Present Problems of the Future


By DR. ROBERT GORDON SPROUL, President, University of California, Berkeley, Cal

Delivered before the American Association of School Administrators, San Francisco, Cal., February 26, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 331-335.

A NATION involved in a war of such magnitude and portent as that now engaging the citizens of the United States and of its allies, is inclined to impatience with problems not directly and solely concerned with the recruiting and equipping of the armed forces. It is evident to all that a decisive defeat of the enemies of democracy is imperative to our continued existence as a free people, and to the realization of those hopes and aspirations for the future which every free people holds close to its heart. Nothing can be allowed to stand in the way of our war effort, for on that effort everything else depends. Nothing must distract us from achieving victory as quickly as possible, for on the speed with which we put an end to the war will depend the rate of recovery from its effects.

Nevertheless, and especially in gatherings like this, presumably characterized by profounder thinking, recognition must be given to problems other than the building of an invincible war machine. Our all-out effort for military victory must be motivated and dominated by well considered plans to perpetuate those fundamental human values without which democracy will lose all meaning. We have gone to war because, if human beings are to be stripped of the dignity and sacredness of personality, life will lose all savor and all honor. We are fighting against the barbaric philosophy of totalitarianism, fighting for the faith of democracy: that free men can learn not only to govern themselves wisely but can also create a nation strong enough to withstand attack from any or all enemies, whether from without or from within, whether in peace or in war.

If you agree with me that these are things for which we are fighting, and I believe you do, then our preservation, both during the war and after it is over, is quite as essential as the maintenance of our territory and the protection of

our lives. If we are not conscious that behind all other motives there towers an ideal of human society which must be sustained inviolate, then war loses all virtue and victory becomes futile. The only hope for the further progress of civilization rests upon the individual freedom that is inherent in democracy. Unless we are sure of this, our struggles will be as fruitless as those of the dictators. There will be no victory, even when superiority of arms has been demonstrated.

To these matters thought must be given now. The American educator must see that they are not forgotten, even in the chaos of total war. His responsibilities during the present emergency are second to none. Not only must he give full support to the war effort; he must also find time and energy to maintain and improve the American educational system. For it is the schools which give substance to the ideals of democracy; it is the schools which are most potent in keeping those ideals alive.

In saying this, I am fully aware that many laymen and many educators question the efficiency of the American public school for the training of young men and women for life in a democracy. Some have even gone so far as to say that the public schools are failing in this purpose, and that they are a handicap rather than a* help in the development of worth-while citizens. We will all agree that any work in which Man has had a hand could stand improvement. Like every other educator I have my criticisms of the public school program, both traditional and progressive, but I cannot agree with those who say that this program is a travesty on real education. These critics, in the dank, dark depths of the depression, fell victims to a strange malady which threw a miasmic fog of doubt and dissatisfaction over the minds of men. They became culturally color blind developed an abnormal sensitivity to faults and failings, and

revealed an uncontrollable compulsion to criticize existing institutions and to establish new ones. There are other depression-born diseases, of course,—pellagra and rickets, for example, but "criticismitis" is peculiarly dangerous because it is highly contagious. It may be contracted merely by reading books and articles written by those already afflicted . . . and the patient like victims of other mental derangements, is blissfully unaware of his illness. This disease has been particularly virulent among the youth of the nation, especially among college and university students. In these cases it was known colloquially as "radicalism".

War has few virtues, but the present conflict has achieved at least one end. It has cleared the air of "criticismitis" and unified the people of the United States in the conviction that, however imperfect our achievements may be, they are superior to those of our enemies, and are eminently worth fighting and even dying to preserve. Out of the threat of losing what we have, has come a deeper pride of ownership and a clearer perception of the sturdy virtues that offset our sins of omission and commission. Anyone who looks at the schools of America with vision thus restored to normal cannot help but be impressed more by their achievements than by their mistakes.

With an investment of a little more than seven billion dollars, a fraction of the amount that the present war will cost us, the people of the United States have provided land, buildings, and equipment for the instruction of a total of 25,975,108 boys and girls from the age of six to the age of eighteen scattered throughout every state in the Union. With a budget of not quite two and a quarter billion dollars a year, the elementary and secondary school administrators of the United States are supplying 877,266 teachers and supervisors, together with textbooks and supplies, for those twenty-six million boys and girls. This these administrators are doing at an average annual salary for teachers of $1,374 . . . no more than a good clerk or stenographer receives, and less than the reward offered carpenters, bricklayers, and other skilled craftsmen. The total amount of money spent on the public elementary and high schools of the United States averages just 49 cents per pupil enrolled per school day . . . the price of a tube of shaving cream or a box of face powder.*

It is the educator's prerogative to point out what is not being done with this subsidy, but it is his responsibility also to see that the public appreciates what is being done. We expect, of course, that our schools will be better in the future because, with increased study and experience, and with reasonable increases in support, we should improve on what has been done in the past. But, if we educators become so concerned with what is wrong with the schools that the public comes to the conclusion that there is nothing right with them, we shall not be stimulating progress. We shall rather by laying the foundation for political control of the schools by persons whose good intentions, however great, cannot outweigh their shortcomings as educational statesmen.

One example of the many that could be cited in support of this statement is the report on education by the New York State Chamber of Commerce (Phi Delta Kappa Magazine, January, 1940) in which it is said: "The great purpose for which the schools were founded is to preserve and strengthen the State by making better, abler citizens. Other benefits derived are secondary." This is to be accomplished, we are told, by offering free education only to the point of"killing" illiteracy; by making the primary end of education a deep, true religious understanding, and the secondary end, good health. I do not object to these points as a part of our educational philosophy, but as a total philosophy they are totally inadequate. They would, I am sure, result in the "killing" of much more than illiteracy.

Nevertheless, one can hardly blame businessmen for rushing in with blueprints for the future of education when they survey the confusion of ideas displayed by educators in the literature of recent years, and when they remember the blighting effect of the depression on many of our cherished social and economic concepts. Similar confusion has been apparent concerning the future of other democratic institutions, but with less dangerous connotations, for the educator, like Caesar's wife, must be above reproach. How far we have gone to arouse suspicion concerning the educator's ability to handle education is shown best by the growing tendency of exasperated writers to lampoon and to caricature the proponents of one or another theory or movement in education, in large part because of the dependence of these proponents on broad generalizations, card-stacking, name-calling, and other propagandistic devices.

As one man wrote recently (School and Society, November 23, 1940) the controversy between so-called progressives and so-called essentialists in education is reminiscent of the negotiations between the United States and China at the close of the "Boxer Rebellion." Following a conference between Secretary of State John Hay, and the Minister of China, Mr. Wu, reporters asked an attache of the State Department to explain the purpose of the negotiations. The attache replied he was not sure, as Mr. Hay had been a bit hazy, and Mr. Wu a trifle woozy. Another writer (G. L. Maxwell, member of the Educational Policies Commission), after surveying the awesome variety of functions which various educators believe the schools should perform, remarked that some progressive educators were beginning to remind him of the White Knight in Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass." The White Knight, as you may recall, was so determined to equip his steed for every contingency of the future, including traps for mice, a hive for honey bees, and ankle guards to protect against sharks, that the poor equine was scarcely able to perform the basal task of carrying his rider.

There can be no doubt that, as society changes, the school system which is training young men and women to participate in that society must change also. Conservatives who fight such changes are like the proverbial ostriches in the sand, which cannot be classified as White Knights, or of any kind of Knight, if for no other reason than that they wear their plumes in the wrong place. It has long been clear for example, that secondary school curricula and teaching methods designed to fit the needs of students preparing for college or university do not fit the needs of all of the six and a quarter million boys and girls now enrolled in public secondary schools, many of whom will never finish the twelfth grade, and most of whom, even if they do finish the twelfth grade, will not go to a college or university. It should be equally clear that no single curriculum, whether new or old, progressive or essentialist, will fit the needs of all of these young people.

Much of the controversy in recent years undoubtedly arises because the progressives believe that their opponents are blind to the need for any change whatsoever, while the essentialists believe that those opposing them are so enamored of change that they give any curriculum or teaching method an a priori plus rating if it is new, and an a priori minus rating if it is traditional. The real discussion in both camps should, of course, be concerned with the value of the subject material or the teaching method under discussion. Neither side has given adequate attention to this aspect of the problem; the essentialists entrenching themselves in the ancient bastion that because a subject has always been taught or a curriculum arranged in a certain way, it is ipso facto right; and the progressives relying too much on the hot air power of high-sounding objectives with little evidence that new theories actually contribute to their realization. The essentialists are constitutionally suspicious of new programs, and the progressives are just as unreasonably enthusiastic about them. If these programs were half as vague and meaningless as some of the essentialists suspect after reading sentimental praise of them, our schools would be on the road to ruin. If they were half as effective as the progressives affirm, we would be on the road to an educational Utopia. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere between.

No system of teaching and no curriculum plan is better than the persons who administer it. If I had to choose between a model curriculum and teaching procedure administered by a mediocre teacher, and any old curriculum or teaching procedure with an intelligent, highly qualified teacher, I should unhesitatingly take the latter. The one way in which progressives and essentialists alike may work together for progress in American education is the improvement of the teaching personnel both in spiritual and intellectual quality and in professional preparation. It is more than desirable to do this: it is necessary; for increasing opportunities for employment in war industries at relatively high rates of pay, and the inevitable calls to service in the armed forces of the nation, will be a heavy drain on the teaching personnel, and not on the least capable people in the profession.

Linked with this matter of the quality of the teachers of America is the more specific problem of equalizing the distribution of teachers and teaching facilities first, between states in the Union, and second, between areas within each state. At the present time we build the best schools and provide the best teachers in areas where the birth rate is lowest. Conversely, we raise the largest proportion of our future citizens in areas where the schools are few, and the teachers' salaries too low to attract to the profession, the highest quality of men and women. Either we should make some arrangement with the stork to see that more children are born in areas where economic conditions make possible adequate educational facilities, or we should trail after the stork and let him decide where money should be spent, teachers provided, and schools built. There is something wrong with a national system that burdens one state with the problem of educating 3.2 per cent of the country's children on 1.09 per cent of the country's income (North Carolina), while another state has 6.56 per cent of the country's income for about the same percentage of the nation's supply of future citizens (California). (Report of the American Youth Commission, "Equal Educational Opportunity for Youth," by Newton Edwards). If children were deliberately choosing to be born in areas of low opportunity, where school facilities, health services, and most of the advantages of democracy for which we are now at war, are at a minimum, we might be justified in letting them suffer, and hoping that the next generation would improve in judgment. But children can scarcely be held responsible for these misfortunes, and the lesson learned by one generation must always be learned afresh by the next.

The raising of the lowest educational standards is just as important as the improvement of the highest standards. If this cannot be done by equalizing economic resources and children, then it should be done in some other way, perhaps by a nationally administered program of subsidies, under thedirection of a non-political advisory board, representative of various sections of the country and cognizant of the facts which have been gathered by the United States Office of Education, the Bureau of the Census, the Youth Commission, and other agencies. The war debt which is now piling up will so burden the taxpayers of this country for many years to come, that reduction of taxes will be the battle-cry of every aspirant for public office. There will arise in every state a dangerous temptation to reduce appropriations for schools. The temptation will be particularly strong in those states whose ability to pay taxes is lowest and whose effort to support schools already represents an excessive financial burden. It is the educator's responsibility to plan now not merely to correct the present inequality of educational opportunity, but also to guard against a general decline in school support which will make that inequality worse. Otherwise, a heightened inequality may prove to be a worse threat to the welfare of democracy than is the present war; for we are united in our determination to win the war at any sacrifice, but we shall probably not be united on the necessity of continued sacrifice to maintain our way of life after the war is over.

Educators who wore the label "progressives" were contending even before the present war emergency that the schools must do more to give American youth a practical training for American life if their continued support by the American public were to be assured. There is truth in this contention, but it is equally true that, in the immediate future, improved service must be accomplished through increased efficiency rather than through greatly augmented tax support. If we continue to maintain 120,000 one-teacher schools in the country, with 60 per cent of the administrative units in a majority of the states consisting of one school and one teacher, our ability to meet the post-war situation will be severely handicapped. If we locate and construct school plants without careful study of the birth rate curve and its effect on future school enrollments, local and national, they may prove to be mausoleums for our dreams of future education. More important still, if we assume, in our sincere efforts to improve education, unwarranted responsibilities, and educational expenses now borne by other agencies, or which should be borne by other agencies in the social structure, and allow them to become concentrated in the school system, then quality in education will be sacrificed to complexity, and the desired public support will be lost rather than gained. In this connection I am thinking primarily of vocational training in the secondary schools.

We all recognize that in the metamorphosis of our society from an agricultural to an industrial economy, and from a predominantly rural to a predominantly urban culture, vocational instruction and job-experience opportunities have been greatly curtailed. At the same time, the adoption of compulsory school attendance laws, the raising of the minimum age at which youth may leave school, and the decline of the apprentice system have tended to deprive a larger and larger percentage of American youth from participation in the work of the world until a relatively advanced age, so that more and more of our young people are passing out from the schools with little or no preparation for job responsibility or for the important transition from economic dependence to economic independence.

This gradually developed situation has now reached an acute stage, and it is urgently necessary that educators find solutions for the problems presented, secure the adoption of those most generally accepted, and boldly assume responsibility for the results. It is not clear, however, that a major expansion of secondary school curricula into the field of vocational training is the wisest answer that can be made. Indeed,lt behooves educators, in view of the mounting national debt, to scrutinize, with extreme care, every proposal to add to the function of the schools. That scrutiny, in every instance, should have as its first object, a specific determination of the thing to be accomplished and what alternatives to school action are open. The problem of giving youth work-experience and training in job-responsibility during developmental years, for example, is not necessarily synonymous with instruction in the skills of a particular vocation to be followed in later life. It only confuses the issue to advance both of these needs as arguments for more vocational training in schools. Providing work-experience and developing a sense of job-responsibility may very well prove to be met best by the community in cooperation with the schools, and vocational training may prove to be met best by industry and business in cooperation with the schools.

Certainly, an extensive program of vocational training in the schools will not necessarily give youth greater assurance of placement in a job. As long as vocational training is restricted to a few, those individuals may, perhaps, have an advantage over others without such training. But if all have such training, we shall soon discover that the controlling factor is the ratio of number of jobs open to number of applicants. We cannot hope to improve the economic situation, or to create more jobs in a given industry, by increasing the number of individuals specifically trained to fill such jobs. Much of the public demand for vocational training arose during the depression era of wide-spread unemployment. This era was an employer's market, and as far as possible the employer chose applicants with previous training for the few jobs that were available. This led to a false emphasis on the need for pre-training in a vocation. The public saw clearly that young people with training were getting jobs and overlooked the less obvious fact that it was lack of jobs, not lack of training, which prevented the others from finding employment. Under normal conditions, with a reasonable balance between work to be done and men to do it, lack of specific vocational training does not prevent the employment of needed men. Industry trains them on the job. Educators, therefore, should not approach the problem as one which is totally neglected and impossible of solution by any other agency than the school. I stress this point because the present emergency need for training in National Defense industries, in which the public educational system has played such an important part, will tend to establish precedents and practices which will too easily carry over into peace time without due regard for demonstrated need, furthermore, vocational training within the school is not necessarily the only or even the best service that the school can extend to handminded youths who seem to have little interest in books and leave school at the first opportunity. As reported in School and Society (November 30, 1940) "The actual studies of the American Youth Commission recently made in Pennsylvania and in Maryland of the reasons young people leave school do not show that any large proportion of them fail to continue through the high school because the subject-matter curriculum did not meet their needs. . . . There is no evidence that a greater emphasis upon vocational training will keep a larger proportion of our youth in the high school, and there is no evidence that the present unemployment of the youth that are out of school would be appreciably changed by training these youth for vocations that require special skills." The American Youth Commission has also pointed out that 65 per cent of the jobs into which such youth will enter require three days or less of instruction, and only 10 per cent require more than six months of instruction. If many more than 10 per cent of the students are given training for the few jobsrequiring such training, the individual's time and the school's money are by so much inefficiently used. As Howard M. Bell points out in the American Youth Commission Report titled "Matching Youths and Jobs": "Three tendencies are operating to relieve the schools of the responsibility of providing young people with specialized vocational training. First, the limited extent to which modern occupations require such training. Second, the important role industry is playing in the provision of this training. And, finally, the possibilities of the unfortunately slow but clearly obvious tendency to expand programs of apprenticeship, so that the schools' responsibility should be increasingly limited to the provision of part-time instruction related to the apprentice's needs."

The educator should strive to encourage these tendencies. The public schools have enough responsibilities to discharge even with the full cooperation of all other agencies. Vocational training should not be added unless it is conclusively demonstrated that the welfare of the public, or the welfare of the trainee is thereby advanced in a degree commensurate with the cost of the instruction given and the time allotted to it. The school can lend effective aid in guiding young people into the vocations for which they are best suited. It can facilitate the acquisition of work-experience, and the transition from economic dependence to economic independence by promoting part-work, part-study schedules in the secondary school years, either in cooperation with the community or in cooperation with business and industry. Experience in England and elsewhere confirms the value of this type of program. Dr. Reinhold Schairer reports, in the Educational Yearbook of Great Britain for 1938, "Certain countries, discouraged by the poor results in the school workshop, are experimenting by adding varying periods of practical hand activity and labor, in intensive periods, outside the ordinary curriculums or after leaving school. They consider a longer intensive period to be more thorough, and the activity in a real work-shop, a factory, or a farm, of more realistic effect than a school workshop in general can be. They observe, furthermore, the favorable result of interrupting years of abstract learning by a period of manual activity." It is important that the schools, school administrators, and teachers, recognize educational needs, and strive to have those needs met. But it is equally important that they recognize the need of promoting cooperation from every possible agency whether it is business, or industry, or the family, or the church. Any other course of action leads inevitably to the totalitarian conclusion that the state should be solely responsible for the rearing of children.

The American public school was established for the purpose of giving instruction which young people found it difficult or impossible to get elsewhere. That should still be its chief responsibility. If the schools go off on romantic tangents and neglect this primary duty, not only the schools but also democracy will suffer. The problem of educators is not so much to find out what children want to learn and teach them only that, as to determine what future citizens of a democracy should know and to make this sufficiently interesting so that the greater part of them will want to learn and practice it. This should certainly include indoctrination concerning democratic principles.

But has such preceptual education any place in a school presumably training citizens who will think for themselves? It is my observation that preceptual education can neither be condemned nor praised on general grounds. It can be highly successful if (1) the teacher inspires the respect of his or her pupils, and if (2) a reasonably high percentage of the adult population observes the precepts with which the young are to be impressed. As to indoctrination, thereis nothing wrong with it, per se, even if it is an important weapon in the arsenal of the dictators. If we allow our distaste for the connotations which the word has acquired to blind us to the need for inculcation of faith in principles which cannot be proved mathematically or logically, then we are truly building our foundations on sand. In condemning all indoctrination we are merely expressing our lack of faith in the teaching profession, or in our own ability to distinguish between mutually acceptable, universally applicable first principles and the confusing array of interpretations of those principles over which pressure groups and individuals are constantly bickering.

One of the most intelligent discussions of this problem which I have yet seen is that presented by the Committee on Educational Recommendations of the National Council on Education (School and Society, October 11, 1941). As this committee points out: "The core idea of democracy is respect for the individual and a conviction of the inherent dignity and worth of each person. This is very nearly, if not actually, a religious concept or attitude. It is more than a concept; it is an article of faith. It is a fundamental postulate, growing out of intuition more than reasoning. . . . The core idea is enduring and final. It does not vary and it is not subject to compromise. It is disapproved flatly and irrevocably in all systems or ideologies which would make of the person an instrument or a means or would set up an entity, such as the State, in overlordship over the individual. The democratic state is the servant of the individual, not the individual of the State. Every process or institution must be judged according to its agreement with this fundamental idea. . . . To establish acceptance, loyalty and faith in the worth of the person, we must use affirmation, example, emotional appeal, and try to develop intuition accompanied by feeling. . . . On the other hand, to cultivate judgment concerning our institutions and methods of procedure, we try to bring about calm and painstaking scrutiny of all the pertinent facts."

If we accept such a differentiation as this, and undoubtedly we should, we stress again the educational importance of the character and intelligence of the teacher. If the teacher has a trained mind and high convictions he will reachstudents regardless of the subject being taught or the pedagogical method in use. Education is a thing of the spirit as well as of the mind: it is not a thing of spirit without mind, or of mind without spirit. And this is a time to test both mind and spirit. In the years that have led us to this culminating hour, the world has not lacked for voices of wisdom, though they have been few, and fewer still those who recognize the truth they spoke, or recognizing, cared to listen. Once again, as it always has been, as it always will be, the teachers held the future in their hands. If they prove great enough to comprehend the significance of the most tremendous revolution that human history has yet produced, they will profoundly influence and accelerate the healing of the nations, and the stirrings again of brotherhood among the sons of men. If they are great enough, they will make plain the necessity of winning the war without intolerance and without hate. For after the war a peace must be made—without vengeance and without fear. The hope of tomorrow's better world hangs in the balance between the microscopic and the telescopic quality of the teacher's vision of the destiny of man—that indomitable creature who falls but to rise again—higher! A few months ago the President of the Society for Psychological Study of Social Issues (E. C. Tolman, Science News Letter, September 7, 1940) explained that human desires are not limited to food, shelter, and love, nor bound by a need for success and prestige. Man has a need, a real need, for sacrifice, for submerging himself for the sake of his fellows. Democracy challenged has restored to our American youth fresh purpose for living. It is now the privilege as well as the responsibility of the teachers of America to help youth to recapture the grim endurance of Valley Forge and the solemn pride when Cornwallis surrendered his sword at Yorktown. For the first time in all its history, these United States are dangerously threatened, threatened from without and from within, and the blessings of our American way have suddenly become most precious. For the first time, all our people, young, and old, are hearing the call, "You are needed." To youth, as Commissioner Studebaker has said, there is an added admonition, "Prepare well." In this significant admonition is the most progressive note in progressivism.

*(Statements in the foregoing paragraph computed from statistics in Bulletin 1940, No. 2, Ch. 11, Biennial Survey of Education in the United States, 1937-38, U. S. Office of Education).