chapter  15
42 Pages

Harold Rugg vs. Horatio Alger: Social Class and Economic Opportunity, 1930–1960


At the start of 1939, Harold Rugg was the most widely read author of social science textbooks in the United States. In the decade since he finished the first full-length volume in the Man and His Changing Society series, his publisher, Ginn and Company, had shipped more than five million of his texts and workbooks, reaching students in approximately five thousand school systems.1 Rugg’s frankness, left-of-center politics, and underlying optimism about America’s destiny struck a chord with a country devastated by the Depression. As a delighted Midwestern sales agent for Ginn put it, “Everybody wanted the Rugg books.”2 But within months, Rugg became the subject of the most celebrated case of censorship in the nation’s history. After critics accused him of corrupting youth with subversive, even communist, propaganda, this education professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College watched his reputation and the sales of his books plummet. By 1951 Rugg’s fortunes had changed irrevocably. His texts, long since removed from the classrooms of public schools, gathered dust in storage basements and library shelves. Nearing retirement, he prepared to give an address at Ohio State University, only to have the American Legion mount a vigorous protest and successfully pressure school authorities to impose a gag rule to block appearances by “disloyal” speakers. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of the university’s students had once cradled Rugg’s books in their arms. Now, it seemed, his ideas were simply too radical for them to consider as adults.3 What led to Rugg’s undoing? Was he a would-be revolutionary foiled by the Legion and a host of other critics or, as many of his supporters continue to claim, the hapless victim of a right-wing conspiracy? Neither depiction captures the real spirit of this progressive educator, though there are elements of truth in both. Rugg is best understood as a dedicated social critic and teacher who, with like-minded educators, dreamed of using schools to reform American society. His particular interest was the social studies curriculum, and his tools for civic betterment included a series of texts for elementary and junior high school students. What brought these books acclaim in educational circles for most of the 1930s, and infamy among conservatives soon afterward, was their author’s willingness to touch on a usually taboo topic. Until the 1930s, social class had been one of the most sensitive issues in textbooks on US history. Acknowledging that there had long been stark disparities of income and wealth among Americans was awkward enough for writers. Explaining how those differences had inspired competing economic philosophies and political programs was even more treacherous. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, and into the first decades of the twentieth, civic groups and politicians demanded that textbook authors promote national unity and encourage patriotism among young readers. But nationalism, as one scholar has put it, is animated by the conviction that all citizens share a “deep, horizontal comradeship.”4 Social inequality and economic exploitation ran counter to that national myth, and so, not surprisingly, many of the men and women who drafted books destined for the nation’s

classrooms tried to avoid these subjects. Once professional historians began to replace amateurs in the textbook-writing trade, however, they found that such self-censorship clashed with their own dedication to objectivity. Led by David Saville Muzzey in the 1910s and 1920s, they slowly and cautiously began to address the role of class in the country’s past. Rugg chose to explore class even more assiduously. Personal temperament guided that decision, but so did academic training. Rugg was not a professional historian, and he was not guided by the disciplinary ideal of objectivity-of rendering the past dispassionately, just as it had happened. He was a scholar of education committed to progressive ideas and methods. While some of his fellow textbook authors were willing to discuss contentious issues as they arose naturally in their narratives, Rugg actually built his books around them. As a progressive educator, he hoped that a focus on unresolved social issues would make schoolwork individually and socially relevant for students and thereby more compelling. He began the writing process for Man and His Changing Society by identifying the most important problems he believed young Americans would face as adults and then tried to explain how these problems had arisen and how they might be solved in the future. The persistence of material inequality in America especially interested Rugg. Like his fellow writers, he praised the nation’s record of economic accomplishment. But unlike many of his predecessors, he delved into murkier topics-the pernicious influence of money in politics; the class bias of revered statesmen; and, most noticeably, the apparent failure of laissez-faire economics, which had, at the time his books rolled off the presses during the Depression’s worst years, produced millions of destitute farmers and industrial laborers along with a handful of those he termed the “idle rich.” Rugg’s heroes were middle-and working-class Americans who endured hardship as they struggled to reform and perfect their society, a theme suggested by the title of one of his books, America’s March toward Democracy. Rugg’s focus on everyday people made the texts especially readable. They had an appeal akin to John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and photographer Dorothea Lange’s sympathetic portraits of migrant laborers. The texts were so popular that Rugg became a convenient target as political winds began to shift at the end of the 1930s. For his discussion of poverty and claims that some sort of national economic planning would be needed to prevent another collapse, critics branded him un-American. A few suggested that he and other progressive “REDuca-tors” were doing Moscow’s bidding. The critics included familiar faces from the 1920s battles, including the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution. But powerful corporate interests also joined these groups, arguing that Rugg’s emphasis on the defects of industrial capitalism would sow disorder and weaken children’s commitment to free enterprise. Well funded and guided by fervent leaders, the campaign routed Rugg from the schools. By 1944, sales of his books had dropped 90 percent from their peak in the late 1930s.5