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Has the Progressive Education Movement Become Militarist?


by George W. Hartmann - 1940

A letter of protest.

ONE OF THE BITTEREST TRAGEDIES of our tragic era is the enforced dissolution of many valuable organizations whose educative work can no longer be effectively continued because a hostile “climate of opinion” for bids its continuance.  Early this fall the Committee on Militarism in Education fell a victim to the mood of war that had grown to intolerant and discouraging dimensions during the summer that conscription was adopted.  For more than a decade this modest organization, under the able secretary ship of Edwin Johnson, has waged a constructive and reasonably successful struggle against the militarization of our high schools and colleges through the form of compulsory ROTC drill and related War Department agencies.  With the government appropriating more than 17 billion dollars in a few months for the machinery of war without a protesting squeak from the “budget-balancers” and with a draft act now the law of the land, the Committee’s efforts would be almost as futile as a Republican campaign in Mississippi.  Its decision to suspend operations “for the duration” was inevitable and understandable.


Among the influences which "killed" the Committee on Militarism in Education must be mentioned the apathy, nay the positive enmity, of many Progressive Educators toward its activities, particularly since the European conflict began, although it was noticeable as early as 1933.  Many crimes—pedagogical, political and otherwise—have been committed in the name of progressive education but among the worst is the attempt to justify the militarization of our national life (euphemistically called "defense," in imitation of the precise term first given to this process by the Germans) as a necessary outcome of our devotion to democratic values during a world emergency.  If there be any deep, dark pits in Hell, the blackest of all must be reserved for those "liberal" educators who beat the war drums most loudly at a time in human history when every voice of reason and conscience should have been raised in behalf of the solidarity of all mankind.


Progressives in education have come to a strange pass when they can be concerned about the possible "formalism" and narrowness of the military education to which our youth will be subjected (cf. the leading editorial in the October issue of FRONTIERS OF DEMOCRACY) and yet approve the more fundamental evil of war itself.  Since when has it become the job of socially conscious teachers to interest themselves in the relative merits of bayoneting a man in the chest or in the stomach?  To train someone for flexibility on the battlefield is an odd task for a humanitarian pedagogue to undertake.  Yet this is what American schoolmen are seriously asked to consider for themselves as 1940 draws to a close.


This unholy alliance between the officialdom or leading spokesmen of progressive education and the military mind is all the more startling when one reflects upon the "model" of democracy in action, which the army hierarchy provides.  Racial segregation is rigidly practiced by providing for separate Negro regiments; as for the Navy, who has ever seen a colored sailor or a colored naval officer?  How much democratic administration occurs internally within a regiment or a division? Isn't army life the classic illustration of what progressives have meant by miseducation rather than genuine education?  All these disturbing questions are blithely disregarded in the name of an "emergency" that plays into the hands of the most illiberal forces in the nation.  The result is that the authentic spirit of progressive education itself is in grave danger of being choked under the guise of protecting and advancing the democratic ideal.


John Dewey is universally acknowledged to be the chief source of the ideas, which The Social Frontier and its successor journal have sought to further.  Yet is it not significant that Dewey conspicuously opposed the draft while most of his presumptive pupils and disciples followed in the heels of Roosevelt and Willkie in whooping it up for conscription and that he supported Norman Thomas in 1940 as the candidate who most adequately expressed the political and economic orientation compatible with his own social and educational philosophy?  The failure of all but a handful of liberals to stick by Dewey in these unpopular expressions of a living faith indicates that organized progressive education is today on the verge of intellectual and moral bankruptcy.


The European war has so far cost the world at least one hundred billions of dollars—an amount sufficient to rebuild the entire physical plant of many major nations—and an incalculable amount of human misery; yet the American branch of the New Education Fellowship has not made the slightest effort to bring this appalling conflict to an end.  The Alexander bill to appropriate fifty millions (less than the cost of a single battleship) to secure the joint action of the United States with the few remaining neutrals in mediating the struggle languishes in Congress, partly because our professional leadership disdains such endeavors as ”impracticable” or “doctrinaire” or “untimely.”


BEFORE MANY MONTHS PASS THIS COUNTRY WILL PROBABLY be at war.  A paper like this will then have little chance of being published.  The many "creeds" concerning democracy and defense which have been issued by various professional bodies in the last few months are admirable documents so long as they steer clear of the armaments issue, but they all share in common a misunderstanding or a neglect of the pacifist position, due largely to ignorance of the significant book and pamphlet literature in which it is expressed.  For this reason, there is condensed below for the benefit of those who framed these majority affirmations and those who accept them as their own the substance of the anti-war views of that minority of educators who object to the identification of democracy with the exaggerated forms of nationalism with which it is now being confused.


The internal logic of democracy as a way of life compels all democrats to be pacifists; those who are not are imperfect democrats at best. By "pacifist" I mean an unqualified war resister, not one who will fight only a "defensive" war or a "class" and ideological war; neither do I mean one who believes pacifism is all right for the year 1999, but not for 1940.


To some this proposition may appear a startling, irrelevant and unnecessary conclusion. However, its inherent reasonableness is easily established. At bottom, democracy is essentially a world view which holds that all men's needs are better satisfied by friendly and scientific utilization of the earth's resources than by any other form of organized group life. The supreme mission of democracy is the establishment of the Good Life and the Good Society by making "peace, plenty, and freedom" concrete realities in the experience of every human being. These are goods or values, which cannot be securely enjoyed by any individual or nation until every inhabitant of this earth has been assured them. By its very nature, the democratic ideal is international or universal rather than nationalistic and parochial, humanitarian rather than cruel or indifferent to men's frustrations and wants, rationalistic and experimental rather than superstitious or dogmatic in its approach to community problems and issues.


Implicit in all this is the outlook which cherishes the life of every one, even of those who, whether Communists or Nazis or Shintoists, reject the aims and methods of the democratic philosophy. Our highest allegiance is to the human species as a whole. Specifically, this means that the democrat as democrat cannot kill, or help to kill, even those who uneaten his own existence. Democracy is a spirit and a technique for the promotion of human welfare—and no man's well being is advanced by first murdering him. Furthermore, my own selfish individual gain is not truly dependent upon some one else's extinction. So long as any man's "success" appears to be conditioned by another's "failure," just so long will human relations remain poisoned. If the only way democracy can survive is by mustering more explosives than its opponents,—by being more brutal than the "brutalitarians" and by scorning the methods of consultation and discussion with its enemies—then the system that is victorious is not really democratic.


If every war (including the civil variety) is a "crime against humanity," that same fact makes it equally an offense against the democratic conception of ultimate reality. No democratic purpose—or any conceivable purpose—is worth the lives of a million men, principally because living men are the ultimate reference points for all cooperative effort. They, and they alone, are the bearers of every value we encounter. Moreover, no democratic thinker, "feeler," or doer can wish to force his program upon others without their consent; a democratic order of tilings that does not rest upon popular persuasion and understanding is not authentically democratic.


Consequently, democrats cannot be soldiers, i.e., individuals prepared to slay anyone, even their own countrymen and comrades, upon orders. There is no war so holy or any cause so noble that it can sanctify this form of personality degradation. This insight admits of no exceptions at any time or in any place. Blood and tears, ruin and destruction, falsehood and violence—are these the instruments for creating a fairer world for our children? Never! American democrats do not intend to execute Republicans in order to make this nation a Cooperative commonwealth. Then why does it seem pardonable to annihilate Nazis (or Italians or Japanese or Patagonians) in order to build a finer Western culture? To think that it is means to commit on a cosmic scale the familiar Communist error of Machiavellianism, rightly recognized and repudiated by all liberals where the domestic scene is involved. It also means that many fine people are Americans, Germans, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Jews, etc. first and human beings and democrats second.


Most persons are not pacifists at present. Neither are they really democrats. The reasons are basically the same in both cases, viz., failure to grow to the level of thought and action represented by these positions. The democrat who is not a militant or positive pacifist is a contradiction in terms. He may bear the label, but he lacks the reality. We can only achieve the great aims of the liberal movement in world culture by strictly educational methods. Let no present or future crisis prevent us from seeing and acting upon this organic relationship between the ends we seek and me means we employ. There is absolutely no escape from this momentous conclusion: Democrats must be pacifists—or cease being democrats!


In some such terras as these runs a creed that is offered as an alternative, or better, as a supplement, to the eloquent but incomplete pronouncements of the Educational Policies Commission, the Teachers College Faculty statement, and allied credos of the day. Most educators will reject it, although the latent pacifism of teachers is probably greater than that of any other group, including the clergy. But temporary rejection does not mean that pacifism is wrong. Some day teachers and others will know that it was right, despite the professorial conspiracy of silence to discredit it. The pacifist educator aims to destroy, not men, but wrong ideas. Can the truly progressive school do otherwise?







Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 7 Number 56, 1940, p. 43-44
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14128, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 11:11:11 PM

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