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Education's Task in a World at War

by Ernest G. Osborne - 1942

Educators today must face the challenges that an all-out war brings. This article discusses the task for educators.

WHATEVER may have been true in the past, all are agreed that modern warfare calls for the marshaling of the entire resources of a nation. Not only are the activities and interests of each citizen profoundly affected but the objectives and programs of institutions are, and should be, modified in the light of the emergency situation. Along with other groups in our society, educators today must face the challenges that an all-out war brings.

The schools of the nation have not been slow to respond to these challenges. Curricula have been modified to meet specific wartime needs such as the training of technicians. Teachers have participated actively in civilian defense activities. Educational leaders have turned their attention increasingly to the ways in which the schools can best serve the war effort. Neither indifference nor lethargy have characterized the contribution of the teaching profession toward the common task of winning the war.

It is only to be expected, however, that under the necessity for immediate action, ill-considered plans will be proposed and a certain amount of hysteria will prevail. Nor is it unlikely that reactionary forces will take advantage of the fluid nature of the times to forward their own concerns.

Already there are evidences of such trends. During the air-raid alarms on the East Coast immediately after the declaration of war, a great variety of unfortunate regulations were instituted by school administrators. Children were forced to carry outdoor clothing throughout the school day, air-raid drills were organized in such way as to increase fear and insecurity, and teachers were ordered on all-night patrols of school buildings. Plans for wholesale acceleration of educational programs have been hastily proposed and as hastily withdrawn. Bills are at present before state legislatures which would release large groups of young people for agricultural work. Men with outstanding names in the field of education are demanding that school programs be centered largely around one or another specific wartime need. Nor have those who oppose the further development of public education been idle at such a strategic time. State aid has been reduced, class size has been increased, teachers' salaries have been cut, various educational services have been curtailed, all in the name of patriotism and the necessity for increased war effort. In like manner, the traditionalists in education have attacked the "progressive" school for its lack of emphasis on adult-imposed discipline, for its failure to insist that all study higher mathematics, and for a variety of real and imagined weaknesses of modern youth.


What, then, is the task, the opportunity, the challenge facing education in a time like this? Surely it is not one of taking a defensive position, of striving to prove that everything we are and have been doing is fit and proper, or of hanging out a "business as usual" sign. Things move fast in an emergency period, attitudes must be flexible when old established patterns are disturbed and innovations are the order of the day. More than ever before, we must keep our heads lest we find the schools of America at the beck and call of the many and varied forces whose primary objectives are noneducational. We must develop a positive program that will not only contribute to war effort but at the same time move toward our continuing objectivethe development of increasingly effective educative experiences that strengthen the democratic way of life.

A recent publication of the Educational Policies Commission1 makes a real contribution to this essential task. Among the eleven groups of activities proposed are included such direct contributions as the training of workers, production of goods, conservation of materials, and the raising of war funds; such protective functions as promotion of health and physical efficiency, the protection of school children and property against attacks, and the maintenance of democratic ideals in the face of war hazards; such interpretive functions as that of developing intelligent loyalty to American democracy and teaching the aims and issues of the war and the peace. Many excellent suggestions for specific activities are suggested, important cautions are raised, and certain aspects of the significance the war may have for educational progress are pointed out.

It is reasonable to assume, however, that the members of the Commission who approved the pamphlet for publication cannot feel that the final word has been said. There is, and will continue to be, need for the great and the small in education to concern themselves with both the immediate and the persisting educational problems that are being highlighted by the present world situation.

A War Policy for American Schools is an excellent initial document. It should give intelligent direction to the policy-making and program activities of American educators. It is only natural, however, that important questions were overlooked, desirable emphases but lightly touched, and significant factors omitted.


The participation of the United States in this Second World War can have a beneficial effect on American education. Already we have seen how the urgencies of the present situation have led to significant changes in the program of our schools. With real educational statesmanship at the helm, educational practice may well be moved forward a generation within the compass of a few years. It is regrettable that the Commission has placed so little emphasis on this possibility. In a few paragraphs at the end of the document, it is suggested that "the effects of the war on American education need not be adverse." One or two passing suggestions are made about present opportunities to afford work experience for all children, to develop consumer education, to broaden and deepen the concern of all citizens for education, and to dispense with the narrow type of textbook teaching. But nowhere does it seem to be clearly realized that we may be facing conditions peculiarly conducive to the development of better educational practice.

Let us look briefly at some of the ways in which new activities, responsibilities, and relationships may lead to more effective educational practices.

The school may become a more integral part of community life than it has been in the past.

One of the more unfortunate aspects of the history of the American school is the way in which its interests and activities have grown apart from the everyday life and activities of the community of which it is supposedly a part. Too often, it has come to think of itself as a distinct and independent institution and to resent any attempts of other community agencies to assume what it believes to be its peculiar functions. Thus, in not a few communities, one finds administrative officers speaking of "my school" and demonstrating profound indifference to the programs of such groups as the Scouts, the YMCA and YWCA, or the social settlement houses.

In an indirect but no less definite way, it would appear that such an attitude is shown in the above-mentioned pamphlet. It is recommended, for instance (p. 40), that "teachers and pupils together plan the war activities which they can carry on within the school program and during the out-of-school hours available for school activities." It is further suggested that "the registration of pupil volunteers, their assignment to activities and the supervision of projects should take place within the schools." The Commission likewise "strongly disapproves proposals that authority for all or parts of the school's protective program should be placed in the hands of civilian defense officials responsible directly to defense agencies rather than to the superintendent of schools" (p. 16).

Though, in all probability, these recommendations are made with the hope that exploitation of children shall be avoided, the net effect of such policies may well be the development of the impression that the school continues jealously to guard its assumed perquisites at a time when coordinated efforts are of utmost importance. Here, at least, is an area that would seem to need further exploration. In recent years there has scarcely been a more appropriate time for the various educational and child care agencies to learn what thoroughgoing cooperation for the welfare of children can mean.

The country's need for the services of school children and youth may be, as the Commission points out, the hoped-for opportunity through which significant work experience for all children can be provided. On the other hand, it may result in the return of child labor with all the evils thereof. The school must conceive its function to be one of cooperating with agriculture and industry in providing adequate planning for and supervision of children's work experiences both during the school year and in the summer.

The 4-H Club activities, the Future Farmers of America, and various work-study programs in which local schools and business or industry are cooperating suggest feasible ways in which work experience can be provided for larger numbers of children during the school year. The Friends Service Committee Work Camps and other similar ventures have offered significant summer work experiences for high school and college youth. Within the last few months, various proposals have been made as to ways in which the need for agricultural labor can be supplied from school youth. Nor is there any logical reason why the usual pattern of the school year should always be maintained. Not only in the summer, but during the rest of the year, whole groups of high school youth, with their teachers and other leaders, might well participate in needed agricultural and industrial work. Wise leadership would assure both valuable educational experience and important contribution to America's production needs.

With but few exceptions, American teachers have not been expected or even allowed to take any very active part in the life of the communities in which they teach. A number of writers2 have pointed out the restrictions and limitations placed upon teachers. In many towns and cities, the teacher is expected to keep both her personal and professional activities within a limited scope. Politically, she must remain inactive. Socially, many interests and activities considered suitable for other respected community members are denied her. At the same time, it is considered quite legitimate to demand from her extra-school responsibilities, such as Sunday School teaching, that other citizens may be reluctant to assume. In the present emergency, teachers are being assigned to a variety of defense courses many of which seem to have little connection with their competence as educators. For the most part, they have willingly accepted assignments to clerical jobs outside of school hours, such as selective service registration and the distribution of sugar rationing cards.

There is probably no group in the country more willing to be of service to the nation than are the teachers of America. But, it may be properly asked, is it wise to use the time and energies of our teachers in such ways? Are there not needed tasks related to the care and supervision of children for which they are supposedly well trained?

The experience of the British indicates very clearly that during wartime there is need for increased educational and recreational services if one would avoid delinquency arising out of the excitement, confusion, and uncertainty of wartime life. It is in the development of more adequate school and community programs for children and youth that we should be using our teachers. And as they work shoulder to shoulder with other community leaders in planning and carrying out suitable programs, we shall have every reason to expect that the quality of teaching will thereby be improved.

Up to the present, no move has been made to defer male teachers and recreation leaders under the Selective Service Act. It may be that we shall find ourselves with the same regrets that the British report. The wholesale enlistment and induction of schoolmasters and recreation workers has apparently resulted in a lack of youth leadership that might have, in some measure, prevented the tremendous increase in the delinquency rate.

During the last decade, a handful of educational leaders3 have reemphasized a long-felt need, closer cooperation of the school with community life.

The many decisions that education faces today, the problems arising out of the demands of a wartime economy, are ones which can only be met intelligently through joint thinking and joint effort. Out of such thinking and effort, we may develop schools that are truly community schools.

There would seem to be real merit in the suggestion that educational advisory councils representing youth, parents, teachers, and various groups of community workers, be organized in every city, town, and village. The protection of children, effective contribution to war effort, and maintenance of adequate educational leadership are concerns that require the best thinking of the entire community.

Nor is it likely that effective programs of participation in community activities will end when the emergency is over. Wherever groups such as those mentioned have really worked together, the advantages of coordinated planning will be so obvious as to insure continued effort.

A closer relationship between the home and the school may be developed.

Logically, one would expect to find close and friendly cooperation between parents and teachers. Each group is keenly interested in the welfare of the child. Each plays a significant part in his development. Unfortunately, logic does not always prevail. Today, in spite of fine work done by parent-teacher associations, there still exists a good deal of mistrust, suspicion, and unfriendliness between those who live with children in schools and those who live with them in homes. The reasons for such a relationship are varied and complex.4 But they should be of little moment when children need added physical and emotional protection. The times should give decided impetus to closer relationship between home and school.

The Commission suggests that parents should be kept informed of the measures taken by the school for the protection of children and that teachers should know the home circumstances of children through home visits and other contacts between schools and homes.

Some parents will be deeply disturbed by the war. Their attitudes are likely to have definite effects on their children. Understanding teachers may often be able to give reassurance to such parents and thereby help children avoid fear and uncertainty. Each teacher, who herself is able to maintain the desired stability, may be a tower of strength to the families with whom she is in contact.

The added security which comes to a child when his parents and his teacher have a common understanding of his attitudes and behavior is important at all rimes, but especially vital when there are so many new experiences, uncertainties, and confusions. Home visits, joint social activities for children, parents, and teachers, school visiting and participation of parents in some of the work of the school will all contribute to the building of the family's morale.

Parent participation in the planning and carrying out of precautionary measures for the safety of children should be enlisted. Not only can the extra adult supervision be used to advantage, but parents will have a greater feeling of assurance when they have had a part in planning for children's safety.

In a variety of other ways, too, the school should call on individual parents and on groups for help in building a strong wartime program along the lines suggested by the Commission. Their understanding of various phases of community life and their contacts in the community will be of great importance in the development of educationally sound community-service activities for the school. Those parents who are taking part in civilian defense activities can help school personnel and children decide what phases of these activities may be appropriate and feasible for children and youth. Those who have experience and ability in the care of young children, gardening, first-aid activities, or other areas in which children can make a contribution may offer their services as instructors. Through the school, children from families in which one or both parents are engaged in military or other defense activities, may be invited to take part in the activities of families which are still intact. If the schools plan summer work or camp experiences for groups of children, parents may cooperate with teachers and recreation leaders in the necessary supervision. The effectiveness of children's efforts in salvaging waste materials may well be increased through cooperation of parents in the development of plans and procedures. With increasing demands on children's time and energy, it is essential that they be protected from overmuch pressure. Parents and teachers, as they pool their observations of the way in which children respond to wartime activities, can avoid unwholesome reactions far better when their efforts are coordinated.

If through joint participation in the common tasks of morale building, conservation of materials, promotion of health, protection of life and property in the many specific ways that are already being developed, parents and teachers can learn to work effectively together, a tremendous contribution will have been made to educational practice.

More effective democratic practices may be developed 'within the school.

In the last decade or so, there has been a great deal of talk about democracy and the schools. Over and over again, it has been pointed out that the relationships between administrative officers and teachers as well as those between teachers and pupils were seldom cast in the democratic mold. Now that we are engaged in a war to preserve the democratic way of life, it seems even more pertinent that special emphasis be given to the development of more effective democracy in the operation of our schools.

The Commission report recognizes this by stating the belief (p. 27) that loyalty to the democratic ideal can be developed by "providing an example of democracy in the actual operation of the schools, in the relationships among teachers, among students, between teachers and administrators and between students and the teaching personnel." It further states (p. 39) that "for the promotion of morale and efficiency as well as for the maintenance of the schools as practice laboratories for democratic living, students and teachers should be given opportunities to share in the formation of local programs and policies on matters in which they are, or may learn to be, competent."

These are commendable sentiments. But there is the danger that they may remain only sentiments. Already some administrators are justifying seemingly arbitrary and undemocratic actions by pointing out the need for quick decision and instant action. No one can deny that there is need for such decision and action at times. For the most part, however, there is both the time and the necessity for intelligent cooperative planning by children, teachers, parents, and administrators.

Here and there one finds descriptions of the ways in which schools are promoting practical everyday functioning democracy. The American Youth Commission is aware of more than six hundred projects throughout the United States in which school-age youth are learning the ways of democracy through participation in community activities of social significance. There is reason to believe that within the next year such projects should increase tenfold.

In such activities as the checking of soil erosion, making surveys of stream pollution, cooperating with civil defense officials in "airplane spotting," or in fire control, growing and canning food, salvaging materials, renovating clothing, etc,, there are outstanding opportunities for development of initiative, responsibility, cooperation, and many qualities essential to an effectively functioning citizen of a democracy.

The shift from fixed textbook type of school work to experience activities important to community life and, today, especially to various kinds of war work affords the opportunity for experience in democratic living. Children will often know more than their teachers about certain practical activities. New tasks bring the necessity for new plans and procedures. It will be increasingly natural and desirable to have widespread participation of youngsters in such plans.

Perhaps the war will make us more keenly aware of the necessity for planning and carrying out specific activities through which children, teachers, parents, and administrators are pooling their experience and sharing in decisions. But it will only be through constant emphasis on the importance of concrete democratic practices that we can avoid having the fetish of efficiency dominate the school picture as it has for so many years and result in the continuation of dictatorial practices.

The impact of the war has been sudden and telling. It has shown clearly what some of the weaknesses in our educational program are. It has dissolved some of the rigid traditions which have been built up through the years. Such sudden change can result either in chaos and confusion or in accelerated but orderly educational progress. The challenge to teachers, to parents, to administrators, and to the community as a whole is one of building lasting and desirable practices and relationships through the new demands being made on the schools. A few of the ways in which this may be done have been suggested. There is a persisting need for the development of further procedures through which community-centered education, home-school cooperation, and democratic practices within the school may be developed.

1 A War Policy for American Schools. Educational Policies Commission, Washington, D. C. February, 1942.

2 For example: Beale, Howard K. Are American Teachers Free? Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1936.

Elsbree, Willard. The American Teacher. The American Book Company, New York, 1939.

3 Hanna, Paul. Youth Serves the Community. D. Appleton-Century Co., New York, 1936.

Clapp, Elsie R. Community Schools in Action. The Viking Press, New York, 1939.

Everett, Samuel (Editor). The Community School. D. Appleton-Century Co., New York, 1938.

4 Osborne, Ernest G. "Home and SchoolTwo Worlds or One?" National Parent-Teacher Magazine, Vol. 35, pp. 11-13, May, 1941.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 43 Number 7, 1942, p. 538-547
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 9081, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 3:54:26 AM

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