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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Past and Future of the Socialist Sunday School

“Socialist Sunday School” may sound like a dreamy fixture for a utopian future, but over a century ago, radical classrooms thrived across the United States and Britain.

When the winter holidays would roll around in the late 1910s, the students of Milwaukee teacher Kenneth Shedd treated their peers to a very different kind of Christmas pageant. Instead of putting on a nativity play or singing “Silent Night,” the children mounted a performance of The Strike of Santa Claus, in which Santa announces that Christmas is cancelled because he has decided to strike in solidarity with their parents, who are being worked so hard by the ruling class that they did not have adequate time to prepare for the holidays. In a rousing end to the performance, the children of the world persuade Santa to go back to delivering presents by all vowing to vote socialist.

The students in question were able to perform The Strike of Santa Claus without so much as raising an eyebrow (never mind being banished to the principal’s office) because they were not at a run-of-the-mill public school, or even a private one––they were attending one of the many Socialist Sunday Schools active in America at that time. First rising to prominence in Britain and the United States in the late 19th century, the movement was eventually championed in countries around the world by radicals who felt that education was a key part of building a more equitable future, and believed that the values imparted to children in the course of conventional schooling stood in direct opposition to that goal. Today, they are largely forgotten as a small movement that eventually fizzled out, but the rebellious spirit they encouraged in students is no less necessary today than it was a century ago.

When labor activist Mary Gray set up a soup kitchen for workers and their families during the 1892 dock strike in London, she was profoundly moved by the poverty and lack of education of the children she saw there, many of whom had little access to school. A former Sunday school teacher herself, Gray had since abandoned her faith and become involved in leftist organizing, befriending Eleanor Marx and other prominent figures of the workers’ movement of the day. Now, however, an opportunity presented itself for Gray to use her former experience for a new purpose––to teach not only reading and writing but solidarity and compassion, how to hold a strike and why not to break one. It’s recorded that her first improvised class had just two pupils. Two decades later, an article in the newspaper Young Socialist recorded over 100 socialist Sunday Schools across Great Britain, collectively reaching over 10,000 students ranging in age from children to adults. 

In the United States, too, the idea of schools for radical thought caught on among families in the labor movement. Historian J. Donald Wilson writes that the United States had roughly 100 English-language Socialist Sunday Schools between the years 1900 and 1920, not to mention an unrecorded number of schools that conducted their classes in a foreign language. Though heterogeneous in nature––there was no national curriculum or collection of standards to be enforced––the schools coalesced around the same core values. For teachers, many of whom had themselves grown up poor and been forced to work from a young age, these schools became an opportunity to give the new generation the kind of joyful childhood experiences they themselves hadn’t had, and to help build a world where no child would be deprived of their education because of poverty. For parents, these schools provided a chance to instill socialist ethical values in their children, values that they felt were being eroded by the regular educational environment.

The Socialist Sunday School movement was born around the same time that Taylorist ideas of scientific management––which transformed humans into machines via its singular focus on output and optimum productivity––were coming into vogue not only on the factory floor (where many child laborers still toiled despite the best efforts of reformers) but in the classroom, with education authorities calling for the elimination of “waste” and the precise documentation of students’ activities and the speed at which they were executed. Meanwhile, structural changes to how school boards were composed made it increasingly difficult for ethnic minorities and labor activists to win seats.

The Socialist Sunday School shared certain resonances with the Labor Church, a religious tendency that blended Christian ethical teachings with socialist values and rose to prominence at around the same time. What set the Socialist Sunday Schools apart, however, was that they adopted the trappings of Christianity but not the content. They weren’t a place for children to learn Bible stories: their hymnals contained “The Internationale” and “Solidarity Forever.” Their Ten Commandments instructed children to “honour good men, be courteous to all men, bow down to none” and to not “think that he who loves his own country must hate and despise other nations, or wish for war, which is a remnant of barbarism.” Though differing on questions of theology, both the Socialist Sunday School movement and the Labor Church movement were united in a desire to teach socialism as a moral philosophy and in their deeply held belief in the possibility of earthly paradise.

In many senses, classes in a Socialist Sunday School would be familiar to students of conventional schools. A 1918 record of Socialist Sunday School curricula, for instance, includes literature by classic writers such as Rabindranath Tagore, Nikolai Gogol, Oscar Wilde, and Upton Sinclair. But lessons also stressed themes such as class struggle, consciousness-raising, and the meaning of the word “scab.” Even beyond the curriculum’s inclusion of Marxist ideas, these schools were a radical departure from educational norms both at the time and today. In a 1910 newspaper article, Socialist Sunday School teacher Kenneth Thompson wrote that “the children select their own officers…and they are given instruction in conducting business meetings. This is one of the practical lessons that is not taught in any other school.” Students were able to create and enforce their own rules, even overruling the proposals of teachers and administrators. An account of a school in Rochester, NY stated that while there were tests, students could elect not to take them if they so desired. 

Art by Skutch.

When you read historical accounts of these schools, they sound, quite simply, like a lot of fun. Being asked to capture the attention of a roomful of children on a weekend morning meant that teachers had to be inventive with their curricula and depart from the typical rote learning model. Students sang and drew; they wrote and starred in their own plays; they went out into nature. In the same 1910 article, Thompson recalled: “The League had a picnic for the school at Piedmont Park in April, and we all had an enjoyable time. Some of us had a lively time caring for the young revolutionists.”

Phrases like “young revolutionists” and “good little rebels” come up again and again with reference to the children who attended these schools. Teachers and community members viewed the young pupils of these schools with deep seriousness––they were not just bodies to be disciplined, rabble-rousers to be brought to order. They were fellow thinkers whose needs had to be addressed, whose thoughts had to be heard, whose opinions had to be acted on. They were, as some referred to them, “little comrades.”

Socialist Sunday Schools were also explicitly internationalist in their outlook, and anti-war at a time when such views could be labeled as dangerously seditious. In contrast to English-only, assimilation-minded mainstream schools, children of immigrants could receive instruction at Socialist Sunday Schools in a language they were more accustomed to speaking, and students of any ethnic or religious background (or professing any leftist tendency) were welcome. Socialist Sunday Schools were also coed, and some fostered discussion about issues such as women’s suffrage. The schools’ leftist spirit continued onto the playground as well: they explicitly opposed the competitive spirit that undergirded so many of the activities in conventional schools, seeing it as a value inextricably linked to capitalism and ultimately to human suffering. Many schools taught children games in which there was no winner but everyone took turns. Above all else, students were taught to understand the power structures that undergirded the world around them and to question their necessity rather than accepting them as given. In the hands of radical teachers, simple biology lessons on flowers and birds became entry points for discussions of gender roles, the division of labor, and the abolition of private property.

Undoubtedly, one of the main goals of Socialist Sunday Schools was to educate students in the history and values of the left in the hopes that they would grow up to join the struggle. But another key goal promoted by supporters of the movement––one often missed by reactionary critics who attempted to have the schools shut down for fears of indoctrination––was their emphasis on freedom of thought. For those who ran these schools or sent their children there, it was the weekday schools, not their weekend counterparts, that were dangerously doctrinaire, teaching respect for private property, instilling nationalism, and tacitly presenting class hierarchies as natural. Praising the Socialist Sunday School movement in a 1915 newspaper article, Eugene V. Debs lamented that “the child of the worker is taught to revere the institutions of capitalism.” The goal of these schools, as he saw it, was to push back against the pro-capital messaging that children received from mass culture: “Every child is a potential revolutionist. Whether he becomes one in fact will depend upon his intellectual environment and training during the formative period of his career.” For Debs and the Socialist Sunday School reformers, teaching children about socialism wasn’t enslaving them to dogma––it was setting them free from the dogma that they were already being bombarded with from all sides.

Unsurprisingly, these schools often came up against fierce opposition from anti-leftists, for whom the prospect of a group of children learning about class struggle was a nightmare come true. The schools’ emphasis on internationalism over patriotism riled many who saw such a position as an attack on America. Others claimed that the schools’ textbooks taught such “scandalous” concepts as free love and presented a moral danger to impressionable children. (The curricula of these schools weren’t standardized, so it’s possible that some textbooks at the time did teach free love, but these kinds of claims were also a standard attack made by conservatives of the period. At least one Socialist Sunday School textbook, written in 1912 by Wobbly and birth control campaigner Caroline Nelson, did contain some sex ed lessons, which would have been very scandalous for the time.)

In a 1907 letter to the editor entitled “Wicked Socialist Sunday School” published in The New York Times, Edward F. Dutton pleaded that a judge who had recently jailed someone for displaying a red flag should exercise the same harsh judgment against Socialist Sunday School teachers. He wrote, “It is certainly the duty of the authorities to locate this Sunday school and forever put an end to the instilling of the pernicious doctrines of Socialism into the minds of the youth in this great and glorious country.” Another article in the Times a year later carried the pearl-clutching headline “Socialist Sunday School at Brighton Beach Propagating Class Hatred.” In the United Kingdom, the fact that many Socialist Sunday Schools gathered in council-owned buildings meant that they were at the mercy of local politicians and could be evicted if Conservatives won a majority. Though Socialist Sunday Schools continued to function in Great Britain into the 1970s, the movement petered out in the United States after the 1920s, their existence made increasingly tenuous by the Red Scare.

In 2016, DSA member Hae-Lin Choi, wanting to recreate the positive atmosphere of her own (Christian) Sunday school upbringing while teaching leftist values, met with a group of like-minded families and decided to create a modern-day Socialist Sunday School in New York. The twice-monthly classes she and the community put together covered topics such as corporate greed, the need to organize, and environmentalism. The students sang “Solidarity Forever” together; they colored and drew. There were field trips to parks and to protests. In both content and in spirit, Choi’s program closely mirrored the efforts that had preceded it a century before.

Could the school created by Choi and her comrades become a movement, particularly now that changes necessitated by coronavirus invite a broader consideration of our post-pandemic education system? If so, what would a Socialist Sunday School reimagined for today look like? Today’s “little rebels” might help tend a community garden or cook community dinners as part of mutual aid networks or lessons about food security; they might have a mini-drag pageant to learn about queer history and explore the idea of gender; they might go on radical walking tours of their communities and design monuments to commemorate the stories that the urban fabric currently leaves out; they might videocall classrooms in other parts of the country and the world to foster international friendships and solidarity. At the same time, I would hope that such a movement could also include programming for older learners, forming part of a broader socialist project to make education something that doesn’t stop at one’s teens or twenties (barring the infinity of grad school). A new Socialist Sunday School movement should embrace the idea that education is not a phase of one’s life to be slogged through, summarily completed, and packed away. Rather, it should be something that people of all ages not only have access to but may look forward to with sincere excitement and joy. Yet in thinking through the idea of a modern Socialist Sunday School, what strikes me is less what would be adapted for the times as much as what could stay the same, what is still necessary, so many years on, to teach.

It is not hard to imagine, of course, that modern Socialist Sunday Schools would face the same opposition as their predecessors. Inevitably, right-wing and centrist detractors will raise the objection: doesn’t this constitute indoctrination? The assumption implicit in such a question is that “more acceptable” schools––conventional schools––contain no such element of value-inculcation. Yet just as there is no truly neutral media source––no newspaper or broadcasting service perfectly shorn of positionality––so too is there no education that is devoid of values. This is present in the stories textbooks tell and leave out, in the books teachers choose for the classrooms and the ones they leave on the library shelves, in the morals they tease out of literature, in why and how they discipline students, in the degree of autonomy students have in making decisions about their own learning, in how and why children are praised. Indeed, for all that “critical thinking” was given lipservice in syllabi and curricula when I was in high school, my own memories of those years is of a painful lack of control over what I learned, of an inability to question what I was taught, of a sense that my duty as a student was to memorize the contents of my textbook and not to interrogate the process behind its composition. And all of this occurred in an environment where our movements, behaviors, and speech were strictly monitored and subject to punishment if deemed inappropriate, where the military held yearly on-campus recruitment drives and where the threat of random police checks was constantly held above our heads to keep us in line. To those who would reject the idea of a modern Socialist Sunday School movement as ideological indoctrination––a sentiment shared by critics a century before––my question is this: are the conventional schools you would prefer not equally ideological? 

Whereas the laborers of 150 years ago were confronted with the introduction of Taylorism, we are faced with a kind of “neo-Taylorism” enabled by surveillance technologies that enable ever more tracking of worker productivity, whether through movement-monitoring watches or employee microchips. The widely-used term “human capital” assigns values to human skills and knowledge based solely upon economic worth. These are ideas that we are learning implicitly in our schools: in the never-ending cuts made to “unnecessary” arts programs, in what is deemed a requirement and what is classified as an elective, in standardized testing’s flattening of learning into percentage points and students into products. And these are ideas that are brought to cruel and explicit fruition in the violence directed at students of color by school police, in a school-to-prison pipeline that decides beforehand who is an expendable part of society. If this is what traditional schools are teaching us, perhaps a nontraditional school is necessary to teach new values––and to equip us to create a more just world for all.

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