With guest, Louder Than a Bomb poet Nate Marshall

Saturday, February 7, 2015

More on 'Dare the School Create a New Social Order?'

I had no idea that my reference to George Counts' little book would arouse such passionate arguments (see comments section) against the notion of the school as a force for social reconstruction. I hope others will join in on this important conversation.

Of course neither schools -- nor any other single institution or social force -- can transform society, provide jobs, housing or end poverty and racism by itself. But thanks to my friends Diane Ravitch and Deb Meier for pointing that out once again. Of course, I was raising much broader issues, like the growing threat of nuclear annihilation and environmental catastrophe in my post.

Deb calls it a "Utopian" idea that will only "set teachers up" for failure. But I think there's power in Utopian ideas. I'm reminded here of  John Dewey's imagined visit to Utopia written up in a 1933 New York Times article, which influenced many involved in 60's youth revolt, which was built on the imagination of a better world in which to grow up. Or for that matter, the 1990's small schools movement.

Dewey wrote:
The most Utopian thing in Utopia is that there are no schools at all. Education is carried on without anything of the nature of schools, or, if this idea is so extreme that we cannot conceive of it as educational at all, then we may say nothing of the sort at present we know as schools.
Children, however, are gathered together in association with older and more mature people who direct their activity.  The assembly places all have large grounds, gardens, orchards, greenhouses, and none of the buildings in which children and older people gather will hold much more than 200 people, this having been found to be about the limits of close, intimate personal acquaintance on the part of people who associate together.
Yes, we have to separate (and connect) visions and dreams from/with daily classroom practical problem solving. But the question remains: What can must schools do?

Counts and Dewey's critique of fellow progressive educators is as relevant today as it was 80 years ago. Despite wishes that child-centered education could take place free from political and ideological struggle, schools remain contested territory. And why not? They are the places where future generations should be being prepared to become citizens in a participatory democracy rather than merely centers of social-reproduction (structures and activities that transmit social inequality from one generation to the next).

The best examples of democratic education I can come up with are the Freedom Schools and Citizen Schools that were a critical part of the 60's-era Civil Rights Movement. It's worth reading Charles Payne's book, I've Got The Light of Freedom on this, along with his chapter, Education for Activism: Mississippi's Freedom Schools in the 1960s" in Ayers, Klonsky & Lyon, A Simple Justice.

Yes, there is always the risk that schools and teachers will try to, or be asked to carry too much of the social change burden or substitute indoctrination for the development of reflective and critical thinking skills. But the greater risk, it seems to me, is the acceptance of school in its traditional form, bound by a common core curriculum, prescribed blocks of subject matter and standardized testing.

As for jobs and housing, it's worth noting that unlike 1932, those things are profoundly influenced by schools in a society where education has become the second largest sector of the GNP, trailing only healthcare. That's much too large a share, in the minds of corporate school reformers, to be left in the hands of democratic decision makers. Education is rapidly becoming a $1 trillion industry, representing 10% of America's GNP. Federal and State expenditures on education exceed $750 billion and education companies, with over $80 billion in annual revenues, already constitute a large sector in the education arena.

There are more than 4 million teachers and many more non-teaching workers and teacher unions remain the largest in the country and may be our last bastion of organized labor.

Yes, the schools remain a battle ground. So I guess I would argue that schools, students, and educators can, should and must "dare to create a new social order". The very survival of the planet may depend on it.


  1. As someone who is engaged in (utopian) efforts to use school as a force for social change, I have to admit that evidence of actual success in this area is pretty limited, and our efforts carry the danger Diane Ravitch describes, of acting as a "hoax" which lets other social institutions off the hook. Nevertheless I believe there is an important role we can play as teachers of marginalized young people, which Jay Gillen describes in his brilliant new book "Educating for Insurgency": He asks, "Can we learn to help young people rehearse their roles as organizers in relative safety, figure out with their families how to keep them fed and housed while they take political risks and develop political consciousness, give them room and time to heal when things go badly, and encouragement to continue in the face of powerful opponents? And can we do all this while the young people study their math, while we help them read and write, while we celebrate their human impulse to learn and to create, and while they work out how to fashion all this insurgency for themselves?"

  2. As a person who has been inspired by Counts book for more than 40 years, I agree with Mike that schools can and should help build a new social order. They can't do it by themselves, but educators can play a vital, powerful role.
    Educators can and in countless cases, have, helped youngsters, especially those from challenging backgrounds.
    Educators can, and in many cases, have helped young people see the value of being active, involved citizens who work for a better world. www.whatkidscando.org is a great place to find out more about these efforts.


Agree? Disagree? Let me hear from you.