Date: April 1956
Source: A Report to the President: The Committee for the White House Conference on Education—Full Report. Washington, D.C., April 1956, 3342–3347.
Throughout the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, strong opposition to U.S. government involvement in education was an obstacle to passing federal legislation or allocating federal funds. Some contended that such involvement was unconstitutional. For example, the Tenth Amendment reserves to the states any powers not specifically granted to the federal government—education is not mentioned in the Constitution. Others argued that federal funding meant federal control in opposition to the long-cherished tradition of local control of education in United States. Since every locality is different, it was asserted, the local authorities are in the best position to make decisions for local schools. Many feared the development of a national school system controlled by federal bureaucrats far removed from the concerns and needs of individual communities. Of particular concern to many was the possibility that federal funds would mean demands for school desegregation.
The Great Depression and World War II (1939–1945) brought a new or larger role for the federal government in many spheres of life. Americans became accustomed to this expanded role, and resistance to federal aid to schools declined somewhat. In addition, the Cold War seemed to call for new approaches.
In this context, the first White House Conference on Education, established by President Dwight Eisenhower (served 1953–1961), was held in November and December 1955. The conference task force recommended the identification and development of talent, especially in science and engineering, broad vocational education applicable to multiple trades, flexibility for students wanting to change programs, and a role for schools in character development. The committee endorsed the multiplication of educational goals as well as schools' attempts to ensure "that all needs of all children be met, one way or another." It also advocated federal aid to states and localities for general educational purposes.
Rather than breaking new ground or proposing radical changes, the White House conference report generally confirmed and bolstered important trends already in progress. For example, the "mining and refining of all human talents," especially in math and science, had been a concern since Cold War competition with the Soviet Union began shortly after World War II. The report also affirmed a long-standing trend toward a broadened curriculum addressing all needs of students, whether intellectual, social, psychological, emotional, or physical. In general, the report applauded past efforts and progress and called for more improvements along the same lines.
Itself an important step toward federal involvement in education, one purpose of the conference was to determine the appropriate role of the U.S. government in American education. The conference report recommended federal aid for schools, thus confirming a post–World War II trend toward greater federal involvement and prefiguring future participation. A greatly expanded role for the federal government in education developed between the 1950s and the 1970s. Important examples are the 1958 National Defense Education Act, the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and the 1975 Education for all Handicapped Children's Act (later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Act).
Primary Source: A Report to the President: The Committee for the White House Conference on Education—Full Report. [excerpt]
SYNOPSIS: In this excerpt from the White House Conference on Education's report, the committee endorses the expansion of school goals and the broadening of the curriculum to include greater attention to gifted education and a focus on serving the needs of all children. While great improvements in the education system have been made in positive directions, much more must be done to make the ideal of American education a reality.
From the work of the Committee for the White House Conference on Education, one fundamental fact emerges: schools now affect the welfare of the United States more than ever before in history, and this new importance of education has been dangerously underestimated for a long time.
Some of the reasons for the rapidly increasing importance of the schools have been often noted. Ignorance is a far greater handicap to an individual than it was generation ago, and an uneducated populace is a greater handicap to a nation. This trend is obviously going to continue and quicken.
An equally important and less frequently mentioned reason for the growing importance of education is the plain fact that the schools have become the chief instrument for keeping this Nation the fabled land of opportunity it started out to be. In other decades, the opportunities of America lay primarily in escape from the rigid class barriers of Europe, the availability of free land at the frontier, and the excitement of a violently growing nation, where farms often became villages and villages became cities within the span of one human life. When the frontier was closed, it would have been easy for opportunities to dry up in this Nation, and for rigid class barriers to develop. It has been primarily the schools which have prevented this from happening. As long as good schools are available, a man is not frozen at any level of our economy, nor is his son. Schools free men to rise to the level of their natural abilities. Hope for personal advancement and the advancement of one's children is, of course, one of the great wellsprings of human energy. The schools, more than any other agency, supply this hope in America today. By providing a channel for ambition, they have taken the place of the frontier, and in a highly technical era, have preserved the independent spirit of a pioneer nation. The schools stand as the chief expression of the American tradition of fair play for everyone, and a fresh start for each generation.
It is this fundamental conception of schools designed to give a fresh start to each generation that has broadened the ideals of education in America so much in the past 25 years. It is no longer thought proper to restrict educational programs to the skills of the mind, even though those skills remain of fundamental importance. Schools also attempt to improve children's health, to provide vocational training, and to do anything else which will help bring a child up to the starting line of adult life as even with his contemporaries as native differences in ability permit.
The most practical aspect of this new concept of education is that it calls for the most careful mining and refining of all human talents in the land—it is in itself a kind of law against waste. This new educational ideal represents the fullest flowering of the long western tradition of emphasizing the dignity of the individual. Many difficulties, of course, attend its development, but the members of this Committee believe that in essence it is noble and right, and that in the long run it will prove to be one of the great strengths of America.
It is, of course, obvious that much progress has been made toward realizing this new educational ideal in the United States during the recent past. It is the belief of this Committee, however, that improvement has been nowhere near fast enough. The onrush of science has outstripped the schools. What is even more important, ideals of human conduct have in some areas advanced as rapidly as technology. Many a school which seemed good enough a generation ago now seems a disgrace to the community where it stands.
The schools have fallen far behind both the aspirations of the American people and their capabilities. In the opinion of this Committee, there is growing resolve throughout the Nation to close the gap between educational ideals and educational realities.…
What Should Our Schools Accomplish?
What should our schools accomplish? No attempt has been made to answer from the point of view of ultimate philosophical objectives which could be read into the question. The Committee has deliberately limited its considerations to the responsibilities of elementary and secondary schools in the contemporary American scene. As a lay group, the Committee has felt it inappropriate to undertake a discussion of curriculum content in specific detail. It has sought instead to reaffirm those current objectives of our schools that it believes to be desirable and to suggest those new emphases which will enable our schools to adjust to the changing needs of our society.
It is relatively easy to observe what the schools try to accomplish. The list is startling to anyone who remembers schools a generation back, even more startling to historians who recall the original task assigned to schools: the teaching of reading and ciphering. What schools try to do varies widely. People in suburbs demand different services from those expected by residents in rural areas. In spite of this, it is not difficult to draw up a list of purposes shared by most schools, however widely the technique for fulfilling them may vary. For good or ill, most modern school systems are normally asked to provide something like the following:
- A general education as good as or better than that offered in the past with increased emphasis on the physical and social sciences.
- Programs designed to develop patriotism and good citizenship.
- Programs designed to foster moral, ethical, and spiritual values.
- Vocational education tailored to the abilities of each pupil and to the needs of community and Nation.
- Courses designed to teach domestic skills.
- Training in leisure-time activities such as music, dancing, avocational reading, and hobbies.
- A variety of health services for all children, including both physical and dental inspections, and instruction aimed at bettering health knowledge and habits.
- Special treatment for children with speech or reading difficulties and other handicaps.
- Physical education, ranging from systematic exercises, physical therapy, and intramural sports, to interscholastic athletic completion.
- Instruction to meet the needs of the abler students.
- Programs designed to acquaint students with countries other than their own in an effort to help them understand the problems America faces in international relations.
- Programs designed to foster mental health.
- Programs designed to foster wholesome family life.
- Organized recreational and social activities.
- Courses designed to promote safety. These include instruction in driving automobiles, swimming, civil defense, etc.
The Growth of School Goals
During the past two generations, this list of school goals has grown with increased speed. This is a phenomenon which has excited both admiration and dismay. After several decades of experimentation, should this broadening of the goals be recognized as legitimate?
This Committee answers Yes. Nothing was more evident at the White House Conference on Education than the fact that these goals, representing as they do an enormously wide range of purposes, are the answer to a genuine public demand. These goals have, after all, been hammered out at countless school board meetings during the past quarter-century throughout the land. The basic responsibility of the schools is the development of the skills of the mind, but the overall mission has been enlarged. Schools are now asked to help children to acquire any skill or characteristic which a majority of the community deems worthwhile. The order given by the American people to the schools is grand in its simplicity: In addition to intellectual achievement, foster morality, happiness, and any useful ability. The talent of each child is to be sought out and developed to the fullest. Each weakness is to be studied and, so far as possible, corrected. This is truly a majestic ideal, and an astonishingly new one. Schools of that kind have never been provided for more than a small fraction of mankind.
Although it is new, this ideal of schools which do everything possible for all children is a natural development in the United States. The moving spirit of this Nation has been from the beginning a sense of fairness. Nowadays equality of opportunity for adults means little without equality of educational opportunity for children. Ignorance is a greater obstacle than ever to success of most kinds. The schools have become a major tool for creating a Nation without rigid class barriers. It is primarily the schools which allow no man's failure to prevent the success of his son.
In still another way, this new ideal for the schools is a natural development of this country: it recognizes the paramount importance of the individual in a free society. Our schools are asked to teach skills currently needed by the Nation, but never at the expense of the individual. This policy of encouraging each child to develop his individual talents will be of the greatest use to the Nation, for in the long run, if no talent is wasted in our land, no skill will be lacking.…
- As the duties of the schools expand, the establishment of priorities in education should be studied by every board of education. This Committee believes that the development of the intellectual powers of young people, each to the limit of his capacity, is the first responsibility of schools. Beyond this basic task, all kinds of instruction are not equally important for all children, and their importance varies from community to community. This Committee also recognizes the need to invoke priorities in extracurricular activities. Athletics must be controlled, for instance, so that they serve young people rather than use them to enhance the competitive standing of a school or community. A primary responsibility of any local school authority is to establish priorities of significance among basic general education, specialized education of all kinds, and extracurricular activities.
In this era of international stress, the United States has unusual demands for good scientists and engineers, in addition to other specialists. There is a necessity for broad understanding of the meaning of citizenship in the United States. America must have citizens who know something of other nations and are equipped to understand their own Nation's role in international affairs. These special needs can be assigned a high priority by schools which are pursuing the broad list of objectives currently demanded by the people. In adding new, worthwhile activities to the curriculum, nothing of value has to be subtracted if a proper sense of proportion is maintained and enough resources are provided.
- Overspecialization of vocational education should be avoided. There are almost 50,000 trades in this country, and specialized instruction for all of them cannot be provided. Broadly conceived programs of vocational education must be maintained which are not likely to be outmoded rapidly by technological change and which offer basic instruction that can be useful in many jobs.
- Just as good schools permit flexibility in this whole Nation by allowing individuals to achieve the level of accomplishment their abilities deserve, the school system must be flexible within itself. Pupils should be able to shift from one program to another as they grow and change in interests and abilities. This Committee thinks that for every child to have, throughout his school career, the chance to change to the kind of education found best for him is more important than the time saved by choosing a few pupils early in their lives for accelerated, specialized programs, as is often done in Europe. The American people have time as well as the physical resources to allow this kind of flexibility.
- Educational programs which fully exercise and develop the abilities of especially brilliant students must be maintained. A system which wastes the talents of those who have the most to offer has no part in the new American ideal for the schools. Social equality can be maintained by the schools without hampering the intellectual progress of the unusually able. Increased stress must be placed on meeting the challenge of those students who have the capacity for the greatest intellectual growth. Improved provision for these talented young people should be the next great advance in our public school system. This Committee believes it possible to achieve this goal and still handle the tidal wave of new students which is expected. The real and fundamental manpower scarcity at the present time is a scarcity of quality and not of numbers. Consequently, the identification and careful handling of talented youth are urgent and commanding requirements.
- School leaders should help foster all desirable characteristics in children, but they should not be tempted to consider themselves the only agency in the field. The major influence upon children is their home and the whole community in which they are raised. It is right for people to expect the schools to help forward all worthy causes, but entirely wrong to abnegate responsibility in hope that the schools will take up the slack. Schools can never take the place of a warm family life, a vigorous church, and a wholesome community, although they must be strong allies. Where other good influences are lacking, schools should and do try to repair the damage, but they cannot do the job alone.
In conclusion, this Committee believes that the new goals for the schools demanded by the American people reflect a determination to leave nothing that can be done for each generation of children undone. Far from seeking the abandonment of the ideals of the past, the people have called for a quickened pursuit of those ideals. At the same time, they have decided to use the schools in a variety of new ways, sometimes as an ally of other agencies, sometimes as a replacement for other agencies which have failed. Controversy has often surrounded questions of procedure and relative importance, but the nobility of intent implicit in this new concept is beyond doubt. There is far more to be proud of in today's schools than there is to criticize. Their weaknesses usually stem from a lack of means, rather than any defect in their goal. Efforts to work out ways in which school, family, church, and many other agencies can best work together for the fullest development of every child must be a continuous process in every community. To avoid a general dilution of education, the multiplication of school duties must be accompanied by a proportionate increase of school resources. We must never lose sight of the insistent need to increase the excellence of our schools while increasing their scope; the two goals are not incompatible except under conditions of bad management or inadequate resources. The problems of the schools are great, but they never should be allowed to obscure the worthiness of their goals. In the judgment of this Committee, the people will probably continue to insist that all needs of all children be met, one way or another. The attempt to provide schools capable of playing their full part in making that ideal a reality may well prove to be one of the wisest decisions ever made by the American people.
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