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Irving Adler

Irving Adler interview
Irving Adler being pre-interviewed for Dreamers and Fighters by Sophie-Louise Ullman : The NYC Teacher Purges

Upon turning 96, Irving Adler, former Stuyvesant HS math teacher said, "I’m now entering my 97th year. Ninety-seven is a prime number, so you could say, I’m now in my prime." It’s more likely that Mr. Adler’s entire life was lived in prime performance.

In Irving Adler’s words:

Some content is edited and excerpted from Something About the Author, Autobiography
Series (1993) Vol. 15 Gale Research, Inc.

I entered high school at the age of eleven. I was sent to Townsend Harris Hall, the preparatory school for City College. In 1927 I was admitted to City College at the age of fourteen.

In 1931 I began my graduate studies, taking mathematics and physics courses in the daytime at Columbia University and pedagogy courses at City College at night.

That same fall I took the examination for teacher-in-training. Since I had the highest score of those who passed the test, I was appointed to what was considered the best school, Stuyvesant High School, whose student body was selected for superior ability in mathematics and science. The appointment was for a year, at a salary of $4.50 a day. During that year, at the mayor's request, the state legislature cut teachers' salaries six percent. The cut was supposed to apply only to teachers on annual salary. Although teachers-in-training were paid at a daily rate and not an annual rate, the city's lawyers decided that the cut applied to us because we were appointed for a year. So my pay turned out to be $4.23 a day. I asked the Board of Education for permission to take the examination for a regular license because the bylaws of the Board required that candidates for this license be twenty-one years old … I was only eighteen at the time. The Board suspended its bylaws, voted to allow me to take the exam and I was asked if I was available for immediate appointment as a substitute teacher.

Becoming an activist

Peggy Adler
Peggy Adler, daughter of Irving and Ruth Adler, on picket line in front of the Waldorf-Astoria, where there was a testimonial dinner being held for William Jansen, then Superintendent of the New York City Public Schools

For two years I worked as a substitute teacher, substituting for myself. This may sound strange, but it is true. By state law, the Board of Education was required to fill any full-time vacancy with a full-time licensed teacher at an annual salary of $2,100 or more, with fringe benefits such as sick leave, vacation pay, and pension rights. However, in order to save money, the Board ignored the law and used us newly licensed teachers as substitutes, paid only six dollars a day, with no fringe benefits, in the very positions to which we should have been appointed as regular teachers. The Teachers Union, then under right-wing leadership, did not admit substitute teachers to membership and did nothing for us. The leaders of a rank-and-file opposition in the Union, which supported our cause, organized an Unemployed Teachers Association to fight for our rights. I joined this association to participate in the struggle. In 1935 we won a complete victory when the New York State Commissioner of Education, responding to an appeal initiated by the association, ruled that the board must fill full-time vacancies with regular teachers at the prescribed annual salary and with all fringe benefits. Within a few days about fifteen hundred substitute teachers were transformed into regular teachers and became eligible to join the union. The Unemployed Teachers Association disbanded, and its members joined the Union. This added to the strength of the rank-and-file opposition. The old leadership withdrew from the Union and left it in the hands of the rank and file.

In 1932 Hitler came to power in Germany. While government officials here and abroad seemed blind to the menace to peace that he represented, ordinary people like me were concerned. As a sequel to the peace activity I had engaged in through the National Students League, I organized a Teachers Anti-War Committee, with representatives from several teachers organizations and affiliated with the American League Against War and Fascism. Two of its activities were particularly successful. When the state legislature passed a law requiring a "loyalty oath" of teachers, we organized a campaign against the law and countered with a voluntary "Teachers Pledge to Pupils," expressing our dedication to the promotion of pupil welfare. At a later date I wrote a flyer with the slogan "Schools, not Battleships." The Fellowship of Reconciliation purchased several thousand copies and sent them out to its members. The slogan was soon seen on placards in peace demonstrations throughout the country.

Irving Adler and TU
Irving Adler with Teachers Union delegation to Albany in 1930s
with Juliet and Selig Bernstein, Cyril Graze and Norman London

Teaching and Organizing

The Great Depression of the 1930s, besides creating financial problems for the schools, also created a curriculum crisis in the high schools. Because of the high level of unemployment, teenagers who in former years would have gone to work were squeezed out of the labor market. Unable to find work, they poured into the high schools. I turned my attention to this problem and wrote a series of articles for the union's magazine, the New York Teacher, analyzing the implications of this trend for the high school curriculum. Some of the thoughts I expressed in these articles ultimately found their way into one of my books What We Want of Our Schools. The articles established me as one of the union's experts on educational policy. I was made chairman of the union's educational policies committee. As such I became the principal organizer of the union's annual educational conference, with an attendance of about two thousand people, and of the Teachers Union Institute, which gave in-service courses approved by the state department of education.

Steve Adler picketing
Steve Adler, son of Irving and Ruth Adler, on picket line in front of the Waldorf-Astoria, where there was a testimonial dinner being held for William Jansen, then Superintendent of the New York City Public Schools

The changing character of the high school population was forcing changes in the curriculum. Enrollments in vocational subjects were growing rapidly, and academic subjects were in decline. Teachers were advised to qualify for a license in a second subject, so that if no classes were available for them in their first subject they might be assigned to teach the second. I took and passed the examination that qualified me to teach science. I was never assigned to teach science, but I was assigned to teach English one year!

The danger that one subject might be displaced by another in the curriculum threatened to pit one group of teachers against another, each defending its turf. In order to avoid this situation, the teachers who were organized in various subject associations decided to work together. They established a Conference of Subject Associations for Curriculum Change. I was sent to this conference as the representative of the New York Association of Teachers of Mathematics and was elected chairman of the conference. We held a series of dinner meetings in which we discussed our common problems with the associate superintendent in charge of the high schools.

During this period I took the examination for chairman of a mathematics department. I passed and was appointed to Textile High School located in Manhattan. Working in Manhattan opened up some new possibilities for me.  One was that I could resume doing work for the union that required that I be in Manhattan. I was appointed chairman of the salary and legislative committee. In this position I helped to analyze the city and state budgets for education, helped to formulate the union's criticism of these documents, and then lobbied for the union program at the board of education and city hall in New York and at the state capital in Albany. I also organized demonstrations at city hall, where we picketed for a salary increase.

Adler v. the Board of Education

Adler
Irving Adler (Dismissed teacher, mathematician, writer)

In 1947 President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 39835 calling for a loyalty investigation of federal employees. This set off a wave of hysteria that spread to the localities and initiated purges of so-called "subversives" from colleges, public schools, and private industry. In New York City the board of education launched an attack on the teachers' union, first depriving it of the rights accorded to all other teacher organizations and then targeting its leaders for dismissal. One by one, the officers and active members of the union were called in by the superintendent of schools to be asked, "Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" Any who refused to answer the question were dismissed for "insubordination and conduct unbecoming a teacher." I refused to answer the question on the grounds that it was a violation of section 26a of the New York Civil Service Law, which says, "No person shall directly or indirectly ask … the political affiliation of any employee in the civil service of the state or of any civil division or city thereof," and consequently was suspended in 1952 and dismissed in 1954.

The teachers who had been called for questioning initiated a court case challenging the constitutionality of the Feinberg Law, a state law that was being used to justify political inquisitions. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled against us in 1951 in the case now known as Adler v. the Board of Education. In 1967, however, the Supreme Court reversed itself and declared the Feinberg Law unconstitutional. After some further court action I was reinstated in 1977, and my pension rights were restored.

Continuing into Retirement

After Irving’s dismissal from the Board of Education, he continued to write children’s math and science books. The exclusivity the children of NYC had enjoyed when Irving Adler was their teacher broadened to include children around the world when he devoted his time to writing and lecturing fulltime. Irving went on to publish more than seventy-five children's books over the next four decades. He spoke on a five-month university and teacher's convention circuit that took him to New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and India.

Irving’s books have sold over four million copies and they have been translated into nineteen languages, including French, German, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Spanish, and Japanese.

Equally comprehensive, was Irving’s life of participation in and the spearheading of projects that improved the civil liberties of the disenfranchised.

Irving taught at Bennington College, received myriad awards and among them, an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science from St. Michael's College, and in 2002, he attended the commencement exercises for his alma mater, City College of New York, to receive an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, which read in part:

"Teacher, scholar, mathematician, author of over fifty books, and fighter against fascism and for fairness and civil rights. …"

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