Education in the Postwar World
by Agnes E. Meyer - 1945
The school in the postwar world must see its educational role in social terms, as a bulwark for the individual, the family, and the community against the forces that prevent the full development of man's mental, emotional, and physical capacities.
THE only justification I have for ad-dressing a group of expert educators arises from the fact that I have seen with my own eyes as I journeyed from war center to war center in this country that we are in the grip of a revolution which I had already seen at a more advanced stage in Great Britaina movement of the hitherto inarticulate mass of the people for a new place in the sun.1 What do I mean by revolution? I do not mean the bloodshed which is often its by-product. I mean that profound social changes are taking place over a wide area at a rapid tempo.
The education which the millions of war workers derived from their migrations, from the training they received and the money they earned in the factories, from working side by side with different kinds of people has multiplied our industrial population and set a ferment in motion that will not come to rest until the new hopes aroused in many breasts are recognized as legitimate and given the satisfaction which they deserve.
The symbol of the common man must become a powerful influence on our thinking. We now have the choice between anticipating the rights of the common man or waiting until the common man forces them upon the nation. We labor under an inescapable imperative to create a new world expressing broader sympathies through broader patterns of being, of thinking, and of doing. The home front is a battleground as intense as the military fronta battleground on which is being waged a conflict between the past and the future. Let us remember as a warning that after the last war this same great struggle was buried beneath a selfish cynicism that preached the futility of all serious living and a pessimistic pacifism that was opposed to war chiefly because nothing in life seemed important enough to justify a fight for its preservation. At the end of World War II, America, as one of the greatest powers in the world, must become conscious of the moral responsibilities which power entails. And first among those responsibilities is the recognition of our shortcomings as a democracy.
None of these shortcomings is more serious than the unequal distribution of our school facilities, and the disintegration which has taken place during the war even in our strongest educational systems. If the war has taught us anything it is that schools are the greatest single stabilizing force in American life. You may think that full employment is more important. I saw full employment in war centers where the schools were sacrificed and the result was social pandemonium, delinquency, and crime. Easy money is so much poison to an undisciplined, uneducated population. Moreover, as a panacea it is a delusion, because income is thrown out the window by such people, while their rootlessness, restlessness, and un-happiness are increased.
Economic security emphasizes the qualities of human nature. It makes strong people stronger but it makes the weak still weaker. An increase of economic security without the use of all the means that fortify body, mind, and heart can, therefore, become a menace to the nation. Never will our country realize its maximum possibilities until we become convinced that human values transcend material values. We cannot begin too soon to correlate our economic and social objectives, because the one depends upon the other.
We have in this country of ours millions of illiterate, undernourished or unhealthy people. Countless numbers of them can be seen in the war centers, living in dirty shacks and tents. In addition, migration, new environments, and bad living conditions have shattered the moral standards of many individuals and families who formerly adhered to them. Our standards of behavior have suffered more during this total war than our standard of living. Our latent weaknesses have been highlighted, not created, by the war pressures. The problem of delinquency, for example, resulted from the past failures of our educational system. Delinquent children are the outgrowth of a delinquent society. But the strong school systems made their influence felt. From those sections of our country where our schools are at their best came the vast reservoir of skills that made our production record possible and put between us and our enemies an army whose courage, resourcefulness, and adaptability are the marvel of the world. Therefore, it is no exaggeration to claim that the re-establishment of social order and community stability in the postwar world must come in large measure from a reinvigoration of our whole educational system.
The schools I saw that coped with the social turmoil of the war centers most successfully were those that broke down the walls which still separate our educational institutions from the life of the community. Those who merely glanced despairingly over their walls at the milling crowd never understood that they were failing their country. Those who razed the walls, broke up their formal procedures and perceived the new order of things in its fully reality, played an important part in furthering the war production effort and in the preservation of our cultural continuity.
Of the many illustrations, good and bad, that I encountered, I will mention only the high schools, for, judging by my experiences, the weakest spot in our school system lies in our attitude toward the adolescent. The free high school is one of the great contributions we Americans have made to education, and in our big cities and towns they are excellent. But, in prolonging adolescence among our boys and girls to keep them out of the labor market, we have emptied their lives of significant action content to a point where they have no place, no function, in our social structure. Even the war found no more important duty for these youngsters than that of collecting junk. Many of them broke away from home ties, roamed the country, lived from hand to mouth because no special housing projects existed for them, and took jobs that were often much too heavy.
But the adolescents who remained at school felt the emptiness of their lives. They were the unhappiest people I met. Too young to go into the armed services, made old beyond their years by the wartime collapse of moral standards, these young people were getting on as best they could in a social vacuum. The average old-fashioned high school was just a bore in comparison with the excitement of the boom towns in which they lived. Many teen-agers have bad manners, few morals, and no discipline because our society makes no demands on them. The Army often had neurotics on its hands when these unadjusted older adolescents were caught in a situation where they were forced to conform to their environment. Our schools are largely to blame for that. They had never given these boys a chance to learn that the democratic personality depends upon the acceptance of active responsibility for the total welfare and the safety of the nation.
We talk much of the need for character building, but attempts in this direction are doomed to failure in schools that have no integration with family life and with the social environment in which the child, after all, spends the greater part of the day. The more expert these isolated schools are in teaching abstract morality or, for that matter, any abstract principles, the more they throw their pupils into conflict with reality, creating scepticism in the hardboiled youngster and neuroses in the sensitive one. More than any other part of our educational system, the high school must give its students a responsible role in community life and a varied contact with it in order that their roots may sink down into our rich and nourishing democratic soil at an early age.
The war has made clear to us that the school in the postwar world must see its educational role in social terms, as a bulwark for the individual, the family, and the community against the forces that prevent the full development of man's mental, emotional, and physical capacities. Our whole civilization has its foundation in stable, unified family life. Without this foundation, the possibility of individual adjustment to that greater family, called society, is remote. A stable family in a stable community must be the prime objective not only of our educational system, but of our whole postwar program of social defense.
Obviously, the school cannot undertake such an expansion of its functions without the help of the local public and private health and welfare agencies. In our highly organized towns and cities we have enough voluntary welfare organizations to turn the community into a veritable paradise, but they are moving in parallel lines that never meet. They waste immense sums of money and energy, while human suffering remains unalleviated. We have duplication of programs, with competition and jealousy rampant, while few of the agencies see their work with the total community problem in mind. Good will runs wild in our country. It has now become necessary to harness the good will of our people and to coordinate their voluntary efforts with those of the public agencies in such a way that the total population will be served. This process of coordination cannot take place in a vacuum. What better, what more obvious focus for a new social solidarity could there be than the school?
You have a more extensive knowledge than I of the many experiments in school-community integration that are under way throughout the country. The most successful one that I encountered was in Orange, Texas, where the teachers had to cope with an extremely primitive population that had emerged from the thicket, as it is called, the almost jungle-like forest of deep-east Texas. To teach these people the use of the ordinary facilities of living was in itself a problem. The school, by enlistment of every local agency, from the shipyard manager to the welfare and youth agencies, made itself an inspiration to decency, cleanliness, and orderly community life. So powerful were its attractions to old and young alike that at Christmas one of the clergy came to the school superintendent and said, "Look here, you have our folks in your place every day of the year. You might leave us Christmas." This school is open every day from six in the morning, when the mothers going to the day shift leave their children, until ten in the evening, when the parents return from the second shift. The children eat, rest, study, and play under school auspices. With women going more and more into industry, the schools will be obliged to evolve similar programs in every industrial area. The older boys and girls have an integrated study and work program in which the shipyards cooperate wholeheartedly. The conditions at Orange may be abnormal in some respects, but in its careful adjustment of program and facilities to the needs of the children and their parents, this school is an excellent illustration of the prevalent tendency to see in education a social function that embraces and enhances intellectual, moral, and practical instruction.
That school was built with Lanham Act Funds because the local superintendent, Mr. Edgar, had the initiative to scare Washington into helping this poor community. There were other places, lots of them, that needed schools just as much without getting them. There have always been rural areas and whole states in our rich nation whose schools would disgrace the Hottentots, let alone the people of the United States. The hit-and-miss distribution of funds through the Lanham Act is no solution to the absurd variation in our public school system. I say absurd because it is worse than tragic, it is ridiculous that some of our children should have every opportunity for self-development while millions of our people have next to none. It is sheer, unadulterated nonsense, especially when it is buttressed by outmoded talk about states rights. Why should states rights be allowed to nullify human rights? It delighted me to see our prosperous, self-satisfied middle-class communities overrun by illiterate, destructive, badly behaved people from our neglected areas, for it taught them that inadequate education in large sections of our country results in penalties shared by the whole nation.
I need not dwell upon the fact that 5,000,000 or more recruits were rejected by the military authorities for reasons of illiteracy and bad health. What wouldn't we give now if we had two hundred and fifty more divisions between us and our enemies! It is well to remember, however, that the Army published similar figures after the last war and issued warnings of our inadequate education. What did we do about those warnings? We ignored them.
I should like to point out that these same neglected people were just as great a handicap to our production program, especially in the shipyards of the Gulf States, where they constituted one-fourth of the labor force. An industrial civilization such as ours is dependent upon the proportion of the productive to the non-productive people. It stands to reason, therefore, that the use of the national wealth to improve the quality of our people is the surest method of producing more wealth. If America is going to maintain its position of leadership in the postwar world, the economic system must serve our total organization, not merely a favored part of it, whether in the geographic or the human sense.
I have emphasized the need for school-community cooperation in our prosperous communities because local initiative and independence are the source of that grass-root vitality which spells democracy. But in the impoverished areas whence most of our illiteracy stems, the health, housing, welfare, and other cultural facilities are also inadequate if not totally absent. These poorer states and the rural areas in general cannot make progress as rapidly as the tempo of the times demands without the application of federal aid, not only for education, but for health and welfare programs that are closely allied with the school system. Such an integrated social program is not possible as long as we tolerate the lack of coordination at the state and federal level among the many bureaus concerned with education, health, and welfare. At least 32 of our state governments are so weak in their departments of health and education that they are not fit to administer a big program of federal aid. You might just as well pour the money down the drain. But progress on the state and community levels is difficult unless the nation-wide desire for a unified attack on its social problems is, first of all, reflected in a thoroughgoing reorganization of the Federal bureaus.
For this reason I have been advocating the regrouping of all Federal bureaus concerned with education, health, and welfare under one department whose administrator will be a Cabinet officer with three assistant secretaries as heads of the various departments. Moreover, just as the Secretary of Labor has mandate to promote the interests of the wage earner, so this new Cabinet member should be given the positive mandate to promote the human welfare of the whole population. He should be an outstanding executive, a person with appreciation of the professional skills in each area and therefore an ability to coordinate the social implications of these programs in terms of general human well-being. He should have at his disposal a Department of Research, staffed with the best and most progressive minds in the country, people with vision and courage, who realize that in self-defense we must achieve throughout the nation uniform standards of education, health, and nutrition for children, regardless of the states' financial resources. If the Surgeon General, Dr. Parran, succeeds in putting through Congress his suggestion of a network of hospitals and subsidiary health centers, these health centers could become allies of the school system in a nation-wide plan to protect the health of American childhood.
This Department of Education, Health, and Welfare should be legally implemented so that the Federal Administrator learns to coordinate without regimentation and control. In education, health, and welfare work, the administration should remain in the states and localities. The conservation of our human assets will always rest upon an intimate knowledge of the local population, of local conditions and local resources. The role of the Federal Government is to help the local agencies through dynamic leadership, standard setting, and, last but not least, financial assistance.
I realize that it has long been the hope of teachers generally to have a separate Secretary of Education, but all three functions, education, health, and welfare, must be given their proper dignity in the eyes of our people, and three new Cabinet positions are out of the question. Moreover, it would make the necessary consolidation of these programs difficult if not impossible. The isolation of the specialist in his own narrow worldthe teacher, doctor, psychiatrist, social workeris an obstacle and a detriment to human progress. They must all move toward each other in the knowledge that each must see man, woman, or child as a whole human being who is primarily a member of the family group.
The very first task of a Secretary of Education, Health, and Welfare would be to supply the impetus we need to plan for equalization throughout the country of the quality and quantity of our public education, to coordinate community health and welfare services with the school, and to provide new and thorough training for the socially-minded teachers we now need. Only a Cabinet officer and his assistant secretaries would be in a position of sufficient influence to draw up and work toward a minimum standard of living below which no American family should be allowed to fall. If such an objective became generally accepted, it would give everyone a stake in America's future; a feeling of genuine security would soften racial, religious, and class rivalry, and help us to forge a social solidarity that would check the dangerous isolation of the individual in our migratory, trailer-minded civilization.
But the sands are running fast. A violent struggle is going on between democracy and fascism in which the war with all its ferocity is but the first step toward victory. When it is concluded we shall still have to win the ideological war against authoritarianism and prove our ability to organize the new world that yearns to come into being.
Democracy is walking a tightrope. The irrational forces are loose among us as well as among the Nazis. Our enemies have played upon the brute instincts of humanity. We cannot afford to ignore them. Emotion and reason must make a truce if we are to exert the full power of mankind. Why leave the revolution to fanatics? The growth of racial animosities, class conflicts, and widespread fears of all kinds is encouraged when constructive leadership abdicates. If we do not show the wisdom to guide this emotional dynamism with reason, reason itself may be engulfed.
Our American people, I assure you, are not afraid to undertake the responsibilities that now confront democracy. All over the country I have seen proof that we still have boundless confidence in ourselves, in individual initiative, and in group action. With that faith in our hearts nothing, literally nothing, can defeat us. The world is not merely the world, it is our world. And however powerful the outward circumstances may be, they will yield to the still greater power of a free people filled with determination to preserve their freedom.
1 An address given before the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University, March 16, 1945.