Address to the Illinois Schoolmasters Club Meeting

Illinois State Normal University | February 7, 1958

All through the ages we see the creative process of sifting and regeneration and re-education out of which a new humanity is being born.

I am deeply grateful to the Illinois Schoolmasters Club, and to Dr. Roye R. Bryant, its President, for inviting me to address this large gathering of learned men:- educators, school administrators and other leaders of educational thought and theory. It is a remarkable opportunity for a layman, and I approach my assignment with. humility, and with a plea for your tolerance and compassion. I promise to be brief, and, I hope, to the point. 

Tonight I should like to discuss "Education for the Future," first, by asking you to look at some of the problems of the immediate future -- problems already visible to all us. Let us see if there are any new ways for solving these present problems. Then, later on, let us look at the greatest problem which will face the world in the next generation -- not the atom, or, hydrogen bomb, or sputnik; but the problem of creating world understanding and peace.

In discussing our immediate problems, I do not have to tell you of the current interest in all education, from the primary grades through post-graduate work. Educators, and everyone else responsible for educational administration, are being bombarded from all sides. Hard as it is to temper our reactions to many of these comments about education, we should not resent them. Instead, I suggest that this rash of criticism is a healthy sign of increased interest. It bodes well for our educational institutions.

It also indicates that this is a time for re-examination and reappraisal of our educational programs, and school administration. We must try to re-evaluate where we are going and how we can best get there. 

One critic. has this to say, and I quote:

"Every conscientious teacher can tell how he is hampered by an overruling school board or constituency. Sometimes the school board may attempt to guide; more frequently it suspects. The teacher t s individuality is stamped out; his freshness of method and organization is distrusted. He knows that too many subjects are taught in a superficial, haphazard way, but he can make no change.... Also, it too often happens that teachers are untrained and heedless,— often mere sojourners in the school, preparing for other things, often the creature of a Board dominated by a political or a sectarian majority. We need trained and enthusiastic teachers, - unbiased, unpolitical, and carefully chosen school boards; less ambition and more thoroughness; less of the what and more of the why; less immaturity striving to appear mature, and less ignorance masking itself under assurance. But the question arises: Who is to teach the American people this?"

Yes, the end of a quotation - a quotation from the "Century" Magazine, April, 1887, - 71 years ago. It proves that all our problems are not new ones. It points out the truth that we cannot blame schools and teachers for all problems in the sphere of education, and elsewhere.

However, educators, and others connected with school administration have a special responsibility to provide a searching analysis and to suggest solutions to school problems. We must constantly reappraise and modernize our educational system, just as corporations do theirs. In our self-analysis we must be as tough-minded about ourselves, as we want our students to become through their studies.

The big question is:-

How can we best achieve this? How can a Board of Education best perform its function in the great task of running the public schools of America? Or, the problem has sometimes been defined in these words: -- What part should the Board of Education and laymen-in-general play in the development of our schools, and what part should the professional educators play?

I, for one, believe that School Board Members are Trustees representing the public's desire to provide the highest quality education for all the sons and daughters of all the people. Public education is public business, and the public, functioning through School Board Members, has the right to demand and be sure that its children are getting the highest quality education.

These thoughts and considerations impressed me from the beginning of my service on the Chicago Board of Education. I said so publicly at that time, in 1954. Nothing since then has altered my opinion son this aspect of our Board of Education work. In fact, my experiences as President have tended to confirm my initial reaction:- School Board Members must spend more time on educational matters if our public schools are to meet successfully the educational crisis of our times.

Following my election as President of the Board of Education, I, therefore, suggested to our General Superintendent that we develop a method whereby we could increase the amount of time and thought given to educational problems at the level of the Board of Education itself. The new approach we developed has already produced some important results. I hope it will prove popular and successful in the future because it tends to remedy the so-called divorce between the public and the professional educators.

Briefly, here is what we started in 1955.

First, we inaugurated a system whereby the staff at the Board of Education prepares tentative "policy statements" or "position papers" for study and review by the Board of Education. The first of these was devoted to recreation. This report served as a basis for discussion and action by the Board. On the basis of this report our Board Of Education inaugurated the first, large-scale improvement in our Recreation Program in more than 25 years. In 1955 and 1956 and 1957 we have produced more than twenty-five such studies. They have drawn our Board of Education into the operations and educational program of our public schools to an unprecedented degree. But, not once has this procedure invaded the prerogatives of our able Superintendent of Schools or his professional assistants.

These reports have enabled us, also, to attack many of the most serious, current problems facing public schools in America.

Take, for example, the thorny problem of the curriculum.

Two years ago our Board of Education decided to study the curriculum requirements in the Chicago public schools. We authorized the General Superintendent to create a Special Committee for this purpose. The Committee was composed of our own personnel, plus outside experts.

Six months after this Committee was organized, the Board Members began to become fretful, and frequently inquired when the report would be ready. At one such meeting the following conversation took place:

BOARD MEMBER: Dr. Willis, I don't understand why we can’t get this report more rapidly than we seem to be obtaining it.

DR. WILLIS: Well, you'll have to remember that the curriculum of our high schools is one of the most difficult areas of education, and we don't want to rush out and publish a report unless it represents our very best thinking.

BOARD MEMBER: Well, we've had the Committee working for six months. That certainly should be enough time to develop its thoughts.

Dr. WILLIS: At Harvard University a faculty committee took 2 ½  years to write a report on the curriculum of Harvard College. I don't think we can expect to write an analysis of our high school curriculum twice as fast as the Harvard faculty could analyze its curriculum.

At this point I entered the conversation and asked Dr. Willis this simple question:

Dr. Willis, when was the last time that the Board of Education in Chicago studied the curriculum in Chicago's high schools?

To which Dr. Willis replied:

I don't know for sure, but certainly the Board has not done so since World War II.

To which one of our Assistant Superintendents with 35 years of experience in the Chicago public schools added:

Well, Mr. President, I can tell you that the Board has not had such a study of the curriculum in our high schools during the 35 years I have been on the Staff.

Well, believe it or not, I have in my hand here a copy of our study of the curriculum in the Chicago public high schools. It represents two years of intensive work. On the basis of this report, our Chicago schools drastically changed the requirements for high school diplomas in Chicago. We increased the amount of mathematics and science required. We added to the English requirements, and broadened the requirements for social studies. The General Superintendent recommended all of these proposals and the Board of Education adopted them unanimously.

This, I submit, is an outstanding example of cooperation between school board members and professional educators working together for the improvement of our educational system. I should like to add most emphatically that all of this was done, completed, wrapped up, and finished before sputnik was launched by the Russians, before President Eisenhower recommended that school boards study their curricula, before Congress began to agitate for more help in the training of scientists and mathematicians. Permit me to quote from the Citizens Schools Committee:

"We have realized with approval that under your leadership and with the help of Dr. Willis the Board, as never before, has taken an informed interest in the educational needs of the schools in addition to questions of expenditure and finance and appointment of personnel. We were happy to find Board Members so favorably inclined toward a stiffening of the high school curriculum - though we believe the present step is only a beginning, and realize that in the long run it is the content of courses and the quality of teaching that counts more than the number of required units of this or that."

Changes in curriculum, however, are far from being the only important way of attacking some of our current problems in American education.

The most critical bottleneck to the expansion and improvement of education in the United States is the mounting shortage of excellent teachers. Our Nation, like the prodigal farmer, is consuming the seed corn needed for future harvests. The ultimate result could be disaster. To solve the teacher shortage we must start by raising salaries, but higher salaries will not, by themselves, be enough.

Our Board of Education realized these fundamental facts 24 months ago. Once again we employed the method described earlier in my talk. We attacked the problem of teacher shortage by study and by action.

One of our first efforts involved television. In 1955 I urged our General Superintendent of Schools to plan an experimental program for the development of teaching by TV. He studied the possibilities and recommended a sum of $50,000 for the purpose. The Board of Education agreed to this proposal, and for the first time in recent history we in Chicago, on our own initiative, undertook to spend money to pioneer new solutions for educational problems. 

That $50,000 turned out to be one of the best expenditures we ever made. Almost as soon as we had organized our TV program the Ford Foundation learned about what we were doing. Within six months that Foundation gave us some $565,000 -- more than 10 times our original investment -- in order to help us test the value of teaching by TV.

Today, eighteen months later, we already know that our teaching by TV has been successful. Thousands of students are studying high school and junior college courses and scoring examination marks as good or better than their contemporaries in traditional classroom settings. High school grad uates now working in business are finding it possible to take college courses for credit without leaving their home TV sets. Via TV we have made many parts of acomplete college education available free-of-charge to any Chicagoan. As far as I am concerned, this is the greatest free scholarship program in history: – two years of college available at no cost to any citizen who has the brains and energy to turn on his own TV and complete the courses.

This educational advance has been accomplished without injury to the rights and privileges of any teacher. TV has increased the effectiveness of some of our best teachers and widened their scope. It has helped us to meet the teacher shortage.

But, we did not stop with TV. Our staff produced another policy report, this one involving our Chicago Teachers College. I have a copy of it here with me. Like the report on secondary- school curriculum, the report on television, and the one on recreation, this report on the Chicago Teachers College exemplifies the best current thinking.

What results did it achieve for us?

First: It gave us a rational, well documented basis for entrance requirements for Chicago Teachers College. We stiffened them. People seldom appreciate anything they can get easily. Admission to Teachers Colleges should be high enough to  present a real challenge to those seeking entrance. Otherwise, only those who cannot be educated elsewhere will want to attendour teacher training institutions. Let us always remember we don’t solve the problems of any profession by debasing its standards. Only by maintaining the highest standards can we hope to make teaching a genuine "profession of elegance."

SECOND: The report gave us a sound basis for a reduction in pedagogical courses to only 22 hours with an increase in liberal arts courses.

THIRD: We received approval for the construction of a new Teachers College building.

FOURTH: We have improved our recruiting program. 

FINALLY We have improved our placement program.

Because of this study and the action based on it, we received $25,000 from Ford Foundation to study the curriculum for the new Chicago Teachers College.

Well, I fear I’m taking too much of your time. I have cited these examples to demonstrate one way in which School Board Members and professional educators can work jointly to improve educational standards in our schools. I could discuss many more of our Chicago educational studies. We have reported on the junior colleges, summer schools, evening schools, adult education, education for gifted children, etc. Copies of all these are available to anyone in this audience. My point in discussing them in such detail tonight is solely this, - and I repeat what I said earlier in my talk: our public schools in America will not be able to meet the educational crisis of our times unless they can enlist intelligent support of School Board Members who will help our professional educators to formulate a better program of education for the new age into which we are moving.

Perhaps I should add one word of caution. In using Advisory Commissions or Advisory Councils, School Boards should follow three rules in order to be sure of obtaining desirable results.

FIRST: They should seek out and use only the best resource people available. Don’t accept the advice of second-raters.

SECOND: They should be careful never to shift responsibility for ultimate decisions. The school board and the professional educators are the people who have the responsibility for the educational program in our public schools. It would be a craven dereliction of duty to assign all, or part, of this responsibility to an advisory commission operating independently of the school

board and its staff. This is a pitfall, a danger to be avoided at all costs.

THIRD: They should remember that continuous guidance from the school board and the professional educators must be given to any Advisory Council or Commission -- otherwise such Commissions run the risk of losing contact with the realities of the school-learning situation. 

If these rules are followed carefully, I think that all school boards can benefit from assistance of outside advisory groups. 

So much for part one of my talk. I hope the procedures I've described may be of help to you in solving some of your own. problems of the immediate future.

Now I'd like to conclude with a few remarks about education for the more distant future -- the future world of 1980 and 1990 and for the world of the 21st century, now only 42 years away.

In my judgment the number one problem in these years, to come will be this:

How can all of us -- white, black, yellow and brown people -- of different nations and different cultures -- live together in peace?

The world’s population is growing by leaps and bounds. China, for example, is growing at a rate of 12,000,000 persons a year – so fast that the Communist planners are frantically disseminating birth control information to prevent total collapse of their economic programs, India is facing the same problem, trying some of the same solutions. Our own birth rate in the U.S.A. is the highest ever; in Chicago it has doubled since 1940. Even France, - the "Tired Old Man of Europe,” is experiencing a growing population for the first time since World War One. There will be - already there are -- world wide pressures for economic satisfaction of these millions of people.

While world population is growing, the geographic size of the world can be said, figuratively, to be shrinking. Chicago in 1960 will be only 1-1/2 hours from New York City -- six hours from London or Cairo. In 19 70 New York City will probably be closer in time to Chicago than Waukegan is today. The world shrunk in size in the last 30 years; in the next 30, the shrinkage will be even greater.

Under these circumstances, if anyone believes that we in Illinois of the future will be able to dismiss the problems of India, Africa, or Asia, as “Foreign Affairs” conducted solely by someone in Washington, D. C., known as the Secretary of State, he or she is living in a fool's paradise. 

We may not like it; we may long for the good old days of McKinley, William Howard Taft, or Calvin Coolidge; we may denounce the U. N., the Marshall plan, the Eisenhower Doctrine, or what have you; but we shall be living in a world where Bloomington, Illinois is as close to Cairo, Egypt as Boston to Dallas. In that world I  most urgently suggest we shall need more than bombs, radar defense nets, or a balanced budget. We shall need understanding -- understanding of alien peoples and cultures and political traditions – understanding of a type we cannot hope to achieve simply by studying English Literature, American History, or democratic principles of life and government. We shall need to know our own history and culture, but we shall have to know other cultures, too.

There is an old adage: "He who knows only one language doesn't even know that one well."

Tonight I'd like to suggest that "he who knows only one culture doesn't even know that culture well."

Instead of concentrating almost wholly on  teaching Anglo-Saxon culture in our high schools and colleges, I suggest that we start to offer courses in the seven great world cultures, six of which are now vying for space on our ever-diminishing globe. The cultures I suggest are these:- The Moslem Culture; The Hindu or Indian Culture; The Chinese or Japanese Culture; African Culture; Hebrew Culture; Christian Culture; and byway of background and perspective,the Classical Cultures of Greece and Rome.

Is this study needed? I think I have explained some of my reasons for believing it will be: the pressure of world population; the diminishing distances separating peoples in time; the economic pressures for more abundant living now being exerted by all peoples.

Is it feasible to try to start a program of this magnitude and complexity? I believe it is.

Today in our Chicago public schools we conduct exchange programs between our teachers and teachers from England, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere. I suggest that this program could be greatly expanded with beneficial results. The Fulbright scholarship program is successful at the graduate student and professional level. Why not a teacher exchange program of similar or greater magnitude, -- especially if Indian, Chinese, or Hebrew scholars were coming here to teach us about their cultures rather than to learn about ours. In fact, we could start to teach Hebrew Culture and Christian Culture without importing any teachers. There are plenty of Americans who could begin to plan a curriculum in these two cultures of world-wide significance.

Would this study of other cultures produce results? I believe it would. For example, the famous American University at Beirut in Lebanon is a perfect example of the kind of success and results which can be obtained by tolerant, intelligent, compassionate study of foreign cultures. Graduates Of the American University in Lebanon are providing much of the leadership which is keeping that beleaguered, little country on our side in the struggle for the Middle East. They would never be with us today if they had never learned about our culture in years gone by.

Knowledge is essential to understanding, and we have created understanding of our American position and culture more effectively through education than by any of the extravagant means of military assistance or hydrogen bomb tests. Is there room and time in the high school and college curricula for this additional work? I believe there is, and if there isn't, than I think room will have to be made, not by eliminating studies now required, but by speeding up the pace of high school and college education.

The French Lycee, the German Hochschule, and the English public School have long since proved that pore can be learned by age 17 than we ask of young Americans. I think, too, that many of our smartest boys and girls get bored by the pedestrian pace of the average high school. I believe they would welcome an exciting new addition to the curriculum. However, if this proposed study of foreign cultures cannot be fitted into the curriculum of the regular school year, we can certainly consider it for summer school, advanced work. This year in Chicago we have 27,000 pupils in voluntary summer school classes. They attend school because they want to. There are no truant officers. These children have a genuine thirst for knowledge and understanding. Let’s give them some genuine, hard, intellectual fodder on which to feed, not pablum and skim milk. Let’s give them a course of study which will help them to become profound leaders of world culture, truly exceptional students today, truly great leaders for tomorrow, men and women, distinguished by their understanding of and consequent love for all mankind whatever the color of skin, the sound of language, the background of mind.

This kind of understanding of other cultures would enliven our young men and women. Tomorrow they will be called upon to speak for America, to explain America, to excite enthusiasm for our American way of life. To do this they must be able to speak the language and understand the mind of the audiences they will be addressing -- not only in California but in Calcutta, too. 

Finally, let me make clear I am not advocating studies to prepare the way for the "one world" of Wendell Wilkie, nor the Atlantic Union of Clarence Streit, nor for any of the political schemes involving surrender of sovereignty, loss of national identity, or flattening of all peoples to one plane of poverty and mediocrity.

The purpose of studying other cultures is neither so facile nor so superficial. It is based on the belief there is no need for all men and all cultures to follow identical paths. It expresses the conviction that practical good fellowship and foreign relations need not be based upon uniformity in politics, doctrine, or culture. On the contrary, it seeks through education to bring men together on terms of equality and understanding for the good of human society as a whole.

If in the United States by the time of the 21st century we could perfect an education of the type I describe, we could begin to prove three most important points:-

FIRST: We could demonstrate that we know that our neighbor is the man to whom we show understanding, mercy and compassion, not solely the one who does us good.

SECOND: We could demonstrate our faith in the natural and supernatural unity of mankind, of all races, creeds and social conditions.

THIRD: We could show that the U.S. is the proper leader of a united world based on knowledge and love as compared to a Soviet world based on fear and hate.

A great man has written these words:-

"...It is not from outward pressure, it is not from the sword that deliverance comes to nations; the sword cannot breed peace, it can only impose terms of peace. The forces that are to renew the earth must proceed from within, from the spirit...the re-education of mankind must be above all things spiritual... (It) must be actuated by justice and crowned by charity..."

All through the ages we see the creative process of sifting and regeneration and re-education out of which a new humanity is being born.

Today East and West live cut off from each other through ignorance, not intent. In "Education for the Future" we shall have to build bridges of understanding across the abyss of ignorance. Only in this way can we look forward to peach on earth. Only in this way can we hope to fulfill the great chance we now have to become "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a special people, who, in times past were not a people, but are now the people of God."

Let me, therefore, urge all school administrators as well as all school board members to return to your cities and communities and with renewed vigor appraise and study all your activities and educational programs. Chicago will cooperate. There is no room for conflict between downstate and Chicago. Together let us exhort, urge, persuade, build up, and inspire all our citizens. Together let us make Illinois number one in America in education.