‘Organization Begins at Birth’ by A. J. Muste from Labor Age. Vol. 16 No. 9. September, 1927.

Comrade Muste on what public education does and can mean for the labor movement, how education of the young shapes future workers, the necessity of strong teachers’ unions, and the need to organize our class from birth.

‘Organization Begins at Birth’ by A. J. Muste from Labor Age. Vol. 16 No. 9. September, 1927.

THE business of bringing up babies, nursery schools, kindergartens, seems to have no connection with the problem of organizing the unorganized, but appearances are sometimes deceiving. The learned folks tell us that the surroundings in which a person is brought up, the education that is given him, have almost everything to do with what he turns out to be. If this is so, then from a labor stand- point there would seem to be something pretty radically wrong with the environment with which our children are being brought up and the education that is being administered to them. If the public schools were consistently training young citizens utterly indifferent to their country or even, hostile to it, those who support the schools would certainly think there was something wrong. But it is a fact that when young people today grow up and go to work, it is necessary to get them by the neck and drag them along in order to get them into the union of their craft or trade, whereas if they had been properly brought up, it ought to be impossible to keep them out of the union. Surely, there is something radically wrong with home and school influences which lead to such a result.

The labor movement is setting itself an impossible task if it tries to organize workers who are rendered unorganizable by what home and school have done for them. The problem of organizing is immediately bound up with that of education. and not only adult workers education but the education of children and young people in the home, the nursery, the kindergarten, the public school, the high school, the neighborhood.

Muste leading a class at Brookwood Labor College.

There are many different ways in which we might approach the problem we have here raised. On this occasion I want to discuss not the question of educational method, not primarily how we are to achieve the result we desire, but the question of aim and purposes— what kind of human beings do we want to develop? What are the qualities which as labor people we want to bring out in folks?

Bertrand Russell, who in addition to being such a learned mathematician that there are only about a dozen men like Einstein who can understand him when he gets to talking about figures, is also a philosopher, a student of society, a member of one of the most famous old families of England, a pro-labor man, the husband of one wife and the father of two young children, has recently written a book on education, and in one of the chapters names four qualities which he thinks he would like to see developed in people, and they may serve us as an illustration, though we do not follow Bertrand Russell very closely in what we have to say about them. The four qualities he names are Vitality, Courage, Sensitiveness and Intelligence.

Vitality means first of all vigor, strength, but it is no-a purely physical quality, not mere brute strength, as we say. We think of a person as having vitality if he is wide awake, interested in what is going on about him, eager for new experiences, if he stands for something and is not utterly colorless, if he works at something with eagerness and application. There are people of twenty who have not any vitality and people of eighty who have.

Courage may be physical courage or moral courage. Some people have physical courage but utterly lack moral courage; the nerve, for example, to do what is unpopular with the crowd they associate with. When Governor Fuller ruled against Sacco and Vanzetti recently, he displayed courage of a sort: there probably was some danger that some individual with an unbalanced mind might waylay him and try to take his life. On the other hand, courage to stand by himself, to risk being broken politically, being made an outcast from his own social group, he apparently did not have. This is, however, the most precious kind of courage, the courage displayed by all those whom mankind worships as its heroes when they are dead even though it would have nothing to do with them in their life time.

Muste in 1932 drawn by Bernard Sanders (not that one).

I once heard a woman standing beside Niagara Falls say “I don’t see what everybody gets so excited about; after all, it’s only water running over rocks.” Beethoven’s music is noise to some people; others are transported to Heaven by it. Some people don’t notice a poorly designed building; others are acutely pained by the sight of it. Thus, some people are sensitive, they feel keenly and truly; others are insensitive. To illustrate from another field. Many people who could not bear to inflict the slightest hurt on one of their own children or acquaintances don’t hesitate to torture little children or their mothers in factories and can read with perfect unconcern about pickets being beaten up in a strike or about the marines killing “damn foreigners” in Nicaragua or China. They are just not sensitive enough to feel suffering when it happens to people who are far away in space or who belong to another class or social group.

Intelligence does not mean having a lot of information. When people no longer want to learn, they don’t learn. It has been demonstrated on the other hand that fearful handicaps can be overcome by people who do want to know. For another thing, intelligence is bound up with independence. It means being able and eager to think things through for yourself and not passively accept some one else’s word for it.

Now, when we stop to consider, we realize that most young children are endowed with a goodly share of all these qualities. They are very much alive, awake, full of restless energy; they seem to be quite fearless except when grown-ups instill fears of the dark or of thunder or of the bogy man into them; they are sensitive and they are full of curiosity, infinitely eager to explore every corner of their world, to take things apart and see what makes them go.

Also, when we stop to consider, we realize that if grown-ups had these qualities they would be mighty good material for the labor movement and they would certainly not fall under the spell of company union, anti- shop, high tariff, militarism and other bunk.

Alas, they do fall under the spell. Why? Because much of our education in home and school and elsewhere is designed to stamp out the very qualities we have been describing and to instill their opposites. From the very start, for example, we are apt to stifle and thwart the vitality of children: they must not be noisy, they must not run about freely, they must sit at straight desks nailed to the floor, in straight rows, and they grow up into men and women who can work submissively at straight rows of machines in great factories, and live in straight rows of tenement houses and march in straight rows of soldiers and vote like so many machines for the grand old party.

Athletic bodies we want our children to have; it is a religion with us; but courage to be different, to think for oneself, to defy convention and authority in the name of truth, justice, mercy, how little do we educate for that? What effort is there for the most part as yet to develop the artistic abilities in children, to encourage them to create things of use and beauty, freely, spontaneously? And why indeed should such an effort be made if we are content with a regime of mass production without any reservation? If mass production in huge factories for automobiles, sewing machines, pins, canned goods and antique furniture, why not also mass production of children, fitted to a single pattern in educational factories? As for the developing of such qualities as curiosity and independence of judgment, which are necessary for intelligence, where in our school system in general do we make provision for this? At home, the child’s curiosity often meets with the petulant cry from parents “Don’t bother me with so many questions” and in many schools the boy who asks serious questions is regarded as queer. When a young college student working last summer in the Studebaker plants in order to get “industrial experience”, ventured a suggestion to the foreman, he was told “When you were in school you did as the teacher told you; when you were in the army you did as the captain told you; when you are in this factory you do as the foreman tells you; we’ll do the thinking for you; your business is to produce.” That foreman “said a mouthful”. He uttered a complete philosophy of education. School with us is chiefly a matter of being and believing what the teacher tells us, as for that matter much of our home life means for children doing and believing what father and mother tell them. Such training results automatically, surely, in soldiers who do as the captain tells them; in citizens who do as custom, public opinion and poisonous propaganda tell them; in workers who do as the boss tells them, in church, in lodge, in politics, in the shop, in every sphere of life.

In conclusion, space permits us to make only a few suggestions as to what we may do to produce the kind of workers who will naturally grow up into the labor movement instead of running away from it and who may be trusted to develop the kind of movement that is now in great measure lacking.

1. Let parents train their children as if they were human beings in the process of development and not as household pets, or nuisances, or punching bags, or half-wits, who must not by any chance be trusted to stand on their own feet and to have ideas of their own.

2. Push the organization of the teachers of the country into unions affiliated with the organized labor movement. Teachers who know nothing about the labor movement except perhaps a lot of things that are not so, who don’t dare to organize for the defense of their own rights, are not likely to bring up children who will be of any use to labor.

3. Favor decent salaries for teachers. Teachers living on starvation wages and contented to work for a school system that pays them such wages, are likely to bring up children who will accept starvation wages from the industrial system.

4. Having provided adequate pay and decent working conditions, insist on a much higher standard for teachers than most schools have at the present time. Few business enterprises would tolerate the kind of workmanship that prevails in the schools. Few people of means incidentally are seen to permit their children to go to the public schools.

5. In general, labor should favor spending large sums of money on schools and oppose any tendency to cut down on school expenditures. There are all sorts of good reasons for this. So long as our rulers spend billions on battle ships, labor may well shout for more millions for education. There is a tendency to take the money for the support of schools more and more from the rich while it is the children of the poor who go to these schools, and it is sound labor policy to increase the “free income” of the workers by making the privileged groups pay out indirectly for better schools for working children the money they do not pay the worker directly in wages.

6. Stop the craze for big school buildings. No one nowadays wants to bring up his children in a huge factory or mill, but huge, queer, noisy factories is what these immense school buildings are to children.

7. Ninety per cent of the desks ought to be taken out of school rooms. A desk nailed to the floor stands for a child nailed to a desk, nailed to a fixed, arbitrary pattern for life. All movements such as the Workers Nursery School Association, Manumit School, Pioneer Youth, that have for their object the development of experimental education, an education that aims to develop not automata but independent, critical, free-minded, joyous, unafraid children, ought to have the support of labor, and labor should insist that as rapidly as possible the methods developed by these agencies that have proved their worth, be adopted by the public schools.

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/v16n09-sep-1927-LA.pdf

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