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Youth and the Imperative Mood


by Goodwin Watson - 1942

We are entering with youth an epoch dominated by three great imperatives: (1) World organization; (2) Increased democracy; and (3) Planning for abundance. Each is a continuation of some trends from the past, but each calls upon us in education to counteract powerful and long-standing habits of thought which have tolerated blind isolation, dictatorships at home and abroad, and economic anarchy leading to depressions.

NOT long ago a promotion letter from Time magazine congratulated us on “the tragic privilege of . . . taking part in the greatest world-wide military crisis since Napoleon, the greatest economic crisis since Adam Smith, the greatest human crisis since medieval times.”1


We find a fresh challenge in our educational tasks when we ask how youth are to be prepared for such a stupendous assignment. Clearly, youth now must! Youth now must—there is no one else!


Youth! You have seen their faces in little country high schools and big mass-production city schools. Faces of boys that break easily into broad grins—faces of girls with eyes that dance. Other faces—some with freckles, some with adolescent acne, some with too much makeup, some scowling because to wear glasses would be a social handicap—these are the youth who now live under great imperatives. You know their character—some soft as raw liver, others brittle as dry toast, but many with real strength.


They are truly a new generation. Theirs is the first generation in all their line of ancestry to be born in hospitals, to be inoculated for diptheria, to take psychological tests or vitamin pills. More profoundly their lives are new. They are the first generation to grow up amid breathless expectation of social change; the first to reside in communities where the church exerts only a minor influence; the first to hear in their homes voices of men speaking actually in London, Berlin, Moscow, or Tokio; the first whose glamour heroes have been married, divorced, remarried, divorced and falling in love again; the first to face an America in which they may be no chance for an eager youth to find work and no profitable opportunity for investing savings.


Their ambitions are not new. You may remember that young mechanic who had a job last summer and can't get through school and back at work soon enough; the pretty girl who yearns for a screen test; the class president who would never admit his consuming ambition to be the nation's President; the sensible-looking young woman who plans to be a teacher; and the many who don't care too much and will take whatever turns up. You hear their jokes, their sports chatter, and their swinging songs: "I guess I'll have to dream the rest." . . . "I don't want to set the world on fire." . . .


Seniors now—in a few months they will be on the assembly lines, and in their ability to keep up with the endless flow of machines will lie our strongest defense. A man or woman soon gets too old for the pace; there is no one but youth to take it. Some will squeeze into the cramped quarters of tanks, and, knocked brutally about in that confining space, learn to bear the burden of assault. We older ones can't do it—too slow, too fat, too soft. There is no one but youth for the tanks. Some will man the destroyers and cruisers and new submarines that keep a path cleared across both great seas. Men soon grow too old for swift action on rough seas; there is no one but youth for the Navy. Some will be flying the new planes, rolling off now by the thousands each month. The great flyers are still young because everything depends on subtle adjustments—quicker adjustments than middle age can make. We may double or treble or quadruple our output of planes, but we cannot now add to our eighteen-year-olds.


The imperative mood is a new experience for us. Some youth have lived in the active and some in the passive—but words like "obligation" and "duty" have stimulated mainly the shoulder-shrug reflex. The seniors in high school today were born in the twenties of parents once known as flaming youth and once remarkable for their defiance of Prohibition. The slogans of youth have a direct line of descent from—"I should worry!" and "Let George do it," a generation ago, to yesterday's "You only live once and you're a long time dead." "Only saps work!" "Oh, yeah?" "What's the percentage in that?" "Why should I stick my neck out?" and "So what?" And now destiny issues an ultimatum: "Youth must!" Must what?

THE THREE IMPERATIVES


Out of the turmoil of world events emerge with, increasing clarity three great imperatives. They are laid upon us now, but they are not passing or temporary urgencies. They are not emergency educational measures, although the present emergency desperately demands them. They are likely to remain central objectives for a century. No subject of study and no practice of school administration will remain unaffected by these three imperatives. No student or teacher can slight them except at personal and social peril. There may be in education some matters of taste and election; these are matters of "must"! Youth must—and we must help—no matter how our classroom habits and subject matter loyalties may be disturbed. If we fail here—the rest of our work collapses. If there are minimum essentials for our generation, they derive their valid command from these three imperatives:


First, youth must establish world order!

Second, youth must extend democratic controls!

Third, youth must plan sustained economic abundance!


Simply stated, these demands are so obviously important that it would be a waste of time to argue for them. Let us rather consider what it will take to achieve them.

World Order


The world has grown smaller during the lifetime of our present high school generation. When those now seniors were born, radio broadcasts were just beginning. Airplanes flew only 200 miles per hour. The first telephone conversation was radioed across the Atlantic when they were three. They were four when Lindbergh flew to Paris. When they were entering school the Graf Zeppelin circled the world in twenty-one days, and two years later Post and Gatty flew around the globe in eight. Clipper service on the Pacific began when they were twelve; on the Atlantic, only two years ago. Now, weather permitting, a steady stream of bombers flies between Newfoundland and Britain and the world has shrunk to a neighborhood.


Distant events have broken into our homes.


Eighteen years ago today a loaf of bread sold in Germany for 140 billion marks—a 600 per cent rise in price overnight. Children went to school hungry, having had no breakfast, carrying no lunch, with slim prospects of dinner.


It was about the time our seniors were born that a group of young men, excited by the fanatical oratory of Adolf Hitler, proclaimed him Chancellor in the Munich beer-hall Putsch. The world laughed. The New York Times editorialized about "that crazy movement, inspired by persons better fitted for the comic opera stage than for a serious effort to overthrow the Berlin government." A short fifteen years passed, and another scene was played on the Munich stage, as premiers of France and Britain made a fabulous peace offering to one who had been dubbed "comic opera lunatic."


Slowly and painfully we have learned that indifference to aggression does not bring immunity to its consequences. The seniors of today were eight years old when Japan invaded Manchuria. America protested, but there were those in power in Britain who were more tolerant, and we shrugged our shoulders. Asia seemed remote. Our prospective graduates were ten when the Reichstag was burned, Hitler became Chancellor, and the axis powers withdrew from a League of Nations we had never been willing to enter. We heard the news but it was still far from us. Our students were eleven when Dollfuss suppressed the democratic forces of Austria, only to be himself more than suppressed by the Nazis. America stayed neutral. The boys and girls of our senior class were studying African geography in the sixth grade when Mussolini bombed and invaded Ethiopia. We put clippings on the bulletin board, but with no thought that it might be our fight away off on those barbaric desert sands. By the time that class had gotten into the social studies of junior high school, Franco's rebels were attacking Republican Spain. Some of us were disturbed, but as a nation we followed France and Britain in deciding to call for Pilate's basin, to wash our hands of all responsibility, and to close our eyes to Fascist intervention. The next year the Japanese moved into North China, but we only sold Japan more iron and oil. Hitler marched triumphantly into Vienna and we said with Britain—"That is no affair of ours!" Our present seniors were supposed to be concerned about algebra and ancient history while Chamberlain brought back the ignominious "Peace in our time." Shortly after that class moved into tenth grade the invasion of Poland at last convinced the British that neutrality was a trust betrayed. Before that year was out, Scandinavia, Belgium, and Holland had found that solemn promises were broken overnight and that those who mind their own business are not guaranteed independence.


Tonight the military machine dominates from Berlin and Rome and Tokio, an area twice as great as the United States with five times the population. A military threat which could have been stopped easily at early stages had we not mistakenly placed our trust in neutrality now cuts deeply into all our lives. Boys give up careers for camp. Our budgets suffer. Already a fifth of our national productive power goes for defense. Soon it will be a fourth—a third—a half. Our income available for consumption may go below the poorest depression years.


We know now the heavy price of world disorder, but we have not yet seriously undertaken to plan a more effective world order. For twenty years America has tried to achieve world peace by covenants. Locarno—when our high school seniors were only two—promised peace for Europe. The Kellogg-Briand pact—signed by sixty nations while our present seniors were still in first grade, outlawed war forever. In the golden haze of 1929, Ramsay Macdonald sat on a log with Herbert Hoover at Rapidan and planned new disarmaments. Our seniors were only third graders when a World Economic Conference met expensively in London to straighten our financial ills. In 1933—only eight years ago—Hitler and Mussolini signed with France and England a four-power pact guaranteeing peace for ten years. Later nonaggression pacts were signed between Germany and Poland, Italy and Ethiopia, Germany and the Soviet Union. If preference for peace, or conferences, or solemn pacts could prevent war there would be none today. Our youth were brought up under leaders who put their faith in international structures built on sand.


It is hard to learn the most obvious lessons of history; they have had a chance to become so obvious because they were hard to learn. American youth were not prepared to defend peace, so today they must prepare for war. We shall, if we are wise, prepare most of them to be machinists rather than infantrymen. In modern war if there is enough superiority in equipment relatively few men are needed. Even this lesson is hard for adults, who think in terms of past wars. A recent Gallup poll showed a two to one vote favoring military training in high school.2 What did they mean by military training—learning to operate lathes, to drive trucks, to travel over strange country alone, to solve algebra problems, to puzzle out the heart of an atom, to keep cool in hard-fought games, and to steel themselves against race prejudice? Or were they still thinking in the old terms of uniforms, marching, obedience, and drill rather than in more realistic terms of industrial production, individual initiative, ingenuity, and ready intelligence? The most successful aviators of the R.A.F, would never be tolerated by traditional top sergeants.


What we need most in defense preparation now is determination to go the whole way on new paths. We slowly realize that we shall never check world disorder with one hand while business goes on as usual. America has evaded all-out effort, hoping in vain to find some pleasanter path. We hoped our customary ways would be good enough. Now the imperative is on us. We must win a war, and what is still harder, win the peace!


Youth of America—what is your road to peace? What do teachers find youth thinking?


Do they know what efforts have failed? Neutrality and isolation haven't worked. Picking scapegoats is no answer; it will be as futile to hang Hitler in 1945 as it would have been to hang the Kaiser in 1918. Reparations and debts have proven uncollectable. Winning one war and running out on the rest of the world only breeds another conflict. If there is to be another League of Nations, we shall have to stay in it and support it. What about an international police force with abolition of all national armaments? An international currency? Free trade? No more colonies? Can we preserve cultural autonomy without little national governments?


Have you made time to think these problems out with students? Perhaps you are supposed to teach languages or history, or science or mathematics or English or agriculture. Whatever your subject, world order can become a major theme. How can we be good neighbors and build in this new, closely interrelated world, out of the chaos which threatens, a good neighborhood? Shall we keep American factories running, full blast, after the war, to produce streamlined housing for all the world even though we know that our customers' credit isn't too good? Should we plan now for an expeditionary force of teachers and group workers to help European boys and girls who have grown up under dictatorships to learn the ways of democracy?

Democratic Control


These questions bring us into the area of our second imperative, Democracy, Democratic control. Extension of the democratic way of living.


Again as we look back over the life story of our youth we see how much they will have to unlearn. Most of them grew up in homes where the demands of father or mother, or perhaps of the child himself, were taken as law, and where little practice in democratic planning was given. Most of them went to schools where the curricula were prescribed by remote dictators and enforced by that petty tyranny which used to pass for classroom discipline. Most of them have known only employers who expected their hirelings to do as they were told without presuming to help plan the business in which they had found jobs.


Looking out at the state of the world the picture has been no less heavily weighted against democracy. Dictatorships in Russia, Hungary, and Italy were set up before our present seniors were born. Primo de Rivera took over dictatorship in Spain and Kemal Ataturk in Turkey before our pupils were old enough to talk. Nobody then spoke of fighting dictators to save democracy. "Democratic" Britain was the most powerful force behind dictatorships which soon arose in Greece and Portugal. The dictatorship over India and Burma was and still is British. Dictatorships arising more than ten years ago in Poland and Yugoslavia did not prevent their alliance with France. The reputed democracy of our Western hemisphere was not much upset over the forceful dictatorships of several Latin-American nations.


If democratic ideals are to come into action educators must help youth unlearn their tolerance of tyranny. The acceptance of the drift of things does not guarantee a defense of democracy.


Increasingly our schools are becoming democratic institutions. Teachers, parents, and pupils are working on joint committees to plan what is to be done and how it is to be done. This week I visited a college where it is accepted practice on the community government projects for faculty and students to serve sometimes under student chairmen. There ought to be freedom and appropriate procedures in every high school so that pupils who may feel that certain subject requirements are less valuable for them than some other things they might be doing can have their point of view considered and a voice in the decision. We badly need now appropriate social machinery for effective protest by any pupils, teachers, or parents who are subjected to autocratic, dictatorial, authoritarian orders from teachers, supervisors, principals, superintendents, or other officials. Granted that most educators now are trying to practice democracy, we still need some way of curbing dictatorial impulses in certain individuals. Perhaps your state teachers association can devise the necessary democratic curbs. Here is a battlefront far more significant for the defense of democracy than amateur fire-fighting or knitting sweaters. The fight for democracy begins on our own jobs, and if we don't win it there, we shall not gain much from conquests overseas. If our pupils have learned to fight dictatorships, to set up democratic rules, and to gain skill in making democracy work in their own classes and clubs, those pupils will go out better equipped to overthrow dictatorships in labor unions, factory management, city government, churches, or other social agencies.


Again it should be stressed that this is a task for all teachers, not only for teachers of the social sciences. Every teacher-pupil relationship, in elementary or secondary school or college, enhances or defeats democratic ideals. In the struggle toward democracy, we shall need the resources of history, psychology, biology, English, art, and many other fields of study. Every class affords opportunity to set up committees which will practice the essential democratic skills of tolerance, listening to the other fellow, discussing with fair-mindedness, discounting propaganda, planning constructively, delegating responsibility, and cooperating cheerfully in carrying out group decisions which may not exactly suit the individual. I learned a lesson from a colleague recently, who, after he had vigorously stated his disagreement with our plans, added, "One of the reasons free speech is tolerated in a democracy is that minorities learn when to stop talking. Democracy rests on self-restraint; I've had my say."

Planning an Economy


We turn now to our third imperative—planning an economy which can give us sustained abundance. The most serious morale weakness in America is the chronic doubt about our economic future. We can take hardships now, but we want to know that beyond the period of sacrifice there is a reasonable hope of jobs for all and for the elimination of poverty. Our youth are no better prepared by their past experience for this kind of planning than they have been for world organization or for democracy. Our pupils who were born on farms have lived all their lives under the shadow of that economic depression which began twenty years ago in agriculture. The stock market and business collapse hit our present seniors when they were only six, and they have never experienced the full employment which ought to be a dependable feature of any defensible economic order. They were only fourteen when, in 1937, federal spending was cut and our economy took the steepest six-month tailspin in its history. Yet the technocrats a decade ago had made the country dimly aware of immense potential wealth. Youth adjusted to the paradox of poverty amid plenty as other generations had accepted malaria, smallpox, and typhoid as the natural conditions of existence.


Now while the colossal ruin of war removes temporarily the threat of abundance, all our factories, farms, mines, and the trained skills of all our workers are being used. But what lies beyond this war? How shall we use the new factories and our added millions of trained workers after the defense program ends?


It is of profound significance that, in the recent Fortune poll, more than 90 per cent of the leaders of American business predicted that we would never go back to the private enterprise system which they personally had found so attractive. They agreed that social planning and public control in some form are here to stay.3


No one will call this wishful thinking. Business still fights the coming change. With all its faults they loved the old order—especially those among them who had grown rich and powerful by its aid. Now they see the sands in the glass run out.


"One full age is ended and its time.

We are the makers of another world."4


If sometimes the older generation are nostalgic for the life now past, let us remember that youth finds its life stirred by hopes for the future. It is exciting to live in a day when the great steel girders of the world are hot, molten, and in flux, so they can be given a shape which will last for generations.


One promise of hope comes from the attention now being given to planning for prosperity and production after the war. Our United States Commissioner of Labor Statistics heads one national committee at work on postwar planning. The National Resources Planning Board is also laying out a program for continuous prosperity. The most recent Fortune Round Table offered a wealth of constructive suggestions, such as that made by Mr. Prince, vice-president of General Electric Company, that every industry should build up now a "bank" of new inventions on which to start work when defense needs decline. The Twentieth Century Fund is a research foundation now devoting all its resources to postwar planning. All this is new and very encouraging. We didn't look that far ahead in 1917 or 1928. Agriculture today, with its land-use planning committees in every county and its food-stamp plans for cooperation with relief groups, has been even more creative than industry. Agriculture was forced at first to move toward scarcity because all other groups—manufacturers, mine owners, labor in the building trades, yes, even teachers and doctors—had set up a pattern of reducing production to maintain prices. Today, however, the great democratic machinery of agricultural planning stands ready to be used, if we have the vision, within a society which is determined to sustain a high standard of living for all its citizens. Another example of success may be found in the Tennessee Valley Authority with its demonstration that planning over an area as large as England can be done from the grass roots and need not be imposed by the brass hats.


We find ourselves asking not whether the schools can lead the way to a new society but whether education is enabling youth even to keep up with the advance of industry, agriculture, and government toward economic reconstruction after the present emergency.


Out of these many efforts a few issues now emerge so clearly that we should be discussing them in high schools.


We shall be able to produce a very high standard of living once this war is out of the way. We shall have steel, aluminum, motors, and many other goods in quantities never approached before. What shall we do with this wealth? Rebuild Europe? Rehouse America? Either surely would be better than to shut down the mills.


Another suggestion worth discussing is the Keynes plan for saving part of our income now, partly to stop the competition of our purchasing with defense needs and partly so that we may have millions saved to flow out in domestic purchasing when the war ends.


In recent years our national income has totaled about seventy-five billion dollars. It now looks as though it might take twice that—one hundred fifty billion dollars—to consume the output of our annual full-capacity production. How shall we meet this situation? Shall we double everyone's income, meanwhile controlling prices? Or, should prices be cut in half? Surely we shall want to support every effort to raise standards of living in that half of our population who have been unable in the past to do their share of buying.


This brings us very directly to the labor movement, its effort to raise wages, and its role in our American future. So vigorous have been the attacks on labor in newspapers and in Congress that citizens are asking, "Is labor getting too much power?" "Should strikes be curbed?"


The best answer always, and this is especially true for educators, is to turn from scare headlines to the facts. How has labor fared these last two years since the war began? Reports from the United States Department of Labor5 show that weekly earnings in American industry are now 33 per cent higher than they were two years ago, but half of that rise is due to longer hours of work. The hourly rate of pay this fall in America averages 74 cents an hour, which is 14 per cent above what it was when the war began in 1939. Now, what has happened to profits during this same period? Reports from the Federal Reserve Bank tell that story. Reports from 808 corporations, representing the great bulk of American industry, show profits for the first half of 1941, 70 per cent above 1939. Keep those figures in mind—labor's rate of pay is now up 14 per cent—capital's return is up 70 per cent! Maybe some legislation is needed to curb profiteering in national defense, but labor hardly qualifies as the worst offender. In some industries, notably steel, coal, and airplanes, profits are now running more than 200 per cent above prewar levels. It is interesting that strikes have been most prominent in coal mines, steel and airplane factories. The discrepancy is really more extreme than these figures show. Profits in most companies were calculated after deducting a big reserve with which to pay anticipated taxes. No such provision has been made in labor returns. To be fair, we should deduct the direct and indirect taxes from labor's increased earnings. The gains would then appear smaller than the increase in cost of living during this same period.


Labor is far from perfect—no organization of human beings is free from faults and those newly risen to power are likely to be most clumsy in its use. There is a promise of better relations between employer and employee ahead when we look at labor's record in fields like the clothing industry, where the unions have long been stronger than the employers. There, as you know, and as I hope your pupils do, labor has pioneered with credit unions, excellent housing projects, worth-while adult education, and finer recreational provisions for union members and their families than the best that Soviet Russia could ever put in its show-window. Perhaps your pupils also know that industrial engineers are employed by these clothing unions to help their employers plan their business more efficiently. You remember that Walter Reuther, of the U.A.W., suggested a plan for decentralizing defense production and saving small shops a year before the government really took this need seriously. The C.I.O. eighteen months ago proposed the kind of inventory which the S.P.A.B. is now about to make. Philip Murray's plan for councils in each industry with representatives of employers, labor, and government was rejected, but something of the sort might have prevented many of the present disputes.


It is important to stress these constructive contributions of organized labor, partly because of the virulent anti-labor campaign in most newspapers, in radio news reports, but also because most of our pupils will be workers and few will be employers. The typical union member will soon be a high school graduate. The average boy or girl today has a better chance to influence the planning of American business by becoming a labor leader than he or she would have by ascending the old ladders of ownership or public office. The progress of labor during the lifetime of our present high school pupils has been striking. The first labor government in England came into office while our present seniors were still in their cradles. Today labor governments rule in Australia and New Zealand, while labor has more representation in the Cabinet of the conservative Winston Churchill than in the New Deal.


There is one other aspect of planning which comes close to the life of every community. We can predict that even with the best efforts of private industry there will remain a large number of workers, young and old, not needed to grow food or mine the earth or tend machines. We shall need to employ them in work like teaching, public health, and community recreation, which is never likely to be done by machines. To prevent hasty and improvised schemes, plans should be drawn up now. Every high school pupil should be required as one essential test before graduation to list and defend the projects most needed by his community if ever again any able-bodied men or women should want work. Some communities need kindergarten and nursery schools, others public auditoriums, little theaters, health services, swimming pools, tennis courts, golf links, motor highways, more bus service, libraries, assistance to overworked housekeepers, and scores of other projects. Every community should have its distinctive crafts in which its artists take pride, We have more work needing to be done than has ever been required to give employment to every person who wants to work. To any of you who may wonder how these projects are to be paid for, let me say very briefly two things. One is that employing people to render a needed service always enriches the community more and costs less than to support potential workers in idleness. The second is that a large public payroll is just as much an asset and no more of a liability than the payroll of a private business enterprise of similar size. Both public and private enterprises necessarily draw their income from the consuming public and both alike pay out their receipts in wages which raise the buying power of the local community. We need not fear to plan boldly to use in public-sponsored projects all workers not needed for private industry.


In conclusion, I hope that your perfectly proper disagreement over details on which I have undoubtedly been mistaken, will not have obscured the main outline of this message. We are entering with youth an epoch dominated by three great imperatives: (1) World organization; (2) Increased democracy; and (3) Planning for abundance. Each is a continuation of some trends from the past, but each calls upon us in education to counteract powerful and long-standing habits of thought which have tolerated blind isolation, dictatorships at home and abroad, and economic anarchy leading to depressions. The three imperatives of our era combine in a message of hope. Whatever and wherever we teach, if we can help our pupils move toward democratic economic reconstruction on a world-wide scale, we shall be giving youth something more precious than rubies. More deeply than anything else, youth needs purpose—a goal—something to live for! When the future seems blocked and hopeless, morale disintegrates and character decays. Youth is willing to give blood, sweat, and tears if all that is a necessary part of a program which leads where youth wants to go. Youth lives in futures. We teachers are architects of what shall be; in our classrooms are embryonic worlds; education takes place at the heart of humanity-becoming. To implement the dreams of youth for their House of Tomorrow is the teacher's noblest opportunity. You will not fail them—and American youth will not fail in their tryst with Destiny.








1 An address delivered before the High School Conference of the University of Illinois at Urbana, November 6, 1941.

2 Poll conducted by George Gallup, Director, American Institute of Public Opinion, Princeton, N. J. See also The New York Times for January 20, 1942.

3 See Fortune poll, Fortune Magazine, November, 1941.

4 From Engle, Paul. Break the Heart's Anger, p. 189. Doubleday, Doran, and Company, New York, 1935.

5 See Labor Information Bulletins, published by the United States Department of Labor. Data on average weekly and hourly wages are included each month.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 43 Number 5, 1942, p. 387-400
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 9094, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 6:45:54 PM

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