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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Phillips Russell, November 18, 1974. Interview B-0011-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Nature of teaching at the Southern Summer School for Workers

Russell talks about the the relationship between faculty and students at the Southern Summer School for Workers. Earlier in the interview he had emphasized how the Black Mountain School was run by the Textile Workers of America, and as a result, the curriculum reflected a more grassroots ideology. However, the Southern Summer School, Russell argues, was more authoritarian in the ways in which the teachers situated themselves in the classroom. Russell does not attribute this to any sort of tensions between social classes, but instead suggests that the teachers at the Southern Summer School were likely drawing on their typical teaching experiences. In Russell's view, the Black Mountain School approach was the more effective of the two.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Phillips Russell, November 18, 1974. Interview B-0011-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

MARY FREDERICKSON:
You said that you thought the school at Black Mountain was much more lively and effective in what they were doing. What would you say was the biggest problem that Mrs. McLaren's school had? Why wasn't it as good, as active?
PHILLIPS RUSSELL:
Well, the affliction was the same that gets all schools like that, too much direction from above, you see. In other words, the teachers wanted to be in exclusive control and managed to work things around so that they got complete control and everything was subject to their orders, you see.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
So, in their classrooms, did they control discussion and control . . .
PHILLIPS RUSSELL:
Yes, but of course, that was to be expected but I mean that everything that went on in the school came down from above. It didn't come from below as it did with the textile workers.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
You mean that the students weren't encouraged . . . I mean, one of the whole tenets of workers education, as I understand it, was to start with what the students had and move from there.
PHILLIPS RUSSELL:
Yes.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Did you feel that they failed in that?
PHILLIPS RUSSELL:
I wouldn't call it failure so much as an indifference to it. That is, it didn't seem to be a factor that anybody worried about. The students accepted it because that was the way that all the schools worked that they had come from. They didn't object to it because that was what they were used to, but I saw it more and more as we went along because I thought that there should have been more spontaneity and encouragement among the students. That poor middle-aged fellow that I was talking about, I feared that he would be ignored in the McLaren type of school whereas in the other, something would have been found that he could attend to or be responsible for.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Was there pressure on the students to conform to what . . .
PHILLIPS RUSSELL:
No, no pressure. It wasn't like that type of civilian school where the cadets are put in uniform and all that. Not at all that way. It was simply that the teachers believed that they knew what was best for the students and that meant in a good many cases that the student wasn't allowed to develop because all his time was taken up from above. He had to obey orders.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Was there any split that you can remember in the faculty?
PHILLIPS RUSSELL:
No.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
All the faculty was following the same basic . . .
PHILLIPS RUSSELL:
Yes.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Except for you. (laughter)
PHILLIPS RUSSELL:
It was due to a mistake that I got there in the first place. It is quite awkward what happened. In the middle . . . well, they hadn't even reached the middle of the school term and McLaren's school decided that they needed another man and they knew about a student here whose name was Phillips Russell, the same as mine, you see. Well, they wired him to come on. So, the telegram was delivered to me and since I had nothing particular to do and was interested in this sort of thing, I bundled up and showed up there. Well, when they found out what at happened, Mrs. McLaren at least, made the best of it and said, "Tomorrow, would you do so and so." We worked out a modus operendi so to speak that did very well under the circumstances. I don't mean to imply altogether were any blackeye, I'm not finding fault with them or criticizing them. They simply followed in the footsteps of all the schools that they knew about, which made the teachers supreme. The teachers were order givers.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
The only reason that I keep asking about it or that I am so puzzled about it is because as they wrote about their teaching and as the people who are left talk about it now, that isn't what they were trying to do. I mean, they were trying to do the opposite, they were trying to change the system. That's why I said, "failure," because they were talking about doing one thing and you perceived them as doing the opposite. I mean, they talk about greater equality between students and teachers and how there was really no difference between them, everyone was learning from everyone else and the teachers weren't held up as supreme.
PHILLIPS RUSSELL:
Yes. Well, I would explain that with a parallel that in any normal civilian school, the teachers after they have been there twenty years and you call on them all of a sudden to give up their authority as teachers and to do things in a different way, you found out what the habit is. They have just become accustome to a certain mode of operation that they call teaching school and they keep on with that because that is the only thing they know.