American Labor Colleges Essay

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The independent labor colleges represented the most radical form of workers’ education in the early twentieth century. Work People’s College (1903–1941) located in Duluth, Minnesota; Commonwealth College (1925–1939) in Mena, Arkansas; and Brookwood Labor College (1921–1941) in Westchester County, New York, earned the most notoriety. They grew out of the American noncommunist left, namely the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World, which flourished during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Educational progressives also provided intellectual support by serving as trustees and guest lecturers. Although uniquely American, labor college students and teachers knew about the workers’ education efforts of their British counterparts.

The labor colleges maintained two educational goals: creating a new social order and preparing worker students for active service in the labor movement as organizers, lawyers, and writers, not as labor bureaucrats. Full-time studies at these residential labor colleges involved classroom work as well as experiential learning. Instructors generally came from the ranks of agricultural and industrial workers themselves. The formal curriculum fell into two categories: theoretical (or background) subjects and tool (or utilitarian) courses. The former critiqued capitalism in classes like labor history and economics. Guided by the notion of direct action, the latter gave students practical, organizing skills through journalism to publish newspaper reports on working conditions and strikes, public speaking to communicate with large crowds, proletarian drama (borrowing the agitprop tradition) to raise the consciousness of workers, and organizing experience through field work among sharecroppers and unskilled factory workers. The labor colleges made no explicit claims about cultivating a communal environment, but nevertheless they did. Teachers and students worked together to construct and repair buildings, cook meals, launder clothes, maintain gardens, and wash dishes, among numerous other tasks.

The labor colleges provided many of the leaders who organized the Congress of Industrial Organizations during the 1930s. Longstanding internal stresses combined with this newfound visibility contributed to their demise. Usually restrained, dogmatic differences between socialist and communist students and instructors became strident during the fluid 1930s, spawning school strikes and irreparable political and personal divisions. Because of their anticapitalist views and labor organizing activities, local and federal law enforcement agencies monitored the schools, ultimately pressuring them to close.


  1. Altenbaugh, R. J. (1990). Education for struggle: The American labor colleges of the 1920s and 1930s. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  2. Bloom, J. D. (1978). Brookwood Labor College, 1921–1933: Training ground for union organizers. Unpublished master’s thesis, Rutgers University.
  3. Howlett, C. F. (1982). Brookwood Labor College: Voice of support for Black workers. Negro History Bulletin, 45, 38–39.

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