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Youth Education and Postwar Democracy

by Will French - 1942

Among the aspects of life ahead for which we should now plan is the education of American youth. This article discusses youth education and postwar democracy.

NEVER were our people more intent on meeting a national emergency than we are now. A whole nation has shaken itself awake and is bending every effort in a gigantic war program which seems completely to absorb it. Yet, underneath it all, we are not forgetting the postwar future, for we know that it is a short war-boom which has no peace-depression. Individual citizens and even government agencies are not all engulfed in the furor of the present. Amid the din of war we ask, "What kind of an America do we want?" The Natural Resources Planning Board answers this question with a plan which looks toward a future American life that is really worth fighting for:

The real problem of war never arises until after the war is over. When this war is won we can lose everything we are arming to defend if, in the transition to peace, we slip back to a low national income with its inevitable unemployment, suffering, chaos, and loss of freedom.

In making plans for the future it is essential to decide in what direction we are going: . . . we must plan for full employment . . . we must plan to do this without requiring work from youth who should be in school . . . we must decentralize post-defense emergency activities as far as possible . . . we must plan to enable every human being within our boundaries to realize progressively the promise of American life, in food, shelter, clothing, medical care, education, work, rest, home life, opportunity to advance, adventure, and the basic freedoms. We must plan to make upbuilding America the keynote of the post-defense program, including both construction activities which will add to the national estate and service activities which will end malnutrition and increase the vitality, health, skill, productivity, knowledge, and happiness of the American people, and thus add to our wealth and well-being.1


Among the aspects of life ahead for which we should now plan is the education of American youth. For the America of 1950, or whenever we begin to enter the postwar period, the current brand of secondary education is no more adequate than would be the war planes of 1918 for the present war. It is none too satisfactory for today, though not through any lack of earnestness or fidelity on the part of our secondary school teachers and principals. In all probability if the better teachers and school administrators in the high schools of America now began suddenly to change the educational programs of our high schools into what many are convinced they should be, the general public would be the first to object. It is not conscious of the need for change, much less ready to think about what the changes should embrace. Although neither professional educators nor laymen are able fully to foresee the needs of the future, present youth education is being subjected to severe appraisal. The National Association of Secondary School Principals' reports of recent years have had a good deal to say about a reconsideration of functions and of new procedures for improving the education of youth. Other professional groups have also been active in the field. Current secondary education has, moreover, been recently under careful scrutiny by lay groups. The New York Regents' Inquiry, sponsored by the Regents of New York State—chiefly laymen—in High School and Life, says of New York schools:

The more serious problems are to be found in the lack of tangible connection between what boys and girls learn while they are in school and what they will need to know after they leave school. A fund of largely academic information, a set of social attitudes picked up at random, tastes and interests developed as chance may dictate, provide no stable basis for the welfare either of individuals or of the State to which they belong. If it is to deserve public support, the program of secondary education must produce more tangible results than at present in the form of systematic preparation for citizenship and leisure and jobs. If it is to accomplish all that needs accomplishing, that program must concern itself quite as much with the young people who are not academically successful as with those whose easiest learn comes from books.

Yet the public secondary schools of New York State are well supported and well staffed and ought to give us a good picture of what typical secondary schools of the present are doing, The American Youth Commission is another body composed largely of laymen which has made our most extensive study of American youth today. The Commission reports as follows:

The demand is more and more insistent for a fundamental reconsideration of the instructional program of secondary schools. It is certainly not to be denied that much that is taught in these schools is helpful in preparing young people to take their places in adult society. For some pupils pre-professional courses are appropriate. For others, courses which prepare for the highly skilled trades are appropriate. Even for pupils of these two classes however, it can be said that much less is done than should be done by way of preparing them for intelligent citizenship and for the duties of home life. Thus, while it would be a mistake to make sweeping charges as to the in effectiveness of all secondary education, it is legitimate to urge fundamental reconsideration of the curriculum, particularly in view of the fact that there are a great many pupils in secondary schools for whom the courses now administered in these schools are not appropriate. Even where particular courses and certain parts of other courses are entirely defensible, the complete curriculum must be described as inappropriate because of its emphasis on items that do not accord with the ability or the outlook on the future of the majority of the pupils.2 For a postwar America, however, faced with the titanic problems of social and economic reconstruction which a devastating world war leaves behind, a citizenship educated for far greater competence to meet and solve social and economic problems will be required. If there is any reason for lack of confidence in the ability of the current secondary school program to meet the demands of the present, there is every reason to question its ability to provide a future supply of youth whose education has made them better able to function as young -citizens. Over fifteen million voters of 1950 will graduate from secondary school in the 1940*3 and unless they possess generally distributed individual ability to think through social and economic problems and unless they are motivated by a collective willingness to act in the light of an intelligent study of these problems, a democratic America can last only as long after this war as it takes some scheming dictator to marshal his forces and seize power.

So America needs to appraise its programs of youth education with an eye to the demands of 1950. While engineers and industrialists and scientists join with government agencies to marshal our physical resources for the struggle of the present, a goodly group of social and educational leaders should begin to plan how we may, through better youth education, more fully capitalize upon our human resources for that future day when peace may threaten to destroy our democracy as surely as dictators now do. We need to lay plans now for education for a future postwar period along with plans for business, industry, unemployment, housing, and government. The more numerous and urgent are the problems in all these latter areas, the more important it is to develop a program of youth education specifically designed to help youth and young adults to cope with them. It is therefore proposed here to examine current secondary education in the light of probable needs for youth education in 1950; to outline the principal features of the requisite programs; and to indicate means by which we can begin to develop these programs.


The education available to American youth today is pretty largely determined by what the public high school offers them. There are, of course, private schools ranging from the select and fashionable preparatory schools to be found largely in secluded spots along our eastern coast to the more plebian and dubious Diesel-engine and beauty-shop schools of our urban centers. But all of these private and parochial secondary schools touch but a small minority of all youth—probably less than fifteen per cent—and so when we appraise the program of the public secondary school we are studying what is in effect America's program for the education of its youth.

The public secondary school program began with a nucleus of academic subjects handed down to it from its predecessors, the Latin Grammar School of colonial days and the Academy of our early national days. Latin, Greek, mathematics, and finally English, modern languages, science, and history became the central elements of the curriculum. There was an early demand for "practical" subjects but only since the turn of the century have vocational, industrial, homemaking, and commercial subjects shouldered their way far and generally into the curriculum. Both the academic and non-academic offering have been split up into semester courses so that in a large high school or in the high schools of a large city, the number of courses available to the youth served by such schools often reaches into the hundreds. This fact gives the illusion of a wonderful educational opportunity generally available to American youth through the medium of this "enriched" curriculum.

Two factors operate to prevent anything like the full possibilities of such an- offering actually being realized. The first of these is that while the offering of city high schools is commonly quite broad yet that of a vast majority of our 25,000 high schools is quite narrow. As a result the theoretical chance of an American youth to avail himself of the broad educational opportunity which seems to be offered by the hundreds of courses in our high schools turns out to be one which is at best available only to some of the youth who live in some urban centers. As a matter of practice as one moves from states possessed of much taxable wealth to the poorer states; as one moves from urban centers to rural areas; and from centers of predominantly white population to centers of Negro population, one moves retrogressively toward a more and more restricted and curtailed educational opportunity until, where these factors are cumulated—in the economically poorer states among rural Negro population—the opportunity for youth education practically reaches the vanishing point. Any resident of our American cities who assumes that all is well with youth education in his country because the high school in his neighborhood is housed in an imposing building, is attended by throngs of local youth, and has a winning football team might as well reason that the American farmer is well off because there is a new and imposing self-service grocery store on the near-by corner. Both school and grocery are well housed and ready to serve all who want what they offer. But many do not live within reach and neither the school nor the store always has what it takes to get their attractively packaged offerings off the shelves and out the front door.

The second factor operating to prevent this broad program from being actually available to all youth affects both city and non-city youth though not to the same degree. In all of these schools a narrow range of academic subjects is required of all students to such an extent as to absorb a large fraction of the school time of most secondary school pupils. This effectually excludes them from taking advantage of many of the courses to which some educators are accustomed to point to prove that American secondary schools offer adequate and appropriate educational opportunity to all our youth. The truth of the matter is that, as one writer puts it, about three-fourths of the school time of three-fourths of all those in secondary school is spent on a few academic subjects. In the average school this leaves only a little time for most pupils to take what they may want to elect because of personal interests and needs. These required subjects were in the secondary curriculum first and were once studied by all youth who attended secondary school. The teachers of required subject matter have given "their" students away to the newer subjects only gradually and grudgingly, and most of them still retain and maintain their educational "priority rights" in the secondary school curriculum. They were once thought to possess a saving grace only by means of which could one attain educational salvation. Though common experience and educational research both now deny this occult power yet many school patrons and teachers trained in college by the high priests of the "liberal arts" cult who still exhort their followers into a semblance of faith, resist the curricular changes in high school which would assign a place to each subject taken by any student in proportion to the probability of its being beneficial to him as a person and as a citizen.


Yet the function of public education in this country has always been assumed to be a social one—to produce better citizens. "An educated citizenry is a fundamental to the preservation of our republic" has been the watchword of our public men from Washington and Jefferson to Wilson and Roosevelt. Education is said to be the "bulwark" of our democracy so needed by the state that not only has elementary but also secondary education become the "common" education in all our states. Public support goes to both. Court decisions support taxation for both as legitimate exercises of state power and function, and always as a means for the preservation and safety of the state and the promotion of general welfare. The basic test of a good public school program in a democracy is then one of its contributions to the creation of an able citizenry—a contribution which, in a democratic society where every citizen potentially helps make the public will, is best made by the school only when a high degree of competence to function as a citizen is widely and generally created among all young citizens by that educational program.

With such a concept of function of public education deeply imbedded in our social and political thought and buttressed about by legal decisions, we may ask whether a program of education which spends three-fourths of the time of three-fourths of the pupils on three or four years of English, two or three years of mathematics, one or two years of history, and one or two years of science, and perhaps two or three years of modern language can possibly be the most effective program of American youth education. In fact, today it is hard to believe that any group of representative adults in this country would set up a program of youth education for America such as our present one if they had an opportunity to begin all over again to plan an effective educational program whose chief purpose was to produce self-supporting, socially conscious, intelligently behaving citizens who are lifelong students of and active participants in American democracy as a way of life.

Though the lay public generally accepts the idea that secondary education ought to help make youth into good citizens and though it freely condemns the schools because youth are not better citizens, yet it is also quick to oppose anyone who proposes radical change in the program of secondary education. The public, especially the "better" educated half, has been long taught that this junior edition of a liberal arts education has helped to produce the great leaders of our nation and to propose changes in this program is therefore next to treason. I do not believe this program has produced these leaders or even been a particularly influential factor in their development. Most of them would have risen to leadership anyway—some did so without benefit of any of this particular brand of education. Some who were notorious failures in this education—who failed in it according to the school's standards—have become some of our most successful and civic-minded leaders in the world of business, science, letters, and politics. Moreover, though now more youth get the benefit of more of such an education than ever before, many of the very adults who most seriously object to changes in secondary education are also the most critical of the civic and social competence of modern young adults. The burden of proof would seem to He on those who resist change in secondary education—not upon those who propose it. Neither can the fact that most boys and girls who graduate from high school become by middle age pretty good citizens be cited as proof that the present program of education has per se been responsible and therefore ought not to be tampered with. When one knows to what extent these youths' time in school was spent on the traditional content of a few academic subjects, one cannot easily believe that knowledge of these school subjects has really worked itself out miraculously into even the degree of good citizenship commonly manifested by middle-aged American adults. Therefore, when we recall the nature and character of current secondary education and when we consider the rising need for the highest levels of competent American citizenship, it becomes fairly evident that a program of youth education more effective in producing competent citizens for our postwar democracy should be developed and that now is the time for our social and educational leaders to organize their fellow workers in this field for this purpose.


Though no one person can or should expect to set up the specifications for a new program of youth education, yet it is permissible to ask and attempt an answer to the question of what the principal features of a program of youth education would need to be if the central purpose sought by the required-of-all courses of instruction in the secondary school is to be that of producing self-supporting, socially conscious, intelligently behaving citizens who are lifelong students of and active participants in American democracy as a way of life. If nearly all youth are not to spend most of their school time studying English literature and composition, algebra and geometry, foreign language, and some history and science as a means of becoming good citizens, what would be the principal features of the required part of their secondary education?

A clue to the answers of such questions may be found by asking a few more questions. What essentials of good citizenship which could be acquired through education do young adults lack? What civic responsibilities commonly expected of young adults are they unable to discharge? In what respects are they unable to move from school into the business, social, religious and political life of their communities and to perform as we think well-educated young people should? If we can decide what it is young adults lack, then it is possible to decide whether the deficiency can be overcome by education and what kind of an educational program will be required to meet the situation.

Referring again to the New York Regents' Inquiry, we find that it comments as follows on young people's preparedness to assume social and civic responsibility:

Thus the total impression of these boys and girls newly out of school is one of a group largely adrift, cut off from adult assistance, out of contact with any kind of helpful supervision. Few of them engage in any organized activity which allows them to apply the training in cooperative action that their schools may have given them. The majority become inert, so far as interest in civic affairs is concerned; they neither read about social problems nor listen to discussions of such problems.

Collectively, the leaving pupils constitute a group schooled in academic facts recognizing their rights as free citizens in a free country, but unconcerned about civic responsibility, and not awake even to the immediate and local problems and issues which will shortly confront them as citizens, taxpayers, and voters.

Other studies of youth support this point of view and in general it may be said that young people who have attended and are attending secondary school are considered to be less competent to carry social-civic responsibilities and to face economic situations than they might be if the required-of-all portion of their secondary school education were more specifically pointed at creating such competence than it now is. This competence consists of ability and willingness to think and act when faced with life's social, civic, and economic problems and situations. Competence everywhere is founded on ability and willingness to think and act. Capacity to think may not be created by education but ability to use one's capacity to think can result from education. Knowledge - of how men are thinking and have thought when confronted with social, civic, and economic problems similar to those now faced by America and the results of their actions- can be studied, discussed, and applied. Knowledge of what kinds of actions on such problems most nearly harmonize with the ideals and principles of democratic society can be observed and pointed out by teachers as part of youth's education. If such knowledge is to be generally effective in increasing ability of all our youth to think about such problems and situations, it must be directly and specifically related when taught to the problem situations in current life in connection with which it is most useful. Most youth need to see a rather direct connection between schoolroom knowledge and life-use of it if the knowledge is to be put to work by these youth. For example, knowledge of the free distribution of corn to the city's mobs in old Rome and of relief in America in 1937 do not automatically fit together in most youths' minds as a part of an age-old problem. But it can be so seen and if teachers are permitted and encouraged to introduce and arrange what is to be learned in ways which help youth to see how such knowledge is useful in meeting and solving such problems, a greater degree of competence to think on social, civic, and economic problems of current living will be manifested. The English-mathematics-history-science program currently required of all in our high schools demands that teachers spend too much time on content with little or no relation to social, civic, or economic competence. The conventional organization of knowledge in these subjects makes such applications to modern life as are possible a side issue when it should be the main issue. It permits them too little time to make such applications as can be made and its arrangement into prescribed courses of study does not encourage them to make such competence their chief concern. This whole required program is a hangover from a day when getting students to commit knowledge to memory was the function of the teacher and it encourages, indeed permits, teachers to do little else. If memorization is what we want then we want this program. If social, civic, and economic competence is the desired outcome of secondary education then we need a different program. We must teach for what we want if we expect maximum results.

It is clear, however, that ability to think is less than half the story. The greater part is willingness. That many who know what are the best courses of action choose to follow other courses is too evident a fact to need elaboration here. Competence as manifested in life is a matter of willingness as well as ability. If the school is an agency of society which is to strive for greater competence on the part of youth, its results will be suicidal unless along with ability comes willingness to direct ability in ways which the society's ideals approve. This willingness can also be taught. Home, church, and school have long been the chief agencies by which willingness on the part of children has been encouraged and developed. None of these agencies has been one hundred per cent successful in the discharge of this function, but all have been successful enough to justify the conclusion that if we really want to create willingness on the part of children and youth to live the kinds of lives consistent with the maintenance and development of our democracy it can be done.

Without any claim that the school, unaided by the home, the church, and by the society in general, can develop the desired willingness in children and youth, it can be safely said that if the school is expected to accept as a major responsibility the creation of the attitudes and appreciations which underlie willingness to think and act in harmony with democratic ideals, it knows how to discharge the responsibility. A basic requirement is that children and youth under its control live and work in a democratic atmosphere in which children and youth are encouraged, aided, and approved when they make decisions and choices consistent with the theory and practice of American democracy. Not all secondary schools are now as thoroughly democratic as they could be. The Educational Policies Commission which speaks authoritatively for our largest educational organizations has attempted to meet this problem in its Learning the Ways of Democracy3 by showing both how bad and how good schools can be in influencing pupils' attitudes toward democracy. The personal and group life of little children, adolescents, and young adults in all schools can provide abundant opportunities for such choices as democracy demands and if the school goes "all-out" for including and using all such opportunities possible and then heaps on a full measure of social approval for good (democratically speaking) choices and decisions, we shall find young men and women not only far more able but also more willing to be socially and economically competent than now is the case. America needs now and is going to need even more in the postwar period, the highest levels of socially and economically competent citizens that education can produce. The elementary school is well on its way and the pressing need now is for a program of universal youth education centered upon this task. What is needed most is a clear mandate from the American public. Given such a clear mandate the leaders of American secondary education can and will make the necessary changes. Without it too little will be done by too few.


If we agree that more social, civic, and economic competence on the part of young adults would be desirable and that secondary education should aim directly at this outcome as a major responsibility, are we not then face to face with the question of what social, civic, and economic competence are? When is a young adult economically competent? What is he like when he is socially and civically competent? Unless there are some generally acceptable criteria to guide the secondary school in planning its program, unless there are some generally accepted ideals which determine by what attitudes and appreciations young adults should be guided in their efforts to be competent, the school has no star by which to chart its course. Many will say that here we are confronted with the insuperable obstacle to such a program of education as here proposed. I do not think so. It is obvious that we in America seem to disagree on so many points about democracy that we seem to agree on nothing. This is always true where free speech permits individuals to express themselves. They will always choose to talk and write more about their differences of-opinion than about their agreements. It is good that they do, but it should not lead us to think that there are no basic agreements underlying the discussions. In fact there can be no sensible discussion except as there is a divergence of opinion from a commonly accepted point of departure. It is therefore my contention that there is a sufficient corpus of commonly held ideals, principles, and practices underlying divergencies in popular opinion in America to make an adequate set of criteria for the school to use in selecting good content to include and in deciding upon desirable attitudes and appreciations to be stressed.

Given such criteria, the school's first job is to select content or subject matter providing opportunity for youth to become acquainted with and to practice democratic ways of thinking and acting in social, civic, and economic problems and situations. The second task is to carry on this study and practice in a school atmosphere which encourages and approves this kind of thinking and acting. It can completely fulfill its function only when, in the light of commonly held ideals and generally approved practices, it encourages its pupils to make applications to their personal and group problems; when it provides for its pupils opportunities for practices in these ways of living; when it expects its pupils to decide on the basis of their study, experimentation, and free discussion what courses of action in their personal and group activities represent the best application of democratic ideals and principles, and especially when it encourages its pupils to make proposals which seek to improve or advance either the ideals or the practices on the basis of their study, experimentation, observation, and discussion. These are democracy's techniques for providing for and promoting the general welfare and must therefore be incorporated into school life if competence in their use is to be manifested in youth. It is thus evident that had the school no acceptable criteria by which to select what helps youth to become socially, civically, or economically competent, it could not make intelligent decisions with respect either to content or methods. With such criteria available it can effectively fulfill its purpose in America only when it does so select content and choose methods. Such criteria appear to exist however in the ideals and practices which have been listed in "Democracy and Education in the Current Crisis," a pamphlet published by the faculty of Teachers College, Columbia University. This seems to the writer to provide acceptable criteria for deciding what constitutes the kind of thought and action one would expect a competent young adult to be able to utilize and exhibit. If so, it serves as a guide to those who want to develop a school curriculum which is rich in resources for promoting growth and development toward social, civic, and economic competence.

Suppose, for example, we want to use this document to help us decide when a young adult is competent in respect to social and civic problems and situations. First, we must recognize that in social-civic affairs we are dealing primarily with human relationships and we need therefore to inquire what basic characteristics human relationships have if consistent with the philosophy of our American democracy. We may say that one is socially and civically competent in a democracy when he has ability and willingness to sustain and improve mutually helpful relations with his fellows. Our democracy was created to promote the general welfare and to insure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. This presumes that as we live and work with others we shall seek maximum levels and kinds of mutually helpful living. If in our living each tries to discover ways of working with others which under the circumstances appear to be best for all, we are living at what democracy considers to be a good level. One who is able and willing so to live with others may then be said to be competent from a social-civic viewpoint.

To illustrate how "Education and Democracy in the Current Crisis" may serve at this point, we may select from among the more than sixty proposals listed therein such samples as the following for use as guides in deciding content and emphases to give the secondary school curriculum if it is effectively to seek social-civic competence. Others could be listed if more examples were needed.

Democracy respects the personality of every individual whatever his origin or present status;

. . . protects the weak and cares for the needy that they may maintain their self-respect;

. . . protects every individual against exploitation by special privilege or power;

. . . insures standards of living in which every individual can retain his own self-respect and unabashed make his peculiar contribution to the society in which he lives.

The task of those who develop this social-civic element in the curriculum of the secondary school then becomes one of selecting important problems and situations in current life which involve human relations where thinking and acting more in harmony with the ideals and principles listed above are today seriously needed. These problems and situations should be treated in such way as to give opportunity to apply some of the principles and ideals listed above. It should also provide opportunity to observe and appraise various current and past efforts to meet the problem and to consider the merits of other suggested proposals for meeting the problem. The maturity of the youth involved will dictate the depth and scope of the study. The younger youth will be concerned with the more concrete immediate and understand able aspects. Older youth can approach adult levels of treatment. Such a problem of current human relationships as racial intolerance, for example, could, if made a part of the required education of all American youth, be so studied as to lead to far greater competence on the part of young adults than any generation in this or any other country has yet exhibited. A conventional study of the causes and results of the Civil War and of the reconstruction period may add a bit to American youth's competence to meet the problem of racial tolerance, but it seems perfectly obvious that the amount of it to be expected from the usual study of this period of American history is small, if youth in New York City, for example, spent an equal amount of time getting an honest and defensible answer to the question of what Lincoln would think about racial relations today in New York City and how he would set about trying to improve them as judged by what he thought and did about it in his day, the amount of competence to think and act on this problem would be raised far above what it is today. An hour or two a day through the six-year junior and senior high school period spent in work on such problems would give us an entirely different social competence result from what is now gotten through the study of some geography, civics, and history. Nor would there be any resulting loss in the amount of these three actually learned, according to the latest reports of the results of teaching under similar plans.

In turn, let us suppose we want to illustrate how the document could be used to increase economic competence. Economic competence might be defined as the capacity and the willingness to utilize one's abilities in working with our natural resources and the material aspects of our cultural setting to the end that high standards of living sought by democracy for all may be as fully and generally attained as possible. More specifically such propositions as the following from the Teachers College faculty document implement this general statement with more concrete criteria for the guidance of one who is seeking to develop teaching materials to be used in building economic competence.

Democracy furnishes an environment in which every individual can be and is stimulated to exert himself to develop his own unique personality, limited only by the similar rights of others;

. . . grants the right to labor at work of one’s own choosing, provided it does not interfere with the interests of society;

 . . .guarantees the right to enjoy the fruits of one’s honest labor and to use them without molestation after paying a part proportionate to wealth or income to the cost of necessary government and general welfare;

. . . encourages individual initiative and private enterprise in so far as they are compatible with the public weal;

. . . maintains human rights to be more important than property rights;

. . . so regulates the natural resources of the country as to preserve them for the widest use for the welfare of all the people.

A current problem in this area about which as a nation we need to think and act at better levels than we have is the problem of soil conservation. It would be a good thing for America if every youth before he left secondary school knew far more about the importance of this problem and what ought to be done about it than he now does. Every city youth should study it so that he could at least lend more willing support to state and federal efforts to meet and solve it than many city adults now do. We teach about it in many high schools. The teaching is "spotty" in that some comes in one subject—some more in another. Some youth may get two exposures to it; some none. Often the teaching is not as sharply focused as would be the case were the criteria suggested above more fully applied by those who prepare the teaching material. What is needed is to set such a problem into the heart of the required program so all would get a good, well-planned attack that really covers the subject and drives home the desired learnings. Some such results have been sought in recent years by high schools many of which have used a motion picture filmed by the United States government and entitled "The River." It is an example of material already at hand for use in creating economic competence. It has been used by many high schools in an incidental fashion—shown to a few students in some classes or to all as an assembly program. All this is commendable but why should it be incidental in any degree anywhere when it is one of our greatest problems and when much higher levels of ability and willingness to think and act thereon are sorely needed. What I should urge is that every youth in every high school in America (and all should be there) should be made as competent to meet this economic problem as a well-planned treatment of the whole problem can make him. It is not something that should come to a few youth in some high schools as something extra and incidental to their real education. It should be part of the economic education of all youth.

A whole series of such economic problem-treatments could be developed and placed alongside those calculated to develop social-civic competence to extend through the junior high school, senior high school, and even into the junior college level. Those for junior high school use should of course be of the simpler type and closely related to conditions nearer at hand so as not to transcend the experience of young learners. By careful arrangement a required program of education for social-civic and economic competence could be developed which would yield much higher levels and qualities of competence and provide far more general distribution over all youth than is now or ever will be the case as long as we depend upon the present required subjects of the typical secondary school's program of study. Along with this basic program every youth should have even a better chance than now to elect subjects of particular interest to him, including those necessary for college preparation, for further general education, and for vocational education. Thus, besides a basic education for social and economic competence, each would be free to round out his program to suit his own tastes and needs.


Some now working in American secondary schools and others interested in the welfare of American youth have for several years been urging reforms in this general direction. Some hope that the impact of war on American life may have as one of its by-products such a critical analysis of secondary education by the general public that enough strength will be added to the movement to overcome the understandable apathy of many within the profession. Too many therein now spend their time in defending the status quo and in attacking any who propose reform. Others spin out endless hours of discussion about relatively inconsequential details which ought to be settled after the task is begun, not as a prerequisite to agreeing to undertake it. There are also jurisdictional quarrels between public and private schools, between higher institutions of learning and secondary schools; between "general" and vocational protagonists and jockeying between and among state and federal agencies and such other governmental youth-serving agencies as the CCC and the NYA—usually over who is to control any money the Congress may see fit to appropriate. All these discussions, arguments, and fights are important in some ways and to some people but they amount to nothing beside the overwhelming need for this generation of American youth to be made competent to carry the responsibilities of citizenship by a secondary education which increases their individual and collective ability to think through and act in the kind of social, civic, and economic problems which they and we will have to face when as young adults they join some of us in trying to set America and the rest of the world on a better footing. It is not beyond the reach of our finances, our time, or our professional resources. All we need is to melt the icy grip of educational tradition in the white heat of an aroused public concern over the education of our American youth.

1 From The New York Times, August 13, 1941.

2 What the High School Ought to Teach, American Council on Education, Washington, D. C, 1940.

3 Published by the Educational Policies Commission, National Education Association and the American Association of School Administrators, 1940.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 44 Number 2, 1942, p. 116-129
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 9198, Date Accessed: 1/24/2022 9:32:13 PM

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About the Author
  • Will French
    Professor of Education, Teachers College
    Professor WILL FRENCH, director of the Horace Mann-Lincoln School, is on leave of absence serving as deputy superintendent of schools for Long Beach, California. Before joining the College Staff he was superintendent of schools for Long Beach. Professor French returns to the College periodically to supervise the program of the Schools. Included in this number of THE RECORD is his article on "Youth Education and Postwar Democracy."
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