Address to The Mary McDowell Settlement House

"Little attention has been paid to this cooperative effort and the American genius for developing it. Yet it is pervasive throughout American life, integral to American culture, and essential to the continuing development of our democratic way of life."
Chicago, IL • November 30, 1956

I feel “at home” tonight. Some of my friends are on your Board of Directors. Many members of the audience are close and valued acquaintances whose help and advice on many problems have frequently been of great assistance to me. It’s a pleasure to be with them, and with all of you who are active in the work of the Mary McDowell Settlement House. I am honored to be your speaker.

The illustrious history of the neighborhood, situated as it is in the world-famous Back of the Yards area, is a magnificent tribute to the courage and resourcefulness of the people of this community. I have often heard men prominent in public life tell about their youth spent in this community, and the great benefits they received.

This truly remarkable past history of your community is impressive indeed. But even more amazing is your present day vitality. I understand that fully 185 organizations are represented on the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, most of them private organizations. This is a great example of the interest, and effectiveness, of private organizations in the social welfare field.

Another fact, and one which especially impressed me, is the great religious vitality that must exist in a neighborhood which supports 20 churches — l4 Catholic and 6 Protestant. When I had seen and studied these, and all the other facts showing the creative energy of your community, I concluded there was nothing new under the sun for me to tell a group with your experience, your vision, and your success.

It did occur to me, however, as we meet tonight to change the name of the University of Chicago Settlement, that we are present at a re-christening, or a re-birth, so to speak, of something old, but something very fine indeed, something typically American, and essential to our Democratic society:that is, the basic concept of private welfare, or private charity, if you will, conducted by private groups for the benefit of all.

Mary McDowell played an illustrious part in the development of private welfare activities in this city and in this country. She was a leader in the campaign against child labor. She was a leader in developing increased educational opportunities for the people of this neighborhood. She was a leader in eliminating filth and unsanitary conditions. She was a leader in developing recreational facilities. And because she was not afraid to make enemies if they stood in the way of social progress, she became, like Jane Addams, a patron saint of social workers, who saw in her life and activities a spirit of personal service to the individual based on the idea of personal and private responsibility for the fortunes and misfortunes of our fellowmen. The proper relationship between private activity, like Mary McDowell’s, and government activity, in our American democracy, has always been of great interest because it lies at the heart of American life. To strike a proper relationship between private and government activity is a continuing problem, one which will never be finally resolved because changes are needed in every generation to meet new problems and new challenges which inevitably arise with the passage of time.

We are all familiar with the fact that education in our country began under private auspices with the church schools and universities. All churches Protestant as well as Catholic — created schools at the elementary level. Great colleges like Harvard, Yale, and the University of Chicago grew, as did Georgetown and Notre Dame under the auspices of churches, and with the financial help of great and small benefactors all private citizens.

We are familiar, too, with the fact that American business developed on the theory and basis of private initiative and responsibility. At the beginning of our country, the federal government played only a small role in national economic affairs. Save for the Treasury, and subsequently, the Bank of the United States, the city Washington, D.C. and economic decisions made there, had little effect on the daily lives and fortunes of Americans. Today, of course, the arguments and the decisions made in Washington create profound repercussions throughout our entire private business system. And, a great debate continues on the proper role of government in relation to our traditional system of private business activity.

But whether we are discussing private initiative and achievements in education, or in business, or in social welfare work, we return inevitably to the realization that government will play an increasingly important role in all these fields unless private agencies and individuals can prove their competence, and success, in meeting the needs of men, women and children without government assistance.

Mary McDowell House plays an important part in the job of making private welfare successful and respected. That is one important reason why tonight we are celebrating a memorable occasion a “date with destiny” for everyone in this room. For it is your opportunity and your challenge to prove the effectiveness of private activity in the vital area of social welfare work, — just as the great University of Chicago is dedicated to a similar task in the field of education.

In saying these things about the importance of private education, private business, and private social welfare work, I do not intend to set up any inevitable conflict between private agencies and public efforts in these important areas of human endeavor. It is a truism that we need cooperative effort by all agencies, public and private, to meet today’s problems. Effective, honest, intelligent government, public education, and public social welfare work is essential to buttress and support the efforts of private groups. Rather than ideological debate, the American solution to any real or fancied conflict between public and private activity lies in our genius for developing cooperative efforts between governmental agencies and private agencies to the point where their combined efforts exceed the best which either could do alone.

Little attention has been paid to this cooperative effort and the American genius for developing it. Yet it is pervasive throughout American life, integral to American culture, and essential to the continuing development of our democratic way of life. It might be worth while to cite a few examples of this peculiarly American system of cooperation.

Some states, for example, give public scholarship awards to students in private institutions of higher learning. Such a proposal has been made in Illinois and it is supported by all, I believe, of the leading educators of our city and state.

Public money is supplied to private hospitals for medical research. Public money is supplied to private universities for scientific research. Religious and charitable institutions under private auspices are granted immunity from taxation.

Health and welfare benefits are distributed in many states through private as well as public institutions of education and health — the best known of these assistances being the free lunch program, tuberculosis tests, and bus transportation for school pupils. Many states make payments to private welfare agencies for care given to aged people, to mentally retarded children, and to the socially maladjusted.

This list of specific ways in which we in America have developed warm, friendly and cooperative relationships between private and public enterprises could be continued at great length. Dramatic examples in the business world include the Pure Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Federal Reserve System, and many others. In our local Public School program, there are many recent instances whereby we in public education are conducting activities which produce cooperative relationships. We have instituted teaching by Television, and these programs are easily available to all persons in the community. We are developing increased playground facilities adjacent to many of our schools, and these facilities are available to the whole community.

We are expanding our evening school program, and our summer school program, and both of these educational activities are available to the whole community. These examples are in keeping with our idea of creating schools which are suited to the communities where they are located. No longer do we attempt to set up rigid courses of study which must be followed in lock-step fashion by every school in the city of Chicago. Instead, we are developing schools with flexible curricula suited to the neighborhoods in which they are located.

For example, we are now dividing pupils according to achievement, instead of by the traditional arrangement by grades and classrooms. In English, for example, the children are grouped according to their ability in reading. When they go to Arithmetic, they are re-classified according to their levels of achievement in that subject. The same thing is true in all the studies.

Teachers get together on the special needs of the children. For example, a topic like “How to Buy on a Budget” can be taught in the Arithmetic class, in the Language Arts class, in Social Studies, and in the Vocational Shops, and such a course retains the interest of many of the special children.

There are many irregular programs, too. We have found them necessary as we study the individual pupils. If a student needs 7 or 8 periods of Arithmetic, he receives them. The same is true of reading and writing.

You may be wondering if there is any evidence that this experimental program is successful. Well, last year we standardized reading tests to see what progress the pupils had made and a few interesting points stand out. While 39% of this group gained a normal amount, 14% gained twice the normal amount, 4% gained three times the normal amount. Here is another interesting result. One-half of our children leave school voluntarily when they reach 16, but in this new and flexible and different school, last semester only one dropped out, and that one, at his father’s request.

Another example comes from the truant officer who reports that truancy has definitely decreased. The engineer custodian adds that there is less glass breakage. Even in the month of October, Halloween month, there was not one broken window!

I think these results prove we are getting at the heart of the educational problem — the basic problem of inspiring some interest in some intellectual activity. We have 4 schools like this now. About 5,000 are involved. More will soon be reached with similar programs. We have started; we have miles to go. But we think we may be headed in the right direction.

Success with these schools would be impossible without great assistance from all of the agencies, public and private, which work with the people of each of these communities. We maintain continuing working relationships with the police, with juvenile welfare authorities, with private charitable agencies.

Through our guidance counselors, we are in contact with private industry, with health, welfare, and recreational leaders. And through our truant officers, we are attempting to be of assistance in difficult family situations which frequently produce problems seriously affecting the educational welfare of our students.

These problems of our Public Schools, and our efforts to solve them, are related, I believe, to the work carried on at Mary McDowell House. You help us immeasurably whenever you are able to assist a family or a student. We help you, I hope, whenever we can develop a sustained and genuine interest in intellectual or vocational pursuits on the part of students living in this neighborhood.

Our Public Schools are your schools, and our problems are your problems. Mary McDowell would understand this and believe in cooperative action by all agencies, public and private. She never made the error of trying to “go it alone,” to solve social problems or educational problems in isolation. Public schools cannot do the whole job of education. We need good families, and churches, and good social workers.

We need them to get kids out of the city for summer camping experiences. We need them to provide wholesome recreation, and to give growing youngsters a sense of new possibilities and goals, outside of school environment. We need them to mobilize community action and community support for our programs. We need them to develop leadership within the community. The work you are doing along this line answers one of our greatest social problems.

As members of your community serve on boards and committees at McDowell House, they are being trained for city-wide leadership:- in the Community Fund, or the Welfare Council, or on the Board of Education, or in public life. Creating such indigenous leadership is one of the main jobs and principal glories of American Democracy. This is another reason why we meet tonight to re-establish an institution — not because its past was great, but because its future is of concern to us all.

In the years ahead, Mary McDowell House, and the social workers in it, will play an important role in proving that our American system of cooperation between public and private agencies is the best system, productive of the best in education, the best in business, and the best in social welfare.

This system of cooperation is more American than “apple pie.” Apple pie feeds the body, but the American genius which has produced cooperation between public and private activities is an expression of the American soul.

Ask any European visitor to list the qualities most typical of Americans. He will usually answer that Americans are best known for their hospitality, their friendliness, their helpfulness, their open-hearted confidence, and trusting approach toward other people and other countries. This is a national spirit which has produced the kind of cooperation between public and private endeavor to. which I have devoted the major part of my talk this evening.

It is a spirit we must maintain despite the attacks of McCarthyism at home, or of Communism abroad. It is the spirit which has made us a nation free of suspicion about the motives and integrity of our neighbor; free from dictation about our business and economic life; free from intellectual’ conformity; free from any social-welfare straight-jacket, imposed by exclusive reliance upon governmental agencies.

In every country in the world the need for social improvement has brought enormous power to governments. This tendency in the United States has been substantially checked by the existence of private activities. If there were no such private activities, the power and size of our government would have to be increased many times.

Only last month the president of the Board of Education in New York City estimated that it would cost the taxpayers of New York $700-million to house the students now in parochial schools in that city alone. Wages and other running costs would impose an additional burden of $175-million a year on the taxpayers. No one has ever calculated, as far as I know, what it would cost the state to conduct even a part of the work now done by agencies like McDonnell House, but the cost would be prohibitive.

At the beginning of this talk I described my admiration for the remarkable work achieved in this neighborhood. Your record in developing participation in your programs by members of various racial and religious groups is an inspiration to all other sections of the city. You have taken many of the steps necessary to create a genuine community, a community which is something more than a mere neighborhood with rows of houses contained within specific geographical limits.

A genuine community is formed only when the individuals are present, not only physically, but also spiritually — strictly speaking, when they humbly acknowledge their mutual interdependence on one another. Then a true community comes into being, when along with the physical nature there is formed a vital community spirit in which true democratic action can take place. Buildings may be destroyed, or even devastation take place. But as long as we have a genuine community spirit, we can rebuild and recreate. We can even form indestructible communities — communities based on the primacy of the spirit, the mind, and the ideals of man. Spiritual communities like these can be created only by the development of democratic institutions such as Mary McDowell House. You have done a great work. But even this work must be raised to another level, if it is to achieve its most profound possibilities. For let us face the fact frankly, that we are living in a restless, confused and perplexing time. The first thing to do is to quiet and collect ourselves. We must be able to develop an inner composure which will make our outward actions intelligent and productive.

Today, on the list of best-selling books, is a volume called, “A Single Pebble,” by John Hersey, the famous Pulitzer Prize winner. In this newest of his books, Mr. Hersey describes a Chinese worker in these words:-

”...He was trying his best... to free himself from delusion, to struggle to rise above existence and pain, to speak truth, to be pure, to hurt no living thing, to have self-control, to have a wakeful mind, and rapturously to rise above the problems of his earthly life...” Let us resolve that we, too, will speak the truth, seek freedom for all, hurt no one, and find our glory in a wakeful mind and a self-controlled body. Then each of us will be making an imperishable contribution to America. We shall create a composure within ourselves and a spiritual community with our fellowman. No higher ideal or goal exists for modern man.

Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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