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

Shortages in Education in the Midst of Plenty

by William F. Russell - 1942

In prosecuting this total war our nation finds itself with shortages not only in military and naval equipment, factories and raw materials, but also in men and women who are able and prepared to perform the kinds of tasks that mechanical warfare requires. These shortages have come despite recent great educational advances.

It is now apparent, nine months after Pearl Harbor, that the manpower needs of our military and civilian efforts will demand of our educational institutions the development of programs more closely related to the war effort.1 In prosecuting this total war our nation finds itself with shortages not only in military and naval equipment, factories and raw materials, but also in men and women who are able and prepared to perform the kinds of tasks that mechanical warfare requires. These shortages have come despite recent great educational advances.

On June 20, 1942, the United States Bureau of the Census issued a leaflet on "The Educational Level of Men of Military Age in the United States." We who have been working in public education should take great satisfaction in this report. It reveals "phenomenal improvement in the educational level of selectees in World War II as compared with draftees in World War I" and attributes this improvement to "the spectacular increase in educational opportunities in the United States in less than a generation." "On the eve of our entry into the war, almost as many men were attending college as were in high school less than twenty-five years ago," and "the high school enrollment in 1940 was seven times greater than in 1916."

This improved educational status of the selectee in World War II over the draftee in World War I is shown in the research study by Brigadier General Frederick H. Osborn, Chief of Special Service of the Army, and J. C. Capt, Director of the Bureau of the Census. Their study revealed that of every 100 draftees in World War I and too selectees in World War II, 5 draftees and 11 selectees were college men; 4 draftees and 30 selectees were high school graduates; 12 draftees and 28 selectees had attended high school without graduating; while those with grade school records or no schooling totaled 79 in World War I and only 31 in World War II. Truly the improvement is "phenomenal." Certainly the increase in educational attainment is "spectacular." One might think that our educational shortages were slight or nonexistent; that our educational problems had been solved. But this is not the case.


We still have the problem of illiteracy. The census of 1900 revealed 6,180,069 illiterates among the population 10 years of age and over; in 1910 this number was reduced to 5,516,163; in 1920 to 4,931,905; and in 1930 to 4,283,753. There is no figure for 1940. The explanation for this is that the figures for the previous years are really not significant. They were based upon whether a person could or could not sign his name, not such an important accomplishment after all! What really counts, with respect to literacy, is not whether one signs his name with a cross or not, but whether one can gain meaning from the printed page or written paper with some degree of speed and accuracy. This can be determined only by a reading examination. The Census of 1940 could not give such an examination to everyone; but in its stead it did collect data on the grade of school completed.

These figures have not been released for all age groups but on April 23, 1942, the Bureau of the Census issued a bulletin entitled "Educational Attainment of the Population 25 Years of Age and Over in the United States: 1940." This revealed that

74,775,836 persons were 25 years of age and over

1,041,970 did not report upon their education

2,799,923 had completed no years of school

7,304,689 had completed 1-4 years of school

Thus 10,104,612 persons 25 years of age and over had completed not more than the fourth grade; and while one cannot assume that all these are functionally illiterate, the figure cannot be far off. While we know that certain adults have picked up abilities to read and write with little or no formal schooling, many who have completed the fifth, sixth, or seventh grade have lost those abilities. It cannot be far from the truth to say that in the United States as many as ten million persons 25 years of age and over cannot gain meaning quickly and accurately from a printed page of simple English; and hence they are what is termed functionally illiterate.

Of course, there are many in the United States who are still totally illiterate. Of the five million non-citizens recorded in Alien Registration, approximately 700,000 signed the card with a cross. In the first registration under Selective Service, about 350,000 could not sign their names.

As for functional illiteracy, there are a number of indications of the true situation. Among the non-citizens, it has been found that the government textbook, Our Constitution and Government, written on a low high school level, is far beyond the reading abilities of most of those seeking citizenship; simpler text materials have had to be prepared in response to the demands of the teachers of these adults; and it is conservatively estimated that two million of these aliens are functionally illiterate in English.

In the Army the problem of functional illiteracy is acute. The modern mechanized army is very different from the army of World War I. There are few places where an illiterate can be useful; and no place at all where he is neither a danger to himself nor to his associates. For these reasons, the Army set certain entrance requirements. After a young man is registered under Selective Service, is classified I-A, and has passed certain preliminary tests, he is sent to an induction center. There he is confronted with a further series of examiners, one of whom is a psychologist or a psychiatrist. This examiner, from inspection of the quality of the inductee's writing, makes a judgment as to whether the person is obviously literate or not; and, if not, gives a simple reading examination, which is made up of such questions as "Which is bigger, a cow or a mouse?" and "Can a man jump a mile?" If the inductee fails, he is sent home. In one four-month period, about 140,000 young men were refused admission into the Army on this account; and it is estimated that 433,000 from I-A's of the present registrants 20 to 44 years of age will have so failed. Despite this examination, at present there are about 150,000 illiterates in the Army who are receiving or have received from 13 to 26 weeks of simple elementary school instructiona needed preliminary, in the judgment of the Army, to military service in warfare.

Owing to a variety of considerations, partly from the pressure of certain southern states where the refusal of illiterates by the Army has resulted in the induction of most of the white males from 20 to 44, the Army relaxed this prescription beginning August 1, 1942, permitting the induction from any one group on any one day of 10 per cent of the intelligent illiterates. But there is some reason to believe that this provision is causing so much trouble that there will be a return to the former restriction.

Functional illiteracy also has a relation to the emerging shortage of workers in war industry. There are coming to be fewer jobs open to illiterates; there are increasing places for those who can follow written directions and plans. The testimony of thousands of employers and the United States Employment Service points to the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of potential workers who cannot do their share in this war simply because they cannot read and write.


But literacy is not the only shortage; there is also a shortage in physical condition and health. Millions of hours of productive capacity are lost because of preventable diseases and medical and nutritional defects. The record of Selective Service gives the data with regard to the young men. As of November 10, 1941, two million registrants had been examined by Selective Service and by the Army examining and inducting stations. Of this two million, 900,000 were placed in deferred classifications for physical and mental defects, deficiencies, disorders, or diseases; 470,000 were classified I-B, that is, qualified for limited military service if needed; and 430,000 were classified as IV-F, that is, disqualified for military service. The breakdown of these defects was as follows: dental defects, 188,000; eyes, 123,000; cardiovascular system, 96,000; musculoskeletal, 61,000; venereal, 57,000; mental and nervous, 57,000; hernia, 56,000; ears, 41,000; lungs, 26,000; feet, 36,-ooo; and miscellaneous defects, 159,000.2 It might be supposed that this record of health deficiency was the result of bad conditions in the less favored sections of the United States; but a survey by Boynton and Diehl revealed that the proportion of defects among the male students of similar age at the University of Minnesota was practically identical with that among the registrants 21 years of age, although the distribution of the types of defects was somewhat different, i.e., better teeth among the college students, fewer hernias, poorer eyesight. These deficiencies in health constitute a national scandal, and Americans should hang their heads in shame, so wide is the gap between how we live and what we know.


Shortages are apparent, not only in literacy and health, but also in the ability to perform skilled work. The Census Report of June 20, 1942, which was referred to above, states that "we have ample reserves of well-educated manpower." If the proper measure of the term "well-educated" is years of schooling, the conclusion may be correct; it is not true if the measure is ability to do skilled work. Lieutenant General Brehon B. Sommervell, Commanding General of the Services of Supply, recently reported upon this deficiency as it has been experienced by the Army. He stated that in our modern army 63 out of every 100 soldiers must be specialists. More recent information indicates that this number may be as high as 80. The Army is not getting these specialists in sufficient numbers from civilian life through the Selective Service. For illustration: out of every 300,000 men inducted, the Army needs 4,689 trained radio operators; it is getting 135. Out of every 300,000 men inducted, the Army needs 4,507 medical technicians, 4,372 telephone and telegraph linemen, 1,548 master mechanics; it is receiving 166, 343, and 14 respectively. One might suppose that there would be no such shortage of automobile mechanics, with our millions of cars and thousands of service stations and factories; but even here there is a shortage of 10,437 per 300,000 inductees. All in all, in an army of four million men, General Sommervell estimates a shortage of 838,040 specialists or skilled workers.

The problem appears more acute when we add the needs of the Navy and the Employment Service. A ship in the modern navy is merely a steel shell packed full of complicated and intricate machinery and instruments. The personnel of the Navy is a collection of specialists. The manufacture of supplies for the armed services naturally requires skilled workers; but there is a difference between the armed services and industry. Frequently in industry a worker can specialize on a small section of a certain kind of skilled work and this limited ability can be taught speedily. Thereafter the worker can confine himself to this particular small set of operations and repeat them constantly. In the Army a mechanic may be off in the desert with a broken-down tank; in the Navy he may be in mid-ocean having trouble with a dynamo; and in such cases the specialist must be competent in a whole area. Thus, broader and longer training is required.

We are reaching the bottom of the barrel in manpower, particularly skilled manpower; and this shortage is seriously hampering the prosecution of the war.


There is another shortage which may be discussed briefly, although an adequate exposition of the problem would require more space than is possible in this report. This shortage centers about the need for making our people "air-conscious," or "air-minded." Sometimes it is stated that we need to air-condition our youth.

On December 30, 1939, the Nazi-Minister of Education, Bernhard Rust, issued a Decree on Promotion of Aviation in the Schools and Universities of the Third Reich. This decree began as follows:

In my Decree of November 17, 1934, I have called attention to the importance of cultivating and promoting air-minded-ness in schools and universities to the end of securing a supply of recruits for all branches of the young field of aviation, be it for scientific, technical, practical, or flying activities.

The importance and scope of aviation have expanded with the creation of our Air Force, the growth of aeronautical research and of the aviation industry as well as through the establishment of the National Socialist Flying Corps (N.S.F.K.)

In cooperation with all agencies active therein, the German system of education must make an effort to perform its special part resulting from this development.

It is the task of the schools and universities to enable and inspire the youth for the preservation and further development of aviation which is a vital necessity for the German nation, so that those elements will be available to aviation which it requires for the defense of the Reich and Germany's world prestige.3

Following an extended introductory discussion of the responsibilities of elementary and secondary education (including an order to teachers colleges to give "a general university-type introduction into the whole field of aviation"), the Decree gives detailed instructions for I. Aviation in: Instruction in Physics, Mathematics, Geography, Biology, Chemistry, Foreign Languages, and Art; Model Building and Model Flight; Teaching Aids; Directions for the Re-training of Teachers; II. Shop Work; III. Aviation in ScienceMathematics Work Groups; IV. Aviation Courses at Vocational Schools, including (1) History of Aviation, (2) Structure and Organization of German Aviation, (3) Aircraft Construction, (4) Theory of Aircraft and Flight, (5) Air Traffic, (6) Theory of Air Communication, (7) Theory of Measuring Instruments, (8) Meteorology, (9) Navigation, (10) Motors, and (11) Air Law. Following this there is a chapter on promotion of aviation in schools, another on the universities, and the Decree closes with an extended bibliography.

This decree testifies to the air-mindedness of the German leaders, and its adoption by the schools must account in some part for the air-mindedness of our enemies. It was to help make our people air-minded that last spring the Civil Aeronautics Authority commissioned Professors Ben D. Wood, N. L. Engelhardt, and Paul R. Mort to develop curricula, write textbooks, and in general stimulate a program for air-mindedness in American schools. With limited funds, in a very short time, they performed a task with a high degree of competence and significance. At the National Institute on Education held recently in Washington it was urged that all American schools should hold before them as one important war objective the air-conditioning of the American people, and it was suggested that all schools, colleges, and universities incorporate such curricula in their regular work.

On first thought, this appears to be a brand-new idea. Surely we need to become air-minded. We know what its lack has caused in our preparations for war and in its early prosecution. Remember Pearl Harbor! The oncoming generation must not be like the old. We must be up to date.


It is proper to point out, however, that air-mindedness is but one phase or part of, a new social outlook that professors at Teachers College have long been analyzing and urging upon us. More than a decade ago, reflecting this attitude, this report discussed some of the educational implications of the coming industrial age. The problem boiled down to an effort to project the then social trends into the future, to study the effect of technology on our life, and to determine the task of education to prepare people properly for that kind of life. The succeeding years have made these trends plainer. We live in a technological age. It is easy for us at this late date to see how military leaders failed to adjust. We had too few aircraft carriers, too few dive bombers; officers' spurs caught on the trapdoors of the tanks. However, it is still difficult for us to see that, just as the generals thought they were fighting old wars, so most of us still think in horse-and-buggy terms and look on life too much in terms of the past. We live in an age of technologyan expansion and projection of the Industrial Revolutionand our minds and habits must catch up. Air travel, air geography, air war are but small phases of the great social change that has come upon us. We need not only to be air-conditioned; we need to be technology-conditioned.

Here then is a "war program" for our schools. We need to eradicate illiteracy. We need to toughen up and be healthy. We need to learn to do skilled work. We need to become technology-conditioned, which would include air-mindedness. This is the program that our military leaders demand. American schools, colleges, and agencies of adult education can do no less.

Commissioner Studebaker of the United States Office of Education has put the problem succinctly as follows:

The "war training programs" for schools and colleges must, in the interest of the most vigorous and intelligent prosecution of a successful war, include all students in the secondary schools and colleges, as well as people not regularly enrolled in school. Any realistic view of the terrible dangers threatening our country, including our schools and colleges which the American way of life has made possible, necessarily forces an abandonment of the "education as usual" idea, of the customary and all too common peacetime academic detachment of education from the most vital realities of life. Total war matches the total manpower of one nation or group of nations against the total manpower of other nations. Other things being equal, the nation which makes the most total use of its manpower will defeat the nation that doesn't do so. There is no indication to date that other factors in this global war are sufficiently in our favor to justify any program by the United States that falls short of the total war service use of our total manpower.

Following out this prescription, every high school, college, university, and center of adult education will at once enter upon a program of pre-induction training for the armed services, and a program of vocational or professional training for the civilian services necessary to the war effort. The Army has announced that it will promptly induct all selectees as soon as they reach the age determined by law for military service. Following induction, whether in army camps or in educational institutions, they will be trained for specific tasks at maximum pressure in minimum time. Shortages of manpower will force similar action by the Navy, and possibly by industry, by government, and by social services.

High schools will then tend to become speed-up institutions to give boys mathematics and physics, air-minded-ness, hard physical conditioning, and technical skill; to give girls these qualities and abilities applied to hospitals, homes, offices, and community centers. Our colleges will become armed camps for freshmen and a few sophomores. In other words, except for language differences, our schools and colleges will tend to resemble those of our enemy, much after the fashion of other instruments of total war.

The tendency of the college president and professor, of the high school principal and teacher, is to resist this wartime program. They think of standards and traditions. They foresee the need of trained leaders in the future. There is much to be said for this point of view. The trouble is that we are fighting a war, and we must not lightly disregard the considered judgment of our military leaders.

In eradicating the shortages of literacy, health, skill, and technological-mindedness, and thereby giving our schools a superficial resemblance to Nazi education, it is important that we do not follow the Nazis in the shortages that are apparent in their education and life. They have few illiterates; they have trained their bodies to be hard; they work with skill; they apparently have adjusted themselves to technology: but somewhere in this process they have lost the ideals of Kant and Goethe, and the Christian-Jewish ideas of God and Good have gone by the board. The Nazis have adjusted their life to the technological material world which is in process of change and they have forgotten the world of the spirit, which is an old world, a permanent world, a world that does not change.

The Fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776. They lighted the open fire with a coal; they rode in a stagecoach; they communicated by slow courier. Then came the Industrial Revolution, and Lincoln lighted the stove with a match, rode on steam trains, and used the telegraph. Then came the Technological Revolution, and we turn on the thermostat for hot or cold, ride the planes, and speak by radio to any corner of the earth. Surely the material world is a changing one.

But the hopes of the Fathers are as noble today as they were long ago; and the words of the Declaration are as true now as when Jefferson dipped his pen. The Four Freedoms and the Atlantic Charter are old ideas in modern dress, but they hold good today because they live not only in the material world but in the steady, unchanging world of the idea.

The Fathers believed that one should love his God with all his heart, with all his mind, with all his soul, and with all his strength, and his neighbor as himself; and this is still the law and the prophetsjust the same on River Rouge as when Washington crossed the Delaware. A certain man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho by transport plane can still fall among thieves; and good Samaritans, warned by radio, can give X-ray treatments and sulfanilamide.

There are fundamentals that are basic to our life. There are ideals that do not change. There are traditions that men of good will have lived for and died for across the ages; and it has been the manifest destiny of the American people to bring democracy down from the clouds and make it live in government and life. This is our joy. This is our duty. And whatever the war may force upon our schools and colleges in the way of "wartime programs," the American school must still keep alive in American hearts the religion, morality, and knowledge considered by the Fathers to be necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind.

If we are to be saved, American schools and colleges must adopt these "war training programs" but programs to instill fundamental ideals must not be lost if we are to be worth saving. This poses a delicate and difficult question of choice and balance calling for the highest educational statesmanship. Let it not be said in future times that American educators read the handwriting on the wall, and that they were weighed in the balance and found wanting.

1 This article is a section of the Report of the Dean of Teachers College for the Academic Year Ending June, 1942.

2 From an unpublished paper by Colonel Rowntree of Selective Service.

3 Quoted from a translation from Deutsche Wissenschaft, Erziehung und Volksbildung, February 5, 1940 (Vol. 6, pp. 85 ff.).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 44 Number 2, 1942, p. 75-83
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 9225, Date Accessed: 10/18/2021 12:33:17 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • William Russell
    Dean of Teachers College
    Dean WILLIAM F. RUSSELL, in addition to his work at Teachers College, is serving as Director of the National Citizenship Education Program of the U.S. Department of Justice and also as a member of the Wartime Commission of the U.S. Office of Education.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue