Education for a Classless Society

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

Freedom of the mind, social mobility through education, universal schooling—these, let me repeat, are the three fundamentals of the Jeffersonian tradition. They have represented the aspirations and desires of a free people embarked on a new experiment, the perpetuation of a casteless nation. Popular enthusiasm for enlightenment, for overturning dogmas, for intellectual exploration, has temporarily waned. I have given my reasons for hoping that the black reaction of these years is only a passing phase. The ideal of a free republic without classes has likewise suffered an eclipse. To many of the present college generation the phrase 'equality of opportunity' seems a mockery, a trite collection of idle words. In this I see the major challenge to our educational system, a challenge which can be met only by a radical reconstruction. If the nation wants to bend its efforts to have as free and classless a society as possible, then for those of us concerned with schools and colleges our course is clearly plotted.

So it seems to me. If we as educators accept the American ideal, then this acceptance must be the major premise for all our thinking. Without neglecting the older roads designed for those of academic brilliance, we must construct many new approaches to adult life, and we must do so very soon. Extreme differentiation of school programs seems essential—differentiation of instruction, but not necessarily a division into separate schools. From this it follows that rapid improvement in our testing methods must be forthcoming; a much more conscientious and discriminating form of educational guidance must be developed soon if we are not to fail. In short, a horde of heterogenous students has descended on our secondary schools; on our ability to handle all types intelligently depends in large measure the future of this country.

Is it too late—too late for our schools to revitalize the idea of a classless nation? Can we complete the necessary major readjustments in our educational system in time to prevent the extinction of the Jeffersonian tradition? I believe we can, if we make haste. I predict at least another century of vigor for the American ideal. I envisage a further trial on this continent for many generations of our unique type of social order. I look forward to a future American society in which social mobility is sufficient to keep the nation in essence casteless—a society in which the ideals of both personal liberty and social justice can be maintained—a society which through a system of public education resists the distorting pressures of urbanized, industrialized life. I have faith in the continuation of a republic composed of citizens each prepared to shoulder the responsibility for his own destiny. And if at each step in the educational journey opportunity truly beckons, will not each student rejoice in the struggle to develop his own capacities? Will he not be proud of the continuing American tradition and find in contemplation of our national history ample courage to face those risks and hazards that come to all who would be free?

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