1919, Americanism, conscientious objection, critical thinking, dismissal, schoolteacher, Seattle, Selective Service Act, World War I
Here’s another nugget I uncovered while researching my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.
In late February 1919, the Seattle Times reported that someone had run an advertisement attacking a West Seattle High School history teacher for being a “Hun” and “un-American.” The first charge almost certainly stemmed from ignorance concerning his name; he was Swiss, not German. As for his “Americanism,” he had declined to salute the flag, a refusal he ascribed to the ceremony itself, and which he’d later recanted.
However, he was also an avowed conscientious objector; his enemies said he “fed ideas” to his classes.
A blind poll among his ninety or so students showed a twenty-to-one margin of support. Nevertheless, the school board fired him, saying that they couldn’t have a conscientious objector as a teacher; what if everyone had been a conscientious objector when the nation declared war?
The newspaper reports leave much unsaid, as they always do. But you sense that the teacher’s real crime was encouraging his students to think critically, which the vast majority of them appreciated.
What’s more, according to the Selective Service Act of 1917 and its revisions, he’d most likely done nothing wrong. If he’d passed his thirtieth birthday, he wouldn’t have had to register for the draft until mid-September 1918, and not at all if he’d reached the age of forty-five. Further, failing to register would have attracted attention and left him open to punishment, yet the newspaper reports said nothing about this. Finally, the act did allow for conscientious objection, though only on religious grounds.
Consequently, I’m guessing this teacher’s viewpoint was entirely theoretical, maybe spoken of in class to spark discussion. With nothing else to hang him for, his enemies fixed on it, and the school board went along.
So much for academic freedom and the war to make the world safe for democracy.