Environment for Education

Defense Civil Preparedness Agency


Shuffling feet and mischievous laughter are heard as three rocks sail through the glass window of an inner-city school.  The following morning, a frustrated teacher tries to review American history with her students, only to find them distracted by traffic noises now audible through the broken window.  Sweeping up glass shards, the janitor glumly remarks it is the third such incident in a month's time.  The camera cuts to a well-dressed school administrator who will serve as a continuing voice of authority throughout the film.  He explains that this opening scene to Environment for Education depicts the two greatest concerns of principals across The United States.  They are physical damage to the school building and unwanted noise distractions of any type.  It must first be asked why The Defense Civil Preparedness Agency (D.C.P.A.), the government entity then tasked with readying Americans to withstand an enemy nuclear attack, was prioritizing motion pictures about school vandalism.  The answer appears to be two-fold.  Unlike its more conservative predecessor agencies, The D.C.P.A. vastly expanded what would generally be considered civil defense.  By 1973, the release year for this film, D.C.P.A. officials were using media and published works to present environmental pollution, human ignorance to natural disasters, and technological failures as risks to the populace equal to a nuclear exchange. (1)  On a more practical level, Environment for Education explains that designing new education facilities with the intention of preventing vandalism and noise, also has the added benefit of creating protection from fallout radiation and riotous civil disturbances. 

Windows made of Plexiglass, while they may be scratched by bored students, will not break and are heavily promoted as a solution to vandalism problems.  Noise is the more difficult issue to resolve, as it cannot be completely eliminated.  Robert Newman, Harvard professor and decibel researcher, compares the dangers of various types of noise to human eardrums.  Background noise, like motor traffic, is relatively harmless.  A psychedelic concert is shown, complete with strobing lights, fog and a throbbing base drum.  Newman notes such atmospheres threaten hearing damage as the music registers louder than a jet engine.  Jet engines are precisely the worry at East Central High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma when expansions to the Tulsa International Airport disrupts daily activities.  By adding sloping outside surfaces, sound dampening materials, and reducing the number of windows, the school's education mission is able to co-exist in the presence of the airport.  Advantageously, this also affords the building a high protection factor from fallout radiation, should the school need to be used as a shelter in the aftermath of an atomic attack.  A school's position as both a public space and as the primary location for children throughout a weekday, meant they were considered prime locations for fallout shelters.  In Swanton, Vermont, the Missisquoi Valley Union High School does not have noise pollution to deal with, but is purposely designed to serve as a public fallout shelter.  Consisting of several small rounded yurt-style buildings connected to a central structure, all of which are mostly underground, the school takes advantage of multi-purpose classroom areas using mobile partitions to separate classes.  This design is heralded as a cost-saving measure and the lack of windows keeps the risk of vandalism low.  Nathan Hale High School in Crestview, Illinois, although entirely above ground, features a windowless gymnasium that serves as both fallout shelter and tornado shelter.  Similarly, Lamar High School in Lamar, Colorado, Wallbrook High School in Baltimore, Maryland, and the Hendricks College Library in Conway, Arkansas, all adopt the design of few or no windows to combat vandalism and offer fallout shelter space.

Protection against fallout radiation was not the only concern for architects the planning The Dr. Charles R. Drew Junior High in Detroit, Michigan.  Blueprints for the school included deterrents to damage caused by civil disturbances.  Lewis Goldstein, staff architect for the Detroit Board of Education, explains that immediately after the school opened, a riot erupted when a substitute teacher was fired.  Over 100 students began a demonstration that damaged windows, lockers, and the front entrance to the school.  Goldstien notes that on a traditional building, repair costs would have exceeded $100,000.00 but with Plexiglass windows and solid exterior facade, total damages were under $10,000.00.  A school bell rings and Goldstien stands with some students and follows them into the building as the film wraps up.  Environment for Education walks an interesting line by depicting progressive learning techniques through unconventional designs in school buildings, while at the same time remaining staunchly conservative in its views about order and authority.  A conservative element is most evident during the rock concert scene which makes all attendees appear as out-of-control, drug-fueled counter-culture heathens.  This wild depiction is backed up by the proper Harvard professor using his research to explain how rock concerts are among the most harmful examples of noise pollution.  Although the D.C.P.A. was taking a more liberal and environmental approach to civil defense, it is important to remember that agency was created, and supported by, the conservative Nixon presidential administration.  Political atmospheres aside, the film would enjoy both popularity and longevity.  Environment for Education could be rented or purchased from government publications throughout the 1970's.

Environment for Education May Be Viewed, In Its Entirety, HERE.

1. Defense Civil Preparedness Agency.  Foresight: Defense Civil Preparedness Agency Annual Report. Feb. 8, 1974. 23-24