Learning from a previous, effective grassroots education movement

February 11, 2017

What can we do as Catholics to take and build on this model?  In the 70s and 80s, many social justice groups met and learned about Iran-Contra and the input and change we needed in our systems.  Other churches later joined the Sanctuary movement, which is reviving now.  Book clubs, study and support groups have become common.  Can these again provide a basis for envisioning and acting to create new life, a next system, in line with the kingdom of God?  What would you include in such a curriculum?  Contact [email protected] to partner in this effort, which is underway.  GCCM has been significantly inspired by Laudato Si’ and the many exhortations and topic areas covered there in.

The Populist Education Campaign by Charles Postel, San Francisco State University


In today’s political language, the term populism is applied to the politics of rage instead of reason, of the gut instead of the head, invoking images of pitchforks and torches brandished by an angry mob. But such images have little relation to historical Populism.

At the ground level, Populism was first and foremost a grass-roots movement of rural education. The Farmers’ Alliance adopted the Enlightenment watchword “Knowledge Is Power.” And in that spirit Populism built up a remarkable intellectual enterprise that brought hundreds of thousands of men and women into classrooms, lectures, and seminars. The People’s Party was known as a “reading party” and a “writing and talking party.” Through their schooling in the Populist movement, as the historian C. Vann Woodward put it, men and women at the lower rungs of society began “to think as well as to throb.”

The Populists believed that education was the most effective means for closing the gap between poverty in the rural districts and middle-class prosperity in the towns. Education would put farming on a professional and business footing, and break the monopoly on “business intelligence” that gave corporate elites a commercial advantage. Education was also seen as essential for applying more scientific farming methods and modernizing rural life. Here it should be noted that we know today that the development of modern scientific agriculture, especially the advent of the tractor and combine, has resulted in driving tens of millions of farmers off the land. But late nineteenth century farm reformers did not have this hindsight; farmers hoped that new techniques would help agriculture keep pace with industry.

The key idea of the Populist educational campaign was empowerment. Farmers and other ordinary citizens needed to gain mastery of how the machinery of modern society worked, because only then would they have the power to move the levers of that machinery so that it better served their needs. Toward that end, the Farmers’ Alliance undertook to transform itself into “the most powerful and complete educator of modern times.” It built up a national campaign for adult education.

A national campaign for adult education

This national campaign for adult education in churches, neighborhoods, and small towns as well as large included extensive lecturing circuits, a national network of hundreds of reform newspapers, large quantities of inexpensive books and pamphlets, lending libraries, and book clubs.

Local neighborhood suballiances met in rural lodges and schoolhouses and provided classroom instruction in a broad array of topics. History, literature, agricultural technique, and the latest discoveries in the natural sciences. But more than any other topic the focus was on the study of political economy: commerce and regulation, taxes and policy, and especially financial and monetary systems. As the members of one Texas suballiance explained, the educational campaign had inspired “a general desire for information and almost universal effort at research.”

Meanwhile, the Populist movement provided a powerful constituency for improving the public common schools. Many rural districts lacked proper schoolhouses, and had underpaid and untrained teachers. The crisis was especially acute in the rural South, where many children never attended school, or only sporadically as dictated by the cycles of the cotton crop. The Farmers’ Alliance and the People’s Party provided much of the impulse for building up a modern school system in the rural districts of the former Confederate states. This was a racially segregated system, separate and unequal in resources, leaving illiteracy rates among African Americans in the South at over sixty percent. Even more than their white counterparts, the members of the Colored Farmers’ Alliance devoted themselves to improving the schools by pooling dues money to pay teachers’ salaries, fix school buildings, and extend the months of instruction.

As for higher education, from North Carolina to California, Populism provided an effective lobby for setting up and expanding teachers’ colleges, agricultural colleges, and state universities. The Populist movement also pushed for rural extension services, farmers’ institutes, and state and federal funding for research and development to serve the nation’s farmers.

Populist reform was driven by the idea that an educated and informed citizenry could refashion the institutions of modern society. With education, they believed, the citizens would understand how to purge government of corporate influence, regulate the railroads and banks in the public interest, fix a broken monetary and financial system, and make a more enlightened and just society. In all of their efforts, perhaps the Populists’ most telling success was their educational campaign, which built up the public schools in rural districts and made higher education more accessible to the sons and daughters of rural people.

The Chautauqua campaign started out with religious educators and expanded to encompass secular teachers and many community leaders.