Education for National Defense: The American Way of Life and Educational Opportunity

by George D. Strayer - 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.

The American way of life is based on respect for the personality of each individual. We are committed to the belief that all men can be developed and improved through education. We have as our ideal the attainment of the most significant and richest possible life for each of our citizens. Many institutions and agencies in our society contribute to the realization of these ends. Schools have a peculiar responsibility for providing for every individual opportunities which will enable him to make the best of such natural gifts as he possesses. Schools succeed when they offer experiences in which individuals are stimulated to exert themselves in the development of their unique personalities.

Our traditional school program, while it contributed to the realization of these purposes, cannot satisfy present-day needs. Even now schools tend altogether too frequently to overemphasize the acquisition of knowledge. They fail to take sufficient account of individual differences. Children, youth, and adults, if they are to enjoy the benefits of our American way of life, should be given opportunities which vary as greatly as do the interests, abilities, and vocational outlook of all members of our society.


If we are to maintain this way of life, the program of education must be extended to include younger children for whom at present little or no provision is made and all youth until they are ready to take their places as productive members of our society. Public education must accept responsibility for the total population up to eighteen or nineteen years of age, and for a larger percentage of the population beyond the period of full-time schooling. A system of education, beginning with the nursery schools and kindergartens and continuing to the completion of a program of general education at sixteen or seventeen years of age, must be supplemented by vocational and professional education which will prepare all individuals for active participation in the work of the world and for their responsibilities as citizens.

Schools in which reading, writing, and arithmetic were taught to young children a hundred years ago cannot possibly be thought of as meeting the requirements of the situation today. Schooling in those earlier days was supplementary to a much more significant education carried on in the family and in local community enterprises. Children worked with their fathers and mothers and with their older brothers and sisters. They were inducted into their responsibilities as citizens through cooperation with their elders in providing the labor necessary for many community enterprises and in actual participation in those discussions which resulted in local social action. In this earlier period, with the existing difficulties of transportation and communication, each family, or at least each community, was for the most part self-sustaining.

In proposing the program of education which we must provide today, we must take into account the contrast between that earlier society and our modern, interdependent, industrial, urbanized society. They lived in an age of scarcity; we live in an age of plenty. They depended upon power from human beings and from farm animals; we derive our power from the burning of coal and oil and from the harnessing of great rivers. They were compelled to work long hours in order to provide food, clothing, and shelter; we live in a period in which the hours of labor must be restricted in order to give employment to all of our people. They lived in communities in which it was possible to discuss the issues of local government in town meetings. They had so little to distract them by way of commercialized entertainment that it was customary for them to spend such little leisure as was available in the discussion of political and governmental problems which concerned the state and the nation. We live in communities so large and so complex that we find it difficult to act intelligently or effectively in the development of efficient local government. We have so many opportunities for the use—or, should I say, the waste—of our free time that the great majority of us pay little or no attention to our responsibilities as citizens of the state or nation. Our only hope for the maintenance of liberty and for the perpetuation of our democracy is to be found in a more adequate program of public education.


As has been suggested, an American program of education must include opportunities for all boys and girls. We sometimes flatter ourselves that our compulsory education laws have guaranteed this opportunity to children up to fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, or even seventeen and eighteen years of age, depending upon the laws of particular states. As a matter of fact, however, compulsory education does not ordinarily begin before six years of age and is not usually enforced rigidly for children above this age level. Significant education takes place in the lives of children before they are six years of age. Kindergarten and nursery school education may be as important for many children in the community as are their later experiences in the elementary school and in the high school. We cannot rest satisfied with a program of education which neglects children under six years of age.

In the elementary school period there is need for providing special opportunities for atypical children. There are those who are mentally backward; others who are physically handicapped; and still others who are socially maladjusted. We have not yet provided adequately for crippled children, for those who are deaf or partially deaf, or for those whose eyesight can be saved or maintained at a reasonably high level only through special treatment and special equipment. We are beginning to recognize that social maladjustments occurring in childhood may result in later antisocial tendencies which are destructive to the individual and costly to society. Some parts of this specialized program for children may need to be conducted in hospitals. It will be necessary in many cases to call upon other social agencies for cooperation in order that the total situation may be such that children may profit from the educational opportunity provided. Whatever adjustment needs to be made should be undertaken with a clear recognition of the fact that only by means of the development of such a universal program of education can the promise of our democracy be realized.


Nowhere are the weaknesses in our current program more clearly seen than in the field of secondary education. There are now enrolled in high schools throughout the United States approximately 65 per cent of all boys and girls between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. But that is not enough. We may reasonably look forward to a time when all boys and girls under eighteen years of age will be enrolled in some sort of school. There is great need for a thorough revision of our program of secondary education in the light of this responsibility. The kind of program which was suitable for a minority of the population who attended high schools in order that they might prepare for advanced study in the college or university is totally unsuited to the needs of this larger group. We must offer a variety of studies and of experiences, suited to the needs of all boys and girls. Possibly a program like that provided in the better vocational schools may be the answer for a part of the group. Certainly, greater opportunity for active participation in meaningful work must accompany the traditional type of school training.

In a recent report, What the High Schools Ought to Teach, the place of work in the secondary school program is presented as follows:

The ability to work steadily for eight hours is not a natural possession; it has to be acquired. Immature children cannot labor for long hours. Recognizing this fact, society has given children freedom to grow up and develop through play and other forms of exercise which are less strenuous than protracted labor. However, now that the conditions of civilized life have changed so that family training in the manual arts is largely eliminated, the mistake has been made of not realizing that work is a natural way of developing and using energy, even if it must not be too strenuous in early life. By the time a young person reaches adolescence he needs to have opportunities for work if he is to make the transition into adulthood readily and efficiently. Work can be advocated as a much-to-be-desired phase of education for all classes of young people. Young people exhibit the natural urge for expression of their energy by organizing a substitute for work when such is not provided in their education. They undertake quite voluntarily strenuous play activities which the school permits but often looks at askance. Physical effort is not distasteful if it can direct itself toward goals that are regarded as personally or socially commendable.1


Greater emphasis will have to be placed upon other phases of our program of education in order to satisfy individual needs of many boys and girls. But for all boys and girls must be emphasized as never before those studies which lead to social, political, and economic understanding. We may not hope to solve our economic and governmental problems except upon a basis of greater knowledge and appreciation in these fields than are current at the present time. It is not that we may expect all boys and girls to become profound students of government or of economics, but rather that they may, through their appreciation of the problems to be solved in these fields, be prepared to choose wisely among those who profess expertness and who seek to bring about better conditions through legislation or other governmental action.

There is need, however, for something very much more significant than the intellectual approach to the problems of our social, political, and economic life. All too frequently the courses that we have offered in schools deal with the structure and operation of government with little reference to the responsibilities of citizenship. Devotion to democracy cannot be taught as a subject to be studied. It must be achieved through the development of desirable habits of thought and action. The Bill of Rights must have significance in the lives of youth in school and not be reserved for the consideration of adults in political campaigns. The ideals of tolerance and brotherhood to which we are committed must find expression in the social life of young people rather than being recited as ideals to be achieved. Students must be given opportunity and be encouraged to participate in those activities which make for the general welfare. Such activities will be carried on in the school and in the community. It is an interesting fact that in the school in which a considerable degree of freedom is allowed and in which a broad and interesting program is offered, the students display a high degree of sound judgment with regard to procedures in social situations. In more formal schools there is evidence that children accept authority in making decisions as to social situations. It is of the utmost importance in the education of citizens in a democracy that they learn to accept responsibility and to find their highest satisfaction in working together for the common good.


It can portray the American dream of a nation with liberty, justice, and opportunity for all in the broad sweep of history from the time of the nation's founders. It can promote understanding of the civil liberties and the political institutions through which the democratic ideal finds expression. It can focus the searchlight of free and constructive inquiry on those economic and social problems which, if allowed to remain unsolved, threaten to disintegrate democracy from within. It can confirm that faith in the worth and improvability of each individual which is the basic tenet of democracy. It can provide opportunities to live democracy, in the school and the home, in the workshop and the market place.2


The American process of education cannot be thought of as ending when young people cease their regular attendance upon schools. We in a democracy may not rest satisfied with the programs of education now available for those who continue their training in colleges and universities. For the great mass of our adult population, programs of education must be developed in the following areas: (1) training for vocational readjustment; (2) opportunities for growth in social and political understanding; (3) education which will lead to the elevation of taste and appreciation in all of the arts; (4) opportunities for the use of leisure in such manner as to add to the well-being of the individual, physically, emotionally, and intellectually, as opposed to the use of leisure time in a manner which debauches or destroys those who have had this leisure thrust upon them; and (5) guidance in the pursuit of intellectual achievement or artistic performance in some field of endeavor.

We shall always have those who are displaced by changes in industrial processes, for whom re-training is essential. Even now when so many are out of work there are areas in which there is a shortage of skilled labor. If education is to function adequately for adults, we shall have to develop a program of vocational education in which opportunities are as varied as is the need for skilled labor in our industrial society.

Attention has been called to the importance of social education. We may not rest satisfied with the preliminary education accomplished in elementary and secondary schools. It is only as adult life is reached and the full responsibility of citizenship accepted that men and women are ready to consider seriously their responsibility to the community, to the state, and to the nation. They are in a position to appreciate to a degree that is not possible for younger people the significance of those governmental arrangements which contribute to their own well-being and to the welfare of the whole group. It is not an accident that at the present moment experiments are being conducted throughout the land under the general designation of "Forums." What is happening lately is an experience comparable to that which was enjoyed by all adults in an earlier period of our history when communities were small and when people were vitally interested in every governmental undertaking. We may not hope to reproduce all of the virtue which resided in these early associations of citizens in assemblies in which public policies were determined, but we may hope, through the opportunity provided for discussion of public issues, that adults will choose more wisely among the many proposals which are made for the improvement of the society of which they are members, and that they may even discriminate in the choice of the leaders who are placed in positions of authority and responsibility in government.

The appeal to adults in matters of taste and of appreciation involves an extended program of education. In art as applied in homes, in public buildings, in parks, and in city planning, in architecture in all its aspects, in music, and in literature, there are possibilities of elevating the taste of the population and thereby contributing to a higher type of civilization. In the drama, in music, and even in the production of talking pictures there are also possibilities of developing higher standards of taste and appreciation.

Possibly the greatest benefit that can arise from a program of adult education is to be found in the opportunity provided and the stimulation offered to adults to engage in creative activity. If our increased freedom from long hours of work means anything, it should be evidenced by the larger percentage of the total population who find satisfaction in activities to which they can give themselves wholeheartedly and with great enthusiasm. Daniel Gregory Mason, in an address delivered at the opening convocation of Columbia University in September, 1928, closed his remarks with this most significant paragraph:

Finally, there is that subtlest form of social stimulus which inheres in the individual's awareness of a common body of knowledge, such as the psychological laws of creativeness at which we have been glancing. It is quite possible that some day, as psychological knowledge becomes widespread, it will be thought disgraceful to kill time in mere pastimes or stagnant ennui, boredom will be an acknowledged index of stupidity, and leisure, made creative by self-discipline, will be regarded as the very gist and nucleus of life. Whatever each man's powers may be, leisure will be recognized as his natural opportunity for effectuating them. One man may study peas blossoms with Mendel, another investigate the differential calculus, a third listen to the band playing in the gardens. All will be developing, independently and spontaneously, but also resolutely and systematically, their latent talents, however humble, and all will be learning in the process, to the extent of their capacity, the open secret of artists and scientists—that creative leisure is the path to the deepest joys of which we are capable.


The program of education which has been suggested is one that places emphasis upon the meaning of education in the life of the individual and in the development of civilization. There was a time in America when we confused education with the acquisition of knowledge. Great stress was placed upon the ability of boys and girls and of young people to deliver on occasion a certain amount of knowledge which they had acquired from books. The movement in more recent times has been, not in the direction of less knowledge but rather toward an emphasis upon meaningful information.

We now insist to a degree that was formerly unknown that even the instruments of inquiry be developed in relation to their use. Boys and girls learn to read because there is something worth reading, not merely to piece together the elements which make up words and sentences. The result has been not less skill in reading but vastly greater skill and a very much wider acquaintance with literature and with books in general than was accomplished under the other method of instruction.

We recognize the need for knowledge, but we seek to develop knowledge in relation to worth-while experiences. Children who are concerned about the relationship of our civilization to that of Western Europe or the Far East will in all probability acquire greater knowledge and will more certainly remember what they have learned than did those students of history and geography a generation or two ago who had neat little packages labelled "Surface," "Climate," "Drainage," "Agricultural and Industrial Products," and the like; or those others who remembered all of the dates associated with the names of battles and generals but who knew little about the underlying causes of and cared less about the relationship of the great catastrophe of war to their own life and times. I repeat, we do not value knowledge less, we are not satisfied with a superficial command of the instruments of inquiry—but our program of education, organized in the light of modern social needs, seeks to develop individuals of high purpose and enthusiasm who know how to use all of the instruments of inquiry and all of the knowledge available for the solution of their common problems.


We are coming to realize in our American program of education the inadequacy of any school system which solves its most difficult problems through a process of eliminating those who are not easily adjusted to the opportunities offered or to the organized school society. If education is to serve democracy, it must have as a primary obligation the adjustment of the individual to his environment. The only really satisfactory adjustment is that by which each individual finds it possible to engage in activities in which he can achieve some degree of success. We know that in the attempt to educate all members of the group for their positions of responsibility, we will find a range of ability that begins at one end with those for whom custodial care must be provided and reaches at the other extreme to those whom we designate as geniuses. It is the obligation of every school system to provide such guidance as will enable children at every level in the school system to move forward along lines of opportunity suited to their intelligence. There is no evidence to support the proposal that failure or retardation is a satisfactory adjustment. When we go to the extreme of eliminating pupils from school, there is a tacit acknowledgment of the failure of schools to render the service for which they have been organized.

I have not proposed that the development of opportunities suited to the needs and capacities of all boys and girls is a simple process; quite the contrary. We need much more significant investigation and much more complete overhauling of the program of our school system than have yet been accomplished anywhere. On the side of social maladjustments, we need a better understanding of the relationship of the environmental factors outside of school to the performance of children in the school society. Cases which call for discipline are as properly problems for teachers and administrators to study as are cases of physical maladjustment the problems of the medical profession.


Our program of education in America must be thought of not merely in terms of the locality in which we work but in terms of the larger society which is the American people. The responsibility within any state can be met only when an acceptable program of education is provided for all of the children within its borders, with a uniform effort throughout the state to carry the burden of taxation. Translated into action, this means that the state as such must make appropriations to each community related to the need for support and to the ability of each administrative area to raise the money necessary to maintain an adequate program of education.

There is no state in the Union in which all administrative areas are able to support an adequate program of education. There are many communities in many states in which even if the community carried a maximum tax load it could not possibly support a reasonably decent minimum educational program. And out of these poorer communities are constantly recruited the population which lives in our cities and which eventually takes over and governs the urban communities. If we were not concerned with the ideal of our democracy—the provision of equality of opportunity—we would still have to be concerned with the destructive and menacing power which resides in a population which grows up without opportunities for education. Local initiative and experimentation should always be encouraged. Local administration is essential to the maintenance of our democratic ideals. But support on a larger basis is essential to the preservation of our democracy.

If educational opportunities are to be provided for all of our population, the Federal Government must participate in the support of the program in a larger degree than it has as yet. It is estimated that there were one million children in the United States during the last school year for whom little or no educational opportunity was provided. There were other millions who attended school under the handicaps of short terms, of insufficient equipment, books, shops, and laboratories, of lack of varied opportunities suited to their individual needs and capacities, and even of teachers who were poorly prepared for this important service.

Two national commissions, reporting upon the relationship of the Federal Government to education—one under President Hoover in 1931 and the second under President Roosevelt in 1937—felt that there was little if any possibility of providing adequate educational opportunities throughout the United States except upon the basis of a larger participation by the Federal Government in the support of schools. It is not necessary to argue the case from the standpoint of the stake which all of us have in the education of all children and youth. Anyone who studies the problem will have little difficulty in realizing that the differences in ability among the several states to support education cannot be overcome by improving the tax system or by increasing economic productivity. It is literally true that a modern tax system, if accepted in the poorer states, would not produce enough to support the kind of school system necessary for the maintenance of our American ideal of equality of opportunity. In view of this marked inequality in tax resources among the several states, federal aid is essential and should be increased immediately.

The American way of life is based upon the acknowledgment of the worth and dignity of the individual, upon respect for human personality, upon the guarantee of civil liberties, upon the principle of even-handed justice, and upon the concept that each individual finds his greatest satisfaction in working with others for the common good. Equality of opportunity is fundamental to the realization of these purposes. As a basis for the realization of this ideal we have sought to provide a system of education which will prepare all of our citizens for participation in our social, economic, and cultural life.

Great progress has been made but much still remains to be done. The defense of the American way of life not only involves military preparedness but just as certainly requires improvement in the educational opportunities which should be provided for children. In our program of national defense we have a primary obligation to improve and extend the program of education particularly in those areas and for those groups in which adequate opportunities are now denied. We need a re-dedication to the ideal of equality of opportunity through education.

1 American Youth Commission. What the High Schools Ought to Teach, p. 16. American Council on Education, Washington, D. C., 1940.

2 Educational Policies Commission, National Education Association. Education and the Defense of American Democracy, pp. 12-13. National Education Association, Washington, D. C., 1940.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 42 Number 4, 1941, p. 322-333 ID Number: 8953, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 3:51:32 AM

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