Challenge to Education - NYA - 1938

NYA was created to help some of the youthful casualties of an economic depression. It has found that many of the youth with whom it deals are also educational casualties.

The 500,000 young men and women, 18 to 25 years old, who have been on the NYA out-of-school program in the last two and a half years have on the average attained only eighth grade education. Among all these youth, few have had any kind of occupational training in school or in work.

Most of them have been so much crude labor poured onto an employment market already surfeited with crude labor. They are not prepared for the making of a living in modern industrial society.

Even if it were running more nearly at capacity, our productive economy would have no place for so vast a number of unskilled workers as are found now in the ranks of the unemployed.

With such business recovery as we had in 1935 and 1936, the demand for trained workers in many lines could not be filled by the millions of people who wanted jobs.

These unemployed out-of-school youth are no better pre- pared for simple subsistence on the land. Many are completely ignorant of the home production skills with which past generations maintained more adequate standards of living with small cash outlay.

Some are strangers to such simple tools as the hammer, the saw, and the chisel. Even among farm youth, many know nothing about raising vegetables, fruits, poultry, and livestock for home consumption.

Far too many of the girls have no more than a fragmentary knowledge of diet, the preparation and preservation of foods, sewing, childcare, home hygiene, and other essentials of sound family living.

The more one sees of the NYA program for out-of-school youth and remembers that the youngest on this program are 18 years old, the more insistent becomes the question: "Where is the celebrated American school system? How does it happen that a large segment of the youth population of the country has failed to receive any adequate foundation for satisfactory adult living?"

There is no single answer. Two of the answers, both revealing aspects of the inequality of educational opportunity, are essentially economic. First, some areas and com- munities lack schools which are passably good by any standard of measurement. Second, many children and youth do not have the economic means to take advantage of such school facilities as are available.

As we have traveled over the country, looking at NYA work projects, talking with NYA youth, with NYA supervisors and administrators, and with educators, we have been compelled to conclude that there are additional reasons why so many young people are so poorly educated.

Again and again we were forced to ask ourselves these two questions: "Why do so many of these youth, who show such an avid interest in their NYA work, and even in spare-time courses of study, have such a distaste for the orthodox schools? And how much would these young people have benefited if they had continued to attend these regular schools?"


The quality of schooling that a child receives depends largely on where he lives. Schools vary within States as well as from State to State. More than three-quarters of the money spent for education in the United States comes from the taxation of property.

As a rule, rural areas have the smallest funds for schools and the highest ratio of children to adults. On the whole, rural areas are inferior to the cities in school buildings, equipment, and teachers. Often the rural school year is shorter.

In Arkansas, for example, most rural schools are open only six months a year and $30 to $40 a month is the average rural schoolteacher's salary. Low salaries for teachers are by no means confined to the South.

We saw rural schools in Kansas, where, we were informed, the teachers received $40 a month.

In three States the State-wide average annual compensation for teachers and principals was less than $600 in 1935–36; and in two the average length of the school year was less than 140 days, against a national average of 173 days. [Note 1]

New York State's school expenditures for the year 1935–36 averaged $134.13 for each pupil in actual attendance and $95.08 for each child 5 to 17 years old. In the same year Arkansas spent $24.55 per actual pupil and $15.82 per child 5 to 17.

Yet, in relation to its financial ability, Arkansas was spending more money per child than New York. Mississippi, the poorest of the 48 States, spent $20.13 per child of school age in 1935–36.

Yet Mississippi was making more than twice the effort that New York was; if Mississippi had spent no more than New York in relation to its financial ability it would have spent less than $10 per child.

In proportion to financial ability, every Southern State in 1935–36 was spending more per child on education than were such affluent States as Delaware, Nevada, New York, California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Oregon, and Rhode Island.

In 1930 the farm population of the country as a whole received 9 percent of the national income but was responsible for the care and education of 31 per cent of the nation's children.

In the Southeastern region, the farmers had only 2 percent of the national income, but they were responsible for the care and education of 4,250,000 children 5 to 17 years old, inclusive. At the other extreme, the non-farm population of the Northeast had 42 percent of the national income, but only 8,500,000 children to care for and educate.

This undemocratic inequality of educational opportunity can be corrected only with the assistance of the Federal Government. It is far beyond any means and purposes of NYA.

Inequality of educational opportunity is accentuated by the fact that many of the lowest-income families cannot afford to take advantage of existing school facilities.

Again and again in many States we heard the word "shoes" used as the equation for going to school.

"The children can get to school until it's snow time. They can't go then unless they have shoes."

"If she gets some shoes, she'll be going regular this winter."

Underwear can be made from sugar sacks. Clothes can be patched and remade. Shoes seem the insurmountable obstacle to school attendance in many impoverished families.

"I bought a pair of shoes with my first NYA money," was the story we heard many times from girls or boys on the high school aid program.

The lowest-income groups of families have the largest numbers of children. When a whole family has a yearly cash income of $200 to $400, there simply is no money for transportation, books, or school supplies for high school. Furthermore, at the very first opportunity, the older children in the family must look for work to supplement the family income.

The NYA school aid program enables a considerable number of youths to remain in the regular schools by giving them the opportunity to earn small amounts of money to cover necessary incidental expenses.

This type of aid is available only to youth 16 years of age or older. In some cases, these very modest earnings also keep younger brothers and sisters in the family in school. The NYA Resident Project throws another bridge across the chasm of educational inequality.


Economic handicaps are not the only reason why so many of the young people on the NYA program have not gone on through high school.

Why do so many children and young people in school have distrust, even hate, for the place where they spend so many hours of their lives? Why do youth who have left school behind them, usually at far too early an age, look back with unpleasant memories on their lives within school walls?

Why is it that in many cases NYA has found it difficult to get youth interested in a workshop, for example, in a school building, and comparatively easy to interest them if the workshop is situated anywhere else in town?

Why is it that so many youth will come for related training courses much more readily to a youth center, a town hall, any place, than to a school?

"Would you go back to school if you could?" we asked a number of out-of-school NYA youth.

"Not regular-school," was a frequent reply.

We wanted to know why.

"It's like prison."

"I got to make myself a living. I want to be an auto mechanic. What's French got to do with that?"

"I don't know. It's just so dead."

These youth sketched for us a picture of school as an isolated experience in their lives. Their studies in school seemed to them to have little relation to the realities facing them.

They frequently looked on teachers as warders. Schools seem to have failed to "sell themselves" to their consumers, the pupils. Yet most of these same youth welcome learning when working on a building, in a carpentry shop, in a home- making unit.

Numbers of them study willingly spelling, arith- metic, practical physics, nutrition, hygiene, and other subjects in NYA related training programs. Most of them evince no resentment against the discipline of the NYA foremen and supervisors. Why can NYA get this co-operation where the schools have failed?


"Can you get this boy a job as a bricklayer?" a schoolteacher asked a Junior Placement office. "I think he's feebleminded." This is an exaggeration, perhaps, of a general feeling that manual labor is degrading and that the boy or girl who works in an office is of a far superior caste.

"The dignity of honest labor" has become a faint refrain (usually reserved for Labor Day orations). We heard of one high school where 300 students were enrolled in typing and stenographic classes. In the county in which they were living only 42 stenographers were employed in all fields.

If these youth migrate to larger population centers, they find intense competition, often with other young people more highly trained for this type of work.

In a study made in Cleveland, 90.3 percent of the pupils in the high schools were found to be enrolled in courses supposedly leading to white-collar and professional jobs; in that city 9.3 percent of the population is employed in this category of work.

In 1936, the Minnesota NYA gathered some pertinent in- formation concerning 3170 out-of-school, unemployed young people, 16 to 24 years of age, from relief families. They averaged a ninth-grade education. [Note 2]

Fifty-five came from families having monthly incomes of less than $25 each. Six hundred and sixty-five came from families with incomes of $25 to $50 a month; 1047 from families with incomes of $50 to $75 a month. Almost one-third had never held any kind of job. The majority of those who had worked had been employed in manual labor, errands, or domestic service.

"What do you want to be doing ten years from now?" the youth in this group were asked. Many thought of themselves as aviators, civil, electrical, and Diesel engineers, accountants, office workers, contractors, owners of businesses, actresses, artists, authors, journalists, doctors, nurses, teachers, radio television experts, athletic directors, social scientists, etc.

Very likely some of these youth have the ability to prepare for these types of jobs. Considering their limited fundamental education, their ages, their family incomes, and their own small earning power, most of these young people, however, are only indulging in wishful thinking instead of facing the actualities of employment possibilities.

NYA supervisors and Junior Placement officials reported to us that this type of romancing is pathetically prevalent. Youth 20 years old with no more than grade school education not only talk of such work as Diesel engineering but deprive themselves of basic necessities to take correspondence courses in highly technical professions.

In America there unquestionably exists a high sense of snobbery toward manual labor, even when it is skilled work. For generations a big share of the manual labor outside of the South was done by immigrants, some of whom were artisans.

The children of the later immigrants, like the descendants of the earlier immigrants, aspire to employment with more prestige than manual labor. Parents seem to derive a vicarious satisfaction in their sons' and daughters' having careers in offices rather than in factories, in construction, or in other trades. Schools also must share the responsibility for fostering the conviction that work done with the hands is inferior to desk jobs.

There is another reason why white-collar work may be especially attractive to youth and to their parents. White-collar jobs, as a rule, offer greater regularity of employment than work in factories, mills, construction, and other trades.

Office workers experience comparatively fewer seasonal lay-offs and shut-downs. Their income is steadier. Regular vacations with pay, shorter working days, and other more inviting working conditions accrue to them.

Labor and industry must ensure greater security of income, shorter hours, and generally better working conditions before they can expect youth to choose work with the hands in preference to white-collar jobs.

The less work experiences a youth has had, we were told many times, the more illusions he entertains about the desirability and the feasibility of a white-collar or a professional job.

NYA is probably helping many youths to correct their occupational fixations by giving them work experience and vocational in- formation and guidance that they could obtain in no other way in this period of depression.


Because NYA touches large groups of young people who might be termed educational fatalities, it challenges the educational system to improve and enlarge itself.

We asked several high school principals and teachers if they felt that the NYA program for out-of-school youth had any significance educationally.

"We in schools have lost the faith of young people," one principal said. "They do not look to us to guide them or to help them in the ways of the modern world. And they're right, because we ourselves don't know this world.

We've prided our- selves in keeping aloof from it. NYA has captured the confidence of youth because it has given them more honest ways of learning."

A college president who was in intimate touch with a Resi- dent Project on his campus felt that the interest and progress of the NYA youth (most of whom had completed no more than the eighth grade), both in their work and in their related studies, opened new doors for education.

"These young people are learning much that they will use every day of their lives," he said, in speaking of the NYA resident students. "They make us face the fact that we have concentrated in preparing young people to meet the abnormalities of living rather than the normalities of work, of family life, of responsible citizenship. We must take inventory of the educational system, forget our own defenses, and set the educational house in better order."

Leaders of educational thought recognize that the traditional high school linguistic-mathematical curriculum, originally devised as a foundation for a small number of youth who would enter the learned professions, fails to satisfy the needs of the vast numbers of young people in high schools today.

The NYA experience with large numbers of out-of-school youth deserves, we believe, a thorough examination by the educators who are now concerning themselves with the problem of revi- sion of high school methods and curricula.

Educators and taxpayers may also find it worth their time to investigate the development of the NYA youth center, where the young people and sometimes all the members of the com- munity find opportunities for learning, recreation, and work under one roof.

Undoubtedly there are schools that integrate the whole community life—where during the day children come for eager hours of learning, where young people want to gather for dancing, plays, music, discussion groups, athletics, where parents and children find satisfying family recreation, where the important local and national questions of the day are threshed out in public forums, where teachers are leaders and where buildings and equipment continue their useful services after the formal school day is over. They are too few and far between.

Of necessity the NYA out-of-school program has been experimental. The positive encouragement to experiment given by the administrative officers in this decentralized and flexible organization has led to the breaking of many new trails.

In its rough and ready pioneering the NYA out-of-school program has had the counsel of many educators—on the administrative staff, on advisory committees, and among co-operating local agencies.

Much of the work that NYA is doing for these young people properly belongs within the province of the regular schools. NYA has evinced no ambition to usurp the rightful prerogatives of the educational system.

But it has been forced to make an effort, wide in its significance and deep in its effects, to salvage many educational outcasts and wrecks of the past decade—young people unequipped to meet problems of living far more complicated than youth of other generations have confronted.

End Notes

Note 1: These and other figures in this section on Unequal Distribution of Education are taken from Report of the Advisory Committee on Education, Government Printing Office, 1938.

Note 2: Since the survey was made the average education of youth on the Minnesota NYA out-of-school work program has dropped one year.

Betty and Ernest K. Lindley, "Challenge to Education," in A New Deal for Youth: The Story of the National Youth Administration, New York: The Viking Press, 1938, pp. 193-201.

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