The Magazine

Left Behind

Sometimes indoctrination works, and sometimes it doesn't.

Apr 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 31 • By ABIGAIL THERNSTROM
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After Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in 1953, it was no surprise that the adoptive parents of their two sons chose to send the orphaned brothers to the Little Red School House, a New York private school. In the McCarthy era, Little Red and its high school, Elisabeth Irwin, were havens for teachers displaced from the public schools by their refusal to sign a loyalty oath to the United States government. The schools offered students a very distinctive—Stalinist—political education, and parents knew their children would not be corrupted by bourgeois capitalist values.

Angela Davis '61 at the Soviet International Women's Seminar, Moscow (1972)

Angela Davis '61 at the Soviet International Women's Seminar, Moscow (1972)

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To this day, the schools’ combined website describes both Little Red and Elisabeth Irwin as “progressive.” They are “committed to social justice,” which they define as “equity in race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic means and family structure.” This commitment, in the 1950s and ’60s, meant allegiance to the American Communist party (CPUSA).

Author Dina Hampton does not deny the schools’ dedication to political indoctrination. The students, she writes, “grew up in a counter-culture hothouse steeped in progressive pedagogy and radical politics.” At assemblies, everyone would stand to sing the “Negro National Anthem” (“Lift Every Voice and Sing”) instead of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Social studies, taught by “a dyed-in-the-wool Marxist,” formed the core of the curriculum, “with emphasis placed on the exploration of oppressed cultures.” The school took students on field trips searching for the downtrodden proletariat (my description, not Hampton’s). They stayed away from ordinary workers—most of whom would have been violently anti-Communist, of course—but met instead with those on strike or laboring as migrant workers; they toured Pennsylvania steel mills and coal mines. 

I was an Elisabeth Irwin student in the early 1950s, and I remember clearly the curriculum and those politically heavy-handed trips. But neither made the intended impression on me, for reasons I don’t entirely know—except that I was always terrible at listening to my elders.

Hampton provides little information about the school itself. But Little Red’s subtitle, Three Passionate Lives Through the Sixties and Beyond, offers those lives as her subject. They are Tom Hurwitz, Angela Davis, and Elliott Abrams. Hurwitz and Davis were both in the class of 1961; Abrams graduated in 1965. Hampton views all three as “radicals,” a term of endearment, but only when speaking of those on the left. Amazingly, she equates the radicalism of the Black Panthers, the Weathermen, and the CPUSA with the views of Jeane Kirkpatrick, Henry Jackson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nathan Glazer, and Irving Kristol—members of what she calls the “radical neoconservative movement that came to power with the Reagan administration.” 

Elliott Abrams was clearly included to make the story ostensibly fair and balanced; but Davis and Hurwitz are heroes, while Abrams is conservative and, thus, a villain. Nevertheless, Hampton calls all three “remarkable” graduates who would “continue to impact the course of United States history.” Abrams, a prolific writer on foreign policy, served in the State Department under Reagan and in the White House under George W. Bush, and got into trouble during the Iran-Contra flap. He has, indeed, played an important role in our public life. But Angela Davis and Tom Hurwitz? They were both red diaper babies who made mischief of one sort or another. 

Neither did anything admirable to warrant the attention Hampton lavishes on them; they just happen to have attended the same school from which the author herself graduated in the late 1970s. The high point of Hurwitz’s life, it seems, was his involvement in the 1968 Columbia student protest, when he and others occupied university buildings, took the acting dean and other administrators hostage, rifled through the president’s files, and taped a Che Guevara quotation above the dean’s office door: “In revolution one wins or dies.” 

Apparently, the “revolution” was fun. In Hurwitz’s account, there was a lot of sex, and the revolutionary goal seems to have been having a lot of sex with strangers. In the fall of 1968 and spring of 1969, Hurwitz traveled the country for Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the company of, among others, Obama pal Bill Ayers. “In every town there was a woman who wanted to sleep with you,” he reports.