‘Workers’ Education for Workers’ Children’ by Fannia M. Cohn from Labor Age. Vol. 15 No. 1. January, 1926.

Fannia M. Cohn, Socialist, former garment worker, long-time leading activist and I.G.W.U. officer, was aloso instrumental in developing the modern workers’ educational movement. Cohn would co-found Brookwood Labor College in 1924 with A. J. Muste, and was a director of of the college until 1933. A particular interest would be the education of the labor movement’s working class children. To this end she established the Pioneer Youth of America in 1923, affiliated with the Conference for Progressive Political Action, continuing to advance the work with Brookwod and the Conference for Progressive Labor Action. Here, comrade Cohen gives marvelously detailed report on the need, methodology, and practice of theworker’s children education. Much to think about for modern, and al most entirely lacking, labor education movement. (the wonderful photos, except for Fannia Cohn, taken from ‘Creative Camping; the national experimental camp of Pioneer youth of America’ by Joshua Lieberman.)

‘Workers’ Education for Workers’ Children’ by Fannia M. Cohn from Labor Age. Vol. 15 No. 1. January, 1926.

“In sympathy with their parent ideals” Pioneer youth offers influence to Workers’ Children friendly to the Labor Movement.

IN a country where universal education exists, it is natural that workers’ education, when it first comes, should confine its activities to adults. It is the workers who need more knowledge of the economic and social conditions surrounding them, a wider understanding of the labor movement, its aims, principles and problems, and of the industry in which they are engaged, as well as further training to develop character and personality. But the American labor movement adopted workers’ education as an integral part of its activities, not only to give the workers greater usefulness for the labor movement, but also to enable them better to change existing social and economic conditions, so that our world may be a happier place for all to live in.

It was thus inevitable that in the development of the workers’ education movement, the children should be next included. They had to be embraced by its educational scheme, once helping the workers in their efforts to rebuild the world on a juster basis was recognized as the objective of the movement. A group of men and women, representatives of the labor movement and educators consequently joined together in 1924 to form the Pioneer Youth of America.

Its founders wanted the movement to offer the children of the workers an opportunity to comprehend the aspirations of trade unionism. The executive board of Pioneer Youth expressed this hope in the statement of their aims:

“In a world of plenty there is no excuse for social ills such as poverty, child labor, etc., which afflict and ravage mankind. Yet our children are in no way prepared to help in adult life to eradicate these conditions. They are either kept in ignorance of these evils and the social-economic laws which govern them, or are taught to accept them as a permanent phase of life. Personal pecuniary success and charity to the “unfortunate” is urged as the way out.

“We believe that the application of scientific principles to social and economic and political problems will help eradicate most of the evils and will make possible social progress as remarkable as that which men have made mechanically. We believe, further, that education inspired by a social conscience will help bring about a happier, more equitable and peaceful society.

“We, therefore, propose to create an organization for our children and youth that will afford them an opportunity through free time club and recreational activities, for self-development and the gaining of knowledge under wholesome influences; that will liberate their minds from dogma and fear, develop their critical and creative faculties, and give them a thorough knowledge of conditions of life.

“We hope through our efforts to help our children grow into men and women with a capacity for creative thinking and a readiness to give of their energies for the betterment of society as a whole.”

It has been a sorrow to many an ardent trade unionist to see his children, brought up under influences alien to the labor movement, when grown, devoted to money-making and self-advancement, rather than to helping to eradicate the evils in our social system. The founders of the movement hoped that it, by offering influences friendly to the labor movement could bring more children to an understanding of and sympathy with the ideals of their parents, who fought for the organization of the American trade union movement.

In addition, they considered present-day educational methods inadequate for the development of well-rounded individuals. The training given in the public schools tends to make the children passive, uncritical conformists, uncreative plodders. They hoped, through the Pioneer Youth movement, to help their children to become critical, independent, creative.

Of course, the Pioneer Youth movement had no intention of burdening the children with dogma. While it aimed to give the children a better comprehension of the labor movement and to prepare them to take their place as workers for a change in our social structure, it was always cautious not to pour propaganda into their youthful minds. It distinctly aimed to keep the children open-minded and critical, rather than clogged with ready-made social philosophies. But realizing that the influences surrounding children help to form their adult points of view and social ideals, besides moulding their characters and developing their personalities, they wished these influences to be socially advanced.

The movement, planned for after-school hours, had, of course, to be largely recreational.

Leadership Training

It is a delicate task to lead the minds of children to a philosophy. The founders of Pioneer Youth were well aware of their great responsibilities. They realized that the just important factor in the success of their work was the group of men and women who would lead the children. They hoped that these persons would themselves have a social philosophy, an understanding of social, economic and labor conditions and with the problems with which the labor movement is confronted, so that they might guide the minds of the children in the proper direction, without dogma.

But to secure such persons was not easy. Most of those who can direct children in some recreation field are familiar with it alone. To secure the well-rounded leaders who were absolutely essential to the success of the movement, it was found necessary to establish a training school for leaders of Pioneer Youth with a qualified professional person as director. The training course offered men and women dissatisfied with old methods of leading children’s groups, the opportunity to develop a new approach. The response to the call for leaders was gratifying. A large number of young men and young women, many with experience in leading boys’ and girls’ groups, all well informed on the labor movement and social questions, sympathetically disposed towards the aims of the workers, and possessed of the experimental attitude toward life, offered their services to the Pioneer Youth movement.

The movement is now in its second year of existence. It has already made successful experiments in summer camping and city clubs. It has conducted a summer camp at Pawling, N.Y., on the grounds of the Manumit School for two summers. It accommodated there, at a minimum price, in the most modern surroundings, hundreds of children—boys and girls—who came to spend a few weeks under the healthiest natural and spiritual conditions. Most of those who came were children of trade unionists who could not afford to go to private camps of a similar high standing.

Camp Program Educational

The camp program proved of great social and educational value. Both boys and girls were included in all the activities and the camp directors felt that a more normal and less self-conscious sex attitude was the definite result. As a democratic activity, the camp offered great scope for the children. They were given real responsibility, they decided on their own daily activities, formulated their own rules of conduct, considered the problems that arose to confront the community. An attempt was made to encourage creative activity as far as possible. All the facilities of the camp served as educational material; the children used the farm with which most of them were fascinated because of its novelty to them as a schoolhouse; a printing press they discovered as a laboratory, both in printing and in magazine editing.

Most important of all, perhaps, was the attitude that the counsellors, men and women equipped not only for camp activities but also for imparting a spirit of social idealism to the children, took towards the campers. A highly successful effort was made to foster the co-operative rather than the competitive spirit. At the campfire meetings, the children were encouraged to discuss current vital, social and economic problems. An incident in the camp kitchen, for instance, where a white kitchen-man showed race prejudice led to a full discussion of that pressing question.

With a staff interested in the organized labor movement and all socially progressive activities, it was inevitable that the camp should bring to the children, in addition to all the other worth-while things of camping, a broadening of their social vision, which will help them to realize the aims of the Pioneer Youth movement, “the preparation of youth for participation in the work of bettering society.”

City Clubs

The activities of the city clubs, of which seventeen have already been formed, are aimed in the same direction as the camping work. The two hundred children from nine to seventeen years who have been reached through the clubs in almost every section of New York City are developing an understanding of the labor movement and a creative spirit to meet its problems. They are directed in their work by a group of earnest inspiring men and women.

Boys and girls are members of the same club in most cases. Club activities vary according to the background and interests of the children. Many are interested in dramatics, some in hikes, athletics, games, handicraft work, reading, discussions or getting up a club journal. One group is carrying on an investigation of fire-traps in its neighborhood. One club is preparing a play with knights and giants, another one with pacifism as its central theme. But both plays are being written and produced by the children themselves. All the clubs co-operate to produce a bulletin.

The organization is maintained on a national basis with its central offices at 70 Fifth Avenue, in New York City. Joshua Leiberman, the executive secretary is in active charge of the work. In each city, the activities are carried on through a local organization which takes charge of the city clubs. Adults may become members of these clubs on payment of a fee of $2.50. The movement has two phases and interests two groups—the Pioneer Youth clubs bring in the young people; the local organizations provide a means for parents and sympathizers with the movement to participate in its work. These local organizations have as an additional object the acquainting of their membership with the aims, problems, policies and tactics of the trade union movement. To that end, speakers are invited to attend the business meeting to discuss before them the problems with which the movement is confronted, and general discussions by the membership of these problems.

Although the Pioneer Youth movement was started in New York City, and most of the clubs are organized there, it has a national scope. It is supported by a large group of international unions, central labor bodies, and local unions, with a membership in all parts of the country. A movement is already on foot to start an organization in Pennsylvania. In addition, requests have been coming in from many parts of the country for the organization of city clubs and the establishment of summer camps.

The Pioneer Youth movement has undoubtedly significantly influenced the children who have already become a part of it. It has had a tremendous influence upon another group, also hitherto neglected by the labor movement, despite the important part they play. The workers’ wives are usually so confined to their homes by drudgery that they have little opportunity to come in touch with the problems: of the labor movement. They nevertheless are a very significant factor in labor’s struggles—they stand behind the men in all the strikes, they rear the future workers. Any means to bring them to a greater understanding of the labor movement must be of great value.

The Pioneer Youth movement offers such a means. The participation of their children in the movement necessarily attracts them to it. Through the local organization they are given an opportunity to participate actively in the work. The number of women who are taking an interest in these local organizations, and there learning about the labor movement, is gratifyingly large and steadily increasing.

Manumit School

Another experiment in the field of workers’ education for children was entered into by the labor movement when the Manumit School was founded. This school is a residential school for workers’ children between nine and fourteen, maintained at Pawling, New York, by an association and operated on a non-profit basis. It is a new departure in two aspects: besides being a school of high standing maintained for workers’ children, it represents a new spirit in education.

While those who organized the school were aware of the fact that the existing public schools are the schools for workers’ children, they realized that like other public institutions, they change but slowly in response to the demands of progress. They were aware of the fact that society always needs experimental stations wherein new ideas are tried out, and which pass on successful experiments to the general public, which in turn introduces it into its institutions. They established Manumit as one of these experimental stations, as they said most clearly in the school’s announcement:

“A world order based upon justice and co-operation, in which the individual may find freedom, is the end for which many labor groups are working; and for which certain research groups, philosophers and idealists hope. Fundamental changes in our social and industrial order must be made before this goal is reached. Education is one of the most potent forces in reshaping social conditions. Hence the necessity for education which will develop men and women with the knowledge, staying power, and inspiration to rebuild institutions and alter conditions which cramp the lives of workers today. With this end in view, Manumit School takes its place among the educational laboratories: here and abroad that foster the growth of individuals freed from inherited errors of the past.”

Fannia M. Cohen with student.

The school is, like the Pioneer Youth ventures, democratically managed. Students and teachers share in the work necessary for the upkeep of the school and the farm: The teachers aim to develop a critical and creative spirit in the children instead of the passive “learning” attitude brought about in our schools. It includes work in the natural sciences, in the social sciences, in literature and writing, in arts and crafts and in mathematics. It does not yet prepare for college entrance, but it hopes soon to continue its courses so that its students will leave the school equipped to go on with higher education or to enter their life work with well-rounded personalities.

The school is managed by an executive board composed of men and women, representatives of the labor movement and educators of broad general vision. It is directed by Mr. and Mrs. William Fincke.

Art Education for Workers

The problems of the children of the workers who need general training are being met in the Pioneer Youth movement and through the Manumit School. The needs for special training of those endowed with artistic talent has also been considered by the labor movement. With proper training many of these children could be led to express themselves through art, and could serve the labor movement as artists.

To achieve this end, there was formed the Workers’ Art Scholarship Committee. This Committee consists of representatives of many trade unions. It aims to select talented and deserving workers or their children who have had preliminary training, and enable them to pursue their studies abroad free.

The trade union movement has as its aim the elimination of the monstrous injustices and inequalities of today and the transformation of society on a basis of justice and happiness for all.

Through the manifold activities of the trade union workers give planful consideration to problems not only of their own group and industry, but to society as a whole.

To millions of workers, their union is not only the organization that protects them in the economic field, but also the organization that gives them an opportunity to develop character and personality. It gives them dignity, self-confidence and self-respect as citizens and as human beings. The trade union movement has now reached the point where the trade-unionist wants new activities to be developed to embrace the interest of his children.

Labor Age was a left-labor monthly magazine with origins in Socialist Review, journal of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. Published by the Labor Publication Society from 1921-1933 aligned with the League for Industrial Democracy of left-wing trade unionists across industries. During 1929-33 the magazine was affiliated with the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA) led by A. J. Muste. James Maurer, Harry W. Laidler, and Louis Budenz were also writers. The orientation of the magazine was industrial unionism, planning, nationalization, and was illustrated with photos and cartoons. With its stress on worker education, social unionism and rank and file activism, it is one of the essential journals of the radical US labor socialist movement of its time.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/laborage/v15n01-jan-1926-LA.pdf

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