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4.3 Text

Given the acknowledged importance of the ‘business of self-government’, and the national scope of its ambitions, Denny sought foundation support for ATMA, but found that he was not being taken seriously by the funders of adult education. In 1920, when the League for Political Education first requested Carnegie Corporation funds, it had 6000 members. Carnegie made two grants. In  1921 it gave $25,000 toward the cost of a permanent building to house the club and its activities, and in 1924 it gave $50,000 towards completion of the building. In January 1921 the building opened under the name ‘Town Hall’. In 1937, the League for Political Education changed its name to Town Hall Inc. Several requests for further assistance were made to Carnegie, particularly for support of ATMA. AAAE was consulted, but the eventual reply was that the grants were outside the Corporation’s program. No further Carnegie grants were made to Town Hall, despite repeated requests.1

George Denny wrote to Carnegie Corporation president Frederick P. Keppel on 9 April 1936 to ask for $5000 for a study of Town Hall fan mail to be directed by Hadley Cantril. He wanted academic help to dispel the idea that the radio audience was necessarily of low intelligence. Town Hall had in its files, he said, ‘more than 30, 000 letters from all parts of the United States and several foreign countries’. Furthermore, he wrote, ‘the character of the majority of letters we have received appears to contradict the generally accepted theory concerning the average mental age of the radio audience.’2 But unknown to Denny, the AAAE did not have a high opinion of the social importance of Town Hall’s work. Its director Morse Cartwright wrote to Keppel on 10 January 1936 that he was of the opinion that ‘Mr George Denny is doing an excellent job within certain rather definite limits’:

The enterprise, however, is little more than a lecture centre at present . . . It stimulates a relatively large number of nice people—people, incidentally, who constitute that portion of the population least in need of stimulation and who have the means to secure it elsewhere if it were not supplied by the Town Hall organisation. From the point of view of support, Cartwright advised, ‘it would seem to me that this organization presents only an opportunity to aid the privileged.’ 3

By 1940, Cartwright’s views had if anything hardened. In a letter to Keppel on 4 October 1940, in response to a Town Hall request for $75,000, Cartwright recommended a token grant of $10,000. ‘Much of the Town Hall program that is alleged to be educational’, he wrote, ‘is, in my opinion, pure fluff and showmanship.  Particularly can this charge be leveled at the radio programs which often are badly planned and badly run, in a veritable enthronement of mediocrity and superficiality.’  The Town Hall, he argued, remained ‘an upper-middle class adult educational venture’:

It doesn’t reach down into the population deeply and there isn’t any use in trying to make it do so.  Most adult education grants are aimed in one way or another to supply facilities or to improve existing facilities for the educationally underprivileged.  The Town Hall should be viewed frankly as an effort for the educationally privileged population of New York City—an element that remains undernourished intellectually pretty largely because of its own apathy and lack of outlook.  The Town Hall really serves to overcome some of the disabilities of this group—largely female—but nevertheless important. 4

Cartwright foresaw a threat to the intellectual integrity ATMA did possess—pressure on the program from NBC to secure a commercial sponsor: ‘When Denny and his board succumb to this—as inevitably they will’, he wrote, ‘the radio program will lose its independence, the confidence and interest of the public will wane, and this phase of the Town Hall’s activities will be over. The loss will not be so great as some people now would imagine.’ Cartwright’s judgments were harsh, but he did raise an important question about Town Hall and ATMA’s social reach.

1 Box 200, Carnegie Corporation papers, Rare Book and Manuscriptcollections, Columbia University Library.
2 Box 200, Carnegie Corporation papers.
3 Box 200, Carnegie Corporation papers.
4 Box 349, Carnegie Corporation papers.

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