“Hunting Scapegoats”: WWII Literacy Crisis and Current Education Reform

“Historians often mention World War II as a time when expectations for schooling and literacy really took off,” explains Deborah Brandt, “when what was considered an adequate level of education moved from fourth grade to twelfth grade in a matter of a few years” (p. 485).

National concerns about literacy can be traced to literacy tests for soldiers in WWI, when 25% of recruits were deemed illiterate. While this data appear to have prompted a greater focus on literacy in U.S. public schools, WWII data on literacy again suggested far too many people in the U.S. struggled with basic literacy. As Brandt notes:

Even more profoundly, though, World War II changed the rationale for mass literacy. Literacy was irrevocably transformed from a nineteenth-century moral imperative into a twentieth-century production imperative—transformed from an attribute of a “good” individual into an individual “good,” a resource or raw material vital to national security and global competition. In the process, literacy was turned into something extractable, something measurable, some-thing rentable, and thereby something worthy of rational investment. (p. 485)

From the early to mid-twentieth century, then, a powerful dynamic was created among racial integration, military-based measurement of IQ and literacy, and changing expectations for public education.

Brandt sees those relationships in current education reform ideologies and claims:

We can find eerie parallels between the selective service system of the mid-twentieth century and the public educational system of the early twenty-first century. There is the atmosphere of high anxiety around literacy, rapidly changing standards, an imposition of those standards onto more and more people, a search (largely futile) for reliable testing, a context of quick technological development, a heightened concern for world dominance, and a linking of literacy with national security, productivity, and total quality control. This is what happens when literacy links up with competition, with the need to win the war. It is this competition that justifies the strip mining of literacy, the ranking of skill, the expendability of human potential, and the production of just-in-time literacy. It is the blueprint for the Knowledge Economy. (p. 499)

Calls of a literacy crisis during WWII are roots of similar cries of education crisis spanning from the early 1980s until today. And throughout either era, the complexities of the problems are ignored in order to force agendas that have less to do with education than with serving larger social and political goals—often ones benefitting the privileged at the expense of the impoverished and marginalized.

In 1942, Lou LaBrant confronted the misleading conclusions drawn about low literacy rates among WWII draftees:

The induction of American youth into the armed forces, and the attendant examinations and classifications have called attention to a matter long of concern to those who teach reading or who are devoted to the cause of democracy: the fact that in a land which purports to offer universal education we have a considerable number of youth who cannot read intelligently. We are disturbed now because we want these men to be able to read military directions, and they cannot. A greater tragedy is that they are and have been unable to read with sufficient understanding to be constructive peace-time citizens.

As is to be expected, immediate explanations have been forthcoming, and immediate pointing-of-fingers has begun. Most of the explanations and pointing have come from those who have had least to do with teaching reading, and who are least conversant with the real problem. Moreover, as is again to be expected, the diagnosis is frequently in terms of prejudice or pet complaint, and could be used in other situations as logically. Many are hunting scapegoats; there are scores of “I-told-you-so’s.” It is best to look at the situation critically. (p. 240)

LaBrant recognized, as a teacher and scholar of literacy, that public blame for the low literacy rates suffered from both a lack of expertise about literacy and a number of complicating factors. For example, the standard for literacy changed from generation to generation, and WWII experienced an expanded pool of recruits due to integration, which of course included African Americans and impoverished men who had been systematically denied educational opportunities.

The political and public response to low literacy rates among the military in WWII included blaming progressive education and calling for a back-to-basics focus, as LaBrant addressed:

Within the past ten years we have made great strides in the teaching of purposeful reading, reading for understanding (the kind of reading, incidentally, which the army and navy want) . Nevertheless, we hear many persons saying that the present group of near-illiterates are results of “new methods,” “progressive schools,” or any deviation from the old mechanical procedures. They say we must return to drill and formal reciting from a text book. (p. 240)

The pattern identified by LaBrant foreshadows the rise of high-quality writing instruction in the 1970s-1980s that was blunted by the accountability era’s focus on standards and high-stakes testing.

But, as LaBrant outlined, public and political blame placed on progressivism was misguided, and ultimately misleading:

Before we jump to such an absurd conclusion, let’s take a minute to think of a few things:

1. Not many men in the army now have been taught by these newer methods. Those few come for the most part from private or highly privileged schools, are among those who have completed high school or college, and have no difficulty with reading.

2. While so-called “progressive” schools may have their limitations, and certainly do allow their pupils to progress at varied rates, above the second grade their pupils consistently show superior ability in reading. Indeed, the most eager critics have complained that these children read everything they can find, and consequently do not concentrate on a few facts. Abundant data now testify to the superior results of purposeful, individualized reading programs.

3. The reading skills required by the military leaders are relatively simple, and cause no problem for normal persons who have remained in school until they are fourteen or fifteen. Unfortunately the large group of non-readers are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and back- ward teaching in the United States. (pp. 240-241)

Again, consider the pattern: Implement new and developing tests (literacy tests during WWII), identify a problem related to education, create a scapegoat, and then call for a return to traditional drill-based education. Does this sound familiar?

Now add what was not being addressed in 1942, as detailed by LaBrant:

An easy way to evade the question of improved living and better schools for our underprivileged is to say the whole trouble is lack of drill. Lack of drill! Leťs be honest. Lack of good food; lack of well-lighted homes with books and papers; lack of attractive, well equipped schools, where reading is interesting and meaningful; lack of economic security permitting the use of free schools—lack of a good chance, the kind of chance these unlettered boys are now fighting to give to others. Surround children with books, give them healthful surroundings and an opportunity to read freely. They will be able to read military directions—and much more. (p. 241)

Seven-plus decades ago, public and political outrage was willing to attack a straw man, a scapegoat—progressive education—but was unwilling to confront inequity, poverty, and the linger scar of racial segregation.

Again, sound familiar?

See Also


Lack 1942


5 thoughts on ““Hunting Scapegoats”: WWII Literacy Crisis and Current Education Reform

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