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Education for National Defense: Education, Citizenship, and Character


by Lyman Bryson - 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. This is a summary of Professor Bryson's address, prepared for THE RECORD by the author.

When we consider the problem of character education in the light of the world crisis, we have first to decide what kind of civilization we want and what kind of citizens we want to educate to lire in it. For this purpose, we can take for granted that what we want is a democracy. We are not satisfied with the one we have and we hope greatly to improve it. But we are not giving up the essential principle. We expect to go on believing that the best social, political, industrial, and cultural organization can be achieved on the democratic idea which I would define by saying that in a democracy the person is the end to be served and all forms of organization are merely instrumental.


It is clear that mankind has been struggling through many centuries toward this sort of society and that the reason for the slow rate at which it is being achieved is that there are great difficulties in the way. The one that concerns us most is the difficulty of character. What kind of character does a democracy demand?


We can take it for granted, also, that character is affected if not created by education and the word education is used here to mean ail the organized ways of taking advantage of the experience of others. As a social group, we have a responsibility for organizing these social experiences through education, so that the members of each new generation will be given not only an understanding of our civilization but the ability to live in it.


The basic characteristic of a person fit to live in a democracy is that he is morally and intellectually mature. He is grown up. Or, if you prefer to use the term, "adult." His maturity shows itself in a number of ways of which several may be named as of crucial significance. A person mature enough to live in a democratic society has a sense of freedom, a sense of responsibility, and a sense of reality. He has also a pervading moral attitude which we can call "sportsmanship."


By a sense of freedom, we mean something more than the mere desire to be free which is natural to man although easily subdued. In the first place, one who believes in democracy must have a sufficient interest in his social group to care passionately for the freedom of others. If he will allow freedom only to those who agree with him, which is another aspect of his own liberty, he can without difficulty be a willing citizen of a totalitarian state. It is a gross and dangerous error to suppose that the mere rule of the majority makes a democratic system. Majorities can be tyrannical—what is worse, they can support tyrants. The protection and the nurture of diverse opinions is a much more crucial test of democratic action. This democratic sense of freedom, then, is freedom for difference not merely for agreement.


A still more important aspect of freedom is that democratic living is based on knowledge, not on ignorance. Even teachers sometimes forget that ignorance is the most complete and effective form of slavery. The modern techniques of dictatorship are good examples of methods of keeping people enslaved by keeping them shut off from knowledge. It is the teacher's primary business to increase the student's freedom by increasing his knowledge of what choices there are in the world and what consequences follow them. It is nonsense to say that people do not wish to do things if what they are supposed to be refusing is something they know nothing whatever about. The freedom that is necessary in the mature character of a person capable of living in a democracy is the freedom based on knowledge.


A second trait that democracy depends on is a sense of responsibility. Here again, there is a relation between what we are talking about and some of the more careless definitions of freedom. A mature person, capable of self-government, not only knows the probable consequences of his behavior but acts with those consequences in view. He does not claim the right to behave as he pleases and be protected from his mistakes. Nor does he consider that his own good is superior to the good of all his fellow citizens. The alternative to statism is not individualism but social cooperation.


The third element in this mature character is a sense of reality. It is a quality difficult to describe because we are dealing here with subtle and illusive psychological elements. A mature person knows that he must think and talk about his physical behavior in symbolic terms. He has ideals and philosophies. It is not only natural but useful for him to act by systems of ideas that have a wide social significance and give dignity to his behavior. At the same time, it is a mark of maturity not to fool oneself about the symbolic expressions of life's meanings. Perhaps this can be made more clear in a concrete example. Flying over London yesterday were some German boys who were very busy dropping bombs on women and children. A literal description of their behavior would be to say that they were killing the helpless. And over German towns British boys were doing the same thing. If you asked any of these young aviators what they were doing none of them would have said anything that bore the slightest resemblance to this literal description of their conduct. Boys of both armies would have replied quite honestly that they were defending their ideals, fighting for their country, or resisting aggression. I am not attempting to say that they are wrong in these replies or that one group is wrong and the other right. All I am saying is that when man's behavior and his ideal description of it get so far apart, he is in grave danger of fooling himself. In a democracy, his danger is particularly great, and democratic character should be as realistic as education can possibly make it.


Then we have finally this pervasive quality that we have called sportsmanship, for lack of a better name. We have associated somewhat trivial things with this basic moral virtue. It is time that we saw how essential it is to the working of democratic political decisions. One philosopher has said that the progress of civilization can be measured by the extent to which persuasion is substituted for force. But persuasion will never settle anything if those who have lost a contest consider that they have a right to break the rules and take the prize anyhow. It is quite literally true that an election is a substitution of ballots for bullets. We accept the peaceful means of settling arguments for a combination of reasons chief of which is our civilized conviction that any peaceful solution, even if our side loses, is better than a resort to violence. But if the defeated group will not accept defeat and, by the fanatic stubbornness which shows both childishness and unfitness for democratic living, then takes up bullets, democracy becomes impossible. In fact, civilization becomes impossible and the clock turns back.


There are historical as well as logical reasons for seeing a close connection between this moral quality of sportsmanship and democracy. Other forms of social and political organization have no deference or respect for the individual; the individual is merely an instrument for the purposes of the state. If we apply here our question of reality we see at once that the state, the abstraction, the ideal entity, is in large measure a mere screen behind which operates the will of a ruling group. The common citizen is not sacrificed to the state in totalitarianism; he is sacrificed to the will and judgment of a tyrannous leader. Such a leader gives him no respect but takes all the respect for himself. There is no deference among men except in the false hierarchies of power. This is the moral contrary of sportsmanship and is revolting to those whose characters have been formed in loyalty to the other ideal.


In spite of all our talk about democracy and our anxiety to keep the ideal clear and make it effective, we often forget that democracy itself is basically an educational theory of government. What this means is that democracy is a form of government designed to subject all its citizens to experiences that will bring out of them their best qualities, build up their powers, and force them into growth.


The decisions that are taken on a democratic basis are usually fairly sound answers to public problems. The democratic nations are the nations of modern industry in which efficiency has been most highly developed. But, at the same time, a mechanical efficiency is not the basic democratic idea because in a mechanical efficiency, personalities are sacrificed to results. You can see how this works in the schoolroom. A mechanically efficient class is one in which every child is anxiously watching the teacher, trying to guess what the teacher wants him to do next. This is not education. In an educational situation, the experiences of the students are for their own knowledge and development. So a democratic government puts upon all its people a share of responsibility in running the country. The purpose of this is basically to make, not better governments, but better human beings.




1 This is a summary of Professor Bryson's address, prepared for THE RECORD by the author.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 42 Number 4, 1941, p. 297-300
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 8912, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 3:37:04 PM

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