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Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

July 1942

Mobilizing American Youth

by James Bryant Conant

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The President has warned us we must prepare for two or three years more of battle. We may be confident that, if we are now ready to throw all our national resources into a unified effort, the war can be won within that time. But if, on the other hand, we now delay and hesitate in our plans for 1944 or 1945, the struggle might even then be inconclusive. There is no need to portray the gravity of such a situation. Every year that victory eludes us multiplies manifold the dangers to our civilization. Beyond some date, if war continues, lies defeat for this century's hopes for human freedom.

I am deeply concerned with the part that American youth will play in the war in the next four years. There is a fairly sharp dividing line that separates untrained and inexperienced youth from those whose skills or experience are of direct value to the nation. Now it is relatively easy to determine whether a person who has a job is doing more for the country by staying in that job or by joining the armed forces. Indeed, even if the man in question happens to have no job at the moment, but does have a certain skill based on education or experience, it is relatively easy to determine where his place should be.

But with boys who are in school or college such criteria do not apply. One is dealing here with potential power, not developed capacity. If Selective Service were to be expanded to include those of eighteen or nineteen years of age, as may well be necessary, a different set of standards must be developed to define a necessary man. Indeed, with the lowering of the draft age to twenty, the difficulty of assessing latent talent already becomes evident. From now on both the draft boards and the Army will increasingly face the complex problem of how to find the best use for promising but untrained material.

In time of war the demands of the Army and the Navy for able-bodied young men of fighting age overshadow all other considerations. Therefore, until the War and Navy Departments could complete their plans, the situation was by necessity difficult and perplexing. The last five months have been trying times for young men in our colleges and universities, the confusion has been great. On the one hand came statements from some high quarters that all students would serve their country best by remaining at their studies. On the other hand, various branches of the armed services actively recruited men from eighteen years of age; furthermore, the prospect of induction through Selective Service at twenty loomed ahead. Every young man naturally wishes to have his services utilized by the country as effectively as possible. College students have no desire to be placed in the position of letting some other group do the fighting for them. No one wishes to use his talents to avoid the risks of war.

The question of draft deferments added a complicating factor. Shortly after the Selective Service Act came into operation the colleges and universities were asked to cooperate by requesting deferment of certain types of students -- for instance, students in aeronautics and mechanical engineering. In the days when we were building up a relatively small army from a large pool of potential soldiers and our chief contribution to the war was an ever expanding arsenal, such a policy was clearly wise. Since Pearl Harbor, however, the situation has completely altered. In the first place, the country now recognizes that the needs of the armed forces for young men override all other considerations. In the second place, the question of serving the country on the home front or in a combat unit is no longer an impersonal abstract problem. For many individuals the decision will be literally one of life or death. The hazards of war are by no means equally distributed; there is no use pretending that all forms of national service today are equally dangerous or grueling, for they are not.

This fact which we cannot shirk makes it imperative, I believe, that as far as possible the decision as to where a man will serve should be made by the government itself. Now that the Army and the Navy have come to the colleges with definite plans and the Manpower Commission has been appointed, the matter of deferment should be a governmental responsibility. Such is already the case in the field of medical education. It is no longer necessary for a university to ask for the deferment of medical students, since all who are physically fit can be enrolled in the Medical Reserve Corps of the Army or the Navy. But this principle might well be extended to other specialized branches of the services. It applies just as truly to the demands of industry for college men. Here again the Federal Government must soon decide. If the Manpower Commission surveys the problem and concludes that some able-bodied young men must be trained for nonmilitary posts, then the Commission should pick the men and order them into this branch of national service. In time of war no college or individual should be asked to shoulder the heavy responsibility of determining who should face danger and who should not.



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Those who are clearly debarred by physical handicap from the combat services can nevertheless prepare themselves to play an important role in the national effort. They are the young men who must help staff our industries and our governmental agencies. As young executive assistants, as laboratory workers, as civil servants, as engineers, they must labor at desks or in factories as part of the vast army of production. The education of these men should be directed with such tasks in mind. Probably every college student has now been able to estimate, with a physician's aid, what his chances are of passing the physical examination for the Army or the Navy. On that estimate hinge his plans for the immediate future. But even those who cannot join the armed services will probably wish to accelerate their course of study. For by so doing they will at the earliest moment become participating members in the gigantic national undertaking. The selection and training of young men takes on an urgency that may revolutionize our colleges and universities.

For those who are able-bodied, the situation has by now been clarified. The Navy through its V-1 program, and the Army, through its Aviation Cadet program and its Enlisted Reserve Corps, offer opportunities to college students to " join up." No one can longer complain that orders from Washington are lacking. In each of these programs for training officers a portion, at least, of college education is assured to each individual who enrolls. And while neither the Navy nor the Army promises a commission, the avowed object is to develop leadership through college education. I understand that approximately 160,000 men of each college year can be enrolled under these three programs. I assume some method will be devised by which this overall program can be joined to the scheme by which medical students are now enrolled, and that due regard will be paid to the training of the scientific specialists who are needed in modern war.

It should be a matter of record that this scheme was not formulated by the colleges. And whether it is successful or not must be measured, not by its effect on the colleges (which in terms of enrollment will be good), but on its effectiveness in utilizing the young talent of the nation.

On this latter point some of us have serious reservations. To my mind, there is one inherent weakness which is in no sense a fault of the Navy or the Army. Indeed, it was beyond their power alone to obviate this defect, for it resides in our system of education. I refer to the fact that equality of educational opportunity is still far from an accomplished fact. This is true in spite of our magnificent state- and city-supported colleges and universities, and in spite of our scholarships in privately controlled institutions. Compared with any other country, the United States is miles ahead, of course. Never before in history has it been possible for so many of each generation to obtain an education commensurate with their talents and without regard to economic status. And this is so because of the miraculous development of the public schools during the last fifty years.

Nevertheless, anyone who is familiar with the operation of our American educational system realizes that all too often accidents of geography and of parental fortune determine who goes to college and who does not. Every survey of our educational system has emphasized this fact. No one can deny that there are large numbers of potential officers in each age group who do not now enter college. Many of these, because of financial pressure, are leaving high school and taking employment in war industries. It can be argued that for the moment they are of as much value in industry as they would be in the Army. But if they possess the native ability to be officers, they will be ill-prepared for a commission when they are later inducted into the Army through Selective Service.



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Consider these figures. There are approximately 1,200,000 in each age group -- that is, there are 1,200,000 young men who, each year, might enter colleges and universities. The actual number enrolled is somewhat less than 20 per cent -- somewhat less than 250,000. (This figure includes those who enter two-year junior colleges, which I understand are included in the Army and the Navy scheme.) Now I have no doubt that the armed forces will select from the 200,000 the most promising material. I do not doubt that the further "screening" or sifting by examination at the end of two years of work will be effective. But clearly, a million of the contemporaries of those chosen will not be considered in this colleague competition; they cannot stand as candidates because they are not enrolled in a four-year college or university or a junior college. Can anyone doubt that of this large pool of a million young men there are at least another 160,000 of ability and native worth equal to that of the students selected from the college population?

To be sure, when these boys are inducted they will have the same opportunity to be chosen for officer training camps as those who have had college training. The Army has wisely, I believe, required that even the members of the Enlisted Reserve Corps must compete with all the other privates during the first thirteen weeks of training. But if two years or more in college is of value to an officer, as the present scheme implies, then the non-college man starts with a big handicap against him. Native talent developed by education is what the Army requires for leaders. It would seem in the best interest of the nation to select this talent from as wide a group as possible, at least from the entire number who are graduated each year from school.

Personally, I wish that it had been possible for the government to have chosen the 160,000 men purely on the basis of merit, without regard for their economic situation, and to have financed this group for whatever further education was required by the Army or the Navy. Such a scheme would have more nearly opened a military career to the talented, irrespective of the accidents of birth.

A college education must be founded on the work of the secondary schools. Therefore, on any basis, those who dropped out of school would be ineligible for further academic training. And, as I have already pointed out, there is a heavy shrinkage during the high-school years. Nearly 40 per cent of those who enter high school leave before graduation; nevertheless some 600,000 boys are graduated each year and are thus ready to proceed to college. It is from this group -- the graduates of our secondary schools -- that I should like to have had the choice made; not from the 250,000 who, to some extent for accidental reasons, proceed to college. Furthermore, I believe such a plan would largely diminish the loss of promising boys from the upper high-school classes. The very fact that there might be an opportunity on graduation to be chosen for a selected corps destined for further education would have the effect of keeping the right boys in school.

I realize that such a scheme presents formidable administrative difficulties. But I believe they could be overcome almost as readily as those inherent in Selective Service. The pattern of a decentralized administration through well-chosen state boards has already been supplied. Special boards appointed for the purpose could rely on the appraisals of high-school principals in making a fair selection of local nominees. From the candidates thus presented on a quota basis by each locality, it seems probable that the Army and the Navy could choose as readily as from the lists of freshmen in our colleges.

Of course, the establishment of such a training corps financed by the government would require Congressional action, and large sums of money would be involved. No one therefore, can justly criticize the Army and the Navy for not starting down this road. It would not be difficult, however, at some later time to modify the present plans in the direction just outlined. In the meantime a widespread system of military scholarships, carefully allotted to various areas and impartially administered, would widen the basis for selection. Many who are familiar with the educational problems of boys from sixteen to twenty years of age believe that it would be possible to grant financial aid wisely even to those in school. This would be particularly true in time of war, for the objectives of further education can be defined in terms of the Army and the Navy. Qualities of leadership, of general intelligence, of moral stamina, are primarily required. These, together with special aptitudes for aviation on the one hand or the physical sciences on the other, would indicate the desired man.



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In short, I believe two steps should be taken to utilize more effectively the latent talent of our younger men. Both cost money but I believe that, solely in terms of the winning of the war, both steps should be worth all the millions that would be required. The first step is to keep the most promising youths in high school; the second, to send them on to college. Federal funds would be required, but this does not mean Federal control of education. For the money could be best spent through local agencies and by those closely in touch with the public school system and our colleges. This is not the place to outline the details of such proposals. It is for Congress to formulate the required legislation and provide the funds. If the country demands such a revision of our educational pattern as a war measure, it will before long take place. To my mind it is clear that we must plan now for the officers who are to be drawn in later years from the age groups which have not yet been called. To that end, ability must be discovered and financed by the government so that the very best men will be available for the nation's needs.

In conclusion, may I point out that the method of selecting officers for the Army and the Navy has significance for the postwar period as well as for the war. To the extent that a college education is a road to promotion, and to the extent that a college education is a privileged position based on family finances, we are hardening the social strata as we expand our Army and our Navy. Conversely, to the extent that we freely open the road to the commissioned ranks by eliminating the economic barriers to further education, we are increasing the fluidity of our social system. To my mind, the American interpretation of democracy, the very cause for which we fight, rests on the flexibility of our national life -- it rests on our denial of the doctrine of hereditary privilege. For one hundred and fifty years we have repudiated the idea of a ruling caste; we have affirmed our adherence to the ideal of a classless nation. Such phrases as "There are no classes in America," and " Three generations from shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves," have been the hallmarks of America's social order.

Repeatedly in our history the unique features of our society have been underlined. It was thus that General Garfield, seventy years ago, answered Macaulay's famous letter predicting the downfall of this republic as a result of universal suffrage. This letter, which has been brought to public attention again in recent years, prophesied that the time would come when the government would not be able to restrain a distressed and discontented majority; that distress and spoilation would follow each other in a vicious circle and "either civilization or liberty must perish." "Your Constitution," said Macaulay, "is all sail and no anchor." To such gloomy forebodings Garfield replied as follows: "I venture the declaration that this opinion of Macaulay's is vulnerable. . . . It is based on the belief that mankind are born into permanent classes and that in the main they must live, work and die in the fixed class or conditions in which they are born." There such permanent classes exist, the conflict of which Macaulay speaks is inevitable, declared General Garfield. But, he continued, "in this country there are no classes in the British sense of that word, -- no impassable barriers of caste. Now that slavery is abolished we can truly say that through our political society there run no fixed horizontal strata above which none can pass. Our society resembles rather the waves of the ocean whose every drop may move freely among its fellows, and may rise toward the light until it flashes on the crest of the highest wave."

Thus runs a characteristically American declaration of the last century. Never has the doctrine been better stated. And it was expressed at a moment when man's hopes ran high. An expanding economy, free lands, the spirit of the frontier, made this unique American ideal almost a reality in the nineteenth century. The last fifty years, however, have seen a reversal of the process. The frontier vanished, and the urbanization and industrialization of our national life began. Large aggregations of men were brought together to labor in expanding factories -- the words "proletariat" and "class struggle" entered the American vocabulary. All the trends except one were toward a greater stratification of our society toward the renunciation of a cardinal principle of our early democratic faith. The one exception was the growth of our system of public education. Through that channel alone we gave new meaning to the word "equality." For through free education a man's children might hope to show their worth.

I firmly believe that we must develop still further this new instrument forged by a free people. There are other methods which can be and should be devised for increasing the social mobility of our system, for increasing the base by which the members of each new generation rise or fall according to their own efforts. But I am convinced that very largely through strengthening our system of public education we may build those bulwarks which will ensure the perpetuation of American democracy in the post-war world. I am convinced that through making real our doctrine of educational opportunity we may recapture an essential element in our democracy: the birthright of opportunity which in an earlier age was the gift of the American frontier.

If I am right as to the importance of strengthening this unique feature of our social system, then the question of choosing officers in this war is of moment for two separate reasons. First, we need all the talent we can find for the military task at hand -- we cannot afford to leave any portion of it untrained; second, we need to demonstrate that this republic is anxious to approach more nearly to the ideal of a nation without caste. If the two objects were in contradiction, clearly that which concerned America of the future must yield to the demands of war. For we are agreed, today, that the requirements for victory take precedence over all reforms. But, as a matter of fact, the two goals are close together. If we have a well-supported educational system by which talent reaches the college level irrespective of private income, we shall both increase the effectiveness of our leadership in battle and demonstrate the reality of our American ideal. We shall forward the winning of the war and at the same time we shall lessen those tensions between economic groupings which in the modern world are ever in danger of threatening a democracy's internal peace.

A widespread system of public and private education, a miracle judged by any other country or any other age, stands ready for our use. It is for the American people to say how this great social engine shall be employed in a total war. On the answer depends in no small measure the effectiveness of our young officers who will fight on the land, on the sea, and in the air; on the answer turns also, perhaps, the course of much of the social history of the United States in the uncertain decades yet to come.


JAMES BRYANT CONANT became President of Harvard in 1933. Internationally known as a chemist, he was appointed by the President a member of the important National Defense Research Committee in June, 1940. He now serves as chairman of this agency, in addition to his duties in Cambridge. President Conant has contributed a number of notable articles to the Atlantic, the chief of them being "Education for a Classless Society" (May, 1940).
Copyright © 1942 by James Bryant Conant. All rights reserved.
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