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Should Members of the Communist Party Be Employed as Teachers?

by John K. Norton - 1949

In considering the recommendation that members of the Communist Party of the United States should not be employed as teachers, we might well have in mind what Communism is and what membership in the Communist Party means. After study of these questions in connection with the work of the Commission, the author offers his answers to them.

THROUGHOUT the recorded history of mankind a ceaseless war has raged between those who would free the human spirit and those who would enslave it.1 The tide of battle in some periods has turned in favor of those who would enslave men. History records eras when the flame of freedom has burned low and well-nigh gone out. Hitler forecast such a period, to last a thousand years!

At other times the march toward liberty and the free way of life has appeared to be irresistible. J. B. Bury, in the last chapter of A History of Freedom of Thought, published in 1913, makes this remarkable statement: "The struggle of reason against authority has ended in what appears now to be a decisive and permanent victory for liberty." Later in the same chapter, to be sure, Bury shows some doubt as to whether the victory of liberty is as complete as he had surmised.

Even so, it is remarkable that an eminent historian and scholar could be so sanguine regarding the status of liberty within a year of the time when the four horsemen were again to range over the earth, trampling out the hopes and lives of millions of men. For when Bury proclaimed the triumph of liberty, the world was on the very brink of a period in which the forces of freedom and those of enslavement were to lock in a life and death struggle.

We still live in that period. It still has to be demonstrated whether the forces of light or those of darkness are to triumph.

The backwash of World War II is creating unusual stress and strain, between nations and within our own country. At a time like this a wise nation looks to its foundations. It is a tribute to the importance and vitality of education, therefore, that it is very much on the minds of the American people today. To the extent that this interest in education results in the intelligent examination and better definition of the purposes and practices of the schools, the effects are likely to be good. To the extent that such a period results in violent and ill-founded attacks upon the schools and the teachers who so loyally work in them, harm will result—and especially to our children and youth. That such attacks have been made on the schools I need not tell you.

Taking account of this situation, the Educational Policies Commission of the National Education Association set out about a year ago to prepare a report which would provide lighthouses in a stormy period, when some appear to have lost their bearings as to what should be the goals and procedures of education for free men.

A 54-page report entitled American Education and International Tensions was released by the Commission on June 8. It represents the results of careful research, study, and deliberation on the part of the Commission, and carries the approval of its twenty members. Below, some of the major assumptions of the Commission in preparing this report are briefly stated, together with some of the recommendations which follow from these assumptions.

First, the Commission believes that the schools of the United States will fail of their full duty if they do not give our young citizens an understanding of the kind of world in which we are living. Accordingly, the Commission states:

Young citizens should have an opportunity to learn about the principles and practices of totalitarianism, including those represented by the Soviet Union and by the Communist Party in the United States.

Study of such topics should be accurate and objective, and should make use of basic official documents. [The report cites where such documents may be obtained.]

Second, the Commission assumed that some Americans are confused in that they seem to believe that teaching about Communism is the same as advocating Communism. Accordingly, the Commission says:

Teaching about Communism or any other form of dictatorship does not mean advocacy of these doctrines. Such advocacy should not be permitted in American schools.

Rejection of all forms of totalitarianism by American youth is more likely to result from the objective exposure of facts in the classroom than from a situation in which youth, denied an opportunity to learn about them at school, are left to be the prey of propaganda through out-of-school channels—often possessing the enhanced appeal of forbidden fruit.

Third, the Commission thought that the American people in general should know what all intelligent teachers know—that an enlightened citizenry is the first objective of American education. Accordingly, the Commission says:

The schools should continue with vigor their programs for giving young citizens a clear understanding of the principles of the American way of life and a desire to make these principles prevail in their own lives and in the life of their country.

Recent history has demonstrated again that from such understanding and such attitudes there arises a deep loyalty to the ideals that have been developed and applied in our country. We must develop a greater measure of intelligent loyalty to democratic ideals. We must make those ideals more fully operative in American society—in economic life and intergroup relations and education, no less than in politics and government.

Fourth, the Commission assumed that harassed and hounded teachers will not be able to do what they should in producing intelligent and loyal citizens. Accordingly, the Commission states:

The existence of unusual tensions is quite certain to continue to produce violent attacks by some sections of the public on the schools and the teaching staff. Most common is the charge that the schools and teachers are "subversive" or "leftist." Less loud, but still clearly audible, are other voices who call the school system "reactionary" or "a tool of capitalism." Educators are accustomed to this attack from all sides and recognize that a certain amount of it is a necessary hazard of their occupation. However, if such charges, with their usual accompaniment of "investigations," book-banning, and efforts at intimidation, become too violent, frequent, and widespread, they can seriously impair the efficiency of the school system in discharging its essential functions in American life. The educational profession will need, in the time of growing and sometimes irrational public apprehensions, to explain and defend the true role of education in American life.

After careful deliberation the Commission concluded that a statement should be made which would leave no doubt in the minds of the public that American teachers have no sympathy with the ruthless, immoral, and antidemocratic movement—Communism— and that American teachers believe that a person who officially allies himself with this movement, representing as it does a challenge to everything which a free man holds dear, is not qualified to teach the children of a democracy. Accordingly, the Commission states:

Members of the Communist Party of the United States should not be employed as teachers.

Such membership, in the opinion of the Educational Policies Commission, involves adherence to doctrines and discipline completely inconsistent with the principles of freedom on which American education depends. Such membership, and the accompanying surrender of intellectual integrity, render an individual unfit to discharge the duties of a teacher in this country.

At the same time we condemn the careless, incorrect, and unjust use of such words as "Red" and "Communist" to attack teachers and other persons who in point of fact are not Communists, but who merely have views different from those of their accusers. The whole spirit of free American education will be subverted unless teachers are free to think for themselves. It is because members of the Communist Party are required to surrender this right, as a consequence of becoming part of a movement characterized by conspiracy and calculated deceit, that they should be excluded from employment as teachers.

You doubtless know something of the response of the nation's radio and press to this report.

Members of the NEA headquarters staff state that no other report ever issued by the Association has had the coverage and the commendation that this report has received by the press and radio. A tabulation of some 300 newspaper editorials shows that 91 per cent were all the way from favorable to highly laudatory. Even the 9 per cent which were critical accepted most of the report, and disagreed with only some part or point in it. The Daily Worker of New York City—the Communist organ—was one of the few publications which wholly rejected the report. This rejection is perhaps its highest praise.

Three paragraphs from a column editorial from the New York Times of June 9 follow.


The thoughtful and penetrating discussion of the responsibility faced by the American educational system in our troubled world which was published yesterday by the National Education Association is an important document. Through its clear vision and practical common sense, it should wield a vigorous, wholesome influence.

The report cuts through a perplexing underbrush of wide confusion over the question whether Communists should be employed as teachers. It states the role that education should play in the building of intelligent patriotism in our youth. It establishes a reasonable course of action on the teaching about, but not the advocacy of, totalitarian philosophies of foreign nations. It does not flinch from undertaking—in the midst of the great traditional burdens already resting on the

school system—a major additional duty of educating the young citizen to help maintain an honorable world peace.

Here is a charter that should be in every teacher's hands, to fulfill with boldness, with the pride of speaking in a great cause. We do not expect our hundreds of thousands of teachers to put this charter into practice in their classrooms without making some mistakes. All that we ask is that the mistakes be honest, made in enthusiasm and not m timidity. And of ourselves, the public, let us demand a participation in the democratic process just as vital, free from the hounding of teachers who, though loyal to the best principles on which our nation was founded and grew great, tremble in many a classroom today at the fear of unjust inquisition and carping, trivial criticism. Surely we can rid our schools of the Communist and the indubitably subversive without paying in that process the far too costly price of losing our most cherished heritage, freedom of thought and expression.

In considering the recommendation that members of the Communist Party of the United States should not be employed as teachers, we might well have in mind what Communism is and what membership in the Communist Party means. After study of these questions in connection with the work of the Commission, I offer my answers to them.

Communism is more than a political party. It is a conspiracy which would take over by force and regulate, according to a despotic ideology, every phase of a citizen's life. It has done that very thing wherever it has been able to seize power.

It tells you what you can think—you follow the party line. You follow it in all respects. If it decrees that acquired characteristics are inherited, you must believe it. If it decrees a theory as to the formation and nature of the universe, you must accept it.

It regulates your economic life at every turn. Freedom of religion and conscience go out of the window when Communism comes in. It takes over art in all its forms—drama, music, painting, and literature.

It rigidly controls all forms of communication—the press, the radio, motion pictures. It has as its first and indispensable objective the seizure of power by a small group—called the dictatorship of the proletariat. It has never come into power in any country by a clear vote or mandate of the people, but always by violence, assassination, conspiracy, and double-dealing. In fact, any means, no matter how it outrages human personality, is moral under the Communist code—anything goes if it appears to advance the time when the dictatorship comes into power.

Communism looks upon the school and education as especially choice means of achieving its evil ends. It assigns a special role to the teacher who joins this movement—it is his duty to destroy the loyalty of the child and youth to his country and to indoctrinate him with Communist ideology. The teacher is expected to do this insofar as he can without taking too many chances of getting caught. The teacher should do this regardless of the subject he teaches—all the way from art to zoology.

This international conspiracy— Communism—has more than 400 million people under its iron heel today. These things that I say are not hearsay, supposition, conjecture; they are stated over and over in official Communist documents, and have been acted out wherever and whenever Communism has come into power. Even the slightest deviation, as the Communists call it, places one outside the pale—witness Tito in Jugo-Slavia.

This is the movement which a member of the Communist Party supports, and to which he regularly pays dues. I ask you as loyal American citizens and teachers to acquaint yourselves with the facts. Some of the more pertinent documents dealing with Communism are cited in the report of the Policies Commission, page 37.

The issue may be briefly stated: Should there be freedom to destroy our freedom—using the school as a means of doing it? Fellow teachers, let us remember that as much as we all love freedom—as noble as freedom is —it is not an absolute. We are not free to kill, to commit libel, slander, perjury. Freedom and liberty end when they become license and begin to interfere with the liberty and rights of others. Further, let us remember that to teach is not a right but a privilege— and a great privilege.

We have fought for years to lift the standard for admission to this noble calling. We have fought to surround our work with the conditions and rewards appropriate to such a high calling. Do we want to admit to our ranks those who have pledged their allegiance and their support to the doctrines and the methods of Communism by joining the Communist Party, and who renew that pledge and that support every time they pay their Party dues?

For thirty years I have fought for adequate salaries, for tenure, for sound retirement plans, and for all other conditions that would exalt the teaching profession and enhance its power to prepare the children and youth of the land for the arduous duties of citizenship in a nation of free men. I have fought for federal aid for education; I believe more firmly than ever that it is essential if we are to finance the existing load of the schools and take care of the additional millions of children who are about to flood into the schools. We should not relax our efforts; we should redouble them for all of the professional objectives for which we have fought in the past.

And yet I say to you that nothing so important has ever been before the NEA in my thirty years of intimate association with its work, as the issue which was joined at its recent Boston convention. I refer to the fact that when I presented the report of the Educational Policies Commission at the Boston meeting, the first person who rose to his feet in the discussion period began by stating that he was a member of the Communist Party. He then attacked the position of the Policies Commission, while claiming all the privileges of an American teacher.

The debate that took place in the Representative Assembly of the NEA was sharp, and the action that followed was decisive. The members of the Representative Assembly were not satisfied merely to receive and file the report of the Policies Commission, which is the usual order of business. They demanded that it be approved. The motion to do this was opposed by only five delegates out of the nearly 3,000 present, who represented some 850,000 teachers.

The issue which I believe these representatives of the teachers of the nation saw may be stated as follows:

Shall persons who have pledged their minds to an international conspiracy, who have given away their intellectual integrity and freedom to think, which are the very essence and purpose of academic freedom, be permitted to teach our children?

I do not ask you to accept my opinion on this matter, nor the pronouncement of the members of the Policies Commission. I merely urge that, if you have not done so already, you acquaint yourself with the pertinent facts and considerations bearing upon the issue of whether Communist Party members should have the privilege of instructing your child, my child, and the children of other loyal American citizens. Once you are acquainted with these facts, I have no fear as to what your answer will be.

1 An address given at Teachers College, Columbia University, July 19, 1949, in the All-College Lecture Series.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 51 Number 1, 1949, p. 1-6
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 5245, Date Accessed: 11/26/2021 6:02:57 PM

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