Johnson, Alvin

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Johnson, Alvin



Alvin Johnson has a place in the social sciences as an encyclopedic scholar, an innovator in adult education, and an outstanding writer and humanist.

He was born in December 1874 on a farm in Nebraska. His father, Jens Jensen Deyrup, had changed his name to John Johnson at the suggestion of an immigration officer when he arrived in the United States from his native Denmark. His mother had also emigrated from Denmark; her parents were members of the Danish aristocracy. It was probably of lasting influence on Johnson that he was the son of a pioneer farmer and of a mother who had intellectual ambitions for her son. He managed his father’s farm from his thirteenth to his eighteenth year but while on the farm studied science and Latin. After a year’s premedical course at the University of Nebraska, he changed to the classics, with particular emphasis on languages, and he taught Greek at the same university for one year.

When the Spanish-American War broke out he enlisted, and his appalling experiences in a military camp quickened his awareness of social problems. After his discharge he began to study economics and political science at Columbia University, where he came under the influence particularly of John Bates Clark and Edwin R. A. Seligman.

Johnson thereafter held a number of academic positions in economics at various universities and colleges, including Bryn Mawr, Columbia, Nebraska, Texas, Chicago, Stanford, and Cornell.

As a scholar, Johnson described himself as an “exile from the world of the classics—to the fields of economics and politics” (1952). Nevertheless, some of his essays are a direct outgrowth of his intimate familiarity with the languages and life of ancient societies. An example is the delightful article “Cleopatra and the Roman Chamber of Commerce” (1949a) and also the moving plea for a new “social democracy” in his “Faith of a Skeptic” ([1949b] 1954, p. 178–191).

In economics, Johnson might be characterized as a neoclassicist with strong social and institutional undertones. Articles written several decades ago dealing with the relationship between ethics and economics, or with intangible investments and technological unemployment, are still very timely. The early papers on economics show the promise of an original theoretician. However, Johnson responded to the challenges of a revolutionary age and applied most of his energies in his later life to his tasks as publicist, educator, and organizer in the social sciences.

In 1917 he joined Herbert Croly, Walter Lipp-mann, and others as a staff member of the New Republic.

At the end of World War I Johnson was one of a group of liberals who began to deliberate the desirability of establishing an academic institution wholly independent of academic accreditation and degrees. This group was joined by some outstanding men from Columbia University, including Charles A. Beard, Wesley Mitchell, and James Harvey Robinson, who left Columbia partly because of a conflict over an issue of academic freedom. They established the New School for Social Research in New York City in 1919. When the New School got into difficulties after a few years, Johnson was asked to take over the active directorship in 1922, and he molded the school into an institution for adult education. Previous schools for adult education were either on an elementary level or had a decided focus on techno-logical and professional improvement. The New School was probably the first institution in America designed to enable mature adults to deal with the intellectual challenges of the time. The emphasis of the school was on the social sciences, but an effort was made to integrate the social sciences with other disciplines and to incorporate the various arts into the curriculum.

In 1929 Johnson took on the additional burden of associate editorship of the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, with Seligman as editor in chief. Seligman conducted all external relations with foundations and other domestic and foreign organizations, while Johnson primarily directed the staff work. He became, indeed, the main architect and the guiding force of that ambitious project which, as its founders expressed it, sought to achieve a “comprehensive synthesis” of the separate social sciences. While this ideal could not be fully attained, the Encyclopaedia under Johnson’s direction did achieve an impressive degree of coherence among the several elements of the social sciences, which were defined by Seligman as “those mental or cultural sciences which deal with the activities of the individual as a member of a group” (1930, vol. 1, p. 3). Whatever merits or defects this comprehensive definition had, it was largely the imprint of Johnson’s broad vision which brought about a work characterized by Irving Dilliard as “the United States’ most distinguished contribution to international scholarship” (1954/1955, p. 93). At Johnson’s instigation, and as the result of the subsequent efforts of many other scholars, the present encyclopedia came to be prepared.

The vitality and the creative force with which Johnson had endowed both the New School and the Encyclopaedia were applied to a new purpose in 1933. When the Nazis came to power in Germany, the lives and the creative work of many scholars were menaced. Johnson sensed earlier than others that Nazism was a threat not only to individuals but also to the values of European academic life as such. He took prompt action with plans for a “university in exile,” not only to save lives and offer work opportunities for individuals but also as a means of preserving at least a nucleus of the kind of free scholarship that had flourished at the German universities. He also anticipated that the quality of intellectual life in the United States would gain by the establishment of an academic institution of this kind. With the New School as a base of operation, financial support was soon mobilized and, through connections with European scholars already established by the Encyclopaedia, the initial faculty of the “university in exile” was selected and recruited. The faculty became, officially, the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science of the New School for Social Research. Later, Johnson was instrumental in bringing to the United States scholars from Italy, Austria, France, and other countries in which academic freedom had been suppressed by dictatorial regimes.

It may be that Johnson’s most significant contribution to the social sciences was his success in mobilizing domestic and foreign talents and developing the New School into a center of intellectual and artistic pursuits, both on the level of general adult education and of graduate and postgraduate study. The graduate faculty in itself has become one of the largest graduate schools specializing in the social sciences. Johnson was also the founder and for many years the editor of the journal Social Research, which published much of the work of members of the graduate faculty at the New School and also served as a link between the New School and American scholarship in general.

Johnson’s many other activities included travels as an economic expert for the U.S. Reclamation Service, the establishment of experimental agricultural settlements for refugees in North Carolina, and an assignment from the governor of New York to formulate laws and procedures to prevent discriminatory practices in that state.

Johnson’s contributions to the social sciences received recognition in the form of many honors. He was elected president of the American Economic Association in 1936 and received honorary degrees from several American and foreign universities (including Heidelberg). He was also honored by several foreign governments for his role in safe-guarding European scholarship.

Besides his activities as an economist, editor, and organizer of adult education, Johnson had time for belletristic writings: he wrote several novels and, with particular success, many short stories. Some of these fictional writings and also his autobiography are a very real addition to the social history of the midwestern United States. Beyond these manifold contributions to the social sciences in the broadest meaning of the concept is the impact Johnson has made as a great humanitarian.

Gerhard Colm

[See alsothe biography of Seligman, Edwin R. A.]


1903 Rent in Modern Economic Theory: An Essay in Distribution. New York: Macmillan; London: Sonnenschein.

(1905–1949) 1954 Essays in Social Economics. Albany: Boyd. → A selection of articles published by Alvin Johnson and presented to him on the occasion of his eightieth birthday by the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science of the New School for Social Research.

(1909) 1922 Introduction to Economics. Rev. ed. Boston: Heath.

1914 The Professor and the Petticoat. New York: Dodd. → A satirical novel.

1919 John Stuyvesant Ancestor, and Other People. New York: Harcourt. → Sketches and short stories, many of which first appeared in the New Republic.

1934 Deliver Us From Dogma. New York: American Association for Adult Education.

1936a Spring Storm. New York: Knopf.

1936b Andrew Carnegie: Educator. Journal of Adult Education 8:5–9.

1938 The Public Library: A People’s University. New York: American Association for Adult Education.

1945 Liberal Education: Fact and Fiction. New York: New School for Social Research.

1946 The Clock of History. New York: Norton.

1949a Cleopatra and the Roman Chamber of Commerce. American Scholar 18:417–424.

(1949b) 1954 Faith of a Skeptic. Pages 178–191 in Alvin Johnson, Essays in Social Economics. Albany: Boyd.

1952 Pioneer’s Progress: An Autobiography. New York: Viking. → A paperback edition was published in 1960 by the University of Nebraska Press.

1961 The Battle of the Wild Turkey, and Other Tales. New York: Atheneum.

1962 Ideas Are High Explosives: A Selection of Editorials From the “New School Bulletin,” 1945–1961. New York: Privately printed.

1963 A Touch of Color, and Other Tales. New York: Atheneum.

1965 New World for Old. New York: Privately published.


Dilliard, Irving 1954/1955 Portrait: Alvin S. Johnson. American Scholar 24:88–95.

Seligman, Edwin R. A. 1930 What Are the Social Sciences? Volume 1, pages 3–7 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

U.S. Bureau OF Reclamation 1929 Economic Problems of Reclamation: Economic Aspects of Certain Reclamation Projects. Washington: Government Printing Office.

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