THAT SPRING of 1926 I had a full teaching program of fifteen hours a week in freshman political science. Classes were large, and we were crowded for space.
Dr. Dawson, chairman of the department, a Virginian, had been my teacher in all my classes in political science. I knew his temper and his methods. He was a well-mannered gentleman whose method of teaching was unusual, for he simply directed his students to the library and told them to read. In class he never got excited or expressed any passionate opinions. He had taught at Princeton when Woodrow Wilson was president there. He was a Wilsonian Democrat and uncritically supported Wilson and the League of Nations and he believed that the International Court at The Hague was the beginning of international stability. He was a persuasive propagandizer for such reforms as a city manager system, direct primaries, and executive budgets. I had found it easy to accept his beliefs and to make them my own. Never once did we reach fundamental questions on government; all our talk was of superficial formalities.
I had been one of his favorite students because, while many students did little work when given freedom of working, I had thrown myself heart and soul into endless hours of reading in the library, especially the works of De Tocqueville, Lord Bryce, and Charles A. Beard, which gave me an interest in American government and an appreciation of the fundamentals of the Constitution. Because Dr. Dawson was a Virginian, perhaps, we got more than we would otherwise on the subject of states’ rights.
I was a teacher myself now, but I had no clear perspective as to the objectives of teaching. I did not know what I expected from my students. In lieu of this I tried to stimulate them, to make them think and argue about public questions, and I hoped to have them ready to take action on these in later life. I wanted to have them learn through practical experience as well as through the textbook.
Ruth Goldstein, Margaret Gustaferro, and I became assistants to Dr. Dawson. In 1926 the avalanche of freshmen found the college unprepared. Facilities were inadequate. We three taught our classes at the same time in different sections of the auditorium which had been used as a chapel. We three young teachers had been close friends at college. Now we worked together, developing curricula, bibliographies, and new techniques. All of us enrolled in the graduate school at Columbia University for graduate work in political science.
At that time many professors were slanting their teaching in the direction known as muckraking. Some professors contended publicly that the war had not been fought to make the world safe for democracy and that Germany had been shamefully treated by the Versailles Treaty. It was also a time when Columbia professors fresh from the London School of Economics and from the Brookings Institute were discovering the importance of current activity in political parties and practical politics. Some were beginning to enlist in local political battles. These sent students through the city, climbing stairs and ringing doorbells, to teach them the democratic process by actual research.
We entered on this new kind of laboratory work with zest. We dissected and analyzed local political bosses with the cynicism of old hands, and then we began to push on into political clubhouses to learn still more of this fascinating profession.
One of my courses at Columbia that year was a study of the United States Senate and its treaty-making powers. Some of the professors wondered audibly why Lindsey Rogers, who taught it, regarded this topic important enough to devote an entire course to it. It was then only six years after the Missouri v. Hollanddecision based on a treaty relating to migratory birds — and the pattern of treaty law had not yet become apparent to many. I was fascinated by the subject and its implications.
There were other refreshingly new courses that year and new professors, among them Raymond Moley, not yet a Roosevelt brain truster. There were courses on the press and on public opinion. We young people were intrigued by the possibilities of participation in government control and the various means of achieving this.
In our enthusiasm we passed on to our students at Hunter what we had learned. We challenged the traditional thinking they had brought to college with them. We sent out girls to political clubs, too. Soon political leaders began to call Hunter to find out what the idea was of sending the “kids” to their clubs.
We did not stop it, however. We sent them in pairs to visit courts and jails, legislatures and institutions. When a socialist student asked if groups could visit the socialist clubs, too, we accepted the suggestion. We encouraged them to mix with all groups. Before long we were saying — and not yet realizing it was merely a rather meaningless cliché — that the radicals of today are the conservatives of tomorrow, that there could be no progress if there were no radicals.
In the days that have gone since we enunciated these statements so confidently I have had many occasions to see that this cataloging of people as either “right” or “left” has led to more confusion in American life than perhaps any other false concept. It sounds so simple and so right. By using this schematic device one puts the communists on the left and then one regards them as advanced liberals -after which it is easy to regard them as the enzyme necessary for progress.
Communists usurp the position of the left, but when one examines them in the light of what they really stand for, one sees them as the rankest kind of reactionaries and communism as the most reactionary backward leap in the long history of social movements. It is one which seeks to obliterate in one revolutionary wave two thousand years of man’s progress.
During my thirteen years of teaching at Hunter I was to repeat this semantic falsehood many times. I did not see the truth that people are not born “right” or “left” nor can they become “right” or “left” unless educated on the basis of a philosophy which is as carefully organized and as all-inclusive as communism.
I was among the first of a new kind of teacher who was to come in great numbers to the city colleges. The mark of the decade was on us. We were sophisticated, intellectually snobbish, but usually fetishly “democratic” with the students. It is true that we understood them better than did many of the older teachers; our sympathy with them was a part of ourselves.
During the afternoons and evenings I continued my work at Columbia. I had Carlton J. H. Hayes on “The Rise of Nationalism.” I studied closely A. A. Berle and Gardiner Means who wrote of the two hundred corporations that controlled America at the end of World War I. I read widely on imperialism and began to be critical of the role my country was playing. I discovered the John Dewey Society and the Progressive Education Association. I became aware of the popular concept of the social frontier. I also repeated glibly that we had reached the last of our natural frontiers and that the new ones to be sought must be social. There would be, we were told, in the near future a collective society in our world and especially in our country, and in teaching students one must prepare them for that day.
As a result of that year’s study of American history and national politics, as well as in the direct experience of my students and myself in local politics, I now began to tear apart before my students many respected public groups - charity, church, and other organizations - that were trying to better conditions in old-fashioned ways. This sort of talk had a destructive effect on myself, I now realize, and it had an even worse effect on my more sensitive students. If they followed where I led, there was nothing left for them to believe in. I had tried to wreck their former ways of thought and I had given them no new paths to follow. The reason was simple: I had none myself, because I really didn’t know where I was going.
Later when, in the Communist Party, I met one of these former students of mine, it was always with the feeling that I was responsible for her present way of life; it was through me that they had accepted this cold, hard faith they lived by.
But in 1926 I had little thought of the communists except that I did not preclude theirs as a solution of problems. I was merely goading my pupils and myself on to feel that we must do something to help set aright the things wrong in the world. When I became emotional in my talks it was because I was angered at those who had money without working for it and who did not help to lessen the increasing misery of the working population.
There were lighter moments in my days, of course. We met for parties and good talk and sometimes went to the bistros of that era of prohibition. Once I took one of the elderly professors at Hunter to a speakeasy, partly as a lark and partly as a kindness, thinking to show her life.
But Bessie Dean Cooper took the evening in her stride. She was a hardy old lady who taught history and gave the whole department color. Her eleven cats were a legend. That evening she asked me if she could leave one of them with me while she went to Europe; friends were taking over the rest. I promised, and turned the cat over to my mother, along with the food and medicines and careful directions and the cat’s blanket and pillow. Mother took a look at all this paraphernalia and said briefly, “ I feed cats like cats,” and did so until their mistress returned. Some years later Miss Cooper retired from Hunter and took the eleven cats to live on the French Riviera.
Frequently during this period I went to Teachers College at Columbia. I was always impressed by the large enrollment of teachers from nearly every state in the union. I watched them as they gathered round the trees which bore the shields of their states. I, too, realized what a powerful effect Teachers College could have on American education with thousands of teachers to influence national policy and social thinking.
That year I learned that George Counts, an associate of John Dewey, like him a philosopher and theorist on education, had gone to Russia. He had, of course, been there before. In fact, he had set up the educational system of the revolutionary period for the Russian Government. He had translated the Russian Primer into English and was eager to have the American teachers study it carefully. He promised a report on Russian schools when he returned.
At this period I was influenced by many institutions around the campus at Columbia as much as by the classes I attended. I became a frequent visitor at International House, to which I was first invited by an economics student from the Philippines. There I met among a great many other people Albert Bachman of the French Department who had taught at Tagore’s school in India and who introduced me to handsome students from the Punjab, like myself young and agog over ideas. We met on a level of equality and tolerance and with the hope that a world could be created by the young men and women of all nations in which all people could live and work on free and equal terms. We were not aware of the tight web of power which set the stage for molding our opinions.
That summer gave me my first opportunity to talk to people of other countries and to learn that they, too, were filled with a passionate desire to better their own countries and the world. I began, under the impetus of such talk, to feel in me a desire to be a citizen of the world. It was a desire that made it easy and natural for me to accept communism and its emphasis on internationalism.
As for the past, when I felt a twinge of regret for what I was putting behind me, I ignored it. I accepted the present, with all its undirected selfishness, but I could not really adjust myself to it. More and more I wanted to talk and act only in terms of the future, of a future that would have none of the corruption of the present. It depressed me that people close to me could accommodate themselves to such a present. Only people I did not know, the great mass of unknown human beings, began to awaken in me a poignant sense of kinship. In fact, I began to transfer my personal feelings to this wholly unknown defeated mass. And so it came about that I began to seek my spiritual home among the dispossessed of the earth.
A teacher cannot help but transmit to her students something of what she is and what she believes and I know I did much damage. But the saving grace in my destructive teaching of that time was that in my personal relationships with these students I retained within me something of the essence of what God had meant me to be — a woman, a mother. I loved my students, all of them, the dull, the weak, the strong, the conniving, the twisted. I loved them because they were young and alive, because they were in the process of becoming and had not yet been frozen into a mold by a cynical society or by a conniving power.
I have always enjoyed teaching, for there is in teaching a continual renewing, and in that renewal there is always the promise of that freshness which brings us nearer to perfection. To me freshmen were always a delight as students. They came to college with high resolve, many of them caught by a sense of dedication to learning, and they were not yet pressured by practical considerations of jobs and careers, not yet having to accommodate themselves to the status quo. They were like acolytes just learning the ritual. If I had been able, during these years, I would have prayed hard for the retention of this flame in my students. For the flame is there always. It is in them all, but whether later it bursts into a fire that destroys, or flickers to nothing, depends in great measure on the teacher and the goals and standards she sets.
During my first two teaching years I spent endless free hours in the Columbia Library and in Room 300 at the New York Public Library. For my dissertation for the master’s degree I chose the subject: “Is Congress a Mirror of the Nation?” My paper came to no conclusions. In fact, when I read it over in typed form, I had the unhappy feeling that Congress was somewhat like those Coney Island mirrors which now exaggerate, now underplay, the real.
During my work on this paper I read hundreds of the brief biographies in the Congressional Directory, from the foundation of the Republic to the present, and I found one pattern repeated many times: that of the men who rose from humble beginnings and who struggled to acquire an education. I was impressed by the number who were at first schoolteachers, then put themselves through law school, and later entered politics.
I myself was growing impatient with abstract scholarship, for it seemed to lead nowhere. I hated the emphasis placed in the school system on getting degrees. An M.A. was necessary to hold certain jobs and a Ph.D. was essential for a promotion and an increase in salary. I questioned the value of the many dissertations filed away in the archives. The topics chosen for dissertations seemed more and more inconsequential. And my eager youth longed for significance, for meaning, for participation.
I did not realize what I now know, and have come to know through much turmoil of spirit, that significance is all about us and that it comes from order. There was no order in my life. I had no pattern by which to arrange it. I was moved by feelings and emotions and an accumulation of knowledge which brought me no joy of living.
After I had delivered my dissertations and received my Master of Arts degree in the summer of 1927, Ruth Goldstein and I, both tired out from the year’s hard work, decided to take a cottage for the summer and get away from New York. So, with Beatrice Feldman, also a Hunter College freshman, we rented a cottage on Schroon Lake, in the Adirondacks.
I was happy to be back in the country. I had not realized how much I missed the land until I found myself back on it. A few years before our own home had gone, taken by the march of progress. During my years at college and of teaching the community around Pilgrim’s Rest had altered greatly. In place of the straggling countryside of my childhood there was now a bustling community, with apartment houses and subways. We had had to give up our old house because it was dilapidated and not worth repairing. The property was sold, the house pulled down, and the land divided into building lots.
At Schroon Lake, Ruth and Beatrice and I were alone for days at a time. Our friends came for week ends, however, and then our cottage was filled. We had books but we did not read much. We spent hours on the lake, and at times Ruth and Beatrice played tennis and golf while I sat on the grass and watched. And we talked often until late into the night, discussing many subjects. We discussed the theories of John Dewey and of Justice Holmes, we talked of the philosophy of education, and of practical questions about life and love and marriage. We debated the value of many of the things our parents had accepted without fuss or examination.
There is something idyllic about a group of young people who seek nothing from each other except companionship. To me, who had seen my own family disintegrate, this was like a new kind of family. Of course I was not the only one the members of whose family had gone in different directions, or the only one who was attaching herself instead to the social family of the like-minded.
It was a period when houses as homes were disappearing in our larger cities, when one-room apartments were becoming popular. Before that, no matter how poor the family, it never had less than three or more rooms. Now the kitchen was pushed into a tiny alcove, the bed was tucked into a closet, and you lived in one modern room, sometimes elegant and large, but still one room. Marriage for the intellectual proletariat became the process of living with a man or a woman in quarters so small that release and satisfaction had to be found outside the home, lest the walls of one room suffocate the dwellers.
One of the pleasantest events of that summer in the Adirondacks was meeting the Finkelsteins, Louis and Carmel, and their children, a lovely little girl, Hadassah, and a baby named Ezra. Carmel came from a distinguished English family and she spoke with a fascinating accent. I thought that in appearance she and her daughter looked like characters out of the Bible. Dr. Louis was a rabbi from the Bronx and he had the face of an apostle. Often his brothers “Hinky” and Maurice would come to visit and I loved to listen to them talking together, each topping the other in gay persiflage. I found them exciting because they were not only well read, not only deeply interested in the arts and in philosophy, but also practical men of affairs who understood politics.
My friendship with the Finkelsteins was to continue for years. In them again I saw the warmth of a family which was like-minded, closely knit, and determined to stay together, impervious to the corroding influences of a large industrial city. I asked myself why it was that other families I knew did not have this ability to hold together. I felt that family stability was in great part due to the cherishing of traditions, to the continuous renewing of the memories of the past which included their friendship with God and a boundless loyalty to each other.
One evening that summer I stayed at home with the children. After some time I saw that Hadassah, who had been trying to go to sleep, had begun to cry for no apparent reason. She was a detached sort of child and I thought she did not like me, but now she let me hold her hand as I talked quietly to comfort her. It was obvious she did not know why she was crying, but when she looked up at me the dark eyes full of tears seemed older than those of a little girl and there was an odd fear in the way she sat close to me and wept. When she finally fell asleep, still holding my hand, I sat there with a strange feeling in me, as if she had been crying over a long past, as if two thousand years had been only one night.
That fall I made a sharp switch in my career. Tired of the sterility of graduate work, Ruth Goldstein and I entered New York University Law School. I taught morning and also evening classes at Hunter College and attended my law classes in the afternoons.
The classes at law school were large, sometimes several hundred students. The case system, which was in almost universal use then, did not hold my interest; I found the method dreary. Despite this I liked the study of the law; it was a discipline worth mastering
I also found the students interesting. In one class I sat next to a young man named Samuel Di Falco who is now a Supreme Court judge. He used to find fault with me for scribbling poetry in my notebook when I should have been working on cases.
Ruth also found fault with my preoccupation with other things than the law. For it was true that while the substance of the law intrigued me, because it was a reflection of the past of society which helped me to understand the present, I was not interested in legal procedure, which I felt was intended to preserve an outmoded status quo. My constant preoccupation with the need to change the status quo made me almost impatient with much of the last year of law school. But I did not expect to practice law. I thought of myself as a teacher.