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Ria Stone

The Crisis of the Educational System in America

(19 January 1948)

From The Militant, Vol. XII No. 3, 19 January 1948, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The report of the President’s Commission on Higher Education, now being released in installments, is one of the most significant social documents ever published by the U.S. government. It is a public confession by an official body that a crisis exists in this crucial field of contemporary society.

The Commission members represented the cream of America’s crop of professional educators and publicists. Not only were there deans and college presidents, but also Rabbi Wise, President of the American Jewish Congress, Mark Starr, educational director of the International Garment Workers Union, Murray D. Lincoln, president of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, Douglas S. Freeman, editor of the Richmond, Va., News Leader.

The Commission begins its report with a recognition of the “worldwide crisis of mankind.” And in the field which they, as “civic and educational leaders,” know best, they are terrified at the gap which exists on the one hand, between “Scientific knowledge and technical skills,” and on the other, the “social and political defenses against obliteration.”


The Commission is further appalled at the “over-specialization” in professional education, and the lack of “human wholeness and civic conscience which the cooperative activities of citizenship require.” It bewails the “provincial and insular mind” in a period when the “oneness of the modern world” is so undeniable. It bemoans the lack of equality for the poor and the Negro and Jewish minorities, at a time when the U.S. “sorely needs” to develop “leadership” and “social competence.” No less important, it is terror-stricken at the explosions that are inevitable, given this inequality.

Undoubtedly, the members of this exalted Commission would be the first to accuse Marxists of “idealism,” “crass materialism,” “economic determinism” and all the other epithets by which the bourgeois intellectuals justify their role as the hired prize fighters for the ruling class. Yet the critical situation which they describe is merely the concretization, within the field of education, of the contradiction which scientific socialists have long realized would bring capitalist society to a inglorious end. What the Commission is actually talking about is, in Marxist terminology, the contradiction between the development of the productive forces and the antagonistic social relations.

It is because capitalist production mutilates the worker to a fragment of a man that the professions can only breed super-specialists. It is because under capitalism the nation must compete on the world market in imperialist rivalry with other nations that the population is provincial, is patriotically mobilized by the state behind a single nation. It is because under capitalism the poor are only required for the most unskilled labor in field and factory that there is unequal educational opportunity.

The Real Solution

The contradiction between scientific progress and social waste cannot be resolved by giving more courses in social sciences or by adding “men of broad knowledge, men of imagination and understanding and wisdom” to teaching staffs. It can, in reality, only be resolved by building a new world society in which the exploitation of the workers has been abolished, and the competitive world market destroyed.

How closely these educators approach the answer, and yet how blinded they are by the typical illusions of the intellectual, is indicated by the “radical adjustments” which they recommend. As the first principles of higher education in our time, the Commission proposes that all the people of the nation should be given:

“Education for a fuller realization of democracy in every phase of living.

“Education directly and explicitly for international understanding and cooperation.

“Education for the application of creative imagination and trained intelligence to the solution of social problems and to the administration of public affairs.”

Turned right side up, these principles are the principles of a new socialist society. That is, if in their daily lives, the workers had democracy, that is control over production; if the workers could employ the modern development of the creative imagination and trained intelligence for which the modern development of the productive forces has prepared them – then education for all the people of the nation would be democratic, international and creative. On the other hand, without such a revolutionary change, education will either continue in its present crisis, or like the rest of society assume the facade of “social responsibility and organization” along the lines of Hitler Germany.

More Funds

Unable to see through to either conclusion, the President’s Commission tries to find refuge from its own analysis by proposing – an expansion program. It calls upon the state to devote more funds for scholarships, to erect more colleges, and to set up more committees. As if by increasing the QUANTITY of education, the QUALITATIVE contradiction could be resolved!

The more students there are, the more acute will become the crisis in the academic world. The Commission itself admits that there is a “high degree of student mortality” because higher education is unstimulating and unchallenging. Witness also the dissatisfaction of the veterans who make up 55% of the present college enrollment. Moreover, in the weakest link of higher education today, the teachers colleges, it is not lack of resources which is creating a crisis. As was dramatically revealed by the nationwide teachers’ strike in 1946–47, American capitalism cannot even recruit sufficient teachers. Before the war the turnover in public school teachers was 10%. Today it is 20%.

The American ruling class cannot convince the teachers that they are missionaries of an all-conquering and superior ideology and therefore should subordinate the problem of their livelihood to their civic responsibility to capitalist society. Many teachers, walking the picket lines, discovered that their revolt against the city fathers brought them greater respect from students and parents than they had ever received as guardians and purveyors of capitalist ideology in the classroom.

It is a commentary on the bankruptcy of the capitalist ruling, class today that the sweeping changes necessary in the spheres of higher education depend upon the workers at the base of society.

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