Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Education for National Defense: The American Way of Life

by Thomas H. Briggs - 1941

The addresses in this issue of THE RECORD by Professors Briggs, Bryson, Forkner, Brownell, and Strayer were presented at Teachers College during American Education Week, around the theme Education for National Defense. As a first step in the program "to help education promote the unity of our people by clarifying the meaning of democracy and by developing a greater and more intelligent support of it," members of the Teachers College Faculty prepared a Manifesto on "Democracy and Education in the Current Crisis." The addresses included here represent a further step in this program by offering specific suggestions for putting into effect a number of the principles which were expressed in the Manifesto.

When the professor had finished his lengthy explanation of the difference between prose and poetry, a student delightedly exclaimed, "Why I've been speaking prose all my life without knowing it!" There may have been no advantage to him in knowing precisely what prose is, but there is certainly an advantage, even a necessity, in our knowing what is the American way of life, the way that we have followed, unknowingly perhaps, since we imbibed the spirit of this country in the family circle, had it beaten into us by our fellows on the playing field, and finally learned in all our social and business intercourse that it is the one thing that makes for freedom under the restraint of our peers and for the greatest happiness to the greatest number. That we may perpetuate this way of life we must more definitely know what it is; that we may be more loyal to it we must appreciate its superior blessings.


It may seem at first thought that there are many American ways of life. Most of us know the neighborliness of the country or of the small town, and many of us have learned the loneliness of the big city. Superficially they seem different, but deeply ingrained in each are common elements that are evidences of the national spirit. Break through the crust of timidity or reserve or selfishness with which men protect themselves in country or in city and you find as an integral part of their natures a respect for others, a sense of fair play, and a desire for the help that social cooperation and solidarity can give.

It may seem, too, at first thought that the essential elements of the American way of life are common to decent people in all lands. In our travels abroad we have found kindliness and many other desirable traits, but the spirit that has made men free and eager to help others to experience the freedom which leads to growth and cooperative power for the general good is more widely spread in the United States of America, we believe, than in any other country on the face of the globe.

There are real differences between the American way of life and that in other lands, very real differences, though we usually take them for granted like prose. These characterizing differences did not just happen; they are not indigenous to the soil on which we live. They are the result of long and slow evolution of the best elements of mankind, an evolution directed by visions of goals far beyond human practice, an evolution achieved, with many regressions and side-wanderings after ignes fatui of various kinds, by struggle, by sacrifice, by continued endeavor on the part of those who, having glimpsed the vision, could never again be content with anything less. This evolution, still continuing and never to be completed, is impeded not so much by people who deny the validity and the desirability of the goals sought as by those who have never seen them clearly or who with loyalties weakened by imperfect understanding attempt to lead lives of selfish and solitary incompleteness.

The American way of life is not a natural way of life. By nature we depend upon the power of fang and hoof or of intellectual wile. By nature we believe in oligarchy—provided we are included among the aristocratic few. The natural tendency of men is to despise, to suspect, to ignore, or to defeat others who do not think and feel and act as they do. The stronger one's inclination to oligarchy, the more difficult also he finds it to bow to others who have superior physical strength or mental power. And yet in this country the whole people have learned to believe and for the most part to act on the belief that what one demands for himself he must grant to others, that from others, even those formerly despised, suspected, or ignored, can come peculiar and valuable contributions of different points of view to the common wisdom.


Though what we call the American way of life is still evolving, still struggling toward ideals that steadily move upward with man's enlightened progress, it is in its essence very simple. Fundamentally it consists of three faiths, which have numberless implications for the solution of all the problems of mankind.

The first and essential faith is that the maximum happiness of every individual is the purpose of all human association. From beginnings in infant selfishness, one grows through experiences with his family and later with larger groups to appreciation of the fact that the extent and substantiality of his own happiness is determined by that of the entire social group with whom he is associated.

The second essential faith is that every human personality is worthy of respect. Only as it is respected, by itself as well as by others, can it grow and make its maximum contribution to the welfare and happiness of others. Because of this faith society, through organized government, is providing food, clothing, and decent shelter for the unfortunate and the needy, not as charity but as an expedient to enable these people to retain or regain their own self-respect and thus to contribute their best to the making of happiness for all. Because of this faith we seek to free all men from the chains of ignorance, of superstition, of fear, and of abasement that each one may develop his unique powers and stand shoulder to shoulder in the forces of cooperative welfare.

The third essential faith is that the wisest decisions concerning broad social policies result from the pooling of opinions from the wisdom of all who are concerned. To deny this faith is to assume that those with superior wisdom can surely be found and will be selected, that they can be trusted to exercise their wisdom consistently for the general good, that the wisest in one matter are also the wisest in all matters, and that being intrusted with power for one occasion they will relinquish it when it is no longer justified. Since such assumptions have never failed in the history of mankind to be false, there is only one conclusion to which intelligent and public-spirited men can come—and that is to have faith in the superior wisdom of the general social mind.

Out of these faiths comes the American way of life. Stemming from them are all the civil liberties, all the guarantees of individual freedom, all the rights and responsibilities. From these faiths have resulted all those provisions which our country makes for personal growth which comes from the exercise of the intelligence in formulating judgments and in attempting to contribute to the welfare of mankind. As these faiths are clearly understood and strongly held, America is not only impregnable but also the last hope of those who respect the sacredness of personality and who believe that Its development is the sole means of progress toward substantial, lasting, and increasing human happiness. If these beliefs are not widely and devotedly held, no military defense is significant. A defeat of the American way of life from weakness of the spirit within would be more disastrous than any physical defeat which was imposed from without.

From these faiths must come all the solutions of the problems that confront our people today or that will arise in the future. Solutions that rest upon any other bases are not only temporary expedients; they are also impairments of the foundations on which the American way of life is built. By reference to the faith in the desirable general human happiness, to the faith in the sacredness of every personality, and to the faith that the combined wisdom of all men is in the long run superior to the wisdom of any individual, we can construct the only sound program for the salvation and the progress of our society.

The United States of America is blessed with physical assets far beyond those possessed by any other nation, and these have been marvelously developed by a free people who have combined intelligence and industry with a spirit of adventure. But it would be a serious mistake to assume that material prosperity, industry, and inventiveness are the foundations of our civilization. The most important assets, which have been enumerated in some detail in a recent Manifesto, "Democracy and Education in the Current Crisis,"1 are spiritual. They exist and are effective as they are understood, believed in, and utilized for a continuous directive program by the people of our country. The people—all of them, not a favored few—must have understanding and faith to keep those assets steadily in mind; they must have strength enough and persistence enough to defend those values against insidious opposing theories of society and flabby compromise as well as against open assault.


That the necessary understanding and faith do not now sufficiently exist in the general mind can hardly be denied. Nor can it be denied that many who have had understanding and faith are now frankly sceptical.

They are wondering and expressing the wonder if the American way of life is after all effective and if it is superior to the way of other nations that have ruthlessly won physical victories by the sacrifice of all that we have held to be sacred and sound.

An illustration is easily found in a popular brochure, "The Wave of the Future." The author writes with a literary charm and with a personal sadness that has prevented many readers from appreciating the terrible and terrifying argument that she makes. Her pamphlet has as a subtitle "A Confession of Faith." Instead she expresses a pathetic confession of lost faith. In totalitarianism she sees what she considers the irresistible forces of the future, forces which, in her lost faith, she thinks should not be resisted. "Somehow," she writes, "the leaders in Germany, Italy, and Russia have discovered how to use new social and economic forces. . . . They have felt the wave of the future and they have leapt upon it. The evils we deplore in these systems are not in themselves the future; they are the scum on the wave of the future."

The author continues, "We [of the democracies] still have our eyes, our minds, our hearts on the dream that is dying—how beautiful it was! . .. But there is another on the way in the gray dawn.... My generation has seen the beliefs, the formulas, and the creeds that we were brought up to trust implicitly, one by one thrown in danger, if not actually discarded: the sacredness of property, the infallibility of the democratic way of life . . . even such fundamental concepts as the goodness of God, the equality of man, and the Christian ethical code." ... "I have seen," she continues, "that these rocks are not real rocks, only papier-mache; they tremble as the actors walk across the stage."

It would be easy to dismiss this confession of so terrible and so absolute a loss of faith with pity and compassion. But if we are wise we must see in it a challenge—a challenge not only to restore the faith of our people, the sodden and fatalistic mature as well as the wandering, groping youth, in the American way of life, but also ourselves to "leap upon the wave of the future" and "to use the new social and economic forces" for the greater happiness of mankind. Where there is no vision the people perish; and where there is no faith in the democratic way of life our nation perishes.

Our friends beyond the sea, while bombs are bringing destruction to their homes, are bravely comforting themselves with the chant that "There will always be a England." But there will never be again the England that was. Without the terrible destruction of our physical property and with the lives of our youth not yet even seriously threatened, we must also recognize that there can never be again an America as it was. Though, we are confident, the fundamental faiths will endure, their applications to the problems of an ever-changing world will be different. There is a natural human reluctance to define and live up to essential principles and to face changes demanded by social conscience, except belatedly and under threat of internal rebellion or of external war. People are slow to recognize that necessary change by peaceful means must be prepared for and planned for. People must never forget that means are futile without ideals to direct them.

The people of England know perfectly well what they are fighting against. They will be manyfold stronger and more assured of the future when they are generally conscious of what they are fighting for. We of the United States need similarly to clarify our minds for the future. A unity in hostility to an enemy, whether a threatening military force or an insidious and insinuating theory of society, is at best temporary; it will last only as long as the people are conscious of the threat and fearful of it. A unity resulting from a devotion to an ideal, from a conviction that it holds the highest promise of general human happiness, is far more important. It will last as long as men desire human happiness—and that is forever. It is more essential to strengthen the defense of the American way of life by gaining a unity of understanding faith than it is to prepare guns to repel an enemy who threatens merely our physical properties. "Men are moved by ideas, and no dictator has yet produced or is likely to produce a secret weapon half as compelling as a compelling idea compellingly stated."


People, especially youth, yearn for something to believe in, something to live for, something to work for, to sacrifice for, and, if need be, to die for. Dorothy Thompson recently reported an illuminating conversation with four young men, recent graduates of college, who were despondent and wandering because they felt that their education had for the most part tended to such critical aloofness from life that it had broken down their belief in any positive values and had broken down their faith in their country. "It had put them into intellectual and psychological confusion and into an inner despair out of which they had sought refuge in various ways at various times," one of them through casting his lot temporarily with the Young Communists, because, as he said, "they alone seemed to be perfectly clear in their own minds where they were going." Another had fallen into complete scepticism; a third into "the modern liberalism, resolution-signing, peace-parade sort of thing"; and the fourth into "the only thing that seemed solid—my own egotism and self-interest."

Finally, in the conversation, one of them said, "When I went to college I was full of enthusiasm, particularly interested in history and philosophy. I wanted to find out what made wheels go round in this world. I wanted to prepare myself to do something—not just make money—not just to be 'a success,' but to achieve something, for myself, for my country, for my times. Damn it," he cried in an explosive outburst of candor, "I wanted to love something—something bigger than I am. I wanted to be a part of something." Another one of the youths said, "I observed in reading history that the people who moved this world were animated by a passion for something. I could see that you couldn't write off faith as one of the prime molders of history, and that when there wasn't any faith, pure gangsterism and piracy broke loose. I could see that if I and my generation were going to mean anything in this world and not just be dots and specks pushed around by forces we couldn't control, we had to find out what our convictions were. But meanwhile I had lost my moorings."

"It was out of just such a generation of emotionally and spiritually unemployed youth," Miss Thompson adds, "—youth whom 'dynamism' and 'historic relativism' had left utterly rudderless—that Hitler made the leadership of a movement that has plunged a large part of the earth into destruction. . . . Out of this youth should come our intellectual, spiritual, and political leadership of tomorrow."

This is the situation that confronts us. This is the challenge that some group must take up if the American way of life is to survive, if it is to progress to the greater happiness of mankind. We have seen what it is; we have faith in it; and we must recognize that many of our fellow citizens not understanding it have lost or never have acquired the faith that moves them to desired and necessary action. Hardly anyone in this country will deny democracy. But to profess it is not enough. They must understand its fundamental principles, must give to them devoted allegiance, and must be eternally alert to discover what they imply for a program in this ever-changing world. When one affirms faith in an ideal he must assume an obligation to act and to continue to act so as to promote its achievement.

What we have forgotten is that democracy and the American way of life, not being natural and transmissible with the genes of inheritance, need to be continually taught. Each new generation must be given understanding of what they are—not only understanding but convincing reasons why they are superior to every other philosophy of society and to every other way of life. Elsewhere I have told the story of a public high school principal who spent three years in teaching his pupils the fundamental meanings of democracy. He taught so well that the students accepted their social responsibilities to a degree that made the school an outstanding example of the successful application of democracy to life. But the experiment failed, not because the principles were unsound or because they were denied and rejected. It failed because those directing it did not remember that each incoming class, each new school generation, needed the same instruction, the same indoctrination that the first group received. The first recruits were easily assimilated; they caught something of the meaning of the American way of life from those who had been instructed. But with each new entering class the clearness and fullness of understanding inevitably decreased, until eventually intelligent self-control, cooperation to achieve an accepted ideal, and liberty were tending to become license and irresponsible anarchy. The experiment had to start all over again with an education that not only began with fundamental principles but also continued, for the older students as well as the new, to reveal the applications in action that the principles indicated.


This illustration clearly indicates the source of the weakness that has crept into democracy—and also the remedy. We must again accept the challenge, first to clarify for ourselves the meaning of democracy. There can be no official definition. The only one that is worth while is that which is arrived at by the democratic process of every citizen's thinking it through for himself and contributing his conclusions to the common pool of thought. This is the ideal procedure. If it be thought impossible of full achievement, let us remember that all the highest ideals of every kind are never entirely attained. This ideal will be approached to the extent to which men undertake or can be induced to undertake the task, wholly or even in part. Each patriotic citizen can begin with himself, and he can make a contribution to democracy by convincing others similarly to undertake the clarification of their own ideas. The more who will undertake this task, the more assured the perpetuation and the success of democracy. One who is not willing to do his own part will have no justification for bewailing the loss of freedom that will inevitably come to him at some time in the future.

Though, as I said, there is, and there can be, no official definition of democracy, thoughtful men and women have many times proposed contributions that will help to clarify the minds of those who are willing to undertake the task of thinking. A recent contribution that will at least start one on the task is the Creed of Democracy proposed in the Manifesto previously mentioned, "Democracy and Education in the Current Crisis."

A second step indicated by the challenge is to carry on a definite, skillfully planned, and never-ending program to develop general faith in at least the fundamental meanings of democracy, those for which there is general approval by all citizens who take the trouble sincerely to think about the matter. Call this indoctrination if you will. I am not afraid of the word. We need to indoctrinate for democracy precisely as we indoctrinate for good manners, good morals, good conduct, and any other desirable phases of the good life. The indoctrination which will be effective and at the same time will not violate the spirit of democracy will begin with clarification of the American way of life and of the principles underlying and determining it. But it will not stop there: it will show its superiority, both immediately and in the long run—especially the latter—to every other competing way of life; and it will suffuse the intellectually approved ideal with a rich warmth of emotional devotion that will most assuredly lead to action contributing to general human welfare and happiness.

Understanding and devoted faith are the essential foundations of any substantial program to preserve and to promote the American way of lif e. Without a clearly seen and approved goal we cannot plan for progress and we cannot know if we are making it. Without such a goal we quibble over nonessentials, and we yield or compromise or relinquish fundamental principles which ought to be firmly and consistently maintained. Democracy can be preserved only by uncompromising loyalty to ideals that are soundly established ends.

A third step indicated by the challenge, a step made possible only after the first two are reasonably taken, is to learn and to follow the implications of the accepted ideals and the approved principles. Abstract intellectual approval and professed faith are not enough. We must ask as we face each and every problem in our modern life—unemployment, misery, suspicion, and despair—what solution the principles of democracy indicate. If we believe that the personality of every man must for the welfare of all be respected, by himself as well as by others, we must provide means by which that respect will be assured. We must recognize that "the wave of the future," which is now upon us, makes new demands, requires new means, that it will in all probability necessitate the relinquishment of some accustomed ways of behavior, always an uncomfortable wrench to those of whom it demands personal inconvenience and sacrifice. An attempt to see what the basic principles of democracy imply for the solution of problems, old as well as new, to act on the indicated conclusions, and to convince others, especially our elected representatives, to act on them is a patriotic duty. Failure to perform this duty, by each one according to his ability, is to prove traitorous to the American way of life.

It should be accepted without argument that to defend and to promote democracy we must make it worthy of defense and promotion. There are defects enough in our American way of life, heaven knows, defects caused for the most part by a failure to keep clearly in mind the fundamental principles of democracy and the objectives that it eternally seeks. Democracy has tried many experiments, some wise and some foolish. The results of the former are built into the structure of our civilization; the results of the latter, sometimes rejected slowly and before substitutes are prepared, remain for a long time as obstacles to progress. To adapt William Vaughn Moody's exposition of natural evolution:

Here, round about me, are her vagrant births;

Sick dreams she had, fierce projects she essayed;

Her qualms, her fiery prides, her crazy mirths;

The troublings of her spirit as she strayed,

Cringed, gloated, mocked, was lordly, was afraid.

Upward by various means, some wise and some foolish, democracy is seeking a happy people "radiant and loving, yet to be."

It is human nature and inevitable that men will rebel against or reject institutions and devices which do not work under conditions as they are, that seek to use obsolete or mistaken forms to solve modern problems. But in rejecting the agency that is wrong or ineffective men are likely to reject also the principle or the institution that brought them into being, though both the principle and the institution may be sound and essential. In these troublous times we can do our part by distinguishing between the unworkable programs proposed by an uncertain democracy and democracy itself. We may reject the former, but we must preserve the latter.

As citizens we must accept more active responsibility for curing the ills of democracy, for making it convincingly worth working for and worth fighting for. We must abandon the attitude of critics in the bleacher seats and become eager and cooperative players on the field. Any ideal will wither and die unless it finds successful exemplification. We must make the American way of life something that we can love, something vastly larger than ourselves, to which we can give devoted service. Thus we shall find our lives by giving them. Thus we shall contribute to the happiness of all mankind, which is the only thing that can make for enduring personal happiness.


It is peculiarly appropriate that the American way of life be considered during Education Week, for upon education and upon educators the primary responsibility for its preservation and promotion rests. I am not inclined to blame education overly much for such weaknesses as are manifest today in democracy, for it has made many, probably the most important, contributions to the perpetuation of what we like to think of as the superior ways of living. It can hardly be denied that the public school more nearly exemplifies democracy than any other institution.

But when all credit is given, however, we must admit that education has not assumed as its prime responsibility the inculcation of a devoted, intelligent faith in democracy, as it will do when the public as well as educators realize the growing weakness caused within by vague understanding on the part of our own people and by the impending menace of outside opposition by ideas and also by arms. The fault lies probably most with the unconcerned public, who have insisted on a traditional academic education chiefly for supposed individual good and have resisted with suspicion efforts at reform looking toward preparation of children and youth for effective social service.

But educators must assume at least a part of the responsibility. Certainly they must accept leadership in the movement to arouse the people to the imminent danger, to convince them of the need of clarifying the meaning of democracy, of inculcating devotion to its basic principles, of developing the habit of applying them fearlessly and consistently to life. Unless this challenge is accepted and carried off successfully, we should about as well surrender at once to an efficient foreign dictator who will do our thinking for us and who will tell us the kind of life we are permitted to lead.

Educators have the prime responsibility in this matter first of all because education is the agency that society must for the most part use to clarify its ideals and to make them effective. When the public is convinced, as sooner or later it will be, with or without our leadership, of the gravity of the necessity, we shall have the responsibility of preparing the new program of education, as presented in the formal schools and as extended to adult groups, especially those in the CCC camps and in the Army, the Navy, and the Marine Corps. If we are patriots, if we are truly democratic, if we are sincere servants of society, we must accept the challenge to leadership and we must prepare ourselves for effective service.

Educators must accept the prime responsibility also because they have peculiar competence. Probably much better than any other class of citizens they can understand the need and can learn how to satisfy it. They know how to organize, to motivate, to explain, and to stimulate. They are patient and persistent. They are loyal and conscientious. By their selection as teachers they have manifested intelligence superior to the ordinary. What more is needed for leadership such as each one can give in his own sphere of influence? Nothing, except a personal conviction of the need and a devotion that impels to active continued service.

Other patriotic citizens are serving their country in their own ways. Some are on boards planning for military preparation, for developing an army, for building planes and ships and guns and all the other machines necessary for warfare. Others still are planning for a sounder program of finance, for increased industrial efficiency, for more products from farms and mines, and for improved cultural relations with neighboring countries. All of these services we respect and applaud. But they can all achieve the highest success and still leave the American way of life insecure and without assured continuance and improvement. There would still remain the challenge to clarify the meaning of democracy, to inculcate a devoted faith in it, and to develop a habit of applying its principles intelligently and consistently to the solution of all life's problems.

This challenge is of course to all citizens, but those who must take the prime responsibility are the educators of the nation. What will you do to prove yourself a patriotic citizen worthy the calling of teacher?

1 Issued and almost unanimously approved by the faculty of Teachers College, Columbia University.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 42 Number 4, 1941, p. 284-296
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 8907, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 7:20:21 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue