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From High School to Army

by Caroline B. Zachry - 1942

Some effects of the Draft Bill upon the mental hygiene of adolescents.

THEY’RE NOT GOING TO PUT US INTO active service Not for years.... They'll be training us. ... " A group of high school boys, their books under their arms, were shouting to each other across from me at the soda foundation. Contrasted with them I think of three other boys, sixteen who borrowed a friend's car and started for Canada where they had hopes of being trained for the flying corps. They turned around before they had gone very far and came home. These two groups of boys seem to me to typify adolescence which both rushes forward and pulls back.


A bill for the immediate drafting of eighteen-year-old boys before us.   Eighteen years of age marks the approximate termination of the physical changes which take place in adolescence—a period which extends roughly from the age of twelve to that of twenty-four. By eighteen some boys have attained a considerable degree of mental and emotional maturity; some remain relatively immature; almost none can be considered in a true sense to be adults. As a group they are still making transition, mentally and emotionally, from childhood to adulthood. This means that, under urgent pressure to defend the country, we are having to compel these boys to enter the armed forces and to assume the responsibility of fighting before they are allowed to assume the responsibility of citizenship.   The country cannot help drafting these eighteen-year-old boys even through the years of adolescence are, under the best conditions, fraught with some strain and difficulties. We can, however, take steps to facilitate this drafting by them. The War Department can adopt certain measures which will, to some extent, fit military service to the mental, emotional and vocational needs of those now to be drafted, and our communities and our school systems can do a great deal more to help prepare those won to be drafted.   If these measures are not adopted, The country will pay a heavy price in these boys' lack of fairness for fighting, and after the war in widespread mental and emotional maladjustment, in unfitness for professional life and for the responsibilities of citizenship.

There are several suggestions which can be made to help avoid paying this heavy price. One deals with the process of selecting these boys for the armed forces. Thorough as have been the physical and psychological examinations of men, even more thought should be exercised in making the choice from a group which includes many still in the formative years. It is very important, for example, that a plan should be made to offset the disappointment of rejection so that rejection by the armed forces does not create serious personality problems among those already preoccupied with their own physical growth and fearful of incompetence. The means must be found so that these boys know that poor eyesight or other physical defects, or immaturity, do not mean that they cannot measure up when their country needs them. The best solution is to offer them an alternative, to show them that some other line of activity such as farm or factory work is quite as necessary to winning the war as actual fighting.

Other suggestions deal with the training of these adolescents. For obvious reasons their training period should be extended as far as possible. There will be a year or two before They see actual service outside of the country. They need all possible freedom during this time in the matter of choosing the branch of service they are to enter. The boys should have access to skilled vocational guidance and the choice of service should be adapted as closely as possible to the vocational needs, interests and aptitudes of the individual. Wherever it can be arranged, the boys should be allowed to enter one of the many branches of the Army or Navy which permits them to continue training in a chosen vocation. If this is not done, we shall greatly increase the number of vocational misfits after the war.

The armed forces should also certainly recognize this group's very special need for psychiatric guidance. These boys will suddenly leave their homes where they have had at least a measure of protection, and will be expected to stand on their own feet. Nor is the separation partial, as when they go to college or take a job and live at home. It is complete and, at least for the duration, permanent.   Some boys are ready for this separation; others are not. Many feel the urge toward complete independence but they feel also that they are incapable of achieving it. As a result they are anxious and conflicted. They may be in a state of open or secret revolt against authority; they may be overworking in school or indulging in excessive day-dreaming or they may be showing their inability to take their places among, the strong by domination over or injury to the weak. Their sexual adjustment is also normally a pressing problem to them. War marriages among their older friends affect them; they tend to imitate. Of course the degree to which the eighteen-year-old meets and overcomes these difficulties will depend to a great extent on his previous adjustment in home and school, as well as on the psychiatric guidance the armed forces provide. For those whose parents are themselves immature and who have been attempting to compensate through their children for their own inadequacies and frustrations, the task of adjustment may be overwhelming. The effect of military discipline on the individual needs to be carefully watched, to guard both against the danger that it will increase the spirit of rebellion, or tend to produce over submissiveness, a robot-like obethence to authority.

This draft law also increases greatly the responsibility of our communities and schools for the care of adolescents before they are drafted. Community health, recreational and social services should be strengthened in every possible way. The school system faces a particularly serious challenge. The schools of the country will have to change with a world which is rapidly being made over by the demands of a total and global war. Nor is superficial modification the answer. The speeding-up of old programs of work do not really speed up either maturity or learning. We must have a rethinking of these programs, a rethinking from the ground up. And we must do this thinking fast. High school programs must be geared to the demands of war through such measures as the introduction of pre-flight training courses, emphasis upon mathematics and so on, but the changes must go deeper still. It has now become urgently important that the school adopt a broader view of its function, that it include within the definition of education the function of fostering the physical and emotional growth of the individual as well as his mental growth, and that it recognize these aspects of growth as interdependent. In times of peace we took democracy for granted; we can do this no longer. The process of fighting to defend it, and of preparing for the peace which is to come afterward, entails an understanding of democracy which can never be gained through the recitation of empty phrases about it. We now know that youth can understand democracy only by living it.

In our schools this means, of course, the wider adoption by all schools of the methods now in force in those few which have already accepted a broader view of their function. Rigid discipline, formal and regimented instruction, and mass handling are inimical to full and satisfying growth at any time; for a fourteen-year-old boy who in a very few years is expected to become a man, such procedures may be little less than devastating in their effects. This means a reorientation of our approach to methods of teaching.   In high schools there should be a maximum of participation by the students in determining and planning their courses of study and in setting the goals to be attained and the ways of attaining them. At this age students are seeking wider social adaptation; they feel the urge to be useful to their community and their country. They- can only do this if the isolation between school and community is broken down, if they are allowed to understand community needs and ways of meeting these needs. Today community service means to a great extent direct participation in war work. And our students should themselves assume responsibility for organizing and carrying out war work. They should also manage air raid and fire drills so far as possible independently. We make a mistake to assume that they are too immature for these activities.

War work is certainly necessary if we are to win this fight but we should not lose sight, through the things we do and ask our young people to do, of our reasons for doing them. Every pupil in the country should, in keeping with his level of maturity, understand this war and why we are fighting it; for the ones who are soon to be doing the fighting the need is imperative. Social statues, geography and history should be directly related to the war. Students should be encouraged to discuss the war freely and frankly. The organization by them of such projects as information bureaus, and the publication of school papers dealing with war questions are highly desirable. In another area we cannot teach tolerance through the recitation of phrases about it. Religious and racial tolerance have to be practiced in school. Students must have a clear understanding of what Fascism means. They must know what it means to live in a country where you cannot speak as you think or go to the church of your choice or choose your job. Only young people trained in these ways will put the necessary drive into the fight. For only they will feel that fighting is worth while; and certainly, only they can undertake the in­finitely more difficult task of post-war reconstruction.

These younger students need now more than ever the opportunity for a normally balanced life-—a balance between work, creative expression, and play. Special emphasis should be placed upon the organization of after-school clubs, on physical training, sports, and social functions directly connected with the school. Our teachers also stand in urgent need of assistance in acquiring the mental hygiene approach to education. Courses and workshops should be organized widely. The type of leadership is most important. Those in charge of these lectures and workshops should be people who have a practical knowledge of education, who understand classroom problems through first-hand experience. School and home need to draw closer together at this time. Parent groups should be organized extensively and more opportunities should be afforded for individual conferences between parents and teachers. Teachers should understand the use of local community agencies, and be able to make independent referrals to those agencies.

It behooves us to improve our various school services markedly if we expect our. boys to be prepared, mentally, emotionally and physically for the demands of Army life.  There is not now in school sufficient allowance of time for physical examinations nor adequate attention to the correction of physical defects. Vocational guidance services must be extended and carefully guarded to the needs of these boys. Adolescents cannot be into vocational choices, yet under the present circumstances some speeding up of this process may be desirable in giving boys something to look forward to r the war.

Adequately staffed bureaus of child guidance should also be part of every school system. In New York City the alarming increase in juvenile delinquency shows how acutely these are needed in wartime. And we cannot question that the expectation of being drafted will increase still further the emotional problems of our school population. Nor will this increase be limited to older high school students. Each group tends to imitate the next older group. Thus the fact that the eighteen-year-olds are becoming soldiers is bound to be highly unsettling to those who are younger. Prompt recognition of emotional disorders in their early stages, prompt diagnosis and treatment offer the only real means of preventing them from becoming serious.

There is probably no one in this country who is not sorry that our eighteen-year-old boys are being, sent into military service. We regret this perhaps even more than we regret many other things which have been made necessary by the war. But if our War Department, our communities, and our schools can alike meet the challenge, if the Army can make the necessary adaptations to this group, if both the Army and the schools can accept a broader view of their functions than the training of the mind or the drilling of the body, if they can accept responsibility for emotional development, we shall have wrung some benefits from this bill.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 9 Number 72, 1942, p. 37-39
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14362, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 10:40:51 AM

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  • Caroline B. Zachry

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