Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Monday, October 03, 2011

CUNY: The Little Red Schoolhouse

They say that oral history is telescopic. History is only retained in the collective mind for a certain period and then it’s forgotten, usually once those who actually lived through it have passed on. The World War II generation is all but gone, save for a few, sage elders.

In the 1930s, the faculty of the City College of New York, now part of CUNY, agreed upon a plan to change the course of education forever. Based upon an anti-war platform, they formed a teacher’s union and advocated socialism and communism to the college students of the day. The CCNY social movement began with the publication, in 1931, of the first issue of Frontiers, a newsletter published by the Social Problems Club, criticizing military training on campus. City College President Frederick B. Robinson bans the club and suspends eleven of its leaders. Ironically, future CUNY sociology professor Frances Fox Piven would be born the next year.

CUNY's history dates back to the formation of the Free Academy in 1847 by Townsend Harris, the first American envoy to Japan. The school was fashioned as “a Free Academy for the purpose of extending the benefits of education gratuitously to persons who have been pupils in the common schools of the city and county of New York.” The Free Academy later became the City College of New York, the oldest institution among the CUNY colleges. Hunter College – originally Female Normal and High School, later the Normal College, and finally Hunter in 1914 – had existed since 1870, and later expanded into the Bronx in the early 20th century with what became Hebert Lehman College, but CCNY and Hunter resisted merging. Today, you can hardly distinguish, and in fact, they are now under the same educational umbrella.

In 1926, in response to the growth in population of the city, the New York State legislature created the Board of Higher Education of the City of New York to integrate, coordinate and expand the institutions of higher education in the city. Through this agency, the state legislature asserted considerable control over the city's higher education. During the period the Board existed, John Jay College (1925), Brooklyn College (1930) and Queens College (1937) were created, along with a number of 2-year community colleges.

In 1961, Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed the bill that formally created the City University of New York to integrate these institutions, and a new graduate school, together into a coordinate system of higher education for the city, and by 1979, the Board of Higher Education had become the Board of Trustees of the CUNY. Eventually, the system grew to include seven senior colleges, four hybrid schools, six community colleges, as well as graduate schools and professional programs.

Over its history, CUNY and its colleges, especially CCNY, have been involved in various political movements. It was known as a hotbed of socialistic support in the earlier 20th century. CUNY also lent some support to various conferences, such as the Socialist Scholars Conference.

Millions of dollars in federal stimulus funds have been awarded to CUNY’s projects and programs, providing more opportunities for research, training and expansion. Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, who recently championed higher education as critical to the nation's economic recovery efforts, said enrollment at City University of New York is at its highest level in more than three decades.

CUNY is the third-largest university system in the United States, in terms of enrollment, behind the State University of New York (SUNY), and the California State University system. CUNY and SUNY are separate and independent university systems, although both are public institutions that receive funding from New York State. CUNY, however, is additionally funded by the City of New York.

Piven was born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, of Russian immigrants. She immigrated to the United States when she was one and was naturalized as a United States citizen in 1953. She received a B.A. in City Planning in 1953, an M.A. in 1956, and a Ph.D. in 1962, all from the University of Chicago. She’s taught at Boston University and is currently a professor in the Ph.D Sociology Program at the City University of New York.

Throughout her career, Piven has combined academic work with political action. In 1968, she signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War. In 1983 she co-founded Human SERVE (Service Employees Registration and Voter Education), an organization with the goal of increasing voter registration by linking voter registration offerings with the use of social services or state Departments of Motor Vehicles. Human SERVE's initiative was incorporated by the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, colloquially known as the “Motor Voter Bill.” Together with husband Richard Cloward, she wrote an article in the May 1966 issue of The Nation titled “The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty,” advocating increased enrollment in social welfare programs in order to collapse that system and force reforms, leading to a guaranteed annual income. This political strategy has been referred to as the “Cloward–Piven Strategy.” During 2006/07 Piven served as the President of the American Sociological Association.

CUNY now offers an exhibit called “The Struggle for Free Speech at CCNY: 1931-42,” They also provide a website, The Struggle for Free Speech at CCNY: 1931-42, which chronicles the history of their “struggle” to disseminate information about socialism and communism throughout the public school systems of America. Initially, it began as a war protest, but their agenda went much further than simply protesting war. Here’s some of what they have to say:

“Since the September 11, 2001 attacks and the passage of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, the actions of the federal government to monitor the activities of university-based faculty and students have raised public concern about academic freedom and free speech on college campuses. Americans are actively debating how best to exercise our cherished civil liberties and rights during a period of national crisis. This exhibit describes a series of events that took place at the City College of New York (the oldest of all CUNY colleges) during the 1930s and early 1940s that posed similar challenges to notions of academic freedom and civil liberties.

“Student and faculty political activism at City College during the Great Depression was widespread. CCNY students throughout the 1930s participated in protests against militarism, social and economic injustice at home and the threat of fascism abroad. They also fought to defend free speech on their campus. City College faculty also participated in anti-fascist organizations and formed the College Teachers Union (a predecessor of today’s faculty union); they also established a City College unit of the U.S. Communist Party. Mainstream newspapers at the time, opposed to such campus-based activism, labeled City College “The Little Red School House.”

“The City College administration, the New York City Board of Higher Education, and outside political forces in New York State attempted to silence this campus activism. Students were suspended or expelled and their organizations and publications banned. Faculty members were denied reappointment, and those who refused to cooperate with the Rapp-Coudert Committee (1940-42) - a New York state legislative committee created to investigate “Communist subversion” in the city’s public schools and colleges--were ultimately dismissed from their jobs.


February 1931 First issue of Frontiers, a newsletter published by the Social Problems Club, criticizes military training on campus. City College President Frederick B. Robinson bans the club and suspends eleven of its leaders.

May 23, 1932 Three thousand students at City College, organized by the National Student League, protest a fee increase for evening students. Ten thousand students sign petitions of protest. The NYC Board of Higher Education eliminates the fee.

October 26,1932 President Robinson dismisses instructor Oakley Johnson, the Social Problems Club’s advisor. Over one-thousand students protest. President Robinson calls police to the campus; four students are arrested. An off-campus protest meeting on October 30 leads President Robinson to suspend nineteen student leaders.

November 1932 City College Instructional Staff Association established.

May 29, 1933 “Jingo Day” anti-military protest held on campus. In response, the college administration expels twenty-one students and suspends the Social Problems Club, the Student Forum and the Liberal Club for supporting the protest.

April 13, 1934 First National Student Strike against War. Eight hundred City College students assemble peacefully. Police are called on campus to disperse protesters.

October 9, 1934 President Robinson invites a Young Italian Fascist delegation to a student assembly in the Great Hall. City College students disrupt this event and twenty-one student leaders are expelled.

November 20, 1934 City College students protest fascism. A two-headed effigy of President Robinson and Mussolini is burned.

March 1935 Anti-Fascist Association of City College faculty and staff formed.

March 1935 Teacher and Worker, a monthly newsletter of the City College staff unit of the U.S. Communist Party, begins publication.

May 24, 1935 College Teachers Union established.

April 1936 Thirteen activist City College faculty, including Morris U. Schappes of the English Department, are dismissed. Massive student demonstrations and widespread union support lead to their reinstatement.

February 1940 Distinguished British philosopher Bertrand Russell is appointed to teach at City College, but the funding for the position is rescinded by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in response to pressure from political and religious groups that oppose Russell’s unorthodox views on marriage.

December 2, 1940 The Rapp-Coudert Committee of the NY State legislature begins its investigations of Communist subversion in public schools and colleges. Initial committee hearing held at the New York County Court House at Foley Square.

July 11, 1941 English instructor Morris Schappes is fired a second time. He is sentenced to prison for up to two years on charges he committed perjury during his testimony at the Rapp-Coudert hearings.

1940-42 Rapp-Coudert Committee investigations lead to the dismissal or resignation under pressure of more than fifty City College staff and faculty members, the largest single political purge in the U.S. academic community until the 1950s.

1952-53 The U.S. Senate Internal Security Committee continues the work of the Rapp-Coudert Committee in investigating Communist subversion in higher education. The Board of Higher Education dismisses fourteen faculty and staff members for refusing to cooperate with the Senate committee.

1953-58 The Board of Higher Education creates its own investigation committee to search out and eliminate Communists from college staffs. Over forty faculty and staff members are dismissed or resign under pressure as the result of these internal investigations.

October 1981 The City University of New York Board of Trustees, previously known as the Board of Higher Education, issues a formal apology to faculty and staff dismissed as a result of the Rapp-Coudert Committee investigation. No one is reinstated.

The Great Depression
“During the years of the Great Depression, when capitalist economies throughout the world were in crisis, the Communist party and the Socialist party offered alternative political visions that gained widespread support among American workers and intellectuals. In 1932, Norman Thomas, the Socialist party presidential candidate, received almost a million votes, while the Communist candidate, William Z. Foster received over 100,000 votes. Communists and Socialists played key roles after 1934 in organizing a number of new unions in industries such as steel and auto.

“At the same time, fascism was on the rise in Europe. Adolph Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, and later forged an alliance with Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime in Italy, which had taken power in 1922. The nation's economy virtually collapsed during the Great Depression. By 1933, over 25 percent of the work force is unemployed. Hunger and homelessness are widespread throughout the country.

“The Communist Party was active during the years of the Great Depression in the national student movement and in struggles for the rights of workers, African-Americans, and the unemployed. Most City College students were painfully aware of the vast inequalities within American society, and knew that even a college degree provided no guarantee of gainful employment in the midst of the depression.

“Of those workers who continued to hold jobs, millions were employed at sub-standard wages, with little if any job security. Millions of workers participated in massive union organizing campaigns to raise their wages and improve their working conditions. Board of Higher Education trials led to the dismissal, non-reappointment or resignation of over 50 faculty and staff at CCNY - the largest political purge of a faculty in the history of the United States. CCNY lost many outstanding teachers; most never work in academia again. The purge ends when the US enters World War II as an ally of the Soviet Union in the fight against fascism.

“The techniques pioneered by the Rapp-Coudert Committee -- private interrogations, followed by public hearings for those individuals named by the committee's ‘friendly’ witnesses -- become the model for the McCarthy investigations of the 1950s.

“The reign of terror that this investigation unleashed in the city colleges is part of the history of the early 1940s in New York. It has well been described as a dress rehearsal for the McCarthyism of the 1950’s on the national scene.” - Abraham Edel, The Struggle for Academic Democracy, 1990 .”

The following colleges are all listed under CUNY’s umbrella, which gives the Progressives a huge pool of students from which to draw for a protest.

Senior colleges

• (1847)City College

• (1870) Hunter College

• (1919) Baruch College (as City College’s School of Business and Civic Administration, renamed in 1953 to honor Bernard M. Baruch)

• (1930) Brooklyn College

• (1937) Queens College (formed by the merger of Hunter and City Colleges' Queens campuses)

• (1946) New York City College of Technology

• (1955) College of Staten Island

• (1964) John Jay College of Criminal Justice

• (1966) York College

• (1968) Lehman College (from (1931) Lehman was the Bronx branch of Hunter College, known as Hunter-in-the-Bronx)

• (1970) Medgar Evers College

Community colleges

• (1957) Bronx Community College

• (1958) Queensborough Community College

• (1963) Borough of Manhattan Community College

• (1963) Kingsborough Community College

• (1968) LaGuardia Community College

• (1970) Hostos Community College

Graduate and professional schools

• (1961) CUNY Graduate Center

• (1973) Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education

• (1983) CUNY School of Law

• (2005) William E. Macaulay Honors College

• (2006) CUNY Graduate School of Journalism

• (2006) CUNY School of Professional Studies

• (2008) CUNY School of Public Health

My father was an English major at CCNY during the 1930s. He said what you won’t read about is the pact that the teachers’ union made to overturn the educational curriculum in America. Like my own American History professor in high school, the fired professors at CCNY were not teaching the curriculum. Back then, it was grounds for dismissal.

The idea, he said, was to prepare the next generation of educators – those attending CCNY at the time – to prepare the next generation to prepare the next generation after that. City College was an ideal seeding ground because it was a free college for the poor and working class who couldn’t afford college tuition. My father was the first to graduate college in his family.

As a journalist, Dad didn’t believe in jingoism, either. He didn’t particularly like going to war, but he disliked fascism even more. He knew Hitler and Mussolini had to be stopped. He and his brother actually joined the regular Army because they knew their survival rate would be better than those who were drafted.

Although Piven didn’t attend CCNY, the movement spread to other socialist colleges, and no doubt she was taught by the professors of that era. She and my mother are about the same age. In turn, Piven’s taught several generations of young Socialists. Even now, she’s out there with the Worst Generation, sounding the old chants, leading her students like a choir director.

Fortunately, my father and a few in his generation resisted. Mom, not quite so much (well, her second cousin was Robert Wagner, Sr. afterall, although he was only a half-cousin). Mom’s Conservative enough, though. They taught their children, and now we must teach ours. Had I children, they wouldn’t be in public school if I could at all prevent and find an alternative.

But let them see the Zombie Ragers on television. Teach them what it’s all about (now that you know). This is a serial movement; it didn’t just spring up overnight but has been in the makings for several generations. Don’t let the fears of McCarthyism scare you. McCarthy was more right than people now. The war protest movements were a front (if you don’t like fascism, why would you be opposed to fighting it?) to gain momentum for a larger movement, just as the Kent State riots were a fraudulent front.

They can’t win by the popular vote and they know it. Violence and street theater is the only way. Guerrilla Theater, as was called in the Sixties, was designed precisely to frighten and intimidate society, hence its name. The prospect of civil unrest is quite unsettling to a peaceable culture. That’s why we have a federate republic where we elect representatives to represent us (at least, they’re supposed to). That’s what intimidated people about the Tea Parties. The first rallies seen on television were appalling to normal, gentle people. We’ve had to do a good deal of work to convince them that’s not the way it is. But first impressions die hard.

These Days of Rage protests are equally designed to intimidate and frighten people. Mobs in the street? It doesn’t matter whether they say they’re peaceful or not. The only reason they’re peaceful is because no one (of any good sense) came out to meet them except the Media. Unfortunately, mobs like that – like any mob or gang – give the impression that they “own” the streets, especially a demonstration like this that has gone on for weeks now.

They have the Constitutional right to do so. In fact, nobody much cares except the Media and those people who have to try to get to work in the affected areas. They chose a strategic area; Lower Manhattan is a traffic nightmare even on a good day. Throw in a couple of thousand student protesters and you’ve got Carmageddon.

The best thing to do is to continue educating yourself and your children. Ask them every day what they were taught in class. With kids, you have to ask explicit questions that in order to elicit articulate answers, and keep on pressing them with questions until you get enough information for an actual conversation (whether they want to or not). Start with What did you study in history today? and keep on going.

If you don’t, history will repeat itself.


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