by Dr. Terry Stoops
Former Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
One of the core functions of public schooling is to produce educated and productive citizens. Yet there is very little evidence that they are doing so. Too many high school graduates lack even basic knowledge of the nation’s history, laws, or political institutions.
But there is plenty of learning taking place in our schools. Activist educators are using the classroom to initiate impressionable children into the cult of social justice through reciting its mantras, reinforcing its norms, and muzzling anyone with the courage to dissent.
The Left’s commitment to using public schools to transform the minds of America’s youth is nothing new. Progressives have sought to use public schools to advance their social and political agenda for nearly a century. And they recognized that the most efficient way to do so is to bombard public schools with teachers delivering curricula that reflect their far-left ideology.
A Rejection of the Founders’ Vision
America’s founders had tremendous faith in the capacity of education to create a proper social and political order. “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day,” Thomas Jefferson declared in an 1816 letter to French intellectual Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours. While Jefferson did not believe that education would perfect the human condition, he had an enduring faith that it would improve it, particularly in the two great concerns of the era: “matters of government and religion.”
By the time George S. Counts published “Dare the School Build a New Social Order?” in 1932, the United States had initiated a massive enterprise to “enlighten the people generally” through systems of locally controlled, tax-supported, and compulsory public schools. While Americans maintained great faith in public schooling, the Great Depression posed an enormous threat to this fledgling institution and the nation that had cultivated it.
Counts unabashedly dismissed the Jeffersonian vision, however. He did not believe schools should preserve and protect the American republic as it existed in his day. Counts declared that schools should transform it. “The American people … can no longer trust entirely the inspiration which came to them when the Republic was young; they must decide afresh what they are to do with their talents,” he declared.
George Counts and His Radical Pamphlet
“Dare the School Build a New Social Order?” was a pamphlet that combined three presentations delivered to prominent education groups in 1932. At the time, Counts was on the faculty at the most influential education school in the nation, Columbia University Teachers College. His tenure overlapped with those of luminaries of the progressive education movement, including James Earl Russell, Edward Thorndike, William Heard Kilpatrick, and John Dewey.
When conservatives talk about the decline of American education, they often identify Dewey as the main antagonist in the story. But Counts was much more radical than Dewey. Counts did not believe that the progressive education movement advanced by his colleagues went far enough. He argued that children who attended progressive schools, such as Dewey’s Laboratory School at the University of Chicago, tended to be part of liberal-minded upper-middle-class families drawn to schools that employed novel child-centered methods of instruction. But Counts insisted that these schools insulated children from the cause of economic and social transformation. For Counts, the progressive schools of the day failed to offer a “compelling and challenging vision of human destiny.”
So, what was Counts’ “compelling and challenging vision of human destiny?” A collectivist state.
Counts traveled to the Soviet Union in 1927 and 1929 to study its educational system. He subsequently published two books in 1931 based on his observations, “The New Russian Primer” and “The Soviet Challenge to America.” He was impressed with their ability to reinforce popular support for communism through the indoctrination of children, and he sought to replicate that success in the United States.
Of course, the Soviet educators refused to call it indoctrination. They told Counts that Soviet schools “merely tell their children the truth about human history.” As a result, they contended, “practically all of the more intelligent boys and girls adopt the philosophy of communism.” Joseph Stalin, who assumed control of the country after Vladimir Lenin died in 1924, would dispose of the rest through a combination of mass executions and imprisonments.
In good times, Americans would have dismissed Counts as an out-of-touch academic duped into thinking that the grass was greener on the other side. But these were not good times. Counts believed that the Great Depression proved that capitalism was a failure and thus the United States was ripe for revolution. As such, “Dare the School Build a New Social Order?” asked and answered two fundamental questions: what should replace capitalism, and how do you replace capitalism in a nation that celebrates it?
Although Americans were captivated by the technological achievements accelerated by industrialization and the market economy, Counts believed that they yearned for economic equality and justice through a “planned, coordinated, and socialized economy,” even at the expense of personal freedom. And public schools were the key to altering the attitudes of ordinary Americans to embrace alternative economic, social, and political systems.
Whereas nearly all educational theorists of the time dismissed the idea of using the school as a means of social change (at least openly), Counts celebrated it. He declared confidently that the public school should be used as a means of “imposition” and “indoctrination” because “impartiality is utterly impossible … the school must shape attitudes, develop tastes, and even impose ideas.” But who decides which attitudes, tastes, and ideas are imposed on children?
Counts urged educators to chart this new direction. Teachers would become “self-appointed redeemers of our social order.” He continued,
That the teachers should deliberately reach for power and then make the most of their conquest is my firm conviction. To the extent that they are permitted to fashion the curriculum, and the procedures of the school they will definitely and positively influence the social attitudes, ideals, and behavior of the coming generation. … Our major concern consequently should be … to make certain that every Progressive School will use whatever power it may possess in opposing and checking the forces of social conservatism and reaction.
The primary goal of teaching, then, was to bring about economic revolution through the abolition of American capitalism, government takeover of economic functions, and implementation of a massive welfare state.
Counts did not argue that the teaching profession was faultless. But they were better than the alternatives. In the teaching profession, Counts saw a group devoted to the interests of the common people, and this commitment afforded them a “moral advantage” over the many groups that pursued political or financial gain. In fact, Counts feared that politicians would discourage teachers from fulfilling their role as society’s redeemers. “In order to be effective,” Counts advised, educators must “throw off completely the slave psychology that has dominated the mind of the pedagogue more or less since the days of ancient Greece.”
Counts did not describe how educators would adopt his vision for the profession in “Dare the School Build a New Social Order?” Yet he likely believed that two entities, the teacher colleges and teacher unions, would play a formative role in cultivating a class of teacher revolutionaries. In addition to his faculty position at Teachers College, Counts served as president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) from 1939 to 1942.
After learning of Stalin’s atrocities, however, Counts appeared to regret his earlier enthusiasm for the Soviet Union. He actively purged communists from the AFT and published “The Country of the Blind: The Soviet System of Mind Control” in 1949. Chapter Seven of that book was titled “Education as a Weapon.” The chapter title was based on a menacing remark that Stalin made to British author H.G. Wells, “Education is a weapon whose effect depends on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed.”
Despite Counts’ newfound prudence, the damage had been done. Devotees of the “social reconstructionism” school would inspire generations of progressives and radical reformers to use public schools to transform the nation’s fundamental economic, social, and political institutions. Chief among these were scholars, writers, and activists associated with Critical Theory, Critical Pedagogy, Critical Race Theory, and other Marxist-inspired schools of educational thought that obviously overuse the word “critical.”
Most American agree with Thomas Jefferson that educational institutions should liberate a child’s mind, not manipulate a child’s emotions. Increasingly, however, public schools have substituted the accumulation of historical and political knowledge for the expression of historical and political grievances. Education has become a weapon in the culture war, but it also can be an instrument of peace.
The strengthening of parental rights and the expansion of parental school choice can blunt the influence of ideologues and culture warriors who have infiltrated classrooms and corrupted young minds. The longer we maintain a system that fails to hold activist educators accountable for their misdeeds, the further our nation drifts from sustaining the commendable ideals of the founding generation.