Education in an Armed Truce
Chemist, writer, and university president, JAMES BRYANT CONANTof Harvard is faced, as is every college administrator, with the problems imposed by the armed truce in which we live. The effect of inflation on American education can be measured in teachers’ salaries and in overcrowded classrooms. The effect of Universal Military Training can be forecast and it need not inevitably lead, as some say, to war. The clear and affirmative statement which follows has been drawn from President Conant’s forthcoming book, Education in a Divided World, which is to be published this autumn by the Harvard University Press.
by JAMES BRYANT CONANT
AMERICA’S fitness to survive in a divided world is related to the power inherent in our traditions. Our future national strength depends to a large measure on wise and intensive cultivation of those elements in our democratic culture which are peculiarly our own. At the same time the responsibilities of world leadership require us to extend the boundaries of our interest and our sympathy as never before. We must formulate the goals of our free society in terms consistent with our past, yet force our imagination to leap two oceans. There is no room for chauvinism, complacency, or isolationism in our thinking. We can be both intensely American and yet international-minded, both loyal to the unique manifestations of democracy in the United States and staunch friends of free societies of all types wherever they may be found.
We are living in a world divided by the impact of a social philosophy the equivalent of a powerful new religion. There can be no doubt that a doctrine derived from Marx and Engels as interpreted by Lenin motivates the action of many courageous, ruthless, quick-witted fanatics. The essence of the belief of the Soviet group is that they are at war with all peoples who do not accept their gospel and that they are bound to win. Unlike the Mohammedan-Christian conflict of earlier times, force of arms is not the primary instrument on which they must rely. Their prophets have said otherwise. Military force is only one aspect of their policy. The totalitarian socialistic regime (the dictatorship of the proletariat), when once established by revolution, will be subject to counterattacks by the armies of the bourgeois democracies according to the orthodox prediction of the prophets; therefore, there must be military power for “defense.” At what point this type of defensive thinking when coupled with offensive political action becomes true aggression is one of the metaphysical riddles troubling liberals in the democracies today.
The riddle is troublesome because it reflects the paradoxical nature of the clash between the Soviet philosophy and the progressive democratic doctrines of this country. Both use the same words so often and mean such different things! The average American, who has his own very definite ideas about democracy, equality, and freedom, finds the words and attitudes of the leaders of Russia and the satellite nations confusing. The rulers do not pretend that they are in control of a communistic state and yet they preach communism; they talk sincerely about freedom, and yet run a ruthless police state; they endeavor to obtain control of a country by using the machinery of “bourgeois democracy,” and then once in control throw it overboard and still talk about democracy with a straight face!
In reports to the New Statesman and Nation from Prague in March, 1948, R. H. Crossman (by no means a reactionary observer) wrote as follows: —
But the fact remains that three weeks ago Czechoslovakia was a country with civil rights and Parliamentary institutions. Today that is no longer true. When I said this to a young Communist he replied, “But it’s such a small price to pay for a great leap forward to socialism!” . . . An hour and a half with Mr. Slausky, the Secretary of the party, showed me clearly enough that he felt for Parliament what Cromwell felt when he said: “Remove this bauble.” “How can you call this democratic?” I asked him. “Of course it’s democratic. We have succeeded in purging all the parties of all their reactionaries.” “And the newspapers?” “But there, too, we were constitutional. The Cabinet had unanimously passed a law that only recognized political parties should publish newspapers. We are keeping strictly to that rule. But now all the parties are reliable.”
This sounds not only like nonsense but the worst kind of hypocrisy. Perhaps it is both, but the evidence points strongly in the other direction. I am convinced that when we are dealing with the followers of the Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin line we are dealing with dangerously sincere people. Not that lying to the enemy is a forbidden weapon among them — quite the contrary; but when they speak publicly they are speaking for home consumption.
To deal with a group of persons intelligently one must have some idea of their presuppositions. Whether you take an optimistic or a pessimistic view of the chances of turning the present armed truce into a peaceful competition of ideologies, the fact remains that we must deal in one way or another with the fanatic yet capable followers of Lenin. Therefore, it behooves us to understand them. We must study the Soviet philosophy, we must examine and debate the creed of the Communist Party as it has been formulated and defended both here and in foreign lands. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that this is the number one educational need of the present moment. This must clearly involve adult education even more than school and college if an effect is to be produced within the next few years. If I were dealing with adult education, I would place as the twin objectives of discussion groups, radio programs, and evening classes an understanding of the American democratic society and its historic goals, and a dissection of the Soviet philosophy and an exposure of its methods. One of the chief problems of the armed truce is to achieve the second of these objectives in the face of the tendency of certain leaders to confuse a tightening of military security with a witch hunt.
ONE special set of problems in education which arises from the armed truce, then, concerns the study of Soviet philosophy. Both the urgency and the difficulties arise from the nature of the international situation. A second set of educational problems can be defined as the study of other countries and world problems. Old-fashioned isolationism is dead. The children now being educated, as citizens of the United States, will be involved in one way or another with what is going on in distant countries in a way our grandfathers could never have imagined. A knowledge of world geography, of European history, and of the culture of the Far East must be provided to some degree at every level of the educational process. One of the very difficult problems is how some knowledge of these complicated matters, involving a mass of detailed facts, can be supplied as part of a general education.
Those educators who since 1941 have been urging a greater emphasis on the study of foreign nations because of a belief in the possibility of world government in the near future have been wrong, according to my view, in their premise but right in their pedagogic conclusions. Even in a peacefully divided world, the next generation of Americans must be more intelligent about other nations and far less parochial in their outlook than their predecessors. If one hopes, as I do, that within fifty years the deep cleavage now dividing the world will become only a relatively shallow ditch, the children now in school may live to see the day when the present arguments for world government may not be entirely fantastic. Therefore, as so often happens in educational controversies, all hands may agree on what should be done in practice. The debate which in this instance boils down to a sharp disagreement about the time involved may well be suspended.
Finally, we come to the impact of the military situation on our educational system. Indeed, I might say on our whole life. At the moment this is a matter of bitter controversy. Those who criticize the present foreign policy of the United States most severely do so in connection with plans for building up the military potential. Before discussing the relation of these plans to education I should like to give my own appraisal of the necessity for rearmament of this country in terms of an armed truce which may be very long.
I am convinced there is little or no analogy between the Nazi menace and the Soviet challenge. The former, to my view, had to be met by force of arms because it was an immediate military threat. The latter is an ideological and political thrust supported by military means; the Russian armies hidden behind the Iron Curtain are defensive troops to support political gains by the advanced fifth column within another nation; they are not to be used as the spearhead of the forward movement.
I recognize I am being very dogmatic about a highly debatable subject. Not only will many experts on foreign affairs disagree with this diagnosis, but history may prove me wrong within the next few months. However, I am bold enough to predict that, unlike Hitler, Russia will not take aggressive military action by invading a nation without an invitation from a de facto government. I make this prediction in July, 1948, in spite of the gravity of the situation in Berlin. Recurring periods of extreme tension would seem inevitable consequences of an armed truce. If Great Britain, France, and the United States are firm in their determination to hold positions recognized as just by world opinion, I doubt that the Soviets will force the issue. The proper pattern for preventing the outbreak of another global war would seem to involve readiness to answer coercion by the use of force coupled with willingness to negotiate at any time on matters of broad policy.
In an armed truce when there is an atmosphere of deep suspicion and each side imagines that the other is about to break the truce, the chances of hostilities are great. The less the commanders in the two camps know of the disposition of the other’s troops — their numbers and their equipment — the more the suspicion multiplies, the greater becomes the alarm that the truce will be broken without notice by a perfidious attack. If this simplified analogy of two armies face to face in former days of war be applicable to the present divided world, one basic fact stands out. As long as we in the United States are in complete ignorance of what is going on in Russia and its satellite nations, there can be no hope of relaxing the tensions of an armed truce. Security being what it is in a free country, the Russians must have an extremely poor intelligence service if they are not quite well informed as to our military capacity. We might as well be frank about it to ourselves and to them. We must assume the worst from the military point of view about their readiness and their war plans, and we must balance them quite openly with a counterplan.
Of course, frank talk about such delicate matters will not be possible in the United States until after the Presidential election. Once this four-year oratorical hazard inherent in our system has been passed, one may hope for an open discussion of the military answer to Russia’s hidden military strength based on her vast manpower and her ready access by land to many of the sixteen nations in whose future we have so deep an interest.
I do not propose here to state what the balance should be except in very general terms. Since Russia might on short notice overrun Europe with her armies (which as far as we know may be mobilized to spring forward at any moment), our balanced strength should be equally ready to strike. How? With what? From where? These are some of the questions to which we need frank answers. And I cannot believe that this talk would in the least disquiet the dwellers in the Kremlin since they assume (according to Marx) that we will strike them in due course. When these questions have been answered in terms of a total diplomatic-military plan for action to offset the Russian challenge, then debate on preparedness will take a more realistic turn. Until that time comes, as the debates in Congress have made clear, we shall be lucky if we can keep our Army up to the strength required to carry out our acknowledged commitments.
MANY educators have opposed the program of Universal Military Training as outlined in the Compton Report. I have not been among this group. On the contrary, I have supported the report because it represents a most careful investigation of an extremely difficult subject by a group of distinguished laymen. The Compton Report, furthermore, gives none of the misleading arguments for military training (its alleged educational value, for example). The question may be raised whether the investigation is not now somewhat out of date. The nature of the armed truce is now more apparent than in 1947. Keeping the Army up to strength seems the first requisite. If and when an over-all strategic plan for the armed truce can be prepared and explained to the American people, another approach to the manpower problem must be attempted. The present stopgap draft law merely postpones a real decision.
There are arguments in favor of enrolling every boy (no exemptions except for extreme physical disability) when he reaches eighteen or graduates from high school in a national militia for a period of ten years. The local unit of the National Guard would be the medium for his subsequent training, which could be accomplished in three or four summer camps of two or three months each, and evening drill throughout the year. Those who volunteered for immediate duty in the Army, Navy, or Air Force would be exempt from this ten-year service and, in addition, could be given special educational and vocational privileges and ample separation pay. Some such system of training, often referred to as the Swiss method, has been advocated for years by a few college presidents, but has received no support from the military men.
College people, of course, favor such a proposal because it would not wreck an educational year as does even six months of training. Another advantage of some such scheme would be that in case of war a national service act for everyone under twentyeight would automatically be in operation. The disposal of manpower under emergency conditions should be, of course, in the hands of a civilian commission with complete authority.
Whatever may be the ultimate long-range decision of Congress about the military training of young men, the schools and colleges can and will adjust to it, without question. That there will be a cost in educational terms must be readily admitted. What adjustments in calendars and schedules will be required no one can now say. Whatever plan is finally adopted for recruiting the Army and training the youth, one may hope provision will lxmade for a review of the entire situation every four years by a civilian commission. This was recommended in the Compton Report and seems essential.
Those who oppose rearmament on general principles will, of course, be as much against a huge Air Force as UMT, or as much against a Swiss plan as the Compton Report. They will be appalled by the idea that we must balance military might across the chasm that divides the world, and ask, how can this lead to anything but war? This is a fair question and should be answered by those who talk in terms of an armed truce. We who believe that war is far from being the inevitable outcome of a strengthening of our military power would argue somewhat as follows: once the sixteen nations under the ERP have shown that they can prosper, their answer to the ideological and political thrust from across the Iron Curtain will be clear. Once our military answer to a possible military thrust from the same direction is definite and convincing, a real stalemate will be evident to all clear-minded men even in Soviet Russia. In January, 1948, we must remember, it may well have looked in the Kremlin that history was not only on their side for the long pull but also for the immediate future.
Even a fanatic believer in the Marx-Engels-Lenin doctrine may be able to see a roadblock when he meets it. If the sixteen nations prosper, the ideological thrust will be neutralized: if our balancing the Russian armies is evident, the stage is set for a frank talk with the Soviet rulers. And what should be the terms? A gradual demobilization on both sides; and the first step in this program must be a raising of the Iron Curtain. I recognize this is a great price for the Soviet rulers to pay, but we must play for the chance that they will eventually be willing to accede. From gradual and open demobilization one may hope in time to come to a gradual disarmament— beginning, I hope, with the atomic bomb. But, as things now stand, that is a prospect at least five years away.
ONE of the major problems of an armed truce which directly affect education is the cost of living. We must contrive to keep our armament program from starting another inflationary spiral.
Anyone who directs his attention to educational institutions sees the damage which increased prices cause throughout our schools and colleges. The effect on endowment income in terms of what it can buy is only one aspect of the matter. The havoc comes from the inability of any nonprofit institution, whether financed by taxes, gifts, or endowment, to adjust rapidly its sources of income to a fast-changing level of prices. The inadequacy of the pay of teachers in our elementary and secondary schools was turned from a serious problem into a national calamity by the inflation of 1945 to 1948. The remedial measures taken in some states as the result of an aroused public opinion have hardly compensated for increased cost of living. A relatively stable price situation seems a requisite for wise planning of our education, however it may be financed.
Let us assume that prices can be stabilized approximately at the 1948 figure; if rises there must be, they will represent not more than a small per cent per annum. Then we can talk in terms of the amount of public moneys which should be spent for education and consider the tax basis for raising this amount. As I see it, the relative priorities for educational reforms which cost the taxpayers money would be somewhat as follows: (1) bring all elementary and secondary schools up to a minimum standard in terms of adequacy of plant, teachers, salaries, and ratio of teachers to students; (2) improve the guidance program in almost every school and support the research on which these programs should be based; (3) increase the number of twoyear local colleges in almost every state; (4) institute a scholarship program for talented youth destined for a few professions; (5) improve still further the elementary and secondary schools and bring them all far above the minimum.
To accomplish the first objective requires increased taxation: either a rise of the local rate or, in many states, the reallocation of state funds. I venture to point out that there are states where, since the state aid is small and the supervision slight, very poor schools exist locally, though the average may be high. In some states Federal aid is the only answer. Of course, the order of priorities I have given has relevance only in so far as the needs are competing for the same source of funds, as is the case with money voted by the Congress. Those concerned with colleges and universities may well question my assignment of so high a place to the highschool and the pre-high-school needs. They might be inclined to put first an expanded scholarship program. College teachers are keenly aware of the talent lost because of economic barriers to college, but they are apt to overlook the loss in earlier years. They fail to realize how much good material never comes within sight, of a university because of the inadequacies of many of the high schools throughout the United States.
The improvement of the guidance system may or may not require increased funds. Certainly a better integration of guidance with the teaching should be possible in many schools without much increase in cost. This question of guidance is central to the whole philosophy of a democratic school system which endeavors to make society more fluid.
Guidance is the keystone of the art of public education. At every stage of the educational process, the capabilities of each student should be assessed. Wise counseling should assist the pupil in taking the next step in the educational journey. Eventually each youth should find a satisfying employment corresponding to his or her ambitions and abilities. In many high schools the potential professional talent suffers the most from the present inadequacies. I wish some organization identified in the public mind with concern for all American youth would take some dramatic action to demonstrate a vigorous interest in the gifted boy or girl. This would serve as an encouragement to all teachers. The schools would be stimulated in a direction which in some quarters has been rather spurned as being undemocratic and old-fashioned. A National Commission for the Identification of Talented Youth has been suggested by one group of educators; the sponsoring of this by public school administrators and teachers would be the sort of thing I have in mind.
We cannot hold our own against the challenge of the Soviet philosophy unless there is a determined improvement in our system of public education. Our free tax-supported schools are the sinews of our democracy; we must make them strong. They are an agency for minimizing social and economic differentiation; through them we may hope to keep American society fluid and move each decade nearer our historic goal of equality of opportunity. The American system represents a unique type of universal education. It is unique, first, because there is little or no differentiation among pupils in terms of subsequent vocations until after the high school years are past; second, because a very high percentage of our youth finishes high school and a considerable percentage goes on for still further education.
The point of view that I should wish to see pervade our public schools would be that of a toughminded idealist. On the one side it leans heavily on a certain type of social science; on the other it is almost fanatically humanitarian, tolerant, and individualistic. Without being chauvinistic it gains strength by its close connection with the indigenous stream of American idealism. Indeed, there must be enough of this American idealism in the mixture to insure against any disguised Toryism’s gaining the upper hand; there ought to be enough tough-minded critical quality also to prevent the planning of Utopias from usurping all the energies of our educators.
To laymen who pass judgment on the public schools one cannot repeat too often: education is a social process; our schools and colleges neither operate in empty space nor serve identical communities. Before you judge a school, analyze the families from which it draws its students and the opportunities presented to its graduates. What may be a satisfactory curriculum for one group of pupils may be highly unsuitable for another. And the difference is often due not to discrepancies in the intellectual capacities of the students but to the social situation in which the boys and girls are placed. This in turn depends on the nature of the local community of which the pupils and their parents are a part . All of which requires speaking frankly of the stratified nature of our society. To my mind, there is no inconsistency in combining a dissection of the social order with an advocacy of policies which are aimed at making the stratification less visible and the entire situation far more fluid. Indeed, one may question whether one can be an effective advocate of change without being at the same time an unshrinking analyst of the present. If this be true as a general rule, education is hardly the field for the exception. To be well founded an educational philosophy must be part and parcel of a comprehensive social philosophy. This is particularly true in the United States at the present moment. Our free schools both reflect the ideals of the nation and ensure the perpetuation of our special forms of democratic living. In short, this is why public education and its future are so closely related to our survival in this grim world.
A protracted struggle between two cultural patterns seems to be ahead. But democracy as we understand the word in the United States will, I believe, win almost every round — provided, of course, that we have sufficient intelligence and foresight to recognize the true nature of the struggle. If we are willing to continue to strengthen the sixteen nations whose needs the Congress has recognized under ECA and fortify the democratic forces within those nations, the omens will be favorable for peace in the coming years. Provided further that we neither talk nor act as though we were merely seeking allies for an inevitable war. This nation, having arrived at a stage in history where the words “foreign policy” take on new meaning, must traverse that narrow knife-edge which divides supineness from belligerency. Patience and yet more patience, strength and wisdom to handle strength, a belief in the importance of the historic goals of our unique society, intelligence and courage to cope with problems of terrifying complexity — all these we shall need in abundant measure.
Nothing is static in a period like the present. The United States fifty years from now will be unlike the present or the past. Our aim is surely to preserve the maximum degree of individual freedom and at the same time widen the opportunities for a rich and fruitful life. The influence of our example, if we succeed, will be felt throughout the world for centuries to come. Nothing short of the complete destruction of Western civilization can obliterate the effects of a demonstration by the United States in the next ten years that a “government by the people and for the people” is possible even in a distraught era following two global wars. Nothing short of the worst of the fears of the alarmists can vitiate the endeavors of the citizens of this country to bring our society nearer to our historic goals.
No one can deny that the people of the United States in the last century and a half have made a lasting and highly significant contribution to the development of civilization. But the task is nowhere near completion. We have been the medium for carrying forward certain ideals and aspirations. To a considerable degree it is in our hands today to decide how much greater shall be our contribution. Who could ask for more than to be given an opportunity to live in a time when such possibilities lie ahead? This is the answer to the current philosophies of defeatism and despair.