27 November 2019 Blogs, Academic, Community College, Librarian, Faculty, Student/Researcher

What You Can['t] Say: Academic Freedom in the Progressive Era

A closer look at historic and contemporary debate about what is taught and discussed in schools and universities

By Jolie McCarty, special writer

We recently plunged into History Vault's latest module, Progressive Era: Voices of Reform, for a fascinating look into issues around academic freedom at the turn of the 20st century. Particularly, tensions that unfolded at the University of Wisconsin during this time can reveal insights into contemporary struggles over what is appropriate to teach and talk about in today’s schools and colleges.

The Progressive Era in American history marks a period of social change and reform. Spanning from the 1890s to the 1920s, reformers dealt with a variety of issues stemming from industrialization, immigration, urbanization, and corruption.

Concerns about the power of big business, the role of the government in mediation business, and social issues dominated the public sphere – and these concerns were reflected in often heated debates over what was taught and discussed in classrooms and on college campuses.

Consider the 1918 resignation letter of philosophy professor Horace Meyer Kallen. Kallen furiously defended academic freedom and decried the atmosphere of the university. He wrote:

In times of national crisis, when passions run high and rumor, conjecture and prejudice replace investigation and reflection, it becomes of paramount importance that institutions of learning shall maintain their integrity in that "sifting and winnowing" after truth which is their one and paramount function: that they shall seek out the truth and declare it, regardless of opinion, regardless of majorities1.

Kallen went on be a co-founder of the New School in New York, a private institution established to promote academic freedom, and by 1933, he served on the American Civil Liberties Union's academic freedom committee2. While Kallen’s letter referred to tensions raised by World War I, it’s easy to imagine his words being written today.

"Radicals" on Campus

During the Progressive Era, reformers sought to intertwine education and government, striving for an educational system that worked to alleviate social and economic problems, from labor struggles to conservation. Charles R. Van Hise, president of the University of Wisconsin, sought to create a university as "broad as human endeavor, as high as human aspiration."3

Van Hise succeeded on a number of fronts. During his tenure at the University of Wisconsin, he expanded curriculum, petitioned for and oversaw construction of new educational facilities, and involved the University of Wisconsin more deliberately in Wisconsin's state government. He often advocated for faculty to have the freedom to teach and express themselves as they saw fit.

This was not without pushback from the Board and Regents and from the citizens of Wisconsin and the nation more generally.

In 1894, Oliver E. Wells, the Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction, published a letter in The Nation condemning University of Wisconsin faculty member Richard T. Ely. Wells wrote, "Ely, director of the School of Economics, differs from Ely the socialist only in the adroit and covert method of his advocacy."4

He raised a concern that "only the careful student will discover their [Ely's teachings] utopian, impracticable, or pernicious doctrines, but their general acceptance would furnish a seeming moral justification of attacks upon life and property such as the country has already become too familiar with."

The Board of Regents at the University of Wisconsin appointed a committee to investigate these charges and held a trial to see if Ely was indeed fomenting labor unrest. Ely's teachings and writings were examined, and the opinions of former students and peers were sought. Ely was eventually cleared of all charges.

Regardless, the investigation indicates the degree to which the administration deterred the advocation of socialist ideals. While he was cleared of charges, Ely would have been fired or otherwise punished if he had been found guilty. A full transcript of the trial, newspaper coverage and Ely's personal correspondence on the subject can be found in History Vault's Richard T. Ely Papers. This documentation provides an excellent lens through which to understand strictures on federally funded education, public discourse on labor and socialism and backlash to progressive reforms.

Public lectures on campus were also fertile ground for complaints. A particularly notable incident came in 1910, when anarchist Emma Goldman spoke on campus. Her speech was also publicized by University of Wisconsin sociology professor Edward A. Ross. Van Hise defended both the allowance of this discussion and Edward A. Ross—despite the fact that he did not personally agree with Goldman's views.

In 1912, Van Hise once again supported academic freedom, this time by supporting Professor Max Otto's right to express atheistic views. Van Hise maintained throughout his presidency that, "I had always followed the policy of giving liberty and holding parties concerned responsible for the exercise of that liberty."5

Academic Freedom and National Security

However, Van Hise's policy of "giving liberty" was not without its limits. Van Hise shared Progressive ideals that meant education should serve policy. During World War I, academic freedom and policy came head to head. In History Vault's Charles R. Van Hise Papers, researchers will find several folders focused on the removal and/or dismissal of professors considered to have pro-German sympathies. National security trumped academic freedom while concerns over German sympathizers raged across the U.S.

The removal of pro-German professors wasn’t the only concern. In fact, some universities considered eliminating – or actually eliminated – entire German language departments in the name of national security and patriotism. Robert Shepherd, a professor at the University of South Dakota, wrote to President Van Hise on the elimination of German language study, as it was eliminated from his University in 1918.

In response, Van Hise wrote, "it seems to me perfectly clear that the study of German language and literature should not be eliminated." His rationale was that, "After the war we shall have the problem of facing the German peace offensive throughout the world. To shut ourselves off from any knowledge of what the Germans are writing and doing would be folly."6

Van Hise's response affirmed the relationship between national security, public education and academic freedom. Van Hise was ordinarily a proponent of academic freedom for the sake of academic freedom itself. During World War I, his response makes clear the degree to which he believed education's purpose was tied to the political interests of the United States.

Issues of national security and academic freedom continue into our present. In fall 2019, the Department of Education told the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies they would cut the program's federal aid unless the program modified their curriculum. In many ways, this incident parallels the changes at the University of Wisconsin during World War I.

Instead of concerns over pro-German attitudes, public administration is concerned over portrayals of the Middle East. Chief among the concerns listed in the letter to the consortium were the portrayal of "the positive aspects" of Islam and the concern that the program was "advancing ideological priorities."7

Particularly telling was the following section of the letter, which focused on academic study for the purpose of national security:

Although a conference focused on "Love and Desire in Modern Iran" and one focused on Middle East film criticism may be relevant in academia, we do not see how these activities support the development of foreign language and international expertise for the benefit of U. S. national security and economic stability.

In academic freedom cases, researching why a topic is banned or defended is usually as interesting as the topic itself.

For a further examination of academic freedom in the Progressive Era—and other issues of social and economic reform—as well as collegiate life in the early 1900s, researchers should examine the most recently released History Vault Module: Progressive Era: Voices of Reform. This module includes correspondence, writings, diaries, photographs, and other records from five Progressive Era leaders: John R. Commons, Charles R. Van Hise, Richard T. Ely, Edward A. Ross, and Charles McCarthy. Researchers may also be interested in History Vault's Progressive Era: Reform, Regulation, and Rights and Progressive Era: Robert M. La Follette Papers modules. Further insight into the lives of Charles R. Van Hise and Richard T. Ely can be found on ProQuest's Ebook Central. Ebook Central includes Benjamin Rader's 2014 book Academic Mind and Reform: The Influence of Richard T. Ely in American Life, Luigi Bradizza’s 2013 book, Richard T. Ely’s Critique of Capitalism, and John Bascom and the Origins of the Wisconsin Idea by J. David Hoeveler.

*Image of Van Hise Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison


  1. Horace Meyer Kallen to Charles R. Van Hise, April 6, 1918, in Charles R. Van Hise Papers, ProQuest History Vault Progressive Era: Voices of Reform, Folder ID: 201705-056-0389-0340 (pgs. 34-35). Available from ProQuest History Vault.
  2. OPPOSE TEACHERS' OATH: EDUCATORS SAY SENATE BILL IS A REFLECTION ON THEIR LOYALTY. (1933, Apr 09). New York Times (1923-Current File). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
  3. Charles R. Van Hise inaugural address, August 12, 1904, in Charles R. Van Hise Papers, ProQuest History Vault Progressive Era: Voices of Reform, Folder ID: 201705-061-0023 (pg. 19). Available from ProQuest History Vault.
  4. Oliver E. Wells in The Nation, in Richard T. Ely Papers, July 12, 1894, ProQuest History Vault Progressive Era: Voices of Reform, Folder ID: 201701-190-0158 (pg. 4). Available from ProQuest History Vault.
  5. Charles R. Van Hise memorandum, in Charles R. Van Hise Papers, January 26, 1916, ProQuest History Vault Progressive Era: Voices of Reform, Folder ID: 201705-044-0530 (pg. 15). Available from ProQuest History Vault.
  6. Charles R. Van Hise to J. W. Shepherd, June 28, 1918, in Charles R. Van Hise Papers, ProQuest History Vault Progressive Era: Voices of Reform, Folder ID: 201705-059-0407 (pg. 73). Available from ProQuest History Vault.
  7. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION ISSUES NOTICE: NOTICE OF A LETTER REGARDING THE DUKE-UNC CONSORTIUM FOR MIDDLE EAST STUDIES. (2019, Sep 18). US Fed News Service, Including US State News. Available from ProQuest Central and ProQuest One Academic.


Jolie McCarty is a History Vault Content Editor. She holds a master's degree from New York University in Gender History and Public History. Based in Bethesda, MD, she can be found browsing indie bookstores' shelves, fostering for local animal rescues and examining the role of women in American history.