An Interview with Eleanor Roosevelt
Chari Ormond Williams
Originally published in The Nation's Schools 45, no. 3 (March 1950): 31-36.
Background in Teaching
What led you into teaching, Mrs. Roosevelt, and did you find it rewarding work?
I began to enjoy teaching when I was a little girl in Tivoli when my grandmother had me teach the children on the place their Sunday school lessons. The year I came home from abroad I went into the Junior League and had classes in Rivington Street Settlement. They were not formal academic classes but classes in rhythmic dancing and gymnastics. This gave me a chance to know the children and to take trips with them.
Later when my friend, Marion Dickerman, became the co-principal of a school in New York City, she asked me to teach American and English literature and, later, a course in American history and civics. I agreed to teach the older girls, and I enjoyed it very much and found that developing a real love of reading, rather than looking on it purely as an assignment, was a very rewarding experience.
Schools Serve All Ages
What is your point of view concerning the school as the education center of the community, serving the broad needs of all ages from nursery school youngsters to grandfathers?
The school should be the center of activity in far more communities. Many neighborhoods have no community house or community facilities. The schoolhouse is an expensive building. It would be far cheaper to run it on an all-time basis to serve the needs of the people. I should like to see nursery schools and kindergartens developed all over the country. And I should like to see schools used right through the day and into the evening for the convenience of every age group.
For several decades organizations like the General Federation of Women's Clubs and the National Congress of Parents and Teachers have been deeply interested in providing educational facilities for children under 6 years of age, but the results so far have not been highly successful. How do you think interested parents and other citizens can go about obtaining such privileges for all children?
Bring pressure on the state and city governments. Keep pointing out the advantages of freeing the mother from child care for certain hours of the day and the importance of getting a child started in good habits of learning to live with other people. Only in that way can we educate the community to a willingness to pay the necessary taxes.
Do you think community colleges, giving 13th and 14th grade work, are a good idea?
It would depend on the area. You could not expect small communities to have their own colleges, but a number of communities could have a college together, very advantageously. Most parents, once they realized the value of education, would be willing to pay the additional taxes. It is wise to keep young people at home during these 13th and 14th school years.
Twelve- Month Program
To what extent would it be advisable to direct our planning toward the all-year secondary school, placing the professional staff on a 12-month basis, with ample provision for vacation periods during the year?
It is a very good idea. Long holidays are not necessary for health or recreation if provision can be made to have recreation and relaxation in connection with educational programs. Without such provisions long holidays are a waste of time.
You were responsible for making possible the first White House Conference on Rural Education ever held. What do you think are some significant outcomes of this conference, which rural educators believe has charted the course of rural education in this country for the next 50 years?
There were a number of worthwhile outcomes: the reawakening of public interest in rural education; the organization of similar conferences on the state level; nine regional conferences on rural life and education held annually under the auspices of the department of rural education of the N.E.A.; organization of the National Conference of County and Rural Area Superintendents of Schools; the rapid increase in the reorganization of rural school districts in the last five years, and many others of equal importance, it seems to me.
Conserving Natural Resources
What should rural and other schools be doing about conservation of our natural resources? The nation knows about your husband's absorbing interest in this area.
We could take a leaf out of the book of the European countries. There a child is taught in school how to behave in the country around the city where he lives. He is taught that it is valuable to reforest and that he must protect forests against fires because they not only keep up the water level in the area but provide a steady revenue.
Health of All Youth
What do you think should be done in this country to ensure healthy boys and girls and strong men and women in the years to come?
As far as public schools are concerned, the health program should be confined to the teaching of good health habits, instruction in home economics classes, a knowledge of proper diet, and proper physical care. There also should be good physical instruction.
However from my point of view, the remedying of defects found in the medical area should be taken out of the schools completely. Every child in our country should be required under the Public Health Service to attend a clinic where he would periodically receive a careful examination and where, if the family means were not sufficient, the necessary work, whether dental, eye care, or even an operation, would be at the disposal of that child, free of charge.
We have learned in two world wars that we have an increasing number of people who are not physically fit and that in most cases these individuals did not have the available medical advice and the means to obtain the necessary remedial care. This is a service that the nation must give its young people if it hopes to remain strong and healthy as a nation.
Counseling and Guidance
Do you think parents and the general public understand counseling and guidance service?
Parents really welcome guidance because they know they haven't had the training; also, they know children are likely to listen to guidance that comes from outside the family. Counseling service should be developed to a greater extent because young people very much need guidance.
Responsibilities of Youth
There are about a thousand student councils in high schools throughout the country. What can these students do to help improve conditions in their own local communities?
They can do a great deal. They can tell their elders what they really feel are the needs of high school students. In many communities little provision has been made for recreation of young people. You would not expect such a question to arise in country villages, but it has been mentioned in my own village of Hyde Park. There is no place but the corner drugstore for young people to meet. Either the family does not have a house large enough for a group, or, if the family gives the young people a room the family then has no place. Young people can explain that if needs for recreation are met some aspects of juvenile delinquency will be lessened.
The young men and women who visited you this weekend impressed me as being deeply devoted to the principles of democracy and to ideals of service to their nation. Don't you think so?
Decidedly. I think young people are more serious, particularly those who went through the war, and even those who saw their elder brothers and sisters go through the war, than most of the young people of my generation were.
Whose fault is it that so many adolescents are committing revolting crimes? What can schools do to assist in crime and delinquency prevention?
It is not the fault of individual parents but of society and of the economy we older people have built. Schools can do a great deal by bringing home to young people what the failures of society are, so that tomorrow's citizens will approach the future with a clearer picture of what needs to be changed.
How can schools operate so as to convince students that they have duties as well as rights as American citizens?
In the first place, by giving them responsibility in areas in which they can accept it. Then by helping the parents to see that this sense of responsibility must be developed in the child.
What can parents do within their own homes and communities to encourage our most talented young people to prepare themselves for teaching in the elementary schools?
First of all, they can pay the teachers sufficiently so that their work will be considered valuable, since pay is often the criterion of the value of one's service. The teacher's standard of living has to be raised to the level of a profession.
The parents can make the position of teacher socially important in the community so that teachers will feel they are making a real contribution.
Do you believe that a loyalty oath demanded of a professional group, such as teachers, is a tacit assumption that that particular group is disloyal? Would you regard it as discrimination if you were a teacher in a state requiring the oath?
It might be said, of course, that this is done because teachers compose such an important group, but in any case it gives them a feeling that they are singled out because of suspicion.
I do not think definite groups should be asked to take a loyalty oath. If we are going to require loyalty oaths, everyone should be required to take them. It might be done when we come of age.
It is much wiser to have anything as important as loyalty to one's country a universal obligation.
How can such a group as the newly created National Citizens Commission for the Public Schools, headed by Roy E. Larsen of Time, contribute most effectively to the progress of education?
By creating public opinion and by making people understand the value of the public schools. The future of the country depends on these public schools because the vast majority of children attend them.
Several generations have grown up in this country with very little appreciation of the background of our pubic schools and the great struggle this nation has gone through to set them up. What would you think of a unit of study devoted to the history, aims and achievements of the public schools?
I think that it should not be a separate unit of study. It should be done in connection with the study of the history of our countryan essential part of history.
Do you favor the present Federal Security Agency setup with the Office of Education on a bureau status?
I believe that we should have a cabinet post for the Department of Education and Fine Arts. It is important enough to the nation to warrant a separate department.
The National Congress of Parents and Teachers, now 52 years old, has 5,000,000 members. How do you account for this marvelous growth?
I account for it by a natural interest on the part of parents in their children. It is not an extraordinary growth, but normal and natural. Through the P.T.A., parents and other citizens may cooperate with the professional staff of the school system to determine the scope and character of the educational program.
Funds for Research
The giant industries of this country spend huge sums annually for research in their particular fields. Does it seem reasonable to expect public education to have some similar amount for studies of student behavior, instructional processes, schoolhouse planning, and educational procedures?
It seems to me not only reasonable but imperative, because the only way in which we make improvements is through research. If it is worthwhile to industry, it certainly is worthwhile to education.
What do you think are the best ways, practically and politically, of improving the educational opportunities of the Negroes and other minorities?
As soon as possible, equal opportunities for education should be given to all of our children regardless of race, color or creed. They should have completely equal opportunities in school housing and in the quality of teachers. Any available advantages should be equal for all young people. Wherever it is possible, education should be given in nonsegregated schools.
Women and Public Life
In 1944, a White House conference considered how women could share in postwar policy-making in local state and national governments. What do you think the schools can do to train women for these policy-making positions?
We should train all children for citizenship much more diligently than we have done in the past. They should really learn what democracy means and why they believe in it. The only special education that needs to be directed at women is to give them confidence that they are able to fill positions in government, whether these are local positions or larger ones.
Naturally, their families are of primary importance, but women have as much responsibility as have men for taking an interest in the environment in which the family grows. Women not only should take seriously their ordinary minimum duties of citizenship, such as studying the issues, going to hear the candidates speak, and actually taking part in the elections, but also should follow what is being done, join organizations that act collectively to improve social and economic conditions in the community and, when possible, assume public responsibility.
My husband, when he was President, appointed a number of women to posts of importance. The one I think of first, of course, is Frances Perkins as a member of the Cabinet. When she first went into the Labor Department she outlined what she wanted to accomplish; when she left she had accomplished everything she had outlined. She was often criticized, but when the history of her term of office is written, her record will compare favorably with any man's.
There have been a number of judges, like Judge Florence Allen, who have made excellent records. Judge Marion Harron of the tax court has had as few challenges to her court opinions as any man. I think, too, of Mrs. Ellen Woodward, who is still working with the Federal Security Agency; of Mrs. Florence Kerr, who was with the W.P.A., and Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune, who was director of the Negro division of the N.Y.A. I could go on indefinitely naming women who did remarkably good jobs and many who are still doing them.
When it comes to the field of school administration, there is no reason why women should not serve.
We must stop talking about putting people in positions because they are either men or women. Let's prepare qualified people and choose them for positions because they can do a competent job.
Now and then the question arises concerning the wisdom and possibility of having a woman President of the United States. You yourself have been suggested as the person eminently qualified for that place, but you have consistently maintained that the time is not ripe for a woman to be President. How can education prepare us men and women to accept a women President of the U.S.?
By teaching us when we are young to look for the person with qualifications to do the job and not to discriminate as to whether it is a girl or a boy that is fitted to do it.
Some of the countries our government is helping have an illiteracy rate as high as 85 percent. How great an effort should our government make to help those countries remove illiteracy and to develop the latent talent of their people?
In every program undertaken by our government there should be an evaluation of the amount of education that is essential so that the people can take full advantage of the program. When that is ascertained, there should be an allocation of funds to make that education possible.
In what ways can our government best help other countries to develop in their people a determination to seek liberty and freedom?
The advantages of liberty and freedom must be demonstrated to people who never have had them. If they become convinced that individuals who have liberty and freedom really have a better life than people without them, they will strive to attain those ends. We should make it possible for them to observe such privileges in a country like ours through movies, radio and approved teaching materials.
Do you know of anything that will raise the economic level of a country as rapidly as the education of its people?
No, of course not.
The World Organization of the Teaching Profession has been granted consultative status as a nongovernmental organization under Article 71 of the United Nations Charter. Have you any suggestions as to how the organization can help the work of the United Nations?
It should have a representative attend the committee meetings of the General Assembly when they deal with subjects of interest to teachers. It also should have a representative attend such other commission and council meetings as are of interest. It should discuss those questions at its own meetings and make recommendations to the proper agencies in the U.N. so that the teachers' point of view can be heard. At the same time it should, whenever possible, make its point of view known to its own governments. In our case, that will help in forming the position of the State Department.
Do you think federal funds should continue to be provided for an international exchange of teachers and students?
Yes, I do.
Do you think an international exchange of letters between schoolchildren of the various countries is desirable and worth developing on a large scale?
I have seen the value of that when I have been abroad.
Do you think public schools should teach a foreign language in the elementary grades? What languages?
We make a great mistake in planning our curriculums not to take into account the fact that little children learn more easily through memory and by ear. Reasoning powers do not develop until they are older. I would teach languages to the very young very gradually. It is a great advantage to any child to know one or two languages besides his own.
The teachers of the Soviet and satellite countries have not joined World Organization of the Teaching Profession. How do you think the organization can promote peace, even without the teachers in the countries of the Russian orbit?
They can, of course, learn to live together and improve the understanding among the countries that have joined. The organization always should be kept open to the U.S.S.R. and the satellite countries to join. It is only through working together and being in such an organization together that greater understanding is created. We must hope in the long run to create that understanding and to live side by side, even with different ideologies.
Are we assuming too much when we expect other nations or groups to interpret our motives as friendly?
We take too much for granted. We feel very self-righteous about our motives. We think everything we do is done because of the best possible motives whereas often we act because of self-interest. When we are accused by other nations we are deeply hurt; we say they are ungrateful and do not understand what generous people we are. The best we can do about it is to teach our children history honestly and factually. This means we should not lead them to believe that everything this country does is perfect and that everything anyone else does is wrong.
Do you think we can ever "win the peace"?
I am hopeful that we can. If we keep up our military and economic strength, time is on our side. But no point can be set at which we can win the peace. We need patience and persistence. We must teach our children and our children's children that to make democracy work requires character, courage and conviction.
The world acknowledges our economic leadership, but our nation is not a leader morally and spiritually. The U.S.S.R. is most alluring in its promises ("all races are equal," etc.), and it dramatizes our every failure.
The first step toward cooperation will come, I think, in the economic field. Trade will be resumed with the democracies. But each of us in our own lives must show that democracy is trying to live up to its ideals. Only in that way can we persuade the U.S.S.R. that it can live in peace with us.
The "mortality" rate among administrators of city school systems is very high. Can you tell school superintendents who, like you, are frequently publicly criticized how to acquire the technic of the "soft but firm answer"? Do you have to go through a cooling-off period before you reply to hecklers and vicious critics? If not, how did you acquire the ability to take unfair criticism?
Those who are in public life have to acquire an ability to take criticism, whether fair or unfair, with calmness. If it is constructive criticism, they should be grateful and consider it carefully. If it is purely destructive criticism, they should learn to ignore it. They have to reach a point where criticism never angers them but where they can think of it in an objective way and, if possible, without any bitterness.
Naturally, if people they care about are doing the criticizing, school administrators will want to consider very carefully whether these people are right or wrong, but outside of that they should try to be completely objective, hard as it is. It is a rather grueling experience, but it is useful.