Individual Adjustment to Crisis


By CHARLES MAXWELL McCONN, Dean, New York University

Delivered at the Summer session of the School of Education, New York University, July 24, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 730-732

I COME before you feeling somewhat apologetic on one point, namely, the wording of my topic. "Individual Adjustment to Crisis." Certainly that is not a title that could be called "snappy." In fact, as a title it is everything which a journalist or publisher would tell you a title ought not to be. The words which compose it are abstract and polysyllabic. It calls up no image, appeals to no emotion. But it is the best I have been able to do with the theme I have in hand. I shall do my utmost in the next few minutes to make it concrete and meaningful.

It refers to the life situation in which all the members of this audience find themselves at this time—and all the world besides. The basic fact in the lives of all of us today is crisis and impending change. It is our fortune, for both good and ill, to live in one of the great moments of history, in the most cataclysmic and catastrophic period which the Western World has known since, let us say, the fall of Rome.

Of course human life has always had its crises, and there has been change in every generation; but there have been long periods of human history in which the crises were chiefly individual—the personal crises of birth and marriage and death; in which secular change was very gradual indeed; in which the lives of the children followed in the main the pattern of their fathers' lives. But now a huge external crisis hits every human being in the world, and all patterns are broken or like to be broken. Morning and evening we scan the papers and hover over the radio to read and hear confused reports from four great fighting fronts on three continents, with nine million men, it is alleged, embattled on just one of them. And as we read and listen we cannot fail to realize how deeply our own country is already embroiled in these gigantic conflicts, how very possible it is that we may be at war ourselves, within a few weeks or months, in Europe or Asia or both. And beyond that we realize still more surely, if we are the least bit thoughtful, that whether we ourselves get into a "shooting war" or not, and however the military struggles end, there are bound to follow enormous economic and social dislocations all over the world.

This last mentioned point—the certain aftermath of disruption—is, in fact, the most alarming of all. For it means that this present moment of crisis is no mere moment. It is not what the politicians have euphemistically called an "emergency." It is not merely "for the duration"—meaning the duration of the armed conflicts. It will last through our days and beyond. Back in 1918 Mr. H. G. Wells, writing from the old Western Front in France, declared that "never again in our time shall we know peace or security." That saying holds with redoubled force for us now, and for our children, for whom, as educators, we are more concerned than for ourselves.

This impingement upon the children, boys and girls and young men and women, has been eloquently expressed by Professor Hamilton of this School of Education, whom many of you know and love, and from one of whose writings I shall draw heavily later in this talk. "The changes which the youth of today must face"—he says—"are among the swiftest and most revolutionary ever faced by human beings. Some of these young people will live until the year 2000 A.D. Is any man bold enough to venture what the world will be like at that time? Can anyone say with assurance what it will be like even in ten years, or five, or two, or one? Of one thing we may be sure: They must live their lives in times of change—rapid, unpredictable, challenging, disturbing, confusing change. General Jan Christian Smuts said twenty years ago, 'Mankind has struck its tents and is once more on the march.' Today no man doubts that we and our children shall spend the rest of our lives on the trek."

I shall not labor this point further; perhaps I have already labored it more than was needful. We are all of us only too painfully conscious of the fact of crisis and the imminence of change.

Nor shall I spend time deploring this situation. For crisis may be painful, but at least it is not painfully dull. And change may be good as well as bad; certainly all of us would grant that in the world about us there are many changes that are greatly needed and long overdue.

I wish merely to draw one inescapable conclusion, which closely concerns us professionally as teachers, namely:

If it be true that we are all in for a continuing era of crisis and change, if that is to be the condition of the world for the next twenty-five to fifty years at least, then the most important single factor in the lives of the boys and girls and young men and women now under our tutelage, the basic condition of their success, nay, the condition of their survival, in this disrupted, world will be their ability to adjust to crisis and to adapt to change.

What other things the new generations will have to do amid the shifting scenes of the days to come, we cannot clearly know. Our best previsioning is little more than guesswork at this juncture. But we do know that they will live in the midst of dangerous change, to which they must constantly adjust and adapt, with nearly the whole of their; progress and happiness contingent upon their success in that strenuous process.

Surely this fact becomes at once of major importance for education, for every school and college. It is our business to prepare young people for their future living. If it now appears that a major part of living in their generation will consist in the confrontation and assimilation of crisis and change, it is our business to do something about it if we can—to supply these on-coming youngsters with whatever facts or concepts or skills or appreciations or ideals or pointsof views or schemes of reference may seem likely to serve them in that crucial business.

So far as I know there is no school or college which has yet grasped this point or undertaken in any way to deal with it. There may be individual teachers who have. But adjustment to crisis and adaptation to change is not in the curriculum or even in the "aims" and "objectives." It is not a part of the scholastic tradition.

I see before me in this audience a few men and women of my vintage, whose hair has gone gray or just gone, andwhose formal schooling was mostly completed before World War Number One. There was no preparation for crisis or change in our training; we should be better off today if there had been. But our teachers were not much toblame; they supposed we were living in a static world; there would never be another war among major powers—they were sure of that; and various somewhat obtrusive economic and social maladjustments would rapidly disappear before the philanthropic efforts of liberal reform; every day in every way the world was getting better and better. So we were prepared—God help us—for an era of stable security.

But a larger number among you who sit before me have had your training in the last twenty-four years—since 1917,—and in your training likewise there was no consideration of future crisis and change. That seems less excusable. But you will recall how after World War One we all rushed "back to normalcy." In spite of numerous warnings like that of Mr. Wells, government and business and education all buried their heads in the sand: the world was safe again. For democracy? Perhaps—but anyway safe. So you too were prepared for a static world.

But it would be unpardonable now for us to repeat that mistake. Now at least we know what we and our students are in for, and if there is any way in which we can prepare them to face crisis and to master change, surely we shall be eager to offer that preparation.

But in what should such preparation consist? There is no syllabus for this topic; not even a bibliography. Do we even know what skills or characteristics or qualities are valuable in the face of crisis and change?

The answer is that we do not and that it is imperatively pressing that study and research be forthwith instituted on this problem. But there is a least one educational study which may give us some leads in the matter, and I shall spend the brief remainder of my time in calling your attention to that study and the suggestions which may be tentatively drawn from it. They may indicate at any rate the kind of thing we need to look for and to work at.

The study in question is the one reported on in the volume entitled From School to College: A Study of the Transition Experience. The investigation was conducted by Lincoln B. Hale, with a considerable group of collaborators, and the report is edited by Hugh Hartshorne and published by the Yale University Press. The report has, moreover, been beautifully summarized by our own Professor Hamilton, to whom I have already referred, in an admirable 32-page pamphlet published by the Public Affairs Committee, Inc., of New York City, under the title What It Takes to Make Good in College. Let me note that I was associated, remotely at least, with the original investigation, having acted as supervisor, under Mr. Hale's direction, for two of the boys who were the subjects of the study during their two years under observation in college. For what follows I have drawn both from the report itself and from Professor Hamilton's pamphlet. But I am especially indebted to Professor Hamilton for his penetrating suggestion that certain conclusions of the study have, or may have, a profound significance far transcending their original aim.

To some of you it may seem that, in passing somewhat abruptly from considerations of world crisis to a study of preparation for college, I am descending, if not from the sublime to the ridiculous, at least from the horrendous to the trivial. But perhaps we should be humble enough to turn anywhere for clues or leads. Moreover, the transition from school to college is the particular crisis and change for which in our secondary schools we have most specifically sought to prepare; and it turns out to be a pretty crucial experience for most of those who attempt it. Generally, when the student goes away to college, it involves leaving behind the only way of life he or she has known up to the age of eighteen, and entering upon a new life under quite different conditions and subject to new and much more strenuous demands. This adaptation has, in fact, proved to be so difficult that a bare fifty per cent of those who attempt to make it are successful in doing so. So I think we may be justified in suspecting that any characteristics or qualities or habit patterns found to be definitely predictive of success in making this adaptation may be valuable in coping with greater crises and changes.

It should be noted that the study in question does not measure "success" in college in terms of scholarship alone. It does not undervalue scholastic achievement, but it includes appraisal of satisfactory adjustment and progress in nine additional areas: health, finance, living conditions, family and home relations, social relations, morals and discipline, personality, religion, and "outreach" (defined as including interest in current affairs, general cultural interest, broadening social relationships, and the like). This broad scope of the study makes it the more promising for our present purpose.

Even so there are, of course, many findings which need not concern us. A number of interesting data, for example, go far towards relieving the school of part of its responsibility even for success in college, putting that part squarely on the home and family: the grievous handicap, for example, of congenital ill-health, of parental poverty, of broken homes; the notable advantage of being born of young parents, of having a mother who is a college graduate (the father's education does not seem to matter), of having brothers or sisters who have already gone to college; the advantage, from the standpoint of social adjustment, of having fathers who were born either in the United States or in Ireland; on the other hand, the advantage for cultural breadth of having foreign-born parents; and so on. These things and others we can do nothing about; we cannot change a student's nativity.

But the general conclusion of the study is highly relevant to our search for clues. In brief, it appears, as we should expect, that some fair degree of scholastic aptitude, and reasonably good health, and adequate financial backing (which may consist partly of scholarship help) are essential. But a large majority of the students who are admitted to college have these prime requisites. Beyond that, success or failure in adaptation seems, according to this study, to turn upon the possession or absence of four characteristics or behavior patterns, which may be described as follows:

(1) Sensitivity—the ability to sense relevance, proportion, and potentiality; involving such attitudes as alertness, objectivity, and discrimination.

(2) Social Adjustment—shown in the ability to get along well with all sorts of people, including younger people, contemporaries, older people, the opposite sex, and strangers.

(3) Purpose—having a definite goal and working towards it.

(4) Decision—the ability to bring in a verdict when the evidence is in and to act promptly thereon.

Given adequate scholastic ability, health, and financial backing, these four characteristics or behavior patterns—let me repeat—are crucial, if the findings of this study are valid. In the cases studied—1281 of them, followed from the secondary school through the freshman year in college—the possession, in fair degree, of all four of these characteristics practically assured success in the transitional adaptation; while the student who lacked all four was virtually foredoomed to failure in making this adaptation. Of course many students had some fair measure of one or more of these qualities or behavior patterns but not all four; in these cases there were usually difficulties in adaptation, with varying final outcomes.

Is one not tempted to ask whether these findings may not have a wider application beyond the collegiate sphere?

At any rate let us look more closely at these so-called behavior patterns to see what kinds of experience seem to be correlated with them positively or negatively and presumably to be helpful or harmful for their development.

First, "Sensitivity," defined—you may remember—as the ability to sense relevance, proportion, and potentiality, involving such attitudes as alertness, objectivity, and discrimination. Unfortunately the evidence as to factors contributing to this important trait is decidedly meager. In some cases it seems to have been developed by parents, one or both, who were themselves highly "sensitive" in this sense; in others it seems to have emerged in the classroom under some skillful teacher of a favorite subject; occasionally responsible functioning in an extra-curricular activity seems to bring it out. It tends to be associated with interest in public affairs and broad cultural interests, including a love for good literature. That is about all we can say about the pedagogy of "sensitivity," and of course it is very little.

With respect to "Social Adjustment," including success in social relations and effectiveness of personality, we have many more data of quite miscellaneous kinds. For example (taking my citations from Professor Hamilton's summary): "where the parents showed kindly, cordial interest in the boy's girl friends, teachers, chums, and athletics, the young fellow came up to college with a satisfactory personality adjustment; if the parents were either completely indifferent or over-anxious, the result in the boy's personality was not good." "Contacts of various sorts with faculty members and officers were definitely associated with good social adjustment." There was a high correlation between good personality and a liking for and ability in English. "Athletic,club, and social and religious activities were associated with higher social ratings; music, when it was the sole activity of the student, with lower ratings." "Boys who said they liked girls, especially if they had a 'steady,' made a showing superior to those who didn't like girls." "Frequency of attendance at movies—seven or more times a month—was a sign of poor personality, as was also frequency of indulgence in card games. 'Bull sessions' were again a kind of thermometer, the better-adjusted boys being the ones who participated in the large sessions, and the less well-adjusted in sessions with very small groups." "Those who didn't participate in off-campus activities were less well adjusted than those who did." And so on.

Of course I don't expect you to make anything of that melange, and you may well query some of the correlations or their interpretation. But I wanted to exhibit examples of the areas we may need to explore in working out the pedagogy of "Social Adjustment."

As to the behavior pattern labeled "Purpose," the effective purpose in college most often turns out to be directly or indirectly vocational, and the resulting clue closely relates to the enormous importance in our schools of adequate vocational guidance.

As to the fourth behavior pattern, "Decision," all the evidence points to the (perhaps obvious) fact that decision is acquired by deciding for oneself and indecision by having others decide for one. Certain cases of boys whose college careers were wrecked or damaged by indecision could be pretty clearly traced to dominating parents or in one or two cases to over-strict supervision in preparatory schools.

No doubt I should apologize for this sketchy and helter-skelter summary, or rather sampling, of a really significant study. But my purpose has been merely to indicate its possible suggestiveness, and the possible suggestiveness of other studies of success in college (like the one now being brought to a close by the Commission on the Relation of School and College of the Progressive Education Association), for the major problem to which I have invited your attention—the problem of preparing boys and girls and young men and women for a world of crisis and drastic change.

If I have succeeded in bringing that problem before you with any vividness, in giving you a sense of its major importance, in placing it high on your "must" list of educational problems, and in barely suggesting one set of possible clues, then I have accomplished my purpose of the last thirty minutes.