Short-Term Military Needs or Long-Term Curricular Reform? the Impact of World War II on California Community Colleges

By Gallagher, Edward A. | Michigan Academician, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Short-Term Military Needs or Long-Term Curricular Reform? the Impact of World War II on California Community Colleges


Gallagher, Edward A., Michigan Academician


According to Gerald D. Nash, World War II transformed the American West from a "colonial economy" emphasizing raw materials extraction into a diversified economy emphasizing agribusiness, industry and technology. Military spending was the driving force behind the California economy during the early 1940s. The state was first in the establishment of new military facilities, shipbuilding yards, and aircraft factories. California ranked third, behind New York and Michigan, in total defense spending. The national government's spending led to a great increase in employment followed by a population boom in western cities. California's unemployment rate fell 12 percent in 1940 to less than 1 percent in 1943. The growth in defense industries had an impact on California institutions, including schools and colleges. (1)

A controversy has developed in recent years over the impact of World War II on the California junior college curriculum. Did the war greatly expand vocational/technical programs and increase their popularity among California students? According to a book published by the American Association of Community Colleges, "the defense effort also broadened the scope and acceptance of vocational programs as tailor-made and on-site training programs to meet the needs of industry became commonplace. These innovations remained after the emergency had passed." (2) An earlier work declared, "World War II speeded up drastically the introduction of technical education into junior colleges." (3)

Arguing on the other side of the issue, Brint and Karabel see no significant impact of the war on the California junior college curriculum. They assert that "despite the efforts of the junior college vanguard and its allies and the infusion from the outside of what were, for the time, large sums of money, student resistance to terminal programs remained strong and vocational enrollments continued to lag." (4) In The Diverted Dream, Brint and Karabel correctly note that after the war only about one-third of California junior college students enrolled in paraprofessional, technical, and vocational programs, approximately the same percentage as in 1939. They conclude that veterans and nonveterans rejected two-year terminal programs for student status aspirations. While their explanation is valid, it is also incomplete. There are other reasons why paraprofessional and vocational programs and enrollments did not expand during the 1940s and 1950s. The California Taxpayers Association allied with the state's Chamber of Commerce discouraged program expansion. Some labor leaders were suspicious of the programs, while members of the public were often skeptical about the job prospects for vocational-technical graduates. (5)

NATIONAL DEFENSE AND THE CURRICULUM

In 1940, the Roosevelt administration inaugurated a National Emergency Defense Training program with 120,000 persons enrolled during the first year. Nearly 2000 short technical courses were offered in 143 colleges and universities. By the end of 1941, about 450,000 men and women were enrolled in 7500 different courses. (6)

Preparing for national defense resulted in a number of changes in the California junior college curriculum. Many courses were initiated for the first time in areas such as health, dietetics, electricity, auto mechanics, nursing, welding, and applied engineering. Courses were structured to meet war needs and their content emphasized military uses. Trigonometry and astronomy were taught for their usefulness in solving navigation problems. The use of instruments made mathematics and science courses less traditional and more functional. Courses in chemistry and physics were oriented toward occupational preparation rather than an understanding of scientific principles. This emphasis was substantial, perhaps excessive, in California junior colleges during the war. (7)

There was even extensive modification of course content in the social sciences in California junior colleges. …

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