Constructing a Culture

McCarthyism in Education

The Communist witch hunt started in the U.S. government by Senator Joseph McCarthy had leaked into all levels of American education by the early 1950s. It was only natural for the red scare to cause paranoia of educators including teachers and librarians because according to Eugenia Kaledin, they were “considered dangerous influences on the general public, [and] were singled out for special scrutiny.”[1] Educators who were believed to be Communist sympathizers or have affiliations with Communists were interrogated at all levels by deans and school boards and all educators were also encouraged to “name names.” This paranoia had a real effect as it is believed that approximately 600 teachers in the U.S. lost their jobs due to McCarthyism in education.[2]

The Case of Professor Burgum

The film “Freedom to Learn” featured in this project portrays a veteran high school teacher, Mrs. Orin, who is called in front of the school board after a parent discovers that she had been teaching her social studies class about Communism. What Mrs. Orin experiences in this film is a representation of what real educators went through during the McCarthy period. One prominent case of a teacher losing his job due to McCarthyism is that of professor Edwin Berry Burgum.

Burgum was an Associate Professor of English at New York University and he was dismissed from his job in 1953 after facing a committee that accused him of teaching Communism. He had been a known member of the U.S. Communist Party but when he was questioned by the McCarran Committee in 1952 about his affiliations with the Party, he avoided answering by pleading the Fifth Amendment.[3] Philip Deery explains that Burgum invoked the Fifth Amendment as “‘a matter of principle’ since the McCarran Committee had no moral or constitutional grounds for attacking ‘the right to private opinion and social action.’”[4] Even though Burgum’s refusal to answer questions about his Communist affiliation was not a breach of his employment and the McCarran Committee never found any evidence of Burgum discussing Communist beliefs in his classes, he was still dismissed from his position.[5]

Zeal for Democracy

The only acceptable way to even discuss Communism in the classroom was to teach it in direct contrast to American democracy. A new educational program called “Zeal for Democracy” was introduced in April 1947 which urged schools across the U.S. to conform their curriculum to a “democracy versus communism” philosophy.[6] The Zeal for Democracy program did not critically examine American democracy or U.S. society, but instead “encouraged students to think of American democracy in normative fashion, and define it solely in opposition to totalitarianism.”[7] The scene in “Freedom to Learn” in which Mrs. Orin writes the characteristics of democracy on the chalkboard next to a list of the characteristics of Communism illustrates the Zeal for Democracy philosophy of discussing Communism only in juxtaposition to American democracy.
[1] Eugenia Kaledin, Daily Life in the United States, 1940-1959: Shifting Worlds (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000), 78.
[2] Stephen H. Aby, “Discretion Over Valor: The AAUP During the McCarthy Years,” American Educational History Journal 36 (2009): 122.
[3] Philip Deery, “’Running with the Hounds’: Academic McCarthyism and New York University, 1952-1953,” Cold War History 10 (2010), 474.
[4] Deery, 475.
[5] Deery, 476, 472.
[6] Andrew Hartman, Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008), 70.
[7] Hartman, 70.

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