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Education Last Updated: Sep 8th, 2009 - 08:07:52

Sam Brightman: Pioneer Adult Education Journalist

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John Ohliger

This profile is adapted from a talk presented by the author at the Tenth Anniversary celebration of the Older Adult Program at Oakton Community College, Skokie, Illinois, October 12, 1992; and at the Syracuse University Kellogg Project Fourth Visiting Scholar Conference in the History of Adult Education, March 14-18, 1993. The author wants to thank David Brightman for making available copies of his helpful interviews with his father as well as copies of the memorial service and Jerry Apps, David Brightman, Lucy Brightman, Alex Charters, Ed Dobmeyer, Bill Draves, Leona Hoelting, Ira Shor, Hamilton Stillwell, Milton Stern, and Chris Wagner for their comments and suggestions on earlier versions.

Unique, incorrigible, invaluable, embarrassing, person of hope, registered Democrat, political agnostic, radical, conservative, liberal, redneck, The General, curmudgeon, funny man, stands up for what he says, totally outrageous, partially fallen-away Episcopalian, grouchy resister of progress, proud grandpa, shrewd, constantly challenging others -- These are some of the labels attached to Samuel C. Brightman, a few by Sam himself.

Adult & Continuing Education Today is the field's only independent, non-
academic newsletter. Sam Brightman is its founding editor. Sam successfully combines persuasive arguments for improving education and all of society with a wonderful sense of humor. His overarching message is "Grown-Ups Oughta Know Better." He says "The primary purpose of education is to enable us to govern ourselves with wisdom, equity, and noble purpose. Telling you and me what THEY don't tell us should be what adult education is all about." Many call him the "Edward R. Murrow of adult ed." In fact, he pioneered adult education journalism. Sam is the first, and still is the only, journalist to devote full-time to covering adult education! (I didn't discover till recently that Sam's work on adult education was moonlighting. His full time job, his son David recently informed me, was with the senior citizens' group mentioned below.)

Someday, the true story of this crazy century will start to come out. Historians will then turn to Sam's work, I believe. There they will find out what went on in a very important ingredient of the 20th century -- adult education. Why focus on adult education? Why turn to Sam?

First, here's what some people are not aware of: Adult education programs now command more dollars and more personnel than do all other education programs combined -- elementary, secondary, and higher.

Why study what Sam wrote? This is the tribute from America's best-known adult educator, Malcolm Knowles: "Sam Brightman's contribution to the literature of our field had a special value. It conveyed what 'real' people were perceiving about us."

This brief chronicle of Sam's life will flow mainly from his own words and those of his colleagues. I'll try to follow his own caution: "Keep your words short and sweet, because you never know when you have to eat them."

People from his generation were born into a different world, one more stable and more tradition enriched than our own. Sam writes: "I was born June 22nd, 1911 in Lancaster, Missouri in the same house that my father was born in. My grandfather had died from wounds he received in the Civil War. It
was a common experience for people my age to hear first-hand from their grandfathers about that war."

Sam was raised in Missouri and attended college there, earning degrees in liberal arts from Washington University in St. Louis and in journalism from the University of Missouri.

In college his sense of humor found its first flowering. He says:

"I edited a would-be college humor magazine, The Washington University Dirge. I sold it in off-campus newsstands, the last fiscal success in my career. Very few people have been editors of college humor magazines in separate universities in consecutive years. A guy threatened to beat me up for something that was in the University of Missouri Show Me."

Sam continues:

"It wasn't until I finished college and went to work on a newspaper it dawned on me there was an upper, a middle, and a working class. I hadn't received any realistic instruction in five years of college about class warfare in the United States. In 1933, FDR's New Deal was getting under way. Headlines called strikes and union organization "class warfare," whenever warfare was conducted, as it had been for years, by the rich upper class against the working class. The middle class, I decided, was the innocent bystander, usually the hapless victim of most struggles."

Sam is no Marxist, far from it! He is not an ideologue of any flavor. He doesn't form his opinions by following some recipe. Instead, he tastes each situation with gusto; then brews his own trenchant conclusions and mixes in a twist of wry, humor that is.

During the early and mid-1930s he worked for the St. Louis Star-Times, for a radio station owned by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and for the Cincinnati Post.

While with the Cincinnati paper he had his first contact with adult education. As he tells it:

"I was in charge of an edition of The Cincinnati Post sold in small towns. Out of the blue I began to get a basketful of letters applying for jobs as stringer correspondents for The Post. Most were written with blunt pencils on lined tablet paper. They abounded with errors in grammar and punctuation. All of them said they had completed a mail order course in journalism. I found out that some months earlier a salesman had gone through the territory selling mail order courses with utter disregard for the ability of his customers to gain the skills necessary to get a job on a newspaper. The Post had no interest in an expose series on this ripoff. Every law enforcement agency I talked with said it was not their problem. On my own time and using my own postage I wrote as sympathetic a letter as I could to each of those victims. I tried to warn them against being fleeced by any other correspondence school salesmen. And I tried to make them feel that it was good and not stupid to try to learn new skills. To this day I feel sick at heart when I see a TV commercial that promises to train high school dropouts for a rewarding career in computer training. I wince sometimes when I read the claims in adult and continuing education catalogs. Hyperbole can be a lethal weapon when used against the innocent and the ignorant."

Well, as Sam says: "I was probably a little smart-alecky then. Anyhow, I started looking for a job, and I got one at the Louisville Courier-Journal. Eventually, they sent me to Washington in the summer of 1941."

He continues:

"I had taken a leave of absence and spent the summer of 1939 in Europe -- they had me do a series of articles. The invasion started while I was on the ship coming back. Going from Poland to Rotterdam, we had seen the invaders coming up the Polish border. After the Courier-Journal sent me to Washington, they didn't want to send me over to Europe as a war correspondent, so I enlisted in the Army as a private, at $21.00 a month. Following Officers' Candidate School, I trained recruits. Then I went overseas."

Sam served overseas with the 18th Infantry of the 1st Division, landing in Normandy on D Day as press officer and entering Berlin with U.S. Occupation troops. According to The New York Times, Brightman "helped run press operations. He won two Bronze Stars. He coordinated coverage of the liberation of Paris."

In the best-seller written about this liberation, Is Paris Burning? we read:

"Lieutenant Sam Brightman stared at the sodden mass of humanity packing the streets of Rambouillet, 30 miles from Paris. Tanks, jeeps, trucks, French soldiers, GIs, reporters, and plain Frenchmen jammed together outside his window in the restaurant of the Grand Veneur Hotel in Rambouillet. 'The only thing they need is de Gaulle,' Brightman thought, 'and the Germans will have their best goddamned target since D Day.' Brightman at least had a smile on his face. At his elbow was a treasure rare in this town whose already spare cupboards had been stripped bare by its friendly American invaders. It was a cold bottle of Riesling wine. Now the pretty waitress of the Grand Veneur was bringing him a plate of warmed-up C rations to go with it. At the moment she reached the table, she gasped and dropped the plate of C rations, knocking over Brightman's bottle. As Brightman watched his precious wine sloshing to the floor, she stood transfixed, staring out of the window with tears in her eyes, repeating over and over the words 'de Gaulle, de Gaulle, de Gaulle.' Charles de Gaulle had indeed just arrived in Rambouillet."

Obviously, the Second World War is a very important part of Sam's life. But later he writes: "It takes a kind of quiet courage to espouse negotiation instead of bloodshed, to point out that war is not an efficient way of settling differences."

After the war he worked for two years with the federal government in the Surplus Property Administration and with the Housing Expediter. Then he returned briefly to the Louisville Courier-Journal. In 1947 he started doing publicity work in Washington for the Democratic National Committee. He became the committee's head of Public Relations and Research in 1957. He also edited the Democratic Digest, the first popular magazine ever published by a major political party. Of the Democratic Digest, a longtime colleague said: "It was funny, often irreverent, very tough, and a marvelous source of information."

In 1965 he left the Democratic National Committee to become a free-lance writer. His articles appeared in TV Guide, The Nation, Broadcasting, Monocle, on the op-ed page of The New York Times, and in A Treasury of American Political Humor. He also worked as a consultant on national political conventions and election returns for the ABC and CBS networks.

According to Sam, at this point in his early 50s he was going through "a midlife crisis. A pioneer, I had my midlife crisis before they were popular. Before it, I ate steaks for lunch. My midlife crisis led me to find salvation in adult and continuing education and whole grain cereals. It's a good thing I left politics while I still had a liver."

In 1971 he became the founding editor of Adult & Continuing Education Today. It's impossible to capsulize his 20 years of editing and writing for that newsletter. There are many, many thousands of words. I've read most of them. Much of the time he did straight reporting: news of programs, crises in funding, changes in personnel, and so forth. Also he was active in promoting the Coalition of Adult Education Organizations, serving on the Board of Directors of the CAEO. He was honored at a luncheon of the 1985 National Adult Education Conference in Milwaukee, hosted by the "Former Friends of Sam Brightman," and at a CAEO luncheon in 1991 on the occasion of his 80th birthday. I'll present a few examples from his vast outpouring.

On his general approach, he writes:

"The National Advisory Council on Adult Education commissioned me to go around the country interviewing persons rescued from poverty and drudgery by some form of adult ed. I was less interested in what academic credits these people had gathered than in how education had changed their lives. I deemed it as great a victory for adult ed that it had enabled a young wife in Kentucky to divorce a bullying husband and control her life as it had in enabling a veteran of the Bataan Death March in World War II to acquire a doctorate and become a professor."

On aging: Sam was not perfect. He would have been the second to admit it. His own children called him "The General," affectionately. He could poke fun and people could misinterpret his humorous sallies.

I noticed this article in a July 1992 issue of Adult & Continuing Education Today:

"Older adults are coming to computer classes. Classes specifically targeted to older learners are generating healthy enrollments. At Oakton Community College in Skokie, Illinois, the Introduction to Microcomputers class regularly generates 12 to 15 enrollments of people over 50."

That 1992 article reminded me of a letter to the editor about Sam written six years ago when he was in his mid-70s himself. It was from the head of a prominent continuing education program:

"I am writing to protest the unkind remarks in 'Computer Net to Aid Elders' written by Sam Brightman. He said, 'The elderly dislike talking with one another directly because who wants to spend half an hour looking at a face as ugly and wrinkled as your own? The computer network will enable elders to ask, "How's your arthritis today?" without having to look at each other.' The writer may have been referring to his own physical and mental ugliness. A good percentage of our continuing education students are seniors -- some retired many years -- and for the most part they are charming, attractive, intelligent. Some are slightly infirm, so are some young people. I think Sam Brightman has done you, your publication, and your subscribers a great injustice."

Actually, Sam's article is a strong plug for the "Computer Net." He is simply avoiding the usual hype of press release prose.

Also on aging: the current editor of Adult & Continuing Education Today, Bill Draves, says:

"Sam influenced a whole generation of adult educators. Of course, he did it in his own way, always with a touch of humor. One time we needed a new name for older learners, and we had a contest. Sam did not win the contest, but his nominations were: Surplus Americans; Grumpies (Grown-Up Mature Persons); and my favorite, Codgers and Codgerettes."

On literacy: "IS LITERACY SUCH A BIG DEAL AFTER ALL?" he headlines an article. He writes:

"Adult educators come close to false pretenses in their claims that teaching people to read and write has created jobs. It has created a larger pool of persons able to handle jobs requiring minimal skills who can fill those jobs if they are available."

Sam also proposes federal legislation for compulsory literacy to be imposed on citizens in gradual stages:

"The first year, literacy would be mandatory for Ph.Ds. After a reason-able length of time, the same requirements would be imposed on the authors of studies sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. Next, perhaps, would be those who write instructions for the assembling of appliances. Far down the line, I would expect literacy to be required for all who write newsletters."

Well, now you have some flavor of Sam's writing in Adult and Continuing Education Today. Most of the time he was editing it, he was also moonlighting as the director of educational services for the National Council of Senior Citizens, a five-million-member association supporting Medicare and Social Security.

Says one colleague at the Senior Citizens Council:

"I had the pleasure of knowing Sam Brightman for about 17 years. The contribution he made was not just in his writing, but also in his presence. When I think about Sam, I find myself smiling, because of some funny thing he did. He could always make some wry, sardonic comment on the political scene that was so apt it was beautiful."

Another colleague comments:

"People couldn't understand why Sam would still come to the Council office every day, dragging that oxygen tank of his, going through tortuous difficulty. He said: 'Well, you know Joe Rourke. He's about seven or eight years older than I am. He gets here every day, and, by golly, I'm going to get here every day. There are a lot of people in this country who think old age is to be respected only when it's bottled. Joe and I are proving that's not true.'"

Sam kept going at the Council and on the newsletter, till his most recent confinement in a hospital. Shortly before, he wrote a letter to me, setting out some of his religious views:

"I am a partially, but not completely, fallen-away Episcopalian. Contrary to popular belief, Episcopalians do not believe they are superior to others. Although it is clearly stated in the New Testament that we shall be relegated to a special section of Heaven where there will be martinis before dinner. On Saturday nights there will be a small chamber ensemble, candle light, the gentlemen will wear black tie attire, and the ladies will wear sleeveless gowns.

I have never been clear how much what we call religion is superstition, how much it is belonging to a group, and how much it is make believe. As a child, I had no trouble singing 'Jesus loves me, that I know, for the Bible tells me so' when I was fairly certain that Jesus had other things on his mind. One of my childhood friends flat out didn't believe in the Apostles' Creed and he asked about it. Our pastor told him that if he could find it in his heart to go along with the Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments, and the
Boy Scout Oath, 'I would be pleased to present you for confirmation.'
I like to think that in real life I have scored gentleman's C's in my performance as a journalist and sometime practitioner of the Golden Rule. I go to services occasionally -- weddings and funerals, including my daughter's wedding. Church still has a calming effect on me, except when I have to walk down the aisle with my daughter on my arm. Do you think I can still get into that special Episcopal section of Heaven?"

Sam, if there is a special Episcopal section of Heaven, I believe you are there. He died on January 29th, 1992 at the age of 80. There was an Episcopal funeral and a memorial service that many of us, from all over the country, attended.

By now it should be clear why those of us who knew him, would mourn the passing, but celebrate the life, of Samuel C. Brightman with these words:

"A part of me died with him. A part of him lives with me."

© Copyright 2004 John

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