The Nation Challenges the Schools


IF this article does not tempt the radicals to denounce me as an educational Fascist and the conservatives to reject me as a starry-eyed liberal, it will disappoint my hopes.

My argument, if it receives any attention, will affront the conservatives who condemn the public schools for not teaching more Latin and mathematics, it will offend the radicals who want teachers to build a new social order and organize in affiliation with labor unions, and it will surely arouse the scorn of those who insist that teachers are born, anyway, and ought to be full of their subjects and stop fussing about juvenile delinquency or the fate of the nation.

The gist of my contention is that public education has become a national interest in a radically new sense; that it must therefore be taken far more seriously and studied far more carefully and supported far more fully than ever in the world before; and that the development of professional personnel for the schools and the advancement of professional knowledge in education through the universities is of the essence. I shall maintain that, if these things are so, a considerable part of current educational controversy is fiddling while Rome burns; and I shall be under obligation to discuss briefly a few of the issues that seem to me significant in the premises.

Among the people Wodehouse calls ‘he gently nurtured,’ to keep an educational discussion on the plane of national policy is pretty difficult. There are familiar phrases which show where the ice begins to crack: ‘Well, when I went to school . . .’ ‘We had one professor in college who . . .’ ‘My nephew tells me that in his school they . . .’ Then it becomes impossible, or discourteous, to talk about the youth problem in America, or federal support for public education, or vocational training in secondary schools. And among teachers, especially those who remain unspotted by professional training, there is an easy descent toward special pleading: if the colleges would only insist on more Latin, or give up Latin altogether, or grant credit for commercial subjects; if the school committee would only change the salary schedule, or fire the superintendent . . . Then it becomes a flight into the remote and academic to point to the educational effects of changes in population or the problems imposed on the schools by the depression. I am not asserting that the larger issues of educational policy are never discussed at dinner tables; and I know how often and how awesomely they are discussed at professional meetings. I am saying only that they are not yet the topics in education we take up naturally or gladly or even keep in the back of our minds when we are talking about our own educational business, whether as laymen or as teachers.

There are reasons for this — among them the heaviness of much that is said and written about the really important problems in education. I dismiss the point that human beings have a natural and winsome tendency to escape into trivialities, like the cabinet ministers in Shaw’s Apple Cart: that is something we have a right to be thankful for — at least on occasion. What concerns me is that the facts and ideas which ought to form a common background for talk about education must so often be introduced by conversational forced feeding. And of course when issues are not understood, and conflicts over points of view remain hidden in the books of the authorities, there is little basis for sound public criticism of educational practice.

I could give chapter and verse for the contention that the journalists and the educators of this country have a mutual obligation to each other which they have only begun to discharge. I could also point to earnest efforts on the part of both sides to come together — the Educational Policies Commission of the National Education Association, for example, is a notable effort on the part of the educators. It would be absurd, of course, to hope or wish that the technicalities of education should become the coin of everyday conversation. What we have the right to hope for is a better public understanding of what really matters.

Some things matter which could at best be merely catalogued in such an article as this, and I shall attempt no Homeric listing of the educational ships of state. I must speak, however, of a very few things which people will have to stir themselves about before long but which I can here approach only with a sort of wistful hog-calling.

The first and most important of these is the equalization of educational opportunity in the United States. It is an issue so pressing, so momentous for our common life, that people ought to be gossiping about it on the street corners, wondering whether the President will call a special session of the Congress to deal with it. The fact, of course, is that not one in a thousand can name a single bill of the many that have been presented in the national legislature for federal aid to schools.

If anyone supposes that equalizing educational opportunity means getting every boy and girl into college, let him put aside that quite unfounded fear. The word ‘ equalization ‘ has obscured the problem it was meant to define. The very heart of the matter is that we ought not to give all young people the same education — not in amount, nor in kind, nor in result. Let the radicals rage at this, if they will; and let them quote President Hutchins to the contrary: it is a conclusion no competent psychologist, sociologist, or political scientist will question, and every teacher and school officer will agree that it is based on facts which appear with commanding authority in the work of the schools.

There are, in short, diversities of gifts. Yet the youth of America must be offered an education which is equal in the sense that it is adequate (as adequate as we know how to make it) to each individual’s need as a citizen in a democracy — in this democracy. Let the words carry with them every justifiable implication concerning the individual’s responsibility for earning a living, the need for social justice, the conservation of natural resources, and the defeat of Mayor Hague. The point is that no one can possibly say for the country as a whole that we have enough education, sufficiently diversified in character but unified in aim and spirit, to be actually productive of those outcomes in social competence which schools can produce, do now in favored spots produce, and should produce throughout the nation.

The first step forward is action by the national government. The problem has been before the Congress for years. There is a massive and exciting literature about it — massive in bulk, exciting in places; and anyone who wants to have a well-informed opinion on the subject need do no more than read The Nation and the Schools, by Keith and Bagley (history, up to 1920) and Equal Educational Opportunity for Youth, by Edwards, a report in 1939 to the American Youth Commission.

It is possible, of course, to conclude (even after one knows the facts) that equal educational opportunity in this country should never have been attempted at all and should now be abandoned as an ideal. The other day I heard a member of the judiciary in a New England state declare that free public high schools are a mistake. That position seems to me to commit anyone who holds it to the abandonment of democracy, both in theory and in practice. Conservatives ought to examine their consciences in this matter, and if they decide against public secondary schools they ought to fortify themselves by reading up in the literature of pessimism on the human race and its educability.

There is another possible position, the mere statement of which introduces the second of those topics which I am listing for cocktail parties among the intelligentsia or for meetings of parent-teacher associations between elections. One can hold to universal free education as an ideal but doubt our ability to pay for it, at any rate beyond the elementary grades. Here we have a stand which may be taken by anthropological optimists who are at the same time economic pessimists.

Examination of this doubt leads to some interesting conclusions, the chief of which is that our whole system of taxation needs to be cleared up in relation to the services it pays for and the economic resources from which our taxes must be drawn. At the moment, education is faced with a competition for public funds which has never before been so severe. Relief and pensions are taking millions that might have gone into schools. State aid and federal aid are not, or should not be, mere fire escapes for the superintendent and the school committee when they make up the budget for the local school system. The local authorities ought to look at the facts of the local situation in a new and larger perspective and present to the taxpayers a clearer picture of the economic state of affairs on the one hand and the condition and aims of the schools on the other. In some places (Rochester, New York, is an example) budgets for the schools really tell the story; in most places they do not. If all school systems did as Rochester does, parents and citizens would have before them interesting pictures of school activities, diagrams showing what these activities cost, and comparisons of school expenditures by years and by departments. Most people who grumble about taxation for public education don’t know and can’t find out whether the game is worth the candle.

What the experts in public finance call ‘justification budgets’ ought to be the usual and expected thing. Conferences between school executives and authorities on taxation ought to be common, whereas those that are held in the summer at the Harvard Littauer Center seem to be the exception rather than the rule. It does not appear that the United States is too poor to pay for as much public education as it needs, but it does appear that its machinery for doing so is woefully inadequate. Of course there are inherent difficulties in making school costs, in their relation to the complete financial picture of a community and the values at which the schools themselves are aiming, the subject of casual conversation; but the problem of presenting these matters with reasonable clearness to the public is certainly not beyond us.

Whatever is done toward that end, one problem will arise, in studying school costs, which can be neither dismissed nor, for the moment, solved. It cannot be solved, that is, without prolonged study, patient and tolerant discussion, and a willingness to experiment and compromise. The problem in its most general terms is the problem of religion in education; more concretely, the relation of State and Church to each other and to the schools; specifically, the development of a Catholic school system, paid for by the Catholic people, alongside the public school system paid for out of taxes. I speak of this problem not to discuss it here, but to express the hope that it may hereafter be discussed in public with less prejudice than it usually arouses. And I would point out also that the issues in question can best be approached in the light of historical knowledge — knowledge of the history of public education in America, of the history of Catholic education, and of both in their relation to traditional policies in American government and American social life.

The topics I have barely brushed in passing seem to me important because they force discussion out of petty ruts. They cannot be explored without abandoning the notion that in education all that matters is to find the perfect way for some one child or group of children — for my child or yours or a mythical average child (‘the’ child) or for the collegegoing group, the gifted, the elect. I recognize that other topics equally enforce a national or social point of view. In any case the question ought to be, What ways are feasible and statesmanlike to bring the education of this people to the highest national level?

There is no single answer, to be sure; the things to do are many. For that very reason articles in magazines insisting on some one thing needful — on the sterner teaching of the standard subjects, or a single fixed curriculum derived from any list of books, however great, or more attention to the nature of the child and better ways of teaching — ring amateur at best and sometimes empty. If one good custom may corrupt the world, it is pretty certain that one good idea may yet corrupt a national system of education. People who are interested only in the best school for their own boy are not more annoying, perhaps, than people who know just what should be done to make American education perfect overnight.

At this point, I perceive, I ought to raise against myself what might be called the previous question — What do you mean by a national system of education? What would it be like if we had it?


I do not mean a system run from Washington. The bogey of federal control has been raised for years to head off federal aid to schools; and the bogey of state control has been raised in the same manner to head off state support for local systems. There are dangers in remote control, of course; but it is ridiculous to think we cannot pool resources without surrendering our local rights. Localism has, besides, very grave dangers of its own. The historian of our Massachusetts public schools, George H. Martin, says that 1824 was the highwater mark of local autonomy under the district system (with its ‘deestrict’ school committeemen who hired their nephews and nieces as teachers) and the low-water mark of educational efficiency in the Commonwealth. In any case, a national system of education does not mean a system run by the national government or even by the state governments.

It means a system that can do a national job. A national job in education is compatible with immense variation in local patterns; such variation is, indeed, a necessary element in making American education national. May I be forgiven for referring here to a technical treatise, small but exciting, called The Adaptability of Public School Systems, by Paul R. Mort ? Dr. Mort will himself forgive me, I suspect, if this reference forwards in a single instance his purpose to stimulate local initiative on the solid foundation of a minimum common program. It is the common program that I must here define and defend, not in detail but in its general outline.

If ‘subjects’ must be named at all, I could stand up for the ancients and name reading, writing, and arithmetic — but I should have to warn the company that these subjects, like the old gray mare, are not what they used to be. I should have to go further and say that by themselves they no longer constitute even the sufficient instruments of a national education, to say nothing of its intellectual substance. History would have to be brought into the discussion, and science, together with subjects of vocational value, and subjects whose specific claim is to a value mainly of the spirit; and then the discussion would become professional and I should have to drag into the light and exorcise in public the ghost that lurks behind nearly all debates on the curriculum — the notion that a subject should be taught in school because it ‘trains a power of the mind.’ Important as it is to disestablish that abortive myth as a basis for consideration of the program of the schools, I must not try to do it in the present instance; nor is an exposition of accepted theory on the point (well founded though it is) the best approach to what I have to say about the nation’s task in education. It is the size of the job and its general character, as determined by the outcomes to be hoped for, that ought to be considered.

The size of the job is fixed by certain facts which are in themselves external to the program of the schools. Up to 1870, there were somewhat more than seventy thousand pupils in the public high schools of the United States; now, seventy years later, there are nearly seven million. The figures are approximate, but they are easy to remember and they tell the story. Although enrollments in elementary schools are falling off because our population is declining, there are economic and social forces that make the problem of public secondary education an essentially new thing, and that will keep it before us for a long time as an unsolved problem, on the score of size alone.

A distinguished citizen of Massachusetts (another member of the judiciary) once asked me why the seven million could not be given precisely the same schooling as was offered to the seventy thousand. I confess that the very question took me off my feet: I had supposed that no one would oven regard that alternative as a possibility. It is not, in fact, a possibility — unless we want to say that adolescents whose abilities and interests are not academic shall be driven out of school and left to fend for themselves in a world that will not and that cannot give them work. The first business of a national system of education is to carry the whole youthful population of the country to the point of its entrance into adult life — and to do so in such wise that every boy and girl is ready for a job or for further education leading toward a job, ready for citizenship in a democracy, and equipped with wholesome personal resources for ‘the pursuit of happiness.’

These are big words, brave hopes; they call for much elucidation. Yet I must let them stand, asking any who would like to debate their meaning to turn to books that seem to me to prove the case for this position. There are many that do so fairly well, but best of all in my opinion two volumes resulting from the Regents’ Inquiry into the Character and Cost of Education in the State of New York — High School and Life by Francis T. Spaulding, and Education for Citizenship by Howard E. Wilson. I cite these books in particular because they make so clear, so ineluctable, the nation’s challenge to the schools.

To put it still too briefly but perhaps to make the point of view a little clearer: our public education must accomplish the enormous task of adjusting each succeeding generation to our civilization, with all its complexities; and this it must do without exploitation of any class or group and without presenting unnecessary obstacles to progress toward maximum economic productivity, the achievement of social justice and efficient government, or the attainment of beauty, truth, and brotherhood among us. Such things were once with confidence allowed to ride upon the great unconscious processes of history. We had the West to go to; democracy could take care of itself. Now we must fit schooling into a pattern far more consciously defined. The processes of history may make fools of us, but we shall be fools anyway unless we try to think of schooling in the light of our best understanding of the destiny of the United States of America.

If this should sound a bit totalitarian, I can only say that dangers of that sort are lurking everywhere. The proposal that schools shall actually fit the majority of young people at eighteen or nineteen into our economic system does look — even if we remember that these same young people are also to be fitted into our political system and helped to become persons in their own right and that the spirit of the process is to be the spirit of education, not of propaganda nor of exploitation — still it does look as if we were going to impose the necessities of the modern state and its capitalistic economy upon the individual in his youth. I think it means just that. But I think our last condition would be far worse than our first if we let any economy (and there must be some economy, since the Garden of Eden seems to have closed its doors) impose itself on youth without the mediation of the schools. Here is my ground for saying to the radical and the reactionary, ‘A plague on both your houses!’ The schools can make the economic adjustment of youth a process both humane in its effect upon the individual and helpful in the general progress of the country toward a larger common good. Without the schools, the process is not likely to be either very humane or socially very helpful. But if the schools are to do this fruitful work, teachers must not sell out to factions; and there must be mighty changes in the planning and the personnel of public education.


The central function of the schools is guidance. To blurt this statement out and leave it without argument demands apology, which I hereby offer. It is only necessity which keeps me from explaining at some length how it is that I can hold this view without ignoring the great duty of the schools to make democracy a living faith, to open up for children something of the wealth that lies in music, literature, and art, to give them understanding of themselves, and nature, and the life of man. I grant that guidance would be working in a vacuum if schools were only guidance clinics; but per contra schools must guide or else the rest is not effective.

A line from Hopkins might be graven on the door of every school: —

What I do is me. For this I came.

The sonnet from which it is quoted continues, to be sure, upon the other note:

I say more. The just man justices;
Keeps grace; that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is — Christ . . .

And this is the side of life and of education which has nothing directly to do with choosing a job or planning an education toward a particular vocation. But selection through guidance is a primary need of the state and choice of work a primary need of the person. Mr. Eliot’s Inaugural put that double need with eloquence in 1869. Mr. Conant’s article on ‘The Future of Our Higher Education,’ in Harper’s for May of 1938, restated it in present-day terms. And scores of books and studies deal with what the schools can do by way of guidance, while the schools in scores of places are doing all they can. Providence, Rhode Island, under Richard D. Allen, has a notable system, for example; and a project started by the late C. N. Greenough of Harvard and now continued by Mrs. Greenough has made promising progress in Arlington, Massachusetts.

But I have yet to find a town or city where the schools are so conducted that their guidance function is completely discharged. It means that business men must know the schools and what they do; that school officials and especially the guidance counselors must know the local opportunities for jobs and other opportunities as well; and this is only a beginning. The whole process of education must be individualized at certain crucial points. Teaching must be lifted out of its routine; perfunctory ‘marking’ must be changed to give counselors more information when they seek reasons for failure and try to touch new springs of action in the pupil; the possible choices among subjects and activities must be increased, which means inevitably that many small secondary schools must be consolidated. When graduates of high schools begin to come back to their schools whenever they fail to establish themselves satisfactorily in the adult community, because they know their schools can do more than any other agency to get them started right, we shall be sure the necessary revolution in school-keeping has taken place.


How is all this possible when the highest salary in the high school of a fairly prosperous New England mill town is $1800? It isn’t possible; although it is surprising to note what can be done on the basis of enthusiasm for youth, a measure of idealism, and an economical wife. But if we are to have public education that really does a national job, the first need is for new public understanding of what schools can and should be like. So long as education continues to be viewed as if it were a bookish, cloistered, and scholastic process, by which the ‘faculties’ are trained, by which a thing called ‘culture,’ very far removed from life, is vaguely apprehended and perhaps resented, or certain fixed ideas, inert and disconnected with the world of action, are set up to serve as barriers to thought — so long will schools be served by teachers who are underpaid and inexpert, so long will none be hired who can guide and place and follow up the graduates and those who leave the schools.

May I enter here a demurrer against the charge that nothing in education, as I see it, has any relation to the intellectual life or cultural values? I hold no grubby view of education. I am concerned here with focus, and the handling of entire populations. I am urging public recognition of the function of the schools in ‘the redistribution of human talent.’

If I have written as if everything would be quite easy, once the public had become aroused, I have been led astray by my own eagerness. The fact is that the task could not be done at once or very well if every need were met except the need for knowledge. We still know too little about human talent and its social uses. Research of a fundamental character must be done in schools and laboratories and libraries before we can move fast and far toward the goal by which we are challenged. Yet enough is known now to start us on our way toward it. The obstacles to be overcome by research — how to determine, for example, the extent to which an independent mental trait, deep-rooted in an individual and not susceptible of further special training, prevents him from succeeding in a certain subject and so, perhaps, from entering a certain calling — such obstacles are far less serious now than is the public apathy toward politics and pull in getting ‘jobs’ in schools.

The grand strategy of the whole undertaking seems to me to come back to what can be done in universities. They can cherish the study of national policy in education in all its aspects. They can bring together experts in finance, in law, in government, in economics, and let them help the educators as they grapple with these larger issues in their field. The educators in their turn have much to give; they know as much about the growth of human beings and some phases of behavior as does any other group; and they know schools. The universities, besides, could give to men already started on careers in school administration final training for a leadership that now appears but seldom. The Nieman bequest brings experienced newspaper men to Harvard University for a year of study in any department, with the ultimate aim of improving the standards of journalism. The Littauer Fellowships are based on a similar plan for men in public administration. To open all the resources of a great university to practising school officers might bring us appreciably nearer to a national level of achievement in and through our public schools.

No public institution struggles with a set of problems more complex, more difficult, nearer to the pulse of life, more fateful for the order and the onward movement of American civilization, than those the public schools must face. Can anyone imagine what would happen if they closed their doors to one school generation? Is it not easy to imagine what would happen if they were better understood, better supported, better staffed? What if teaching and school management should come to be looked on as a profession, not less to be protected from the unqualified nor less to be rewarded and conditioned to the highest possible performance than the priesthood, law, or medicine?

There is an ideal to be served by schoolmasters as inspiring as any. Indeed, it seems to me to have in it elements of vitality that will finally set it among the highest — and I will make no hypocritical confession here of prejudice in favor of my own calling. What is the fundamental duty of the state? I accept the formulation offered by Whitehead in his Adventures of Ideas; and as I quote his words I ask those who have borne with me thus far to consider how much they dignify and magnify the part that schools must play in bringing to pass the accomplishment of any such ideal.

Speaking of the speech of Pericles as reported by Thucydides, Professor Whitehead says: ‘It puts forth the conception of an organized society successfully preserving freedom of behavior for its individual members. Fifty years later, in the same social group, Plato introduced deeper notions from which all claims for freedom must spring. His general concept of the psychic factors in the universe stressed them as the source of all spontaneity, and ultimately as the ground of all life and motion. Human psychic activity thus contains the origins of precious harmonies within the transient world. The end of human society is to elicit such psychic energies. . . . Pericles stresses . . . the activities of the individual citizens. The peculiar civilization of his great speech arises from its stress upon the æsthetic end of all action. A barbarian speaks in terms of power. He dreams of the superman with the mailed fist. He may plaster his lust with sentimental morality of Carlyle’s type, but ultimately his final good is conceived as one will imposing itself upon other wills. This is intellectual barbarism. The Periclean ideal is action weaving itself into a texture of persuasive beauty analogous to the delicate splendor of nature.’

Is it a far cry from this philosophic vision to the conception of a national system of education which seeks to find for every individual the best enlargement of his powers and their best engagement in the working world?

(The ATLANTIC approves so heartily of what Dean Holmes has said that it means to open its columns to the further clarification of those issues which he has indicated with such accuracy. Father George Johnson of the Catholic University of America will present the case for the parochial schools in the United States, and in a subsequent paper Dean Holmes will explain the correlation which is essential if this system is to exist in close harmony with our public schools. — THE EDITOR)