Education for a Classless Society

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

There are probably some who feel that I am indulging in nostalgic fancy when I hope for the evolution of a less stratified and more fluid society. You may say that the modern world of large cities, vast industries, and scientific methods of communication has made the America of a hundred years ago as irrelevant as the Middle Ages. You may argue that a way of life which was possible in the 1840s is impossible in the 1940s; that in the near future we shall all of us have to move in a quite contrary direction. You may contend that soon we shall have to take sides in a bitter class struggle and choose between an American brand of Fascism and an American brand of Socialism.

I know that many believe this to be inevitable. I venture to disagree. And here is the reason for my rash dissent. In my opinion, our newly erected system of public education has potentialities of which we little dream. In this century we have erected a new type of social instrument. Our secondary-school system is a vast engine which we are only beginning to understand. We are learning only slowly how to operate it for the public good. But I have hope that it will aid us in recapturing social flexibility, in regaining that great gift to each succeeding generation—opportunity, a gift that once was the promise of the frontier.

Let me explain. Today some six million boys and girls attend our secondary schools, ten times the number enrolled a half century ago. Today nearly three quarters of those of high-school age are enrolled as pupils; fifty years ago schooling at this level was a privilege of less than ten per cent of those who might attend. Opportunity can be evaluated only in terms of personal capacity. What is opportunity for one young man is a blind alley for another. In rapidly expanding pioneer communities, openings for capabilities of all sorts automatically appeared. Only doctors, lawyers, and ministers needed an extensive education. Opportunities were ready at hand for all other types of talent. In our highly industrialized, relatively static society, the situation is otherwise. The personal problem of each boy or girl is much more difficult. Abilities must be assessed, talents must be developed, ambitions guided. This is the task for our public schools. All the future citizens pass through these institutions. They must be educated as members of a political democracy, but, more important still, they must be equipped to step on to the first rung of whatever ladder of opportunity seems most appropriate. And an appropriate ladder must be found for each one of a diverse groups of students. This may seem an overwhelming burden to put upon our educational system. But is it not possible that our public schools, particularly our high schools, can be reconstructed for this specific purpose?

Jefferson thought of universal schooling of younger children chiefly in terms of educating potential voters. His selective process for higher studies was conceived in terms of intellectual pursuits—of preparation for the learned professions such as law and medicine. To continue the tradition he started, we must expand both of his ideas today. The roads which lead to those careers which depend on aptitude for 'book learning' still run through the universities. We must fight to keep them open. State-supported universities have blazed the way. But the task is far from done. In many localities the opportunities for the children of the really poor are lamentable indeed. Outside of metropolitan areas and college towns, the privileges of a professional training are hard to win. An expanded scholarship policy in our privately endowed universities is imperative. Wisely administered student aid will go far to right the balance. Perhaps this device merits more attention even by institutions supported by the state.

The changes required to provide adequately for the intellectually gifted are relatively slight. The real problems of reconstruction of our schools and colleges do not lie in this area. The real difficulties are with the careers of a different sort. Our schools must be concerned not only with the able scholar, but with the artist and the craftsman. They must nourish those whose eye or ear or manual dexterity is their greatest asset. They must educate others whose gifts lie in an ability to understand and lead their fellow men. The school curricula must include programs for developing the capacities of many who possess intuitive judgment on practical affairs but have little or no aptitude for learning through the printed page.

It has been a natural consequence of our history that many false values now permeate the entire educational system. 'Book learning' is placed too high in the scale of social ratings by some; too low by others who profess to scoff at 'brains.' That type of ability which can handle easily the old-fashioned subjects of the curriculum is often glorified by being equated with intelligence' by educational snobs. On the other hand, the same ability often suffers from lack of stimulation when there is failure to maintain high standards. As a result, we have a great deal of make-believe in our schools and colleges—too many feeble attempts at tasks which are proper only for a restricted type of individual; too many failures to explore talents which fall outside orthodox academic bounds. Jefferson in the simpler society of his day naturally thought of only a few avenues of opportunity open through education. Today we must recognize the existence of many and strive for the social equality of all.

Parents who expect miracles worked upon their children must be reminded of the limitations imposed by nature. In athletics, at least, the coaches are expected to develop only promising material. No one complains if his undersized son with awkward legs does not become a football hero. Some fathers, however, seem to demand the intellectual equivalent of such a miracle. We expect our college health departments to direct each student into that form of sport which is suited to his physique and power. We need a parallel form of educational guidance in both schools and colleges to assist the development of the skills of brain and hands.

But again I venture to be optimistic. I see signs everywhere of enormous strides forward in such matters. Our educational pattern is becoming daily more diversified; a recognition of the need for a radically different type of education is growing. We look forward to the opening of many channels which lead to a variety of attractive goals; we can envisage the building up of more than one 'elite.'

Of course, in any realistic discussion of these problems we cannot neglect the social and economic factors. As long as the shadow of unemployment is upon the land, some method of providing food and clothing for the children of many families must be found. For even free schools offer little real opportunity to famished youngsters; public education is only theoretically available to those in rags. Providing food and clothing for those to whom assistance is essential is clearly necessary for a satisfactory functioning of the entire educational system. Many a talented youth is lost by dropping out of the competition, for financial reasons, during the high-school years. In short we must explore every method of developing the individual capacity of each future citizen for useful labor based on individual initiative.

Political and economic changes must go hand in hand with educational innovations—the revision of methods of perpetuating control of many large industries, the overthrow of nepotism and patronage wherever possible, the stimulation of small enterprises, the spreading of private ownership. All this and more is needed if a free classless society is to become once again an ideal which affects our lives.

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