Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Public Education and the Structure of American Society: I. The Structure of American Society

by James Bryant Conant - 1945

A consideration of the structure of American society and the implications for education as a social process

I propose to consider in this series of lectures the future of education in the United States with reference to a special set of problems.1 I propose to direct attention primarily to the interaction between the formal educational process and the social structure of the American nation. There is no fundamental novelty, of course, in this method of approach. For it is a truism to remark that education is a social process and to add that our schools and colleges do not operate in a vacuum. Yet, most discussions of educational problems proceed on the basis of implied premises and hidden assumptions about the nature of American society. Logically, one might expect that the elaboration of an educational philosophy should follow the explicit statement of a social philosophy.

But this is rarely the case in practice. And rightly so, for a multitude of educational matters which require action have to be settled without raising deeper issues. For example, in considering the curriculum of an individual college or school, or even the administration of a single school system, the discussion may well be limited to strictly educational matters. Any other course might often lead to confusion and inaction

Familiarity with “local conditions,” to be sure, must be assumed as a prerequisite for intelligent participation. And familiarity with local conditions implies usually the silent acceptance of a whole set of assumptions about the social and political framework—acceptance at least for the time being and as a basis for immediate action. If these assumptions are to be challenged or even examined critically, then one moves into a much more complex situation. In short, it may well prove either unnecessary or unwise nine times out of ten to lay emphasis on the fact that education is, indeed, a social process.

Occasionally, however, it may be worth while to probe as deeply as possible into the hidden premises of our educational arguments. There may be some merit in examining the relation of the work of American schools and colleges to the economic and social realities of American life as well as to the ideals and aspirations of the American people. At least I hope there is some merit in such a procedure, for this is my undertaking in these lectures.

Having announced at the outset such an ambitious topic for three lectures, I must enter quickly a number of disclaimers. First, I must emphasize that though this method of approach permits one to consider many phases of education, I should be the last one to claim any primacy for this mode of inquiry. Indeed, I could hardly do so with a clear conscience if I would. For I have had the privilege of sponsoring in one way or another, and certainly endorsing enthusiastically, two volumes which approach the matter from a different angle, namely, Education for All American Youth2 and General Education in a Free Society.3 As far as I am aware, nothing that I shall advocate goes contrary to the spirit of these documents, from which I have borrowed freely. Secondly, I can obviously make no claim to completeness. The American picture is so vast that one can only illustrate by a process of sampling and find unity by dangerous oversimplification. Thirdly, I shall to a large degree be repeating the words of others. In particular, the highly significant volume by Warner, Havighurst, and Loeb entitled Who Shall Be Educated?4 has covered much the same ground I shall cover and from a not dissimilar angle. With these disclaimers duly entered (which I trust will incite all who have not already done so to read the three volumes mentioned) I proceed upon my task.

Clearly an inquiry such as the one proposed quickly leads into dangerous waters. A number of matters which some prefer to pass by in silence must at least be identified and noted. It would be a hardy voyager, indeed, who would proclaim his intent to explore every channel and take soundings on even the most perilous shores. A wise pilot merely indicates the general outlines of the unnavigable shoals and shallows. Those who study problems of society may be pardoned if they are equally cautious in their explorations. In certain directions powerful non-rational forces set limits to profitable debate. An indication of these limits also marks the boundaries of present feasible social change through education. But even if I proceed as circumspectly as these remarks would seem to indicate, I must admit that by and large I am dealing with questions that no mortal can approach without prejudice and emotion.

Gunnar Myrdal, in the appendix to his study of the Negro problem,5 has this to say about methods of mitigating biases in social science: "There is no other device for excluding biases in social science than to face the valuations and to introduce them as explicitly stated, specific, and sufficiently concretized value premises." With this statement in mind, which Myrdal substantiates with powerful arguments, a chemist venturing into the field in question will hastily do his utmost to make clear his prejudices as best he can. Let me then state at the outset the thesis which I hope to support by my inquiry into public education.

One of the highly significant ideals of the American nation has been equality of opportunity. This ideal implies on the one hand a relatively fluid social structure changing from generation to generation, and on the other mutual respect between different vocational and economic groups; in short, a minimum of emphasis on class distinctions. It is of the utmost significance for our future that belief in this ideal be strengthened and that we move each year nearer to its realization in our practice. In our modern industralized society, national educational policy largely determines the future of our social structure. In the last fifty years educational forces have been at work which have tended to stratify the American nation. On the other hand, a vast instrument of American democracy has been created by the extension of universal education to the high school stage. If we so desire, this instrument can restore a high degree of fluidity to our social and economic life; can make available for the national welfare reservoirs of potential talent now untapped. Furthermore, education can inculcate the social and political ideals necessary for the development of a free and harmonious people operating an economic system based on private ownership and the profit motive but committed to the ideals of social justice. The nearer we approach through education to our avowed goal of equality of opportunity (which, however, admittedly can never be reached) and the better our schools teach and practice the basic tenets of American democracy, the more chance there is for personal liberty as we know it to continue in these United States.

This in brief is my thesis. The biases of my educational and social philosophy, I trust, are clear. But I should like to add that while I am neither an advocate of socialism nor one to see a "road to serfdom" around every corner, I am suspicious of those who use the phrase "personal liberty" as a shield to cover a vested interest, and equally so of those who talk of social justice to promote the economic interests of a special group. There is an inevitable conflict in this country between the ideal of a high degree of personal liberty for the enterprising and the ideal of well-being of a vast mass of the population. This conflict has in recent times been epitomized by putting the phrase "private enterprise" in opposition to "security for the common man." While temperamentally on the side of the enterprising in this dichotomy, an American radical can be still in favor of all measures, including very heavy inheritance taxes in the upper brackets, which will prevent the "enterprising" from being recruited largely from the descendants of the well-to-do.

As Macaulay pointed out years ago, universal suffrage apparently places determining power in the hands of the majority of the adult population. Furthermore, in a nation with a fairly rigid class system this power is in the possession of those who have neither present wealth nor opportunity for their children. Therefore, logically some day a revolutionary process of confiscation should occur when the enraged electorate places in power those who will despoil the privileged few. Yet now we realize what Macaulay could not foresee—that power in an industralized democracy is not merely a matter of votes. Those who labor in the mines, build the machines, run the engines, man the assembly lines are a potent force, provided they are firmly organized. Aggregates of political and economic power to some degree now stand vis-a-vis those who have historically exerted great influence by ownership and management. Many feel that in the latent struggle between such groups, rather than in Macaulay's prophecy of an elected gang of despoilers, lies the real social dynamite of this century. Certainly no one would care to minimize the explosive possibilities implicit in the age-old opposition of the "haves" and the "have nots." But it would be my contention that if, through education, we can keep approaching nearer the goal of equality of opportunity for each generation, we stand a good chance of avoiding catastrophic political changes in times of severe economic dislocation.

For any given decade the economic realities will without question be the determining factor. The most perfect educational system imaginable could hardly condition a people in a democratic country to take either runaway inflation or mass starvation lying down. But granted there will be ups and downs in our prosperity, varying degrees of employment, difficulties of distribution of consumer goods, conflicting interests between those who desire a "reasonable return on capital" and those whose rewards are in rates of pay, the chances of a non-revolutionary development of our nation in the next fifty years seem to me to be determined largely by our educational system.

At times reformers speak as though a human society were possible without diversification of employment and without concentration of responsibility and authority in a relatively few people; in short, without a structure. When they do, they are apt to be challenged sharply by conservatives. They are reminded that a society as structureless as a town meeting probably never has existed for any length of time, and that the probability of an industralized society running without a hierarchy of authority seems small indeed. But the conservatives may then proceed to the totally unwarranted further statement that, therefore, the present methods of determining who shall serve in the various positions of a complex social order are the best that can be devised. Since some must obviously rule, why all this talk about "privileged group" and "ruling class," the conservatives may demand.

Both reformer and conservative are apt to miss an important point. Practically every society—a nation, a town, a city, a rural area—has at any given moment a fairly definite social structure. But this structure may have varying degrees of rigidity from generation to generation. It may, further, have high or low visibility (that is, be more or less in the nature of a caste system); and, further, it may be more or less complex.

The last is an important point. If the relation of the individual to other individuals is determined by one social pattern, we have a simple social structure—a soldier in an army is a favorite illustration. On the other hand, if an individual occupies a position in several patterns simultaneously in existence, he is part of a complex social structure. For example, if a man is a skilled worker, the employee of a large concern, a member of a union, an important dignitary in a fraternal order, the natural leader of his immediate neighbors for political purposes, we should have to place him in not one social pattern (as in the case of the soldier in time of war) but in at least half a dozen. And since most social patterns tend to have an explicit top and bottom, we may speak of his position in each. To the extent that it may be high in one and low in another the complexities increase and the whole situation may defy description. In that case the visibility of the social structure also automatically becomes low. And vice versa.

At any given moment every grouping of a considerable number of individuals has a structure, and as a rule this structure changes so slowly that it may be considered as constant over a period of a few years at least. As a consequence, critical examination and analysis will enable a relatively unprejudiced observer to describe that pattern with some accuracy. In comparing the social situation in two similar large groups—two American towns, for example, differing in geographic location, or the same town at two different periods in history—one might note differences not only in the complexity of the social structure and its visibility, but also one might suspect differences in the rate of change and test this suspicion by a historical study of the locality in question.

In a community where, generation after generation, a vast majority of the relationships have remained unaltered between families, and son succeeds father in his vocation and "appointed place," the rate of change or the social mobility is so low as to be negligible; the structure of the society in question is not fluid, it is static. At the opposite extreme, one may note the rapid expansion of some of the urban centers of the Middle West and Far West of this country in the last century. At that time in those localities it was the rare exception to find a son occupying his father's place or pursuing his vocation. The rate of change of the social structure (the social mobility) was high; in fact it was so high that one might say the society in question, judged over a decade or more, was so fluid as hardly to have a social structure.

Today we are all conscious of that vast social organization known as the army. Let us consider for a moment the social structure of the American Army on the day of Germany's surrender in 1945, and compare it with that of the Prussian Army in 1914. At first sight the two organizations might seem almost identical; relatively simple structures though elaborate; the position of each individual is essentially unambiguous; the high visibility of the social structure consciously rendered visible by outward signs. Yet let us examine the matter more closely, for we all have a feeling, based on countless bits of evidence, that the American Army was a very democratic one while the Prussian part of the German Army in 1914 was the epitome of militarism.

In the first place, the two armies differed in the higher echelons not in regard to permanency but in regard to degree of fluidity of the social structure. The Prussian officers represented a military caste very largely perpetuated from father to son; our American officers are, as one said to me the other day, "drawn each generation from the people."

In the second place, in spite of the fact that both armies wore clearly marked uniforms and operated through the well-known chain of command, the visibility of the social structure of the Prussian Army Corps of 1914 was much greater than that of the corresponding units of the American Army of 1945. I should like to emphasize this point. At every turn the regimented nature of the Prussian Army was impressed upon the individual member. He was to have no life outside the life as a unit in one rigid social pattern. Our modern American Army, however, has tried to keep the soldier aware of his own individuality as far as is consistent with military effectiveness; those social pressures have been fostered which minimize rather than maximize the significance of the military organization. Of course, the very fact that this was a temporary assignment for a vast majority of both officers and men set the scene. But in addition, the Army apparently deliberately fostered a climate of opinion which "played down" rather than glorified a man's position in the social structure. Emphasis on his performance irrespective of rank, on the one hand, and recognition of the fact that each individual is a citizen of a free country, on the other, have resulted in an organization unusual in the history of the world; in short, we may call it an extraordinarily democratic and individualistic army.

I have drawn the contrast between the Prussian and American armies in order to illustrate, first, that two social structures superficially similar may in fact differ to a considerable degree; second, that a simple structure of apparently high visibility may be modified considerably in the direction of complexity and lower visibility by consciously created social pressures and artificially cultivated modes of behavior—in short, both by action and by talk.

This point seems to me not without its significance for civilian life in times of peace. Note that one might have said: an army is by definition a simple social structure, every man in it must know his place and act all the time in conformity with that place; a democratic army is a contradiction in terms; a private who is an individual is an absurdity. But experience has shown that this kind of "inevitable" conclusion drawn from an oversimplified statement of a social situation is superficial and inexact. Without changing essentially the organization of the army, it 'was possible to modify to a surprising degree the visibility of its social structure.

How far can this lesson be applied to civilian situations more complicated and of much longer duration in point of time? To a considerable degree. Indeed, similar transformations have often occurred in industrial organizations. But taking a different kind of social unit—a town, or city, or perhaps in a vague and approximate way a whole nation—the analogy may hold. An industrial civilization cannot be maintained without a diversification of employment and a hierarchy of grades superficially somewhat analogous to an army. But there is a whole range of possibilities as regards the visibility of the resulting social structure and its fluidity. For example, if the top jobs are based on hereditary privilege and the bottom ranks are based on hereditary lack of privilege, if all the social pressures emphasize a man's position in this industrial hierarchy and assess a man's worth solely in terms of his rank and finally prevent other social patterns from developing, then you have something not unlike the Prussian Army. You approximate a caste system for the nation. The converse case is too obvious to require spelling out.

Fluidity of the social structure (particularly from generation to generation), complexity of the social pattern, low visibility of the social structure— all these are desirable if we would have an industrial society composed of individuals who regard themselves as free. In furthering such aims public education is of prime importance, as I shall hope to show.

I have assumed throughout my remarks so far that we want to have American society as little in the nature of a caste system as possible. Frankly, we must admit that by no means everyone would agree with this assumption, though few would be bold enough to disagree in public meeting. There are advantages in a caste system, let us admit this freely. A social structure where everyone knows his place and operates willingly and efficiently in that place (determined for him by the accident of birth) has some very appealing features. As a Utopian goal it attracts those who dislike the competitive spirit and all the unlovely side of human nature that so often accompanies that spirit. To be sure, as a Utopian goal to be acceptable today one must imagine a high standard of living in even the lowest grade of the social structure and guarantee that this high standard would be maintained. Indeed, a socialistic picture can be drawn without difficulty in some such terms. But with a few changes in emphasis we transform the scene into a more familiar historical example where those in the lower levels, at least, did not consider their living standard high at all.

How important it is to get these matters straight in our minds when we talk about public education is clear at " a single glance. If we repudiate the ideal of a fluid social structure and wish to have the reverse, a stratified system of society, we must arrange our education accordingly. We should then provide an entirely different type of education for each group of children, depending on their family background and in accord with the inherited position they will occupy when they grow up; we should inculcate not only obedience to authority but reverence for the hierarchical system as a system; we should stimulate each individual to get his enduring satisfactions out of his proper performance of the duties which by birth have come to him and will in turn be the duty and the privilege of his heirs; the competitive spirit at every turn should be frowned upon and in its place the teacher must endeavor to show the joy which comes to one who has mastered the art of living the "good life" at his or her appointed level.

To be sure, as one pursues this course of thinking there inevitably come to mind memories of arguments once put forward showing the benefit of slavery if all slaveholders were enlightened owners. But let us try to avoid calling names even by implication. It is the essentially static nature of a stratified social structure which, I think, condemns it to most Americans out of hand. This and the fact that we doubt if we can trust to the working of heredity to provide sufficient skill and wisdom each generation to run the country. We all agree, I imagine, that there must be some movement through the social layers, and that those in positions of responsibility must, as far as possible, have earned their place.

In short, we are committed as a nation to a set of ideals quite in opposition to a social structure rigid by virtue of hereditary place. We are committed to equality of opportunity as an ideal—a goal. This in turn implies a high degree of competition. Our problem is to make these ideals operate as constructive social forces and to eliminate the anti-social aspects of the greedy side of competition. How this may be done by stressing a variety of social patterns, providing many social hierarchies and praising each will be the subject of a later lecture. But let me first of all consider at some length the problem of equality of opportunity.


Equality of opportunity as a national ideal means equal opportunity for the youth of each generation; the phrase as applied to adults has little or no meaning. Theoretically one could have a society in which practice was a close approximation to this ideal. But a moment's consideration makes it plain that there is a fundamental conflict between a general desire to give all children in a community equal chance and the special desire of each parent to do the best he can for his own offspring. Even in Russia today, where we are told equality of opportunity for children is more nearly a fact than elsewhere, there must be the same conflict at work. How far are the leaders of the party, the managers of the large factories, the successful generals willing to forego any advantages for their children? This is one of the vital questions about our ally; I hope I shall live long enough to know the answer.

Wherever the institution of the family is still a powerful force, as it is in this country, surely inequality of opportunity is automatically and often unconsciously a basic principle of the nation; the more favored parents endeavor to obtain even greater favors for their children. Therefore, when we Americans proclaim an adherence to the doctrine of equality of opportunity, we face the necessity for a perpetual compromise. Now it seems to me important to recognize both the inevitable conflict and the continuing nature of the compromise if we are to think clearly about public education as a social process.

The compromise is quite workable and there is wide latitude for moving farther in either direction, that is, away from or toward equality of opportunity. The present situation is not one of those in which any appreciable alteration destroys the nature of the balance. Quite the contrary. An examination of various localities shows that already in the United States there are wide variations. Instances of very restricted opportunity and instances of very wide opportunity for children of the lower income groups may be easily identified. Those of us who argue for a far greater degree of equality would be satisfied, I presume, if in the coming twenty-five years the conditions throughout the United States were to be brought up to the level of the best that now exist.

Of course, there will be those who reject contemptuously any idea that we must base our educational philosophy on a compromise. They are too impatient to dwell in any halfway house. In practice these idealists tend to join hands with the cynics who declare that such phrases as "equality of educational opportunity" are obvious rubbish. "When you get right down to brass tacks," the hard-boiled critics say, "the goal you picture of an even break for all children in a given town or city, let alone a whole state, is so far removed from reality that it doesn't make sense to talk about it. Education at each grade, getting a job, fitting into the group are bound to depend primarily on the position of the father, so the less said about 'all men being created equal' the better, except on Fourth of July occasions."

This objection is worth dealing with for a moment both as a specific objection and as an illustration of a dilemma which we face as a democratic people, and which influences profoundly our ethical education. If "noble sentiments" and "fine phrases" are in reality but aspirations which critical analysis shows can never be realized in practice (at least not in the framework specified), should they be "debunked" and discarded in the interest of honesty and effective thinking? There have been many teachers and writers who have apparently answered this question in the affirmative; in the last quarter of a century they have been, in more than one instance, joined in their destructive enterprise by others with different motives.

Take the case in point: the ideal of equality of opportunity might be derided quite as easily by those who desire the creation of a complete socialistic economy as by those who are sympathetic to a stratified social system. Some of the leftist reformers might declare that only through the complete abolition of private property can one possibly weaken sufficiently the forces making for inequality of opportunity. To them quite as much as to a potential Bourbon, talk of equalizing opportunity in a country operating on the basis of private ownership and profit is just so many words devoid of meaning.

The critics from the two sides must be given different specific answers. To the socialist I would reply, "Your remedy is worse than the disease, you are preparing to burn down the house to roast the pig." To those who unconsciously desire to keep a considerable degree of class distinction, I would point out the explosive force generated in any nation organized for living in a rigid social system.

But the most important answer is a general one, an answer which can be made to all who belittle the significance of those "noble sentiments" once enshrined in the creed of all American liberals. As long as a national ideal—be it equality before the law, personal liberty, social justice, or "in America there are no classes"—as long as an ideal represents a goal toward which a community of free men may move by concerted action, the phrase in question has real meaning. As long as one may say of two cities or two states that one is nearer the goal than the other, then clearly the "noble sentiment" in question has both concreteness and relevance for the nation.

I take the time to spell out in some detail these obvious remarks not only because they have some bearing on the subject of opportunity through education, but also because the whole question of the role of our historic idealism must be considered in connection with all phases of general education.

Our experience with the disillusioned generations of the twenties and thirties shows how difficult it is to handle these questions in a classroom. How to present the social studies to boys and girls as well as to young men and women without being a Pollyanna or a Machiavelli is a subject of compelling importance in our educational thinking. Since it involves both rational processes and the non-rational biases of our teachers, a further inquiry into this matter would cover the whole range of education.

When we discuss the equalizing of opportunity, we usually have in mind definite measures which can be taken by deliberate collective action. Historically, however, we recognize the even more potent influence of changes in the general situation. For example, an expanding social group automatically provides chances for young people much greater than are found in a corresponding organization no longer growing. Universities, industries, government bureaus, an army all provide historic examples of this fact. No less so do more vague and general aggregates of people. The rapid expansion of this country in the last century and the effect of the frontier in obliterating class lines come to mind at once. Conversely, the static nature of many English and European rural areas from the point of view of migration and numbers corresponds to traditional class distinctions.

Every social change either diminishes or increases the distribution of opportunity, and it would be well, perhaps, if this effect of proposed social and economic measures were more often noted. But these changes are usually long-range and we tend to be as fatalistic about them as about population trends. When it comes to immediate deliberate action where effects are noticeable in a lifetime, surely changes in (a) employment practices, (b) the inheritance of wealth, and (c) education stand in a category by themselves. An adequate treatment of the first two would require too long a digression from the main topic of these lectures. Therefore, I shall pass on directly to a discussion of education, only expressing the hope that there may be in the future a fuller public debate of both topics and more adequate information as to what is actually occurring in the United States.


As the industrialization of the United States proceeded, a radical change occurred in the relation between education and our economic life. We sometimes fail to realize to what extent education underlies our whole economy; and likewise fail to understand how this fact affects the social structure of the nation. If we examine the war effort we see clearly the great contrast between conditions today and a century ago. For methods of war reflect the general cultural pattern of a civilization. Modern battles on land, in the air, and on the sea require an incredible complexity of machinery; this machinery must be designed, produced, kept in repair, and operated. To do this in turn requires a vast number of trained men. Comparing the mobilization of the manpower of the country for this war with that of France or Germany, for example, for the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, is like comparing the Battle of Gettysburg with Agincourt.

In an era when so many highly trained men are required for war, at least a corresponding number must be available for peace. At the time of the Civil War, the Army and Navy required very few officers and men who had more education than the ability to read and write. Indeed, both sides could and did make effective use of many who could do neither. The great expansion of the country after the Civil War likewise depended but little on the services of what we would now call educated men. But the future of the next few decades will be far otherwise. The contrast between 1870 and 1950 in regard to the role of trained men will be as great as that between the armies of Grant and Lee and those of Eisenhower.

The almost revolutionary change in the role of formal education in preparing men for fruitful participation in the national life has Had far-reaching effects on the nature of our society. When education more advanced than the elementary schools was hardly required except for a few professions, a man might make a career for himself without benefit of formal learning. The fact that Harvard College was inaccessible to poor boys of the eighteenth century made little or no difference in the career of Benjamin Franklin. In the middle of the nineteenth century even the study of law and medicine required as a prerequisite hardly more than a partial mastery of the three R's. The self-made man—the hero of many a true story of the United States of the last one hundred years—was a self-educated man. In business of all types including technical enterprises, in applied science (then in its infancy), in the traditional professions a man not only could earn a living but could become a leader even if his youthful education had ceased after the seventh grade.

Some seem to believe the same is true today. But such thinking is merely an example of a cultural lag. For the one man in a thousand who is a genius anything is possible, but otherwise it is perfectly apparent that even a man with great native ability whose education stops at the end of grammar school has many doors of opportunity firmly closed. The case is so obvious with regard to the professions (including science and engineering) as to require no demonstration. But let us consider for a moment what the effect of the increasing emphasis on the value of a college education for a businessman has done to the social structure of the country. How many junior executive positions in large industries are open for men now under thirty who have never been to college? From all the evidence I can gather, very few. What are the chances for a young man who broke off his education half way through high school to work up to a position of responsibility in a bank, large merchandising establishment, or a far-flung industrial company? Remember, he is in competition with graduates of colleges, technical schools, and universities. Of course, cases will occur to prove the old rule that you can't keep a good man down, but what I am trying to underline is the contrast with the industrial picture of the 1870's.

From such considerations it is clear as crystal that in those cases where the type and length of education to which a boy or girl is entitled depends on the accident of birth, the subsequent career is likewise largely so determined. In short, to the extent that educational opportunity is determined by family status, education in the modern 'world makes for social stratification.

Of course, one should hasten to add that along with the revolutionary change in the significance of education in the preparation of young men for life in industry and commerce has gone an equally revolutionary spread of public education. The one has made for the hardening of class lines, the other has to some degree worked in the opposite direction. Where the balance lies no one can say with any certainty. It would be my own guess that so far the sum total effect of all the changes in American life since the 1870's has been to increase the stratification of American society. This I think is true the country over, except for the immigrants of the late nineteenth century and their descendants.

But whether or not I am right about this is a matter of no consequence. What concerns us is the future. Our present widespread system of education holds within itself forces which can move us either toward or away from our goal of equal opportunity for all children. We would be well advised, therefore, to debate the issue freely; and if the American people want a more fluid society, we must plan our education accordingly.

Let us look at some of the facts. When we do so we shall see that as a nation we are indeed a long, long way from anything like equality of educational opportunity. Furthermore, we shall see that conditions vary enormously from locality to locality. And the more we study the matter the more complex the picture seems. Not only parental pride already mentioned and economic inequalities now much in the public eye, but cultural patterns, religious forces, and group hostilities must be reckoned with if we are to move further in the direction of reducing inequalities of education. Social prejudices and deep-seated tensions involving race, color, and creed will be met in more than one locality.

First, as to certain over-all statistics, let me remind you that, before the war, of every 1,000 pupils enrolled in the fifth grade, 770 entered high school but only 417 graduated. There was a further sharp drop to 146, the number entering college, of whom approximately a half (or 72) completed their college course. These figures present the average picture for the entire United States. In some states a larger proportion of the potential college students would be found attending college; in others, a far smaller number.

Anyone familiar with education knows that for a very considerable portion of the population it is the family financial status which places a ceiling on the educational ambitions of even the brilliant youth. The oft-repeated statement in certain smug circles that "any boy who has what it takes can get all the education he wants in the U.S.A." just is not so; it is contrary to the facts. But after having made that flat-footed statement, let me hasten to insert the comment—unnecessary for this audience perhaps— that compared with any other large nation, except possibly Russia, we might appear to be living in an educational Utopia. But measured in absolute, not relative, terms the discrepancy between our ideal and the reality becomes so great as to be almost shocking.

The figures of Warner and Havighurst in Who Shall Be Educated? give us a picture of the social stratification in a Midwestern city before the war. The per cent of superior high school graduates who attended college followed the parental income scale in a startling manner, starting with a 100 per cent college attendance for those whose family income was over $8,000 a year, dropping to 44 per cent for the range from $3,000 to $2,000, and falling to 20 per cent for those with incomes under $500. These were all superior students, let us bear in mind; all, therefore, good college material.

There is no need for me to give this audience a mass of figures to show that a large number of talented youths in different parts of the country drop out of high school or fail to enter college because of lack of financial background. Educators who know the situation conservatively estimate that as many promising boys and girls fail to go to college for economic reasons as the number who now enter.

In spite of all the facts which are available, many of our leading citizens are unduly complacent about the present status of free schools and colleges. Many of them have detailed knowledge of some favorable local situation, but are ignorant of conditions in the remainder of the nation. In no place in the entire country can we claim to have come very near the goal of equality through education, but in certain of our large prosperous urban areas we have come a long way, indeed. In these localities the statement is very nearly true that no brilliant pupil—that is, brilliant as measured by orthodox academic standards—with ambition can fail, because of a financial handicap, to get the education that he wants.

If we think of the educational ladder solely in terms of scholastic ability (aptitude for book learning), then in certain of our large cities careers are freely open to the talented within the framework of our present social mores. This is so because the high schools are adequate for the boy who does conventional studies easily and because in these cities first-rate universities are located which a boy can attend while he lives at home. And the cost of going to college is, of course, only in small part the cost of tuition and student fees. Room and board and the increased expenditure for clothes to keep up with the "academic Joneses" mean a relatively large outlay for a youth from a poor family. Furthermore, the possibility of part-time employment is greater in large urban areas than in smaller centers of population. As a consequence, working one's way through college in a city involves not too great a handicap. All of these favorable statements are made with the reservation that I am leaving out of account the important and explosive problem of racial and religious discrimination.

The chance for advanced education (professional education, in particular) at low cost, which is afforded in a number of large cities, is in part the result of the accidents of location of privately controlled universities or state universities, and in part the result of municipal action. It is interesting that however much the pattern varies in detail for historic reasons, the end result is the same almost without exception. Very few cities with a population of more than 600,000 are without a university with high standards, granting professional degrees including that of Doctor of Philosophy.

I have estimated that somewhat less than one-fourth of the male white population between the ages of ten and sixteen now live in urban areas within convenient commuting distance of a satisfactory university. While we may rejoice at the fact that for such a considerable portion of the population conditions are so favorable for the white boy of intellectual promise irrespective of family income, there is another side to the picture. In the competition for that leadership which depends on a combination of innate ability and lengthy education, the youth of small cities, towns, and rural areas are at a considerable disadvantage. When we look over the enrollment figures for the dozen or so largest universities and know to what extent the student body of many is recruited locally, we realize what a large portion of university enrollment comes from urban areas. This in turn means that we have a very lopsided representation of the nation in the professions. And, of course, in regard to business the cards are even more stacked in favor of the city boy from a low income group as compared to the corresponding boy from a town or village. This one-sided recruitment of our professions and executive groups from the cities is a social phenomenon of considerable significance; we see here at work a process of geographic stratification.

The suburban high schools of the country are the pride of our public school system; they are part of the urban education to which I have just referred. Here taxes are usually sufficient to support public education generously, and in the well-to-do localities a homogeneity of population makes the task relatively easy. In fact these excellent schools, together with the private schools, quite unconsciously are potent factors tending to crystallize our social order. This is worth pointing out; for it is as much an accident of birth that one's family lives in a prosperous residential district which affords an excellent high school (particularly excellent when judged as a preparatory school for college) as it is that one's family can afford to send one away to boarding school. Not all high schools automatically make for national equality of opportunity any more than all private schools make for the perpetuation of a privileged class.

How should we proceed to right the balance? By restrictive measures aimed at our prosperous suburban high schools and our private schools? Only a very few would seriously propose such action. Hardly anyone would say that in order to move toward a greater equalization of opportunity we should restrict the education now given to the more fortunate. Indeed, as a practical matter there is very little we could do about the public schools if we would; their destiny (and quite rightly) is in the hands of local boards. And the Supreme Court has in a famous decision protected the private schools from direct punitive action by the state. Indirect restriction through taxation is, of course, another matter. In certain localities this is a serious issue. That is one reason for getting our thinking straight.

But let us suppose that the people of the United States could legally, through State or Federal laws, take any action they desired in regard to education: how many would favor abolishing the private schools? Is not the right to buy a good education for our children as fundamental as the right to buy an expensive house in a suburban town where a good public school is provided by the taxes? Whether or not all high schools of the type I mention, or even the majority of expensive private schools, are well advised regarding their educational policy is entirely another story. Some of us have doubts. But the clientele believe these schools to give a superior education, and the colleges foster this belief. Any idea of driving these public and private institutions out of business by legislation, local or otherwise, is totally incompatible with American ideals.

No, clearly the way to right the balance between the large cities and the rest of the country and between the higher and lower income groups is to improve the educational opportunities in the smaller cities, the towns, and the rural communities. And anyone familiar with the total educational picture in the country will recognize how much remains to be accomplished.

To my mind, there is no way to finance such improvements except by Federal aid to education—money appropriated by Congress but spent by the state authorities without restrictions. To develop the arguments for this remedy would require a separate lecture. I conclude this afternoon by merely repeating my earlier conviction, namely, that public education is a great instrument of social change. Through it, if we so desire, we can make our country more nearly a democracy without classes. To do so will require the united efforts of us all—teachers, administrators, taxpayers, and statesmen. Education is a social process, and perhaps the most important process in determining the future of our country; it should command a far larger portion of our national income than it does today.

In my next two lectures I shall suggest how with more support the education of all American youth might be expanded and improved.

1 The Julius and Rosa Sachs Foundation Lectures for 1945-1946, delivered at Teachers College on November 14, 15, and 16, 1945.

2 Educational Policies Commission. National Education Association of the United States and the American Association of School Administrators, Washington, D. C., 1944.

3 Report of the Harvard Committee. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1945.

4 W. Lloyd Warner, Robert J. Havighurst, and Martin B. Loeb, Who Shall Be Educated? Harper and Brothers, New York, 1944.

5 An American Dilemma, Vol. II, p. 1041, Harper and Brothers, New York, 1944.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 47 Number 3, 1945, p. 145-161
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 5501, Date Accessed: 5/24/2022 6:25:42 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue