Education for a Classless Society

Charter Day Address delivered at the University of California on March 28, 1940.

I venture, then, to look forward to a renaissance of the vitality of the first element in the Jeffersonian tradition in education—freedom of the mind. I am equally optimistic about the second—equality of opportunity. I plead guilty at once to wishful thinking. Furthermore, I admit cheerfully that I propose to indulge in dangerous prophecy. But can anyone discuss the future with a neutral mind?

Until fairly recently it was taken for granted that the American republic could be described as classless. For a century and a half Americans have been saying with pride, 'This is a free country. There are no classes in the United States.' Note these words carefully, for the denial of classes in America is the denial of hereditary classes, not the denial of temporary groupings based on economic differences. 'Caste' and 'class' are equated by the average American, and I shall follow this usage. 'This is a free country. There are no classes in the United States.' The number of times these two sentences have been sincerely spoken could be recorded only by a figure of astronomical magnitude. Were they ever an approximately accurate description of typical American society? My answer would be yes. Have they today sufficient vitality and validity to be the basis for a continuation of Jefferson's educational program? A crystal gazer alone could tell. But I think the chance is good enough to demand our careful consideration of the possibility. For my own part, I risk with enthusiasm an affirmative answer and stand on the hope of our reconstituting a free and classless nation.

Phrases descriptive of a free, casteless, or classless society have not only represented an American belief of great potency in the past, but have described actual conditions in many sections of this republic. As compared with the situation in even such free countries as England and France, this country was unique in being without hereditary classes. The importance of this fact, I believe, has not been fully emphasized. But, I hasten to add, the social changes which have altered the situation during the last fifty years have all too often been ignored.

American society in some localities has always been organized on definite class lines; money and power have been passed on from father to son. The different strata have been relatively rigid and impenetrable But until recently such situations were the exception rather than the rule. Now we see in progress the rapid extension of such stratification over the whole land. We see throughout the country the development of a hereditary aristocracy of wealth. The coming of modern industrialism and the passing of the frontier with cheap lands mark the change. Ruthless and greedy exploitation of both natural and human resources by a small privileged class founded on recently acquired ownership of property has hardened the social strata and threatens to provide explosive material beneath.

Let us not shut our eyes to the realities. The vanishing of free lands, the spread of large-scale manufacturing units, the growth of cities and their slums, the multiplication of tenant farmers and despairing migratory laborers, are signs of the passage from one type of social order to another. The existence of vast unemployment only emphasizes the evil significance of an unwelcome change. Have we reached a point where the ideal of a peculiar American society, classless and free, must be regarded as of only historical significance?

Our friends on the Left will, I imagine, say yes. A class struggle is inevitable, they declare. Forget the dreams of a pioneer civilization, the early American town or farm, and face the modern capitalistic world, they urge. From their viewpoint no discussion of present problems which refuses to fit every fact into the framework of a class struggle can be realistic. The extremists will add, at least to themselves, that the outcome of the struggle is also inevitable—a classless society, not of the early American type, but on the Russian model.

On the extreme Right we may find an equally clear renunciation of the ideal—equally clear, but not, as a rule, equally outspoken, for the underlying assumptions here are often entirely unconscious. Throughout the history of this republic there has been among a small group undue admiration for the educational system of England, a system built largely on class lines. Among such people Jefferson's idea of careers open to all the talented has evoked little enthusiasm. There has been little concern with recruiting the professions from every economic level. The ideal has been education of a ruling caste rather than a selective system of training leaders.

Yet the unique character of the American way of life has been repeatedly emphasized since Jefferson's time. Lincoln in his first message to Congress declared that 'the leading object of the Government for those whose existence we contend' is 'to elevate the condition of men; to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.' The historian, F. J. Turner, writing at the beginning of the present century, summed up the case as follows: 'Western democracy through the whole of its earlier period tended to the production of a society of which the most distinctive fact was freedom of the individual to rise under conditions of social mobility....'

Let me pause a moment to examine the phrase 'social mobility,' for this is the heart of my argument. A high degree of social mobility is the essence of the American ideal of a classless society. If large numbers of young people can develop their own capacities irrespective of the economic status of their parents, then social mobility is high. If, on the other hand, the future of a young man or woman is determined almost entirely by inherited privilege or the lack of it, social mobility is nonexistent. You are all familiar with the old American adage, 'Three generations from shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves.' This implies a high degree of social mobility, both up and down. It implies that sons and daughters must and can seek their own level, obtain their own economic rewards, engage in any occupation irrespective of what their parents might have done.

Contrast this adage with a statement of the aristocratic tradition—namely, that it takes three generations to educate a gentleman. Fifty years ago the contrast between these two statements would have been proclaimed by many intelligent Americans as the epitome of the difference between the New World and the Old. The possibility that each generation may start life afresh and that hard work and ability would find their just rewards was once an exciting new doctrine. Is it outworn? In short, has the second component of the Jeffersonian tradition in education still vitality? Can a relatively high degree of social mobility be realized in this modern world?

The distinction between a stratified class system and one with a high degree of social mobility is apparent only when at least two generations are passed in review. A class, as I am using the word, is perpetuated by virtue of inherited position. For one generation, at least and perhaps two, considerable differences in economic status as well as extreme differentiation of employment may exist without the formation of classes. Uniform distribution of the world's goods is not necessary for a classless society. If anyone doubts this statement, let him examine the social situation of many small communities in different parts of this country during the early stages of their development. Continuous perpetuation from generation to generation of even small differences, however, soon produces class consciousness. Extremes of wealth or poverty accelerate the process.

It is not within my province to consider what political measures should be taken if we reject the idea of an inevitable stratification of society. It is not for me to say what legislation is in order if we desire to implement the ideal of a free classless society. My unwillingness to discuss this important aspect of the problem is not to be taken as a measure of my dissatisfaction with the rapidly growing social and economic differentiation of the United States. On the contrary, if the American ideal is not to be an illusion, the citizens of this republic must not shrink from drastic action. The requirement, however, is not a radical equalization of wealth at any given moment; it is rather a continuous process by which power and privilege may be automatically redistributed at the end of each generation. The aim is a more equitable distribution of opportunity for all the children of the land. The reality of our national life must be made a sufficiently close approximation to our ideal to vitalize a belief in the possibility of the envisaged goal.

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