Wednesday, February 4, 2015

More than 80 years ago, Counts asked, "Dare the school build a new social order?"

“The urgency is real. We are not saying that it is too late to take actions, but the window for action is closing rapidly. The choice is ours, and the clock is ticking.” -- Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Executive Director Kennette Benedict
Back in 1932, George S. Counts asked his colleagues in the Progressive Education Association, "Dare the School Build a New Social Order?" Counts, who was influenced by progressives like John Dewey and Francis Parker, favored the progressive education model of child-centered learning. But he and other social-reconstructionists feared that school curriculum, even in progressive schools, was being sanitized and separated from the real social conditions like the Great Depression and the global crisis caused by the rise of fascism in Europe and the threat of a new world war. He called for a "critical pedagogy" that might produce a new generation of social justice activists, capable of "reconstituting the democratic tradition and of thus working positively toward a new society".

I'm thinking about Counts' challenge to the educators of his time this morning, as I'm reading that the board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) has decided to move the minute hand on its symbolic Doomsday Clock 2 minutes closer to disaster. The clock now shows 3 minutes before midnight because the “probability of global catastrophe is very high” as a result of continuing climate change and efforts to modernize nuclear weapons stockpiles. The BAS board includes more than 20 scientists, 17 of whom are Nobel laureates.

It's stunning that the clock should move this far, even after six years of a liberal and self-proclaimed progressive, Democratic Obama administration which pledged to "set a goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and pursue it." Sad to say that the pace of dismantling our massive stockpile of nuclear weapons has slowed nearly to a stand still and the development of new weapons of mass destruction and modernized delivery systems is rapidly moving forward. And now the threat of a new Cold War with Russia is growing stronger.

Global greenhouse gas emission rates are now 50% higher than they were in 1990. Emission rates have risen since 2000 by more than in the previous three decades combined. Investments have continued to pour into fossil fuel infrastructure at a rate that exceeds $1 trillion per year, with additional hundreds of billions of dollars in continued fossil fuel subsidies.

Faced with this global crisis and rising poverty and racial oppression (the new Jim Crow) here at home, the question of the role of teachers and schools is back on the table as is the question posed to progressive educators by Counts more than 80 years ago.


  1. No, the schools can't build a "new social order." They can't even get rid of standardized testing or VAM let alone nuclear weapons and climate change. Teachers, save a few, are much too timid and compliant to fight for their own interests, let alone others.

  2. Wrong!

    The school can't change the economic or social structure. The school can't create jobs or build affordable housing. What the school does is crucial but insufficient to change the social order.

    Diane Ravitch

  3. I love this piece. It's provocative. I may respond. Sooner or later.

  4. And if schools can't build a social order, why are Walton and Broad and Koch so obsessed with it?

  5. The 1% think that schools can "fix" poverty. They say it again and again. Open enough charter schools, non-union, staffed by TFA, and one day all children will have an excellent education and great jobs.It's a hoax.

    It is surely cheaper than taxing the 1% and creating jobs (wartime jobs ended the Depression, not the schools).

    1. Schools can't directly "fix" poverty, of course. But the way traditional schools are designed reproduces poverty because kids are taught, directly, indirectly and through omission, that poverty is as natural and as unfortunate as natural disasters. Critical pedagogy challenges the whole idea that education can be "neutral" and it specifically teaches kids about the context in which socio-economic phenomenon occur and how poverty, racism, etc. have developed and have been used by the elites. It also challenges kids about what they personally can do about the ills of the world, now that they understand that it's not a natural condition but one created by the elite for their personal advantage. Kids explore both working within the civil system (attending meetings, writing letters, running for office themselves (when they're older, of course), as well as outside the system (protests, civil disobedience, etc.). It won't directly "fix" poverty, of course, but it gives kids the tools to challenge the system that perpetuates it. When the ruling class talk about education "fixing" poverty, Counts' ideas are most definitely *not* what they have in mind.

  6. Maintaining vs changing. Besides its a utopian idea.
    It's the struggle for good schools and housing and decent wages etc that changes the social order and with it out schools. I think DIANE is right. Putting it otherwise also sets them up.

    Furthermore lots of this is just about getting their hands on more money and the power that goes with it which includes convincing folks that there is no point in struggling for change. Illusions that schools are the villain or the savior are both dangerous.

    But it's a fun argument!

  7. The ruling class sure think schools can preserve AND change the social order.
    - Fred

  8. I'm startled to find that two of my favorite educators, Deb Meier and Diane Ravitch, have such a traditional and narrow view on the role of schools and teachers as a force for social transformation. Currently the schools serve as more of an agency for social reproduction. That is, replicating, encouraging, and even enforcing the social inequities in the current system. Counts, Dewey, DuBois, Freire,... were right in seeing the school and its educators as potential sources of social change and advancement.

  9. Yes, educators can help build a new social order. They can't do it by themselves but they can and are having a powerful positive impact on many youngsters.

    Here's a recent example of district & charter educators working together to help youngsters from challenging backgrounds achieve far more than they thought possible:

    Educators can, and in many cases, have helped young people see the value of being active, involved citizens who work for a better world. is a great place to find out more about these efforts.


Agree? Disagree? Let me hear from you.