Don’t Make Slaves of Future Generations Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In this speech given at the Annual Conference of Directors of Physical Education of the Massachusetts Public Schools, Irving T. McDonald—the librarian at Holy Cross College in Worcester—addressed public school physical education (PE) teachers, urging them to take advantage of their unique relationship with their students in the “informality of the gym and the hotly contested rivalry of the playing field.” PE teachers provided a model of health and strength that made them particularly effective role models, claims McDonald. In his speech he argues that these teachers were heroes to their students and, therefore, had a special responsibility not only to support the war effort but also to prepare the generation that would lead the world after the war. This speech was intended to energize the audience and to inspire them to lead their students; it also served to bolster the idea that teachers were a key part of the path to victory, an important message at a time when teachers were leaving the classroom in droves to join the armed forces or to pursue higher-paying jobs in wartime industries. In December 1944, the US commissioner on education John W. Studebaker published an article in Click magazine both bemoaning the loss of 115,000 teachers to the war and claiming that American students were receiving an inadequate education as a result. Like McDonald, Studebaker believed that winning the war was crucial but that having a generation of educated citizens ready to lead the world after the war was equally critical.

Summary Overview

In this speech given at the Annual Conference of Directors of Physical Education of the Massachusetts Public Schools, Irving T. McDonald—the librarian at Holy Cross College in Worcester—addressed public school physical education (PE) teachers, urging them to take advantage of their unique relationship with their students in the “informality of the gym and the hotly contested rivalry of the playing field.” PE teachers provided a model of health and strength that made them particularly effective role models, claims McDonald. In his speech he argues that these teachers were heroes to their students and, therefore, had a special responsibility not only to support the war effort but also to prepare the generation that would lead the world after the war. This speech was intended to energize the audience and to inspire them to lead their students; it also served to bolster the idea that teachers were a key part of the path to victory, an important message at a time when teachers were leaving the classroom in droves to join the armed forces or to pursue higher-paying jobs in wartime industries. In December 1944, the US commissioner on education John W. Studebaker published an article in Click magazine both bemoaning the loss of 115,000 teachers to the war and claiming that American students were receiving an inadequate education as a result. Like McDonald, Studebaker believed that winning the war was crucial but that having a generation of educated citizens ready to lead the world after the war was equally critical.

Defining Moment

In 1943, a Parents magazine article announced that “the teacher shortage threatens your child.” The war had exacerbated issues that had plagued the American education system for years, including student health, dropout rates, overcrowding, and the training and retention of qualified teachers. In addition, public expectations for American schools had never been higher, as the classroom was expected to provide a comprehensive education, support the war effort, and offer stability to children whose parents were fighting or working.

Qualified teachers were in short supply before the United States entered the war. The United States was experiencing an industrial boom, as the nation worked to supply the Allies with vital military supplies and equipment. This change in the economy created fairly high-paying jobs in industrial centers for men and women, while rural communities were hard hit. For example, in 1941, Kansas lowered teacher requirement to deal with its shortage, a strategy that was soon adopted by many states. After the United States entered the war, the situation rapidly grew worse. By 1943, two thousand rural schools were unable to open, while the teacher shortage across the nation reached seventy-five thousand. As states scrambled to keep schools open, they adjusted their requirements for teachers. Many districts allowed married women to teach for the first time and urged retired teachers to return to the classroom. Schools were consolidated, and small rural schools were closed. Subjects considered nonessential were cut, and teachers were encouraged to teach more than one subject and grade level in larger schools. Teacher wages were raised; training certificates became much easier to obtain, with summer and correspondence courses offered by many states; and existing degree requirements were waived. Still, by the end of 1944, there were over one hundred thousand teacher vacancies across the country.

As teachers fled the classroom, their students did too. Many teenagers felt that they needed to do their patriotic duty and support the war effort. Often their help was needed at home as parents worked or served in the military. Many were attracted by the lure of jobs in wartime industries; others, who had been sent from rural schools to large consolidated district schools far from home, found they were needed on their family farms.

For those who did stay in school, many high schools adjusted their curriculum to provide enhanced physical education. Before the war, physical education had focused on games and sports. After studies indicated that American teenagers were in poor shape compared to their European counterparts, PE classes began to emphasize strength and conditioning. At the same time, free or reduced-cost meal plans were offered to increase the nutrition available to students. More than six million children were part of a hot-lunch program during the war, and the government provided “penny milk,” a half-pint of milk for a penny, for all.

Author Biography

Irving T. McDonald was born in 1894. Growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts, he attended public schools, and he graduated from Holy Cross College in 1915. After a brief career as a public school teacher, he was drawn to acting and joined, and then managed, a vaudeville group that toured nationwide. He managed successful theaters in Worcester and wrote several successful plays and books in the 1920s, including a series of books for boys based on his college experience. He returned to Holy Cross in 1929 after being invited to create the Drama Department; he transferred to the English Department before being promoted to librarian. McDonald left Holy Cross in 1942 to work for the WRKO radio station in Boston and later for WEEI. He died in Florida on March 1, 1966.

Historical Document

I SPEAK to you this morning out of the most urgent convictions with which I have ever addressed an audience. For I see in you, with the utmost clarity of vision, one of the most potent instruments by which the salvation of our country will be effected, and the freedom of future generations made secure. Yours is a weighty responsibility. Yours is a glorious call.

We in America are confronted today with the reality— not the threat, alone—but the reality of a world-wide revolution. Not only has it begun to effect, with almost paralyzing suddenness, our persons and our intimate daily lives, but it is creeping closer and closer to our continental shores. We did not ask for it. We did not start it. But the signs are plain for even the blind to read that we have got to finish it. Our brave but wholly unprepared Allies have been unableto stem the tide. Even the majestic fighting might of Russia's armies have only contained one of our enemies on one of our fighting fronts, and the world awaits with bated breath our fortunes on that front during these next few weeks. For the continued resistance of our Russian allies depends to an appalling degree on our ability to supply them. The congregation of Axis sea-power off the coast of Norway and the sudden closure of Norwegian ports by Nazi orders can only mean an all-out assault, by sea and air, upon that thousand mile gateway between Iceland and Scotland which is our northern road to Russia. And if that assault succeeds, you can confidently expect a mighty effort to seize Iceland itself, as the first stepping stone toward our continent by way of Greenland and Newfoundland, while in the Pacific Japan will move northward, point by point, toward

Alaska, which is little further from Tokyo than the Australian waters where she is now engaged.

But whether the final fight is made on American soil, or in Pacific waters, or in the rocky fastness of Berchtesgaden itself, it has become America's high mission to fight, to finish, to win this war.

“To win this war.” Do you know what that means? The popular mind today thinks of winning the war in terms of defeating the Axis powers—of licking Hitler's henchmen, Mussolini's myrmidons, and the hordes of Hirohito; and no one will deny that that's a big enough assignment to fill the minds and monopolize the purposes of mortal men. And no one will criticise any American if he gives all his time, all his energy, all his life's blood to the accomplishment of that purpose. Indeed, the majority of citizens have no obligation to think beyond that purpose, for if that purpose is not accomplished, it will be futile to discuss the consequences. For the character of those consequences will be quite out of our hands.

But you are the exception. You have not only the right, but the civic, the professional, yes, the moral duty, to look beyond that first fighting phase, to prepare yourselves to understand and to anticipate the future phases, as when, for example, the spoils of future influence will come to be divided between opposing ideologies, or when the pangs of the rebirth of now-dead nations must arouse passions and dissensions whose magnitude and direction we cannot now foretell, or when, in the final phase of this revolution, the ultimate peace must be constructed out of justice tinctured with compassion, and a strong distrust of greedy purposes. For you are teachers. And into your hands has been confided the training of those upon whom America must depend to bring her safely, triumphantly, and worthily through the ultimate stages of this cosmic upheaval.

And as directors of physical education I charge you with a specific and grave responsibility in these premises, a responsibility which can be negotiated by no other group of educators as effectively or as appropriately as yourselves.

Does this astonish you? Do you tell me I'm shooting wide of the mark, that your opportunities to serve the purposes of the America's future are not to be compared with those of the teachers of history, of civics, of Americanization, of sociology, of science, of economics?

I do not belittle at all the services of such teachers, nor do I deny them their spacious and important place in the preparation for America's tomorrow. But yours is the wider opportunity today.

For in all the colorful sphere of teacher-pupil relationship, your status is unique, and holds potentials which are denied the classroom teacher. The informality of the gym and the hotly contested rivalry of the playing field invariably breed an intimacy, a shoulder-to-shoulder comradeship beyond any that can properly develop in the classroom, the lab, or the lecture-hall; and the boys and girls who will be tomorrow's men and women look on you, not as instructors alone, but as living leaders. And whether you know it or not, they are imbibing with every breath they draw in your presence, the qualities of leadership, and conduct patterns based on your words and your examples, by which the future destinies of our country will be shaped, for good or ill. For youth is an age of hero-worship. And you, ladies and gentlemen, would probably be astounded, and humbled in your hearts, if you only knew your heroic stature in the estimation of your pupils, and the urge to emulate which you inspire in them.

It is not for nothing that the masters of totalitarian governments seize the children of their countries as soon asthey are able to toddle beyond the shadow of their cradles, and place them under the immediate and constant tutelage of instructors who are strong in muscle as well as character who are active in body as well as in mind, who can teach them, and lead them in games and sports and body-building discipline. For they know that by such men and women the character, the aspirations, the very functional ideals of the race can be forced into any mold they choose, and twisted to conform to their plotted pattern far more successfully than by teachers of any other type. And theirs is the brutish pattern of Nazi irrationality. And nine years ago, when Hitler first came to power, his Nazi Youth Leader Baldur von Shirach, declared:

“Every boy and every girl in this nation will be made a National Socialist… There will be no escape possible from the channel which we shall mark for the German to follow from childhood to manhood… Give me a child of six to educate, and he will belong to me for life.”

For generations, now, we in America have been living on the bounty of our fathers; have been enjoying the fruits of their heroic sacrifices. Today, we are called to trial before the twin tribunals of history and our consciences, to vindicate ourselves—to prove our worthiness to continue to live the life of freedom, independence, and honor, which they bequeathed to us.

When we were children, we listened with quickened pulses to the tales of great deeds and noble courage, hardship, trial and hazard, of the men and women who wrested our country out of a savage wilderness and gave their lives without regret that freedom's flag might wave above our homes. And in our little hearts we sighed and longed, as children always do who read the history of our nation, and wished that we had lived to take part in those days of glory—to have pioneered with Boone, to have suffered at Valley Forge with Washington, or to have battled with Zack Taylor at Buena Vista—to have shared their perils, to have hungered, bled, perhaps to have died, to help to found this Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

But when, as a nation, we grew older, we waxed wealthy, and self-indulgent. The richness of our lives grew layers of fat upon our characters. We became careless of our responsibilities and indifferent to our deeper values. And there were some far-sighted ones who wondered, a little uneasily, whether we still had the bone-structure, the stamina of soul and body, to do the things our fathers did—to work, to fight, sacrifice and suffer, to bleed and die. That question now demands its answer. And you, each one of you and all of you together, must answer it without equivocation. For according to your answer, so shall the lives of little children be for generations yet unborn to humankind.

Will you be the wastrel heirs of a glorious patrimony? Will you by indifference, negligence, or incompetence, so weaken the fiber, so destroy the ideals of tomorrow's leaders, that America shall cease to be?

That could happen. Already we are borrowing from our children for centuries ahead to pay for our own war. Isn't that enough to do to them? Are we going, as well, to toss away the bright jewel of a free civilization, and make slaves of future generations, so that tomorrow's America may only think of us with bitterness and contempt?

I know what your answer is. I can see it in your eyes—hear it in the beating of your loyal hearts. And a thousand years from now, men of all races, at the shrines and temples of all continents, will hold your memories in grateful reverence. And of you, as the custodians, examples and guides of this American generation, they will say: “We, who are free forever, salute you!”

Glossary

bequeath: to hand down; pass on

myrmidon: a person who does as commanded without question or scruple

patrimony: an estate inherited from one's father or ancestors; any quality or characteristic that is inherited

tincture: to impart a tint or color; tinge; to imbue or infuse with something

wastrel: a wasteful person; a good-for-nothing person

Document Analysis

McDonald begins his speech to a conference of PE directors with a rousing pep talk. He tells the directors that they are performing a vital role in the war effort. They are the “potent instruments by which the salvation of our country will be effected, and the freedom of future generations made secure.” With the United States at war, McDonald notes that it is possible that the “final fight [will be] made on American soil.” McDonald argues that, though every effort must be made to win the war, it is shortsighted to think of winning the war without also training young people to lead after the war. Teachers are able and obligated to look past the immediate need to win the war because “into your hands has been confided the training of those upon whom America must depend to bring her safely, triumphantly, and worthily through the ultimate stages of this cosmic upheaval.”

McDonald makes the case that PE teachers are uniquely positioned to lead the next generation. They carry a “responsibility which can be negotiated by no other group of educators as effectively or as appropriately.” He acknowledges that this is a bold statement but argues that PE teachers have a broader duty than teachers of other subjects. They have a unique relationship with their students based on the “intimacy” found in the gymnasium and on the playing field. McDonald says that students learn “qualities of leadership” from them, and he reminds his audience that “youth is an age of hero-worship”—these PE directors are heroes to their students.

McDonald asserts that American students need to be led by teachers who are “strong in muscle as well as character… active in body as well as in mind.” He offers the example of German education, which successfully molded its youth by training both the body and the mind, though not to positive ends. McDonald argues that Americans have grown soft and that some critics have questioned whether they “still had the bone-structure, the stamina of soul and body, to do the things our fathers did—to work, to fight, sacrifice and suffer, to bleed and die.” Those who have wished that they could have shared in the great adventures of the past have been given a chance to prove themselves, says McDonald, and teachers can help by being “the custodians, examples and guides of this American generation.” When the war is won, teachers will be deserving of thanks.

Essential Themes

During the period of time that McDonald gave this speech, teachers were leaving the profession in droves. The primary theme of McDonald's speech is the integral role teachers in general, and PE teachers in particular, had to play in the war effort. PE teachers had a different level of contact with their students than other teachers had, he argues, and the “intimacy” of sports and group exercise gave them extra influence and an opportunity for leadership. These teachers were role models for their students, examples of health in mind and body; therefore, they were desperately needed to shepherd the next generation of Americans through the war. McDonald bolsters his argument with the example of Nazi education, which emphasized both physical and academic education. The effectiveness of the Nazi system was undeniable, in his opinion, even if the results were “twisted to conform to their plotted pattern.” McDonald asserted that in the United States, teachers were equally able to influence the next generation, but in defense of freedom—both in the short term of fighting in the war effort and in the long term of leading the postwar world.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Beevor, Antony. The Second World War. New York: Little, Brown, 2012. Digital file.
  • “McDonald, Irving Papers.” College of the Holy Cross Archives and Special Collections. College of Holy Cross, n.d. PDF file. 11 Feb. 2014
  • Ossian, Lisa L. The Forgotten Generation: American Children and World War II. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2011. Print.
  • Studebaker, John W. “Missing, 115,000 Teachers.” Click 7.12 (1944): 65. Print.
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