The Challenge to Popular Education


By EDMUND E. DAY, President, Cornell University, Ithaca, N. Y.

Delivered at Cornell University Commencement, June 25, 1944

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. X, pp. 636-637.

AS the United Nations increase the tempo of their drive toward the liberation of the peoples of Europe and Asia, it becomes increasingly difficult to take our thoughts from the ancient villages of Normandy, the rugged Italian hills, the jungles of Burma, the broad expanses of the South Pacific and the other far places over the world where Americans are fighting. It is there that the pages of history are being dramatically turned. It is there that the destiny of mankind for generations to come is being desperately shaped. Our thoughts and feelings, our deepest concerns are now with our fighting men. It is with a sense of boundless obligation that we see with what valor and success they carry on. Our fondest hopes, our fervent prayers go out to them.

The fact remains that those of us who cannot be at the front must give thought to the duties we have at home. These duties loom ever larger as it becomes evident that victory is now in sight. The collapse of the enemy may still be some time in coming. Doubtless there still is costly battling to be done. But it is at last reasonable to conclude that the outcome of the war is no longer in doubt: the United Nations shall win. It is therefore imperative that we lay] plans for the peace ahead; that we foresee as far as we can the nature of the post-war world and also the array of forces that must be brought to bear if victory is to be made secure and constructive.

Two quite different conceptions are employed in explaining the stupendous conflict in which the nations of the world are engaged. By some the war is held to be but the latest and most violent of the convulsions which periodically rack the international body politic in the maintenance of balance in the strength of the greater nations of the world. In short, the war is but a current manifestation of power politics. Others think of the war in another way. These hold that what we witness is the violent culmination of a prolonged and fundamental transformation of our social order. Whichever of these two views is taken, it is clear enough that the world is undergoing a profound change. There are ample grounds for thinking that this is even more true socially than it is politically. The full significance of the fact that war has become total has not yet been recognized. From now on, peace, too, will have to be total. It is no mere party propaganda to say that the rest of this century will belong to the common man. On every hand we can observe a rising tide of democratic power.

This does not mean that the world is headed toward communism. It does mean, however, that further extensions of effective democratic controls are in prospect. As a result of the tremendous social forces released by the war, the common man is going to have more to say than ever before respecting the type of political state in which he lives, the form of economic system in which he produces and distributes the fruit of bis labor, the educational system under which he provides for the instruction of his children, and the social order through which he strives to work out his destiny.

All this is by no means ominous. We but witness the contemporary phase of man's endless search for freedom and the satisfactions of life that only freedom can bestow. Now that victory in the war is so clearly in prospect, the times are not for fear. Rather are they for renewed affirmation of strengthened democratic faith, for a new belief in the common man.

But faith alone is not enough. There must be works at well. Still to be determined are the developments which will bring a sound and progressive program for the postwar world. There is a tremendous challenge in the social I changes that now impend, a challenge to leadership in every field—political, economic, social, educational, spiritual With what specific ideas and ideals is this challenge to leadership in the various fields to be met? I venture to direct attention for a while to what this question means for American education.

We are gathered here as a company of educated men and women. Our very presence on this occasion testifies to our belief in education. Some of us have just completed programs which have required years of sacrifice and arduous endeavor. Others are in the midst of life-long careers in education. No need to tell this assemblage that education is a rewarding individual investment. But what of education as a social necessity? How strong is our conviction as to that ? Thomas Jefferson thought of popular education as an indispensable condition for the maintenance of democracy, If that was true in his time, must it not be even more so today? For if the common man is to exercise more and more power, must he not possess those qualities of mind and faith and character without which the exercise of power is a threat to, not a guarantee of, the continued human progress? Clearly, it is imperative that all America come to see the nature of the essential functioning of free education in a free society.

What are the services which our popular education must deliver if this free country of ours is to be well served in the post-war world? That is the question to which I wish in particular to direct your attention. But first may I sketch very briefly the sweep of the revolution which has occurred in American education over the past seventy-five years.

In the third quarter of the 19th century, not more than one American boy or girl in eight or ten actually attended high school. Those students who graduated from high school were a highly select group, exceptionally qualified and inclined academically, and largely beaded for the professions. Contrast the situation just before the war. For the country as a whole approximately seven of every ten of our young people attended high school; and, in some large communities, as many as nine of every ten. The secondary school as well as the primary in the United States is now a common school, Apparently it will not be long before practically our entire youth population will be getting education at least until the later teens.

Similar changes have occurred in the spread of college education. Seventy-five years ago colleges were small and composed almost exclusively of those preparing for the learned professions. In 1938, the number of students in American colleges and universities was close to a million and a quarter.

Along with that tremendous expansion in college enrolments, came great changes in the curriculum. In 1860, study of the classics and mathematics constituted virtually all the undergraduate program. During the final quarter of the 19th century, the newer disciplines such as science, the modern languages, and the social studies, won places in the typical undergraduate curriculum. The Morrill Act of 1862 proved revolutionary in providing for the establishment of institutions throughout the country in which the practical arts should be taught. Educational offerings of much wider appeal were thus made available. American education at all levels over the past seventy-five years has been made increasingly to serve truly democratic needs. It has been a revolution in popular education unmatched in history.

But if the extraordinary provisions for popular education in America are to service the essential needs of a democratic order certain educational outcomes must be clearly recognized and successfully achieved. I venture to cite five of the most important.

We must make education connect more directly and explicitly with the forthright pursuit of truth. This is true of education at all levels and of all types. Too many students move through our schools and colleges without ever acquiring a first hand acquaintance with what it means to seek truth honestly and faithfully. The experience is one which can be given within widely varying levels of intellectual capacity and educational endowment. The love of truth and the disinterested pursuit of it lie at the very heart of freedom. They should be cultivated assiduously through the work of our schools and colleges.

We must do better than we have in imparting through formal education a widespread social understanding. We have been too easily satisfied with evidences of information on the part of our students. Information is not enough. We must build information into knowledge, and knowledge into understanding. The common man must know where he is, and where he is going; the character of the leadership he is offered and the requisites of the followerships he must exhibit. Formal education must contribute more than it has to social wisdom.

We must make education minister more effectively than it has to an expanding social sympathy: Mankind is being knit more and more closely together. We must all come to see more clearly the nature and force of the common bonds of humankind the world over. The schools and colleges, especially as they learn to use some of the new devices, such as the teaching film, can make highly important contributionsto this end.

We must through education give work an improved status. There are few things in life so rewarding as a satisfactory job, and few things as unprofitable as sheer idleness. Leisure there should be when we have learned how to use it to advantage, but work itself should give its enduring satisfactions. The idea that we seek education in part to lighten our workload is basically fallacious. The more education we get, the greater are our obligations to serve. We must develop through popular education a philosophy of work in which productive labor becomes both a duty and a privilege. It is a responsibility of the schools and colleges to see that satisfaction is taken by students in work well done. It is equally important that young people get a clear conception of the rewards that lie in honest and sustained industry, be the occupation high or low.

Finally, we must in education in America come to grips with the everlasting moral imperatives of a free society. Our public schools and colleges have avoided this assignment all too long. Whatever may be necessary consequences of the complete separation of church and state, they surely do not entail avoidance of all moral responsibilities.

Formal education cannot possibly be regarded as a moral social function. It is high time that our schools and colleges dealt more explicitly and responsibly with their obligations to moral order in American democracy.

Such is the nature of the challenge which the changing world now puts to American education. How successfully the challenge is met is going to count momentously in the post-war years. May you young graduates see the challenge clearly, and individually and collectively resolve to meet it with all the powers at your command. May you love truth and pursue it faithfully. May you seek social understanding and wisdom. May you develop a widening sympathy for your fellow-men. May you get great and continuing satisfactions from honest and exacting work well done. May you see and respect the great moral imperatives that alone give human endeavor meaning and sanction. So may you, living as God's children, make of the years ahead a great and rewarding adventure. Godspeed you one and all.