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Public Education and the Structure of American Society: II. General Education for American Democracy

by James Bryant Conant - 1945

A consideration of the principles that should guide the education of all Americans

THE current debate about education illustrates the difficulties of considering the problems of school and college without reference to the structure of American society.1 I believe that an impartial analyst from another country listening to the discussions in various groups about "vocational training" versus "liberal education" would come to the conclusion that the chief point of disagreement was not the content of education but for whom the education was being planned. Take a group of public school teachers who year after year have been dealing with high school pupils from a congested area. Listen to their discussion of "education for citizenship" and then compare their premises as well as their conclusions with those of a gathering of professors talking about "liberal education." One has difficulty in finding a common denominator relating the two discussions, though in purely formal terms both are concerned with the same problem, the general education of American youth.

What prevents our focusing accurately on this very important problem? What blurs our discussion of the needs of American youth? Strangely enough it is our adherence to the basic American doctrine of equality of opportunity. Our ideal of a nation without classes checks a frank analysis of the educational problems of the country. We instinctively shrink from using phrases which imply that there is one type of education for the well-to-do, another for the poor. Having an uneasy conscience as regards the discrepancy between the realities of American life and our proclaimed ideals, we avoid as far as possible an analysis of educational problems in sociological terms. We talk as though education for a future citizen of the United States, now aged seventeen, were totally unrelated to his home, relatives, and friends. Yet, we know from our critical analysis of the history of institutions that the type of education given to children is always closely related to the structure of the society in which they and their parents live. Though we hate to admit it, we know that a school drawing a vast majority of its pupils from the lower income groups in an urban area has not the same problems as an expensive private boarding school. To deny this is equivalent to denying the existence of the force of gravity.

If we started our discussions more often by a frank recognition of the present stratified nature of American society, I believe we should make more progress. We should make more progress both toward understanding our problems and toward developing public education as an instrument for shaping American society. But we are walking on a narrow knife edge, we must admit, whenever we seek to deal candidly with explosive social issues. For one of the most important ways of reducing the visibility of the social structure (of which I spoke at length in my first lecture) is by minimizing all talk of social differentiation. And this is, of course, of the first importance in our schools. If we had the teaching fraternity all analyzing their day-to-day problems in terms of the structure of American society we would be forwarding the very thing that those of us who want a more fluid society wish to avoid, namely, increasing the visibility of the social structure. So we may say that discreet silence on all such matters, coupled with the bland assumption that all American youth have equal opportunity, is the way to forward American democracy; any other procedure would stir up class feeling and play into the hands of those who really want to perpetuate a caste system.

Though admitting the extreme difficulties involved in probing into such delicate affairs, I am inclined to favor a fuller discussion of the present social differentiation in American life. And I believe that the undesirable overtones of such a discussion will be softened to the extent that we can rid ourselves of an unconscious adherence to one hierarchy of social values. The book-reading public and those who write for it place at the apex of the one and only social pyramid a high standard of living and a high degree of competence in literary and philosophic subjects. The fact that a vast number of returned soldiers, given a chance for free education by the government, spurn "book learning" and desire to drive a truck leaves this audience aghast. "There must be something wrong with our schools," the liberals among them mutter. "Just proves what I always thought, that education is only for the ruling class," whisper the Tories.

Which brings us right up against the fact that "general education" or "liberal education" or "education for citizenship" or a course in "common learning" cannot be divorced from a consideration of a student's ambitions as regards his subsequent occupation. The idea of "general education" as something separate from specific education for a vocation is a useful concept. The only danger is that when considering all American youth we generalize our concept of general education, and by so doing abstract it from contact with the facts. We are seeking unity in our education of all future American citizens, but there is no use in achieving this unity only on paper. As the Harvard Committee's report puts it, we must "adapt general education to the needs and interests of different groups. . . . What is essential is a general education capable of taking on many different forms and yet of representing in all its forms the common knowledge and common values on which a free society depends."

Personally, I should amend these sentences slightly by stressing the type of behavior on which a free society depends rather than emphasizing the common knowledge and common values which influence the behavior of the citizens. But this is largely a difference as to form of statement. The important matter is the recognition that we must be content with a few propositions about the general education of all American youth and then from those derive half a dozen or so types of general education, each appropriate for different vocational groups. In the early years of education the differentiation would be negligible; in the post-high school years, on the contrary, it would be of the utmost significance; in the intervening period the relevance of occupational aims to the pattern of general education increases with the years.

But what are the few simple propositions which tie together the different types of general education? To answer this we must first formulate our ideal of the behavior of all American citizens, whatever their vocation. How do we want our present students to behave when they are adults? This is surely the basic question which every educator must first face when considering general education. Only in very general terms, surely, do we expect the behavior of the future truck driver, the future professional baseball player, the future banker, and the future professor of Greek to be the same. Their avocations are likely to be as different as their vocations and the forces motivating these avocations will be yet more varied. And here lies the reason why general education cannot be divorced from vocational goals.

Let us remember that distaste for "book learning" coupled with lack of aptitude seems to be pretty widely and uniformly distributed throughout the economic scale. But in the upper income groups strong social forces are brought to bear to make "little Johnnie" get his lessons. And, in addition, the schools to which Johnnie goes will not only supplement the parental pressure to do better in his studies, but will provide a great deal of pleasant extracurricular education as well. As a result, the total experience which finally ends with a bachelor's degree is an exposure, at least, to the treasures of our intellectual heritage; those who have viewed these treasures, if only from a distance, for the most part have had an interesting and pleasurable social experience with their fellows. With few exceptions, therefore, they will remain faithful throughout life to the literary and scientific traditions which they largely avoided while they were young.

By and large, the general education which our conventional four-year liberal arts colleges provide in one form or another is given as a background for two vocations—the learned professions and the managerial positions in business. This type of education, however much it may be improved (and it will be improved greatly in the coming years, I feel sure), cannot be considered apart from the vocations for which it prepares. In short, it has no over-all general validity for it cannot be considered apart from the clientele for which it has been developed over the years.


In our ideal republic of the future, we are surely concerned not with what a man has studied but with what he does. Therefore I return to the question, what is our ideal of the behavior of all American citizens irrespective of their trade? We may imagine a Utopia in which each citizen, be he a skilled worker, a manager, a storekeeper, a professor, or a farmer, would have the minimum interest in his own or other people's occupational status, the maximum interest in how far his own or other people's conduct approximated to the universally recognized ethical ideal. This ideal might be epitomized by such phrases as individual integrity in dealing with other people, human sympathy and moral courage. Behavior approximating such an ethical ideal will be determined in part, but only in part, by a firm belief in "the dignity and mutual obligation of man." There is unfortunately no one-to-one correlation between belief and action. But to continue with our outline of our ideal republic: we imagine further that, to a much greater extent than now, parents would be interested in the future of their children, not in terms of providing privileges or special opportunities or increasing their standard of living, but in seeing that they developed as trustworthy human beings whose place in the economic and cultural life of the country is commensurate with their abilities and their tastes. All of which implies no diminution in the pioneer spirit of adventure and a zest for work. On the contrary, the goal must be a nation in which the citizens are not idly enjoying the heritage of the past but are eager for that change which is the birthright of a free people anxious to apply new knowledge and new techniques. And last but not least, we imagine that to a far greater degree than now men and women in our future Utopia will have more interest in translating the neighborly spirit (for which Americans are rightly famous) into wise collective action; that there will be less "gang politics," less despoiling of the public treasury, fewer completely selfish pressure groups, more self-sacrificing men in public office—in short, a much healthier body politic.

Now, if we have agreed to formulate our ideals along some such lines, our aim must be to educate our present pupils so that they will act as adults in a way to forward those ideals. But at this point somebody in the audience, I am sure, is ready to exclaim, "Why in the name of Plato have you forgotten to mention the life of the mind; surely education is primarily concerned with the development of man's reason, primarily concerned with literature, philosophy, and the sciences! You are talking about a set of common principles that might apply in an illiterate Christian commonwealth!"

To which I should respond, I am talking about the United States of tomorrow, a highly industrialized nation, and there can be no question that in order to have the citizens of such a nation act as I have portrayed in my thumbnail Utopian sketch, they must be highly literate. But I purposely place the emphasis on literacy as a means and not an end. The development of a student's intellectual and artistic talents must be considered similarly: in order to achieve his place in the sort of society I have envisaged, each adult must be as free from frustration as possible; he will have to neutralize the emotional strains of a largely mechanized civilization by cultivating what Mr. Eliot used to call the "enduring satisfactions of life." And for many men and women continued acquaintance with literature, philosophy, and the fine arts will provide "enduring satisfactions," stabilizing their lives to an incomparably greater degree than less intellectual avocations.

Furthermore, a set of common beliefs is essential for the health and vigor of a free society. And it is through the printed word that these beliefs are developed in the young and carried forward in later life. A nation of illiterates could not formulate or transmit to the next generation the articles of faith essential for the unity of free men in the face of the complexity of modern technology.

The future citizens we desire to educate must have strong loyalties and high civic courage. These loyalties must be to the type of society we are envisaging and to the United States as the home of this society. Such emotional attitudes are in part the product of a common knowledge and a common set of values. One of the tasks of the public schools is to evoke these loyalties through the medium of formal study. How this may be done through a study of our heritage I shall discuss later in this lecture. We professors, however, may at times overemphasize the significance of the rational argument and the knowledge transmitted through books.

The war has underlined the fact that the most effective loyalties are often to small groups of men bound together by a common experience and a unity of immediate purpose. A unifying faith is in such instances not a matter of words or intellectual concepts but of a direct relationship between men in danger. A not dissimilar loyalty, though in a lesser degree, is seen at work in athletic sports and certain types of extracurricular activities. Having once experienced this type of emotional situation, a man or woman is more likely to respond another time and is probably more inclined to transfer such loyalties to larger groups.


For these reasons the present emphasis in many public schools on "democratic living" seems to me to be of the first importance. I should place high in the priority list of goals to be achieved by every teacher the inculcation of what we Americans call a "democratic attitude," a lack of snobbery. A loyalty to the type of society we are slowly endeavoring to shape on this continent can, be evoked far better by action than by words. To the extent that the school itself is a society exemplifying the ideals we extol, to that extent we tend to win the loyalty of even the most ruthless individuals in the group. And there is a good chance that this loyalty will be transferred later to the nation.

Let me remind you that it is my avowed purpose to advocate a system of education which will provide a high degree of fluidity in the social structure. To this end, I am interested, on the one hand, in providing greater equality of educational opportunity; and on the other, in minimizing the differentiation between vocations—decreasing the visibility of the social structure. As I tried to show in my first lecture, the two aims are closely allied. The kind of society we should aim to achieve through improving and expanding public education is a society where, more often than not, a boy or girl decides upon a career requiring advanced education because of a real interest, not in order to climb into a better economic or social group. Note carefully that I have phrased this goal in limited terms, for to expect to banish entirely economic and social motivations in choosing a career is to hope for the impossible.

From the point of view of these lectures, one of the most important jobs of the schools, perhaps, is to instill into the students the concepts not only of political but of social democracy. And this must be done in every grade. Here again we must recognize that the school is only part of a total social situation; many factors other than the teachers and the curriculum will determine the attitudes of the students. But the weight of the school should be thrown heavily against all forms of snobbery without destroying ambition. General education for American democracy, let us never forget, is to be defined and tested in terms of adult behavior. We postulate as our goal a free self-governing republic with as fluid a social structure as possible, and becoming more fluid every year. The social behavior in and out of the classroom, the ethical and social implications of the formal studies will be of first importance; "democratic behavior" will be emphasized; the spirit of competition will be fostered, but the concomitant evils will be mitigated by repeated emphasis on many significant activities in which an adult may play a part; the spirit of snobbery will be reduced by minimizing the importance of any one hierarchy of social values.

On this latter point many social and economic currents are working to break down social barriers. In terms of rate of pay, for example, it seems likely that many white-collar jobs are going to be even less attractive in the future than they were in the past. Throughout this country a great movement has been in progress which tends to minimize the cultural differentiation between vocational and income groups. An interesting illustration of this, which has had enormous influence on the advanced education of women, is the change in status of the unmarried daughter. Time was, within the memory of many of us here today, when the economic level of a family (or of one branch of a family as compared to another) could be almost automatically gauged by noting whether the Misses So and So were ladies of leisure or were employed. It was assumed at the beginning of this century that if the family income permitted, the daughters, unless married, were to be concerned with the "finer things of life," the social amenities, travel, and brilliant conversation if the proper social milieu could be arranged. For a poor relative who taught school, an understanding and sympathetic hand was to be offered with all the grace good breeding could command.

Today, with a few exceptions, all this is completely altered. The unmarried woman in her twenties who hasn't a job of some sort (even if she gives the pay to a charity) is the one whom her contemporaries pity. In debating this issue nowadays one is not talking in terms of different social strata. The whole status of a woman vis-a-vis a job is no longer a matter of economics; it is no longer a sign of superior social standing to be a lady of leisure. As a consequence, there has been an enormous breaking down of social barriers among young women, a mixing up of different groups. I may remark in passing that it seems to me doubtful whether we have as yet assimilated the consequences of this social revolution into our thinking about the advanced education of young women. But that is another special subject with which I am not concerned today.


Let me now leave generalities and consider the specific and troublesome questions of how the curriculum of the high school is going to accomplish the ends I have been discussing. Here is where most of us get into trouble. And we do so to a large degree, I repeat, because we are reluctant to admit the existence of differences between the social strata from which different groups of children come. Roughly speaking, the argument turns on to what extent the literary and philosophical traditions of the western world should be the basis of the education of youth; closely related are the arguments about the extent to which instruction in foreign languages should be included in our high schools, and how much mathematics should be required of all.

The watershed between two fundamentally opposed positions can be located by raising the question: for what purpose do we have a system of public education? If the answer is to develop effective citizens of a free democratic country, then we are facing in one direction. If the answer is to develop the student's rational powers and immerse him in the stream of our cultural heritage, then we are facing in the opposite direction. By and large, the first position represents the modern approach to education; the latter the more conventional view. Those who look down one valley regard conventional "book learning" as only one element in the landscape; those who look down the other believe that developing the "life of the mind" is the primary aim of civilization and this can be accomplished only by steeping youth in our literary and philosophical heritage. So there they stand, back to back, hurling arguments at each other. No wonder the bystanders are confused and bewildered, since both groups claim to be looking in the same direction!

Now it would be my contention that to the extent we are concerned with the education of that portion of American youth that comes from the upper income group, or is extremely gifted in terms of academic studies, we are justified in defining education largely in terms of content. The social forces at work on these young men, arising from their background, together with vocational motivation, provide sufficient pressure to insure the temporary absorption of a considerable amount of orthodox "book learning." For this group it is not too difficult to devise courses of study which should provide for the majority a type of experience leading them "to think effectively, to communicate thought, to make relevant judgments, and to discriminate among values."

The tradition of the learned professions, combined with the emphasis on the significance of literature and philosophical studies in the homes of the well-to-do, had set the stage for the colleges at the opening of the twentieth century. Before the first World War, a majority of those concerned believed that a boy who was either going to take up a non-scientific profession or be a business executive should have what used to be called a "literary education." Parents, with few exceptions, understood this; a majority of the boys concerned understood it. As long as advanced education was concerned only with this group, the orthodox approach had relatively smooth sailing. As long as the high schools were essentially college preparatory schools, the real problems of general education so apparent today were hidden below the surface. Only when large numbers of youths with other occupational aims began to take part in high school education, and go even further, was it necessary to probe more deeply into what are the basic aims of general education. When we carry out a more searching analysis of general education for all American youth (instead of merely one small segment of young men) we find that literary and philosophical studies must be considered as part of both general and vocational education.

But before developing this thesis, let me note in passing that the role of the natural sciences in general education is now a matter of relatively little disagreement. The unanimity as to the importance of a student's learning something about inanimate and animate nature, however, covers up a pedagogic problem of great significance. To my mind we have failed dismally in our colleges in providing the future lawyer, economist, historian, or businessman with an understanding of the tactics and strategy of modern science. As a result, the cleavage between the scientists, engineers, and doctors on the one hand and the rest of the professional community on the other has reached a serious point. A great deal of nonsense is talked about applying the scientific method to political and social problems by those who have made modern science into a cult. This in turn has evoked no small measure of hostility among those who feel that men of science are not only ruining the world with their gadgets but are all too ready to become totalitarians at a moment's notice (allied with big business or the enraged proletariat as the case may be). That the scientist is the only man capable of marshaling and appraising evidence is an absurd claim on the face of it; human beings were engaged in such enterprises with considerable success long before the development of modern science. In many situations today involving complex human interactions, lawyers can get at the facts and make an impartial study better than scientists.

What we have failed to teach in our schools and colleges is that "science is concerned with evidence of a peculiar sort, concerning a particular class of phenomena, specifically those material things and processes which permit description and measurement. The world contains many things which do not lend themselves to this type of examination." I quote from the Harvard Report which continues, "These things, whatever their intrinsic value to us as human beings, fall outside the province of the natural sciences. Science is prepared to deal only with those aspects of reality which lend themselves to its methods of appraisal. Great confusion in the public mind has resulted from the failure to appreciate this fundamental and self-imposed limitation. This consideration is fundamental also in defining what we mean by the natural sciences. Certain aspects of human social organization, for example, represent potential natural sciences, since man and society are part of matter and nature. This potentiality, however, cannot now be realized, precisely because man's social behavior and social processes cannot yet be analyzed and defined with sufficient precision."


To pursue the question of how to teach science so as to further the development of a more coherent culture in this technical age would require at least a separate lecture. Let me return to the much more controversial subject of how the humanities and the social sciences are to be handled in our high schools which today contain such a heterogeneous body of students. The problem to be resolved is how are these studies to be introduced into the school curricula in order to develop in each boy or girl (a) the maximum use of his talents in a vocation, (b) the adult behavior we postulated as desirable in the citizens of our ideal republic. Unless we can demonstrate that the study of a given subject can contribute to these ends, we should eliminate it from the curriculum. I recognize that such statements go contrary to the views of those who hold that certain disciplines are by their very nature sacred. But to me there is nothing profane in probing deeply into the reasons for the retention of any subject in our modern schools and colleges.

The study of literature, while only one of many vital problems now under constant discussion in our schools, will serve excellently to illustrate the difference between two points of view. A wide acquaintance with English literature—prose, drama, and poetry, and the background of this literature, history and the less technical aspects of philosophy—can be considered either as a basic postulate of general education or as a means to a variety of ends. I unhesitatingly adopt the latter view and unblushingly raise the questions: Why should a student read the English classics? Why should he have some appreciation of the political, social, and cultural history of the English-speaking people in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? Why should he acquire the habit of reading "great authors" and solid books rather than the sports column of newspapers and current magazines? To say that such questions are equivalent to asking whether you want barbarism or civilization is completely unsatisfactory to my mind. For we have defined the ends of general education in terms of an adult behavior essential for the development of a free society in a scientific age, not in terms of the societies of the past to which such colorful words as barbarism and civilization have their relevance.

Let no one imagine that having thus rudely invaded the temple of the Muses I am proposing to banish the arts and letters from our schools and colleges—quite the contrary. To my mind, making a case for as thorough a study as time permits of literature, philosophy, and history (to use three words to cover a wide variety of closely related topics) for the future doctor, lawyer, business executive, or public servant is as easy as making a case for the study of mathematics for the future engineer. The reasons are not related to the general education of the young man or woman in question but to his or her subsequent career. Quite apart from the professional knowledge of law and medicine, the lawyer or doctor needs to be wise in his understanding of human beings; he will be concerned to a very large degree with relations—complicated relations—between highly sophisticated individuals. To a certain extent, as things stand today, this wisdom can be based on a factual knowledge of human behavior accumulated by the labors of the psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists of the last one hundred years, and to some degree this knowledge should be incorporated in all types of general education. But armed with this theoretical knowledge alone, a man would not be very quick or skillful in his responses to a variety of social situations. Wide personal experience with many varieties of people, particularly emotional experiences shared in common covering the whole range of human joy and misery, provides at present probably the best preparation that is possible. The future public servant who comes up through the give and take of the political arena and has sensitive human perceptions acquires his education in this way. As a substitute and as a supplement, the dramas, novels, and poems of the great writers provide a most valuable vicarious experience.

In these few sentences I have only touched on the many reasons why a study of the liberal and humanistic traditions is of great value for those professional men who perform their main work through human contacts. A chapter—a book—could be, and more than one has been, written on this subject.

To the extent that the work of the other professions involves complex human relations among individuals of wide experience, the same reasons hold for the study of literature. But when you come to consider either advanced education for a profession which is very little concerned with complex human situations, or education for those who are to be concerned with running machines or with the distribution of the products of machines, or to work with their hands on the farm or at the bench, the situation is altered. In such cases, I doubt if occupational reasons for the study of literature can be adduced which will stand the acid of youthful scepticism. Why should the future truck driver, shoe salesman, bank teller, and assembly line foreman read the English classics? Or, for that matter, why should the future astronomer, protozoologist, or research chemist? There is not a shred of evidence to indicate that a wide acquaintance with Elizabethan drama, for example, will make a man either a better astronomer or a better assembly line foreman; and it is folly, I believe, to argue that it would. A study of English literature may or may not, however, make a man a better citizen of our ideal republic. This is the question we must examine before deciding about the role of literature in the general education of the vast majority of students who will not enter a learned profession or become public servants or executives in charge of complex undertakings.

I hazard the opinion that the reasons for studying literature when one is young and reading "good books" when one is old, apart from the vocational arguments in the foregoing paragraphs, are twofold. First, because these habits—like the love of the outdoors, or painting pictures (as an amateur), or taking part in athletics—are stabilizing influences of the greatest value in the terrific stress of our mechanized civilization. Unlike some of the less intellectual pleasures (such as fishing), they are enduring because they are not contingent on uncertainties. With a good memory, the literary or philosophic experience endures. And, of course, access to books in this day and age is about as easy as access to food.

I realize this justification of a study of literature can be used only as a reason why the student should try it out. If the exposure doesn't take, that's an end of it. And with even the best teaching in the world there will be a great many in each generation who are immune to this type of enduring satisfaction. Indeed, if the forces inherent in the present stratification of our society were once completely to disappear, a surprising number of men from every income group would leave the library for the ball park, the seashore, or the lake.

But the second reason for the study of literature by those who are headed for all manner of occupations is not connected with the personal tastes of the individual. Therefore, it has more cogency for all American youth. No argument is required to convince the members of a high school class that they are all going to live in a closely connected, highly industralized world which contains a vast amount of specialized knowledge. As citizens they are going to bump up against a complex variety of experiences no matter how they earn their livelihood. Only on an isolated farm in a backward part of the country can any of them enjoy the simple life of their grandparents, who were quite content with a very small amount of "book learning."

A wise man once said that "to be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to be always a child." To be ignorant of the way in which the present technological civilization came to be is not only to live in perpetual bewilderment, but to be at the mercy of every man who claims to be giving you reasons why this and that are so. Literature from one point of view is part of the history of the race. It is one record—a record no less significant because it is written in emotional rather than rational terms—of our cultural ancestors. It is a part of our past with which we must be familiar in order to appreciate the present. The significance of the dramas, novels, and poems of the English-speaking people of the last three hundred years for the vast majority of our young people lies in their ability to help us understand the origins of our present civilization.

To sum up, I suggest that the argument for the study of literature in our schools may be divided rather sharply into two parts. For one group of students who, for social and economic reasons and because of innate ability, are going to enter the world of affairs through a university, one set of reasons may apply. For them the motivation should be essentially professional. For all the others except those relatively few who early develop a real zest for reading, the argument is derived from the basic importance of a knowledge of our history (using the word in its most general sense).

All concerned with the future of the humanities in the schools might well proclaim the fact that since we are living in a technical and scientific age, some attempt must be made to relate the present of this bewildering scene to the much more simple past, otherwise the whole picture becomes merely a series of magic shows. So, to the academically slow-minded youth who wants to do something practical, the appeal of the printed word must be an appeal to a story of simple origins in order to illuminate an amazing picture. Technological history, social history, a simplified account of certain philosophical ideas, political history, and the literature of each age are all related. Curiosity, I believe, is more widely distributed than innate love of literature. It is to curiosity that I should turn to bring out in the vast mass of our pupils the willingness to immerse themselves in our cultural heritage.

The equivalent of the social pressure of the ruling class tradition that once made many a reluctant youth study the classics may be at hand in the obvious bewilderment of so many people about the nature of the society in which we live. By appealing to the curiosity of all youth about the origins of an obviously complex and unintelligible technological society, we may evoke a willingness to learn about the past. But the nourishment which is provided to satisfy this curiosity must be really relevant to the present scene. No traditional arguments as to content will suffice. By different paths, different types of youth might be led to know something of the past as well as to envisage the potentialities of the future. To the extent that their horizons broadened, they would be "wiser" as citizens and more stable as individuals; they would be less susceptible to the calls of modern "medicine men" who like to take advantage of the bewilderment of the average man in the presence of machines he doesn't understand.

To those who guard the sacred shrines of poesy in our universities or without, I venture to say that if this practical apology for the Muses be treason, make the most of it. Unless one wishes to start a discussion of education with certain postulates which may not be examined, I see no alternative to making every subject prove its case; either it must be of value in connection with a vocation or it must contribute to the proper behavior of the citizen of our ideal republic of free men. Apart from serving these ends, no study within the curriculum of school or college has relevance for the secular education of young Americans in this century—no subject can be considered as sacred.

I may insert here, perhaps, a parenthetical note directed at the adjective secular used in the preceding sentence. If the aims of education are to be defined not in terms of behavior in this world but in terms of another world, we must, of course, debate theological issues which under our form of government are no business of the state. A not inconsiderable number of those who recoil with horror from the modern approach to education are deeply religious people who believe the whole concept of secular education to be bad. Not that all members of organized religious groups, or all people with intense religious feeling belong in this category. The vast majority of Americans of all creeds, I believe, feel that public secular education is not only possible but highly desirable and in no way inconsistent with the work of the churches with their youth. For them, as for me, there seems no other basis on which a nation of so many creeds can be united in planning for public education. But the minority who resolutely refuse to agree to a separation of education into secular and religious parts are often to be found looking wistfully down the watershed made famous by the names of philosophers of other ages. For them, any test of education based on an adult's behavior as a citizen is barbarous and wrong. With this type of critic of modern trends in education we can only agree to disagree as to premises and then beg him in the name of truth and justice to deal frankly with us at every turn. We can only ask that he make explicit his basic objections; then at least he will not add further confusion to a discussion which is so badly in need of clarification at this moment in our history.

Now I should like to take a few minutes to consider some of the other problems of the curricula of the high school and the two years beyond. Obviously, if there be validity in all that I have been saying hitherto, we can only consider rather wide generalizations; each school, being part of a different social situation, will have to work out the specific answers for itself. Furthermore, to the degree that any given high school is a true cross section of the country, literature and history, for example, will have to be presented with a variety of motivating forces; the social studies and science, likewise, will have to be presented in terms of a wide spectrum of occupational goals. No one has to spell out these truisms to teachers, but they can't be spelled out too often to the lay public and those who like to draw general blueprints of what our schools should teach. A school in which ninety per cent of the children come from families who hold a union card or would be eligible to do so is one thing; a school in a well-to-do residential suburb is quite another. In the first case it is the exceptional boy or girl who expects to enter a profession and therefore looks forward to a long period of further "schooling"; the boy with ambition to succeed in the world of affairs will normally find his outlet by getting a job as soon as the high school years are done; truck driving, for example, will be an opening for those who enjoy speed and that feeling of power that comes from handling modern machinery. In the second school, conditions will be reversed; it will be the exceptions who do not plan to continue education beyond high school, it will be the unusual boy who does not expect either to be a professional man or to enter industrial life via a white-collar job; anyone seriously considering truck driving as a career would be looked upon as very queer indeed.

Now, to assume that the way the two schools teach literature, history, political science, ethics, mathematics, or natural sciences should be the same is like assuming that the diet of a lumberman in the North Woods should be the same as that of a desk worker in a southern city!


One cannot help having the feeling that different descriptions of general education at the high school stage are the result of focusing attention on different types of public schools, or, what amounts to the same thing, focusing attention on different types of students. For example, the phrases used by my colleagues in Cambridge in describing a general education in high school seem to me excellent, if one has in mind a school where a large proportion of every graduating class is headed for college. On the other hand, the Educational Policies Commission in their document, Education for All American Youth, are obviously concerned primarily with the vast majority of high school students who are going to terminate their formal education either at the end of school or in a junior college. Compare the two descriptions of general education: the Harvard Report reads as follows: "At the center of it would be three inevitable areas of man's life and knowledge: the physical world, man's corporate life, his inner visions and standards. ... In school . . . general education in these three areas should form a continuing core for all, taking up at least half a student's time." The authors of Education for All American Youth, also talking about a common core of general education, describe a course entitled "Common Learnings." This course, they declare, should be "continuous for all, planned to help students to grow in competence as citizens of the community and the nation; in understanding of economic processes and of their roles as producers and consumers; in cooperative living in family, school and community; in appreciation of literature and the arts; and in use of the English language. Guidance of individual students is a chief responsibility of Common Learnings teachers."

At first sight these two descriptions seem to be very different; I say seem to be very different, for I believe in reality they are not far apart. And having participated to a slight degree in the preparation of one volume (Education for All American Youth) and looked over the fence at the writing of the other, I am, perhaps, in a position to judge. If I am correct in my hypothesis that, unconsciously at least, the authors of the two volumes had in mind two different types of students, then the two descriptions may almost be merged in one. For, if one examines the actual content of the two prescriptions as far as they are specified in terms of classroom work, there is a surprising agreement as to conventional subjects studied. But the subjects are put together in a different way, one according to a pattern which corresponds to the rational method of handling areas of knowledge traditional in our universities, the other in terms of stimulating the interests of those students who have no natural bent for scholarly work. As a consequence, the two books give somewhat different reasons for the need for a common core of general education, and they argue differently as to why certain subjects must be included in a course of common learnings. Yet, even this difference is largely one of emphasis.

For example, the importance of the study of American history is emphasized in both prescriptions, but the arguments are couched in words which have an appeal for different audiences. The Harvard Report states that "The aim of such a course is to provide a basis for all later study or description of American life and society and for participation in the work of citizenship. It should be strongly factual in nature. That is not to say that it should consist of lists of dates and presidents. Rather, its emphasis should be on the careful and even detailed study of many of the principal events, movements, personalities and institutional developments in American history." This statement should prove most acceptable to professional men and business executives particularly interested in the basic training of men who, like themselves, would be university graduates.

On the other hand, in Education for All American Youth, we find a supposititious report of a committee of teachers explaining what they were doing in their course on Common Learnings. About American history they were supposed to write as follows: "Most of our students soon realize that they will not make much progress in dealing with problems that are rooted in the past unless they know something about the roots. They see that without this knowledge they will blunder along and make all sorts of mistakes which are quite unnecessary. They are ready, therefore, to spend practically all of the latter half of the year in studying the history of American civilization. . . . when we teach the history of American civilization in the eleventh grade we focus it on the issues in the life of American people today of which our students are most keenly aware. Events and movements of the past become alive because students are always searching for and finding their connections with the present. Most of the things students learn about the past become useful to them at once as aids to intelligent action in the present."

This specification for a study of American civilization might well distress the type of citizen who would subscribe to the Harvard statement, but conversely it would appeal to many parents and students for whom the other document would seem much too academic. To the extent that the actual instruction of the students would be different according to the two plans (and I have no desire to gloss over the fact that there are real differences) I believe they correspond to a fundamentally different approach by the students and the teachers, and these two approaches correspond to different vocational aims; they also correspond to a considerable degree to different social and economic backgrounds, but this by no means need be true. It would be my guess that the type of course described by the Educational Policies Commission would find a hearty welcome among a certain group of students in private schools and the high schools in well-to-do suburban areas, though there might be difficulty with the parents. Conversely, I feel sure that for the small portion of every class who should be recruited for the professions the Harvard prescription is the best. For youth with high aptitude for scholarly work needs as much acquaintance with literature, history, and certain phases of the social sciences as time affords. Furthermore, this experience should be within the framework of the conventional approach of the learned world.

All of which leads me back to my opening remarks. Many a disagreement about education arises because we fail to differentiate in our thinking about the needs of different groups. This is true even in the area of general education. The quarrel among educators to which I referred a year ago here at Teachers College stems from these facts. I venture to close this lecture, therefore, with two of the six suggestions which I at that time made as the basis for a truce among educators—high school men on the one side and college professors on the other.

Let it be agreed by the professors in our colleges and universities that the high schools of the country today have a job to do which is not to be measured primarily in terms of their success or failure in the formal education of specially gifted youth. But on the other hand, let those concerned primarily with high school education agree: (a) to provide a greater motivation among many groups to evolve a higher degree of intellectual curiosity; (b) to explore more sympathetically the ways and means of discovering special talent at an early age; and (c) to provide better formal instruction for those of high scholastic aptitude—all this to be accomplished without a segregation which might turn the boys and girls in question into either prigs or academic snobs.

Along some such lines, it seems to me, we may look forward to a united front in education. Along some such lines we can hope for the development of various patterns of general education which are tied together by their basic aims. As a contribution toward such unity I venture to close by subscribing to the doctrines as set forth in both volumes to which I have referred at length. Armed with General Education for a Free Society in one hand and Education for All American Youth in the other, I should hope to answer all critics of the future of our American schools!

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

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 47 Number 3, 1945, p. 162-178
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 5502, Date Accessed: 5/24/2022 6:17:44 PM

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  • James Conant
    Harvard University
    James Bryant Conant is the president of Harvard University.
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