by Tim Cain
Each year, when I teach a course on the history of higher education, I spend a bit of time talking about Bernard Bailyn, the renowned Harvard University historian. Although only a small fraction of Bailyn’s work addressed education, his 1960 Education in the Forming of American Society is widely recognized as a crucial piece that helped shape the modern subfield of the history of education, including expanding it beyond the history of schooling. As Ruben Donato and Marvin Lazerson wrote, Bailyn “began the debate by arguing that American educational history had been distorted by educators’ desire to use the past to glorify the triumph of public schooling in the United States.” He was soon joined by Lawrence A. Cremin, who, in The Wonderful World of Ellwood Patterson Cubberley, according to Donato and Lazerson, “echoed and extended Bailyn’s view by indicting previous generations of American historians and showed how to fashion a history of schooling that met the canons of the late 20th-century of historical scholarship.” In class, we then talk about the waves of revision that then swept the field of the history of education, including how the smaller subfield of the history of higher education was somewhat separate but was remade by scholars such as David Potts, Stanley Guralnik, Barbara Solomon, and James Axtell (whose 1971 “Death of the Liberal Arts College” begins with a satirical obituary). Along with others, they offered a series of new understandings and arguments about the participants, purposes, forms, and stratification of American college and universities. In class, we spend the rest of the term then reading their and others’ works, considering them in relation to the pieces that they were revising, and trying to come to shared understandings of both the history and historiography of higher education.
Our short discussion of Education in the Forming of American Society is at least the second time that Bailyn is mentioned. During our opening session, in which we consider why one of only three required courses in a professional masters degree program is explicitly historical, I usually ask a version of “Why should one study history?” After we work on it for a while, I read the response that Bailyn gave to the same question in On the Teacher & Writing of History, a book based on recorded conversations that he had with historians Jere R. Daniell and Charles T. Wood while in residence at Dartmouth College. His response began with the comment that it was actually two questions: “why history should be studied and why I—or you or any other individual—should study it in any but the way a normally well-informed person would.” Bailyn’s answer to the former started, “History should be studied because it is an absolutely necessary enlargement of human experience, a way of getting out of the boundaries of one’s own life and culture and of seeing more of what human experience has been. And it is the necessary, unique way of orienting the present moment, so that you know where you are and where you have come from and so you don’t fantasize about the past and make up myths to justify some immediate purpose—so you can make decisions based to some extent on what has gone before, on knowledge of actual experience.” His answer to the second included, “Somebody’s got to study it thoroughly and systematically… but I think that the individuals who study history professionally should do so because it attracts them, because it satisfies them intellectually. If it doesn’t interest one, there are many other things to devote oneself to.”
I thought of Bailyn’s sentiments while on a trip the University of Washington’s Special Collections earlier this month. It is the archival work—the process of seeking and uncovering evidence, the anticipation that something crucial might be in the next box or the one after that—that attracts me, satisfies me, and excites me about my research. I vividly remember numerous experiences coming across a seemingly important document, and the rush of enthusiasm and the leaps in connections that followed. My first trip to an archive at an institution other than my own was to the Special Collections Library at Johns Hopkins University. I was a young graduate student and did not really know what I was doing, but when one of my first requests for a document was answered with Daniel Coit Gilman’s handwritten plans on how to organize the new institution to which he had been appointment president, I recognized that I was doing something serious—or at least something that required me to wear ill-fitting white gloves. Of course, I have since come to recognize that much of the important and serious evidence comes from those in very different positions and with very different statuses than Gilman. I also recall bounding in the door of our rented duplex a few years later upon returning from the Walter P. Reuther Library in Detroit and telling my partner that I had a great day because I had found a letter in one of the collections that I was using. Her comment was roughly, “You drove more than an hour through traffic, spent 8 or 9 hours looking in boxes, found only a letter, and drove more than an hour back home. And you are happy?” I tried to explain that yes, I was delighted; the letter meant that I was probably correct in interpreting a letter that I had found three weeks earlier on a different trip to the Reuther. She did not quite understand my excitement, but it was real and was evidence that this was a thing to which I should devote myself.
My trip to Seattle involved archival work for my in-progress book on the history of faculty unionization. The University of Washington was home to one of the more important locals founded in the 1930s, American Federation of Teachers Local 401. The local was, as Melvin Rader wrote in his memoir False Witness, “the most left-wing faculty organization on the campus,” a status it shared with AFT locals at other institutions during the era. Its leaders included activists such as Kermit Eby and Hugh DeLacy, the latter of whom lost his faculty position in 1937 when he ran for city office in defiance of institutional policies. DeLacy won the election, and later served one term in Congress before becoming ensnared in Red Scare attacks. The local and some of its members likewise fell to concerns over Communism in higher education. In the late 1940’s the state’s Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities, commonly called the Canwell Committee, turned its attention to the university and held a series of hearing into the Communists on campus. The university supported the investigations and then launched its own hearings, eventually dismissing faculty members Ralph Gundlach, Herbert Phillips, and Joseph Butterworth, and putting three others on probation. All had been members of Local 401. The AFT, as part of its second purge of allegedly Communist-dominated locals, expelled the local from its ranks.
The archival evidence that I explored—in a library named after the president who oversaw the dismissals—showed that Local 401 included elements of the three main prongs of faculty union activity in the 1930s and 1940s: social activism, concern for K-12 education, and fights for institutional change. Beginning with the first campus local in this era (Local 204 at Yale University), faculty were attracted to and participated in the AFT for political reasons that both spoke to and were separate from their own working lives. Many faculty unionists believed that the conservative attacks on education, the business influences in schools and universities, the corporate disdain for labor, the on-going economic strife, and the rise of fascism abroad were interconnected and related to larger class struggles. If education was going to be a fulcrum to leverage change, teachers at all institutional levels needed to get involved. Joining the AFT was a step toward engagement and provided an avenue through which direct action could be taken. At the very least, sympathy with the movement could be shown. College locals passed resolutions on political issues, condemned fascism, and supported unemployment legislation. They participated in municipal labor federations, contributed to larger union efforts, and, in the cases of the locals at Yale and the University of North Carolina, supported efforts by other workers to organize on their campuses. Other locals, such as the Chico Federation of Teachers, saw promoting worker education as their main purpose. In fact, Harry Steinmetz, a faculty member at San Diego State College and officer in the Teachers Union of San Diego and Imperial County, argued that the Chico local was too involved in the issue to its own detriment. Steinmetz, who himself encountered difficulties for his leftist activities, also pointed to Local 401 as an exemplar in its state and as an active political agent—one whose activities he was reluctant to enumerate. In many of these activities, Local 401 partnered with the Washington Commonwealth Federation, an organization with which it frequently had overlapping membership.
College unionists were also often engaged with larger issues of public education, arguing for changes within American schooling and espousing progressive educational ideologies. Many of the members of the teachers union who taught in normal schools and teachers colleges focused their union activities on K-12 issues but they were not alone. The main activities of the Easton Federation of Teachers, founded by faculty at Lafayette College, were organizing public school teachers and fighting laws detrimental to public school teacher tenure. In 1935, Washington University instructor Paul W. Preisler endangered his own career to found the Teachers Union of St. Louis and St. Louis County because yellow-dog contracts precluded K-12 teachers from doing it for themselves. Over the next few years Preisler waged a political and legal campaign that eventually allowed for teacher union membership in the city’s schools. Even though 17 of the 18 charter members of AFT Local 284 were on the faculty at the University of Michigan, the union’s initial program consisted of addressing issues related to school finance, school legislation, teacher compensation, and propaganda in the public schools. In ensuing years, the local remained outside of university politics but became heavily involved in academic freedom and tenure issues in K-12 schools. For its part, Local 401 was highly involved with the Washington State Teachers Federation, the statewide AFT umbrella organization. Its members played leadership roles and pressed for legislation aimed at promoting teacher tenure and welfare, although their efforts were not always appreciated by the more conservative K-12 teachers with whom they were affiliated.
Many campus unions emphasized K-12 issues and some were more concerned with social and political change, but institutional issues were also present and took on new urgency toward the end of the 1930s. The University of Wisconsin Teachers Union provides some of the best evidence of this interest, including its focus on the instructors and assistants who were most endangered by the financial struggles associated with the Great Depression. The union sponsored studies of faculty and graduate student salaries and living conditions, published articles critical of the university’s treatment of instructors, and assistants, and appeared before the regents to advocate on behalf of the most vulnerable members of the faculty. Its “Report of the Committee on Educational Policy of the University of Wisconsin Teachers’ Union,” for example, addressed institutional policy and administrative practice, including as related to hiring, promotion, and tenure. It warned against the “exploitation” of graduate assistants, especially teaching assistants. It was presented to and discussed with the university’s president, served as a model for other institutions, and influenced opinion and practice at the institution. In New York, the College Teachers Union led a multiyear “struggle for academic democracy” in the City Colleges, ultimately garnering an increased faculty role in institutional governance. Campaigns for academic freedom were even more pressing for college locals, and faculty engaged in numerous efforts to defend allegedly aggrieved (and overwhelming leftist) faculty. They urged the union to become more active in the field, contributed funds for defense campaigns, and argued that the union needed a maintenance fund to support wrongly dismissed educators. As is often the case, the issue was coupled with efforts to establish and enforce tenure policies. At Washington, academic freedom was important and the union weighed in on specific cases. The union’s most pressing institutional concern was the plight of the so-called “sub-faculty” —the more than 60% of the instructional staff at ranks lower than assistant professor that were denied any say on institutional issues and any sense of permanency. Such mass contingency was the norm in the period, and has been the norm for much of the history of faculty employment. After several decades of robust tenure provisions, it is, of course, a condition to which we have returned.
In the archives, I encountered several useful documents related to Local 401 and its larger political context: DeLacy’s unpublished autobiography provided insight into his political activities and affiliations, Local 401’s records included meeting minutes and general correspondence, and the multiple collections involving the investigations provide additional evidence that supports and elaborates on the published accounts of the events. I trust, though, that I will most remember the collection of Garland Ethel’s materials. Ethel was a longtime faculty member in the English department at the University of Washington, where he was active in AFT 401 and, for a while, a member of the Communist Party. He was among those investigated by the Canwell Committee and the institution but his earlier resignation and his admission of membership allowed him to retain his position. He was, though, among the three who were put on probation, something for which he suffered.
Among the most striking items in Garland Ethel’s papers are his correspondences with his wife, Clarissa. Clarissa’s letters to the enlisted Ethel during World War II were especially moving. She described the combination of excitement and pain in watching boats come in to the harbor—he was not on one of them but could be some day. She repeatedly talked of “haunting” the post office, eager for his letters to help her deal with living in the limbo of wartime dislocation. She told him that she had spent a lifetime waiting, but had never waited for anything so important as his return. Garland Ethel did return from service and the Ethels spent their lives together, by accounts in great harmony. That ended, though, in September 1980. Following an argument with Clarissa’s sister and her husband, whom the Ethels were trying to evict from rented rooms in their house, Garland Ethel shot and killed his wife, her sister and her sister’s husband. He then called the police, informed them of his actions, and shot and killed himself. Some of the papers that I used were from a gift from Ethel to the library that the Regents had formally accepted just two days earlier. Others were obtained from his home library after his death. The juxtaposition of his life and career—which were celebrated by his colleagues after those September events—with the event of the death disoriented me. At the same time, in ways that were smaller and somewhat different than what Bailyn was suggesting, they enlarged and complicated my understanding of human experience.
On the investigations at and dismissals from the University of Washington, see Jane Sanders, Cold War on the Campus. For an introduction to Local 401, see Andrew Knudsen, “Communism, Anti-Communism, and Faculty Unionization.” Knudsen, now a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin, is continuing his research on the local and recently presented a paper on it at the History of Education Society’s annual meeting. On Steinmetz’s difficulty, see “The Cold War and Harry Steinmetz.” On Preisler and unionization in St. Louis, see Walter Ehrlich, “Birth Pangs of a Teachers Union: The St. Louis Story,” Missouri Historical Review, 79, 1 and 2 (1984). I have raised issues involving Communism, college faculty and the AFT in a recent article, and some of these issues in a recent book on academic freedom and tenure.