Dare the School Build a New Social Order?

In 1932, George Counts took on the leaders of the Progressive Movement of his day in a pamphlet called  Dare the School Build a New Social Order? He counter-poses the individualistic aims of US progressives to the collective solutions required in economic crisis. In a vision of the ‘American dream’ that might jar for its overt nationalism, Counts resolutely places the agency of teachers and students at the heart of building a new social order in which the citizens control ‘the machine’ of industrialism. 

In an excoriating attack, Counts starts by blaming the “liberal-minded upper middle class” leaders for progressive education’s failure to elaborate a theory of social welfare. He writes that the middle class “find it hard to live without their customary material comforts, are rather insensitive to the accepted forms of social injustice, [and] rarely move outside the pleasant circles of the class to which they belong” (p. 8). As a consequence of its leaders’ preoccupations, the progressive movement promoted a passive form of “extreme individualism” (p. 7). Rather than being empowered to construct the world around them as Counts advocated, children were taught to adapt to changing social conditions:

Under such a conception of life and society, education can only bow down before the gods of chance and reflect the drift of the social order. This conception is essentially anarchic in character, exalts the irrational above the rational forces of society, makes of security an individual rather than a social goal, drives every one of us into an insane competition with his neighbours, and assumes that man is incapable of controlling in the common interest the creatures of his brain. Here we have imposition with a vengeance, but not the imposition of the teacher or the school. Nor is it an enlightened form of imposition. Rather is it the imposition of the chaos and cruelty and ugliness produced by the brutish struggle for existence and advantage. Far more terrifying than any indoctrination in which the school might indulge is the prospect of our becoming completely victimised and moulded by the mechanics of industrialism. The control of the machine requires a society which is dominated less by the ideal of individual advancement and more by certain far-reaching purposes and plans for social construction. (pp. 26-27)

The solution according to Counts was for academics and teachers, as the representatives of “the common and abiding interests of the people” (p. 29), to come together in order to exercise their knowledge and wisdom in seeking and then using power. They would reject the aims of the industrial and banking elite in favour of a return to an American democratic tradition that sought an egalitarian society. This would entail combating “all forces tending to produce social distinctions and classes”, repressing “every form of privilege and economic parasitism”, providing “adequate material and spiritual rewards for every kind of socially useful work” and striving for “genuine equality of opportunity among all races, sects, and occupations” (p. 41). Such an “attack on the economic system” (p. 45) was to be achieved through an evolution from individualistic concerns to the collective ownership of industry, although, as Counts warns, collectivisation might require “the method of revolution” (p. 42) as a last resort.

Even though, in this vision, teachers lead social change, progressive schools were not to become organisational centres of revolt against big business. Rather, they were places in which teachers would “fashion and bequeath” (p. 54) a vision for the future and recruit students for the fight ahead:

Our Progressive schools cannot rest content with giving children an opportunity to study contemporary society in all of its aspects. This of course must be done, but I am convinced that they should go much farther. If the schools are to be really effective, they must become centres for the building, and not merely for the contemplation, of our civilisation. This does not mean that we should endeavour to promote particular reforms through the educational system. We should, however, give to our children a vision of the possibilities which lie ahead and endeavour to enlist their loyalties and enthusiasms in the realisation of the vision. (p. 37)

While there are obvious problems with this prescription (not least of which is the expectation that the teaching profession would act as a unified cadre), Dare the School Build a New Social Order? reminds us how far teacher agency, independence and initiative have been suppressed since the writing of the pamphlet. Today, the suggestion that progressive teachers lead social resistance seems outlandish. Unfortunately, the self-interested liberal middle class that Counts railed against still holds sway in our movement.

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Saving the ‘disadvantaged’

The UK government is currently proposing to bring back the grammar school system by allowing secondary schools to select students. According to the Prime Minister, this will ensure “Britain’s education system shifts decisively to support ordinary working class families.” The Foreign Secretary claims grammar schools are “a great mobiliser and liberator” that help the “brightest children from poor homes.” And the Department for Education claimed (falsely, as it later turned out) that “white working class boys” do better at grammars.

All this is rank hypocrisy. At the same time as promoting selection, the UK government is involved in cutting school budgets in real terms. A few ‘disadvantaged’ students might gain access to a new grammar school, but the vast majority of students eligible for free school meals face worse conditions with larger class sizes and fewer resources. 

The government’s paternalistic approach allows it to present itself as a liberator. In reality, working class children who gain access to grammar schools are drawn into the establishment’s world view. Instead of developing into critical citizens, the ‘most promising’ are institutionalised and set up for a life of conformity. Big business benefits from the domestication of future managers; the political system survives through the promise of social mobility.

Although purportedly saving the ‘disadvantaged’, the only thing being saved is a capitalist system that has always brutalised and exploited the vast majority of students from poor backgrounds.