Schools under War

Like the Great Depression, World War II affected all of the U.S. However, it also affected institutions and communities in different ways. One of the best examples of a "total war," World War II mobilized all members of society in different ways but with the same objective: victory. Black Americans identified the need for victory not only at war, but against racism at home. 

Children and youth became involved in this war through several different institutions. Schools were among these.


Schools have always been political battlefields. For many, they are one of the institutions - if not the most important one - where people become citizens of a democratic state. Therefore, schools are intimately linked to the projects of that state, even if one of these projects is war.

The government and the media presented World War II as a national and patriotic effort that everyone should work for and schools were not an exception. In a time of war, they modified their curriculums, extra-curricular activities, practices and discourses. Although historians disagree on how important and effective some of these changes were, there is relative consensus in terms of the key role played by schools and the new responsibilities that were assigned to them in this critical context (1). The words of a New York City's principal describing the activities of the wartime committees created at his school are evocative of this atmosphere:

"The defense council has jurisdiction over air-raid precautions. A committee on war courses attends to pre-induction and pre-flight curricula. A committee on High School Victory Corps supervises the conversion of the extracurriculum, and enrolls properly qualified pupils. A committee on teachers' courses is the coordinator of in-service courses given by our teachers for those who wish to qualify for out-of-license teaching and for other purposes (such as first-aid certificate). Numerous other committees, in which pupils play a large part, are devoted to the sale of bonds and stamps, salvage drives, books for those in service, contributions to the Red Cross and to Allied war relief, blood donations, collation of literature on the war, bazaars and other types of sales drives for numerous war-relief purposes" (2).


 The following galleries include historical materials that show some of the changes schools experienced during World War II. The texts selected show some of the strategies followed to implement these changes. The newspapers reported about this implementation from the perspective of teachers and administrators, specifically in New York City schools.




Although war was presented as a collective and national effort, there were many sources of dissent and conflict, even at a local level. This happened at schools too. Some school actors criticized war-related school practices like the High School Victory Corps, warning that children had no other choice but to participate in them and that war was being excessively emphasized inside schools (3). On the other side of the spectrum, conservative educators and patriotic organizations like the American Legion continued their long-running fight against progressive educators, accusing them of being Communists. They also conducted virulent campaigns like the one against Harold Rugg's textbooks - Man and His Changing Society -, that ended up with a 90% drop in its sales between 1938 and 1944 (4). Dissent could be expressed even inside the classroom, like it happened with May Quinn, a Brooklyn civics teacher who one morning of 1942 read an anti-Semitic leaflet to her students and praised Hitler, Mussolini and racial segregation (5).

World War II was a national event, but Americans experienced it in different ways. For painting a more complex and complete picture of this, it could be useful to observe the case of a particular high school, what happened in it, and what its actors thought, felt and imagined when confronted by this war.



 1. Gerard Giordano, Wartime Schools: How World War II Changed American Education (New York: Peter Lang, 2004); Charles Dorn, American Education, Democracy, and the Second World War (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
 2. Quoted in Giordano, Wartime Schools, 6-7.
 3. Ibíd., 53-54.
 4. Andrew Hartman, Education and the Cold War: The Battlefor the American School (Basignstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 52.
 5. Clarence Taylor, "To Be a Good American: The New york City Teachers Union and Race during the Second World War", in Clarence Taylor (Ed.), Civil Rights in New York City: From World War II to the Giuliani Era (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), 10.
Local and Global Tensions
Schools under War