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A. GENERAL SESSIONS
WHAT IS SOCIAL WORK?
William J. Norton, Secretary, Community Fund, Detroit
Sometimes it is helpful for a group of people engaged in a common endeavor to halt in the eager reach of their expansion programs and to try to gauge their "real usefulness to others. For society is not a stationary substance. It is forever in motion, borne forward on the flood of an onward-rushing, constantly widening river of knowledge. A law of relativity is at work in the affairs of men that makes the elements of time and place applicable in measuring the merits of human institutions. It happens not infrequently that the conceptions and assumptions of life upon which an organized idea arose and functioned are left behind with the advance of time and knowledge, and move out of focus with the things of up-to-date existence. When this occurs there is always a danger that the institution may become static and stagnant, anchored on the flats of exhausted traditions, while the tide of progress sweeps on. If any institution is to remain continuously useful, it is quite necessary that those who know it and understand it should examine from time to time not only the mechanics by which it operates, but also the motivation of its existence.
So I propose that we examine tonight the postulates upon which social work is founded, in order that we may define, more clearly and more certainly not so much what it is as what its place is in the scheme of life upon the American continent. I believe it is necessary that we should do this, for, without doubt, millions of our fellow-citizens, up and down this continent, have never acknowledged that organized social work has any vitally important place in the social organism, or that it is something American society could not do without, and continue to insist upon keeping its present form. On one hand is the extreme radical who feels that social work is merely a palliative in a transition period between something bad and something good to come, an offensive attempt on the part of protected privilege to drug the ethical stimulus of the people and make them acquiescent in the continuance of privilege. On another hand is the ultraconservative who feels that social work represents a slow encroachment of socialism, a sucking of the life-blood of individualism, an insinuating softening influence upon the sterling old qualities that make a man proud of his capacity to carry his own load over the rough road of competitive existence. Yet another type is the so-called "pure scientist." who feels that social work, by salvaging
the unfit, the physical and mental weaklings, flies in the face of nature's laws which, if permitted to operate without interference, would automatically purge the generations of those incapable of pushing forward on man's historic advance up the rugged heights of greatness. And finally, in between these three sets, comes a fourth, a host of people smacking somewhat of the views of the second and third groups, and looking upon social work as a series of fads evolved in the heads of sentimental busybodies, which they are asked to support because the busybodies are personal friends of theirs, or for reasons of social prestige, or of commercial advertising, or of general good nature. Feeling that it is a fad, they give it a half-hearted acquiescence, not acknowledging that it is essential to the existence of our present American society.
This positive opposition on the part of some and faint-hearted assent on the part of many others creates obstacles to the growth of social work and to the march of social progress altogether too great to be met by us with indifference or inertia. If what we struggle to do is worth the mighty sacrificial effort that we pour into it, then it is doubly our business to make clear our position in the world, in order that we may have an operating base, well defined and unobscured, upon which our forces may be marshaled for more wholehearted and completely democratic support.
In examining the basic reasons for our existence, I would lay down two fundamental axioms from which spring all other predicates. One is that organized social work is an essential supplement to the elemental political and economic philosophy upon which the American commonwealth rests; and the oterh is that organized social work is necessary for the spiritual expression of freemen in an intelligent competitive industrial society.
In order to make clear the first of these axioms, I would take you back for a moment to America's origin. The colonies from which we get our American traditions were settled by the Puritan and the Cavalier, the one coming to secure religious liberty, the other to find economic opportunity, and both dominated by a desire for adventure. At the feet of these settlers lay unbound opportunities in an immense domain stretching from coast to coast and populated only by beasts and roaming savages. Hardy adventurers in a rough and undeveloped land, in open revolt against the frozen castes and solidified traditions of the Old World from which they had fled, they naturally developed an extremely individualistic conception of society that later found epigrammatic expression in that historic phrase of the Declaration of Independence, “All men are created free and equal," and in those first amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights. They wrote into their own lives and those of their successors a philosophy of individualism, a conception that existence should take on the character of a great game in which each was to find happiness in some labor that expressed his individuality. Entrance into this game of life was on a footing as nearly equal as man could make it. Hard work, ability, and the turn of fortune's wheel were to be left free from artificial restraints, so that
each person would have an incentive to secure as much of the rewards, of comfort, contentment, the accumulation of property, the acquisition of learning, of honor, and of social prestige, as his ambition, his labor, his ability, and his luck might win. Hardy pioneers were followed by hardy successors. The nation grew and thrived upon their conception, and the political, social, and economic institutions which came into being solidified on the foundation of that philosophy.
On the whole, you and I adhere to that philosophy. I concede that there are those among us who do not; but I believe their number is small, and that they do not represent in any large degree the belief of the great body of social work up and down the reaches of the continent. Most of us are agreed that liberty of conscience, equality of opportunity, and freedom of action-with, of course, such necessary traditional and legislative restraints, but only such necessary restraints as a growing sense of social justice from time to time demands are sacred inheritances, breeding for us and our children greater possibilities of happiness than any other principles of organizing life that have been tried in the world. Yet the days when those conceptions were formulated into a Constitution, partly written and partly unwritten, have gone forever, and the conditions under which life is lived are changed in a marvelous way. It would be trite indeed for me to review the industrial revolution, the significance of machinery, of mechanical invention, of power, of transportation, of the new communication, and of the spread of credit. Suffice it to say that the pioneer, exploring, and agricultural society of the American continent, where a man stood foursquare against the winds of destiny with an axe and a rifle as the insignia of his independence, has been replaced with an intricate industrial organism enormously rich and filled with amazing material conveniences and comforts.
The important thing about all this in our present consideration is that the quality of freedom and the approach to opportunity have undergone radical alterations with these economic changes. Life, moving at undreamed-of speed, has become interwoven, interdependent, and complex. Knowledge, skill, health, moral stamina, and the ability to adjust one's self to other people are now far more necessary than ever before for even modest success in this greatly enlarged game that we call living. Group discipline, group organization, and group mastery have challenged our initial conceptions of freedom and of individual prowess. Dazzling rewards in wealth, honor, power, and prestige are in store for those who become masters of the complicated rules of group life. And, in like manner, desperate and imminent failure lurks for those who cannot accept group discipline, or who for any reason whatsoever are not regular producers in giant Power's regimentations of men. We have a marvelous prosperity for most of the people, flanked by a rapidly fluctuating and devastating pauperism for some, all the more ugly because of our mountain of wealth. We have new and wonderful opportunities for health, and at the same time sickness is more