Carrie Chapman Catt

The Parting of the Ways – Dec. 30, 1903

Carrie Chapman Catt
December 30, 1903— Ann Arbor, Michigan
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Following is a brief of a speech Catt presented to the Michigan Teachers Convention in 1903.

As all the world knows, the American people, were the first to establish a general system of free education. Our fathers were not impelled to this undertaking by motives of charity or philanthropy. There was thought of giving a free gift to the people, because education was good for them to have it. Instead, popular education came as the inevitable and necessary adjunct of the movement toward democratic government. The idea of a Republic is the idea of people governing themselves; and this idea includes another, that of people who possess a sufficient degree of intelligence and virtue to render them capable of self-government. Therefore, by a sort of unwritten social contract, the Republic takes annually from all its people, a per cent of their private possessions and applies the amount to the maintenance of free schools and colleges wherein the opportunity of education may be offered to young men and women; but in return, the government has the right, of a party to a contract, to expect that the beneficiary, in payment of his benefit, will contribute to the State, intelligent and virtuous service. The young man is expected to render his service in the direct form of an intelligent and conscientious vote. The young woman is expected to render her service in indirect ways, which unfortunately have never been clearly or satisfactorily defined.

The founders of our government were admonished by the history of the world, that when a people desires to establish a permanent government among the nations of the world, not one to endure a few years, or a few centuries, but one to withstand the tests of all the unthinkable centuries of the unknown future, that people must give less attention to defenses against external enemies, than to the promotion of internal virture. Well they knew that such a people must possess integrity of character, public spirit and that thing which in modern phraseology, we designate as civic conscience. They reasoned well; Here we propose to found a democratic government and to invite all men to share its privileges and its benefits. Into the ballot box, all men will put their opinions, their ideas, , their hopes and aspirations, and out of the ballot box, will be drawn an average of all that goes within, and that average will represent the opinions of the nation. We cannot hope that any problem will be solved by the most wise, since the opinions of the unwise are to be counted also; nor may we hope that the standards of the most virtuous will be attained, since the vicious are likewise to have a hearing. Instead, the status of the nation's civilization at any given year, will represent the average of these extremes. It is therefore in accordance with the simple mathematical law of averages, that the more of intelligence, virtue and public spirit which is put into the ballot box, the higher will rise the plane of civilization, the more correct will be the solution of public problems, and the more speedy will be the progress of the people toward that ideality of which we all dream. And so the public schools came into existence. So long have they now been established that the masses of our people seem to have forgotten their early history. Instead of a clear understanding of their real function, they seem to be regarded in many quarters as a sort of fetish, which may be relied upon to work miracles of salvation for our government in any case of threatened danger.

We have grave problems in the United States - problems which must be solved and solved aright; problems which all the world agrees are serious. Yet, whether the problem is that of immigration, intemperance, political corruption, or the relations of capital and labor, the masses of our people receive appeals for their consideration with cold indifference; and reply, "don't worry about it, the public school will solve it."

By this curious system of jumping to conclusions, the public schools are expected to so develop the intelligence, and the patriotism of the children of the most undesirable immigrants, that they will make as valuable citizens as the descendants of a Pilgrim Father; they are expected to hold up before the children of the nation, such lofty and clear ideals of good citizenship, that political corruption will creep out of sight for very shame; they are expected to so teach "scientific temperance" that the men and women of another generation will voluntarily turn away from the wine cup and know the danger which lurks within. Well may we say, it is the great army of the public school teachers which is the real defender of American liberty, since we place upon their shoulders the responsibility of solving our most vital problems.

Grandly have the educators of the land responded to the call. In the day of the founders of the public school, the three R's were accounted a sufficiently generous curriculum to make a good citizen. Within the past two generations, so many new obligations have been added that the modern public school bears little resemblance to the old.

The schedule of the up-to-date school must contain music to train the ear, art to train the eye, literature to train the taste, drawing to train the hand, and scientific temperance to train the appetite. The doctors have said, an educated brain is of little use without a healthy body, and in consequence there must be physiology, hygiene and physical culture. Scientists have declared an education with a knowledge of mother nature, and in consequence the elements of botany, zoology, biology, entomology, physics, chemistry, geology and astronomy must be taught. Sociologists say education must train the hand as well as the head, and manual training is growing into popularity. Something of ancient and foreign languages, a little knowledge of our own, history and biography, ancient and modern, something of inventions and commerce must be added. In fact, the up-to-date public school is expected to give the candidate for American citizenship, a bird's eye view of all that exists above the earth or beneath the earth, and all that has ever transpired upon the earth.

After a century of experiment we may well pause, to inquire whether the public schools have fulfilled the object of their founders. We may admire the achievements of the public schools, the splendid system which has been evolved,, and the masterful educators who control them; and still discover something left undone.

As all the world knows, we are suffering under a condition of political corruption which is appalling; whether the responsibility for it rests with the public school or otherwise, is a subject worthy of our inquiry. It is needless to enumerate the details of political corruption, for they are well known. Not only is the thing, which we call in modern parlance, "graft," extremely common in our great cities; and the corruption of Legislatures to serve the purposes of the ambitious and wealthy corporations a well-known fact; but in all the States where political parties are nearly divided, actual bribery of voters in the precinct, which is the basis of our whole government, is growing in frequency. Ours was designed to be a government of the majority. When the majority no longer records its wish, but yields its right to the power of money, it is no doleful Jeremiah'd to declare the government in danger, unless this problem can find a speedy and correct solution.

Mr. Foulke, the now famous prosecuting Attorney of St. Louis, has said that only 1 % of our voting population is corrupt, but that our difficulty lies with the indifference of the 99%, as the political parties striving for victory against each other have fallen before the temptation of an illiterate and irresponsible constituency. Doubtless in its honest belief that the election of its own ticket meant the greatest welfare to the American people, each political party have probably reasoned that the end has justified the means. Now, political machines are so carefully and well organized, that in every precinct in States where parties are evenly divided, a list of all voters is kept, with a careful registration of all regular partisan and all possible "floaters." This condition does not represent one of idle theorizing, but is more far-reaching than most of our people are aware. Political campaigns have lost the zest and enthusiasm of former times, when successes depended upon honest debate in the public forum. Trusting to the political machine, hundreds of thousands of intelligent voters give little or no attention to political affairs. Somewhere in our system, there surely has been a failure to instill a regard for the sacredness of the duties of citizenship. Surely a parting of the ways has come in the great movement of democracy, which has now extended upwards for more than a century. It is at a standstill throughout the world, and thinking men and women everywhere are turning their eyes to the United States in questioning inquiry as to the success of failure of self-government here. It was the United States that promulgated the first principles of democracy, and it has been the leader and inspirer of the whole movement since the days of the American Revolution, but now the report is current throughout the world, that after all, a government of all men, for all men, and by all men, has not been a success, and that this is to be superseded by the control of political machines in the hands of unscrupulous moneyed powers.

We may well consider that a portion of the difficulty in the United States is due to the inconsistency of the basis of democracy, which has admitted to the suffrage all men, of whatever qualifications, and has denied the privilege to all women. If the public school is to be accepted as the corner stone of patriotic citizenship, then surely its teaching force and its out put should be recognized in the public constituency. It is a well-known fact, that there are many more women than men in the teaching force throughout the North and West. In the year 1901, according to the Report of the Commissioner of Education, the public high schools of the United States graduated 42,013 girls, and only 23, 683 boys; the total number of girls in attendance at public high schools was 317,146 and the total number of boys was 224,584. In the classes of 1901, graduated at the high schools, there were 11,107 girls who were intending to enter college and 9,523 boys. Between 1889 and 1901, the number of men graduates from colleges and universities increased 60.6% while the number of women graduates increased 159.1%. When it is remembered that only a generation ago a college education was esteemed an impossibility and an impropriety for women, this fact becomes significant. The increase of women graduates has been so rapid, that if it shall continue, there will soon be as many women graduates from our universities as men. If there has come a parting of the ways in the movement of democracy, there is likewise a parting of the ways in the evolution of the sphere of women.

When their education in public schools and colleges is completed, they cannot return to the sphere of their grandmothers, as seems to be the desire of many, for that sphere is no longer. The daughter of the rich and well to do, instead of superintending the bleaching of her linen, the preserving of her meat and fruits, the boiling of her soap, the making of her starch and the conduct of a household, wherein all the products of family consumption are manufactured, is to-day attending the Woman's Club, and considering the problems of society. The daughter of the middle class and poor, has likewise deserted her distaff and spindle, and we hear of her in the Cotton Spindlers' Union, or the Lady Cracker Packers' Strike. Whether for good or for ill, women have been liberated from the responsibilities of a hundred years ago, by the advance of commercial changes, and are to-day the leisure class of our nation. Educated and intelligent as many of them are, it becomes an economic waste to deny the expression of their intelligence and conscience at the ballot box. Upon this point, however, the teachers of the Nation would, at this stage of progress, scarcely agree.

However, since teachers are the appointees of the government, to protect the citizenship of our country, it surely becomes their duty, in the interest of their special function, to make the initiative, and to correct, so far as within them lies, some of the more palpable causes for political corruption and indifferent citizenship. Upon some points we could surely all agree.

1. May we not unite in a petition to Congress for such revision of the naturalization laws as will obligate immigrants to remain longer in the United States before they shall receive the privileges of citizenship ? It is a well-known fact that within the last twenty-five years, our immigration has ceased to come from Northern Europe as in former days, but has reached farther to the South, and has dipped deeper and deeper into the slum life of Europe. In early days, every ship load brough industry, intelligence and virtue, qualities which all go to build up a great nation. Now, every ship load brings us illiteracy, poverty and irresponsibility, the qualities which go to pull down a nation already buolded. It may be our duty to continue to offer asylum to the poor and unfortunate of Europe, but surely it is no longer the duty of the American Republic to crown these new comers with the sovereignty of citizenship. There ignorance of American conditions and American issues offers a continual temptation to the unscrupulous political machine.

2. May we not unite in a petition to Congress, asking that the law concerning certification of naturalization shall be so corrected that it will be impossible to forge them ? It is a well-known fact that the forging and duplicating of naturalization certificates offers a very common source of corrupt elections, especially in our great cities.

3. May we not unite in petitioning our respective states to so increase the length of residence of voters in precincts and districts, as to make it impossible for the "stuffing" of registration laws, which has likewise become a common source of city corruption.

4. May we not unite also in a petition to our respective States, that all voters shall be compelled to speak the English language? No person who has traveled in foreign lands, where he is unacquainted with the language of the country, can fail to perceive the impossibility of an intelligent acquaintance with the issues of a campaign when he is unable to speak the language in which those issues are discussed. In the early days, when our immigrants came with the expectation of remaining with us and applied themselves earnestly to learn the language and to understand American conditions, this was not a necessary qualification, but in these days, when hundreds remain with us for a generation without gaining any general knowledge of the language of the country, but are persistently voted by the machine without any intelligence on their part as to why, it would seem to have become a necessary protection against the peril which threatens our country.

5. May we not unite in a further petition, to establish in all our States an educational qualification for the ballot ? According to the last Report of the Commissioner of Education, the government has made an investigation into the illiteracy of voters, and has discovered that in June, 1900, there were in this country 2,326,000 men of voting age, totally illiterate. This represented 11% of the total number, which was 24,330,000. If no condition of political corruption existed, we need feel no alarm from this illiteracy; if left to himself, the illiterate voter would not express himself at the polls until he had himself formed a definite opinion. As it is, however, he recognizes that a vote has a money value, and for that value, expresses himself as he is told. No country can afford to count within its constituency such an irresponsible power for evil.

6. May we not unite in a personal determination to educate the public in the schools and out of the schools, to a higher ethical comprehension of the duties of citizenship ? Although 21,300 men were entitled to vote in the year 1900, yet only 13,961,566 votes were actually cast. It will be seen that one-third of the total vote was never cast at all. Allowing for necessary causes of detention, there is yet alarming evidence that apathy was more widely prevalent than should be excusable in a government of the people. What we need more than all else, undoubtedly, is a better civic conscience, and a higher understanding of individual duty. To inculcate these, at least, each and every teacher may make a determined resolution.

If the educators of Michigan could agree to stand by these six points, they might each in turn be gained and become established facts. There is no power which could do so much toward correcting popular sentiment which tolerates the corrupt political machine, as a thorough awakening of the educators of our country. So many of our teachers have lived with their noses in books, that they are unfortunately ignorant of many of the conditions in the great world at large.

In behalf of the public schools they represent, and the nation, whose the protectors of whose liberty they are, the time has now come when they must look up and outward and take a stand together, not alone for the education of good citizenship in schools, but for its maintenance in the great world of politics.

Mr. Foulke of Missouri, in closing his great plea before the grand jury for the indictment of the St. Louis bribers said: "Missouri, Missouri, I am pleading for thee." So may we say, "My country, tis for thee we plea."

Catt, C. C. (1903). Carrie Chapman Catt Papers: Speech and Article File, -1946; Articles; "The Parting of the Ways" 1903. [Manuscript/Mixed Material] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,