The People's College

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The People’s College was a working-class institution established in 1914 meant to bring about the liberation of all working people by providing universal access to education. The College looked to teach in a way that did not indoctrinate people into the active system of labor exploitation that was rampant in the early 20th century. This was part of a greater strategy that was being employed by Socialists of the time to bring about a peaceful, educated, and democratic revolution within the United States.

Eugene V. Debs was the chancellor of the college, with C.B. Hoffman, J.I. Sheppard, Arthur Le Sueur, Marian Wharton, and others involved in the planning and creation of the project. The College would thrive for a few years, until the outbreak of World War I forced drastic change. A fire, which was likely arson, ruined the administrative building. After this, most of the original founders, Debs, Wharton, and Le Sueur would leave due to oppression. The College would continue for few years after as a vocational motor repair school but would eventually go into receiver and close.


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Table of contents and first lesson in Plain English by Marian Wharton, 1917

In addition to writing Plain English, the textbook for the beginning English course at the People's College, Marian Wharton (1877-1954) helped lead the instituition by serving on its advisory board and editing its newsletter.

While the English course at the People's College was created with the purpose of increasing literacy rates among the working class, that was not the only goal of Plain English. For example, Wharton addressed students as "Dear Comrade" within the text and pulled many of the passages and writing exercises from contemporary social movements and leftist thinkers. Wharton did this to empower students and to call them to social action with the underlying goal of trying to guide them towards socialist and socialist-adjacent movements.

In Plain English, Wharton also loooked to challenge traditional ways of teaching and thinking about the English language. For example, she championed the concept that English is an ever-evolving concept that is shaped by people - an idea that was in opposition to the common belief at the time that language is a rigid pattern to which everyone must conform. At the same time, Wharton also reaffirmed some contemporary English rules by establishing that "correctness" was ultimately the absence of error.


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Pages 174-175 in Plain English, by Marian Wharton, 1917

Wharton established the English curriculum at the People's College around the idea that language is democratic, universal, and dynamic. Ultimately, though, her method of teaching English mirrored many of the contemporary language courses offered at the time by emphasizing the idea that the absence of error is what creates correct language. This approach contradicted the idea of liberating people from the rules of the English language, but it was the necessary system for College students to be effective within the contemporary system. Wharton understood that if workers she taught could adequately express themselves by the grammatical rules of the time, they were more likely to be taken seriously and effect change. Providing workers with an education through this framework not only taught them English but provided them tools to liberate themselves and the rest of their class.


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The People's College News, May 1916

The College produced a newsletter known as The People's College News. Its contents included updates about the college, advertisements for courses, details of the College's financials, articles about current issues written by College professors, and letters sent in by students describing the experiences.


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Law class advertisement, May 1916

The law class at the People's College emerged from the "Appeal Law Class" organized by J.I. Sheppard, who was orginally in charge of the law department at the People's College. The College later brought in Arthur Le Sueur - a socialist lawyer from North Dakota - to head the law department. Under Le Sueur's tutelage, hundreds of students came through the law program and received an LL.B. (Legum Baccalaureus: Bachelor of Law). They used their degree to pass the bar and become practicing lawyers, mostly defending striking workers and like-minded people who were victims of oppression. Some also ran for political offices. The graduates of the People's College Law Department embodied the school's goals and looked to make their country a better place.



Crusaders by Meridel Le Sueur, 1984

First published in 1955 - with a 1984 edition shown here - Meridel Le Sueur's Crusaders is a biography of her parents, Marian Wharton and Arthur Le Sueur. In this work she details the radical legacy that her parents left behind and the many projects in which they were involved.