Learning for the Revolution

— Michael D. James

Schooling for "Good Rebels."
Socialist Education for Children in the United States, 1900-1920.
by Kenneth Teitelbaum
Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1993, 258 pages.

WHO WERE THE good rebels, boys and girls of the Red Flag, little rebel folks, future revolutionists, kiddie socialists, red rebels, and the comrades-in-embryo? They were the children of the Socialist Sunday Schools.

Bourgeois educators and historians have probably never heard of this Socialist Party pedagogical effort, but Associate Professor Kenneth Teitelbaum’s Schooling for "Good Rebels" tells the tale of loving and conscientious socialists determined to save their children from capitalist ideology.

There were about 100 of these English-speaking Socialist Sunday Schools (SSS) in America between 1900 and 1920. They served 10,000 five to fourteen-year-old boys and girls of working class families in 64 towns and cities in 20 states and the District of Columbia.

Classes typically met from 10 AM to noon on Sundays with enrollments ranging from a handful to 150 students. The intent was to supplement public school education.

This was also an international effort with socialist schools for children in New Zealand, Canada, Hungary, Switzerland, England, Australia, and Belgium. The Hartford school, for example, was proud of the international character it had in 1916 by way of its Polish, Finnish, Russian, Lithuanian, Jewish, Irish and English socialist students.

Socialist Sunday Schools were part of a thriving radical culture which included daily newspapers, clubs, lectures, festivals and parades.

The word "Sunday" was in itself provocative since it suggested a rivalry with religion. The Cincinnati school instead chose the name "Arm and Torch League", the Los Angeles school was the "Children’s Socialist Lyceum", and Syracuse had the "Social Science School." In July of 1918, members of the first American Socialist Sunday School conference asked all schools to delete "Sunday" from their names.

Teitelbaum tells us that American anarchists had their own schools in the early 1900s too. The anarchist pedagogy promoted cooperation, self-development, social transformation, spontaneity, self-expression, sympathy for the oppressed and exploited, anti-militarism, anti-capitalism and anti-statism.

The 22 anarchist schools were collectively known as the Francisco Ferrer Association in honor of the Spanish educator Francisco Ferrer y Guardia and later became known as the Modern School Association of North America. Perhaps the best known anarchist school, lasting from 1915 to 1953, was part of an "anarchist residential colony" in Stelton, New Jersey.

Teitelbaum identifies the clear and strong socialist curriculum and service only to working class families as the two primary factors that distinguished socialist from anarchist schools. Both schools tended to join forces for May Day celebrations.

Debating the Role of Education

Public schools became professionalized, bureaucratic and state-sponsored in an early 20th century America characterized by industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. Enrollment swelled and philosopher John Dewey and other scholars began to debate the proper mission and role of public education.

Representatives of the ruling class favored a public curriculum that promoted social control, while progressives wanted a public school agenda which promoted social and economic reform.

Socialists entered the debate too. Some supported public education with the hope that one day its curriculum would embrace socialist ideals. Others created Socialist Sunday Schools.

Socialists wanted their own schools because they saw a public school curriculum that taught extreme individualism, false economics, false morals, false history, competition, nationalism, reverence for the profit motive and private property, militarism, and glorification of war heroes.

Even "red diaper babies" from socialist families could be led into false consciousness by such a curriculum. SSS leaders were repulsed that children of the laboring class were "compelled to accept the teachings of bourgeois educators, inoculated with bourgeois prejudices..." Public schools had joined the capitalist media, religion, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, YMCA, and mass entertainment in presenting capitalist relations of production as natural and normal.

Teachers at the West Hoboken school in 1910 feared that "a large percentage of children of Socialists and sympathizers are lost to the movement every year." The culprits they saw duping little rebels into false consciousness were "...the patriotic teachings of the public schools or the influence of the capitalist press."

Kendrick Shedd, a socialist known as the "Sunday School man" and the "father figure" to the whole SSS effort, wrote a play which SSS children performed. A character in the play called "Mister Greed" seemed to speak for all institutions of capitalist culture when he said: "We must dope them everyday with Church dope and Patriotism dope and newspaper dope, and especially baseball and tango dope. We must keep them doped up to their ears. Then they won’t realize they are being robbed."

Shedd was a professor of modern languages at the University of Rochester until fired in 1912 for his socialist activism.

Fighting the Power

The SSS curriculum was revolutionary and quite serious about liberating little ones from the moral bankruptcy of bourgeois ideology.  A student at the Brockton school won an essay contest called "Why A Workingman Should Send His Child to A Socialist Sunday School."

The student wrote that the public schools were "controlled by the ruling class, who try to train the mind of the child to be obedient and patriotic to our country...But the Socialist Sunday School develops the young mind to think."

The two main educational goals were to teach scientific socialism and to teach critical thinking: "You, as young Socialists, must never accept a fact as true unless your own reason accepts it. Never say it is so because my teacher said so, but think it out for yourself."

Socialist teachers presented a view of history in order to reveal the working class, rather than bourgeois heroes, as the true force for social change. Frederick Krafft, teacher at the Newark SSS, wrote in his socialist History of Our Country for Boys and Girls that "so-called great patriots and statesmen always become great either by deception, brutality, or some other evil propensity."

A New Jersey activist summed up the SSS philosophy: "We Socialists do not believe in forcing our faith—so to speak—on anyone...But we have been so busy with other matters that we have failed to inform our children about our movement as they should be informed if they are to form intelligent opinions regarding it."

Shedd encouraged teachers to ask questions as a method of teaching.  Questions for thought and discussion included "Who works?", "And who does not?"; "Do the workers get all they earn?"; and "Are these things just: Child wage workers? Use of militia to settle strikes? War? Capitalist courts? Capitalist Press?"

Students were also asked to compare the works of Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln.  New Haven and Milwaukee students formed "Prison Comfort Clubs" to write to imprisoned socialists and collect money, clothing, and Xmas gifts for families of prisoners.

Happy and Revolutionary

Socialist educators, sensitive to the developmental limitations of children, wanted lessons to be fun. Eleanor Marx Aveling, daughter of Karl Marx, suggested that "we cannot too soon make children understand that Socialism means happiness."

Teachers used songs, games, plays and stories to teach the dignity of labor and class consciousness. Kendrick Shedd knew that "You can’t talk Marxian economics to a ’kid’, but you can make an excellent rebel out of him by the right use of song and story."

A fun exercise taught the value of the strike by arranging students in a circle.  One was the boss who ordered the others to shake their right hands, jump on one foot, spin around, or complete other whimsical commands.

The fun continued until the children became tired, dizzy, or silly with laughter.
Then they liberated themselves from the boss by calling a strike.

There were socialist versions of "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Cinderella," "Mother Goose," and even a radical "Hickory, Dickory, Dock":

"Hickory, dickory, dock!
The time-keeper looks at the clock.
The clock strikes eight, the girl is late.
’To dock her pay, is the only way!’
So hickory, dickory, dock!...
Hickory, dickory, dock!
Oh, girl, look up at the clock!
And you strike, too; we’ll see you through,
For a shorter day and better pay!
And no hickory, dickory, dock!"

The Rochester school held a May Day Festival in 1914 with children on stage carrying portraits of great socialist leaders and speaking about the work of each leader.

An exercise called "Being World Citizens Together" asked each student to adopt a nation’s flag and talk about why his or her nation was best. The result was nationalist boasting and discord. Then the International Flag was brought out to end national conflict and unite the little workers of the world.

Students at the West Hoboken school analyzed a capitalist economic depression by designating the teacher as boss, boys as workers making paper hats, and girls as buyers.  Each boy made three hats. The boss teacher took two, declared an overproduction, and turned the boys out of their jobs. A discussion followed.

Specific student activities are touching examples of revolutionary spirit and enthusiasm. Children at the Brockton school recited the "Socialist Pledge":

"As we leave Sunday School today
Each comrade brave and true,
We have before us one and all
A mighty task to do;
And all the strength we gather here
Of heart, and brain, and hand
We’ll use to free the working class,
In this, and every land.
And so dear comrades; one and all,
Whatever else I do;
When comes a chance to strike a blow
I’ll never let it pass,
But I will strike with all my might
To free the working class."

Students at the Manhattan and Bronx May Day parade in 1914 chanted:

"Are we in it? well, I guess;
We’re the children of the S.S.S.!
Are we in it? well, I guess;
Socialists, Socialists, yes, yes, yes!"

Scarcity and Controversy

There were chronic shortages of funds, teachers, and lesson materials. Lack of organization made it difficult for schools to share lesson plans.

But teachers, mostly female, displayed great devotion. They were volunteers or received only token pay, often worked six days per week at regular jobs, cared for their own families, and gave themselves to other agitational and educational activities such as public speaking, distributing literature, and running for office.

In Chicago, for example, teachers "met every Saturday afternoon in 1908 at the home of Mary Livingston, the school’s superintendent, to ’go over the outline for the next day’s lesson, try over the songs together, play the little games, and rehearse the story that is to be told.’"

The schools, like Marx and socialism itself, were attacked. In 1908 the New York Times charged the Borough Park school in New York with "propagating class hatred." In 1919 building owners in New York City were pressured by police and city officials to deny rental space.

Critics within the Socialist Party said that Marx and Engels had not endorsed such schools and they dismissed the SSS emphasis on singing and drama as sentimentalism, emotionalism, and weakness. Some socialists feared the schools would divert funds and attention away from reforming public schools, recruiting, running socialist candidates for public office, and teaching socialism to adult workers.

David Goldstein and Martha Moore Avery, former socialists who published a book in 1919 entitled Bolshevism: Its Cure, blasted the schools for turning out "a prolific crop of degenerate citizens" who attacked God and private property.

Socialists responded to criticism by claiming it would be "...imbecile to allow from eight to ten plastic, formative years to pass without an effort to sow the seed of our economic faith." Eugene V. Debs argued that "The Socialist father or mother who neglects the opportunity offered in the Socialist Sunday School to checkmate this work of capitalism in the mind of the child, neglects the noblest work in the entire field of Socialist propaganda."

The Socialist Party finally established a "Young People’s Department" in 1913. Teitelbaum says "It is one of the great ironies of the American Socialist Sunday School movement that it finally attained a significant measure of attention from the national office at the same time that the Party was splitting apart."

Lasting Lessons

But it was the First World War and related domestic conflict that dealt a fatal blow to the schools. Many socialist teachers and activists submitted to conscription, entered prison, or fled into hiding.

War fever among the general population meant that "Physical violence against radicals at parades, rallies, and meetings increased markedly." The schools were neglected as socialists were faced with more immediate challenges to safety and survival.

Teitelbaum captures in detail the spirited devotion and revolutionary fervor of the Socialist Sunday School movement. The SSS themes of solidarity, cooperation, and concern for others are badly needed today. The author recognizes that bourgeois ideology is everywhere so that "In our schools and elsewhere, then, a strong sense of a respectable American socialist political tradition has largely been eradicated from our history."

The significance of material relations and the issue of class are largely purged from contemporary curricula along with encouragement of "good rebellion" in the form of critical analysis of bourgeois economic and social arrangements.

Teitelbaum mentions today’s "Adopt-a-School" program, a truly ominous measure of how far we have strayed from a socialist and critical pedagogy, which invites corporations to support local schools with money and supplementary curricular materials. At least this incestuous and overt intimacy between schools and business might make it more difficult for bourgeois educators to profess political neutrality.

Capitalist relations have given us students stripped of humanity and longing for community who act out their alienation and despair through violence, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and suicide. Many schools now look like prisons with metal detectors and armed guards.

The contrast with the socialist vision is best revealed in the words of a student of the Brooklyn Socialist Sunday School: "The Sunday school has taught me things I never learned in [public] school. I have learned the right feeling to have toward fellow beings...If Socialism means a feeling of kindred toward all humanity, a wish to help those who are unhappy, to find in the future a way to make them contented and joyful, then I am a Socialist..."

ATC 71, November-December 1997