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Education for National Defense: Health and Physical Fitness

by Clifford Lee Brownell - 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.

A few weeks ago there were seated about a conference table in Washington men of importance in American education, a well-known university president, a representative of a national educational organization, a superintendent of schools in a large urban community, and other professional workers of similar prominence. These men had been summoned to propose ways and means of directing education toward national defense.

At length one representative claimed the floor and was recognized by the chairman. Said the speaker, "As I view this program of national defense, there are three main problems for the schools and colleges to consider; other problems are important but they are not so vital. The main problems are: first, health and physical fitness; second, recreational interests and skills; and third, morale." . . . "And," he continued, "I am quite sure that national morale is best cultivated through the development of robust health and recreational interests in youth."


The threat of impending war directs the thoughtful citizen to ask questions about national resources. Are the Army and Navy big enough and strong enough? Can industry be geared to quantity production? Have we sufficient raw materials? How about the man power—is it ready and willing? What of national pride and patriotism—will they stand the test? In the answers to these questions resides the all-important balance between success and failure.

In this country it is comparatively easy to accomplish certain things. Strong, fast ships can be built in record time. Military and naval training posts can be constructed or renovated. Guns and other fighting equipment can be produced in enormous quantities. Industry, organized and streamlined, awaits the signal of commanding authority. Raw materials are available in abundance. Such national resources are easily marshaled to preserve our democratic form of government.

It is more difficult, however, to produce a nation of citizens who possess health in abundance, whose sinews are toughened to meet the demands of physical and mental hardships, and in whom have been kindled the ideals of national unity and solidarity. These human virtues of paramount importance cannot be acquired in a few months of intensive training. They represent the fruits of heredity and an environment which boasts good schools, good homes, and good government.

The world situation today compels us to re-evaluate what we are doing in education, especially in the areas of health and physical fitness. In 1917 we were appalled that approximately 34 per cent of our young men were found to be physically unfit for military service. Tentative estimates in 1940, based upon men who have voluntarily applied for enlistment in the Army and Navy since last July, reveal a similar situation of defectiveness among men of draft age.

Obviously our problem of assuring material preparedness is complicated by observable weaknesses in the health and physical stamina of our citizens. This problem cannot be solved by clinging to the old curriculum wherein attention is focused only upon academic achievement. A new emphasis is demanded. A different viewpoint must prevail.


Any acceptable concept of the complete educative process must look beyond military preparedness. While we must be ready to meet the threats of war as they arise, this purpose alone is not enough. In addition, educators must view the problem broadly and see American life in terms of national peace and social progress, as well as in terms of military strife and wholesale destruction. Wars raging in the world of today may end tomorrow, but the need for health, vigor, patriotism, and belief in democratic ideals will survive. The human virtues of physical courage, stamina, endurance, cooperation, and faith in our leaders are desirable traits for peace as well as war.

In this setting it seems appropriate to propose that our schools must become, ever increasingly, vital centers for the education of our youth in health and physical fitness. During and immediately after World War I laws were passed in thirty-six states providing for school instruction in health and physical education. Almost universally these laws have not been obeyed. Reasons for this failure to abide by legislative enactment are many. Frequently school administrators, although giving vocal allegiance to the need for educating the "whole" child, have followed the educational pattern of tradition and supported intellectual pursuits, with attention to health and physical fitness measurable by what the chemist would call "a mere trace." Opposition to the school's assuming its true responsibility in the development of health and physical welfare has been expressed by taxpayers who either relegate such matters to fond but oftentimes unqualified parents, or regard physical stamina and endurance as unworthy of educational prominence. Certain medical and recreational groups outside the school have viewed with alarm the inadequate provision we have made for health protection and the practice of leisure-time skills.

The present world crisis gives rise to the need for a renewed, if not new, emphasis on physical fitness. Manifold examples of this trend can be cited already. Numerous colleges have recently applied for Reserve Officer Training Corps units. The number of Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps units in our public high schools has increased but slightly only because military authorities have refused to release properly trained personnel for this work. The National Committee on Education and Defense, sponsored jointly by the National Education Association and the American Council on Education, is planning, as part of its educational program, ways of ensuring better health and physical fitness. State departments of education have organized special committees to study plans for increasing the strength and endurance of boys and girls attending the public schools. Several colleges have extended their programs of physical education, requiring all students to devote at least one hour per day, four days a week, to body building and conditioning activities. The College Directors Society has a committee at work charged with the responsibility of redirecting the program of health and physical education to improve the strength and stamina of college men. Reports have been widely circulated that a commission has been given by the President of the United States for the establishment of a program of physical conditioning and fitness for the entire citizenry of our country (which suggests that the task of health and physical fitness, like vocational training, may be assigned to out-of-school groups if our educational institutions continue to shirk their responsibility in such matters). The American Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation—a department of the National Education Association—has a bill before Congress in Washington, known as H.R. 10606, which, if passed, will provide funds of $100,000,000 per year to be distributed among local boards of education throughout the various states for promotion of health education, physical education, recreation, and school camps. Thus it is evident that plans are already being formulated by all sorts of organizations which aim to improve the physical welfare of American youth.


An adequate program of health and physical fitness for schools and colleges is not difficult to present in outline form. Adaptations of this program to meet the needs of various communities is but a matter of administration. The adequate program will include:1

1. A complete medical, physical, and, if necessary, psychiatric examination for all students.

2. An adequate follow-up program which emphasizes student, parental, and community responsibility in surgical relief, medical and dental care to insure a high degree of physical fitness.

3. Attention to matters pertaining to a healthful environment, such as optimal conditions with respect to ventilation, heating, lighting, furniture, lavatory facilities, rest rooms, discipline, and arrangement of the school day.

4. Instruction in public health, including the prevention of communicable disease, vaccines, serum and antitoxin therapy.

5. Instruction in such items of personal hygiene as: the minimum essentials of diet and nutrition; personal cleanliness; daily elimination; the deleterious effects of alcohol, tobacco, and narcotics; the desirable effects of exercises of speed, endurance, and strength upon the circulatory, respiratory, muscular, digestive, endocrine, and nervous systems of the body; the proper care of the eyes, ears, nose, throat, skin, and other organs; the essentials of mental hygiene; and the importance of desirable boy and girl relationships.

6. Instruction and practice in safety education, including first aid. (The several methods of transporting injured persons as outlined in the National Red Cross First Aid Manual should be taught and practiced by students until proficiency is attained. The techniques of artificial respiration should be a part of every student's equipment.)

7. Instruction and practice in a wide variety of physical activities within the "ability to succeed" range of participants that will insure strength, poise, good posture, physical fitness, and pride in personal appearance.

In times of national emergency it is the duty of each one of us to cooperate with existing local, state, and federal agencies in the development of educational programs that will quickly and effectively promote in our youth physical fitness, mental alertness, social consciousness, emotional stability, and love of country.

We must use every means to strengthen our programs of health and physical fitness. In some communities this will suggest the need for better equipment and facilities; in others, improvement in personnel is indicated; and most programs will require, as a basic necessity, increased financial support and time allotment.

Within the school, college, or university, there must be coordination of effort if the best results are to be obtained. The superintendent, principal, president, or dean will pave the way by effective administrative policies and procedures. All specialists in the school, such as physicians, dentists, psychiatrists, nurses, dental hygienists, nutritionists, health teachers, science teachers, personnel in household arts and sciences, physical educators, athletic coaches, and others, will assume greater responsibilities in their respective fields. The education of our youth is a matter of great importance in any program of preparedness—for war or for peace.

The success of this undertaking does not rest entirely with school people. Parents, government officials, and the general public must be advised of the needs and progress of the educational program, their cooperation enlisted, and their support obtained.

Let us not be unmindful of the fact that this is a real emergency. It is a time when we must work together to perpetuate the true democratic way of life, and give to the youth of our country every opportunity to grow into well-trained, right-minded, and productive Americans. The success of our democratic way of living depends on youth, and education will determine the ideals, understandings, and actions of young men and young women. Let us further remember that health and physical fitness—which serve as the buttress for courage, stamina, and morale— may in the final analysis represent the difference between success and failure in our efforts to insure national preparedness.

1 From "Health and Physical Education in National Preparedness." Health, Physical Education, and Recreation Staff, Teachers College, Columbia University. October, 1940. (Mimeographed.)

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 42 Number 4, 1941, p. 316-321
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 8908, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 9:47:07 PM

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