UNIVERSAL SERVICE AS EDUCATION
The New Republic
April 22, 1916
It is our American habit if we find the foundations of our educational structure unsatisfactory to add another story or a wing. We find it easier to add a new study or course or kind of school than to reorganize existing conditions so as to meet the need. Manual training schools, trade schools, vocational schools and courses, now pre-vocational schools---and next year perhaps pre-pre-vocational and post-vocational---testify how we manage when it is seen that our system does not conform to the demands of present life. Just now we have discovered new defects and are having another addition to our educational scheme urged upon us. The defects are that our educational measures do not assimilate the foreign born and that they do not develop public-mindedness, a sense of public service and responsibility. Some persons might think that the remedy is to improve our existing educational agencies and to make our existing public institutions---including government---more serviceable to the people so that they would arouse greater devotion. But no: let everything else be as it is, and let us add a new agency devised ad hoc. Let us have the school of universal and compulsory military service, and the trick is done.
It is a pleasure to acknowledge that there is an awakening to the presence in our country of large immigrant masses who may remain as much aliens as if they never entered out gateways. It is questionable, however, if there is much gain in passing at one bound from seeing nothing to seeing red. Having formerly lulled ourselves to sleep with the word "melting-pot" we have now turned to the word "hyphenate" as denoting the last thing in scares with a thrill. Casting about for some magic, universal military service is to replace the school-house as the melting and brewing pot. In the words of Major General Wood, "Great portions of our population develop in racial areas, reading a dialect press and controlled in the intervening years by dialect interests. Some sort of community of service must be established in order to develop a proper and necessary appreciation of the duties and obligations of American citizenship. I believe that the best method is by some sort of a systemized military training of a universal character." Is it then axiomatic that nothing socializes the mind and enables it to think in public terms so much as a service rendered under military auspices, with the accustomed environment of military paraphernalia and by the traditional rules of military command and obedience?
A speech of Major General Wood as reported in a Philadelphia newspaper puts the matter more vividly. "It is a pretty dangerous situation to turn loose in this country all kinds of humanity seen on the docks at Ellis Island, to turn them loose with no sense of responsibility to their new land. They come in racial groups, drift through our schools in racial groups and are controlled by a dialect press. We are doing absolutely nothing to make these people understand that they are Americans, at least in the making." Then with swift intuition comes the remedy. "There is nothing like compulsory military service to accomplish this." I will not ask how much ignorance, and how much of the snobbery of those who, having been longer in the country, look with contempt and suspicion upon new comers there may in this view, though I suspect that it is safer to idealize with Mary Antinís "Promised Land" than it is to take after-dinner long-distance surveys of Ellis Island hordes. I will not even inquire whether inter-racialism is not a truer definition of American than that provided by even the most cultivated New England provincialism, or whether the melting-pot metaphor is not itself traitorous to the American ideal. It is enough that there is a genuine intellectual and moral problem in connection with the heterogeneously diversified factors of our population.
But the problem is not to reduce them to an anonymous and drilled homogeneity, but to see to it that all get from one another the best that each strain has to offer from its own tradition and culture. If authentic America is not to be a cross-fertilization of our various strains, it had better be a juxtaposition of alien elements than an amalgam of the barracks, an amalgam whose uniformity would hardly go deeper than the uniforms of the soldiers. Admit everything which can be said in favor of the European system of military service, admit that we ought to turn from our previous wholesale glorification, and there is yet something childishly undisciplined in supposing that we could reduplicate its merits by establishing compulsory system on American soil. We forget how largely its efficacy there is due to the prior existence of just the uniformity of tradition and outlook whose absence is the reason urged in support of it here. We forget how real and how constant in the mind of every continental European is the sense of an enemy just over the border, and how largely the sense of cohesion is a common sense of enmity. Shall we deliberately proceed to cultivate a sense of the danger of aggression, shall we conjure up enemies, in order to get this stimulus to unity among ourselves? The tendency of the upholders of the plan of enforced universal service to resort to this appeal, unconsciously gives away their case. To stir up fear and dislike of home countries as a means of securing love of an adopted country does not seem a promising procedure.
But it is not necessary to bring accusations against the policy of military service. The real point is that we find it so much easier to cry up this policy than to remedy those defects in out existing system which produce the evils in question. Any truly evocative system must precede and prevent instead of following after and palliating and undoing. Until we have at least made a beginning in nationalizing our system of education, it is premature to appeal to the army, to marching and to sleeping in barrack cots as the best way to remedy the evils of a lack of national mindedness. When Mr. Lippman suggested nationalizing our means of transportation and communication as a method of securing an integrated and coherent America, some of his critics intimated that his project was too materialistic. Well, the district schoolhouse of some portions of the United States---often those very portions which most deplore the foreign invasion---with its independent district control is a symptom of a spiritual localism which defied a united America quite as much as does any racial area and dialect press. We might at least try the experiment of making our Federal Bureau of Education at Washington something more than a book-keeping and essay-writing department before we conclude that military service is the only way of effecting a common mind. When Mr. Roosevelt writes with as much vehemence about national aid to vocational education, national aid to wipe out illiteracy, and national aid for evening and continuation schools for our immigrants, as he now writes in behalf of military service, I for one shall take him more seriously as an authority on the educational advantages of setting-up exercises, firing guns and living in the camp.
I can see a vision of a national government which takes an interest at once paternal and scientific in our alien visitors, which has a definite policy about their reception, and about their distribution, which guards them even more jealously than its own sons against industrial exploitation, and which offers them at every turn educational facilities under its own charge. If every foreign illiterate had compulsory educational service to perform, if he had not only the opportunity but the obligation to learn the English language, if he found conditions of labor safeguarded in the interest of his health and his integrity as an economic agent, and if he had learned to associate these things in whatever part of the country he found himself with the United States and not with the district, township or state, it would not be long before compulsory service, if it had to be discussed at all, would be discussed as a military proposition and not as an educational one. Until we have developed an independent and integral educational policy, the tendency to assume that military service will be an efficient tool of public education indicates a deplorable self-deception. I sometimes think the worst of the evils connected with militarism, in fact and in idea, is its power to create such illusions. Military service is the remedy of despair---despair of the power of intelligence.
Scanned by Michael Van Dyke
Research by Mark Krasovic
H-Net, Humanities & Social Sciences Online
Michigan State University