Straws From Alberta

I

THERE was once a time in the United States when a youth seeking the road to success was advised to work hard and save his money. To-day he is told, ‘Vote for me.’ Instead of exalting the ideals of industry and thrift, we are coming to advise allegiance to this or that system of political economics, or economic politics, as the way to security and fortune. One politician offers $200 a month. Another, by whirling the printing presses, would grant greenback pensions, bonuses, and other forms of ‘social justice.’ A third offers a house, a radio, an automobile, a college education, including trips to all football games away from home, and $2500 a year, ‘sharing the wealth’ by ‘soaking the rich.’ New America bids $4000 a year. Technocracy raises the offer to $20,000.

There was once a time also when such offers fell on deaf ears; but to countless thousands to-day they no longer sound silly. In the Province of Alberta in Canada a political party pledged to an ‘equal deal for all citizens’ triumphed at the recent elections. It promised an increase in the purchasing power of the consumer, the elimination of profiteering by the revival of the mediæval idea of a ‘just price’ for all goods and services, the prevention of hasty foreclosures, the provision of loans and grants from the government to refund or liquidate present interest-bearing mortgages, loans to stimulate production, and the development of new export markets to assist agriculture. Specifically the new party promised $25 a month to every worthy citizen, as a dividend from the state to be expended at will within the province. This promise was sufficient to sweep it into power. For the first time on the American Continent, the Athenian idea of every citizen living at government expense successfully appealed to a majority of the voters. The pledge of direct distribution of government funds gained an election.

If this election had taken place in the United States instead of Alberta, some of our leading citizens would have made it the occasion for yet another attack upon our schools. When there is an increase in crime, a decline in good taste, an accession of unusual stupidity in the councils of the nation, it has become the fashion to blame it upon public education; and to say that discipline has declined, severity has moderated to softness, the fundamentals have been sacrificed to fads and frills, and sound instruction has vanished before tricky methods of teaching. The little red schoolhouse, with its ignorant teacher, slight equipment, few books, red-hot stove, and icy walls has become glorified in some minds; distance has lent enchantment; and the inference is that if we should only return to the good old days all would be well.

But if there is any place on the American Continent where the old conservative educational ideals hold full sway, it is the Province of Alberta. There they are innocent of ‘modern’ educational methods. They are guiltless of progressive education. They centre their attention upon reading, writing, and arithmetic. They keep the one-teacher country school. Their instructors have been drilled in the subjects they teach. No trick methods. No standard tests. The high-school teachers come from the university without professional training for teaching. There is no mad rush for secondary or higher education. Only the best go on — and the mass of the pupils in the elementary schools are disciplined in the good old-fashioned ways. Their time is not wasted. There is no overelaborate curriculum. They read, they write, they spell, they cipher. Nevertheless the citizens of Alberta voted to pay themselves $25 a month.

It takes a steady head and a good education to resist the blandishments of the modern socio-economic politician. There was once a time when promises of $25 a month, or $2500 a year, or $4000 a year, or $20,000 a year, or free land, or the full dinner pail, or ‘la poule au pot pour tout le monde,‘1were made only by political charlatans or fakers; but I doubt if this is the case to-day. In fact I am confident that many of these easy promises are made by persons who believe what they say, and their faith is transmitted to their followers, even to those of considerable knowledge and intelligence.

II

Their argument begins with a world in misery and distress. The depression — which we have passed through, according to the Democrats, which we are experiencing, according to the Republicans, which we are just beginning to suffer, according to the Socialists and Communists — has only served to bring to general notice what was present even in times of greatest prosperity: the fact that most of the population lives in insecurity. The spectre of unemployment hangs over all. Mergers, consolidations, new inventions, new processes, are abolishing the small factory and substituting increasingly intricate and automatic machines for men. By modern technology, production steps up and the worker steps down — and out! Huge combinations of power plants, factories, mines, and systems of transportation and distribution are concentrating our workers in a few great industrial centres. At times labor is fast and furious, and at times everything and everybody stand idle. Six million persons, at least, in the United States to-day want work and cannot find it.

In the second place, the argument continues, it is generally agreed that we know enough in the world to-day and have sufficient control of our environment to be able to give comfort and security to all. No longer do we need to live under an economy of scarcity, where there is not enough to go around. Scientists, engineers, and technologists assert that we have the necessary raw materials, and the capacity to gather, modify, combine, transform, and transport them, so that every person may be provided with all the necessities of life and many of its luxuries. There is no exact agreement on estimates of our capacity to produce; but technologists believe that a part of the population working part-time in the Power Age will be able to provide for themselves and for all the rest a high standard of living.

If, then, we feel certain that were we to produce to capacity, and were we to divide the opportunities both to work and to enjoy the products of work more evenly, unemployment would disappear and distress diminish, it is only natural that people, even politicians, should begin to inquire into the causes of the disparity between the life we live and the life we might live.

Some attribute the difficulty to the inability of the people to purchase what the mines, farms, and factories are able to produce. Of the money paid for goods, they say, too much goes to the capitalist and too little to the worker. The worker puts his money back into circulation; the capitalist puts his away. The worker cannot buy as much as he should. Soon the factory closes; other workers have nothing to spend; other factories close. This is a vicious circle. To correct this condition, governments strive to increase purchasing power, ‘to prime the pump,’and to this end provide doles, unemployment relief, and public works. Those who benefit from these expenditures will be able to buy. If they are able to buy, the factories will open. If the factories open, workers will be employed. If they are employed, they will be paid. If they are paid, they can buy.

It is only a step from using public works and unemployment relief for pump-priming purposes to the actual provision of cash to all the citizens. This explains why some of the graduates of the conservative public schools of Alberta voted for a party that promised $25 a month. They might in the future even support candidates who would increase purchasing power by providing $200 a month, or $5000 a year, or soldiers’ bonuses. The psychology of prohibition was based on the idea of helping the other person who could not take it or leave it alone. The fairly intelligent man who votes for government dividends to the citizens may do so not so much for the benefit to himself as for the benefit to the great mass of the population. When he comes to think of paying the bills, he will think first of taxing excess profits, then all profits, then he will ‘soak the rich’; and somewhere in the process he will begin to inflate the currency. Robespierre and Danton were not graduates of progressive schools.

It is only one further step from government cash subsidies to the abolition of private ownership, profits, and money. The radicals, such as the Communists, Technocrats, and New America, attribute our poverty in the midst of plenty to the hit-and-miss, haphazard organization of our economic life. We need to be managed. We cannot run ourselves. Under laissez faire both production and unemployment are irregular. There is no sense in this. Our country is like a crowded restaurant where one waiter is at work and four others stand idly by. Put a powerful person in command of the government. Let him enlist the services of sociologists, economists, technologists, and engineers. Let these scientists ascertain our capacity to produce, to consume, and arrange our economic order to match. Then we shall have no depressions. Then we shall have no poor. Then will the good things of life become distributed equally to all. Then will the opportunity to work become the privilege of every citizen.

III

I rehearse these arguments not because they convince me. I repeat them because they convince so many others. So far as political economics is concerned, or economic politics, the ordinary elector to-day is like a child. One of the supreme problems of education is to give to the young the benefits of the experience and the wisdom of the old, to teach them to resist the temptation of the social shell game and gold brick, and so to order their conduct that greater rewards which are hidden and long delayed may be preferred to those which, immediate and apparent, may seem to be greater. This is the problem of moral education. Honesty is the best policy, but this is apparent only if one sees the ultimate consequences of dishonesty. This is also the problem of health education. A rigorous regimen, somewhat unpleasant at the start, is preferred by the wise man to the full satisfaction of immediate desires. There is greater happiness in the long run.

Anyone who has studied the history of government in business, anyone who has traced through the ages the experiences of mankind as he has tried to order his economic life, knows full well the consequences of government payments of doles, bonuses, dividends, and salaries to all the citizens. However they may seem justified in economic argument, in the past they have been a prelude to decline and fall. In fact they are more than a prelude; they are a symptom of a process of decay already in progress, although unrealized at the time. Similarly, although government efforts to control and operate economic life sometimes have had happy results at the start, in the long run they have degenerated into tyranny; misery and distress have been the consequences; liberty has vanished before government dictation, and equality before special privilege. For, no matter how hard they have searched, governments have never been able to enlist the services of men wise enough to ‘superintend the industry of private people.’ If the citizens of Alberta had read and thoroughly mastered Blanqui’s Histoire de l’Économie Politique en Europe, had walked with him across the ages, had seen the folly of the Athenians in electing to office the highest bidder, had suffered as economic ignorance began to triumph in Rome, had watched the snuffing out of the little gleams of economic freedom here and there by the stupid policies of Charles V, and had thrilled as economic liberty was rediscovered by the Physiocrats and Adam Smith — then I doubt very much if they would have been enchanted by the dulcet strains of Mr. Aberhard, a teacher in a nonprogressive school. They would have seen the danger signals ahead.

It has been said repeatedly that we are in a race between education and catastrophe. This has been said so often that it is like the cry, ‘Wolf! Wolf!’ But we had better heed this cry to-day. For what happened in Alberta may happen in the United States. If this should occur, what will be the result? Are our voters prepared to decide on such questions as: How can the purchasing power of the consumer be increased? What is a just price, a fair wage, and how can they be regulated? When money is borrowed, should it be repaid? Should the government protect the borrower and not the lender? Should the government advance money to stimulate production? How can new export markets be secured? These questions were put before the people of Alberta by the Social Credit Party. When they come before the people of the United States, shall we succumb to the offer of a specific sum of money each month? Shall we support the economic theorist who proposes a remedy which, though he does not know it, has been tried repeatedly before, and always before has failed? We shall if we don’t know anything about political economics.

However much the American schools may deserve criticism at present, however much their methods may warrant ridicule, however much they may be overexpanded, overexpensive, overprogressive, and underconservative, they are, nevertheless, our only hope. We have in the American educational system an agency which can reach all the people. All the children are in elementary school. Most of those from fourteen through eighteen years of age are in high school. A huge number are in institutions of higher learning. A half million are in the CCC camps. The agencies of adult education have so greatly expanded in the last decade that men and women formerly beyond the reach of an educational programme are now regularly attending conferences, lectures, and classes.

It is high time that the American people direct all their educational agencies to the task of giving our citizens the basis upon which to decide questions of political economics. I am not advocating indoctrination in the principles of the present social order any more than I am urging adoption of any specific different order such as Technocracy or Communism. I am not saying that, because government economic dictation has never succeeded, it never will. It merely seems unlikely. The American voter within the next decade will be called upon to express his opinion upon a great variety of questions on the relation of government and economic life. Somehow or other he must acquire a background of knowledge, that his decisions may be wise.

IV

There is only one solution to this problem. Political economics should be taught in our schools, and the science of Education should be consulted in planning what should be taught, and when, and how.

We shall have to apply to the field of political economy the methods of curriculum construction which have been used with such success in reorganizing the materials and methods of instruction in most of the subjects taught in the progressive elementary schools, high schools, colleges, and professional schools. The indiscriminate insertion in the lower schools of an abbreviation and simplification of what is now taught to college students will be both inadequate and wasteful. It. is imperative to find out what facts and principles of political economics the boys and girls who leave school from fifteen to twenty will need and can use as voters, workers, buyers, borrowers, or savers. It is desirable to arrange these facts and principles in such an order that the learning of each will facilitate the learning of all, and that the difficulty of the tasks will be adapted to the pupil’s growth in ability to master them. Educational science can provide sound methods for carrying on this investigation; it has already done so for spelling, for arithmetic, for geography. Education has useful techniques for suggesting and testing effective orders of arrangement; their value has been demonstrated in the teaching of other school subjects. These techniques can be used with equally good results in the teaching of political economics. But, even with a suitable content and arrangement, there can still be great differences in outcome, depending on how the various principles are taught. It is highly probable that individual teachers and writers of textbooks may use meaningless and even harmful devices unless they are guided by sound ideas and impartial observation of methods of teaching. It is certain that the methods which are the best for the selected and mature college group will not be the best for the lower schools.

We shall need to find out what to teach. What will the American people need to know? Is there any priority among such questions in economics as government ownership and operation of business, industry, commerce, and agriculture; currency management and inflation; regulation of prices and wages; tariffs and free trade; exploitation and utilization of natural resources; borrowing and lending; public responsibility for the young, the weak, the poor, the ill, the handicapped, the ignorant, and the unemployed? What attention should be given to Mr. Aberhard? To Father Coughlin? To Upton Sinclair? To Dr. Townsend? Mr. Hoover? Mr. Borah? Mr. Douglas? What is happening in Russia, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Japan? How are Laval’s socio-economic decree laws working in France?

We must not only explore the field and list the problems in the order of their importance, and mass around them the information needed for their solution, but we must have some rough idea of their relative difficulty in order to know when to teach. If at all possible, basic topics should be given in the elementary school; and as much time as is necessary should be devoted to teaching them. It may be that some are so very difficult that they will have to be long delayed. We also need much research to find out how to teach. Certainly we should explore the value of proper textbooks, visual aids, charts, and so forth, and the possibility of using the radio and talking motion picture.

With advances along the scientific front, with progress in knowledge of what, when, and how to teach, we can then proceed to preparation of courses of study, textbooks, and other materials of instruction, the training of teachers, and, most important, the effort to win the approval, support, and enthusiastic coöperation of the general public.

For it will be necessary to change the popular attitude toward what is taught in the American school. For many years past it has been our custom to exclude from the public school any consideration of such questions as may reflect a common division of opinion. We disagree about religion; so we exclude it from the school. Some people in Tennessee believe in Evolution, some do not; so the theory is prohibited in the educational system. In some communities where there are two or more powerful camps holding conflicting opinions about the cause of disease, the courses in hygiene are emasculated. This policy, carried to its logical conclusion, would reduce the course of study to mathematics, dead languages, and archæology. If continued, it would exclude from the American public school all consideration of the issues of political campaigns.

The most spectacular illustration of this problem at the moment is the question of teaching about Communism. If the argument to this point has merit, it means that American children in the future should study how men in the past have tried to relate government and business; what is laissez faire, what is capitalistic society, what is democracy, what is dictatorship, what is Fascism, what is an imperial autocracy, what is Communism; how does each work; what sort of life do the people live in these various societies? Here the enterprising reporter will centre his attention; these are fighting words, and over the wires will flash the headline: College Dean Advocates Teaching about Communism.

And indeed this is exactly what I do advocate, just as I advocate teaching about democracy, Fascism, dictatorship, and empires. For the surest way to make America Communistic is to adopt the hush-hush policy that Russia once had. Keep ideas from the light of day; confine discussion to the dark corner of the cellar; have whispering in the back alleys, and a mushroom movement will spread. Some people think that a Communist is a tall dark man with bushy bristling whiskers, a gun in each hand, a knife in his teeth, and two hand grenades in each pocket of his smock. If this were the case, the American voter could recognize him and be on his guard. But the Communist, as I know him, is generally a quiet, simple man. He looks something like a professor; and he argues with you in a forceful and persistent way. If you are n’t wise, you are apt to be convinced. He plays on the injustice of this world. He inflames your resentment against others, particularly those who are better off than you.

American voters in the prairie states have elected candidates whose platforms closely approached those of Communism, although they did not know it. If the American people generally agree that they wish to preserve their old plan of life, social organization, and government, then it is allimportant that they recognize Communism when they see it, and be wary of its plans and promises and early allurements. Otherwise they will be unable to appraise political policies that inflame envy, pit class against class, lay taxes unevenly and unjustly, handicap private business by giving every advantage to government competition, and reserve security and comfortable life to the government functionary. All these are trends toward some form of Communism. If the American people do not know it, how can they be on their guard?

V

American schools have long been active in political education. Professors as individuals and in groups have been attacking the problem. Certain progressive schools, now that they are freed from the burden of college entrance requirements, have been reorganizing their courses, to provide a more comprehensive and useful programme of political and economic education. Several notable committees are at work. But we must go much farther, and, if I mistake not, with much greater speed. We need immediate, widespread, and thorough appraisal of the problems which are likely to become critical. We need an analysis of the knowledge necessary to provide a basis for the development of a reasoned opinion concerning these problems. We need to determine what should be taught early and what late; for, if the American voter is to avoid the example of his Alberta brethren, much of the political economics of the future must be taught in the elementary and secondary school. We need attention to the problem of how to present these materials, how much by lectures, by books, by charts, by the radio, by the talking picture. We need a national campaign to convince the people, including patriotic societies, the American Legion, and the press. Only with their support can the schools go forward.

If this argument is sound, if it is true that American voters through ignorance may be tempted to make a mistake from which our country may never recover; if there is a possibility that by organizing our scattered forces and directing our efforts we may foresee the political and economic issues of the future, ascertain their relative importance, collect and organize the materials and information necessary to their understanding, study the difficulties of teaching, recommend as much as possible for the elementary and high school, and through publication, teaching, and demonstration convince the public of the worth and soundness of these proposals — then American universities should turn special effort to this task. It will require coöperation, for professors of politics, economics, law, and sociology must work shoulder to shoulder with professors of education. It will require special administrative adjustments and added funds. But boards of trustees and other wise citizens, if they judge correctly the direction of the wind by the straws blown from Alberta, will permit nothing to block the path of our scholars. No project is of greater importance, none of such immediate need.

  1. Camille Desmoulins. — AUTHOR