Remarks to a Conference of Dutchess County School Teachers, Hyde Park, New York.
I feel rather embarrassed at being in the presence of so much learning. It is a very auspicious day for me, because it is the first time that I have been on this platform, and it is the first time that I have seen the auditorium filled. I am happy that we have at last put through in this town of ours, and the north part of the town of Poughkeepsie, a consolidated school system. We were at it a long time. But things in a democracy do take a long time, and it is a mighty good thing that they do. I think that this town, for example, is a lot better off for having talked about whether it wanted a consolidated school district in place of nine, or eleven or fourteen little school districts.
I think it is better we talked about that for ten or fifteen years than if we had belonged to the kind of society where somebody way up on top- some dictator—had said to the Town of Hyde Park fifteen years ago, "You have got to have one." It is a pretty good illustration of the difference between the kind of government—kind of social setup- that we have been accustomed to for several hundred years and this new thing that is called a "new order" for the world, something in which the people themselves —fathers and mothers and children for that matter- have nothing to say. Somebody up on top proclaims himself wiser than the aggregate of what we call public opinion.
I don't think we are ever coming to this "new order" of the world in this country, and I hope very much that the rest of the world won't be forced into it, because if the rest of the world were forced into it, this country of ours would become a little oasis, where all the old things were still going on, but it would be pressed on on all sides by this so-called "new order" world. We like to do things, talk about them, fight about them among ourselves, say pretty awful things to each other, and finally work things out.
It always reminds me—this system of ours—of a remark that James Bryce, the famous historian, made in my presence in Washington, when Uncle Ted was President. We were talking about different forms of government, and Lord Bryce, who was the British Ambassador and had a twinkle in his eye—as is very essential for all people, not alone Ambassadors—said, "You know, you people in this country and in Canada, and other places where there are democracies, are singularly fortunate in having a Federal system." And we all said, "Why?"
"Well," he said, "you have many States in this country, and somebody comes along, and one of those States has a bright idea, something that sounds perfectly grand, something very novel, something that the people in that particular State grab ahold of on election day and put into effect. And sometimes it is an awfully good idea, and sometimes it is a pretty poor idea."
And as he said, "Perhaps I shouldn't refer to the States of the Union as dogs, but it is a little bit like the idea of trying it on the dog, and if it works, it will spread to other States, and if it doesn't work, it will stop right there, and some day be repealed."
If you look back into our history as a country for a hundred and fifty years, you will find that a great many things that today we are accepting as part of our lives and part of our system have been brought forward in just that way. First they have been tried on the dog, and they worked. Then they have been tried in several other places, and they worked. And gradually they extended to the body politic of the United States.
Take my own memory of schools in this township of ours. A great many years ago, when I was a boy, my father was one of the school trustees for many years, and he used to take me, when I was eight or ten years old, to sit outside the little old schoolhouse in the village to hold the horses. And I remember one day he came out of the school saying, "Well, they beat me."
He said, "They voted me down. You know I have tried to put a course in carpentry into this school for a long time."
Carpentry for the boys. But nobody had ever heard of teaching carpentry to the boys, and besides that a course in carpentry would not have brought any money in from Albany, from the Board of Regents. So, in place of carpentry, the School Board voted a course from which they got many dollars from Albanya course in comparative anatomy.
Then I got back home, and my father said, "I wanted to have a course in the basement of the school, for the girls, in cooking and sewing."
My dear mother was very much interested in that. They turned it down. Nobody had ever heard of teaching cooking and sewing to girls. They were supposed to pick it up at home. Some of them did, but a lot of them didn't. And in place of that- they could get no money for that—they put in a course in German and French literature.
So, you see, I have gone through many experiences. And yet today almost every school in this State, and most other States, is teaching a lot of practical things that were not taught in the earlier days. But I wonder—in view of the complexity of our civilization- whether our schools are keeping up with the growth of that complexity. In other words, while we are more practical in the curriculum in every school and most colleges in this country, are we practical enough? That is what I want to say a few words about.
I know that some of the things that I am going to mention have been done—partially. But I raise the question as to whether they have been done sufficiently—as to whether we can't be more practical in turning out boys and girls from high school in a more practical way to meet the things that they are going to meet as soon as they go to work, and as soon as they go out into life.
I always think of that case of my own, when I had gone through school, and gone through college, and then gone to a law school for three years—duly admitted to the bar—a full-fledged lawyer. I went to a big law office in New York, and somebody the day after I got there said, "Go up and answer the calendar call in the Supreme Court tomorrow morning. We have such and such a case on."
I had never been in a court of law in my life, and yet I was a full-fledged lawyer. Perhaps I was lucky not to have been in a court before that.
Then the next day somebody gave me a deed of transfer of some land. He said, "Take it up to the County Clerk's office." I had never been in a county clerk's office. And there I was, theoretically a full-fledged lawyer. A member of a so-called learned profession. I always have my doubts about the word "learned," ' but at least it was a profession.
Now there is an awful lot of this in this life; a lot of people who go out into life, whether they go to work, or get married, or go to high school or go to college or a professional school. They are going out into life unprepared for many things that happen to the average man or woman with comparative frequency—things in their own community and their own county that definitely affect their lives.
Always in the past we could say, "Well, they learned this or that from experience." But of course we know that learning things by experience is a costly way of doing it. I wonder whether there aren't ways in which we can improve our knowledge of things that touch our lives before we graduate from high school.
Just for example, take our own county. I wonder whether the high school students in this town could not be taken into our county seat. This is done a little, but it could be done so much more.
Take the subject of government. I should like to see every boy and girl in this school taken down to see one of the courts in Poughkeepsie- I hope for the first time. The City Court, the County Court, the Supreme Court—yes, the Police Court in Poughkeepsie. I should like to see them taken into the Surrogate's Court. You know there are a lot of teachers in this county that have never been inside the Surrogate's Court. Learn what the settlement of an estate means. Learn about trust funds that are set up. Learn something about the machinery. There are lots of other places to visit that most of us really don't know about. I am one of the guilty people myself.
Take the health system of this county. Well, we know about it rather vaguely, but all of us ought to know what we are doing, and what we are not doing, for public health.
Then there is the county highway system. Take the various other portions of the county government- the District Attorney's office and the city government in the City of Poughkeepsie. That is only the beginning of it. After all, that is just one side that touches us. Government touches us all. We would know more about our taxes and what they are for if we knew' our county government better.
There are a lot of other things. Think, for example, how few people know anything about a department store. How is it run? I am very sure that the department stores in the City of Poughkeepsie would be only too glad to have high school classes come in there and learn how a department store is run. The problem of the chain store and why it differs from other stores. The problem of the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick-maker in their own professions, because more and more they are becoming professions that you have got to know a lot about, if you are going to succeed. How many people in this high school know anything about the running of a great industrial plant? The cream separator plant down here. Do we all know where their raw materials come from? Do we know how the different parts that go into a cream separator are manufactured? Do we know how they are assembled? And finally, do we know how they are sold to the public?
And then, just as another example—banking. I think the banks in Poughkeepsie—they might have to have some special guards, but I hope not- would be glad to have as visitors classes that come from round about the county—classes that would be taken behind the cage, and be told by the president of the bank how the bank is run and what the bank does with your money, and mine, as depositors. It is an amazing thing that in 1932, early 1933, when the banks began closing all over the place, one chief reason for the closing of those banks was that everybody all of a sudden went there at the same time to get his money out.
And the banks had to close. It wasn't until the banks all had to be closed and the thing was explained to them that the people of this country put their money back into the banks. They didn't realize that a bank does not take your money and put it in the safe and keep it there against the day when you may call for it. They didn't realize that the wheels of industry were dependent on banking loans, that your money in that bank, nearly all of it, was passed right on by the bank to home builders and industries, and all kinds of things that make the wheels go round in our 'country.
I should like to go behind the cage of a bank and learn a lot more about it than I know today. There are so many things that I could talk about along that line. I have only sketched the idea. We are beginning to do it a little, but not enough.
I suppose it will come as a shock to most of us if we realize what a very large percentage of foodstuffs that we eat in the Town of Hyde Park comes from New York City. Now that is an amazing thing when you begin to think it over. Things that are grown on the farm come to Dutchess County from New York City.
Oh, to be sure, they come from all over the United States, but it makes us wonder a little bit as to whether those foodstuffs couldn't be grown in greater volume in our own county and help out our own prosperity. Those are things that affect the lives of every family in this township. If we take that kind of interest in our own lives we begin to figure out and think our economics through- national economics. Well, of course, there is no such thing, I have always claimed, as a proven system of economics. I took economics courses in college for four years, and everything that I was taught was wrong. The economics of the beginning of this century are completely out of date. Why? Experience. Things have happened. Wars have gone on. World trade is a very different thing from what it was, and national economics—so-called -is a very different thing from what it was in the old days. We are groping. We are reaching upward to meet a given situation today which may be entirely different six months from now. But at the same time, if we look into our own economics at home, we get an interest in the economics of the country.
I remember the first year I went down to Warm Springs, about seventeen years ago. I was awakened every night for two or three nights, about half-past one in the morning, by a very heavy railroad train going through town. And as it went through town, the fireman had his hand on the whistle and woke up everybody. What he had intended to do was to salute the young lady in town that he was engaged to. But he woke everybody else up.
I went down to the station, after two or three nights of being waked up, and I said to the stationmaster, "What's that train that goes through at half-past one in the morning, that makes that awful noise?"
"Well," he said, "that's the milk train. Milk and cream."
And I said, "Where is it going?"
"Oh, it's going down to Florida, to Miami, Tampa, Palm Beach."I said, "That's very interesting."
Knowing, of course, that the climate in South Florida does not make it exactly a favorable dairy country, I said to him in the way of conversation, "Where does it come from, North Georgia?"
"Oh, no," he said, "it doesn't come from North Georgia. It comes from Wisconsin."
I said, "What? Nearly two thousand miles- milk and cream for Florida."
Well, it was milk raised in Wisconsin, taken down in refrigerator cars, through Illinois and a corner of Indiana and a corner of Ohio—all dairy States, and through Kentucky—which certainly is a dairy State, and Tennessee, and then into the North of Georgia, which is a grand country for making any kind of dairy products. But none is made there. And they carried that milk and cream down through Georgia and into Florida.
Now, something is wrong with that kind of national economics. I use that just as an illustration. If we get interested in those problems at home our interest will extend to the county, and then to the Hudson River Valley, and then the rest of the State of New York, so to the East, and the Middle West and the other parts of the Nation.
I hope very much that education is going to keep pace in the next few years with the demands of our modern civilization that is proceeding at a pace that is faster than it has ever moved before. I think we Americans are proud of this system of life of ours. It is a system that has been challenged, challenged by those people who would impose a new and different system. It is my belief, in meetings like this, that people can get together and swap ideas, even if it takes ten or fifteen years to get things through, if we are headed along the course that we follow with the definite intention of keeping on striving for newer and better things in the 'good old-fashioned democratic processes, republican processes both spelled with small letters.
If we do that, these boys and girls of ours who are reaching maturity are going to be very happy that the old people were able to look far enough ahead to make sure that our American system will last for hundreds and hundreds of years.
I am glad to have been here. I wish I could come back here, and yet it probably would not be a good thing, because if I came back here—I have that rather disagreeable mentality—if I came back here got away from Washington, I would probably start in to try to reform Dutchess County. I don't think that the county does need reforming, or the Town of Hyde Park, but I probably would try to do it, nevertheless.
So I hope you will bear with me in these days when I really do come back here—very soon—to live, if I continue at least to take a real interest. If I still try to get people to do things too fast, or do them my way, and not theirs, I hope that you people will be the first to tell me to "go way back and sit down."
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Remarks to a Conference of Dutchess County School Teachers, Hyde Park, New York. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/210216