Songs from the Stacks

By Scott Sanders, Archivist

The American Peoples School

Credited directly to Danish pastor and philosopher Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783–1872), the folk school model of adult education grew out of the French Revolution. Grundtvig was inspired by a report on public education written by the Marquis de Condorcet in 1792 that first advanced the concept of popular education, a movement that was part political and part pedagogical. The idea was to give the peasantry and other people from the lower echelons of society a higher educational level through personal development; what Grundtvig called “the living word.” Grundtvig’s model took hold in Denmark in the 1840s and spread across Europe, finally reaching the United States in the 1860s.

An illustration of the American Peoples School
This illustration of the American Peoples School may have served as their bookplate.

In 1934, progressive educators Geneva and Søren Mathiasen established the American Peoples School in New York City based on the Grundtvig model. Situated in the former Denishawn School of the Dance (also the home of modern dance pioneers Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn*) and located near Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, the American Peoples School held that “the essential of any general education is to enable people to live happier and more interesting lives.” The idea was enlightenment rather than training, and the schools founders believed that “life itself is considered as one of the greatest of the arts, and care is taken to provide opportunity for gracious living and dignity.” In Depression era New York City, with so many young single people living workaday lives away from home, the American Peoples School provided for that, at least until it closed due to wartime pressures on its funding in 1943.

Once again Stacks descends into first-person voice due to the personal nature of the subject. In 1994, I was working on a 300-hour internship in Antiochiana for my graduate program at Wright State University (a requirement that, after 18 years on the job, I assume I have met). Still needing a topic for my capstone project, Bob Fogarty, longtime professor of American history and editor of the Antioch Review since 1977, brought me one. An Antioch College graduate from the class of 1938 had in her possession the files of a school where she had once been resident director, files she was unsure what to do with. The school was the aforementioned American Peoples School, and the Antiochian was Agnes Forrest Gruliow. Her husband Leo, a journalist and translator of Russian, was the founding editor of the Current Digest of the Soviet Press, once the only English language source for news stories printed in the former USSR. I got to know them both over the course of the project, which I proposed as both the process of obtaining the donation of a manuscript collection as well as its preservation for posterity and arrangement for use.

When it came down to the actual signing of the deed that would transfer ownership of the collection to the College, it turned out that Agnes was not quite ready to give them up, a fairly common occurrence as I would learn over the next several years. Interestingly, the fact that she hung onto the collection made for a nice punch line at the end of my paper: that an archivist can do everything by the book and still not obtain the donation. So I returned to Yellow Springs empty handed and a little dejected but with greater understanding of some of the nuances of what was about to become my field.

I stayed in touch with the Gruliows, never once mentioning my desire to complete the transaction so as not to pressure them. Leo died in the late 1990s, followed by Agnes in December 2011. In early May 2012, Agnes’ daughter contacted me in the hope that Antioch College still wanted to have the American Peoples School Collection for its archives. Seeing the papers as unfinished personal business, my first thought was: “Hey, if we don’t, I do,” but I told her that of course the College was still interested. The following week I went to the Gruliow residence in Columbus near the campus of Ohio State University where the Digest had been based since the 1960s. There I met their son Frank, named for his uncle, Agnes’ brother, an Antiochian killed in action in the Second World War. Eighteen years after I started this project, Frank put his signature on my long unsigned deed, and, despite the fact that my MA is dated 1995, I felt like I finally finished college.

The very first file in the collection contains a manuscript for the following article by I.W. Bassow, whose identity I have been unable to confirm. Whoever he was, his admiration for the American Peoples School cannot be in question. Accompanying the manuscript is a rejection letter dated 1941 from the editor of an adult education journal on the verge of ceasing publication. The correspondence suggests that Bassow should submit his work to another title. Since both journals are in the Olive Kettering Library’s vast periodical collection, it was possible to check, and it is likely that this is the first time his article has ever been published.

A photo of the American Peoples School
The magnificent house that served as the American Peoples School, located at 57 Stevenson Ave. in the Bronx. Apparently a high-rise apartment stands on the site today.

American Peoples School

I. W. Bassow

This year the American Peoples School is celebrating its seventh anniversary. Founded as an experiment in cooperative living by SA Mathiason in 1934, the school has made an important place for itself in the field of adult education. The purpose of the founder was to establish a resident center for young men and women in New York City to help them meet the problems created by urban life. But the past few years have seen a gradual change in the character of the school.

Before discussing these changes however I would like to present a description of the school for those who may be unacquainted with it.

The American Peoples School is an adaptation of the Danish Folkschool. It is a place where young men and women live together with their teachers in a cooperative attempt to live a rich cultural, social, and intellectual life. At present there are twenty-eight people living at the school, including teachers and students. The students’ ages range from eighteen to thirty-five. The entire establishment is conducted along democratic lines and is controlled by the students themselves. It is supervised by an executive committee by them from among the student body and faculty. Sub-committees are responsible for cooking, cleaning, repairing, and other necessary work.

The school occupies a picturesque three story house near Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx which was formerly the dance studio of Ruth St. Denis. It is built in Tunisian style and is surrounded by a large and beautiful garden. The garden contains over three hundred varieties of flowers and shrubs and serves as an outdoor studio for the drawing and painting classes. The other classes and discussion groups are held around the great fireplace in the spacious main hall.

In order to accommodate the growing number of students an additional building was obtained in 1936 for use as a dormitory. The school is self sufficient and is supported entirely by the students’ tuition payments. These payments amount to $12.50 a week for which students receive room and board.

The student body is a heterogeneous group. It is composed of men and women drawn from all walks of life and from all parts of the country. They have different social, political, and economic backgrounds, different kinds of education, and diverse interests. They work at all kinds of jobs. There is a writer, teacher, plumber, hair-dresser, secretary, social worker. Thus a student comes into contact with many different types of people. He becomes acquainted with fresh ideas and viewpoints. His interests broaden and he becomes a more interesting and stimulating person.

The teachers, who live with their students, try to consider themselves students also. They are always ready to learn from those they teach. And students with special training or ability often conduct classes of their own. In this way, both teachers and students come to regard the school as something which belongs to them. They learn to work with other people and subordinate their own desires to the common welfare.

A promotional mailer for the American Peoples School; 'Make Your Leisure Time Significant' reads the heading
A promotional mailer for the school.

The formal educational activities take place in the evening after the students return from work. The purpose of these activities is not so much to impart specific information to the students as it is to provide them with the opportunity for the full development of their talents and personalities. It is also intended that they provide the students with profitable recreation after a hard day’s work. Therefore the subjects taught include a little of what is normally considered formal educational substance. Painting, drawing, folkdancing, group singing, sculpture, and other media of expression are the core of the curriculum. Stimulating discussions on contemporary problems, literature, art, and other topics of interest to the students are also part of the evening activities.

All barriers between student and teacher disappear in an environment like that of the American Peoples School. They do much together; they eat at the same table, they help each other wash dishes; they may even room together. This constant contact fosters a relationship which does not stop at the classroom door. Teacher and student become friends on the basis of common interests outside of the classroom as well as in it.

Although the original purpose of the school was to provide for the intellectual and social advancement of its regular students, the past few years have seen a change in this program. The school is becoming more and more a center for education of the people in the community. It is becoming a place where the people of the neighborhood can enjoy a pleasant evening doing the things they have always wanted to do. People who have always wanted to paint or draw or express themselves in some way now can do it at the school.

A regular program of activities has been established for the people of the community. This program has a two-fold aim. First, it attempts to acquaint outsiders with the school’s regular program and activities. Second, it tries to fill the gap in the cultural life of the neighborhood by extending the school’s educational and social benefit to all.

Special classes have been introduced with these objectives in mind. One of these is a housemaker’s group designed to attract neighborhood housewives. This group discusses diet, cooking problems, intelligent purchasing, and other questions of interest to them.

Many people come to the painting and drawing classes. Most of them have never studied art before and now the school is providing them with the opportunity to do so. Some of the students have shown remarkable ability in their work. Elderly people in their fifties and sixties, who have never painted before, have proven by their fine work that it is never too late to learn. They pay a small fee for their instruction.

Another feature of the school’s program which is attracting many new people is the weekly “Open House.” On Saturday nights the school opens its doors to everyone in an invitation to join with the students and teachers in an evening of fun. A program of folkdancing, in which everyone participates, is the feature of the evening. The real spirit of the school comes out on occasions like this when a warm friendly feeling pervades the place. Strangers soon feel at home in the congenial atmosphere. A special class in folkdancing for beginners meets earlier in the week.

In attempting to reach out into the neighborhood, the school contacts various community organizations. The Parent-Teachers Association, social groups, and women’s groups are some of these. The school, by serving these organizations, is gradually becoming regarded as something which belongs to the entire community, something which deserves the support of everyone. This idea of becoming an integral part of the community has been the outstanding development in the recent history of the school.

Another activity on a different front is the school’s attempt to do its small bit in promoting good-will and friendship between the peoples of the Western Hemisphere. Although actual plans are still indefinite, the general idea is that the school provide a residence for Latin-Americans who come to New York to study. This will give the student a friendly and congenial place to live while he carries on his studies. He will also become acquainted with the democratic and cooperative spirit of the school, thus making his stay in the United States a richer and more fruitful experience. Students will be reached through the “Y” and various student organizations in Latin America.

*Shawn would found another school of modern dance on a rustic farm in the Berkshire Mountains called Jacob’s Pillow in 1933 that he purchased from then Antioch College president Arthur E. Morgan in 1931. Morgan had originally intended to establish his own folk school on the property. Today Jacob’s Pillow Dance is known for holding the oldest internationally acclaimed summer dance festival in the United States.