NEH seminar explores 'Communism and American Life'

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | July 2, 2014

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Professor Harvey Klehr’s summer seminar explores communism as one of the great controversies of the 20th century. Emory Photo/Video.

As a political ideology, Communism may seem like a historic relic, a philosophy that has largely waned in all but a few remaining countries.

So how do you make that history relevant to a new generation of students and educators?

As Emory professor Harvey Klehr points out, no one can ignore the profound influence of American communism in shaping 20th century history.

It played a critical role in developing both the labor and student movements that emerged throughout the 1920s and 1930s. And by the late 1940s, the role of anti-communism — as fueled by Sen. Joseph McCarthy — would "become one of the most powerful forces in American life," according to Klehr, giving rise to an era highlighted with charges of espionage and subversion and battles over civil rights and liberties.

This summer, Klehr will help bring that history to life for fellow educators by teaching "Communism and American Life, " a summer seminar designed for K-12 teachers and education graduate students funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

The five-week seminar, which began June 30 and runs through July 31, draws middle and high school educators to the Emory campus for an opportunity to explore how and why communism still resonates in American life.

Klehr, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Politics and History, has focused his scholarship on American radicalism and communism. He talked with Emory Report about the opportunity the seminar offers to explore "one of the great controversies of 20th century history" and "the dilemmas that the communist issue posed for democratic societies."

Who is this seminar intended to appeal to?

Most of them are high school teachers — in fact, one is a middle school teacher. But it's actually open to anyone who teaches K-12. They have to write an essay about why they're interested in the program. The reality is we're more likely to get people who are teaching in the area on the high school level, but you get a range. Some will know very little about the topic; they are just intrigued by it.  In other cases, some will have ideological reasons for studying it.

In the past, I've taught people who were "red diaper babies" — whose parents or grandparents were communists — and one who was related to a leader in the American Communist party who had gone to jail under the Smith Act. I've also had ex-military members in the seminar; the Cold War has faded, but even 15-18 years ago, people in the military were still watching communists and communism. We've also had Christian conservatives take the class — the wide variety of perspectives is fun.

Why do K-12 teachers need to better understand this movement?

Certainly in the 1930s, American communism had an impact during the Depression. That was a period of enormous turmoil in the U.S., a time when the Communist Party reached the height of its influence, and it did have an impact on the labor movement, young people and intellectuals. In the post-World War II period until the mid-1950s, the communist issue was one of the most divisive and controversial in American political life. For anyone interested in 20th century American history, politics or literature, it's a significant topic.

On the world stage, is communism still a significant force to be reckoned with?

In the United States, probably mostly it's historic, though there are little remnants out there. The American Communist party is still around, but today it's not exactly a major factor in the world. There are still countries ruled by people who call themselves communists, in Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea, and China — so around the world it's still a factor and it's still controversial.

How did you come to be involved with presenting these NEH summer seminars?

They put on about a dozen of these for high school teachers around the country every summer. This is the sixth or seventh time that I've done one, but I actually haven't offered one for the last eight or nine years. For six years I was on the National Council for the Humanities, an advisory body that reviews proposals and makes recommendations. After you get off the council, you can't apply for NEH funding again for a two-year period. So I'm now eligible to do this again.

What do you get out of these seminars?

It's a lot of work, but the times I've done them have been among the most enjoyable teaching experiences I've ever had. The participants are excited to be here, to be doing this. They really enjoy the chance to engage in intensive intellectual pursuits for five weeks. The teachers range in age, so I'll have people in their early-to-mid-20s up to their early 60s. Some may even remember some of these events, so the opportunity to explore them with thoughtful colleagues in a relaxed seminar is exciting.