The Folk School: Education for Social Change
Myles Horton and Highlander Folk School
Chapter III, Part 2

Esau Jenkins, Miles Horton, John's Island, 1950s, Highlander

Myles watching sheriff padlock Highlander's main building, 1959.

Billboard using photo from Highlander's 25th anniversary

Highlander's twenty-fifth anniversary, 1957. Martin Luther King Jr. Pete Seeger, Charis Horton (Myles' and Zilphia's daughter), Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy. Highlander

Rosa Parks had been at Highlander a few weeks before she was arrested on that Montgomery bus. She saw no cause and effect relationship between the two events but said that at Highlander she had for the first time as an adult felt that this could be a unified society with people of differing races living and working together in peace and harmony.

Another Highlander student enabled the school to make what Horton considered its most important contribution to the civil rights movement. Esau Jenkins came from Charleston, S. C. to a workshop on the United Nations. After the first morning’s session he told Horton that his real concern was with literacy education on John’s Island near Charleston. He was a farmer and also ran a bus line which took blacks from the island to the mainland where they worked. The law in South Carolina held that unless you could read the state constitution you could not register to vote; Jenkins had used time on the bus in the mornings to teach some of his riders to read this document but it was too great a task for one person. He asked if Highlander would set up night schools for adults on John’s Island. Through a grant awarded Highlander to explore methods of adult education by the Schwarz-Haupt Foundation, Horton was able to establish what came to be called Citizenship Schools. Classes were not held in school rooms but in homes or stores with adult-sized chairs and tables. Teachers were blacks from the area, many of them volunteers. They received training at Highlander. The reading material was the United Nations Proclamation of Human Rights, the South Carolina state constitution, and mail order catalogues. The success of these schools spurred setting up of other schools in two other isolated black areas near Charleston and it also spurred attacks on Highlander as a subversive institution. In order that the Citizenship Schools not be affected by the threatened investigation of Highlander, the entire system — people, plans and funds — was transferred to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1961. By 1970 it was estimated that nearly 100,000 blacks had learned to read and write at Citizenship Schools.

The legal proceedings against Highlander resulted in its charter as a non-profit educational institution being revoked. In a 1966 interview Horton said, “When the courts decide to get you they are not an instrument of justice but an instrument of the status quo. There’s nothing you can do.”45 In a television interview with Bill Moyers, Horton describes the closing of Highlander. “When they first came, they came and padlocked the building, and some of the news reporters that were there said, ‘What are you laughing about?’

“I was standing outside laughing, and they took a picture of me standing there laughing. And the sheriff padlocked the building. I said, ‘My friend here, you know, he thinks he’s padlocking Highlander, but, I said, You know Highlander is an idea — you can’t padlock an idea.’ ”46

This is consonant with J. Knudsen’s statement that the folk school is a concept, not a program, an instrument not an institution. The verification of Horton’s statement was most clearly borne out when the same group of officers who were on Highlander’s board obtained a new charter as Highlander Research and Education Center and relocated in Knoxville, Tennessee. It remains there and is in this year (1982) celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Myles Horton established a folk school but has not written about it or his educational, social or religious philosophy. Grundtvig wrote extensively but never established a school. Despite this difference, it is possible to establish many similarities in their approach and beliefs. Both had a deep and abiding faith in the common man. Horton refers to the “uncommon, common man” in his interview with Bill Moyers. Both saw in the common man the greatest hope for correcting social ills they saw threatening to destroy a society. Both distrusted many existing institutions and perceived them as perpetuators of the status quo and not as organizations truly serving people or society. Horton, in the interview says, “We believe in people. Our loyalty is to people, not institutions, structures.”47 Both Grundtvig and Horton were immensely dissatisfied with the prevailing educational system. Grundtvig referred to them as “Schools for Death” and Horton speaks of how the public school system and other established institutions suppress the power of the people because they prepare people to live in a particular society rather than helping them to live and do what they know is right. Both men considered it vitally important that the people know and preserve their unique heritage and traditions, and used them as a means for dignifying and enlivening students. Both saw education in terms of community, related to everyday life and not in the cloistered, “ivory-tower’‘ tradition. Grundtvig feared that education which benefitted the individual and not the group would do more harm than good and Horton expresses a similar view: “Individuality is enhanced by being part of a group, instead of telling people they should go it alone, they should be competitive.... we say, work together and you’ll be a better person.” 48 Both men saw the teacher’s role not in terms of instruction in subject matter but in terms of enlivening or empowering al1 involved. Horton says in the interview: “I don’t agree with this training people to do things. You liberate them and they train themselves.”49

Later he says: ”We try to empower people….the purpose is to help people become so empowered that they can begin to have something to do with their lives.” 50. The concern of both was with education for living. In their “Schools for Life” both men relied on oral communication: song, discussion, lecture and dialogue, and not books for the main source of enlivening and enlightening.

It appears that Highlander meets all the qualifications given earlier for folk schools with the possible exception of our third “not”— “Folk schools do not teach philosophies that advocate violence nor do they aim to inspire people to revolution.” Certainly Highlander was considered a hotbed of Communism and all the legal power of the state was directed at squelching this institution that was perceived to be threatening society and business by inspiring people to rebel and revolt.

When Myles Horton speaks of violence it is most often of the violence done to man: The violence of starvation, the violence of depriving people of education, the violence of being—you know, of oppression of various kinds. 51

Against this violence and oppression people must struggle or they lose their power and freedom. Horton sees this struggle as a moral act and also as the greatest learning experience. He does not view conflict as bad nor does he see revolution as a disaster. He concurs with Jefferson that every generation ought to entertain the possibility of its own revolution and has said that he thought this country ought to have a revolution: “I mean a revolution that you know, is run dramatically, because I believe in democracy.” 52

When asked directly by Moyers, “Have you ever taught violence?” Horton responded: 'I haven't used violence since I was 14 years old. See I don't practice nor advocate violence. But I know that in a class-structured society, violence exists, and the victims are the poor. 53 What emerges from Horton's responses and reminiscences is his recognition that empowering oppressed people may lead to conflict and change. He sees this as a positive result. He avoids dealing with the semantic nuances of the positive connotations implicit in the words conflict and change versus the negative ones in violence and revolution. His educational goal is to empower people and to help them recognize the reality of their lives and to act according to what they think is right. If the society is responsive and flexible, their actions will produce changes with out violence or revolution. If not, violence and revolution may occur, though not because it was taught — and Horton would take neither credit nor blame for it.

Hopefully, the 50th anniversary of Highlander will produce studies helpful in evaluating its educational philosophy and social influence. Before concluding my section on Highlander Folk School I must make mention of the fact that in June 1938, Bank Street arranged for Claudia Lewis to go to Highlander to set up a summer nursery school. It was to be in conjunction with the American Friends Service Committee that was meeting at Highlander. The summer program was extended and Claudia Lewis joined the Highlander staff. Her summer experience is recorded in a monograph entitled, “It Takes Courage and Ingenuity” and her book, Children of the Cumberlands is a fuller account of her experiences in the southern mountains.

In the concluding paragraph of her monograph she gives the rationale for the establishment of the nursery school by Highlander: “In establishing the nursery school, the Highlander Folk School has hoped among other things to encourage even more this habit of coming together to work out problems. It has hoped to make intelligent cooperation a part of the lives of even the children. For if this stranded community is going to find a solution to its truly desperate economic problem, surely it will be through the channels of organization and cooperative effort. No other way seems possible. 54

Echoed here is Horton saying, “We say work together....”

It seems most appropriate that a folk school and a nursery school be associated. The spirit of both feels analogous. Neither are purposefully concerned with educating for a particular society. Both aim to affirm and liberate the individual. Stories, songs, dialogue and joint activities dominate. Are folk schools nursery schools for adults? Maybe nursery schools are folk schools for young children.

45 MacLean, “Origins” Phi Delta Kaggan, p. 496.

46 Moyers, Transcript, p. 2.

47 Ibid, p. 2.

48 Ibid, p. 3.

49 Ibid, p. 8.

50 1bid, p. 17.

51 lbid, p. 17.

52 Ibid. p. 6.

53 1bid, p. 18.

54 Lewis, Claudia, “it Takes Courage and Ingenuity.” Progressive Education. (October 1940)