Educating Youth to Meet National Problems


By JOHN W. STUDEBAKER, U. S. Commissioner of Education

Delivered at the 78th Annual Convention of the National Education Association, July 3, 1940, Milwaukee, Wis.

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 655-659.

ONE hundred sixty-four years ago tomorrow thirteen small colonies along the eastern seaboard of a new continent, facing a critical situation, engulfed by pressing problems, issued their bold Declaration of Independence challenging the despotisms of the Old World. The signers of that Declaration proclaimed that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights: To life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed; that the people have a right to alter or abolish any form of government which becomes destructive of humane ends. With courage and resolution, they set their feet upon the long, hard way of war—a War for Independence; through years of hardship, their purpose never wavered—to established justice, insure domestic tranquility, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to themselves and their posterity.

Today, as then, democracy the world around is engaged in a fateful struggle—a struggle with the forces of despotism and reaction. All the fruits of more than a century and a half of effort to develop the democratic way of life are at this moment in deadly jeopardy. Once again the autocrats, the tyrants, and the dictators seek to ride roughshod over the liberties of hundreds of millions of people. They proclaim an ancient doctrine in modern terms—men are but means to ends, not ends in themselves; citizens are but slaves of the State, minions of the dictator, pawns in a national power game. These proponents of totalitarianism arraign democracy as decadent: Inefficient, muddle-headed, and soft. Theyprofane the ancient virtues, scorn our ethical and humanitarian traditions.

Mindful of the perils without, and of the problems within our land, we reaffirm as a nation our faith in democracy, pledge ourselves anew to lift high its banner, if need be to man its ramparts, convinced as were our fathers of old that democracy is worth defending with our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.

If we propose to defend democracy it behooves us to envision clearly what it is that we are defending. What is this "democracy" which we would guard, sustain, improve, and pass on to our children? Is it "government of, by, and for the people?" Equality before the law? Free elections? Local autonomy as contrasted with centralized authority? Liberty, equality, fraternity? Does our conception of democracy run beyond political forms to something broader, more inclusive—a philosophy and a way of life in which the shared aspirations of many men and women are given collective expression and individual fulfillment? And if we do conceive of democracy as such a way of life, can this conception be so clearly understood by all citizens as to become for each an incentive and a goal of vigorous, personal endeavor?

Especially, can we give our youth such a vision of the meaning and possibilities of this democratic way of life as to capture their loyalties and channel their enthusiasms? To communicate that understanding, and to inspire that exalted vision of democracy is the primary task of public education today.

The conception of public education as the instrument ofnational integration is no novel notion. Nor is the idea that universal public education has the responsibility of making men ready to function as citizens in a self-governing society a new one. Washington, Jefferson, Madison and many others believed that knowledge and power must not be separated— that in a Republic public opinion, the controlling influence, must be enlightened.

But take note, during the first century of American development the area of action through government was very limited. Hence, citizenship was relatively simple. The individual was expected to find and make his place in the scheme of things. When problems such as unemployment and poverty began to emerge they were evaded by opening up new tracts of land on the frontier. With the beginning of the twentieth century this method of dodging basic problems could no longer be employed because most of the space for expansion had been taken up. During the twentieth century, citizenship has taken on new meaning; the area of governmental action has been vastly increased; public education has been clothed with a national interest as a means of making youth ready to deal intelligently with complex national problems.

We may as well admit that public education has not adequately educated youth to meet the new national problems. The system has been extended and elaborated largely in response to the pressure of ambitious parents anxious to have their offspring enter the professions and white-collar jobs. In the last decade it has been borne in upon us that there aren't enough white-collar jobs—professional or business opportunities—for all aspiring high school and college graduates. Indeed it is estimated that at the present time some three or four million young people find themselves shut out of any opportunity to work and make a living.

This problem can no longer be evaded by opening new roads to a frontier. It must be faced and solved where young people live, and through sound national policies. It is related to a dozen so-called national problems—farm surpluses, unused plant capacity, foreign trade, banking and finance, homemaking and birth control, bureaucracy and paternalism, social security and monopoly. All these problems are part of the central issue which may be put as briefly as this: Education for what?

In the most primitive society the youth are taught the things they need to know in order to function as hunters, planters, garment makers, home builders and members of the group organization. But this education would be a meaningless hodgepodge if the chief of the tribe should say that one of its purposes is to postpone the active participation of youth in the life of the society—to prevent them from engaging in hunting, planting and home-building lest they contribute to a surplus of the good things of life. Of course no primitive society would fall into such a fallacy. Primitive men know that hunting and planting, building and constructing are the realities and that there can never be too many people trained and skilled in the arts of creation; that the real needs of a society for goods and services always outrun the supply.

The dictators know this and herein lies much of their success in appealing to youth. They say there is a job to do— more jobs than there are hands trained to do them. Youth ikes that kind of talk because it assures them that they are needed, that they count in the scheme of things; that they must hurry up to be prepared to take the places awaiting them. If the democratic idea is to survive it must assert the realities—the realities that men and materials are the basis of the good life and that it is the business of democratic leadership and organization to help all the men to keep in contact with the creative job of transforming materials and of serving one another.

We cannot educate youth to meet national problems except in this philosophical frame of reference. The terminus or goal of the educative process is active participation in the life and work of the community. The curriculum if not determined in relation to this goal becomes a meaningless abstraction.

In recent years there has been a sort of war on between education and the society of which it is a part. Education on the one side has been trying to maintain its traditional purposes of making youth productive, creative, ready to make things, build things, organize, serve. Society on the other hand has been building fences to somehow keep youth out of the arena of creative work, to prevent them from flooding the country with the products of their trained energies. This warfare cannot go on without depriving education of its most meaningful role in the life of the Nation. It is my firm conviction that our traditional American liberties need not be sacrificed as we push forward toward the solution of this crucial problem.

Suddenly within the past few months the picture has changed. In the name of national defense, opportunities are opened up. Factory manufacturers vie with one another in a mad scramble to secure skilled workmen, trained people. They find that there are not enough to go around. They say to the schools: Train them, and quickly. This is the kind of message that gives sense and order to an educational system; it answers in part the question—education for what?

But let us not forget that it is a temporary emergency answer. The point, however, is that it offers an integrating purpose around which to reunite education and society. During the next year millions of people in schools will know that they must hurry their preparation because there is a place for them. Society is depending on them to fill that place competently. The pity of it is that so many have certificates asserting that they are educated and yet they are not prepared to do anything definite that our society is willing to pay for.

While we hurriedly train youth and adults to meet the primary problem of national defense it is also the task of education to enlighten the minds of millions and prepare them for a citizenship capable of making democracy work in solving the complex problems related to the central issue of organizing men and materials efficiently. This does not depreciate the part of education which is concerned with the appreciation of culture, music and beauty. We must recognize, however, that culture dries up in a community where the people are forced into idleness. Culture is related to work and creation and a society which shuts millions out of the business of creation cannot build a vigorous culture. Culture attempts to read meanings into men's actions and creations. It cannot be taught apart from work and struggle, effort and construction.

One of our central problems is to adjust modern public education to a technological society. The prime requisite here is that society shall say to its educational system: There is a place for everyone you train. Given this assurance, educational administrators can plan the educative process to fit more effectively the requirements of the new world.

Some of the problems to which modern educators must address themselves are these:

1. The complex issues of citizenship cannot any longer be assigned merely to high school and college courses in political science, civics and history. The school system must cease to be merely for children and young people. It must be organized for adults as well. Its plan facilities must be kept open and operating in the interest of preparing men and women as well as children and young people to function efficiently vocationally, avocationally and civicly. As I see it we will move on a graduated scale from full-time learning to part-time learning—the degree of time spent in organized education being different at different age levels with different groups of people. But the end objective is that all people may make use of organized methods of study and training throughout life.

2. The educational systems must be organized and reorganized in relation to the changing nature of the community in the technological civilization. No high school serving 50 or 100 students can possibly afford to offer diversified training facilities. A certain amount of consolidation of school units can help materially to provide efficient organizations of secondary education. Our rapid transportation makes such consolidation practical. But we must go further. Even large high schools cannot afford to develop training facilities for all of the specializations.

For example, we need perhaps two or three completely up-to-date, first-class, thoroughly-equipped, specialized schools in a given State where young people may be efficiently trained in all of the printing and allied occupations. To try to teach printing and its complicated allied arts in every community would require a wasteful expenditure on buildings, equipment and instructors. The dilemma is usually solved by giving an inadequate training which does not fit the learner for real competence. But as soon as we suggest that specialized schools be placed in a relatively few places in an area of the country or in a State we face the third problem in educational statesmanship to which I would like to draw your attention.

3. Some practical means must be found to enable students to pursue specialized education in schools located away from their homes. The National Youth Administration, through its student aid plan, has applied rather widely the idea which in a measure has long since been practiced by schools and colleges, namely, that students might be assisted to earn while learning. This idea has been developed largely as a means of relieving families of the financial strain of maintaining sons and daughters in a state of idleness. The part-time job created is intended to assist the student in being self-supporting and at the same time to keep him in school. Usually, however, the National Youth Administration high-school student is kept in his community and attends the local high school. But this procedure suggests only one of three methods of enabling learners to study away from home. The three methods are:

(1) A public works program to provide part-time jobs which will enable the student to take care of his board, room and clothing while he spends the major part of his time in the educational plant.

(2) The scholarship method may be used to enable the student to concentrate full-time in the school program. Scholarships could be paid for by the students themselves out of future earnings or they could be paid for by taxes. In a society that needs trained people a tax-supported scholarship system makes sense. But if we are to visualize a society in which a great number of those who are trained graduate into idleness and engage in a vicious competition for a limited number of jobs, we cannot very well justify taxing the people generally to educate a surplus.

(3) Individual self-support through part-time private work. Thousands of young people have studied away from home in special schools and colleges at their own expense, finding part-time private employment to cover the basic necessities. In a society where no unemployment is tolerated—where the demand for willing workers is always greater than the supply—any 15-year old could get himself a part-time job and earn while learning. But we do not as yet have that kind of society. Therefore, if we are to get young people from their homes to the consolidatedspecialized schools away from their homes and enable them to maintain themselves, we may have to adopt, on a wider scale than ever before, one or both of the first two methods, i.e., public work projects and scholarships, while at the same time preparing for a more general application of the third, i.e., part-time work with private employers. The question will arise in this connection whether it is better to subsidize the learner so that he can concentrate full-time on the business of rapidly gaining competence or to require him to divide his time between the work of learning and the work of earning. This raises a further problem confronting educational statesmanship—the problem of offering the youth generally definite work opportunities as a part of schooling.

4. The fourth problem I submit then is this: To recapture the balanced educational scheme which began to develop in our agrarian democracy and which provided for both study and work in proper correlation. In the agricultural community the young person was taught certain things in the schoolhouse; other things he learned from his father in the process of helping in the operation of the farm. The daughter likewise learned some things from her mother as she helped with the manufacturing side of the farm home. Youth at a very early age undertook responsibilities and began to count in the scheme of things. The work had three major characteristics: First, it was vitally needed by those who did it; it was not made work; second, it gave compensation— not in wages in this case but in the direct utilization of the product; and, third, it was diversified, so that the learners moved from the simple tasks to the more complex in a natural progression. It might be added that the work provided a basis for applying many thought processes and testing knowledge. It should also be said that vocational agriculture and homemaking as taught in the secondary schools today are splendid examples of programs in which work outside the school is directly related to school work, thus securing a closely integrated total program of learning.

The urban community has unfortunately suggested to many growing young people that there isn't anything for them to do until they reach the advanced age of 19 or 20, possibly even 25 or 30. During the years from the kindergarten to high school or college graduation the youth is too often expected merely to study books and play. We have noticed that this process results in postponing the maturing of personality—in prolonging infantilism. Some people even feel that the lack of responsible work for young people deprives them of specific measuring rods of experience with which to test ideas and knowledge coming to them through academic study. But worst of all, the young person finds himself in a hostile environment. Society seems to be saying to him that life must be all preparation, abstract study and play during his first 20 years, and after that all work and struggle. When most high school graduates apply for a job they are stumped by the question, "What can you do?" or, "What have you done?". A great many of them properly reply: "I can do research."

Now in defense of the innumerable, effective educational programs now in operation throughout the country I want to emphasize the fact that many of the activities of youth in school are work. Such activities develop work habits, and they encourage effort and initiative. But sometimes one element of major importance is lacking in this type of work —the feeling on the part of young people that they count— that they are actually living and taking responsibilities—that they are a part of the scheme of things and not merely preparing to be. Educational statesmanship must now consider the problem of developing more ways and means of relating significant work to an academic program, or of

creating many more educative experiences in which responsible work habits are closely and continuously integrated with study. This means opening the windows of the school and saying, in effect, to many youth: "Out there are millions of tasks that need to be done, services to be performed. You can go out there part-time and do your share. What you do out there will be a definite part of your education; that is, it will be a part of a well-balanced program of experiences designed to help you to grow as rapidly as possible in your technical abilities, your understanding of life, and in your feeling of responsibility for community welfare."

If we could say this to youth we would have answered much of the problem of integrating the school and the community. We would thus avoid the danger of operating an educational process in a vacuum. What youth would learn in a program of creation and construction would illuminate the meanings of the related academic study. But more than anything else youth at work doing things that are needed, being compensated by money or products or the satisfaction of tangible achievement and experiencing a diversity of work operations, would have that sense of belonging which is so necessary to the future stability of democracy.

What I have been saying up to this point is that a vital and comprehensive educational program must stress these two complementary elements—education for work, and education by and through work. I am fully aware of the difficulties of terminology involved in the use of such expressions. The term "work" is subject to various interpretations depending on the context in which it is used. Exactly what is work? Must work involve overt physical activity? What then of mental work? Or is it toil, drudgery, and fatigue which we have in mind when we speak of work? Or is it employment for wage, salary, or some other material reward? What is "work experience?" And what are "work habits?" What is "school work?" Is study, work? Attempts to present exact definitions of these terms would require another paper. Suffice it to say now that such expressions should be used with care. We all know that education in schools necessarily aims to secure good "work habits." Beginning with housebuilding with blocks in the nursery school and extending up to secondary schools and colleges where carpentry, architecture, and surgery are taught, good work habits constitute a primary objective.

In any case, what I am trying to say is that employment at tasks freely accepted because of their intrinsic or extrinsic rewards is a vital part of education, and that we must gauge the educational value of work experience on a scale which recognizes various kinds of motives and types of activity, both mental and physical.

5. A fifth point to which I would direct the attention of educational engineers is the problem of making America ready for a fruitful use of leisure. This calls for the adaptation of the school system to the needs of both young people and older people. It means in my judgment the operation of school facilities full-time as centers of leisure activity and learning.

Our machine age has gloriously displaced labor at points where work is laborious. This ought not to be considered a catastrophe. The fact is that in the next decade we can, if we will, practically eliminate mechanical, repetitive operations for men and women. Because we have a vast reservoir of labor we have been wasteful with it. We have set thousands of people to tasks with low wages which our engineers could have performed with gadgets. In the coming years the electric eye is going to supervise the operation of most of the mechanical operations. As a result, a peacetime democracy ought to be able to diversify human activity by cutting down the hours of labor on the mechanical side of production.

This raises a tremendous problem for education. What are people to do with the freedom they get in this way? Immature people will undoubtedly assume that they will enjoy the leisure by going to the movies, being entertained, doing nothing in particular and aping the idle rich. A mature judgment tells us that the idle rich are not happy—not because they are rich but because they are idle and uncreative. Mature judgment will tell us that recreation is only significant when it supplements creative exertion—that lazy relaxation is only satisfying when it follows a period of dynamic activity—that entertainment is fun only in small doses. The new leisure, therefore, must include the opportunity for creative work. In a machine civilization we may visualize the development of skills and handicrafts capable of matching the achievements of the ancients. Our homes, while basically supplied with machine-made furnishings, may well be decorated with priceless creations of handicraft art. The home may again be the center of productive enterprise and the shops at the school may become centers of a leisure program of creation.

There are other important points requiring the concern of our profession if we are to contribute to the solution of national problems. Such problems are education for health, for intelligent home-building, consumer education, conservation education, safety education, etc. These problems all fall into a pattern if once we get straight on the fundamental purpose of the educative process in a democratic society.

We have been following the will-o'-the-wisp notion that humankind wants to retire, be entertained, enjoy life, be served, avoid dangers and difficulty and let the rest of the world go by. This false Valhalla of the prolonged vacation has been rudely challenged by the dictators. They have gone back to the primitive reality that man wants to create, organize, work, risk, struggle, build, plant, grow, and harvest. The fact that they have harnessed this fundamental notion to a diabolical war machine in the interest of a regimented ant-hill system of society should not blind us to the fact that their followers respond to the call to create something. Their people like the idea that there is more work to be done than there are hands available to do it. They like the sense of assurance which comes from the certainty that they have a place in the scheme of things. Their education, bad as it is from many points of view, has this one great merit—everybody knows that at the terminus there is a job to do.

Now in my judgment the ideal of democracy, of self-government, of fair play, of personal liberty can be preserved only if we organize ourselves to give practical expression to the fundamental human urge to work and create. We educators can do remarkable things with the educational machinery we have built up if we can set clearly before the community the ideal of creation; if we can release people in general from the stultifying fear of surpluses. If democratic leadership cannot say to youth under peacetime conditions as well as in wartime crisis—you are needed, prepare well, the way to the top is open—democracy cannot in my judgment survive the challenge of modern dictatorship. Genuine loyalty to the democratic ideal cannot ultimately be induced merely by indoctrinating youth with academic arguments in favor of the free society.

In summary, the proposals I have made add up to three conclusions:

1. In view of the need for a broader and more thorough civic education for youth and of the demands of the workaday world for more maturity on the part of the young people entering upon employment for the first time, we must plan for an upward extension of secondary education to include the thirteenth and fourteenth grades with a strongemphasis on vocational courses which will terminate not later than the age of approximately 20 years. Secondary schools should also become the centers for a vital program of adult education.

2. An adequate program of education for youth requires the provision of means by which all young people up to 20 years of age may be enabled to maintain themselves in situations where modern and complete training opportunities are available for all of the kinds of work which our society needs done.

3. Above all, we must help young people to catch the vision of a democratic society in which the contribution of each of its members in service and in sacrifice is needed in helping to build for that fairer tomorrow in which the ideals of the fathers and the faith of multitudes of toiling, freedom-loving men and women will be vindicated and fullfilled.