Education for Struggle

The American Labor Colleges of the 1920s and 1930s

Richard J. Altenbaugh
Book Cover

HC: $49.95
EAN: 978-0-87722-680-2
Publication: May 90

339 pages
6 x 9

A richly detailed history of the American workers' education movement


Richard J. Altenbaugh focuses on the establishment and evolution of three of the major labor colleges. The three schools—Work People's College (1904-41) in Duluth, Minnesota, Brookwood Labor College (1921-37) in Katonah, New York, and Commonwealth College (1923-41) near Mena, Arkansas—were selected because of their longevity, notoriety, geographical diversity, and abundant archives. Collectively these three schools accounted for more than sixty years of workers' education during the early decades of the twentieth century. This is the first comprehensive analysis that compares and contrasts the labor colleges' educational and social goals, programs, and results. The workers' education movement in the United States grew out of the political and economic struggles of American workers in the early 1900s. Workers created these labor colleges because they perceived the need for education and training to facilitate their struggles. Altenbaugh examines how the colleges fit into the workers' education movement, explores the theoretical bases of the schools, reviews the backgrounds of teachers and students, sketches the careers of some labor college "graduates," and analyzes the conflicts that led to the eventual demise of these schools. The book is a richly textured collective biography of many on the left in the early decades of this century. Unlike the formal educational system, the labor colleges upheld working-class culture and provided adult worker-students with the knowledge and skills necessary to serve the labor movement. Avoiding traditional teaching methods, they relied on progressive, democratic pedagogy to train labor organizers and activists. Despite the ideological fervor and left-wing support for the labor colleges, a number of factors led to their closing. The fragmentation of the political left doomed the schools to petty factionalism. The combined opposition by business, the conservative right, and the AFL contributed to the repression of the labor programs. And the colleges' insistence on independence from other institutions to avoid the implication of political alignment sealed their fate. While the schools never achieved the "new social order" that was envisioned, this study evaluates the significance of their brief existence and the lessons that can be applied to the mature but ailing labor movement today.


"This well-written book bespeaks a wide knowledge of left and labor history as well as of the history of education. The many biographies of teachers, students, and supporters of the schools greatly enrich our knowledge of secondary leadership among the labor left." David Roediger, University of Missouri

"This richly detailed history of the American workers' education movement focuses on the establishment and evolution of three major labor colleges." Work People's College, Brookwood Labor College, and Commonwealth College

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments Introduction Part I: A Context for the Labor Colleges Workers' Education Part II: Social and Educational Goals and Practices A Culture in Overalls and Workmarked Hands Knowledge Is Power Teachers and Students Part III: Conflict and Struggle Harassment Fratricide The End of the Labor Colleges Part IV: An Educational Legacy Achievements of the Labor Colleges Notes Bibliography Index

About the Author(s)

Richard J. Altenbaugh is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Northern Illinois University.


In the Series

  • Labor and Social Change edited by Paula Rayman and Carmen Sirianni

    Labor and Social Change, edited by Paula Rayman and Carmen Sirianni, includes books on workplace issues like worker participation, quality of work life, shorter hours, technological change, and productivity, as well as union and community organizing and ethnographies of particular occupations.