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No Educational Maginot Line

by William F. Russell - 1940

This article is a section of the Report of the Dean of Teachers College for the Academic Year Ending June, 1940.

THE sudden and complete collapse of France is a puzzle.1 To exit- plain how a country, so powerful, so prepared, so experienced could fall before the conqueror like a house of cards within the short space of a month, has been a temptation too great for the commentators and columnists to resist. There are many theories. The downfall is variously attributed to corruption in high position, to division within the ranks, to the work of the Fifth Column, by the clergy in particular to irreligion and immorality, and by some commentators to dry rot in the middle class.

No doubt there will be controversy among historians for ages to come. Corruption in high position there may have been; an occasional French leader may have been dishonest, but certainly not all nor any large number. It may be noted that corruption among leaders has not prevented effective military action in Germany, Italy, or Japan. It is true that from 1935 to 1938 there was division in France; the people were splitting into two groups, left and right, with deplorable results; but as war clouds gathered there was a movement toward the center that seemed to result in complete unity. The charge of atheism and immorality is understandable. Paris has the reputation of being a wicked city and the French are supposed to be gay and immoral. The separation of Church and State and the banishment of the religious orders have led to the thought that France has no religion. But those familiar with France know that the French are highly conventional and strait-laced; that in general they are moral to the point of prudery; and that they are zealous in religious observances. The priests of the Catholic Church in France are public servants of high quality. As to the Fifth Column, certainly it was hard at worksome key people were either sympathetic to it or in its employ; and, as elsewhere, the Utopists served as dupes of the dictators. Further, it is difficult to assess how hard or how soft, how sound or how rotten, how sacrificing or how comfort loving the French middle class may have become. Possibly one or more or all of these causes may have helped France to tumble of her own weight; but not one of these explanations can be fully substantiated; nor do all put together form a satisfactory answer. In fact, there is a more simple and logical explanation which should not be lost to sight. France may have made the wrong guess.

It is possible that the collapse of France may have been caused primarily by the acceptance of a wrong theory of the conduct of modern warfare. This theory, which used to be commonly expounded, was that since England ruled the seas, and since the alliance of Russia, Poland, Roumania, Czecho-Slovakia, Turkey, and Jugo-Slavia controlled most of the other routes to the sources of the raw materials, Germany, if she were to fight, would have to win a speedy war before her supplies were exhausted. Hence all that France would need to do would be to defend herself and play for time. In accord with this theory she built the Magi-not Line, a succession of connected impregnable fortresses; and these she equipped with the latest weapons of defense. This explains why tank and airplane production was allowed to languish. It was thought that there would not be much need for a mobile army. Secure behind her Chinese Wall, France expected to wait for her enemy to use up his supplies and dash out his energies on the ramparts she watched.

The American should have sympathy with this point of view. It is like his own. The American believes in peace. He thinks he is an enemy to no one. He has no territorial ambitions; but he will defend himself. He is willing to spend millionsbillionsfor defense but not one cent for attack. Even the Selective Service Act specifies that the troops chosen are to be employed only in continental United States and American possessions.

According to this philosophy of war, shared by France and the United States, the Maginot Line was the last word in assurance of national safety. It was perfect. Germany could not go under it. Germany could not break through it. With the Line holding fast, there was little permanent advantage to be gained by flying over it. But the Germans could go around it; and, unfortunately, this they did.

The British have learned this lesson from France: You cannot defend yourself by sitting behind a wall. You cannot wait for the enemy to attack. The surest defense is a strong offense.

Nor was this defense complex in France confined to military affairs alone; it extended to other aspects of French life. The people of France loved their country dearly. They talked of "la belle France," "la douce France." The peasant was attached to his land, the Parisian to his city. Wherever he might be called upon to do his life work, the Frenchman looked forward to spending his retirement in the place of his birth and it was there that his heart lay. The French made poor colonists. They never took root abroad. They sojourned in foreign lands; their families rarely accompanied them; and few French women were ever happy outside of France. To the Frenchman his country was his pride and pleasure; and he included in his National Treasure the fields, forests, lakes, and mountains, the cathedrals and churches, the museums and historical monuments. He listed them, he visited them, he enjoyed them to the utmost. Among these national treasures he placed the social system and the plan of government and law.

It was to help the citizen to appreciate this heritage that the elaborate system of civic education was introduced into the schools and required of all pupils of all grades. The teachers were carefully trained. Textbooks and materials of instruction were meticulously prepared. What was learned by the ten-year-old was elaborated for the adolescent. His course included such topics as the nation and the citizen; government and law; patriotism; the rights of the citizen; the administration of government; duties of the citizen with respect to law, public interest, education, taxation, military service, and voting; executive, legislative, and judicial functions in the locality, department, and nation; international relations; the League of Nations; and controversial questions such as capital and labor; communism, socialism, fascism, and royalty; social legislation and democracy. The French provided a complete course in civic education. They required it of all. The French citizen knew France. He could pass a good examination in civic education. He could discuss political questions intelligently. He would have starred on Information Please.

This love of France as a country, whether expressed as rapture for Mont Blanc or the Gorges of the Tarn; or veneration for the cathedral at Chartres or the Maison Carree; or pride in the grand boulevards or the steamer "Normandie"; or respect for the National Library or the French "seventy-five"; or understanding of the parliamentary system, the prefect or the mayor; all these made France a collection of objects to defend rather than ideas to perpetuate, and as such were an educational Maginot Line.

But the enemy is not trusting to defense. He is on the offensive. Hitler does not care what the mass of the citizens know. It makes no difference to him whether they can talk about government or not, or pass examinations. Rauschning reports that Hitler stated that he would confer on the great mass, "the blessings of illiteracy." The enterprises of action of Germany are not sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought. By loudspeaker and pageant, by parade and ceremonial, by music, uniform, and salute, Hitler thrills his people to Germany once obscure, now powerful; once weak, now strong; once chaotic, fickle, lawless, now disciplined and obedient; once soft and fearful, now hard and brave. Woden and Thor are summoned to rescue a world degenerating under the Christian ideals of faith, hope, and charity. It is the call to the wild to struggle to survive. It is the summons of the pack. Educationally, it is not intellectual, reflective, passive, or defensive. It is the rolling of thirty-ton educational tanks. It is the screaming swoop of educational dive bombers.

For the past score of years, we in America, just as the people of France, have been under the spell of defense psychology which has extended to our education. Books and articles and speeches have been devoted to the defense of democracy. I myself have advocated it repeatedly. It is quite right that our hearts should thrill with rapture at our rocks and rills, our woods and templed hills. We should know about the resources of our nation and the operation of all parts of our government. We should understand our rights and duties, and we should be intelligent about social, economic, and political problems in order to vote wisely. We should consider how to conquer poverty, unemployment, and disease. But we must not make the mistake of France. Education of this kind is little more than an educational Maginot Line.

Hitler holds the German youth because he convinces them that they belong to a big movement. Behind them lies Germany prostrate; in them Germany is marching; after them Germany will live. They are on the march; and their joy is in that march. It does not matter that they are marching backward not forward; down the hill not up; from their place in the sun to the ice-age cave; from the land of poetry and philosophy to the illiterate tents of Attila; from Gemutlichkeit to brutality; from benevolent autocracy to tyranny. They do not see that the barbed wires of concentration camps are stretching to bound their nation. It is a place in the parade that appeals; and the march to fresh woods and pastures new, even if the woods belong to the Druids and the pastures are dotted with dolmens and menhirs. It is the sense of membership in a great human procession that holds them and carries them onward.

Hitler is marching one way; America the other. We have been longer on the march, in better company, to a nobler end; and the devotion to our cause has been beyond belief and the sacrifice beyond calculation. Our march started long ago; the men and women of recorded history whom we revere marched before us; they showed us the way; and we, in our time, follow in their train. We, Americans, are part of this great procession; and the chief goal of our program of civic education should be to help us to understand our place in time and space, in our history and our world, what this procession is, whence it came, whither it goes, who march with us, or rather whom we march with, and where we belong.

Our procession began as a revolt against tyranny, privilege, and poverty. The world of our ancestors held it self-evident that men were created unequal, that they were divided into the few and the many; that the few alone were endowed by their Creator with the right to life, property, and education, the right to think, speak, decide, rule and order, and the right to transmit these privileges to their children; that the many in turn were endowed by their Creator with the rights of obedience, subservience, ignorance, slavery, death, and the right to pursue and obtain the happiness and security of the sty and stable; that governments were instituted among men preserving the State regardless of the welfare of the individual, deriving their permanent powers from the ignorance, fear, and hunger of the many and the rapacity, resolution, and power of the few.

This world is described in The Golden Bough, in the Greek historians, in Ben Hur, and in A Tale of Two Cities. But it is not necessary, in order to understand the world that our procession leaves behind, to trust to visitation of isolated primitive tribes or to the imaginary reconstruction of ancient societies. It is plainly described in Escape and in The Fire and the Wood. It is pictured in the discourses of Mussolini and Hitler.

The goal toward which our procession moves is not a land bounded by barbed wire. It is a land where they believe that men and women, boys and girls are not ants and bees; that their happiness and safety is different from that of cattle and swine; that God did not make them to be cogs in a machine; that each person is an individual and is to be respected as such; that since God is our father, all men are brothers, and as such are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain rights which by their own act they cannot cede to anyone and no one can take away from them; that these unalienable rights include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which means freedom to worship God as one sees fit and the proscription of religion as an excuse for oppression, freedom of speech, print and assembly, freedom to work and to earn and enjoy the fruits of one's labors, equality before the law, equal voice in government, equal opportunity, and the right to acquire and possess property and to pursue and obtain happiness and safety; and that to give men these rights, governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

The story of the march of this procession across the years should be known in detail by each American. He should watch the little beginnings in ancient times, the ideals and plan of action of the Christians, temporary advances in Greece and Rome, the sporadic beginnings in Bulgaria and Hungary, the trading centers of medieval times, and the Italian cities of the Renaissance. He should admire the steady march of the English and know full well how Bacon and Locke broke down the dam of despair and released the hope of the eighteenth century. In particular the American should recapture the buoyance, the confidence, the youthful enthusiasm of the Fathers of his Country and he should come to share with them their appreciation of the unique role of this young country as the culmination of the movement and as the most promising approximation of the realization of the hopes of mankind. It is significant that the first words spoken by George Washington as President of the United States contained the following often-quoted passage:

The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the Republican model of government are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.

If all Americans were deeply to reflect upon this statement, picture what went before, note what has occurred since, consider the breakdown of almost all representative governments in the world, watch the fire of liberty flicker and so frequently become extinguished, then they would know that George Washington was speaking without exaggeration; then they would understand the obligation and opportunity of America; and as Americans they would see that they are marching shoulder to shoulder with the civilized men of the world.

Macaulay had Horatius ask the rhetorical question:

And how can man die better

Than by facing fearful odds

For the ashes of his Fathers

And the temples of his Gods?

Ideals of the Fathers are more to be prized than their ashes, and tenets of religions more than their temples.

The French prized the temples and the ashes; they could not bear to see Chartres and Bourges destroyed; and these, indeed, have been saved. The day may come when Americans may be forced to choose what they want to keep: Liberty Bell or the independence for which it sounded; Lexington and Concord or the ideals which were defended there; Old North Church or the religious fires that burned so brightly within its walls and inflamed a nation. When that time comes, Americans who have received a proper civic education will make the right choice, for they will know that they are the latest members of a procession of good men who believed that respect for the individual is consistent with national strength; that liberty need not be sacrificed for security; and step by step with their Fathers, in order to defend and advance the nation built to realize these ideals, they, too, will pledge their Lives, their Fortunes, and their sacred Honor.

1This article is a section of the Report of the Dean of Teachers College for the Academic Year Ending June, 1940.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 42 Number 2, 1940, p. 91-98
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 8950, Date Accessed: 10/17/2021 8:44:27 AM

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