The Role of American Education in the Democratic Process


By DR. SAMUEL N. STEVENS, President, Grinnell College

Delivered at the convention of the Association of Life Insurance Presidents, N. Y. C., December 6, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 231-233.

NO PEOPLE have accepted the idea that education was important with greater seriousness than the Americans in the United States. As fast as the colonist settled this new land and built crude homes and churches for themselves, they began to organize schools. The history of certain great educational institutions such as Harvard in New England and William and Mary in Virginia is almost synonymous with the history of the United States. We have frequently heard it said that freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and equal rights before the law were the legal framework of American democracy. It might also be said that freedom for the mind through education, and freedom for the heart through religion, and freedom for the body through law were the psychological framework of American democracy. Next to religion with its discipline of the soul, education was looked upon as precious and important. This early faith that led to the founding of public and private schools and colleges in the early days of our national life has proceeded without faltering during the long years since that time with the result that no people have ever enjoyed the benefit of free education to the extent that we have. Furthermore, we have been willing to pay for it, to go into debt for it, to sacrifice much for it. As a result the largest single bill in this country, outside of the expenses of the Federal Government is the bill for public instruction. If we were to look at it in terms of a business we would say that the opportunities of public education in all of its aspects in this country is ten times greater than the largest of large businesses which are to be found in our commercial and industrial life. More people are involved professionally and otherwise than in any other area of our national life, and the end is not yet.

Periodically investigators have sought to evaluate the results of this enormous outlay of money and energy. Frequently views have been expressed pointing out the enormous waste and in many ways the terrible futility of muchof this public education. Not long ago one of the great authorities in the history of education at Columbia University claimed that perhaps no enterprise conducted on so vast a scale had produced such meager results. Much depends upon the criteria for success I suppose in the determination of our evaluation of education in our democracy. I cannot share with the pessimists their ideas as to the futility of our great national effort to educate. The facts are that we have a higher level of literacy for a larger number of the population than in any other country in the world. This in spite of the fact that prior to the Civil War and afterward we had a vast population of men enslaved who had never had the simplest type of formal educational training, and who, because of prejudices of their white country men, have had to face a terrific uphill struggle to get even the smallest opportunities for literacy. The average amount of money expended for education in the State of Illinois per student in 1935 was more than $60.00. In the State of Mississippi it was less than $15.00. Furthermore from 1890 until the last World War there flooded into our country many millions of men and women from every part of the world, who came from cultures where free education was unknown and where limited opportunity for any kind of literacy existed. Yet this vast population of a typical cultural interests has been progressively assimilated into the American system, and the benefits of free education have gradually transformed them into free citizens. Educational achievement as far as school grade is concerned has risen from less than the fourth grade for men and women in the United States above the age of twenty-one in 1891 to nearly the tenth grade of people in the same category in 1935. In 1910 one out of every nine boys and girls of high school age were in high school. In 1935 one out of every one and one-half boys and girls of that age were in high school or some type of school beyond the elementary level. In 1910 one out of every fourteen boys and girls who had completed high school were having the advantage of some type of formal education beyond that level. In 1935 one out of every three were enjoying the benefits of this experience. We may well question whether or not every student going to high school should have the same or nearly the same type of secondary training as all thoughtful educators have done, but no one can question that the extended opportunity for formal training has had a definitely effective controlling influence on our democratic way of life.

In America we have sought to educate for the purpose of developing a literate citizenry capable of arriving at its own critical judgment concerning what was good. As a result we have made more social progress toward the realization of the ideals as stated in our Declaration of Independence than has occurred in any other nation in the world. We have extended the length of life, progressively controlled the great plagues that disseminate populations. We have gone through changes in political control without civil war. We have faced depressions and social chaos without revolution, and we have progressively evolved new systems of opportunity and adapted ourselves to international changes without seriously weakening the internal integrity of our governmental system. The greatest evidence that the world has ever seen for the power of a free mind to cope with the exigencies of a hostile environment has been demonstrated again and again in this country.

For many years now we have been told by educational psychologists that society could be molded and modified by the conditioning processes of education. All that was necessary for the transformation of the social order was the establishment of a uniform set of social objectives and a continuous conditioning of youth which would produce those forms of behavior required by the ideal society implied in the social objectives. There has been eloquent evidence in Europe as to how powerful these conditioning processes are in determining the habits and attitudes of younger generations. Certainly a superficial evaluation of the results of education in Russia, Italy, and Germany would lend great weight to the contention that all that may be required to modify society would be the rigid application of proper pedagogical technique after definite and clearly defined social objectives had been set up. Hitler youth, the young Fascists of Italy, and the Communist organizations of Russia are typical examples of the power of a constantly applied system of educational processes. If what is wanted is blind devotion to the state, complete subservience to authority, and passive acceptance of laws and regulations arbitrarily composed by a few and impressed upon the many, then there can be no doubt as to the ability of educators using these well known conditioning processes to produce such results. In other words, education can be used successfully to chain the mind, to imprison the emotions, and to subjugate the will, but I venture to suggest that one of the reasons why so many thoughtful educators have looked with pessimism and despair upon the social fruits of the American system of education has been because they have compared results where objectives have been so widely different as to make comparison invalid and unreasonable. The tradition in American education has been to liberate the mind rather than chain it; to discipline yet release the emotions rather than imprison them; to direct and motivate rather than to dominate will.

Consequently we must evaluate education in the United States in terms of the objectives which have become the framework of reference for its program. This policy has been so continuously applied at every stage in public and private education that it would be unfair to assume that it was particularly true on the higher levels. Our concern today,however, is primarily with the outcomes of higher education. Nowhere in the world has so much money, public and private, been invested in universities and colleges as in the United States. Nowhere else in the world are so many young men and women having the advantages of a higher learning. Nowhere else are so many men engaged in the tasks of teaching and administering universities and colleges as is the case in our country. It is not just an historical coincidence that scientific and technological progress has occurred simultaneously with the progressive expansion in the number of institutions and students identified with higher education. It is not chance that progress in medicine, dentistry, engineering, law, and all the other professions has been consistently related to the increase in the number of institutions and students devoted to these subject matters. It is not just the whim of fate that shorter hours of work and greater opportunities for creative leisure have occurred as the flood-tide of institutions and students seems to have been reached. It is not due to the fickleness of fate that a deepening and more sensitive social consciousness has sought ways and means of eliminating human suffering, maladjustments, and disorder, and that social legislation designed to protect the weak and the unfortunate has also developed during the same period in which the colleges and universities have had their greatest growth. While one may question the success of higher education in any individual case, it will be difficult to make a case against it as a powerful instrument of social control in our American society. During the last fifteen years there has been a progressive decline in the creative productivity and the intellectual power of many European universities. This decline has also been simultaneous with the application of rigid systems of social conditioning, and it is no accident that as authoritarian systems of government have gained strength in Europe, educational systems have declined in social productiveness. I suggest that there are three fundamental considerations which, in their positive and negative aspects, account for both of these phenomena. Consider first the concept of the individual in society. In America we have placed the individual in the center of our philosophy and have insisted that education must be thought of as an instrument which each student might use to discover his abilities and capacities to discipline and release his mental energies, to socially condition and control his emotions, and to give direction to his will. From kindergarten to graduate school this emphasis has been constant regardless of the varied forms which curriculum and administration has taken. In the last analysis the most traditional philosophy of education and the most progressive one has this one thing in common—that the educative process be employed to produce free men. Free because of an objective knowledge as to what they are, how they may act, and what they can do. In sharp contrast to this point of view we find the European philosophy one which places the individual as the instrument of the state and education a means which the state may use to modify men for its own purposes. And from the kindergarten and the nursery school to the university there has been a progressive development of rules of administration and curriculum designed to rigidly canalize the intellectual powers, to restrict the free play of emotions, and to subjugate the will to the purposes of the state.

Consider also educational opportunity. We have always assumed in our country that equality of opportunity was the essential condition for unhampered motivation. Our young men have left farms to become leaders of industry. Rich men and poor men have become powerful in government. Our doctors, lawyers, ministers, our scientists and our engineers have come from every economic strata, from every type of community, and from almost every level of our social life. Poor men have made fortunes and rich men have inherited others. Fundamentally we have conceived of opportunity as being closely related to industry and intelligence. We have conceived of education as something which should be available to all in proportion as men and women had the inclination and the capacity to take advantage of it. Truly we are a nation of students, for from toddling tots to tottering old men and women we find people engaged in the tasks of improving themselves. Our high schools are crowded, our colleges are full, there are millions of people enrolled in extension training schools. Our social clubs and civic organizations, our professional and industrial associations, all have some form of study which is seriously engaged in by their membership. In Europe no such thing as a public school in the American sense exists at all, and the more advanced education becomes the less available it is, with the results that in the fields of the higher learning the number engaged in it in relationship to the total population is small.

Finally, consider the nature of the educational program. The spirit of free inquiry is stimulated in children in the elementary school. In addition to the simpler cultural tools the educational program is crowded with cultural, technical, and vocational subject matter. The process of learning is related to life to the community, to government, to national and international affairs, so that today the average high school graduate has more detailed information about local, national, and international affairs, has read more widely in good literature, and has attacked experimentally more social problems than was true of college graduates twenty-five years ago. On the other hand the emphasis has been on the active process of discovery rather than on the passive reception of authoritarian doctrine. Many points of view have been encouraged, rather than one. No books have been placed on bonfires, and no arbitrary restriction has been placed upon the educative process.

In Europe some specialization of training has occurred, hat the spirit of inquiry has been denied. School has become an institution for national propaganda, and science, philosophy, religion, and logic have been bent and twisted to conform to the requirements of some particular ideology or national objective.

Is it any wonder that we are a democracy and many other nations are dictatorships? Is it any wonder that we seem to have difficulty in mobilizing our energies and in bending the national will to any specific objective? Should we deliberately run the risk of social, economic, and political chaos in order that men might be free to discover for themselves that which is good and beautiful and true? Is it not only natural that dictators should say that democracy is weak when they observe a free people insisting on the right to exercise their own intelligence? Is it not understandable that we are thought to be decadent by those who observe the travail out of which social and political decisions come when compared with the dispatch with which their own decisions are enforced? There are those in this country who hint that we can no longer trust to the interplay of a socially determined intelligence for ultimate decisions concerning what is good for our country. There are those who looking upon the dispatch with which national energies are mobilized under a dictatorship express the conviction that we are inefficient, that with all of our knowledge we know nothing, that with all of our training we are incompetent. It seems to me that as never before we should recognize that the greatest safeguards for the perpetuation of the American way of life are to be found in those very habits with which our system of education has developed. It will be a sad day for America when rugged individualists are no more, when men and women no longer feel a responsibility for their own lives and actions, when social responsibility is passed to the state and forgotten by the man and woman who compose society. Today, as never before, we should be proud of the very inefficiency which is the subject of derision by men whose ideologies are so different from our own. Now is no time to put intelligence on the shelf, to imprison the emotions, or to dominate the will of our people. We must have an education continuing to exist which liberates.