Ateacher who expects rote learning is like a master who “teaches his dog to sit up and beg,” said the educator Elisabeth Irwin. Children, she believed, must learn to think for themselves, at their own pace.
After graduating from Smith College around the turn of the 20th century, Irwin returned to her native New York, where she opened a private school on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village known as the Little Red School House.
From its establishment in the 1930s, Little Red (as the school is still known) became home to the children of some of New York’s most notable artists and activists. Arthur Miller sent his offspring there, as did Woody Guthrie. The sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were sentenced to death for political espionage, attended as well.
Author Dina Hampton went to Little Red in the 1970s and later became the school’s alumni director. In her first book, “Little Red: Three Passionate Lives Through the Sixties and Beyond,” she identifies three graduates of Little Red and its affiliated Elisabeth Irwin High School who have embodied Irwin’s ideals. Little Red would be “a place where ideas can grow, where heresy will be looked upon as possible truth,” wrote the founder.
In very different ways, Tom Hurwitz, Angela Davis, and Elliott Abrams have spent their lives putting that notion to the test.
Hurwitz was a student radical in the 1960s, a leader of the Columbia University protest of 1968 who later became a documentary cinematographer. Davis is the professor and activist whose fierce defense of socialism, prisoners’ rights, and other issues have made her a lifelong icon of far-left thinking. But out of the liberal incubator of the aptly named Little Red, it was Abrams who emerged as the real heretic to his left-leaning alma mater — the neoconservative who played key foreign policy roles in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations.
Hurwitz and Abrams were classmates (and natural debating foes), graduating together from Elisabeth Irwin in 1965; Davis is a few years older (class of ’61). They’ve had little if any interaction since, so Hampton’s story is by necessity one of parallels, shifting from a key period in one subject’s life to the next. While Hurwitz’s role in the student occupation at Columbia gets a long look, it’s Davis’s years in the international spotlight during the radical early 1970s and Abrams’s embroilment in the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan years that bookend the almost absurdly broad range of Little Red’s influence.
Davis, who went to Brandeis University after graduating from high school, found her voice after the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala. She’d grown up there before heading to New York to live with a host family while attending Little Red. One of the four girls killed in the bombing had been her sister’s best friend.
Abrams, meanwhile, who was raised a Democrat but grew to abhor the party’s left wing, brought his appetite for spirited debate to Harvard. To him, the follies of his generation’s countercultural movement were apparent in the university’s dress code. When he arrived in late 1965, Harvard men still wore a coat and tie to meals. In his sophomore year, the rules were relaxed “so you could go to breakfast looking like a bum,” he recalled. By senior year, there was no dress code for lunch or dinner, either.
“It looked like ‘Animal House,’ ” he said.
Davis and Abrams have each written books of their own, and it seems clear that the author had more direct access to Hurwitz. His story includes a poignant chapter in which he attended the Academy Awards as part of a team of nominees. It was the same year the Academy honored Elia Kazan, the legendary director who infamously “named names” during the height of Communist blacklisting — including Hurwitz’s own filmmaker father, Leo, whose career was severely restricted as a result. One of Kazan’s presenters was Robert De Niro, himself a Little Red graduate.
The school, Hampton suggests, taught Davis, Abrams, and Hurwitz, each in their own way, about belonging and betrayal. Davis had to reconcile the fact that she was a black student in a predominantly Jewish classroom; Abrams, that his peers could make his own liberal upbringing seem reactionary; and Hurwitz that even fellow travelers could become nemeses.
As a window into the extremes of the liberal ideals that made the ’60s and the social and political convulsions that have followed, “Little Red” is an instructive read. The author certainly could have used some more editing help — typographical errors are dismayingly rampant, and the poet Hart Crane is referred to in the initial hardcover printing as “Crane Hart.” Still, for students of America’s culture wars, the book leaves room to think for oneself.James Sullivan is the author of four books, including “Seven Dirty Words: The Life and Crimes of George Carlin.” He can be reached at jamesgsullivan@