Youth Is an Age of Hero Worship


By IRVING T. McDONALD, Librarian, Holy Cross College, Worcester, Mass.

Delivered at the Annual Conference of Directors of Physical Education of the Massachusetts Public Schools,Belmont, Mass., March 27, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 409-410.

I SPEAK to you this morning out of the most urgent convictions with which I have ever addressed an audience. For I see in you, with the utmost clarity of vision, one of the most potent instruments by which the salvation of our country will be effected, and the freedom of future generations made secure. Yours is a weighty responsibility. Yours is a glorious call.

We in America are confronted today with the reality— not the threat, alone—but the reality of a world-wide revolution. Not only has it begun to effect, with almost paralyzing suddenness, our persons and our intimate daily lives, but it is creeping closer and closer to our continental shores. We did not ask for it. We did not start it. But the signs are plain for even the blind to read that we have got to finish it. Our brave but wholly unprepared Allies have been unableto stem the tide. Even the majestic fighting might of Russia's armies have only contained one of our enemies on one of our fighting fronts, and the world awaits with bated breath our fortunes on that front during these next few weeks. For the continued resistance of our Russian allies depends to an appalling degree on our ability to supply them. The congregation of Axis sea-power off the coast of Norway and the sudden closure of Norwegian ports by Nazi orders can only mean an all-out assault, by sea and air, upon that thousand mile gateway between Iceland and Scotland which is our northern road to Russia. And if that assault succeeds, you can confidently expect a mighty effort to seize Iceland itself, as the first stepping stone toward our continent by way of Greenland and Newfoundland, while in the Pacific Japan will move northward, point by point, toward

Alaska, which is little further from Tokyo than the Australian waters where she is now engaged.

But whether the final fight is made on American soil, or in Pacific waters, or in the rocky fastness of Berchtesgaden itself, it has become America's high mission to fight, to finish, to win this war.

"To win this war." Do you know what that means? The popular mind today thinks of winning the war in terms of defeating the Axis powers—of licking Hitler's henchmen, Mussolini's myrmidons, and the hordes of Hirohito; and no one will deny that that's a big enough assignment to fill the minds and monopolize the purposes of mortal men. And no one will criticise any American if he gives all his time, all his energy, all his life's blood to the accomplishment of that purpose. Indeed, the majority of citizens have no obligation to think beyond that purpose, for if that purpose is not accomplished, it will be futile to discuss the consequences. For the character of those consequences will be quite out of our hands.

But you are the exception. You have not only the right, but the civic, the professional, yes, the moral duty, to look beyond that first fighting phase, to prepare yourselves to understand and to anticipate the future phases, as when, for example, the spoils of future influence will come to be divided between opposing ideologies, or when the pangs of the rebirth of now-dead nations must arouse passions and dissensions whose magnitude and direction we cannot now foretell, or when, in the final phase of this revolution, the ultimate peace must be constructed out of justice tinctured with compassion, and a strong distrust of greedy purposes. For you are teachers. And into your hands has been confided the training of those upon whom America must depend to bring her safely, triumphantly, and worthily through the ultimate stages of this cosmic upheaval.

And as directors of physical education I charge you with a specific and grave responsibility in these premises, a responsibility which can be negotiated by no other group of educators as effectively or as appropriately as yourselves.

Does this astonish you? Do you tell me I'm shooting wide of the mark, that your opportunities to serve the purposes of the America's future are not to be compared with those of the teachers of history, of civics, of Americanization, of sociology, of science, of economics?

I do not belittle at all the services of such teachers, nor do I deny them their spacious and important place in the preparation for America's tomorrow. But yours is the wider opportunity today.

For in all the colorful sphere of teacher-pupil relationship, your status is unique, and holds potentials which are denied the classroom teacher. The informality of the gym and the hotly contested rivalry of the playing field invariably breed an intimacy, a shoulder-to-shoulder comradeship beyond any that can properly develop in the classroom, the lab, or the lecture-hall; and the boys and girls who will be tomorrow's men and women look on you, not as instructors alone, but as living leaders. And whether you know it or not, they are imbibing with every breath they draw in your presence, the qualities of leadership, and conduct patterns based on your words and your examples, by which the future destinies of our country will be shaped, for good or ill. For youth is an age of hero-worship. And you, ladies and gentlemen, would probably be astounded, and humbled in your hearts, if you only knew your heroic stature in the estimation of your pupils, and the urge to emulate which you inspire in them.

It is not for nothing that the masters of totalitarian governments seize the children of their countries as soon asthey are able to toddle beyond the shadow of their cradles, and place them under the immediate and constant tutelage of instructors who are strong in muscle as well as character who are active in body as well as in mind, who can teach them, and lead them in games and sports and body-building discipline. For they know that by such men and women the character, the aspirations, the very functional ideals of the race can be forced into any mold they choose, and twisted to conform to their plotted pattern far more successfully than by teachers of any other type. And theirs is the brutish pattern of Nazi irrationality. And nine years ago, when Hitler first came to power, his Nazi Youth Leader Baldur von Shirach, declared:

"Every boy and every girl in this nation will be made a National Socialist. . .There will be no escape possible from the channel which we shall mark for the German to follow from childhood to manhood. . . Give me a child of six to educate, and he will belong to me for life."

For generations, now, we in America have been living on the bounty of our fathers; have been enjoying the fruits of their heroic sacrifices. Today, we are called to trial before the twin tribunals of history and our consciences, to vindicate ourselves—to prove our worthiness to continue to live the life of freedom, independence, and honor, which they bequeathed to us.

When we were children, we listened with quickened pulses to the tales of great deeds and noble courage, hardship, trial and hazard, of the men and women who wrested our country out of a savage wilderness and gave their lives without regret that freedom's flag might wave above our homes. And in our little hearts we sighed and longed, as children always do who read the history of our nation, and wished that we had lived to take part in those days of glory—to have pioneered with Boone, to have suffered at Valley Forge with Washington, or to have battled with Zack Taylor at Buena Vista—to have shared their perils, to have hungered, bled, perhaps to have died, to help to found this Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

But when, as a nation, we grew older, we waxed wealthy, and self-indulgent. The richness of our lives grew layers of fat upon our characters. We became careless of our responsibilities and indifferent to our deeper values. And there were some far-sighted ones who wondered, a little uneasily, whether we still had the bone-structure, the stamina of soul and body, to do the things our fathers did—to work, to fight, sacrifice and suffer, to bleed and die. That question now demands its answer. And you, each one of you and all of you together, must answer it without equivocation. For according to your answer, so shall the lives of little children be for generations yet unborn to humankind.

Will you be the wastrel heirs of a glorious patrimony? Will you by indifference, negligence, or incompetence, so weaken the fiber, so destroy the ideals of tomorrow's leaders, that America shall cease to be?

That could happen. Already we are borrowing from our children for centuries ahead to pay for our own war. Isn't that enough to do to them? Are we going, as well, to toss away the bright jewel of a free civilization, and make slaves of future generations, so that tomorrow's America may only think of us with bitterness and contempt?

I know what your answer is. I can see it in your eyes—hear it in the beating of your loyal hearts. And a thousand years from now, men of all races, at the shrines and temples of all continents, will hold your memories in grateful reverence. And of you, as the custodians, examples and guides of this American generation, they will say: "We, who are free forever, salute you!"