Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Textbooks, business pressures, and censorship: Harold Rugg and the Robey investigation

In 1938, Harold Rugg, from Teachers College, Columbia University, published "Man and his changing world," a social science textbook. In spite of its sexist title, it was one of the most progressive textbooks used in schools at the time. It was well received by teachers, to the extent that in the 1930s, near half of the social studies students in the United States were reading Rugg's social science textbook series. The critical approach of this and other textbooks raised the concern of business leaders, who soon launched a crusade to eliminate them from the public schools.

By the end of the decade Rugg's books and several others were condemned by the American Legion, the Advertising Federation of America, and the New York State Economic Council. In 1940, in a speech to the leaders of the oil industry, H.W. Prentis, the President of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), complained that public schools had been invaded by "creeping collectivism" through social science textbooks that undermined youths' beliefs in private enterprise. Immediately afterwards, NAM assumed an active role in the textbook issue by commissioning Ralph Robey, assistant professor of banking at Columbia University, to examine the social sciences textbooks used in public schools. Although NAM's leaders assured that the Robey's reviews were not going to involve appraisals of any kind, in a widely publicized interview with the New York Times Robey charged that many textbooks were too critical of private enterprise.

In spite of their detractor's claims, Rugg's series of social studies textbooks did not promote Marxism; if anything, they advocated liberalism (in the sense of racial understanding, democracy, citizenship and social justice) and Keynesianism (in the sense of national economic planning). Rugg's writings, which also addressed problems related to unemployment, immigration and consumerism, represented the expression of progressive education in the field of textbooks.

After the dissemination of Robey's reviews, despite educators' defense of freedom of expression, some school boards ordered their own investigations and eventually stopped using Rugg's textbooks. In a few communities, the banning of the textbooks was celebrated with public burnings. Business campaigns against Rugg's books were highly successful. In a short period of time, sales of the book decreased by 90%. While in 1938, almost 300,000 copies of Rugg's books were sold, by 1944, the number of copies dropped to 21,000. The Harold Rugg story shows that even when textbooks are successful in the marketplace and widely accepted by schools, they can be eliminated by the pressure of powerful groups.


Fitzgerald, Frances (1979). America revised: History schoolbooks in the twentieth century. Boston: Little & Brown.

Rippa, S. Alexander (1997). Education in a free society: An American history. New York: Longman.

Spring, Joel (1993). Conflict of interests: The politics of American education. New York: Longman.

Prepared by DS (OISE/University of Toronto), 1997

How to cite a moment

DS Home Page     Back to Index     Suggest or Submit a Moment

Website © 1996-2007 Daniel Schugurensky. All Rights Reserved. Design and maintenance by LMS.
Last updated on January 28, 2007.