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Transcript of Kelley/Mickenberg Presentation
Julia Mickenberg’s Learning From the Left provides a detailed narrative of the way in which leftists were able to circulate ideas that were deemed to be “subversive” by the Cold War era U.S. government: circulating children’s books. She begins by giving some historical context about early leftists movements.
The Lyrical Left
The lyrical left refers to the playful and idealized ideology of leftists in the 1910s and 20s. This generation championed a pragmatic yet amorphous socialist solution. Their foundational ideologies included Freudianism, feminism, syndicalism, anarchism, and bohemianism. The lyrical left ended Post World War I and Russian Revolution or when the “red scare” drove many lyrical leftists underground or abroad.
Cowley, in a memoir of Greenwich Village described the idea of “salvation by the child.” He wrote that the infinite potential of children at birth slowly disintegrates at the hands of “standardized society and mechanical methods of teaching.” Thus a new focus arose: creating a new educational system that would encourage children to develop their own personalities. Libraries were expanded, public education grew, and the purpose of children’s literature shift to entertainment.
By the 1920s and 30s, demand for children’s books skyrocketed as education shifted away from rote memorization ordered by the teacher to discussion and analysis guided by the students. Experimental education attempted to teach children how to think instead of how to conform. Children’s publications began to include veiled commentary on the social issues of America.
Liberation through Knowledge
Lucy Sprague Mitchell was one of the most influential figures of children’s progressive education. She believed strongly in dismantling traditional gender roles and using the classroom as a forum for social experimentation. She eventually founded a cooperative school for experimental teachers to train teachers in progressive educational theory.
Battle in the Barnyard
This book by Helen Kay was the first American-authored book to be printed by a communist press. It was a revolutionary text in that it was written to educate the young and the old about the evils of the capitalist system.
During the Depression years, the proletarian child became a symbol of national and individual duress. The focus on proletarian children allowed the Communist Party, a small and insignificant organization, to increase its political influence. Educational theorists began to focus more on the inequalities of education in the capitalist system. This period saw the development of the Young Pioneers, a radical alternative to the Boy Scouts. It fought for increased quality of life for disadvantaged youth and a way to appeal to adults to fight social injustice.
The Proletarian Child
In a similar vein, other socialists recognized the power of focusing on the youth and furthered radical education of children. Socialist Sunday Schools sometimes collaborated with anarchist Modern Schools to spread communist ideologies. They taught students to think scientifically and analytically to question authority and create solidarity with an international working class.
During the 1930s children’s literature further progressed as they became more politically charged. They taught serious themes that still appealed to children. Magazines like The New Pioneer developed, which collected letters, stories, jokes, puzzles, and poems about the social condition of laborers in the U.S. The material published in this magazine was often more fact based than fanciful and mimicked the collective novels of the proletariat, popular in the Soviet Union.
The Evolution of
Keley vs. Mickenberg
While Mickenberg provides a commentary on the proletariat youth, Mary Kelley tracks the social progress of a different set of educationally disenfranchised people: women.
In 18th century America, educational opportunities for women were sparse. Women were expected to support men because they were thought at the time to be intellectually inferior to men. Anything that women were proficient in was construed to be a valuable asset to the growth of men. Education for women, especially elite women, was focused on social conventions – essentially how to be a lady. However through various means such as manuscript sharing, book clubs, teaching children, anonymous and pseudonymous publication, and student publication, women emerged into the intellectual public sphere.
Role of Student Publication
Student publications became a safe haven for female social thought. One reason this was the case is that student presses were much less regulated than others. This development offered women a forum in which they could anonymously or pseudonymously engage in purely intellectual discourse.
Female Literary Societies
As a precursor to female academies, female students were able to continue their efforts of critical thinking and social production in less formal avenues such as literary societies, reading circles, and mutual improvement associations. Women circulated their poetry and prose in both rural and urban settings. Martha Moore’s Book was a collection of nearly one hundred of such manuscripts.
One of the only influential positions women could hold during this time period was that of an educator. The concept of “Republican Motherhood” was an ideal that stated that women have a responsibility as daughters of the republic to carry out certain civic duties to teach republican morals to future generations. Naturally, one of these responsibilities was education. While the concept of republican motherhood reinforces gender stereotypes that relegate certain civic duties to women, it also served as a way for women to further their education and assert themselves in new and different ways during times of war. It provided new opportunities to educate women in traditionally male-only subjects and prompted the founding of more female academies. Finally, it legitimized elite women as public moral enforcers.
Similarities Between the Two
-Both authors focused on disenfranchised groups
-Education and literature were the keys to changing social injustice
-Both authors highlighted the importance of circulating material to gain support for the two causes
-In both cases, education of the youth served a legitimizing role in spreading ideologies of the disenfranchised groups
Differences Between the Two
-The time periods were very different
-The leftists were political radicals where as women took a more moderate approach to gain increased rights