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Floodwood's Past Culture Wars
Today's culture wars were foretold in tiny Floodwood, Minn., more than 70 years ago

How a book about an education experiment in Minnesota decades ago foretold today's culture wars. 

By John Reinan Star Tribune  OCTOBER 18, 2017 — 2:46PM

Government health care. Racial equality. Income disparity.

They’re familiar battles in 2017. But not so familiar seven decades ago.

Yet many seeds of today’s culture wars were sown in an unlikely place and time: a Finnish farming community in rural Minnesota at the height of World War II.

Though the global conflict still raged, it was becoming clear by 1944 that the United States and its allies would win. But what kind of world would we live in when the cataclysm ended?

The question was on many minds, including that of Theodore Brameld, an energetic, idealistic — many would say left-wing — education professor at the University of Minnesota.

Forty miles west of Duluth, in the town of Floodwood (pop. 570), Brameld conducted an experiment that one academic called “the first example of educational futurism.”

Brameld challenged the entire junior and senior classes at Floodwood High School — 51 students in all — to create a blueprint for the future, to envision the postwar world they’d lead.

For four months in the spring of 1944, for two hours a day, they studied an intensive curriculum that pushed them to draw conclusions about government, society and how America could make its way in the new world.

These rural Minnesota kids, many of them from immigrant homes, came out in favor of radical ideas like national health care and supported a national public works program, public ownership of natural resources, eliminating the poll tax and lowering the voting age.

Brameld published the conclusions of the Floodwood project in a book, “Design for America” — a thin, rather dry academic summary. After its publication — years before the red-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy burst on the scene — Brameld’s book would become the center of a controversy stirred by the National Council for American Education, a right-wing lobbying organization.

Calling the project an attempt to “indoctrin[ate] high school students with collectivist and anti-American ideology,” the council launched a national campaign against the book, its author and the students.

One of those students was my mother.

The Finns were on board

Brameld chose fertile ground for his experiment. Floodwood was largely settled by Finns, who were widely known for their liberal views.

Many were poor farmers who had formed cooperative organizations to market their produce. Mayor Sanfrid Ruohoniemi — my grandfather — was calling for government ownership of the town’s utilities. And the weekly Floodwood Forum editorialized strongly in favor of international cooperation in the postwar world.

“Brameld was using Floodwood to show that issues and social ideology could be dealt with through a level of discourse that would allow students to explore and decide for themselves,” said Craig Kridel, an emeritus professor of education at the University of South Carolina who has studied Brameld’s work.

Brameld was a rising star in the academic world, and the Floodwood project would give him an important calling card. He didn’t rig the results of his experiment, Kridel said, but he definitely picked a favorable laboratory.

“He knew that there was a very strong Finnish socialist tradition in Floodwood,” Kridel said. “He felt it was a community that would resonate with the ideas.”

Brameld also pioneered a philosophy of education he called “reconstructionism” — the idea that schools could lead the way in reconstructing society with reasoned self-examination.

“Brameld believed that was the point of schools — to be a meeting ground to explore ideas in an open way,” Kridel said.

My mother, Ann Ruohoniemi, grew up in a Finnish immigrant household and didn’t speak English until she went to school. She was a junior at the time of Brameld’s experiment; her name appears in the book’s acknowledgments, along with the other 50 students who took part — names like Matalamaki, Perkkio and Karkiainen.

Yet I never heard her mention “Design for America” or her part in it. She died young, at 46, when I was about the same age she was during Brameld’s experiment. I only happened to learn about the Floodwood project when I found articles about it in some old clipping files the Star Tribune was disposing of after digitizing its news archive.

‘Collectivist, anti-American’

The letter to the editor of the Minneapolis Star got straight to the point:

“I wonder how many of us know that our state university, supported by taxes, is engaged in teaching socialism and communism to our youth?”

That note from a Minneapolis reader kicked off a commotion that kept university officials scrambling to defend themselves for years afterward, generating what U of M President J.L. Morrill called “nasty and damaging publicity.”

The National Council for American Education had discovered “Design for America.” In 1948 — four years after the Floodwood project and three years after publication of Brameld’s book — the council sent a two-page flier denouncing the project to its national mailing list.

Soon, the university was getting letters from powerful figures across the country — corporate executives, legislators and politicians, including former Minnesota Gov. Harold Stassen, who was then president of the University of Pennsylvania.

They asked how the university had gotten itself involved with “teaching American youth that Communism and Socialism offer a way of life superior to our American system,” as the flier put it.

As the controversy roiled, Morrill strongly supported the university’s right to academic inquiry.

“The fact is that if we had the kind of university in which only our views, yours and mine, were held or expressed, it would be no good really as a university at all,” Morrill wrote to Richard Griggs, a member of the university’s Board of Regents.

But Morrill also was careful to distance himself from Brameld, who by then had left the U for New York University.

Brameld himself wrote a fiery response in the Minneapolis Star, denouncing the “smear-sheet” published by “a group of notorious native fascists of the kind who were driven into their holes during the war.”

The debate continues

In 1976, Kridel, then a young teaching associate, sent a survey to the Floodwood students who had taken part in “Design for America.” Nineteen of the 51 responded. (My mother wasn’t among them.) Their responses were mixed.

The project “gave me a more complete understanding of being involved,” one student wrote.

“I think the project stunk and was a complete waste of time and education,” said another.

“Taught us how to judge for ourselves — by studying facts as we saw them, rather than being told!” wrote a third.

Addressing perhaps the crucial question in the Floodwood controversy, Kridel asked the former students if they felt they had been “indoctrinated” by the project. Three said yes and two didn’t respond; 14 said no.

Some 70 years after the students of Floodwood created their blueprint for the future, debates over what America should look like still rage. And topics like government health care, racial equality and income disparity are just as polarizing.

The Floodwood project itself lives on only in dusty files at the U of M archives and in a copy of “Design for America” at the Minneapolis public library.

It hasn’t been checked out since 1962.