Democracy Shall Not Be Plowed Under


By J. W. STUDEBAKER, United States Commissioner of Education Before the Twenty first Meeting of the American Farm Bureau Federation, Chicago, Illinois, December 5, 1939

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 202-205.

IN a very recent article entitled "The Industrial Revolution Hits the Farmer," Peter F. Drucker has this to say: "The fascist dictatorships of Germany and Italy have rested above all on the support of the peasant masses. The desertion of the farm organizations was the final blow to German democracy; and ever since 1933 the Nazi regime has extolled the social and economic position of the farmer above that of the other classes in an attempt to maintain his allegiance." And again, he states: "Before 1914 the northwest had been the stronghold of German middle-class democracy; for over forty years the German Democratic Party had been deriving its main strength from the support of the north-western farmers. In 1927 they still voted the Democratic ticket; but by 1930 the district had become one of the strongholds of Nazism."

With this brief commentary in mind, you will more easily understand why I select the title "Democracy Shall Not Be Plowed Under." A very great power resides in the hands which guide the plows of America. I think the title of these remarks expresses the quiet determination of those hands to use the plow to turn over the rich earth for peaceful planting and not to allow any forces to overturn our society and plow under democracy and freedom.

Yet, even such quiet determination is not enough. There are serious and even baffling problems before us which call for a high social intelligence if we are to maintain the Republic It is the failure of the democratic societies to meet real issues with relatively successful policies that is largely responsible for the reversion to fanatical dictatorship and the rising chaos of war. Many of these problems are the very ones which you have gathered here to study and discuss—problems of farm ownership, tenancy, soil erosion, prices and surpluses, marketing and transportation.

When I come before you as an educator, I do not seek to divert your attention from these problems, but rather to direct the attention of farmers and educators to these problems. They are central targets for the sharpened wits of educated men. It is, in a sense, because we are plagued by problems that we are spending some three billion dollars a year on organized education. Through increasing the understanding of the vital issues confronting us, we hope to find solutions that will work in time to prevent the disintegration of democratic civilization.

The schools and colleges have no more important objective than the systematic study of the practical social and economic problems underlying our troubled times. And I have constantly made it one of my primary points of insistence that this study must be organized for adults as well as for children and young people. Your program here constitutes what I regard as the proper subject matter for a significant part of the curriculum in the schools and for well-managed adult forums. What you are doing in thousands of rural discussion groups is to my way of thinking the most vital kind of education.

From the first days of the Republic to the present hour, education—organized education—has carried the responsibility of making people fit for self-government. If there was one thing the founding fathers agreed upon, it was that representative democracy cannot long exist without an educated electorate. They and the leaders who followed themthought of education primarily as a means of making democracy work.

John Adams put it this way: "Education is more indispensable and must be more general, under free government than any other. In a monarchy, the few who are likely to govern must have some education, the common people must be kept in ignorance; in an aristocracy, the nobles should be educated, but here it is even more necessary that the common people should be ignorant; but in a free government knowledge must be general, and ought to be universal."

"Above all things," said Jefferson, "I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty." Again, the function of education is geared to the social-political objective.

Note the urgency expressed in a statement by James Buchanan: "Shall the people be educated? is a question not of mere policy, but it is a question of life and death, upon which the existence of our present form of government depends.

Wherever you touch the subject of education in the history of the appeals for it, the central purpose for which it is advocated is enlightened citizenship. But please take note that Jefferson and the early pleaders for education for democracy lived in a society rooted in the land. The essential liberty was derived from widespread ownership of tools and places of business by craftsmen and merchants. This democracy of ours and the educational system it nourished were products of an agrarian society of men who counted on the land and tools for their independence. The almost self-sufficient families, knowing most of the factors touching their daily lives and affecting their fortunes, could be secure in the new-won freedom if they could but maintain control of their land and tools and make governments, particularly the central government, perform efficiently and honestly only the limited tasks assigned to them. Their greatest fear was that the tax gatherers might take their land, source of their independence, into the custody of a far-away government to be some day distributed to loyal overlords who would reestablish the system of the landed aristocracy in which the common people would be reduced to a peasantry.

This keen sense of independence and the grim determination to be free from overlords and hereditary aristocrats explain in great part why the early educational system was dedicated to political literacy. This was an agrarian democracy in which freedom and ownership of land went together. Most of what we call vocational education was carried on, and very well for that time, by the farmer-fathers and the manufacturing-mothers.

But before the schools were well established as a means of making the new democracy work, the load on teaching was suddenly increased by new problems. The infant industries, which had been started during the war of 1812 and later protected by a tariff, began to grow and to change the agrarian society. Robert Fulton's steamboat, Mccormick's reaper, Whitney's cotton gin, and a flood of new inventions challenged Jeffersonian democracy.

Factory owners imported thousands of workers to run their new machines and other thousands seeking opportunities in the new and expanding democracy escaped from theirtroubled homelands. The schools were faced with the new responsibility of teaching immigrants of different tongues and old world backgrounds a new language as well as the ways of freedom. New and complex jobs outside the family farm and on it called for systematic public vocational education. Between 1812 and 1870 the industrial revolution changed the simple ways of independent agrarian democracy and the continent was ruthlessly conquered and exploited. But between 1870 and the end of the World War the rate of change increased by geometric proportions.

Technological changes, the huge influx of immigrants, the rise of a property-less class of wage-workers, the growing interdependence of farm and city calling for ever faster and cheaper transportation and communication, and the growth of the new impersonal corporate business organization—these and other innovations put a strain on schools still struggling to achieve the Jeffersonian objective of rudimentary education for all. What might have happened if Jefferson's dream of universal education had been given a chance to operate even for a brief century with only the teaching responsibility of his day and age? But, as you know, the school was catapulted into an unprecedented era of scientific and upsurging social changes.

The depressions of 1873, of 1893 and of 1907 gave warning of the coming crisis in democracy. These depressions dramatized the decline of the Jeffersonian society of independent farmers, craftsmen and merchants, and the rise of a new society of millions dependent upon machines. Again in 1914 the rumblings of the crisis began to be felt, but that depression was sidestepped by a response to a war-demand for goods. War orders stopped the downward curve, and war debts drove the line of production to unprecedented peaks. We became the breadbasket for Europe and plowed up the prairies to meet the demand for wheat.

In 1921 the last warning was given; it was a brief drop into the despair of depression before the reconstruction demands and new plant expansion for peace-time production together with other factors carried us to the prosperity peak of 1928. But with all these danger signs, our educational system was not adequately geared to the need of preparing citizens for a vastly changed social and economic order.

For some reason (and it is not hard to understand it when we realize how brief a span of time it really was between 1828 and 1928) the educational system had not adequately prepared people for the task of making the complex social machine run. The schools had taught reading, writing and arithmetic, ancient, medieval and modern history, geography, science and languages, art, music and gymnastics, hygiene, shop work and domestic arts, advertising, salesmanship and accounting, even philosophy, psychology and sociology. But the people hadn't learned enough about what makes the wheels go round or what stops them in a technological civilization; nor had they learned to work in democratic groups to plan their own future and to control the conditions of their lives. These matters were only lightly touched in civics courses that dealt largely with the structure rather than with the functions and purposes of government, and in sociology which unfortunately too frequently dodged important implications and major issues.

I speak on this point with a deep conviction born of personal experiences which were all too common to those who have gone to school in my own lifetime. How clearly and regretfully I recall the dreary hours I spent in high school getting ready for nothing but examinations by stuffing my memory with the meaningless details of ancient history and the tricks of quadratic equations. The country had recently suffered a depression and was drifting into another one. But apparently it was more important then to learn why Hannibal went over the peaks of the Alps than to try to understand why my own country had gone into the depths of an economic depression or to be helped to see how the disastrous results of a possible future depression which would certainly affect the lives of all those in my generation might be ameliorated.

The schools, however, were remarkably successful, one might say, disastrously successful, in training scientists, engineers and specialists in technical processes. This one-sided success of education put us in a predicament something like a man may experience who gets one leg too far in advance of the other. The body politic lost its balance and control because, to a considerable extent at least, the technological foot got too far ahead of the other supporting member—social understanding.

The lack of attention to the study of how democratic groups may control the new forces in the public interest is, in part, responsible for this crisis in our democratic society. I for one do not know of any easy answer. In the light of some contemporaneous performances, we should be completely disillusioned about putting faith in any self-hypnotized "fixer" who claims he knows all the answers. Hence, I come down to the hard conclusion that we must search for the answers ourselves and hold on to the power to change policies and representatives as we get new light on our problems. This means to me that our public system of education is one of the primary social instruments which we must learn to use more effectively in our struggle for sound and workable ways to meet our great national problems.

Certain things are beginning to appear clear to us as we study and discuss, argue and read about these problems. For one thing we are beginning to see that the farmer will not win much by escaping bankruptcy at the expense and ultimate bankruptcy of the urban consumers. And the proposition is as true going the other way. For another thing, we begin to be leery of the idea that one section of the country can get rich and stay that way at the expense of another section. We are becoming increasingly conscious of the importance of balanced improvement—town and country, East, West, North and South. I think we are seeing through the attempts of mystics and selfish rabble rousers to put the blame for our troubles on our Jews or our foreign-born citizens, or on some other scapegoats. It appears that we are even skeptical about resting a sort of prosperity on the false bottom of a one-way war-time shipment of goods. In other words, we have the advantage of having discarded, or at least seriously questioned, false solutions to the modern crisis which have been postponing the fundamental reconstruction which sooner or later must be effected abroad. This helps materially to support our determination to save our democratic civilization and to achieve a material base for a greater cultural and spiritual life by recourse to the hard way of learning. And we have constantly in full view what is now obviously the disastrous alternative of dictatorship.

But I should be less than candid if I failed to point out that the chaotic conditions abroad are casting a menacing shadow across our pathway. The fundamental problems presented to us by the new mode of life created by the technological empire are just now being pushed into the background of public interest by the world crisis. Yet, as I see it, only by coming to grips with these vital problems can we hope to save democracy here in America.

This is no time to be "headlined," so to speak, into a state of unconcern about our domestic problems. The dramatic incidents abroad cannot add anything real to the solution of our problems. They bear watching, but let us not be lured away from the real business before us nor accept any short-term solutions without inquiring about what willprobably happen later. The struggle to make democracy work is going on right here.

In these United States we face the problem of organizing our economic life so that all of the people are productively employed all the time. Here we are confronted with the complex issue of making good use of our land, of conserving both human and natural resources, and of saving the farm enterprise from being choked with surpluses. Right here is a challenge to our traditional principles of tolerance and equality. Race prejudice and religious bigotry are in our midst and call for relentless resistance through the use of all enlightening processes. City slums and rural substandard housing, child labor, inequality of educational opportunities, mob violence and lynching—these and many other evils threaten democracy here in America. The solid and constant attack on these human problems is the very essence of national defense and the best assurance of dependable national unity.

Yet we may go too far in retreating from these issues and postponing programs of social and economic improvement in order to concentrate on national military defense. Let us be clear about this matter. What are we proposing to defend? Who is going to be called upon to man the defenses? Unless we find answers to some of these prolonged depression problems, millions of our people—unemployed, burdened with debts, fearful of the morrow—will have little incentive to give themselves to the work of military defense.

We dare not put aside the important problems for postwar consideration. Such a procedure leaves to chance the very future of the American way of life which is what we have pledged our lives and fortunes to defend. If we are not daily bending every energy of mind and will to make that way of life work for the welfare of the people as a whole, how shall we secure the morale which may be needed one day in the event of an attack from the outside? If we fail to repulse the enemy within the gates—unemployment, poverty, disorganized agriculture and the like—from whence may we expect the united strength and clear purpose to repulse any outside force?

This is no time to abandon our positions in the vanguard of the struggle for balanced prosperity, for equal and a high quality of education, for tolerance and freedom. I am deeply interested in education because I regard it as the prerequisite for a successful democracy. If it is democracy we are trying to preserve, we cannot exchange schools for armaments, nor lay off teachers in order to hire soldiers. We must find the way to keep both the teachers and soldiers at their posts. Military defense must be paid for through sacrifice, but not through the sacrifice of the very thing we seek to defend.

This, in my opinion, is the time to redouble our efforts to make our educational system operate more effectively than ever in the process of enlightening our judgments.

To be specific, we need to buttress our library system, particularly in the rural areas. When people are burning books in other parts of the world, we ought to be distributing them with greater vigor; for books are among our best allies in the fight to make democracy work.

In my judgment, we ought to be investing through both public and private agencies substantial amounts in the widespread extension of public forums, discussion groups and institutes. I am happy to report to you that great gains have been made in this pro-democratic field of public education, and you may sense something of the growth of organized free discussion by listening to your radios and noting the announcements of forums in your newspapers. This is no time to retreat on this front of free public discussion. It is the deliberation of the people in an atmosphere of freedom on problems concerning their welfare which is the heart ofthe democratic process. Preparedness in the skill of public discussion and debate is the most significant kind of readiness for the defense of democracy.

There is still a job to be done in eradicating illiteracy, and particularly in providing at least reasonable equal elementary and secondary school opportunities throughout the Nation.

We have hundreds of thousands of good people in our midst who have not formally joined the American enterprise and taken out their citizenship papers. There are other thousands who do not sufficiently understand the ways of a free representative government and the principles of democratic group life. These people may represent strength or weakness in a time of severe testing. Let us be about the important task of educating them for effective participation in the work of solving our common problems. Is this not a practical way to follow the road to national unity?

In the last fifty years the remarkable changes in our ways of life have been paralleled by unique inventions for the spread of knowledge and ideas. The motion pictures and the radio are the scientific means of rapidly advancing popular understanding of the scientific era. These instruments have been used thus far largely in the service of amusement and advertising. We have yet to harness their potentialities fully in the interest of public enlightenment. The average film library is poorly stocked with films that are really educational. Most of the so-called educational films in excellence and quality are far below our ability to produce, and a large proportion of them deal with scientific processes for classes in the natural sciences. We have as yet few films on the social and economic subjects in which we are most in need of understanding. Here is another frontier for democracy to conquer. This powerful instrument should be dedicated in part to the strengthening of the fabric of American democracy through the diffusion of knowledge on its crucial problems such as health, occupational adjustment, improved home and family living, conservation of natural resources, and the principles and practices of democracy. As you know, a start has been made in this direction in the Federal Government. But the great future for the production and distribution of films of high quality for educational purposes is still to be developed.

Likewise, the radio has many undeveloped possibilities. We have been testing out the radio medium for educational purposes during the past four years. "Let Freedom Ring," the story of our Bill of Rights; "Americans All—Immigrants All," the story of the people who made America; "Brave New World," the story of our Latin American neighbors; "Democracy in Action," the story of representative government in a changing world—these and many other programs presented by the United States Office of Education have won national recognition. But they have merely indicated some of the vast possibilities for education which are inherent in broadcasting. Thousands of schools and colleges are testing the airways as means of promoting enlightened citizenship and cultural improvement. Much of this pioneer work has been done on an emergency basis with emergency funds. The question now is: Shall this constructive work go forward on a permanent basis? If this fundamental work in the interest of raising the level of citizenship and American culture is likely to make democracy more secure, dare we set it aside even temporarily? Is not this work the very essence of national defense, of protecting our democratic heritage?

There is great concern these days over the threat of disturbance from organized groups espousing some form of dictatorship. In the midst of the social and economic chaos in the old world, the slogans of revolution again flare up and the democratic peoples fear for the future of self-government. We are sometimes asked to suppress the organizations and expressions of people who subscribe to the so-called "alien isms." Much as I dislike these schemes of regimentation, I am convinced that they cannot be suppressed. They must be outdone. They must be out-maneuvered through hard, practical democratic achievement.

"You have nothing to lose but your chains," goes one of the slogans. And in it you see the nub of my point. The slogan is meaningless and powerless if the great majority of people have something to lose by revolutionary change, if the masses have a stake in an ordered, progressive society. Suppression of the people who want to shout such slogans only feeds the fires of discontent. Our job is to undercut the slogans by reducing unemployment, increasing standards of living, safeguarding the farms from bankruptcy. This takes understanding and deliberate group action based on discussion and study. Above all it requires a determination that our problems shall be settled by deliberation.

One of the great sources of stability and sound progress is represented right here in this room. The families who live on the land have given our democracy some of its greatest leaders. In this time, we who labor in the vineyard of education look to the quiet, thoughtful sons of the soil to resist movements that would weaken or emaciate public education and to insist on a forward march. A nation which is spending as much on its intoxicating beverages as it is on its schools cannot seriously accept the notion that we are putting a disproportionate amount into education. This is your problem, because an enlightened America is essential to your welfare.

Here in this Western Hemisphere is "earth's last best hope" of sheltering human values. Here we are building on the foundations of a vigorous agrarian democracy. Here we can, if we will, stop the growth of blatant dictatorship and hold high the beacon light of freedom as a standard for the world to follow.