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Dare the School Build a New Social Order? (Arcturus Paperbacks, No. AB 143) Paperback – November 1, 1978
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About the Author
- Publisher : Southern Illinois University Press (November 1, 1978)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 72 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0809308789
- ISBN-13 : 978-0809308781
- Item Weight : 2.88 ounces
- Dimensions : 4.75 x 0.4 x 7.75 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #370,321 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Counts was writing toward the beginning of the Depression, but despite the desperation and misery caused by the crisis, he felt there was also an opportunity for change and growth. He didn’t see much hope for such change from the political or economic fronts, but he saw a glimmer of hope in education. At least, one branch of education: progressive education. The book is actually a compilation of speeches given to the Progressive Education Association.
First, however, Counts starts by indicting many progressive educators, progressive schools and the families who send their kids to such schools for being too complacent, for trying to be “neutral” and remove the messiness of politics from education. Such parents and educators, he charges, tend themselves to be from the comfortable classes who benefit from the status quo, so they have created a form of education that replicates it.
He discusses how wary schools, especially progressive schools, have become about “influencing” children. First, they are concerned about susceptibility to charges of “indoctrination”. And secondly, and perhaps more importantly, many progressive proponents themselves grew up under more constrained conditions in which they felt restricted by what they had been taught. Therefore, the emphasis on “child centered” learning is a way around the likelihood of children being influenced by adults, as children would, presumably, find their own way to interpret and understand the world for themselves.
Counts makes relatively short work of the notion that children should – or even can – be free of adult influence. Education, he argues, is an inherently political venture and should be guided by adults, specifically trained teachers simply because of teachers being who they are. Sure, perhaps educators might bungle the job or, worse, might intentionally influence children in the “wrong” ways, but he didn’t see how teachers could possibly do a worse job than the people who had taken over in the absence of teachers – the very business, financial and industrial leaders who had led the country into its current crisis. It is essential, Counts argued, that teachers reclaim their voices and their right to teach explicitly in order to mold future generations in a more humane and, yes, collective direction, rather than the individualistic, greed-focused direction it was (and is) headed.
So, what, specifically should progressive educators dare to teach and how, exactly, should they influence children? Counts spends the last portion of the book talking about true democracy – democracy of opportunity, voice and treatment under the law, especially as contrasted with the economic/industrial system which is focused on control by a small handful of oligarchs. True democratic participation necessarily considers all needs and viewpoints, including the needs of the future. Oligarchy, and the attendant form of “capitalism” in play at the time (and now) only considers the needs and viewpoints of the few, which such needs and viewpoints are necessarily short-sighted.
The “social order” that Counts refers to in his title is a collectivist form of democracy in which students would be prepared to learn about and participate in their own governance, not relegate such governance to a ruling class. Counts was unabashedly collectivist, which earned him the label of “communist” in his day. But Counts rejected communism because of its totalitarianism, the same basis on which he rejected oligarchy. The social order which Counts envisioned is one in which every individual has a voice, but the collective whole is also paramount. Contrary to popular opinion, collective freedom is not opposed to individual freedom. Sure, some individual freedoms must be curtailed to protect collective freedom: the freedom to exploit and excessively profit off of others.
Counts viewed a system of competition perhaps a necessary evil in the days of scarcity. But he believed that with technological advances, actual scarcity (as opposed to intentionally manufactured scarcity) was a thing of the past. In the new economy there is no justification for excessive wealth in the hands of a few while the masses go hungry and live in deprivation. He argued for a vision of cooperation to bring everyone a reasonably comfortable life. With basic needs met, people would then be free to pursue higher callings such as arts and sciences which would further advance human society for the benefit of all.
Clearly Counts’ vision is rather utopian, and some would say, socialist. And, just as clearly, it hasn’t been accomplished in the 80+ years since Counts gave his speeches. So maybe it’s hopelessly idealistic. But wouldn’t it be better to change course and start trying to protect the majority of people (not to mention the planet), even if we never fully succeed, than to continue protecting the short-sighted elite who keep repeatedly bankrupting the country and causing so much instability, suffering and destruction? Those who worry about restricting “freedom” should start thinking about their own right freedom not to be exploited.
In order to understand Counts' approach it is helpful to compare him with the person he considered his mentor, John Dewey. Both Counts and Dewey agree that the school and thus the teacher act within the complex web of a country's culture and that this interaction is essential to the school's mission. The school is not an ivory tower; it is a living cell within the social organism. Further, they share the view that everything the school is and does educates the child--education is much more than the formal content of the in-class curriculum; it includes everything from the the physical structure of the campus, to the length of the school day, to the arrangement of the furniture, and even the personality of the teacher. In sum, both Dewey and Counts agree that in a real and tangible way the education of the child in the school shapes the future of the broader culture.
The difference between Dewey and Counts lies in their approach to how this social transformation is to take place. Dewey believes that the education of the child is a subtle, gradual transformation that is "to arise from the very nature of the work performed." Education as a process of character formation should be largely transparent to the student. Distraction (in the sense that term is used by the stage magician) is an important feature of Dewey's thought--the child consciously attends to learning the content of various subjects like math or reading, for example, but what the child really learns is to sit obediently at the school desk for hours at a time. Unlike Dewey, Counts believes that the educational process should be a direct process. For example, a social justice goal like racial tolerance is not something that arises spontaneously as a result of racial integration stemming from forced busing but rather racial tolerance is modeled and explicitly taught by the teacher. This explicitness, this directness is what Counts means by the word "dare" in the title. His philosophy is daring compared to Dewey's pussyfooting around. In this regard the obvious political agenda in the Counts book is a perfect example of his educational philosophy. He is not hiding anything.
Some educational professionals will find Counts approach refreshing both in its directness and honesty. Education is a power play by the adult on the child, why try to hide it? Other teachers will be affronted by what they perceive as a rude violation by the teacher of the child's inherent dignity or independence. Yet others might agree with his approach but disagree with his political values. Regardless, Counts remains a pivotal and highly influential figure in American educational thought, especially at the college level.
The book is a bit dated--I couldn't help by shake my head in disgust when I read Counts ideas of what a teacher's union could and should do and compared it to my limited experience with those organizations. He presents an idealized movement where social problems that are the root of educational problems are addressed/eliminated, where teachers are respected leaders and seen as the professionals they are, and where our schools, in the end, effectively serve more students than they currently do.