It has long been a common belief that free public education is the bedrock of democracy. Thomas Jefferson believed an educated citizenry was vital for our survival as a free people. “Light and Liberty go together,” he wrote.
History, however, tells us otherwise. Access to high school or college has often been in dispute; education has been seen by some as the exclusive privilege of the elite, a way to groom the future leaders of business and politics. Free schooling has been a defining line of class differences throughout U.S. history.
Beginning in the 1700s, voices for subsidized education included President John Adams, who wrote in 1785 that “the whole people must take it upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expense of it.”
Labor unions were among the first groups to make free education a demand. The Workingmen’s Advocate in 1829 reported on a Boston meeting of working people who declared:
Our public system of Education, which so liberally endows those seminaries of learning, which are only accessible to the wealthy, while our common schools are so illy provided for. . . Thus even in childhood, the poor are apt to think themselves inferior.
At the famous 1848 congress of women at Seneca Falls, the Declaration of Sentiments argued that men created an “absolute tyranny” over women by denying them “the facilities for obtaining a thorough education—all colleges being closed against her.”
It’s true that 19th century industrialists encouraged schools to produce a docile workforce for their factories. But pioneering educators sought to construct systems that, according to Horace Mann (1837), should be universal, non-sectarian and free; in John Dewey’s words (1897), fostering a “social consciousness for social reconstruction.”
Unions leader and socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs in 1908 insisted that we should be “teaching for American Democracy rather than American aristocracy.” The Hartford Socialist Party took as one of its election planks the provision of free books to all students since those costs were a barrier for many.
The 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights, ratified by the United States and 47 other countries, includes in Article 26 that “Everyone has the right to education,” and that “higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.”
The 1955 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education overturned the “separate but equal” basis for official segregation. The Court decided that segregation violates the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment (equal protection), stating that “education is perhaps the most important function of state and local government.”
By 1961, civil rights legend Septima Clark established thirty-seven Citizenship Schools in the Deep South as the racist system continued to fight the Brown decision. “Literacy is liberation,” she declared. Clark’s work influenced the Freedom Schools organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Today, two-thirds of Americans believe college tuition should be free and supported by public funding, according to several recent polls.
But Not Everybody Agrees
“How do you pay for that? It’s absurd on its surface,” stated Sam Clovis, policy director of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 when asked about tuition-free education. Unfortunately, this belief also has its historical roots.
In 1924, Professor Edward F. Humphrey of Trinity College expressed support for a very different higher education system. Speaking at a meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), Humphrey praised the radical changes recently made by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini:
Under the old regime, thousands of young men who would have made excellent working men loafed through free public schools and at the end of their educational career were forever spoiled for any useful occupation. Mussolini decided that the state ought to educate only those worthwhile. He did not attempt to deprive parents of the right to make loafers out of their own children; they were allowed to send them to private schools if they could afford it…. the number of those to receive free education was rigorously reduced. This applied, of course, to secondary and higher schools.
The president of Yale University used the specter of fascism to warn against “collective control” (publicly funded) education. Charles Seymour wrote in 1944 that financial help would mean “ultimate control from the outside. When that happens, liberty will have disappeared and authority will be supreme. We know what happened in Germany… the basis of totalitarianism was laid.”
Hoping to put the issue of debt-free education permanently to rest, the U.S. Supreme Court during the Nixon/Reagan years declared that education was not a “fundamental right” of the people, and the poor could be forced to pay for public education (San Antonio v. Rodriguez, 1973).
Trump’s dismissal, Seymour’s hyperbole, Humphrey’s slavish admiration of Il Duce, and the Supreme Court’s edict were all arguments diametrically opposed to the first principles of Jefferson and Adams.
Hartford’s Landmark Experiment
At the start of the Great Depression, this country’s worst economic crisis, 3.5 million young people were unable to attend high school. Supporting their meager family income was the first priority. “Education is only the privilege of those who are economically able to afford it,” stated Aubrey Williams, head of the National Youth Administration in 1937.
As part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal efforts, an extraordinary experiment in higher education was tested in the 1930s, in Connecticut, with the Federal Colleges.
The Depression hit every job category hard, teaching included. At one point, the state of Georgia closed all its public schools. Through Roosevelt’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), thousands of teachers were put to work to the benefit of a half million students, both young and old.
The Federal College succeeded beyond all measure, demonstrating that a free system of public higher education could be built, providing learning, jobs, and outstanding graduates with the means to advance in life. The backers of the Hartford Federal College and its sister schools also reinforced the concept of higher education as a right, not a privilege, despite those who wished to see it fail.
Besides Hartford, a total of 1400 students attended Connecticut’s federal colleges in New Haven, Winsted, Bristol, and Farmington. New Haven was the largest project, serving 500 students through Yale University, the YMCA and YWCA. Also called “emergency junior colleges,” these schools were also established in Michigan, Texas, Ohio, New Jersey and Kansas.
Dr. Richard K. Denlinger was chosen to lead the effort. Denlinger had for 12 years been the head of the University of Connecticut history department. Hartford Federal College first started admitting students in 1934 with a grant from FERA. Control of the school was maintained by the Hartford Board of Education, which appointed the superintendent and faculty. The College operated six days a week, with most of the classes held at the Hillyer mansion.
The Hillyer property at 2471 Main Street was purchased for $26,000 in 1924. It had been a fifty-acre site owned by Charles T. Hillyer; parcels were developed over the years, leaving only the mansion and a few acres. Originally seen purely as a relief effort (by keeping the unemployed off the streets), the Hartford experiment demonstrated the deep need adults felt for skills, knowledge, and self-improvement. They elected a student government, scheduled debates, held proms, organized baseball and basketball teams, and even created a popular orchestra. All this while picking up paying jobs where they could.
Eligibility for College entry was a high school certificate. But “mature adults” unable to meet that requirement and “competent to handle the work of college rank”, could audit courses.
The College offered language classes in English, French, German, Italian, and Russian. Economic courses included “Labor Problems.” Other courses included mathematics, law, philosophy, psychology, art, and music. Some, but not all course credits were transferable to four-year schools.
The Community Chorus practiced at Hartford High School. The basketball team held its games at the Vine Street School. The school hosted the revival of an all-Negro chorus that had previously disbanded. In August of 1938, the J. Wesley Coffey WPA Chorus was born. As with all New Deal programs, participants earned wages through their program participation.
The College proved to be quite successful; it began to offer summer school courses in 1937, where regular semester classes were compressed into a summer schedule with full college credit. The next year, night courses were added to the school’s schedule; two hundred students attended– after their day jobs– from 7:20 pm to 9:50 pm.
Tuition was free; students had to buy their own books (“no more than $4 a course”); there were attendance and grade standards that had to be met in order to remain at the College.
Hartford Federal College “raises our standard of living and leads toward better government. It enables the next generation to understand fully and carry out expertly the principles of democracy,” one student explained.
Students and Teachers
Considering its relatively modest resources, Hartford Federal College attracted exceptional talent and produced some outstanding attendees .
Hartford-born Jerome Stavola (1904-1984) joined the faculty as an art teacher in 1938. He had studied at the New York School of Design. His first mural for the Work Projects Administration was painted at Weaver High School. In 1934 he opened an art gallery on Allyn Street which showed the works of male and female artists. Stavola also helped lead a statewide group of Italian Americans opposed to Mussolini.
Young Kenneth Shaker of Love Lane finished his freshman year at the Federal College in August 1937. But instead of returning to school, he spent 16 months fighting in the Spanish Civil War as a machine gunner for the Republican forces against Franco. He had joined 1500 other Americans of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, part of the International Brigades.
Shaker was captured behind enemy lines but escaped with two companions by swimming across the Ebro River; he was wounded and hospitalized during his time in Spain. Shaker volunteered at the start of World War ll, serving as a paratrooper and cited for exceptional bravery.
Gwen Reed, a long/time actress and story teller, attended the college and joined the Gilpin players , appearing in Federal Theater Project performances.
The End and a New Beginning
The Federal College closed its doors on September 22, 1939. Revised federal regulations limited WPA workers to 18 months of wages and by that time most ot the Hartford faculty exceeded the maximum. The new rule went into effect on July 1, but the College received permission to finish its summer semester.
This cut-off was part of a Republican backlash against New Deal programs. All WPA workers still on the job had their hours doubled (from 60 to 120 a month) for exactly the same pay. Workers were required to sign loyalty oaths, and employees who volunteered for any political party were fired.
The Depression was not over, but the experiment was. The Hillyer building was demolished to make way for new Nelton Court public housing– the first of its kind in Hartford. Despite its closure, graduates held annual class reunions.
The College’s student senate lobbied for permanent status in December 1938. They gathered 4,000 petition signatures in support of the effort. The 1939 General Assembly considered a proposal to award Hartford Federal College a junior college charter, but the Connecticut attorney general stated that they would lose their federal funding (which they did anyway).
It wasn’t until 1961 that Connecticut opened the first of its community colleges in Norwalk. Today, the system serves 50,000 students at its twelve campuses.