In January 1933, the President of the United States, Herbert Hoover, in remarks to the Conference on the Crisis in Education, made the following statement: “There is no safety for your Republic without the education of our youth. That is the first charge upon all citizens and local governments.” One year later, addressing a similarly themed Citizens Conference on the Crisis in Education, the new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, offered an equally grave warning: “Although the effects of the present lack of adequate educational opportunities on our national life may not be noticeable today, the time may soon come when dire effects will be apparent.” Assessing both the changes and continued problems since he assumed office, Roosevelt repeated this statement in late 1935 when he stated,
The biggest stride we have made in the past two and half years has been in interesting the American people in their own Government . . . their social problems and their educational problems. . The depression hit education in the United States more than anything else. . . . It is hard to bring back the facilities in education as quickly or as easily as it is to raise farm prices or open banks.
These presidential statements demonstrate how the economic crisis of the Great Depression exerted a direct impact on elementary and secondary schooling. Initially in the United States, but quickly around the world, the Depression was felt in schools as businesses and banks failed, tax revenue decreased, and public funding was cut. In 1932, George Strayer, Professor of Educational Administration at Teachers College, Columbia University, described how city and rural schools had been closed, terms shortened, teacher salaries reduced, class sizes increased, major offerings in the curriculum dropped, classroom supplies and materials denied, health services and physical education dropped, standards for entry into teaching dropped, building programs discontinued, and night programs and continuation schools closed—“in short, the whole program of education is being curtailed, if not indeed placed in jeopardy.”
These warnings were echoed by the National Education Association, whose 1931 report urged American citizens “to choose carefully the public enterprises which they support during the crisis with a view to averting the sacrifice of children.” The Committee on the Emergency in Education formed by the Progressive Education Association warned that schools in many states “would continue in their downward plunge to educational disaster.” Amplifying the pressure educators felt to curtail their services, Ward G. Reeder declared, “The battle lines are drawn; in fact, the conflict has already begun and daily becomes more tense.”
Similar processes occurred in other countries, as the economic crisis forced governments to make significant cuts in educational budgets. The Great Depression provides evidence of an early phase of globalization, as economic conditions, such as rising unemployment, bank failures, and decreasing trade, produced social effects, such as community dislocation, decreasing living standards, and loss of confidence, which in turn shaped political responses, such as loss of trust in economic institutions, growing support for political extremes, and demands for public solutions.
The Great Depression thus needs to be understood through this integration of national and international perspectives that illustrate the connections between levels of experience and the complex shaping of collective and individual responses. Educators across the world described the same processes outlined by Strayer: delaying construction or repair of buildings, reducing supplies, restricting course offerings, shortening the school day or curtailing the school year, and especially reducing the money spent on employing teachers. Salary cuts, hiring bans, dismissals, and requiring teachers to work without pay all made sense economically, as teachers’ salaries made up the largest single item in most school budgets, but these short-term solutions threatened to have long-term consequences in terms of both student learning and teachers’ professional development.
And yet it was precisely the optimistic, progressive, and constructive role assigned to schools in the midst of crisis that makes the relationship between the Depression and education historically significant. How could educators, facing the realities of this economic crisis, assign such great expectations to their schools, the ideas and practices of pedagogy, and the future of this young generation? The economic crisis exerted a direct impact on educational institutions, inspiring educators to seek new approaches to improving, expanding, and valuing public schools. As Roosevelt’s 1935 statement suggests, one of the most important legacies of the Depression was to change attitudes toward the government’s responsibility to address social and educational problems.
A Positive Outcome
Responding to, and indeed pioneering, this shift in attitudes, many progressive educators looked at the Depression as an opportunity to prove that their ideas and institutions not only could survive the immediate conditions of the crisis, but would, in fact, emerge stronger and more influential than in the past. Experiments with progressive schools in even the most conservative political contexts, the attractions of a system of rationally planned education, the appeals for more government investment in schools and children, visions of teachers’ professional autonomy, and innovative pedaogogies and practices—all of which flourished in the 1930s—demonstrated how the crisis of education provoked critical but also creative thinking about educational opportunities and possibilities.
These ideals were significant not just in the context of the Depression; they also had a contemporary resonance as legacies of this earlier era when crisis conditions provoked a search for alternatives and the pursuit of new opportunities. It is easy from a later vantage point to dismiss these views as naive, politically opportunistic, or simply misguided, yet at the time, these views represented a broad current in both American and world educational perspectives that assigned a constructive role to the ideals and the institutions of schools.
Schools always have some element of the future embedded in them because of the youth of their constituents, but in the Depression, the schools were assigned even greater significance as the public institutions that could preserve, enhance, and project that hope most effectively into the future. It is this combination of economic conditions, educational ideals, government policies, and institutional practices that make the relationship between education and the Great Depression significant not only as a means to enhance historical understanding, but also as illustrations of the possibilities of schools even in times of economic and political crisis.
- Hoover, H. (1933, January 5). Remarks to the Conference on the Crisis in Education.
- Mort, P. R. (1933). National support for our public schools. Progressive Education, 10(8), 442–443.
- Reeder, W. G. (1931). A crisis confronts the schools. Educational Research Bulletin, 10, 271–272.
- Roosevelt, F. D. (1934, March 27). Letter on public school problems.
- Roosevelt, F. D. (1935, December 11). Remarks to the State Superintendents of Education.
- Strayer, G. D. (1932). Adequate support of education: The condition of an effective service. School and Society, 35, 374–375.
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