The Great Awakening

I started working in The New School Archives as an assistant on the audio collections of the school. Coming from Eastern Europe, I soon realized how much I can learn about the history and culture of this country just by looking through administrative folders, peeking into correspondence, and tracking down photographs from the past. Recently, I’ve been working on the Graduate Faculty’s administrative files from the Fifties, and I came across this beautifully designed book, with red cardboard cover, bold font and typographic concept. The title reads, “The Great Awakening.” Its design looks rather different from the design of other flyers and bulletins from the same era, and it made me wonder what kind of content would deserve that much attention and care.

The 20-page pamphlet, published in 1958, is written by the Australian-born C. Scott Fletcher, who served as the president of the Fund for Adult Education between 1951 and 1961.  The Great Awakening refers to the moment when the United States awoke to the fact that it was no longer alone in the field of large-scale application of science and technology, and a society “based upon subjection” as opposed to freedom, became its serious rival. The enemy is the Soviet Union, of course — at the end of the Fifties we are already well into the Cold War era. The main issue at stake is the leadership of the “free peoples of the world,” and if the United States wants to maintain this leadership that had been “thrust upon” it, and that it had accepted rather “reluctantly,” it needs to improve the kind of education that will satisfy the needs of such leadership. While the Soviet Union, according to Fletcher, succeeds, though at “great cost in human dignity and suffering” (p. 3), in evoking single-hearted, single-purposed dedication in its people, and educates the “oriented leader,” the United States fails to get the most talented of its businessmen to work for the nation.

Moreover, Fletcher says, the “organization men” in the United States — the middle class employees making up organizations — lack individuality and are too conformist, giving in to instead of fighting the organization. Yet another criticism of American leadership Fletcher refers to is that of C. Wright Mills: that the American power elite is morally bankrupt, and totally disregards what the citizenry thinks or wants. On the other hand, the “rigorous, broad, integrative and continuous” Soviet education that rejects any doubting, testing, or criticizing “frighteningly well,” serves the purpose of creating a “single philosophy,” a “monolithic organization” both effective internally and externally, that is capable of achieving world domination. According to Fletcher, the American educational system, however, does not successfully prepare individuals to be able to live up to the ideals of a free society based upon the belief in the “uniqueness and worth of the individual,” (p.5) who is free to organize and associate voluntarily, and who is capable of the “fluid” and “multiple” leadership that characterizes America.

The only solution to these ills is educational reform, Fletcher argues; life-long and multi-faceted learning, better private and public support of schools, and higher payment of teachers, which seems to be a serious issue already by the Fifties. As president of Encyclopedia Britannica Films, and a founder and member of several other organizations that promoted education through television, he also advocates for the vast opportunities of mass media, especially non-commercial television in continuing education.

I remember my first thought when reading this little red booklet was, “Oh, this looks much like communist propaganda brochures.” Nicer design, for sure – the scarcity economy of the Fifties would hardly have yielded such a luxury product in the Soviet Union. Another thing that caught me by surprise was how in the Fifties artists were used as an example of one of the forms of leadership within society. For Fletcher, the “lone artist” is a visionary “whose insights protest against things as they are and indicate things as they might be” (p.7). Of course, this is the same Fifties when Abstract Expressionism became part of the official American foreign propaganda. I heard lectures about it in college, but here, in this pamphlet, is the undoubtable evidence.

These kinds of treasures are lurking in the folders of the Archives, and what makes them so charming is the immediacy and unquestionable factuality they bring from a time I only learned about in history classes, or fantasized about watching Mad Men.

Fletcher, C. Scott: The great awakening, including a plan for education for leadership; an elaboration of a recent address. Fund for Adult Education, White Plains, New York, 1958