Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How Socialism Took Root in American Education

Diane Kepus

John Dewey (1859 – 1952) is regarded as a great reformer of American education. One of his prime influences was an early advocate of socialism called Robert Owen.

Robert Owen played a large role in Dewey’s formulating ideas. Owen was a social and educational reformer. He was one of the founders of socialism and the cooperative movement. Owen believed that moral reform could only come through the reform of the environment. Once Owen gained ownership of New Lanark, he began to put his vision for its factories and schools into place.

Living in New Lanark, Scotland in the late 1700’s, Owen had the opportunity to purchase the Chorlton Twist Co. Owen openly admired how the previous owner had shown respect for the children of the people working for him which included children. He then went on to purchase the Lanark Company where he found conditions deplorable and implemented a standard of hygiene. The community as a whole found his concern for the welfare of his workers admirable. At a time when workers in the mills of New Lanark needed saving, Owen provided his workers with decent housing, and banned children under 10 years old from working in his mills. He argued against physical punishment in schools and factories, as well he ensured that this was a standard upheld in his own facilities. Owen hoped that his treatment of children would influence other factory owners to do the same.

Owen’s ideas were shaped by the Scottish Enlightenment and his contact with progressive ideas in Manchester, England as a member of the Literary and Philosophical Society. His general theory was that character is formed by the effects of the environment upon the individual. Hence, education was of central importance to the creation of rational and humane character and the duty of the educator was to provide the wholesome environment, both mental and physical, in which the child could develop. Physical punishment was prohibited and child labor was restricted. In theory, man being naturally good, could grow and flourish when evil was removed. Education, as one historian has put it, was to the "steam engine of his new moral world."

At New Lanark, Owen involved himself in the public affairs of the day, the most important being education, factory reform, and the improvement of the Poor Laws. His first public speech was on education (1812) and was elaborated upon in his first published work, The First Essay on the Principle of the Formation of Character (1813). Together with three further essays (1813-1814), this comprised A New View of Society, which remains Owen’s clearest declaration of principles. In 1816, he opened the New Institution for the Formation of Character and then the Infant School.

Since most children were taken out of school by age 10, Owen offered evening classes, which allowed the children to continue their education while working. Considering the cost of books, paper, and ink, the schooling was nearly free.

Owen’s denunciation of religion evoked a mounting negative campaign against him which in later years damaged his public reputation and the work associated with his name. By the late 1820s, Owen’s roots in New Lanark were loosening. Owen now set about his mission to bring about the new moral world through his plan for well-regulated communities. England, Scotland and Ireland seemed indifferent, but the United States opened up new prospects and in 1824 Owen crossed the Atlantic and viewed the Rappite community at Harmony, Indiana, which was for sale. (Rappite being a Religious Celibate society called the Harmony Society). Owen bought the land in April 1825, initiating New Harmony. The New Harmony community was not a success. By May 1827, there were ten different sub-communities on the estate, and a year later failure was apparent.

About the same time, Owen became convinced that the world of competitive industrial capitalism had reached a stage of crisis and that the leaders of society would now turn to him in their hour of need. What Owen was offering the working class Owenites was social salvation!

These views were expressed in his weekly periodical, The Crisis (1832-1834), and had a following particularly among the labor aristocrats of London who sought to exchange their products according to the labor theory of value at the Gray's Inn Road Labour Exchange, which Owen opened in 1832.

Breaking with these labor movements in 1834, Owen turned back to his plan for a community and founded a journal, The New Moral World (November, 1834) and an organization, the Association of All Classes of All Nations (May, 1835) to prepare public opinion for the millennium.

In the 1840s, Owen embarked on a new settlement. He secured capital from a consortium of capitalist friends and built a luxurious mansion, Harmony Hall, to house a community "normal school" which would train Owenites in a correct communitarian environment. Owen’s concept of a "normal school" was not what many Owenites had hoped for, and in 1844 the annual Owenites Congress rebelled against his despotic control of community policy.

From the age of two the children were cared for and instructed by the community. The youngest spent the day in play school until they progressed to higher classes. There the Greek and Latin classics were discarded; practice in various crafts constituted an essential part of the program. The teachers aimed to impart what the children could most readily understand, making use of concrete objects and avoiding premature abstractions. They banished fear, all artificial rewards and punishments and appealed instead to the spontaneous interest and inclinations of the children as incentives for learning. Girls were on an equal footing with boys.

The educational reformers of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries dealt with the two, what they thought, were distinct aspects of a young child’s problems. One concerned the claims of childhood as a specific and independent stage in human growth. This perennial problem arises from the efforts of adults to subjecting growing children to ends foreign of their own needs and two, pressing them into molds shaped not by the requirements of the maturing personality, but by the external interests of the ruling order.

Owen put a lot of emphasis on observation and experience as a means of educating. Visual aids, diagrams, pictures, and models were incorporated into lessons and were thought to help facilitate learning. However, toys were never used. Owen believed that children could amuse themselves and if they became bored the teacher would provide something that would educate and interest them. Lectures, when they took place, were to be made short and stimulating, as to make the lesson memorable and compensate for the students' short attention spans. In addition, lessons on dancing and singing played a key role in the students' education, a vast contrast to the education of the present. Furthermore, military style exercises were a major feature of Owen's schools. School marches and uniforms were incorporated to reinforce conformity.

The word "socialism" first became current in the discussions of the "Association of all Classes of all Nations" which Owen formed in 1835 with himself as Preliminary Father. During these years his secularist teaching gained such influence among the working classes as to give occasion for the statement in the Westminster Review (1839) that his principles were the actual creed of a great portion of them.

In 1854, at the age of 83, despite his previous antipathy to religion, Owen was converted to spiritualism after a series of "sittings" with the American medium Maria B. Hayden (credited with introducing spiritualism to England). Owen made a public profession of his new faith in his publication “The Rational” a quarterly review and later wrote a pamphlet entitled “The future of the Human race; or great glorious and future revolution to be effected through the agency of departed spirits of good and superior men and women.”

After Owen's death spiritualists claimed that his spirit dictated the "Seven Principles of Spiritualism" to the medium Emma Hardinge Britten in 1871.

This article is part of a series on the history and development of education in America. For Part One, read here. Contributing Editor Diane Kepus is a regular contributor to several web sites addressing Agenda 21 and education in America. She is a researcher, wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother who sees the damage being done to our country because of our public education system. Her own web site is

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