Authors: James MacGregor Burns
Few worried that education for “social efficiency” or for “life adjustment” could be profoundly hostile to the intellect—hostile to the free play of the mind, exploration of new ideas, vigorous controversy over fundamentals, learning for its own sake. There were few protests against anti-intellectualism, even within the teaching community. Elmer Ellis of the University of Missouri argued for “making modern life comprehensible to the individual so that he can act intelligently in relation to it,” but far more typical was the New York committee of principals and teachers who complained that certain textbooks were written from the point of view “of a critical historian” rather than from the point of view of teachers.
Nor was there a genuine youth revolt in the twenties, or even a youth movement. Although countercultural philosophy was available in the works of Randolph Bourne and. others, most young people, as usual, reflected the conventional attitudes of their parents. “The image that teases the historical imagination,” according to Paula Fass, “is of a rebellious youth, iconoclastic, irreverent, frivolous, lost to social responsibility, and even more lost to traditional values and beliefs.” It was in fact “a portrait carefully constructed by contemporaries in the twenties—in the creative literature, popular journals, and volumes of social analysis by educators, judges, and poets.”
College youth had an even more distorted reputation than high school students. After all, college was where flaming youth really congregated, with its raccoon coats, hip-pocket flasks, fraternity parties, rumble-seat petting, ear-splitting jazz. But here too the noisy, gaudy façade cloaked the
reality of apathy, a dash of cynicism, a touch of revolt, and a structure of conservative Republicanism.
Like the high school students, the college generation in the twenties seemed lively and rebellious in large part because of sheer numbers. The number of men students receiving bachelor’s degrees during the decade doubled; the number of women graduates, after rising steadily since 1890, tripled in the same decade. But in general, the students seemed to bring their home lives and attitudes with them. They joined fraternities and sororities dominated by the same middle-class virtues they had learned at their parents’ knees. “We are all more or less self-centered residents of Main Street,” said a Trinity College editor. Fraternities, with their boosterism and their absorption in athletics and socializing, were easy way-stations to postgraduate membership in the Kiwanis and Rotary Club. College youth read the
Saturday Evening Post, Ladies’ Home Journal,
just as their parents did; they also read Sinclair Lewis, and perhaps even glimpsed their futures in
“George F.” Babbitt Jr. “is going to college,” said an Ohio State University editor, “and he is even more secure in college than in the world of business, if we are to believe our eyes and ears and the college papers.”
Politically, college students outside the South were heavily Republican. A large, moderately representative poll of students in 120 institutions in October 1924 gave Coolidge 30,000 “votes” to fewer than 14,000 for Davis and 7,500 for La Follette. Women were no less conservative than men. Coolidge, who as Vice-President had called eastern women’s colleges hotbeds of radicalism and Bolshevism, “carried” Wellesley by 76 percent of the vote, Smith by 73, Vassar and Bryn Mawr each by 54. La Follette made a decent showing only at Barnard.
College students in the twenties, on the other hand, were by no means lacking in a measure of idealism, or at least old-fashioned liberalism. On issues that did not clearly affect their future pocketbooks they could take advanced positions. They were often tolerant of dissent, intolerant of intolerance as embodied in the Ku Klux Klan, protective of civil liberties and academic freedom. But they saw little linkage between such issues and party politics. “The only subjects that are getting any attention from the ‘political minded,’ ” observed an editor at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1926, “are Prohibition, Birth Control and the Bible Issue, none of which are in the least related to politics or political wisdom.” The simmering issue of racial justice was largely ignored, except when a campus incident produced a quick but fleeting expression of concern.
On the fringes of campus life, small groups of students spoke up for
socialism or liberalism or black rights or academic liberty or—especially in the immediate post-World War I years—pacifism and internationalism and disarmament. Here and there a student editor or group might speak up against United States policy in Latin America or the efforts of an American Legion post to get a normal-school teacher fired for radical views. But college students formed no general political movement, headed toward no confrontation with their teachers or their elders. There was, it is true, one issue on which concerned students were relatively consistent—the supreme issue in America of individual liberty. Thus, when the New York State legislature proposed to purge socialist and communist teachers from the schools, an editor of the
demanded: “Has the panic caused by Bolshevism and socialism so befuddled the college graduate [in the legislature] that he can urge the investigation of the beliefs of every member of the Cornell faculty, and the discharge of every man whose views do not coincide with his own? Since when, may we ask, has any group of citizens been granted the power of determining what a man may think in order that he may secure a livelihood?” But such occasional challenges as these, in the 1920s, merely reinforced the views of those who chose to believe that the colleges were hotbeds of subversion as well as sex.
Most college youth of the 1920s had shared educational experiences outside the classroom. They were graduates of American Protestantism, the products of Sunday school and church pews, of YMCAs and YWCAs, during the years when the Protestant Establishment had been at the height of its numbers, momentum, and apparent influence. Protestantism encompassed diverse tendencies—this was part of its strength—both theological conservatism and the powerful Social Gospel movement, both old-fashioned fundamentalist orthodoxy and liberal reformism. It was learning to live with a Roman Catholic community that was developing the “largest private educational system in the world.”
Having developed historically in intimate embrace with capitalist ideals and institutions, dynamic Protestantism might have seemed poised at the start of the twenties for another great period of expansion. Yet by 1921, notes Winthrop Hudson, “much of the contagious enthusiasm exhibited by the churches in the prewar years had begun to be dissipated. By 1925 the usual indices of institutional strength—church attendance, Sunday school enrollment, missionary giving—showed a downward trend that was to continue for at least a decade.” Perhaps nothing better indicated Protestantism’s loss of verve and idealism during the twenties than the fact that 2,700 students applied for foreign missionary service in 1920, 252 eight years later.
Most serious of all for the Protestant churches in the 1920s, according to Sydney Ahlstrom, “was a pervasive thinning out of evangelical substance, a tendency to identify religion with the business-oriented values of the American way of life.” Much of the leadership of the church, instead of countering the conservatism, commercialism, and complacency of the decade, succumbed to these tendencies.
The most glaring sign of the churches’ surrender to the commercial spirit was the effort to “merchandise” religion. In part, this was due to the need to compete with films and radio, with the automobile that made whole families mobile on weekends, with burgeoning entertainments and recreation; in part it was due to the role of businessmen in promoting and financing churches; most of all, probably, it was due to the prevailing commercial ethos of the twenties. Ministers “are salesmen with a wonderfully fine ‘line’ to sell their congregations,” a Methodist paper editorialized. “Selling Religion—that is the only business of the Church,” advised the clerk of the Presbyterian General Assembly. Promoters and preachers concocted teasing slogans and sermon topics: “Worship Increases Your Efficiency” or “Business Success and Religion Go Together.”
By far the most successful promoter of Protestantism was Bruce Barton, onetime muckraker and radical, later a sensationally successful Manhattan advertising executive and publicist for the Republican party. In 1925, he published
The Man Nobody Knows,
a portrait of Jesus Christ as master salesman, vigorous executive, and creator of the best twelve-member management team of all time. Critics charged that Barton ignored Christ’s divinity and even remade Jesus in the author’s own image, but the work headed the nonfiction best-seller lists for many months. Barton was in fact a sophisticated and thoughtful conservative, and
The Man Nobody Knows
was by no means a crass defense of capitalism; rather, in Otis Pease’s words, its “principal thrust was to urge business-minded Americans, concerned with success, to model their lives on a man who, Barton insisted, exemplified humaneness, sociability, service to others, the leadership to inspire ordinary people to rise above themselves, a capacity to love everyone as persons….” But these finer points tended to become lost in the decade’s ballyhoo.
There was little protest against conservatism and commercialism in the churches, except on the part of a few liberals and radicals in the theological schools and the religious press. No strong movement appeared on the religious left. Opposition, on the contrary, rose on the “rural right” from the old fundamentalist, revivalist sectors of Protestantism. The new fundamentalist militancy in the 1920s took two distinct forms, according to Ahlstrom: an effort to stop public schools and colleges from teaching
scientific theories thought to be contrary to traditional interpretations of the Bible, and an effort to halt liberal theology and critical scholarship within the churches. Protestant unity soon was shattered by bitter fundamentalist-modernist disputes.
Fundamentalism in the twenties embraced some ministers of great congregations in the North, not merely the rural South and West, but the movement came to be characterized—and caricatured—by some of its more spectacular leaders. Billy Sunday, a former professional baseball player, had become a super-evangelist who could attract a million-and-a-half attendance in a ten-week campaign. He also denounced “hireling” ministers who forgot Jesus Christ in their effort to please their liberal parishioners. While Sunday had reached the peak of his influence before the war, both his revival rhetoric and his rescuing of the fallen at two dollars a soul cast their spell over the evangelists of the 1920s. The most unforgettable of these was Aimee Semple McPherson, proprietor of the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles. Presented in her $1.5 million temple, attired in virginal white, McPherson made a continuous wedding service of entertainment, commerce, and evangelism. “There is no way to understand how a jejune and arid pulpit has become a dynamic of literally National proportions,” said a rival Los Angeles minister, “but to hear and see the woman.” And that was just what Aimee Semple McPherson wanted.
What the modernist-fundamentalist conflict needed in the 1920s was a drama with a morality theme, and this was provided by the trial of John Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee, in July 1925, for teaching evolution in defiance of the laws of the state. Over one hundred newspaper journalists telegraphing 2 million words of newspaper reportage brought an audience of tens of millions into the morality play. Eagerly they followed the principals and the scenario: young Scopes, struggling through his first year of high school teaching; Clarence Darrow, the famed attorney for the defense; William Jennings Bryan, who had helped draft an anti-evolution resolution passed by the Florida legislature; and then the tragicomic encounter between Darrow and Bryan, as the attorney led the old Commoner into detailing an absurdly literal interpretation of the Bible. Day after day, in killing heat, the ordeal continued, with Scopes found guilty—and Bryan found dead a few days later.
Not reported was one arresting aspect of the “monkey trial”; the whole issue had arisen in Dayton because a group of local businessmen wanted to stage an event that would spark the town’s economic development. Even the most spectacular ideological confrontation of the 1920s had not escaped the commercial taint.
The one hundred or more newspeople who reported the Scopes trial were not a high number for the coverage of courtroom dramas in the 1920s. The Hall-Mills murder trial—the bodies of a minister and his church’s choir leader had been found together under a New Jersey crab-apple tree—attracted twice as many reporters. The
New York Times
printed 528,000 words on the trial and 435 pictures; the New York
347,000 words and 2,691 pictures; the
223,000 words and 2,962 pictures. For the
half a million words on the trial was almost literally all the news fit to print.
Doubtless the press felt it deserved such self-indulgence, for it had ballyhooed the case into sensationalism in the first place. Indeed, after a grand jury had refused to indict, a tabloid had gotten the case reopened on the basis of flimsy evidence, and then reaped circulation benefits by its avid coverage of the subsequent trial. The press corps at the later murder trial of a corset salesman included Mary Roberts Rinehart and Billy Sunday, and D. W. Griffith and Peggy Joyce did special interpretations. It received more play than the sinking of the
the press assigned 120 reporters to this case, “more than represented all the American newspapers and news agencies in the Far East,” Silas Bent observed.
Sensationalism was nothing new in the American press, but the 1920s was indeed the age of ballyhoo. The reason was in part economic. For half a century the newspapers had undergone rising costs and circulation wars. The indispensable Linotype machine now cost $18,000. Newsprint had soared from 2 1/4 cents to 6 cents a pound during the war. Printers’ and pressmen’s wages had doubled since 1910, to $50 a week during the twenties. But newspapers were still selling for the smallest coin of the realm. Until recently, Walter Lippmann wrote in
the public had accustomed itself “to paying two and even three cents on weekdays, and on Sundays, for an illustrated encyclopedia and vaudeville entertainment attached, we have screwed ourselves up to paying a nickel or even a dime.”