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Helping to Safeguard Democracy

by Mary Harden - 1942

Although particular emphasis today is being placed upon the immediate necessity for concrete wartime defense education, probably one of the most pressing and urgent needs of such education is to help children of all ages to understand the significance and importance of continued democracy for them.

ALTHOUGH particular emphasis today is being placed upon the immediate necessity for concrete wartime defense education, probably one of the most pressing and urgent needs of such education is to help children of all ages to understand the significance and importance of continued democracy for them. It should therefore be constantly recognized that a full appreciation of democracy can come only through an understanding of its meanings, and the impact of those meanings upon everyday living. A judicious combination of spirit and practice is called for in order to create such understandings. For example, a child may seem to be cooperating and he may discuss readily the elements in cooperation which seem important to him, but until he has within himself a real feeling for actually working with others in their way, as well as in his own, he will not be truly cooperative. Fundamental meanings of democracy may be experienced through making a study of current happenings and their effect upon everyday living for people of different countries. In the following pages are given some illustrations of the opportunities which arise for helping children to gain insight into the realities of democracy.

Early in the present school year a number of children in a fourth grade group, taught by the writer, in the Horace Mann School were very much interested in such diversified current news items as the following:

United States Sends Food to England

City Taxes to be Reduced

Newspaper Dealers Are on Strike

Not Many People Have Registered to Vote (Election of Mayor)

The Russians Use Remote Control

The United States Is Sending Aid to Russia

Prices of Skates Going Up

Coal Strike Interferes with Defense

Submarines Near United States Shore

The Japanese Say We Must Change or Face Conflict

On the classroom bulletin board, the children themselves classified the news items as follows: School News, City News, United States News, and World News. The items which were related to the present world war seemed to stimulate most discussion. The group talked about different world leaders, and some of the things for which they stood. They expressed great confidence in the ability of such leaders as Churchill and Roosevelt to overcome the type of leadership which has emerged in Nazi Germany.

From this discussion regarding the ability of certain people to lead others grew an opportunity for the class to work out some standards of leadership for themselves. The following qualities were accepted by the class as important in good leadership:


Leaders should do what they think is right.1

A good leader should be trustworthy and honest.

A good leader should be sensible.

A good leader should do his best.

Individual children also wrote their own ideas of why certain men were good leaders. One member of the group wrote:

Why I Like Mr. Roosevelt

President Roosevelt is sending all the help he can to England, Russia, and other countries fighting Germany. He is also helping the poor by building homes for them. President Roosevelt is leading in national defense. I think Mr. Roosevelt is doing a very good job.

It is interesting to note the reference which this child made to social conditions, as expressed in her concern for situations which at the moment were not being featured in current news, but are nevertheless important in the lives of all who live in a democracy.

Another member of the group expressed his ideas about Hitler when he wrote the following:

Why I Don't Like Hitler

I don't like Hitler because he is a dictator and because he does not believe in freedom.

The discussion concerning leadership did not remain in the realm of theory for long, because it soon became necessary for members of the group to decide who could best represent them in an all-school committee. Although the standards of leadership set up by the class were used in discussing possible candidates, another qualification, self-authority, came to the foreground. It was defined as follows by the child who had suggested it:

Self-authority is a power over yourself. Authority is a strange power which makes you able to do things.

The class presented for consideration names for the committee and voted by secret ballot. In the opinion of the class and the teacher, the selection of members from the group for representation on an all-school committee was in keeping with the standards set during the discussion for such membership.

It might be said at this time that the discussion of self-authority and authority in its usual meaning focused the attention of the group upon the necessity for the functioning of authority in the home, school, city, and country. Their realization of this necessity was later manifested when they were to select members of the group to participate in a school assembly program. They elected two members and asked the teacher to share their responsibility by helping them to decide on the third. Furthermore, in electing members to a committee, this group felt that it was giving their representatives authority to act for them in committee meetings and that this authority embodied many responsibilities. Chief among the responsibilities discussed was the one dealing with reporting back to the group on the work of the committee. This group of children, in asking their representatives to report to them, was demonstrating one of the essential elements of democracy. Democracy, in actuality, is a two-way process.

It is hoped that through some such simple and similar experiences as those described above, children may be helped to detect dictatorial, totalitarian, and authoritarian practices that may be persisting because of the very fact that they are securely clothed in the external trappings of democracy. Unless children are given many opportunities to gain insight into the meanings of democracy, and to perceive and appraise these meanings in their own personal relationships to the various elements of society, not too much hope can be given for the continuance of democracy in the future.

One of the news items, "United States Sends Food to England," furnished an incentive for this fourth grade to explore further some of the meanings of democracy. Members of the group were interested in finding out why the United States was sending food to England. The views expressed regarding the advisability of sending food and other supplies to Great Britain reflected to a certain extent the divergence of opinion then existing in many adult groups. Finally, some members of the group felt that we should send food to England for the reason that we were closely related to England, because a long time ago people had come to this country from there. One child said we had "gotten things from there." Although there was indication on the part of some members of the group that unless England was saved the people of the United States would not be able to live a "free life," to many of the group the issue was not clear at this time.

Because of this confusion in thinking, it was an opportune time to help these children to find out more about how democracy came to England and subsequently to the United States. Probably one of the most vital needs of the present time is to acquaint children with the basic historical happenings which will help them to know more about the roots from which our way of living sprang. In this connection it is important and valuable for the schools to re-examine the purposes which they are trying to achieve and the means they are using to attain them. Present urgencies of the world point toward the value of a much more careful selection of the types of historical materials to be used for study, and in some instances a re-introduction of these basic materials into the curriculum. The fact that this fourth grade group had talked a great deal about freedom made it easy to introduce the story of the Great Charter, the foundation of England's present democracy.

A study of some of the events which terminated in the granting of the Great Charter proved most valuable in helping the children to recognize certain basic meanings which are fundamental to successful democracy, such as the rights of the individual, in his daily life and work, in owning property, in securing justice from a just judge.

The group was very much interested in the rights of man in relation to their own ideas of justice. This story of the Great Charter further aided them to see that individuals and groups of individuals may destroy or submerge these rights. King John's continued resistance to the signing of the Charter stimulated an exceedingly important question for consideration: What did the people do about it? Such thinking on the part of an eight-year-old boy in relation to the problems of the people should give considerable hope for the future of democracy. The gaining of the Great Charter also offered an opportunity to understand the value of constancy of leadership in securing rights for all classes of freemen. In discussing the leaders of the time, frequent reference was made to the standards of leadership which the class as a group had taken under consideration earlier.

At various times during the year these children continued to show keen interest in the different aspects of democracy as revealed in current happenings. Many of them expressed thanks that they were living in the United States. They had freedom: they could go to the school where they wanted to go; they had good homes; they had good playgrounds; they didn't have to do everything that they did not want to do. One boy wrote in this connection:

Why I Like to Live in the United States

I like it because you are free to say mostly anything you want to say. You are free to dig in your garden without somebody stopping you.

You are free to get a good education and learn a little about the government. You and I are free to go to the Capitol City and go sight-seeing without anybody stopping us. You and I are free to go to a restaurant and get a good meal without somebody putting us in jail.

The recent nation-wide celebration of the Bill of Rights Day gave added impetus to the children's study of the meanings of democracy. Although the rights contained therein had been discussed in relation to the personal lives of the children in the classroom, school, and home, this group seemed to be particularly interested in a wider application of the privileges of democracy.

One girl wrote the following in a free activity period:

What I Am Doing

In school I am studying about the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights gives as a lot of our freedom. Did you ever stop to think how much the Bill of Rights does for us? Some of the things the Bill of Rights does for me are: [She added here, "These are very simple things."] (1) When I turn on the radio I can hear the news or anything I want to hear. (2) Sometimes at school my teacher says, "Now what would you like to do?" That is freedom of choice. We protect the Bill of Rights when we raise an army.

As World War II extended its boundaries, some of the children felt the protective quality of democracy and the necessity for the cooperation of each one in maintaining it. In order that all might understand what cooperation means in the lives of each, the children suggested that they tell what they meant by good cooperation. Some of their best practices in cooperation which they talked about were as follows:

Some Ways in Which I Cooperate

I look after my pets, which are a canary and a gold fish.

I don't try to get the best bike on the playground.

I take care of the baby.

I listen to fewer radio programs so that I can get my home work done.

I try to be quiet when mother is resting.

I come home after school to let mother know I am safe.

When mother has dinner, and is talking with daddy, I don't bother them.

The necessity for cooperation on a large scale in maintaining democracy became evident in the discussion of the Pan-American Conference at Rio de Janeiro by those children who were especially interested in this event. There was a variety of reasons why the children thought the United States should be friendly with South America. For example:

Some Reasons Why We Should Be Friendly with South America

We want to live in harmony.

Because we and they are democracies.

Because we want to be friendly with all countries.

Because they are our nearest neighbors.

They have things we need very much.

We use their products and they use ours.

We have a lot of the same interests.

We get some of our food from there.

Because we have got a good trade with most of the South American countries.

The importance of this kind of thinking and acting on the part of young children lies in the effect that it will have on their immediate day-to-day living and its eventual impact on preserving both the principles and the practices of democracy. If schools believe, as many seem to, that education for safeguarding democracy is important and valuable, then provision should be made for its inclusion and emphasis in the curriculum. Furthermore, if this type of education is to be successful, specific means should be worked out for its appraisal, to aid in determining the growth of individual children in the ability to understand the implications of democracy for them and the value of its practices in the world in which they live.

1 The class discussed how "right" should be interpreted in relation to leadership. It was the consensus that Hitler "knew he wasn't doing right."

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 43 Number 7, 1942, p. 548-554
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 9066, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 6:26:53 PM

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