Education For the Preservation of Democracy


By HAROLD G. CAMPBELL, Superintendent of Schools, City of New York

Delivered at The Convocation of The Regents of the University of the State of New York, Albany, October 17, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol VII, pp. 117-118

EDUCATION for the preservation of democracy. Who among us even ten years ago would have thought that democracy might be menaced in this country? True, it had vanished in some countries abroad and in others it had been rejected without a trial. But, we concluded, the people in these countries were not ready for it. They had not been born and brought up in a democracy as our people had been. Their governments had not been democracies from the beginning. In time, we thought, people abroad would surely recognize democracy as the better way of life and prepare themselves for it. The only question was how soon would democracy be extended throughout the world. No one ever dreamed of asking whether it might some day be in danger in America. And yet, that day apparently, has come. Democracy is menaced in America, in the country of its origin. It is menaced, not so much by foreign aggressors and foreign ideologies as by our own failure to make it function to the fullest extent and by our own shortcomings as individuals and as citizens in a democratic society.

We have not been able to fulfill the promise that real democracy holds, not just for some of the people, but for all the people.

We have not been entirely guiltless of hypocrisy in our political and social life. We have professed ideals and then not lived up to them. We say that in this land of ours there is no discrimination on account of race, creed or color, and yet we know that candidates for public office have been defeated because of their religious beliefs and that in some sections of the country there are men who discriminate against other men.

We know there are some who, for political or other reasons, loudly proclaim their adherence to American principles of liberty, equality and justice, but who in reality do not believe in these things nor strive for their achievement.

We have been great ones for promulgating programs and putting down upon paper our plans for helping our fellow men. We form committees and appropriate other people's money, but when the call comes for the service and self-sacrifice necessary to translate these plans into reality, we are too busy with our own personal affairs. We are willing that it should be done, indeed anxious, but we are willing also to leave the doing to others. Unless, of course, we're going to "get something out of it."

The preservation of anything held dear, requires self-sacrifice, self-denial, and unselfish service. It requires a true sense of values. Let us see how nearly we have come to meeting these requirements:

With far too many of us the paramount thought has been of profit and pleasure. We have measured our civilization in terms of monetary success, glamour, and labor saving devices.

We worship the automobile that kills 30,000 people a year; the movies that do our thinking for us; and the radio which monopolizes the interest of our children at the expenseof reading and physical exercise and which stifles conversation.

We have degraded the human being by accepting mechanical substitutes for his effort in every field from mathematical calculation to music. We hear our concerts from a sound track and wonder why musicians are out of work.

Our family life has deteriorated and we have neglected the church. I have seen figures indicating that from 50 to 65 percent of our people do not attend any church.

Work as little as possible. Play as often as you can. Get more than you give and find security at all costs, even at the cost of freedom. These have been our watchwords, and in short, we have placed the pursuit of happiness first; life and liberty second.

Perhaps it is because we did not have to earn our democracy or fight for our liberty that these things have come to pass. They were handed down to us as a legacy and we've been careless with that legacy.

Instead of heeding the advice that the only cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy, we have taken steps in the direction of less democracy; instead of realizing that the price of democracy like that of liberty on which it is founded, is eternal vigilance, we have neglected the duties of citizenship.

The indictment, not of democracy itself, not of the American form of government, but of you and of me and of our generation, comes from many quarters.

We hear it from the great scientist, Dr. Carrel, who says that "everything has been made too easy for us"; that our chief desire is for pleasure; and that "this indolent and undisciplined way of life has sapped our individual vigor, imperiled our democratic form of government."

We hear almost identical language from more than one minister of the gospel, pointedly from Dr. Sizoo who said only a few weeks ago that "the entire scheme of modem life has been geared to make things easy. The whole idea of sternness has been pushed into the discard. It is this easy-going, slack and soft way of life that is menacing our whole order."

From Sinclair Lewis, who tells us that this country has grown "soft and luxurious." And from Dr. Luccock of the Yale Divinity School who warns that democracy is in jeopardy unless we return to the ways of God.

Set these quotations alongside of one in Clare Boothe's "Europe in the Spring" and the parallel is shocking. Miss Boothe is quoting Marshal Petain on the reasons for the fall of democracy in France. Among other things the Marshal said:

"Since our victory in 1918, the Spirit of Pleasure prevailed over the Spirit of Sacrifice. We demanded more than we gave. We sought to skimp on effort, and so—we met disaster."

Are we too heading for disaster? Are we too going to admit that after all these years we do not deserve to have ademocracy because we are unable to make it work; that we cannot order our lives and our ways of living and must call upon some dictator to do it for us? I know we are not, but we must act and not talk.

Democracy cannot be preserved simply by praising it, nor can it be preserved by education alone. The task is one for all of us and for all the agencies through which we work our will. Each of us must ask himself: Am I giving more than I receive, or doing as little as I can for as much as I can get? Do I think first of myself and of my fellow men afterward? Am I ready to make personal sacrifices for the general welfare, willing to work without thought of compensation or even of time for the public good?

Each of us must determine to set an example for youth, for we cannot imbue youth with the zeal for democracy unless we can show him that it does function better than any other form of government and that it is the only form of government under which his dream may be realized.

Indeed it is the only form of government under which he or any of us can live his own life as he chooses so long as he grants the same right to others.

We must show youth that in a democracy it is impossible for one to earn ones own living without having to turn to the government for his bread. The choice for youth cannot be between joblessness and a labor camp, no matter what sweet sounding name the latter may be given. If this is to be the only choice, then our democracy is already lost.

We must make democracy function so that youth may obtain work in private industry when he finishes school; that he may late set up a small independent business if he wishes and not be forced to the wall by unfair competition, monopoly, illegally concentrate wealth, or by government competition.

Our young men must be able to look forward if they choose to establishing a home and supporting a family; not by grace of membership in a political party, but as a result of their own efforts.

To accomplish these things we must get our economic machine back to work through a revival of private enterprise and the expansion of private industry.

Education must give itself something of an overhauling. Have we too not geared our whole system so as to make things easy? Have we not cast out discipline and pushed sternness into the background? May we not unconsciously be giving youth the impression that everything in life will, like his course of study, be "adjusted" to his likes and dislikes, and to his "capabilities." I think we may have been a little on the soft side.

Instead of trying to harden and toughen our youth mentally as well as physically, we've softened the course of study. Instead of trying to make him see the value of 4 years of chemistry and mathematics and physics (Goodness knows we need a thousand technical men now for every one we have,) we have permitted the substitution of fair weather courses, requiring not too much effort and leading nowhere in particular. Without realizing it we may have simply provided an escape for the mentally lazy student, and an easy way out for the teacher.

Six years ago, we in the city of New York outlined clearly what the new conception of education does NOT mean. Some of this will bear repeating now. Speaking as the newly elected Superintendent of Schools, I said:

"The new conception of education does not mean making school life easy. Life after school is not easy and when we modify courses of study to meet individual abilities we must not lead children to believe that every life situation will likewise be modified or adjusted by some good Providence. Life's problems are presented in the same form to everyoneregardless of his ability range. They are hard and stubborn. He who cannot solve them will have no one to make them soluble for him. He who is easily discouraged or who quits in the face of a difficult task will have no one to provide an easier one.

"Throughout life things distasteful and things difficult must be faced and faced manfully. Character is often moulded in the crucible of hardship and adversity and things men thought were beyond human capability have been accomplished when it was a question of do or die. Perserverance was and still is, I hope, the motto that hangs in every classroom. It must not be taken down and replaced by defeatism."

That sounds a little bit as though we were getting back to the copybook maxims. It is high time we did. We have made our "proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place," and what is the picture today—rising delinquency tables, unemployment, a shortage of skilled labor, more and more admissions to institutions for mental defectives, a country dedicated to a life of ease, "soft and luxurious," undisciplined and unprepared in the worst crisis in the world's history—democracy itself imperiled. And we here talking about how to preserve democracy. Isn't the sure way to return to fundamental principles not only in education but in all our life? Adherence to these principles built democracy. A return to them will save it.

We must put into the hearts of our children the spirit of "The Children's Song":

"Land of our birth we pledge to thee
Our love and toil in the years to be;
When we are grown and take our place
As men and women with our race.
Father in Heaven who lovest all,
Oh help Thy children when they call;
That they may build from age to age
An undefiled heritage.
Teach us to bear the yoke in youth,
With steadfastness and careful truth;
That, in our time, Thy Grace may give
The Truth whereby the Nations live."

Fortunately this is the spirit that moves a vast majority of our teachers. Fortunately a vast majority of our teachers have never been swerved from Americanism and have always placed loyalty to their children, their country and their God above everything else. Any who may place other loyalties above these, I denounce and disown.

Most important among the principles that we Americans regard as fundamental are the principles of religion. Without knowledge of these, all our teaching goes for nought. We cannot set up the school in place of the church; we cannot say that character training is complete without religious training. We cannot have child guidance without Divine guidance. The truly great teachers know this.

Marion Craig, teaching in a small town in Massachusetts, knew it when she wrote the lines:

"The only crown I ask dear Lord to wear is this—-that I may help a little child—that softly hand in hand a child and I may enter Thy gate."

Mollie Epstein, teaching in one of the largest schools in the largest city in the world knew it when she saw the children as candles standing before her desk, and "awed and frighted" by the task she had at hand, lifted her eyes and said: "God grant the thoughts be noble, rich and wise and right, that spring from out my being and kindle you to light."

Here at the crucial moment, when these teachers realized the magnitude of their task and the sanctity of their calling, they turned not to pedagogy, not to psychiatry, but to God.