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The Jewish Student Riots
Less than three weeks before the mayoral election of 1917, rioting broke out at PS 171, an elementary school on Madison Avenue near 103rd Street in New York City which had adopted the Gary Plan. About a thousand demonstrators smashed windows, menaced passersby, shouted threats, and made school operation impossible. Over the next few days newspapers downplayed the riot, marginalizing the rioters as "street corner agitators" from Harlem and the Upper East Side, but they were nothing of the sort, being mainly immigrant parents. Demonstrations and rioting spread to other Gary Plan schools, including high schools where student volunteers were available to join parents on the picket line.
At one place, five thousand children marched. For ten days trouble continued, breaking out in first one place then another. Thousands of mothers milled around schools in Yorkville, a German immigrant section, and in East Harlem, complaining angrily that their children had been put on "half-rations" of education. They meant that mental exercise had been removed from the center of things. Riots flared out into Williamsburg and Brownsville in the borough of Brooklyn; schools were stoned, police car tires slashed by demonstrators. Schools on the Lower East Side and in the Bronx reported trouble also.
The most notable aspect of this rioting was its source in what today would be the bottom of the bell-curve masses...and they were complaining that school was too easy! What could have possessed recently arrived immigrants to defy their betters? Whatever it was, it poisoned the promising political career of mayoral incumbent, John Purroy Mitchel, a well-connected, aristocratic young progressive who had been seriously mentioned as presidential timber. Although Teddy Roosevelt personally campaigned for him, Mitchel lost by a two-to-one margin when election day arrived shortly after the riots were over, the disruptions widely credited with bringing Mitchel down. In all, three hundred students were arrested, almost all Jewish. I identify their ethnicity because today we dont usually expect Jewish kids to get arrested in bulk.
To understand what was happening requires us to meet an entity calling itself the Public Education Association. If we pierce its associational veil, we find that it is made up of bankers, society ladies, corporation lawyers and, in general, people with private fortunes or access to private fortunes. The PEA announced in 1911 an "urgent need" to transform public schools into child welfare agencies. (emphasis added) Shortly afterward, Mitchel, a member of the PEA, was elected mayor of New York. Superintendent Wirt in Gary was promptly contacted and offered the New York superintendency. He agreed, and the first Gary schools opened in New York City in March 1915.
Bear in mind there was no public debate, no warning of this radical step. Just seventy-five days after the Gary trial began, the financial arm of New York City government declared it a total success, authorizing conversion of twelve more schools. (The original trial had only been for two.) This was done in June at the end of the school year when public attention was notoriously low. Then in September of 1915, after a net one hundred days of trial, Comptroller Prendergast issued a formal report recommending extension of the Gary Plan into all schools of New York City! He further recommended lengthening the school day and the school year.
At the very time this astonishing surprise was being prepared for the children of New York City in 1915, a series of highly laudatory articles sprouted like zits all over the periodical press calling the Gary Plan the answer to our nations school prayers. One characteristic piece read, "School must fill the vacuum of the home, school must be life itself as once the old household was a life itself." (emphasis added) Like Rommels Panzer columns, true believers were on the move. At the same time press agents were skillfully manipulating the press, officers of the Rockefeller Foundation, a body which supported the Gary Plan wholeheartedly, were appointed without fanfare as members of the New York City Board of Education, compliments of Mayor Mitchel.
Immediately after Prendergasts report appeared calling for total Gary-ization of public schooling, a book written by a prominent young protégé of John Dewey directed national attention to the Gary miracle "where children learn to play and prepare for vocations as well as to study abstractions." Titled The Gary Schools, its author, Randolph Bourne, was among the most beloved columnists for The New Republic in the days when that magazine, product of J.P. Morgan banker Willard Straights personal patronage, took some of its editorial instruction directly from the tables of power in America.
In light of what happened in 1917, you might find it interesting to have your librarian scare up a copy of Bournes Gary Schools so you can study how a well-orchestrated national propaganda campaign can colonize your mind. Even as Bournes book was being read, determined opposition was forming.
In 1917, in spite of grassroots protest, the elite Public Education Association urged the opening of forty-eight more Gary schools (there were by that time thirty-two in operation). Whoever was running the timetable on this thing had apparently tired of gradualism and was preparing to step from the shadows and open the engine full throttle. A letter from the PEA director (New York Times, 27 June, 1917) urged that more Gary schools must be opened. An earlier letter by director Nudd struck an even more hysterical note: "The situation is acute, no further delay." This Hegelian manufactured crisis was used to thaw Board of Estimate recalcitrance, which body voted sufficient funds to extend the Gary scheme through the New York City school system.
School riots followed hard on the heels of that vote. European immigrants, especially Jews from Germany (where collectivist thinking in the West had been perfected), knew exactly what the scientific Gary Plan would mean to their children. They werent buying. In the fallout from these disturbances, socialite Mitchel was thrown out of office in the next election. The Gary schools themselves were dissolved by incoming Mayor Hylan who called them "a scheme" of the Rockefeller Foundation: "a system by which Rockefellers and their allies hope to educate coming generations in the doctrine of contentment, another name for social serfdom."
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