‘Schools? Education? Nerts! I’ve had enough! Teachers and professors? Take ‘em away!’[1]

That was the recruitment pitch to young American men to join the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the Great Depression. The CCC was a novel United States federal work relief programme that enrolled nearly three million men during the 1930s and early-1940s that we use as a case study of the ways that masculine, eugenicists ideas about public education evolved from the Progressive Era through the Great Depression in American education. The CCC’s educational vision was articulated by a small group of men–some educators, some not–who sought to remedy what they saw as the failures of public schooling, namely its overly feminine nature. In our article, ‘Conserving the American Man: Gender, Eugenics, and Education in the Civilian Conservation Corps’ we analyse CCC publications and images as historical and cultural texts and critique the programme’s vision of education for white working-class men that sought to reengineer society while simultaneously reengineering the landscape. 

The CCC started in 1933 and largely consisted of residential camps for men to conduct environmental conservation work jointly sponsored by the Department of War, Department Labor, Department of Agriculture, and the Department of the Interior. Enrollment was limited to men ages 18-25 who could not find employment, At first, the CCC was not intended to have a formal educational function but serve solely as an employment programme providing valuable public works. However, as the first waves of young men entered the camps, their supervisors were troubled by the perceived poor level of education among enrollees and, in many but not all camps, began to offer a variety of academic and vocational classes. The solution was to recruit the Office of Education to manage the educational work in CCC camps, which, in turn, quickly created a thin, makeshift bureaucracy to install educational programmes in CCC camps on a national scale.  

The Office of Education convened an advisory board, which developed a basic plan for immediate implementation: each camp would have a dedicated education space, preferably a building, an education advisor, and a small library. The board then tapped two men to articulate, document and publicize the CCC’s educational endeavors. They asked Ned Dearborn to produce a monograph intended for the public, Once in a Lifetime, which was addressed to young men considering enrolling in the camp, and includes a long, detailed presentation of CCC educational practices, philosophies, and ideals. At the same time, Frank Hill as tasked with supervising and writing the study, The School in the Camps, which researched educational initiatives in the camps nationally and highlighted the most effective approaches.

In these tracts, Hill and Dearborn invoked the discourse of fear around the feminization of the teaching profession and the poor fit that co-educational schools had become for American young men. They promised ‘the sort of school you can like’ to draw in both disgruntled dropouts and male teachers fed up with the ‘over feminized’ circumstances in their schools. They crafted this vision allusions to the Progressive Era conservation movement and the promise of restoring men’s masculinity through work in nature.  heir educational plans focused on preparing young men for their place in the American economy, but not for moving up the social strata.  

Dearborn framed the curriculum in CCC programs as intentionally different from ‘The Old Schools’, offering that ‘no one will require you to study or to join a class. No one will outline a program of courses’ and hand it down to you. No one will even ask you to learn anything in the usual school way’.[2]  Dearborn exhorted, ‘The Old School. Remember the school that tried to make you study things and do things you didn’t like? You had to go, whether you wanted to or not. There was a compulsory school-attendance law. You had to take certain subjects, whether you liked them or not’.[3]  This ‘new deal in learning’ was designed to be thoroughly student-centered, providing enrollees offerings in ‘arts and crafts, vocational training, or recreational activities’.[4]  

Hill argued that ‘As for the C.C.C.…it might become a method for training young men dissatisfied with the public schools, who could combine work experience and study in the process of carrying out useful public works projects’.[5]  Hill also emphasized the uniqueness of the teachers employed by the CCC. ‘The teachers in the C.C.C. are as interesting as the method. The maleness of the C.C.C. faculty is one unusual characteristic…A student must after all find his instructor a person he respects, admires, and can work with.  The adolescent boy, physically bigger than his woman preceptor, instinctively realistic, and vaguely impatient of attitudes he may find uncongenial and irritating, frequently goes “sour” on school because of the person form in which he encounters it.’ In the C.C.C., he meets a man, often physically as well as mentally his superior, and one with whom a social relationship can be simple and natural’.[6]

“Spirit of CCC” poster by Harry Rossoll

Both Dearborn and Hill emphasized masculinity and nature in their discourse as they wrote to CCC ‘enrollees’. They focused on promoting the interests of enrollees as long as those interests focused on practical aims or the “simple life”. They were cultivating ‘natural’, ‘simple’, and masculine as mutually reinforcing concepts of appropriate education for a large segment of young white men. Our research suggests that the CCC, in its argument for alternative, male-centered education focused on preparing enrollees for a working-class station in the economy, was a precursor for the life adjustment curriculum. 

While there was a connection between the CCC and positive eugenic thinking, New Dealers saw the variety of white ethnic groups as redeemable and potentially beneficial to society, rather than as ‘degenerates’.  That redemption would come through conservation work, which drew a parallel between reengineering the American landscape and reengineering ethnic white men as both essential to the survival of the United States during the Great Depression. However, similar to eugenicists, New Dealers, including Hill and Dearborn, believed that there was a limit to the progress that the enrollees would or should make. One of the major goals of the CCC camps, and in this case the education program within the camps, was to bring an ethnically diverse group of working-class men together and educate them outside the public schools into white working class Americans who would be ready to take their proper place in the American economy. 

This goal was pursued openly outside of the bureaucratic structures of the public school system. Though still relatively new, the United States’ compulsory public schooling system already entailed many layers of governance with high degrees of local control distributed across the country.  The decentralized, bureaucratic organization of American schooling served as a buffer against major reforms, whether wise or ill-conceived. Dearborn and Hill sought to provide an alternative educational program to combat what they saw as the over-feminization of the institutions within the policies and structures of formal schooling. They promoted a vision of schooling riddled with eugenic and misogynistic thinking by stepping into a newly created educational space in the form of the CCC. With national publicity, the program was brought to nearly 3 million men over eight years and endorsed with the weight of the United States government. In the history of American public schooling, this may appear as a brief interlude, yet provides a clear view of ideas woven deep into the institutions’ fabric.

Charles Tocci is an assistant professor of education and program coordinator for the secondary social studies education program at Loyola University Chicago.

Ann Marie Ryan is professor of education and chair of the Department of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

[1] Ned H. Dearborn, Once in a Lifetime: A Guide to the CCC Camp (New York: Merrill Company, 1936), 17.

[2] Ibid., 14.

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] Ibid., 14.

[5] Frank H. Hill, The School in the Camps: The Educational Program of the Civilian Conservation Corps (New York: Merrill Company, 1935), 2.

[6] Ibid., 83.