Education and Democracy: The Meaning of Alexander Meiklejohn, 1872-1964

Education and Democracy: The Meaning of Alexander Meiklejohn, 1872-1964

by Adam R. Nelson

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This definitive biography of the charismatic Alexander Meiklejohn tracks his turbulent career as an educational innovator at Brown University, Amherst College, and Wisconsin’s “Experimental College” in the early twentieth century and his later work as a civil libertarian in the Joe McCarthy era. The central question Meiklejohn asked throughout his


This definitive biography of the charismatic Alexander Meiklejohn tracks his turbulent career as an educational innovator at Brown University, Amherst College, and Wisconsin’s “Experimental College” in the early twentieth century and his later work as a civil libertarian in the Joe McCarthy era. The central question Meiklejohn asked throughout his life’s work remains essential today: How can education teach citizens to be free?

Editorial Reviews

Charles W. Anderson
A splendid piece of work. It is a fascinating character study of an extraordinary figure in American intellectual and educational history. Nelson presents a very balanced portrait of the man, his strengths and weaknesses.
Nelson (history, Texas A&M) wrote this biography as his doctoral dissertation at Brown University, where much of the research was carried out. Meiklejohn's thought and often controversial history is described during his tenures as dean at Brown, president of Amherst College, and director of the Experimental College at the U. of Wisconsin. Nelson considers the larger philosophical and moral issues at play during his subject's life, issues which continue to be very much alive in the field of education. The book includes many b&w photos. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
From the Publisher

“Meiklejohn . . . experimented throughout his life with teaching curriculum and institutional organization in an effort to create educational programs that inspired people to create democratic societies. . . . Nelson has done a great service to Meiklejohn’s memory by capturing student voices and allowing them to evoke Meiklejohn at his best—as a teacher and scholar of ethics and democracy.”—Mary Ann Dzuback, Journal of American History

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Education and Democracy

The Meaning of Alexander Meiklejohn 1872-1964

By Adam R. Nelson
Copyright © 2001

The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-299-17144-5

Chapter One "A Voyage across the Atlantic" and "Kant's Ethics" 1872-1899


In the spring of 1869, James and Elizabeth Meiklejohn moved with their seven sons from Glasgow, Scotland, to Rochdale, England. Ever since his childhood in the early 1840s, James Meiklejohn had worked as a color designer in the textile mills surrounding Glasgow, Barrhead, and Paisley, but the possibility of higher wages and better working conditions eventually lured him and his large family south. The town of Rochdale, located ten miles north of Manchester in the rolling hills of Lancashire, was famous for its manufacture of high-quality flannels, broadcloths, and other cotton fabrics. It was even more famous for its large and well-established workers' cooperative, which Meiklejohn and his wife hoped to join. Rooted in the producerist ideals of Robert Owen as well as the Shakers, the Chartists, and other utopian socialist communities of the mid-nineteenth century, the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers attracted the Meiklejohns with its motto: All who contribute to the realization of wealth ought to participate in its distribution. According to its charter of 1844, the cooperative's chief purpose was to provide for the "pecuniary benefit and improvement of the social and domestic conditions of its members," and so it did. Collecting one pound per year from each member, the cooperative was able to open a wholesale store, build modest homes for workers and their families, and hire those who were temporarily unemployed. It also provided educational services, including teachers, lectures, and a free library, for children. When the thirty-five-year-old Meiklejohn arrived in Rochdale with his family in 1869, he took an enthusiastic interest in the cooperative's work. He and Elizabeth held meetings in their home, served on social and charitable committees, recruited new members, and genuinely embraced its ideals of economic equality and mutual aid. It was in Rochdale, on February 3, 1872, that James and Elizabeth's eighth son, Alexander, was born.

From a very early age, young "Alec" took pride in his family's Scottish working-class heritage. "I was the youngest of eight sons in a Scottish, Presbyterian, working-class family," he later recalled. "My earliest allegiance was to the Scottish culture.... My second loyalty came from my father's occupation." Indeed, Meiklejohn grew up surrounded by the members of the Rochdale cooperative. As a boy, he found friends among the children of the millhands and played cricket and soccer outside the factories. Many days, he followed his father to the dye house in the morning and home again in the evening. As they walked, he listened to stories about the ideals of social and economic cooperation. He heard how "human society is a body consisting of many members, the real interests of which are identical." He learned that "true workmen should be fellow-workers." He discovered that "a principle of justice, not of selfishness, must govern [human] exchange." And, above all, he understood that the best government was always democratic. Indeed, in both structure and spirit, the Rochdale cooperative was deeply democratic. Each household had one vote, regardless of the number of shares it owned, and a general assembly of members settled all internal disputes. Emphasizing the equal value of different opinions and beliefs, the cooperative shunned sectarian orthodoxy and insisted on nondenominational toleration for all religious affiliations. As George Jacob Holyoake, a labor activist who published the first history of the cooperative in 1882, noted, "[T]he moral miracle performed by our cooperatives of Rochdale [is] that they ... had the good sense to differ without disagreeing, to dissent from each other without separating, to hate at times, and yet always to hold together." Though Meiklejohn was much too young to realize it at the time, such sentiments laid a foundation for his own moral and political education. As he noted many times throughout his life, "[T]he textile workers were my people."

In addition to a wide network of friends and factory acquaintances, the Rochdale cooperative supplied James and Elizabeth Meiklejohn with a regular forum for political debate. Often, the cooperative's members assembled at the Meiklejohn home to discuss labor relations and the possibilities for social reform. They expressed strong support for Britain's Liberal prime minister William Gladstone, who ardently endorsed the workers' cooperative movement and criticized the dominant capitalist ideology of laissez faire. They praised Gladstone's views on moral economy, which associated poverty with virtue and wealth with vice, and they admired the theories of such "new liberal" intellectuals as Thomas Hill Green, who assigned ethical importance to economic equality. They commended the ideas of John Ruskin and William Morris, who sought to preserve a producerist aesthetic in the arts and crafts, and they enthusiastically debated the heroic folklore of Scotland, especially its bloody struggle for independence from England. They often quoted the robust poetry of Robert Burns, whose late eighteenth-century vernacular verse appealed to their sense of democratic solidarity, and they gathered regularly to share family occasions, including birthdays, weddings, and funerals, which reinforced members' sense of class connection. For the Meiklejohns, the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers symbolized not only a social and economic aid society but also a moral, political, and intellectual community. As its charter stated, the cooperative constituted a "self-supporting home-colony of united interests," and, though these values might have escaped the conscious attention of four-year-old Alec, he spent much of his adult life trying to reconstruct the voluntary ethical communitarianism that pervaded his early childhood in Rochdale.

As a young boy growing up in a mill town, Alexander Meiklejohn experienced the love and caring of a large and close-knit family. One of his fondest memories was that of standing by his mother's side, "turning the socks" and helping her with load after load of laundry. "He adored his parents and was on warmest terms with his brothers," a friend recalled. Certainly, with so many older brothers, he had no shortage of playmates. He could always find someone with whom to try new games, explore city streets, roam the countryside, or simply make mischief at home. His seven brothers-Andrew, Henry, James, John, Matthew, Maxwell, and William-teased him mercilessly, not only for being the youngest, but also for being the only member of the family born outside Scotland. As Meiklejohn bemusedly recalled, his siblings constantly needled him for being a "foreigner," an "alien," and a "Johnny Bull." And yet, despite such taunting, his childhood was happy, joyful, and secure. From his mother, whose Presbyterian faith filled their small home, he learned the Golden Rule: "Love thy neighbor as thyself." From his father, whose generosity belied his modest means, he learned a deep sympathy for the poor. From both parents, he learned to see the world from the perspective of the working classes. "From his family environment," one friend noted, Meiklejohn learned "an inner peace, free from disguised fears, hostilities, and frustrations."

For more than a decade, the Meiklejohns lived quite contentedly in Rochdale. In 1880, however, James Meiklejohn considered moving his family again, this time from England to the United States. Ever since the American Civil War, when a sharp drop in cotton imports caused British mills to buckle, thousands of workers had emigrated overseas. Dozens of enterprising Scots had started new mills abroad or bought factories from American families weakened by the war. Typical was the J. & P. Coats Company of Paisley, Scotland, which, in 1877, took possession of the Conant Thread Company in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Like other Scottish textile companies with recently acquired branches on the opposite side of the Atlantic, the Coats Company recruited large numbers of Scottish workers, especially skilled dye masters and color technicians, to teach their American counterparts the latest manufacturing methods. The Coats Company advertised for employees in Scottish newspapers and posted fliers in workers' neighborhoods, including the Meiklejohns' district of Newbold in Rochdale. In an effort to persuade millhands to leave their current jobs, Coats offered to subsidize their ocean passage and promised to help them find affordable housing near the company's new mill in Pawtucket. Given such powerful incentives, James Meiklejohn faced a difficult choice. On the one hand, he hated to leave Rochdale and the camaraderie of the workers' cooperative. On the other hand, he wanted to provide the best possible life for his large family. After careful consideration, he and Elizabeth decided to leave England for America, if not necessarily for the Coats mill, then for another mill like it.

In the spring of 1880, all ten Meiklejohns boarded the giant Britannic steamer of the White Star Line and sailed for New York. Little Alexander was only eight years old at time. Like any inquisitive boy, he stowed his belongings, including his most prized possession, his cricket bat, and went off to explore the ship. "When a person gets fairly started," he later wrote in a characteristically precocious school essay, "he begins to look for his berth, and he is lucky if he gets there without bruises. Trunks, boxes, bags, and bundles of every size, shape, and kind seem to be lying just where they ought not to be, and everyone you speak to is either a German, an Italian, or at least someone who speaks a different language from your own." To young Alec's delight, there were several lively musicians on board, including a Dutch violinist and an Italian concertina player. After a brief stop in Queenstown, Ireland, for additional passengers and mail, the Britannic began its "real ocean voyage" over what quickly became some very rough seas. "That night," Meiklejohn recorded, "the winds began to blow, the waves to toss, and the ship to rock. It was only with the greatest difficulty that I managed to stay in my berth, and the way in which the boxes and bundles tried to run across the deck, regardless of knocking anyone down, was alarming in the extreme." Finally, after a few close encounters with icebergs off the coast of Newfoundland, Meiklejohn spotted Manhattan. "It was a beautiful morning and the view of Governor's Isle was very grand to one who had not seen land for ten days or more. After breakfast, we sailed to the quay belonging to the White Star Line, where we left the vessel."

Safely docked in New York, Meiklejohn disembarked and followed his parents to Castle Garden, where they exchanged their British pounds for American dollars and waited for their baggage to pass inspection. The next day, the whole family set out for Appanoag, Rhode Island, where they stayed for four years before finally settling fifteen miles farther north in Pawtucket. Unfortunately, neither Meiklejohn nor his relatives left any record of their years in Appanoag, and it was not until the family moved to Pawtucket that traces of Meiklejohn's childhood began to reappear. Pawtucket in the 1880s was unmistakably a textile town. With a skyline dominated by steeples and smokestacks, its labyrinth of narrow brick streets ran along both sides of the Blackstone River, which flowed over the picturesque Pawtucket Falls at the center of town. In 1884, the name "James Meiklejohn, color mixer" appeared for the first time among the twenty-three thousand inhabitants listed in the Pawtucket-Central Falls Directory. It was in that year that Meiklejohn's father found a job, not at the Coats mill, but at the Dunnell Manufacturing Company, also known as Dunnell Print Works, on Dunnell's Lane in Pawtucket. Ever since its establishment in the mid-1830s, the Dunnell Print Works had been one of Pawtucket's largest textile factories. Following its incorporation in 1853, it had expanded rapidly to include not only spinning and bleaching but also calico printing and dye work. In 1884, when the Meiklejohn family settled in Pawtucket, the Dunnell Manufacturing Company had just completed a new structure for the finishing of "fancy" bleached goods and the printing of twelve-color patterned pieces. Part of the new structure was a state-of-the-art dyehouse, which eventually employed at least four Meiklejohns.

It was not long before the Meiklejohns became involved in both the industrial and the commercial aspects of Pawtucket's growing economy. One year after "James Meiklejohn, color mixer" appeared in the town directory, the name "John Meiklejohn, retailer" appeared alongside it. In 1885, James's brother John left England and joined the Meiklejohns in Pawtucket. With capital saved from James's work in the mills, the two brothers opened a business partnership selling "pianos, organs, sheet music, musical instruments, and fancy goods." Both Meiklejohn families lived at 76 Summit Street in Pawtucket, and the new Meiklejohn Music Company was located at 184 Main Street just a few blocks away. Over the next several years, the number of Meiklejohns listed in the Pawtucket-Central Falls Directory multiplied as the family moved from 76 Summit to 12 Prospect, to 8 Prospect, to 72 Prospect, and, finally, to 118 Prospect, where they remained for many decades. Slowly by surely, the Meiklejohns began to acquire a measure of social and economic stability in Pawtucket. A survey of leading manufacturers and merchants in Rhode Island, published in 1886, noted that the Meiklejohn Music Company was already flourishing just a year after it opened. "The store is large and commodious, being twenty by fifty feet in size," the survey stated. "The firm are agents in Pawtucket for the sale of the celebrated Mason and Hamlin pianos and organs and for the Wilcox and White organs and have on hand at all times a line of samples of these desirable instruments. They also keep a stock of musical merchandise, including sheet music." By 1898, James and John Meiklejohn had expanded their business to include the sale of bicycles as well as the management of the Pawtucket City Auditorium next door, which hosted a wide array of concerts and other community activities. With John running the business and James working in the mill, the Meiklejohn family, like many other Scottish immigrants in Pawtucket, gradually climbed into Rhode Island's middle class.

To be Scottish in Pawtucket was not unusual in the 1880s. Indeed, when the Meiklejohns arrived in Rhode Island, they entered a large and well-established Scottish immigrant community. Between 1880 and 1890, more than 800,000 immigrants left Scotland and England for the United States, and most of them settled in the Northeast. Like other immigrant groups, Scottish immigrants in Pawtucket tended to congregate in residential enclaves, to pursue similar occupations, and to gather together for various social engagements. For Scottish immigrants throughout New England, the center of work was often the textile mill, the center of religious life was typically the Presbyterian or, if necessary, the Congregational Church, and the center of social interaction was almost always the "clan." In 1889, the Pawtucket-Central Falls Directory announced the first meeting of the Clan Fraser, part of the National Order of Scottish Clans. The Meiklejohns were among the first to join Pawtucket's Clan Fraser, which functioned for them as a substitute for the workers' cooperative they had left behind in Rochdale. The clan, like the cooperative, created an atmosphere of solidarity and mutual aid among the city's Scots. A friend of the Meiklejohns recalled the special ethnic bond he felt as a participant in the annual Pawtucket Scots Day Parade. "It was one of the proudest moments of my life," he informed Meiklejohn many years later, "when I marched down through Main Street at the head of the clan with your father on one side and Walter Scott of New York on the other. After the parade, we went down to Crescent Park and had a real old-fashioned clam bake." Young Alec appreciated the sense of community he witnessed in Pawtucket's Clan Fraser. He also valued the religious community of the Pawtucket Congregational Church, where he and his parents attended weekly services and heard the stirring sermons of the Reverend Alexander MacGregor, a Scottish American minister who attracted more than three hundred parishioners to worship every Sunday.


Excerpted from Education and Democracy by Adam R. Nelson Copyright © 2001 by The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Adam R. Nelson is associate professor of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is author of The Elusive Ideal: Equal Educational Opportunity and the Federal Role in Boston’s Public Schools, 1950–1985.

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