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The Educator Studies His Task in the War Situation

by Donald Peery Cottrell - 1943

This analysis is based upon the conviction, not only that teachers and other educators themselves must be doing straight thinking about their jobs, but also that whatever education can do in the war effort will take its bearing from the way in which the American people see the war and its possible outcomes.

PROFESSIONAL workers in education have given ample evidence in recent months that they may be counted upon to put every ounce of energy into the war effort. They know that this war will settle for this generation, at least, certain important questions. Will America continue in her dedicated purpose to build a life of freedom and humane culture for all men, or will she enter a period in which these values progressively decline? Will the future be one of rule by brute force guided by primitive myths upholding the superiority of certain races and classes and the inevitability of slavery and personal degradation in human society? Education will have a large stake in the settlement of these issues.

We are today united in purpose but tremendously perplexed as to how this purpose is to be realized, insofar as the organized program of education is concerned. We know that what we do in these critical months will later be judged by standards of statesmanship. We know that we must put first things first and we are struggling for some measure of wisdom as to what this may mean for the operation of schools, colleges, and other educational institutions. What does it mean for the day-to-day experiences provided for the children, youth, and adults with whom we deal? And what does it mean for our leadership in building popular attitudes that will govern decisions as to public policy in the immediate future? Such questions as these define the general problem of this conference.

In approaching the deliberations of these meetings, perhaps it will be helpful very briefly to analyze the educational situation today in order to discover conditions or trends that will affect the educational program. Such an analysis will of necessity reflect the general viewpoint and outlook of the one who makes it. You may not find it acceptable in every respect, but you may find it a useful point of departure for subsequent discussions.

I should like to divide the analysis into two parts, the first part relating to certain conditions and needs with which many educators are now becoming vitally concerned because they touch so immediately the programs of the schools, and the second dealing with certain factors of more general nature in American life, which educators are perhaps not so accustomed to regard as directly related to the schools, but which, in my opinion, are of vital significance at the present time. This entire analysis will be based upon the conviction, not only that teachers and other educators themselves must be doing straight thinking about their jobs, but also that whatever education can do in the war effort will take its bearing from the way in which the American people see the war and its possible outcomes. Every course of instruction that we devise, every educational program that we organize, from the most direct effort to develop technical skills to the most subtle means of instilling loyalty and a spirit of sacrifice will be built upon certain profound realities in the minds of the people, their motives, their beliefs, their aspirations.


I would now call your attention to three factors of outstanding importance in the present situation that seem to me to require the direct and immediate attention of educators.

First, there are evident and pressing needs for schools and colleges to serve in implementing the programs of government. The public school is strategically situated to serve in this respect, since it is the only organized institution that can quickly and intimately touch the lives of all the people in the face-to-face relationships of local community life. Consequently it is natural for the school to be asked to help in consumer programs, in bond sales campaigns, in directly preparing young men for induction into the armed services, in quickly improving the physical stamina of the citizens, and in many other immediately necessary tasks.

There is no question presently before us as to whether these things should be done by government or as to whether schools should help, to the extent of their ability, in doing them. The only question is as to ho*w the schools can help in these tasks and help in all of them at once, with due regard for the largest possible sense of responsibility for education which it is the duty of the educator to muster. In these matters the educational profession becomes, in a very real sense, a part of the government of the people, with a responsibility not only for carrying out the work of government, but also for contributing its best insights to the formulation of policies that are sound from the educational point of view.

Second, the war is taking an alarming toll in the moral life of young people upon the home front. That this consequence was to have been expected makes it nonetheless a matter of great concern and one that calls for deliberate and positive attention. Juvenile delinquency is rapidly mounting. The customary foundations of family life are being shattered, with the consequent disappearance of the security of the home for the young. Education is being saddled with responsibilities for guidance that are greater than ever before and that are thus far proving too great to be discharged efficiently.

There is also a positive side to the picture. Youth, who were but a few years ago regarding themselves as forgotten and unwanted members of the community, now have a great task to perform, a great cause to live and work for. They are rising to this challenge magnificently, as is manifest not only in schools but also on the production lines of industry and in the armed services.

Nevertheless, the schools have an urgent need more broadly to conceive their programs to care for the turbulent consequences of war in the moral standards of the community. This will in many cases mean an expansion of school personnel, facilities, and activities. A larger concept of public relations for education will be necessary to provide for such expansion. The public and the school together must assume the responsibility. To bring the public to share active responsibility for the school program will in many places be no mean achievement.

An attentive concern for the moral consequences of war upon the home front will also necessitate that teachers make a much more thoroughgoing examination than they have done of the moral basis upon which the community life of our country is built. How shall we guide youth in worthy directions unless we can speak with confidence, for ourselves, as to the motives, values, and techniques for which we are willing to give our last full ounce of devotion? Is there one of us who now feels really prepared as a teacher to face squarely the conflicts and contradictions which beset the sensitive young person who undertakes to assume the responsibilities of maturity under the conditions and practices characteristic of business, politics, industry, religion, family life, and social relations in the typical American community? Most of us have yet a great deal of work to do to prepare for teaching.

Third, the traditional responsibility of public education to conserve the cultural heritage of our forefathers, as well as to safeguard with enlightenment the total intellectual foundation of popular self-government, is today more difficult and yet more "profoundly necessary than ever before. The multitude of tasks of the moment press upon us, while the historic professional trust of public education for cultural leadership has a critical significance today. It is imperative that educators bring about some kind of order and fundamental educational continuity amid the confusion of special emergency work that presents itself for education to do.

A great system of public schools and colleges has been developed in the United States in the past one hundred years. Its educational strength has been supplemented by a network of other welfare agencies that help to conserve the human resources of our people. Both the formal educational and the informal community agencies have developed a professional staff of educators who have earned in these years a position of some dignity and of great opportunity in American life. Will this group of leaders be able to confront the difficult problems of today and tomorrow with equal success?


I wish now to explore briefly an area of conditions and developments which are perhaps not so readily recognizable as part of the educator's concern, but which actually have a profound influence upon his work. How do the American people look upon this war? Indeed, how do teachers themselves look upon it? With what substance of belief, both in his own mind and in the minds of people generally, does the educator have to work?

May I say, at the outset, that I have no lack of profound respect for the essential integrity and wisdom with which the American people as a whole have responded, sometimes belatedly, it seems, to the succession of critical developments in the past fifteen years of depression and war. They believe in the democratic tradition and with both intelligence and determination have shown that they mean to make it survive. It is not without significance that we are able today in the midst of the war, to hold this conference for full and frank expression of opinion on questions of great concern to all of us. What I am about to say regarding certain deficiencies in the public mentality must therefore not be misunderstood. I believe that, given the opportunity and the appropriate leadership, our people will make sound decisions in shaping their own destiny.

With this in mind, may I once again offer you three propositions, as follows:

First, with all of the indignation and grim determination that were born of Pearl Harbor, the American people are not yet -fundamentally aware of the magnitude of the struggle that is going on in the world today and of its inevitable consequences. They know that the theater of military operations is vast, stretching completely around the globe and pre-empting all the continents and the seven seas, but they do not know how extensively the institutions of man, his habits and customs, 'his values, his securities, have been shaken and rendered useless for the future.

How clear a realization is there that this war is extending a definite invitation to peasants and coolies over the world to fight for and to hope soon to enjoy a standard of living materially much higher than they have ever known in the past? Are we merely toying with the fancies of the people of India or Africa when we express the hope that they will join the United Nations in common cause? Are we but temporizing when we encourage with huge monetary loans the people of China to upbuild the rudimentary technology of their economy? Certainly not! We must mean that we believe possible and intend to help realize a better standard of living for these people. Do Americans appreciate what this encouragement of less fortunate people means for us today and the responsibilities it will place upon us after the war?

How fully do we appreciate the extent to which social and economic privilege has already been dislodged at home and abroad and the protective barriers between classes demolished? It is true that the domestic tax program is now carrying on a good deal of effective education in this respect, but most men tend still to regard it as a war emergency program which will be abrogated with only temporary effects after the war.

What does it mean to most Americans that we are making common cause with the dark races of Africa and the East? Have we even begun to confront the facts of race relationships over the world today? It is becoming apparent that what we have been wont to call the "Negro problem" is now more than ever before really a "white problem." The white race is in the distinct minority and it has set in motion forces which bid fair to eliminate its own hitherto comfortable position of having a controlling voice in world affairs. This is simply a fact of the present war and we Americans are poorly prepared, with our traditional attitudes and beliefs on race questions, to cope with the probable consequences of this fact.

One may ask, what has all this to do with education? It means just this, as I see it: that those who conduct education cannot allow it to countenance narrow horizons of awareness in a time of so great emergency as the present. The people must be informed of these matters or the war effort will be seriously impaired. We have no time for trifling with academic questions when the foundations of our world are being remade before our very eyes.

Second, too many citizens of this country still think that we can first fight the war and later consider what kind of life we want to build for a time of peace. They think of the war as a separate event, a distinct epoch, in human history. They say with evident accuracy that we shall have our hands full in winning the war. They are willing to admit that all-out mobilization will leave in its wake much wreckage and will turn loose many forces that may have to be reconquered before we shall again know how to live in peace. But they fail to see the connection between the two periods, war and the succeeding peace. They naively regard peace as the time when there is no war.

This kind of thinking can only lead to ultimate disillusion. Even as we fight this war we are building the peace. True, the needs of the peace cannot alone determine the strategy of the war, nor can they even be fully known until after the war is over. This is the paradox of it. But if we would stay closely to the facts in the matter we must see no sharp line of separation between public policies in the war and those in the peace to follow.

We should not succumb to the temptation of fantasy in this matter. Organized education will obviously not make the peace. Political and economic power and military might will play the dramatic roles. But informed and aggressive public sentiment has always had much to do with the direction of these more dramatic forces and will continue to do so in the future.

Third, there is abroad among our citizens a very shortsighted notion of what victory in this war must mean. Many people would now be more than content if we could insure ourselves against the danger of military or economic attack upon our land and our people in the near future. They seem to believe that by reducing the enemy to impotence on the field of battle and by exacting economic tribute from him sufficient to prevent his rebuilding a threatening military power, we shall be enabled to mind our own domestic business without interference.

Certainly no one with full vision of the economic and cultural unity of the world of today can find this formula satisfactory.

Vice President Henry Wallace has referred to this as the "People's Century." In these words a great ideal is expressed. Its adoption would call for any free nation to accept a moral obligation for progressively extending the benefits of liberty to less advantaged peoples elsewhere.

We shall have to face the fact that the most vital American interests will necessitate our taking a full measure of responsibility for world order and world government in the years immediately ahead. Victory in the war can only be achieved through the establishment of instruments and institutions of collaboration among all the peoples of the earth whereby the life of any free people may be guaranteed. Our democratic ideals can only be preserved for us by this means.

Perhaps enough has been said in outline form to point out that the American citizen has need for a quality of statesmanlike educational leadership today, the like of which he has never known before. Who can doubt that these conditions of ignorance and lack of understanding among our people, of unrealistic appraisal of current events and failure of imagination as to how the world of the future will of necessity be shaped, have the utmost significance for education today? Is it not evident that educational workers have a tremendous responsibility for sharpening the vision of the people as to the life they are living, for bringing into their minds and hearts a consciousness of the intimate connection between the present and the future? Is it not further manifest that those who cherish ideals of democracy, of peace and good will among men, of mutual respect and tolerance among the peoples of the earth, must forge those ideals into reality today as we fight, as we work, as we carry on the commonplace activities of community living?

There is a vast reorientation of attitudes of men to be made. There is a tremendous increase to be brought about in the actual knowledge and understanding which the average man can command in his daily life, in playing his part in this gigantic struggle. These are tasks for teachers. They are the main business of education in home, in school, in church, in work relationships, and in centers for play and recreation. They do not necessarily call for more or less of any of the customary subjects of school study. They are objectives of the whole enterprise of education in all of its branches. They do not apply simply to adults, but must rather be regarded as a part of the long sequence of education from childhood to old age. These are tasks to be performed by all teachers together and can only be performed successfully with the collaboration of the best leadership of all phases of the life of the community.

The greatest investment of any generation is in its children. Their life, their growth, their welfare mean more than any other treasure for the future. Education is the means of safeguarding this investment. For this education to be effective, there must be in the life of the community a general social disposition and practice that favor the present and future development of children. The special leadership of this process is in the hands of teachers who are spokesmen for the higher values in social and personal life and who serve to bring to a focus those forces in the community that operate in behalf of the generation to come. Will the teachers of these days and years have the ability and the courage to measure up to this great responsibility and opportunity? Let us bend every effort to that end.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 44 Number 4, 1943, p. 230-236
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 9189, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 2:20:34 AM

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