Macdonald Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Dwight Macdonald

Reading from Left to Right

Popular Education in Crisis

(June 1939)

From New International, Vol. V No. 6, June 1939, pp. 176–179.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

AS EVERY ONE KNOWS, popular education is one of the great historical cornerstones of bourgeois democracy. Free schools were one of the first and most insistent demands of the rising proletariat in the last century. The bourgeoisie made this concession partly because it could afford to and partly because it fitted in with its own interests. For all its limitations, parliamentary democracy meant a greater participation of the masses in the political life of the nation than either feudalism or the absolute monarchy had granted. And this in turn demanded a minimum of popular education. There was also another aspect, concisely expressed in the Encyclopaedia Britannica article on Education:

“The nation that is not to fail in the struggle for commercial success ... must needs see that its industries are fed with a constant supply of workers adequately equipped in respect both of general intelligence and technical training.”

Illiterate peasants are as little useful to the modern employer as to the bourgeois-democratic politician.

Thus one finds the rise of popular education synchronizing with the rise of industrial capitalism. In France, the foundations of the modern system of state-supported free schools was laid in legislation introduced in 1833 by Guizot, mouthpiece of the rising bourgeoisie and author of the celebrated slogan—“Enrichisses-vous!” Bismarck and the social democracy joined hands to create a model system of state education at the same time as German industry was rationalizing its plants and winning ever greater victories in world markets. In England, the Chartist agitation stimulated the raising of the annual parliamentary grant to education from £30,000 in 1839 to £100,000 in 1846, £396,000 in 1855, and £663,000 in 1858. In the United States, the first compulsory school attendance law was passed in 1854, in the middle of the decade during which the country, according to the historian, V.S. Clark, “made the most remarkable industrial progress in its history”—a decade which saw the nation’s two chief industries, textiles and iron, almost double their production.

Between 1865 and 1930, popular education in the United States steadily gained momentum. Decade after decade, the statistics on schools, like those on steel production, mounted ever more triumphantly. In 1870, 57% of all children of school age were enrolled in the public grade schools. By 1880 it was 65%, by 1900 72%, by 1932 83%. The boom in high school and college education came later, in the twentieth century. In 1890 only 6% of those between the ages of 14 and 17 were enrolled in public or private high schools. By 1900 the figure was 10%, by 1920 26%, by 1930 48%. College enrollment rose from 238,000 in 1900 to 598,000 in 1920 and 1,100,000 in 1930. These are figures to make any Fourth of July orator expand with justified pride. O, beautiful for spacious skies ...

Distress Signals

The depression hit the public school system like a hurricane. In 1930 annual expenditure per public grade school pupil was $90. By 1932 this had fallen to $82, and by 1934 to $65, according to the Statistical Abstract of the US (1938). The short-lived “Roosevelt recovery” won back some of the ground lost, expenditures rising to $74 per pupil in 1936. But the recovery has gone with the wind and for the last two years the national economy has hung in the doldrums, slowly and steadily drifting backward. By now, in the spring of 1939, there are increasing signs that a serious crisis is impending in popular education. According to Time for April 24, “By last week so many distress signals flew over US schoolhouses that educators were thoroughly alarmed.” Time itemized a few:

“Pennsylvania’s educators,” writes Time, “pleaded with economy-minded Governor James to replenish the special State fund for schools in distressed areas, now exhausted. Having pleaded in vain, nearly 200 teachers last week marched out of 27 schools in Northumberland and Schuylkill Counties, declared they would not go back until they were paid.”

“Georgia owes its schoolteachers $5,000,000, sees no way of paying them before June 30—and after that date they cannot collect because of a State law prohibiting debt carry-overs to the next fiscal year. Unofficial calculations were that 200 Georgia schools, with 20,000 pupils, were closed ... In Lamar County, white children’s school term was shortened to eight months, Negro children’s schools were closed.”

The Little Red School House —

As these facts indicate, the current school crisis is most acute in the rural and small-town areas, where it is merely an intensification of a long-chronic condition.

“In 1930,” Time’s article begins, “although every US state had laws requiring that all children be schooled, some 800,000 US children of elementary school age had no school to go to. Most of them were in poor farm areas that could not maintain a school.”

Some weeks ago, Dr. Frank P. Graham, president of the University of North Carolina, in a public address put the number of illiterate adults in the United States at 3,000,000, most of them in the rural South. He also estimated that 12,000,000 other American citizens could not read well enough to understand a newspaper, thus being, for all practical purposes, also illiterate. Finally, he gave the basic reason for these appalling statistics: that in 1930 the farmers of the United States had 9% of the national income and 31% of the children. The newly published survey of the National Education Association, Teachers in Rural Communities, covering 11,000 teachers scattered throughout the country, reveals that the composite mean salary for the group is $833, with Negro teachers getting $346, and some individual salaries running as low as $200. Two out of three of these rural teachers “support” a family. Less than half of them have either telephones or heated bedrooms, and one-third of them don’t have that rural necessity: a car. Under capitalism, you get what you pay for. When one considers that half the public school pupils of the country are educated in these rural schools, staffed by teachers paid these coolie wages, the wonder is that only 12,000,000 Americans can’t read the newspaper.

— And the Big City

But the farm areas, as I have just pointed out, are chronic weak spots in the school system. Things are different in the cities, perhaps? Not at all! For the last few years, the schools of Chicago, for example, have been in a state of utmost demoralization, because of the failure of the city to pay the salaries of the teachers. But Chicago’s budget troubles are well known to be due to the corruption and inefficiency of the notorious Kelly city machine—which was, by the way, supported by both the New Dealers and the Stalinists in the last mayoralty election. Granted—but how can one explain away the disaster that is about to overtake the school system of the nation’s biggest city, which for some years now has rejoiced in a comparatively progressive and enlightened city administration? The Board of Education of New York City is currently faced with the necessity of dismissing 6,819 teachers, closing down all night schools, shutting the city playgrounds and swimming pools throughout the summer, and otherwise cutting down expenses. (The New York Public Library, for lack of funds, has also drastically curtailed its services.) This is necessary because the progressive LaGuardia administration has cut $3,000,000 out of the city’s educational budget, and the reactionary State legislature has cut another $5,300,000. Between the forces of progress and the forces of reaction, it looks as though the city’s school system is about to suffer the worst dismantling in its history. The reactions of the friends of “progress” to this fact are, to say the least, naive.

“I can’t believe that the State legislature will persist in depriving our present generation of the educational facilities to which they are entitled,” says Mrs. Joanna M. Lindlof, an official of the Board of Education. “I have too much respect for their intelligence and their desire to perpetuate democratic principles.”

But, in these days of mounting deficits, democratic principles don’t cut very much ice—except when it is a matter of defending them against the fascists on the other side of the Atlantic. The legislature has wound up its session and gone home with the New York City school budget still $8,300,000 shy, and Mayor LaGuardia has been so excited about the World’s Fair and the new express highways and bridges he is building that he hasn’t had time to worry about anything so unspectacular and plebeian as the school system. But the Merchants’ Association of New York has given thought to the problem and has put forward a solution, which you’ve perhaps already guessed. Yes, it suggests a cut in teachers’ salaries.

Education that Does Not Educate

The immediate cause of the crisis in popular education, of course, is the simple fact that our declining capitalist economy can no longer meet the bills. But there is a more general factor, and one with ominous implications for the future of bourgeois democracy. In the last century, the more liberal and enlightened bourgeoisie looked to education as the chief means of making capitalist democracy work. Once the masses were educated, then they could vote “intelligently” and the social system would function smoothly in an ever-ascending spiral of progress. It was a thrilling vision, but the liberals, here as in other matters, stubbed their toe on the hard rock of the class struggle. Schools don’t make money, and so the bourgeoisie were never willing to pay enough in salaries and other ways to get a really good school system. More important, the educational process was stultified and deformed by the pressure of class interests. No amount of intelligence and good will on the part of “progressive” educators like John Dewey and his followers could alter the basic fact about education under capitalism: that it must be conducted primarily in the interests of the ruling class. And as that class increasingly loses its historical or social function, the educational process also degenerates.

Last year the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching published the findings of a survey its staff had conducted, over a ten-year period, of higher education in the state of Pennsylvania. This survey, based on written questionnaires given to 45,000 high school and college students, deals a death blow to the nineteenth-century faith in education as the great social panacea. The NY Times editorially termed the findings “appalling” and stated that the Carnegie Foundation had been so alarmed that it had withheld them from publication “until they had been thoroughly mulled over”. The Carnegie survey made two major discoveries:

  1. that students intending to teach scored lower in educational tests than the average of their classmates, and that in many cases they scored lower than high school students four years below them;
  2. that of 4,000 high school students who went to college, 1,000 scored lower than the average of those who did not go to college, while 3,000 of the high school students who did not go to college scored higher than the 4,000 who did.

Speaking of “the able and often brilliant young minds that are left behind because they cannot pay college bills”, the survey drew the conclusion:

“Both state subsidies and the income from endowments are today flowing in large amounts to individuals who might be replaced by more appropriate intellectual investments.”

The survey also discovered that one out of every seven of the college undergraduates examined got lower scores in their senior year than they had in their sophomore year—i.e., the longer they stayed at college, the less they knew.

“In brief,” summarized the Times, “the findings indicate that our higher education does not educate.”

“The Odds Are on the Cheaper Man”

But what if our schools and colleges really did educate? In the last decade, American capitalism has deteriorated to such an extent that this has become a secondary question. According to the excellent little pamphlet, Youth Want Jobs, recently issued by the Young People’s Socialist League, seven of the twenty-one million young people of the nation are unemployed. Every year two million more young men and women are graduated from our high schools and colleges, two million pouring out of the educational system to find no jobs waiting for most of them. The most intellectually ambitious youth might well ask himself why he should spend years at his books in order to fit himself—if he’s lucky—for a WPA pick and shovel job. Or in order, when and if war comes, to get his well-cultivated head blown off. As Kipling wrote of the young Englishmen of an earlier age who went out to fight the Afghans:

A great and glorious thing it is
To learn, for seven years or so,
The Lord knows what of that and this,
Ere reckoned fit to fight the foe —
The flying bullet down the Pass,
That whistles clear: “All flesh is grass.”
No proposition Euclid wrote
No formulas the textbooks know,
Will turn the bullet from your coat,
Or ward the tulars downward blow.
Strike hard who cares—shoot straight who can—
The odds are on the cheaper man.

Not much can be said for Kipling’s social angle, but his general idea was sound: “The odds are on the cheaper man.” And this seems to be as true of the capitalism of our time in peace as it obviously is in war. Our ruling class of late has been showing more and more signs of impatience with higher education—except for their own sons, of course. Louis M. Hacker could write a few years ago of “the unanimity with which twentieth century America accepted a collegiate education as a prime requisite for future success, whether the chosen career was to be in business, politics, or the professions”. But a recent survey of business men showed that 42% of those queried believed that a young man’s chances of success were greater if he stopped his education with high school, while only 29% came out definitely in favor of a college education.

It is not very hard to see the direction in which all this is tending. A few weeks ago a Mr. Mark Jones, who is president of the Akron Belting Co., gave a speech before a teachers’ convention in New York City.

“The American standard of living is declining,” he said quite bluntly, “the economy is in devolution, and the number of individuals who are reaching the end of their economic resources is increasing day by day.”

This Mr. Jones blamed on the “ideologies of the left”, and went on to criticize educators because they had not done a better job of dispelling certain popular “illusions” encouraged by these ideologies. These “illusions” he listed as: equality, democracy, security, collective bargaining and economic planning.

“No fantasy of dreamers,” he concluded, “has exerted such a devastating effect upon the countless millions or upon the course of human events than the illusion of equality. For more than one hundred and fifty years it has served to delude the masses into belief in the equality of individuals and races.”

Thus Mr. Mark Jones of the Akron Belting Co., and thus the more conscious members of his class. It is clear that popular education, as it has developed in the last century, has no place in their future scheme of things—even if capitalism could pay the bills. This spring of 1939 may well be a major turning-point in the history of our public education system, for it is by now a question not only as to whether a declining economy like ours can much longer afford to educate the children of the masses, but also as to whether it is desirable, from the standpoint of ruling-class interests, that this should any longer be done at all. Nor should the statement made last month by the president of the National Education Association be forgotten:

“The United States is farther from universal education, to which the public looks for preservation of the fundamental traditions of democracy, than it was one hundred years ago.”

Macdonald Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 16 January 2016