Planning: Democratic Education or Engineering?

A review of the literature reveals very little analysis of the causal connection between these surveys and a number of efforts to constrain and affect the behavior and attitudes of servicemen. (Indeed the whole issue of planning for the psychological transition from military to civilian life is largely unexplored even in the work of Herman and Capshew.) In his first report on preparing for the postwar transition, to the Chief of the Personnel Branch, Osborn sets out four avenues for ameliorating potential negative behavior: a nonmilitary education program (a system of correspondence courses for high school and college credit), “information activities,” recreational activities, and an athletic program.[18] Under information activities, Osborn sketches out a program of information, “derived from nonmilitary sources and prepared so far as possible by nonmilitary agencies,” on such issues as jobs; “local, state, and national problems which men will find confronting them as citizens with explanations of the historical, geographical, and economic backgrounds of these problems”; and “international problems facing the United States.”[19] This sketch would form the basis for the G.I. Roundtable series.

On its face, the notion that small-group discussions could serve as a useful function in the hierarchical context of the military seems fairly anomalous. However, as William Graebner has noted, similar programs were being developed in the civilian world in the same period. This notion had fairly deep roots, stretching back to notions of progressive education, which had gained credence at the end of the 19th-century and been further developed by progressive philosophers and social scientists like John Dewey.[20] These ideas had a particularly strong advocate in Francis T. Spaulding, chief of the Education Branch, and another civilian pressed into temporary service for the war. Spaulding joined the division from a post as dean of education at Harvard to accept a temporary commission as colonel for the duration of the war.[21] In articles and a variety of consultant’s reports, he had been actively promoting these ideals of democratic education, noting in one article that

the conventional school teaches history out of books, and civics also out of books. As a result, its graduates know a good many of the facts of American history and something of about the machinery of national government, and perhaps recognize their rights as American citizens to freedom of speech and of assembly and of the press. But most of these pupils, as studies of representative schools have shown, have no clear realization of the social and political problems to be found in their own local communities; few of them know how to go about the task of being active citizens in their own right; only a minority are willing even to say that they would do certain things necessary to make democracy actually work, in situations where the task of making democracy work involved some personal effort or self-denial.[22]

Spaulding would bring these ideals of an engaged form of education into the military, and was quite active in advocating the “democratic” form of the discussion group as a necessary leisure-time activity.[23] An important component in their thinking was a very similar program being conducted by the British military under the Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA). Both Osborn and Spaulding had traveled to England and been noted that it was a deficiency that the U.S. military lacked a similar program.[24] Osborn was particularly impressed with the way these were carefully structured to “guide” discussion into certain topic areas, and promote small group cohesion. While the discussion on how to establish a specific program comparable to ABCA is not recorded, in early September 1943 Spaulding approached the American Historical Association about producing the materials for these discussion groups.[25]

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 3.

[20] William Graebner, “The Small Group and Democratic Social Engineering, 1900–1950,” Journal of Social Issues 42 (1986): 138.

[21] Francis T. Spaulding, Addresses and Papers of Francis Trow Spaulding (Albany: University of the State of New York, 1967), vii–ix.

[22] Francis T. Spaulding, “Our Expanding Horizons: In Our Public Schools,” in James B. Conant and Francis T. Spaulding, Education for a Classless Society: Three Essays on the Purposes and Problems of American Education (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Graduate School of Education, 1940), 125–26.

[23] Undated confidential memo, Col. Spaulding to AHA Executive Committee (no author given, but presumably Guy Stanton Ford), 2 September 1943, Box 384, AHA Papers.

[24] Frederick Osborn to Gen. Brehon Somervell, “Comparison of Special Services in ETO with Corresponding Activities in the British Army,” 20 August 1943, Box 309, IED Files; “Osborn Stresses Soldier Schooling,” New York Times, 12 August 1943, 5; Col. Spaulding to AHA Executive Committee, 2 September 1943, Box 384, AHA Papers; S. P. MacKenzie, Politics and Military Morale: Current-Affairs and Citizenship Education in the British Army, 1914-1950 (Oxford, Eng.: Clarendon Press, 1992) discusses the production, policies, and goals of the ABCA program, but seems largely uninterested in the larger disciplinary and ideological context (aside from a broad Right-Left divide) that served to produce them.

[25] The records relating to the establishment of the series seem to have disappeared during an administrative transition in the War Department.