The 1940s Education: Topics in the News

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The 1940s Education: Topics in the News



The principle of academic freedom is that university teachers should be able to teach and research any subject that will benefit students and society as a whole. In the 1940s, conservative politicians and church leaders made many attacks on academic freedom. Some university teachers were accused of trying to turn their students into communists. Others were challenged for their ideas about marriage, sex, and religion.

The most famous academic freedom dispute of the decade is the Bertrand Russell case. Russell (1872–1970) was one of the twentieth century's most brilliant philosophers. He was hired to teach logic and mathematics at New York City College in 1940. But conservatives were alarmed by Russell's unconventional views on marriage and sexuality. The philosopher was also a prominent left-wing thinker. Newspapers described him as an "anarchist" (someone who prefers to do away with all forms of government), while clergy disliked the fact that he did not believe in God and was hostile to organized religion. Soon after Russell's hiring, and before he entered the classroom, the New York courts ruled against his appointment. One of the reasons given was that Russell was "unqualified" to teach at City College. But since Russell was one of the world's greatest philosophers and an acclaimed mathematician, there was nobody better qualified to do so.

Any hope of an appeal faded when Mayor Fiorello La Guardia (1882–1947) withdrew funding for Russell's post at City College. The Russell case damaged academic freedom because it denied the right of academics to judge the quality of the work of their colleagues. Instead, a politician had decided whom City College could employ. American philosopher and educator John Dewey (1859–1952) was a vocal opponent of Russell's views. But even Dewey thought the case was a national embarrassment. He said: "We can only blush with shame for this scar on our repute for fair play." Politicians were not the only ones who tried to limit academic freedoms; they were joined by education administrators. At the University of Chicago, in 1944, president Robert M. Hutchins (1899–1977) tried to abolish academic rank, effectively reducing senior professors to the level of junior colleagues. When news of his effort appeared in the national press, the plan was dropped.

In primary and secondary schools the situation was similar. Throughout the 1940s, teachers known to be communists were suspected of brainwashing their students. In fact, there was no evidence that communist teachers were better or worse at their job than anyone else. But conservative administrators and school board officials often damaged the reputation of left-wing teachers by labeling them as "Reds." Schools themselves often were investigated for evidence of communist or fascist views. The New York Assembly appointed the Rapp-Condert Committee in 1941 to seek out fascists (people who supported governments run by dictators such as Germany's Adolf Hitler). They soon turned to hunting "Reds," and twenty-five instructors were fired for their left-wing views. Yet the committee could find no evidence that the fired teachers had been instructing their students in communism or fascism.

The most powerful threat to teachers came from the federal government in the form of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a committee formed by the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1949, HUAC began inspecting textbooks for signs of communist material. The same year, the National Education Association (NEA) voted to ban members who were known to be communists. School boards also began forcing teachers to swear an oath that they were not members of the Communist Party.

In the universities, anticommunist fervor was slower to arrive. Still, in 1947, Harvard University came under attack. Many of its faculty were outspoken liberals. They supported Henry Wallace (1888–1965) in his run for president of the United States on a Progressive Party ticket. The high standing of Harvard and its faculty protected them from real threat, but elsewhere professors had more trouble. At the University of Washington, several faculty members were expelled for refusing to cooperate with an investigation. Both Oklahoma and California began forcing teachers and college faculty to sign loyalty oaths in 1949. Thirty-one professors were fired for refusing to sign. But though careers were ruined, far worse was the effect on American universities. Attacks on academic freedom made them less dynamic, less outspoken, and less interesting as places to work and study.


In November 1945, representatives of forty-four countries met in London to adopt the constitution of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Even before 1945, UNESCO's founders had used their influence to prevent the bombing of university cities such as Oxford England, and Heidelberg Germany. In 1946, UNESCO became an agency of the United Nations (UN). It funded the rebuilding of 362 libraries around Europe, 4 museums in Belgium, 1,326 churches in Yugoslavia, and many other institutions damaged or destroyed by bombs.

UNESCO was helped greatly by the U.S. occupation of European countries and Japan. Apart from rebuilding libraries and museums, UNESCO was also involved in restoring schooling to children in war-torn countries. Under the Marshall Plan (a program that used American money to rebuild the economies of Europe and Asia), the U.S. Army employed teachers, scientists, and students to help teach about world peace. In both Germany and Japan, UNESCO helped undo the effects of years of fascist propaganda. UNESCO aimed to encourage human rights, promote the arts around the world, and improve living conditions worldwide. When the cold war began in 1947, however, most UNESCO peacekeeping programs came to an end.

Perhaps the most important American program to promote international understanding was the Fulbright-Hays Act. Senator James W. Fulbright (1905–1995) of Arkansas put Public Law 584 before Congress in 1946, where it was passed in August of that year. The act paid for academics and students to study abroad. These "Fulbright Scholars" would gain knowledge and understanding of other cultures while promoting American culture abroad. Fulbright scholarships were a great success, soon ranking among the most prestigious academic awards. By the mid-1990s, twelve thousand American students had traveled to other countries on Fulbright scholarships, and fifteen thousand students from abroad had studied in the United States.


World War II exposed severe problems with the American public school system. Children from different parts of the country had widely different experiences of schooling. After the war ended, education specialists began to debate ways of reforming the secondary and postsecondary curriculum. Led by University of Chicago president Robert M. Hutchins (1899–1977), they proposed what they called a "core curriculum." This was a curriculum focused on the arts, humanities, and "Great Books." The aim was to insure that all secondary-school students had a grounding in what Hutchins called the "tradition of the West."

The ideas behind the core curriculum went against many of the education reforms of the 1930s. Before the war, American education had concentrated on the sciences, economics, and psychology. Literature, the arts, and other humanities also had their place, but students specialized early and thus lacked general knowledge of Western culture. Hutchins argued that such a narrow education created citizens who were materialistic and lacking in moral values. The core curriculum was intended to rescue American culture from its obsession with money.

After the war ended, the core curriculum project began to take shape. Clifton Fadiman (1904–1999), Mark van Doren (1894–1972), Jacques Barzun (1907–), and others pressed Hutchins to introduce the core curriculum at the University of Chicago. Philosopher Mortimer Adler (1902–2001) proposed a course of "Great Books" where students would read a "classic a week" from the fields of literature, philosophy, theology, and political theory. Hutchins suggested a two-year core curriculum at the University of Chicago, followed by specialized graduate study. Although the two-year course was never offered, the "Great Books" idea did influence university and college courses at Chicago and around the country.

St. John's College

In 1937, Stringfellow Barr (1897–1982) became president of St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. He was a close associate of Robert M. Hutchins at the University of Chicago, and a supporter of the core curriculum. He was also an advisory editor for Encyclopedia Britannica's Great Books series. At St. John's in the 1940s, Barr organized a course of study based on one hundred great books and began teaching it to the college's 231 male students. Barr left St. John's in 1946, fearing it had grown too large, but the first graduates of the system completed their studies in 1949. Barr's idea did not catch on elsewhere. Still, in the twenty-first century St. John's College continues to base its entire curriculum on the study of "Great Books" ranging from the Bible through the Constitution of the United States to Richard Wagner's opera Tristan and Isolde.

Although the core curriculum was never adopted nationally, the idea of a "core" of Great Books that could improve American society was very attractive. Many educators used the concept to design courses in schools, colleges, and universities. Hutchins and his supporters produced many books on the subject among them are Van Doren's Liberal Education (1943) and Hutchins' own Education for Freedom (1943). They argued that the rise of fascism and communism could be blamed on a lack of education in the humanities.

They also attacked progressive educators who argued for a specialized curriculum, which was the opposite of the Great Books concept. Adler attacked progressive John Dewey, arguing that democracy had more to fear from experimenters like him than from fascists like Hitler. Adler's attack came in 1940, when the German army was preparing to overrun Europe.

It was an insensitive remark, which shocked many people, but it also succeeded in damaging the progressive cause. A few years later, progressives were no longer accused of being right-wing fascists. Instead, they were attacked as left-wing communists.

But while attacks on progressives were successful, the core curriculum idea itself did not gain ground. The main problem was in trying to decide which books should be listed as "classics." Even supporters of the idea could not agree. Adler argued that a classic was a work that had "stood the test of time" and offered insight into human nature. He produced a list of titles that met his requirements. Critics were not convinced. They doubted whether many of the books on the list did have universal value, and wondered instead if the works had value only for people like Adler. This was the main problem with the Great Books concept. Critics charged that it tried to force the views of wealthy, educated white people onto students from all social and ethnic backgrounds.


Until the 1930s, American schools had always been funded locally. During the Great Depression, the Roosevelt administration helped out local school boards with federal aid. At the end of World War II, the U.S. government began a program to expand education. It sold off 100,000 acres of land and 2,500 buildings at just 3.5 percent of their market value. In doing so it helped establish 5,500 public schools, colleges, and universities. Yet, by the end of the 1940s, there was still no regular system of federal assistance for education.

The idea of federal funding for education was highly controversial. Congress repeatedly rejected funding bills after the war. Conservatives and liberals alike opposed federal funding. Conservatives feared that it would mean the spread of progressive education (an educational approach that favored student participation rather than learning by rote). In the South, conservatives worried that federal funding would end segregation and lead to blacks and whites being educated together. Liberals opposed federal funding for other reasons. They saw it as a way for federal government to take control of the curriculum and dominate teachers. Though federal funding plans were often supported by President Truman, schools remained under local control.

Keeping Women in College

For women, the 1940s brought improved access to education. Wartime labor shortages meant that many women left school early to go to work. This forced colleges to create courses that would keep them in school. In the 1920s, women had been taught to run a home and look after children. In the 1940s, they became lawyers, chemists, and engineers. But even though women were encouraged to stay in college, men and women still were educated separately. In 1947, Harvard University allowed female students from nearby Radcliffe College to attend classes with men. Radcliffe became the first Ivy League coeducational school. Most colleges, universities, and state-supported schools followed Harvard's lead within a few years.

Despite the opposition, in certain areas federal funding was a success in the 1940s. When the war ended, hundreds of thousands of veterans had to be helped back into society. The government opened military schools that offered a nonmilitary education. The United States Armed Forces Institute offered 275 courses in 1944. By February 1946, eight hundred thousand veterans were taking correspondence courses. But the most popular innovation of all was the school lunch program. In 1940, the federal government paid $2 million to buy meals for elementary and secondary school students; by 1949, the figure had risen to $92 million. Though he was usually a strong critic of the Democrats, even former President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964) was enthusiastic about the school lunch program, which had been started by a Democratic presidential administration.


The Servicemen's Readjustment Act (GI Bill of Rights) has gone down in history as one of the most forward-looking pieces of legislation ever passed by the U.S. Congress. The reasons for establishing the GI Bill were simple. Veterans of World War II deserved to be compensated for the sacrifices they had made in defending democracy. It was also important that they should settle back into civilian life. The U.S. economy would have to absorb around sixteen million veterans of the European and Pacific campaigns. In order to make sure the transition from war to peace went smoothly, Congress passed the GI Bill in 1944, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed it into law that year.

The GI Bill allowed any veteran who had served ninety or more days after September 16, 1940, to receive up to two years of education or training at the government's expense. The Veterans' Administration paid school costs of up to $500 each year, and also gave each GI a monthly payment to cover living expenses. In 1945, veterans in college received $65 per month if they were single and $90 if they had dependents. Just over half of the eligible veterans joined the program. Up to 1947, when it closed, the GI Bill cost $14.5 billion.

With so much government money available, the GI Bill was easily abused. American colleges and universities set new enrollment records in 1947 and raised their fees to record levels. Between 1939 and 1947, the cost to attend law school rose by 46 percent. Fees had also shot up elsewhere, by 27 percent at private schools, and by 29 percent at public schools. There were warnings that when government money stopped flowing, colleges and universities would have to reduce their tuition.

Another problem caused by the GI Bill was overcrowding. Many educational institutions simply could not handle so many new students. There were shortages of classrooms, professors, and books. New programs and night classes were begun to ease the pressure. Junior colleges and community colleges expanded to deal with the extra students. Veterans who needed high school credits were given special classes so they did not have to attend regular high school with teenagers. They worked from condensed texts, and teachers were trained to move them through the material as quickly as possible.

Eventually, problems with the GI Bill forced a Select Committee investigation into alleged abuses. But despite the difficulties, the GI Bill was a huge success for veterans who took advantage of the offer. Veterans who were better educated landed better paying jobs. The GI Bill gave many people an opportunity for personal development they would not otherwise have had. It helped expand the American middle class in the postwar period.


In November 1946, high school students in Rogersville, Tennessee, went on strike to demand better-quality teachers. They asked the school principal to find teachers with at least four years of college training and five years of teaching experience. Teachers also had to be willing to work for $149 per month at a time when the cheapest new car cost around $1,200. It was almost impossible. Anyone clever enough to be a teacher could earn considerably more money doing something else. Many schools closed because there were not enough teachers to work in them. Teachers who did stay in the classroom often went on strike over low pay in the 1940s.


Soldiers who could not read or write were called "jugheads" by their fellow GIs. In 1945, there were more than three hundred thousand jugheads in the U.S. Army. But the army was very good at teaching basic reading and writing skills. It boasted that its system of flash cards, movies, and word recognition could teach soldiers to read and write in just eight weeks. The system certainly worked, but education specialists realized it would be difficult to use it in ordinary schools. Unlike normal students, soldiers could be forced to study at any time of the day or night. They were also desperate to be able to read letters from their loved ones and to write replies home.

Strikes, shortages of teachers, and closures were not the only problems facing American high schools in the 1940s. The whole system was badly organized, badly run, and close to chaos. By law in every state, children had to attend school until the age of sixteen, but thousands of children had no school to go to. The quality and type of education varied from one town to the next. World War II exposed the poor state of American schooling. Millions of young men were refused entry to the military because they could not read. The Naval Officers' Training Corps reported that sixty-two out of every one hundred candidates failed the simple arithmetic test.

The sorry state of U.S. public education negatively affected more than just the military. While many students dropped out of school to enlist in the military, many more left to find work. These dropouts found themselves with little education and no adult supervision. Many of them spent

their days working in dull, dead-end jobs and their nights causing trouble. By the end of the war, only seven out of every ten high school students went as far as grades eleven and twelve. U.S. Commissioner of Education John W. Studebaker (1887–1989) decided to change the curriculum to encourage teenagers to stay in school.

The "Lifestyle Adjustment Curriculum," as it was called, was based on the assumption that 60 percent of high school students either were not smart enough to go to college, or were not technically minded enough to benefit from technical training. The curriculum aimed to give these 60 percent the skills they would need to have a happy life and make a useful contribution to society. They would study applied business math instead of more advanced mathematics. Communication skills would replace "hard" subjects such as literature and grammar. Because it was less daunting, the Lifestyle Adjustment Curriculum was thought to be able to keep students in school. From 1945 onwards, it began to spread slowly across the country.

There were many critics of the less challenging curriculum. Some thought it would lead high schools to abandon their "true purpose" of providing intellectual training. Historian Richard Hofstadter (1916–1970) actually saw danger in the Lifestyle Adjustment Curriculum. He argued that it was not intended to help students achieve their potential. Rather, it molded them into easily managed, passive citizens who would not give the government any trouble. Criticism of the curriculum prevented it from being widely adopted, and by the end of the decade little had changed in most high schools. By the 1950s, the ineffectiveness of American education threatened to weaken the country's standing as a world power.


In the 1940s, black and white children went to separate schools in the South, where segregation was enforced by law. It was part of a system known as Jim Crow laws. In theory, Jim Crow laws gave "separate but equal" treatment to blacks and whites. The reality was rather different. In 1949, for example, Clarendon County, South Carolina, spent $179 each year on every white child enrolled in school. The county spent only $43 for each black child. As a result, schools for African Americans were usually in a terrible condition. They were overcrowded and unheated. In winter, children often wore their overcoats to keep warm in the classroom. Some white children also suffered similar hardship. But for blacks, it was common. This unequal treatment violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But as long as school boards appeared to be doing what they could to act fairly, the courts took no notice.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had been fighting racial equality cases throughout the 1930s. In the 1940s it finally began to make progress. Major industries such as defense equipment plants were desegregated, so blacks and whites began working together. In 1948, President Truman desegregated the military. Father Joseph E. Ritter (1882–1967) of St. Louis, Missouri, succeeded in desegregating Catholic schools and in 1948, New Jersey desegregated its schools. By then, several colleges, including the Universities of Maryland and Arkansas, had begun admitting African Americans. The following year, Wesley A. Brown (1927–) became the first black graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy to receive a commission as an officer. But there were still obstacles. A 1949 attempt to desegregate schools in Washington, D.C., failed. Even so, by the end of the decade, Jim Crow laws were starting to fall apart.

Religious Education

The 1940s saw the end of compulsory religious education in American public schools. When Vashti McCollum refused to allow her son Terry to attend religious classes, she ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court. In McCollum v. Board of Education, she argued that classes in religion were unfair to minority religious faiths, and that church and state should be separate. The court ruled in her favor. After an appeal in 1948, the Supreme Court found that religious instruction or activity in public schools was unconstitutional. Religious discussion was not forbidden, but it had to be part of an effort to create responsible citizens of all beliefs.

The main reason separate education for blacks and whites could not last was money. As the NAACP put pressure on school boards to improve education for black students, it became clear that the costs to maintain segregation would be huge. In 1948, the Board of Control for Southern Regional Education began discussing the possibility of creating separate but truly equal facilities for blacks and whites. In 1949, they revealed that the cost of raising the standard of black school facilities to the same level as for whites would be $545 million. Jim Crow laws were absurdly expensive. In the universities, the situation was similar. The University of Oklahoma Law School created a separate facility for just three black students. Elsewhere, black students were separated from their white counterparts by sheets, which divided the classroom. A court in Oklahoma finally came to the conclusion that "separate education is inherently unequal."

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The 1940s Education: Topics in the News

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The 1940s Education: Topics in the News