Uncovering the Devastating Impact of World War II on American Education

War may be good for a nation’s economy, but it’s horrible for a nation’s education.

In the United States, World War II, like the Great Depression, had a devastating effect on education. Much united effort was directed toward war resources and away from social programming. School funding was not immune, and much of the budget reserved for schools was redirected to support the Allied war effort. Both teachers and youth left the classroom to enlist. Dropouts became common, and school enrollments declined even further. High school enrollments were down from 6.7 million in 1941 to 5.5 million in 1944. By 1944, only two thirds of the pre-war teaching force was still teaching.

Military enrollment had another, more unexpected, consequence on education in America. Enrollment required academic testing, and many enlistees failed examination. Many military officers strongly criticized both the progressive education movement and the lack of a formalized curriculum focusing on subjects beneficial to defense. These vocal criticisms contributed to progressive education falling out of favor and the adoption of more formalized curricula in postwar years.

Employment and education opportunities increased for women during World War II. Because men were leaving their ordinary occupations to fight in the war, women stepped in to fill the gaps. More women were offered opportunities for education, and many found employment in the teaching field. One harbinger of hope for many schools was the Lanham Act of 1941, which provided aid to school districts that were overburdened with an influx of children from families employed in defense.

Higher education incomes fell, and the ability to generate income would have been much worse had it not been for specialized training and research needs of the federal government. Moreover, with colleges and universities playing a major role in educating people for the war industries and for wartime essential services, a sort of balance could be achieved in terms of income to these institutions.

During the postwar years, with veterans returning from the war, there was a coordinated effort to provide assistance to them, especially those whose education had been stopped as a result of military service. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the GI Bill, assisted nearly 8 million World War II veterans in a number of areas, including funds to attend school.

To learn more about how war and economic turmoil impacted education in the 20th and 21st centuries, check out our other articles on topics from the influence of the Great Depression on modern American schooling to how the Obama Administration has handled the effects of NCLB and where government is moving education toward now.

0 Replies to “Uncovering the Devastating Impact of World War II on American Education”

  1. I think it’s worth noting that the low performance of some service members may have resulted from simply being in poor schools and experiencing poverty and not necessarily “progressive education.” In his book “G.I: The American Soldier in World War II,” author Lee Kennett notes that the toilets and bathroom facilities in barracks, although spartan, were far better than what was found in many homes—this says something about the background of many servicemen. There were a lot of men who entered the service from poor rural areas, crowded city tenements and other places where educational opportunities were sparse. And they were also coming off the Great Depression, which had hit schools, students, and teachers hard.

  2. As a school child in rural Illinois in the 1940s, I witnessed classmates who came to school barefoot, even in winter, and had few winter clothes. Their dental problems, absessed gums, and poor hygiene were obvious. No lunches were provided, except for a serving of one glass of milk and bread each day for each child paid for by the community. Weights were measured and showed increases for children, but the program was discontinued because “it cost too much.” Learning deficiencies by the poorest children were very noticeable by those of us who had better home lives. Most of the poorest kids stayed in the community but disappeared from the schools after 8th grade. Many could not read a complete sentence out loud, but no counseling or remedial services were offered. I’ve wondered all my life if the teachers & administrators cared or were even aware. Or were they overwhelmed?

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