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The Learning Conference 2003

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Presentation Details


The Robey Investigation

Rick Gay.

The socio-political climate of the United States shifted markedly in the 1930s, from the pro-business atmosphere of the 1920s to a general suspicion of the free-enterprise system. As a result, business leaders began a national campaign to validate free enterprise as the core of a successful America.

As part of this campaign, The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), alarmed that social science textbooks used in America’s public schools in the 1930s began to take a more critical approach of the free-enterprise system, accused textbook writers of promoting collectivism. Such books were also denounced by the American Legion, the Advertising Federation of America, and the New York State Economic Council.

In December of 1940, the NAM commissioned Ralph W. Robey, Assistant Professor of Banking at Columbia University, to abstract social science textbooks used in public high schools. These abstracts were then to be sent to businessmen in local communities so that they could take action on “any book which, on the basis of the abstracts, seems to [them] to be of questionable merit.” In the course of three months, Robey and three assistants abstracted 563 textbooks, which amounted to 1,200 pages of single-spaced typescript containing over 500,000 words. The investigation received public attention on the front page of the New York Times (February 22, 1941), which included several of the abstracts in addition to Robey’s claim that “a ‘substantial proportion’” of the social science texts currently in use held “in derision or contempt the system of private enterprise.”

Consequently, on February 26, 1941, John E. Wade, Acting Superintendent of Schools in New York City, ordered that all city-adopted textbooks abstracted by Robey and his assistants be investigated, and the American Legion’s Americanism Committee condemned several of the books in Robey’s abstracts as “not suitable for use in our schools since they oppose the American tradition.”


Rick Gay  (United States)
Association Professor of Education
Department of Education
Davidson College

Rick Gay has been teaching for twenty-seven years, eleven in the American Public School system and sixteen in colleges and universities, and has taught classes from remedial reading for thirteen year olds to seminars on John Milton and William Shakespeare. Currently, he is chair of the Department of Education at Davidson College, a highly selective liberal arts college in North Carolina. Although born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Rick considers Portsmouth, Virginia to be his hometown.

  • Educational History
  • Textbooks
  • Business and Education
Person as Subject
  • Robey, Ralph Rugg, Harold

(30 min Conference Paper, English)