, they had to pass IQ and reading tests, as well. Trainees arrived at the centers with little knowledge of workers' or adult education, or awareness of the content of the program. Some came because they were assured of six weeks' pay of $18.00 a week, and room and board for the summer. Some arrived in need of medical care; many were dispirited from months of being jobless. Some brought families, contrary to advance instructions, hoping to provide three meals a day for spouses and children. Many had been told by relief administrators that the summers' training would lead to higher paying jobs as emergency education administrators in New Deal programs.(12)

Only half the trainees in 1934 and 1935 had any college education. Less than half had industrial experience and social science knowledge that Smith deemed important. After visiting the teacher-training center in southeast Pennsylvania, ALES director Eleanor Coit noted that not more than ten of the fifty trainees were interested in workers' education or unions at the beginning of the sessions. Florence Nelson, a staff member at the Arkansas center, wrote that only four of the forty-eight trainees had previously heard of workers' education and that "the psychology of looking down at the worker as an inferior being was instilled in their thinking." Constance Williams, the Connecticut center director, reported, "The opportunity to learn to develop workers' education played a less active role in shaping their attitudes and effort. . . then the desire of getting a job."(13)

  Smith's first policy memo to center administrators and staff emphasized her lofty goals that the main objective of the program was to have trainees discover and practice methods of teaching social sciences to workers. She stipulated that the centers be run as nondidactic learning experiences focused on the needs and interests of participants, involving them in developing curricula, participating in center governance, incorporating adult education and group work methods in center classes, using trainees as discussion leaders, and developing contacts with local unions and their workers.

To implement these aims, she advocated classes on government, labor economics, and current events. She recommended field trips to factories, farms, community cooperatives, housing developments, and social service agencies. She suggested that participants observe workers' education classes at some of the residential schools for workers being held in 1934 around the country. She followed this memo by shipping to the centers vast quantities of reading materials and bibliographies that had been developed by the ALES and WEB as part of the grants they received in 1933 from the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations.(14)




Many of these recommendations were unrealistic given the limitations of the trainees as well as the hastily recruited training centers' faculty and staff. Most of the faculty were either academics (10%), members of various federal and state governmental industrial relations boards, researchers, or industrial workers. Few understood the trainees' needs, or the needs of their potential worker-students.

Many of the faculty, understandably, were ill-prepared. Many found it difficult to lead discussions rather than lecture, and to involve trainees in center governance. However, of approximately 200 faculty and staff at the 1934 and 1935 centers, about a third came from Smith's ALES and YWCA networks and had taught in workers' schools or classes. They included Lillian Herstein of the Chicago Teachers Union; Colston Warne, an economist from Amherst College; economist Amy Hewes from Holyoke College; drama teacher Susan Shepard, who had taught at the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers; Nelson Cruikshank, a minister who worked closely with the New England labor movement; Arthur Calhoun, who had taught at Brookwood Labor College; and Mercer Evans, a specialist on southern labor from' Emory College in Georgia.(15)




Daily classes were held six days a week. In some of the schools, group projects, independent study, group discussions, labor drama, field trips, and guest speakers were part of the programs. Pennsylvania trainees bused to the AFL convention in Philadelphia, summer 1934. Colorado trainees drove to Denver to march in the 1934 Labor Day parade. Trainees in other centers visited union halls, factories, newspaper offices, co-op stores, housing projects, and shelters for the unemployed.

Some centers had trainees compile bibliographies and manuals for workers' classes; conduct simple surveys of work and living conditions in nearby areas; document the history of strikes in that state; chart the growth of membership in specific unions. Some centers used labor drama where trainees wrote and performed skits about sharecroppers, household workers, prostitutes, and industrial working conditions, as well as skits about their own experiences in relief offices and employment bureaus. Evening programs included folk dancing, group singing, mock forums on current issues, guest speakers on topics such as the League of Nations, co-ops, the role of the artist in society, technological change, and progressive education.(16)




Smith's teacher-training centers of 1934 and 1935 came under attack from conservative political groups, the public school establishment, and the American Federation of Labor. Newspaper headlines challenged their content, teaching methods, materials, and personnel. Critics also flagged the appropriateness of their goals and the use of federal resources to finance the project, deemed "partisan" in the eyes of many.

Throughout the country, headlines from 1934 on proclaimed "Reds Rule FERA Schools," "Red Theories Taught Free by Uncle Sam," "WP A Hires Socialist for Director." Dailies from the New York Times to small town papers charged that class-conscious subjects were being taught. The articles claimed that anti-capitalist materials were used, books by radicals were assigned, and instructors had left-wing leanings.

An article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer charged that trainees in a FERA teacher-training center sang "The International," discussed strikes, and satirized the capitalist system. A full-page ad placed by the Republican Party in a western Pennsylvania paper stated that the teacher-training center in that area was "designed to make the students scoff at religion, sneer at the Church, jeer at the Supreme Court, and then go forth to stir up workers against employers." The Georgia training center was labeled "a hotbed of radical propaganda." The Washington Times reported the reaction of the town of Olivet, Michigan to the 1935 teacher-training center held in that community:

The people of the village shuddered through six weeks of communistic activity at one of 100 such schools operated throughout the Raw Deal with taxpayers' funds. . . Men of Olivet wanted to take matters in their own hands and drive the students out of the village. And to add insult to injury, a lot of these crackpots spent the money the government gave them on beer.(17)

A number of the WP A teacher-training centers were investigated by national and state New Deal administrators as a result of these charges. In all cases, they were cleared. Negative public opinion, however, persisted as patriotic organizations such as the Liberty Leagues, American Legion, and Daughters of the American Revolution continued their campaign with letters and resolutions sent to congressmen and public officials calling for an immediate end to workers' education training centers and classes. Hearings held by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the mid-1930s continued to stir up additional opposition by focusing on Communist infiltration of industrial unions and the "traitorous" actions of New Deal politicians who supported or failed to suppress the accelerating industrial union movement and the militant CIO.(18)

Hostility to the centers and to the Emergency Education Program as a whole also came from public school officials at all levels. The school establishment perceived the New Deal education programs, including the National Youth Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps as a dual system of education and training that would erode professional educational standards by using noncredentialed, inadequately educated personnel. They felt by-passed by the Roosevelt Administration, angry at political appointments, and shortchanged by the New Deal's failure to give existing school institutions higher appropriations to shore up their deficits.

Public school administration leaders attacked what they perceived as the increasing federalization of education and potential intervention into local control of education. Protective of their professional jurisdictions, they pressed for public educational agencies to have more control over the hiring and training of part-time temporary teachers assigned to relief classes.(19)

.The American Federation of Labor also sought control over administration, staffing, and content of classes. Federation leaders feared outside radical influences in workers' classes that would challenge the craft organization of labor and weaken the loyalty of craft-union members to their unions and to the capitalist economy. Suspicious of outside intellectuals, frequently repressive of independent workers' education endeavors such as Brookwood Labor College and, later, the Highlander Folk School, the AFL adhered to a philosophy of business unionism that emphasized building labor's own strength through orderly collective bargaining processes.

Thus, Smith's programs were caught in the crossfire between AFL and CIO proponents. Attacks from AFL leaders undermined national and local support for the teacher-training centers as well as for the New Deal workers' education classes. The 1939 AFL convention resolution summed up the Federation's charges about bureaucratic inefficiency and mismanagement, erosion of educational standards, high costs, and ended: "At times there has been a gesture at cooperation with the AFL, but not permanently. (Personnel) have been appointed without consultation with state AFLs."(20)

There was indeed much reality behind these charges about Smith's teacher-training centers and workers' education classes. The Roosevelt Administration had deliberately by-passed the public school system in setting up the Emergency Education Program. Many New Deal administrators held that "if (public) education were to be called on to do the job, the New Deal would be largely, if unintentionally, sabotaged." In answering attacks from public school administrators and responding to 1936 charges from the National Education Association, Roosevelt reiterated the relief aspects of the New Deal education activities and only thinly covered his own skepticism and distrust about the effectiveness and efficiency of the public school system to meet current educational challenges.(21)

The charges of radical staff in the teacher-training centers and in the New Deal workers' classes also was based on reality, although much exaggerated. Communists, Socialists, Trotskyists, and other radical activists certainly sought jobs as' workers' education staff and instructors. Autobiographies of radical leaders and novels by left-oriented authors were indeed on the reading lists for the teacher-training centers, along with books by progressive educators John Dewey, Eduard Lindeman, George Counts, and historians Harold Rugg, and Mary and Charles Beard. The mix of staff, readings and resources at the training centers certainly reflected the social and political ferment of the 1930s. At the same time, however, this mix gave ammunition to the political right that exaggerated its impact in its overall political attacks on the New Deal. As a result, Smith's program, including the teacher-training centers, was damned for its political implications rather than praised for its pedagogical intent.




In retrospect, Smith and Ernestine Friedmann evaluated the teacher training centers as "three-quarters relief and one-quarter teacher training. "(22) However, despite the administrative trials and tribulations and contradictory goals, the centers had an enormous impact. Smith's persistent lobbying and advocacy made New Deal administrators aware of the need to train instructors for all emergency education programs. In summer 1935, a nationwide WP A teacher-training program was authorized. Centers that trained teachers for workers' classes were absorbed into this larger program that came directly under the administration of Emergency Education Director Lewis Alderman. Smith was no longer involved. There was no controversial material on workers, unions, or work place conditions. Teacher-training centers were now run in cooperation with state and local public school officials and some universities.

Held for six weeks on college and university campuses, these centers continued to focus on teaching methods for adult classes as well as on New Deal legislation and social policies. These centers were a direct outgrowth of Smith and Friedmann's 1934 and 1935 project and carried on their work of disseminating information about adult learning and the need for new kinds of teaching techniques. Many materials on teaching methods that had been developed by ALES and WEB were also used in these later teacher-training sessions.(23)

Throughout the remainder of the 1930s, teacher training for adult participants was conducted in a variety of forms under state rather than federal sponsorship: one to five-week workshops, weekend, and one-day conferences. It was probable that every New Deal instructor received some form of in-service training. One source considered these teacher-training programs "possibly. . . the most valuable contribution of the Works Progress Administration. It accomplished the ultimate in achievement--the conversion of a liability into an asset. It took over thousands of teachers and professionally trained people who were literally on the scrap heap of life and not only trained them to do a job well (but to perform) a service to the community."(24)

Colleges and universities began to organize regular summer school courses that emergency education instructors could attend for credit, and many educational institutions organized degree programs and graduate departments of adult education.




Sixty percent of the trainees from the 1934 and 1935 centers were subsequently hired as emergency education instructors in New Deal classes, teaching workers and other adult students in union halls, settlement houses, YWCAs, and public schools. Several were appointed state supervisors of workers' education or city/county administrators in other New Deal emergency education programs. Sam Berger, Frank Fernbach, Hal Gibbons, Chris Jorgensen, Roy Reuther, Mike Rider, and Nat Weinberg went on from the teacher-training centers to long careers on labor union staffs or with other related organizations. In some areas, trainees formed support groups to spur interest in workers' education and to organize classes in that locale.(25)

These accomplishments can be directly attributed to Smith's project. Her vision and persistence linked the pedagogical accomplishments of the 1920s' residential schools for workers to the Emergency Education Program of the 1930s, and on into the post World War II period. She flagged for New Deal administrators the need to conduct federally-funded teacher training in a massive government-sponsored, national program. The links between these programs and earlier progressive education developments made a contribution to workers' education and to adult education that carried far beyond the New Deal period.

For most of the trainees, their involvement in group learning settings, however imperfect, offered them the first experience with educational democracy and participant-centered learning. Long before the term "group dynamics" became fashionable, these trainees were engaged in a peer-oriented process that was unique for that time.

In areas where there had been time to develop advisory committees, representatives of unions, community groups, and public school institutions became familiar with workers' education concepts and techniques, and laid the basis of working together on future workers' education projects. Financial support for the ALES and the WEB, and use of their materials, helped sustain these organizations during troubled financial times.

Universities and colleges became aware of their possible roles in developing credit programs in adult education and in noncredit workers' education extension classes. Trainees and staff were sensitized to new content areas, teaching-learning methods, potential coalitions, and political realities involved in developing workers' /labor education in a less than sympathetic political environment. Many institutions, programs, and lives were changed as a result.

"Whatever kind of teaching I do," one enthusiastic trainee wrote in evaluating the 1935 center that he attended, "I will never be the same person. I feel as though I have been living in a new world and I don't want to lose touch with it again."(26)




1. U.S. Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), Teacher Training Centers in Workers' Education, 1934 and 1935 (Washington, D.C.: FERA, 1935); Hilda W. Smith, "People Come First: A Report of Workers' Education in the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Civil Works Administration, and the Works Progress Administration, 1933-1943." Hilda W. Smith Papers, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, N.Y.


2. Hilda W. Smith, "Memorandum on Policies for Organizing a Teacher Training Center," (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Specialist in Workers' Education, 1934); Doak S. Campbell, Frederick H. Bair, and Oswald L. Harvey, Educational Activities of the Works Progress Administration, U.S. Advisory Committee on Education, Staff Study No. 14 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1939).


3. Joyce L. Kornbluh, A New Deal for Workers' Education: The Workers' Service Program, 1933-1942 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 96-114; 117-23.


4. Ibid., 123-26.


5. Eduard Lindeman to Spencer Miller_ Jr., 29 October 1923, Correspondence-Spencer Miller, Jr. file, Workers' Education Bureau Papers, Martin P. Catherwood Library, N.Y. State School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University; Workers' Education News, February 1924, 1; and June 1924, 1.


6. Hilda W. Smith and Spencer Miller, Jr., "Memorandum Sent to the Commissioner of Education, the Secretary of Labor and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration." In Smith, "People Come First,” Appendix 1.


7. Ibid., 9-11; Hilda W. Smith to George Zook, 15 November 1933. Hilda W. Smith Papers, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, N.Y.


8. Campbell, Bair, and Harvey, Educational Activities, 4; Smith, "People Come First," 24-25.


9. U.S. FERA, Teacher Training Centers, 18.


10. Smith, "People Come First," 47.


11. Quoted in Harry Zeitlin, "Federal Relations in American Education, 1933­-1943: A Study of New Deal Efforts and Innovations" (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1958), 288-325.


12. U.S. FERA, Teacher Training Centers, 6.


13. Eleanor Coit, "Report of a Trip to FERA Teacher Training Center, West Chester, Pa., October 15, 16, and 17, 1935," American Labor Education Service Collection, rec. grp. 5225, box 15, Archives of the N.Y. State School of Industrial and Labor Relations; Florence Nelson, "Report of Workers' Education Teacher Training Center, A. M. and N. College, Pine Bluffs, Ark., 1935," p. 2, WPA Workers Service Program Papers, rec. grp. 69, National Archives, Washington, D.C. (NADC); Constance Williams, "Report of the Workers' Education Teacher Training Center, Yale University, New Haven, Conn., 1935," p. I, WPA Workers Service Program Papers, rec. grp. 69.


14. Smith, "Memorandum on Policies for Organizing a Teacher Training Center," 2-5.


15. U.s. FERA, 1934 Workers' Education Teacher Training Centers, 13-14; Us. FERA, Teacher Training Centers, 6.


16. This information is derived from the 1934 and 1935 reports of the directors of workers' education teacher-training centers in Ark, Calif., Colo., Conn., Ga., Ill., Mich., Minn., Miss., N.Y., Penn., and Wisc. NADC, rec. grp. 69, in the state files of the WPA Workers' Service Program.


17. Kornbluh, A New Deal for Workers' Education, 100-02; Hilda W. Smith Papers, rec. grp. A-76, Attacks file, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Mass.; Hilda W. Smith Papers, container 6, Newspaper Publicity 1935­1936 file, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, N.Y.


18. Ibid.


19. Kornbluh, A New Deal for Workers' Education, 118-20; Zeitlin, "Federal Relations in American Education," 288-325.


20. Kornbluh, A New Deal for Workers' Education, 120-23.


21. Roscoe Pulliam, "The Influence of the Federal Government in Education," School and Society, 15 January 1938, 71; Zeitlin, "Federal Relations in American Education."


22. U.S. FERA, Teacher Training Centers, 6.


23. Kornbluh, A New Deal for Workers' Education, 76-77; 124-25.


24. Campbell, Bair, and Harvey, Educational Activities, 136-37.


25. Ibid., 154. U.S. FERA, Teacher Training Centers; Kornbluh, A New Deal for Workers' Education, 76-78.


26. Smith, "People Come First," 50.




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