Commentary | Education

Lessons—Hindsight Gives History Its ‘Best’ Young Soldiers

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Hindsight gives history its ‘best’ young soldiers

By  Richard Rothstein

As the United States goes to war, more than a few Americans must be worrying about the performance of our troops. After all, it is widely believed that today’s soldiers went to failing schools. Their literacy and numerical skills are regarded as poor. They have been passed from grade to grade without mastering the curriculum. Their drug and alcohol use has been undisciplined. Without a good background in history or literature, they can understand little of the cultural and political traditions they must fight to uphold.

How can such youths meet the standards set by those who won World War II, we might ask?

Tom Brokaw in “The Greatest Generation” (1998) said that the warriors of 60 years ago displayed “towering achievement and modest demeanor.” Their sacrifices enabled those who followed to prosper economically, politically and culturally. They were, Mr. Brokaw concluded, “the greatest generation any society has ever produced.”

But older adults in the 1930’s and early 1940’s did not think so highly of the generation Mr. Brokaw praises. The conventional view then, as now, was that schools left graduates unprepared to defend the nation.

In 1940, Walter Lippmann wrote that during the previous half-century, educators had ceased teaching the “Western culture which produced the modern democratic state.” In 1941, Robert Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, worried that young people did not have the literary and historical background to participate in a democracy. Mortimer Adler, the philosopher, complained that schools no longer taught the values upon which American society relied. A resulting moral relativism, he said, rendered youth unable to muster the idealism to fight Hitler.

This view was typical. Michael A. Males, a sociologist at the University of California, has reviewed popular literature from the 1930’s and found that teenagers who would later save the nation at war were not considered so great. A book about them published in 1936 was titled “The Lost Generation.” It said that adolescents suffered from widespread mental illness. A Harper’s Monthly article the same year concluded that young people behaved “without thought of social responsibility.” A government antidrug agency reported that “dope peddlers infest our high schools.”

Although in 1940 Mr. Lippmann thought that things once were better, in earlier years many commentators did not think so. In the 1920’s, business leaders said students were not adequately prepared for the work force. In 1927, the National Association of Manufacturers charged that 40 percent of high school graduates could not do simple arithmetic or use English accurately.

Soldiers who fought in World War I were also, in their time, not thought to be particularly great. According to a 1921 report, the overwhelming majority of Army recruits had been taught to read in school but were unable to comprehend even simple written material.

And in the decades before World War I as well, popular magazines and serious scholars bemoaned the declining quality of the young.

This pattern of adult convictions does not compute. If every generation were so superior to the next, we could find a nation of demigods living not too far back in time. Yet although a golden age never existed, adults continually marshal statistics to confirm their disappointment in the young.

Paradoxically, the shrillness of adult dissatisfaction seems to grow in proportion to youths’ educational attainment. Soldiers who will fight the war on terrorism not only have more schooling than any previous group but master more complex technologies than the artillery loaders of the past.

This situation would be funny except that the boy- who-cried-wolf fable has a serious moral. Perhaps young people today really are deficient. Perhaps teenagers in the 1930’s were uniquely underrated, and those who fought World War II really were better — in character, morals, and intellect — than youths who will now fight terrorism. But if adolescents are always deemed inadequate, how can we know when the indictment is true and when we really need to address this crisis?

In 1944, James B. Conant, president of Harvard University, observed that almost all experts felt that America’s secondary schools had failed and that students did not know as much mathematics or language as students of 50 years earlier had. But, Dr. Conant said, our citizens should also admit that the young people who were triumphing in Europe and the Pacific apparently had greater moral and intellectual strength than critics had anticipated.

When the war on terrorism draws to a close, will those who denounce today’s youth have as much egg on their faces as the experts Dr. Conant described at the end of World War II? We should hope so.

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