Dare the School Build a New Social Order?

by Tammy Drennan

I’ve spent the last year reading a lot of education philosophy – mostly stuff written over the past century by many of the movers and shakers of public schools. It’s been depressing, though enlightening — and mind-numbing.

These folks, almost across the board, can expend the most unbelievable number of words to say almost nothing. Someone should have gone after them for wasting trees.

When they do say something, it’s scary – mostly utopian, authoritarian, even outright weird.

Here’s an example from George Sylvester Counts, an education professor at Teachers College, Columbia University from 1927 to 1956, and author of numerous books, including “Dare the School Build a New Social Order?” Read it carefully to get the full impact. 

“If Progressive Education is to be genuinely progressive, it must… face squarely and courageously every social issue, come to grips with life in all its stark reality, establish an organic relation with the community, develop a realistic and comprehensive theory of welfare, fashion a compelling and challenging vision of human destiny, and become less frightened than it is today of the bogies of imposition and indoctrination….

“If we now assume that the child will be imposed upon in some fashion by the various elements in his environment, the real question is not whether the imposition will take place, but rather from what source it will come….

“That teachers should deliberately reach for power and then make the most of their conquest is my firm conviction….

“It is my observation that the men and women who have affected the course of human events are those who have not hesitated to use the power that has come to them.”

The parade continues to this day. The education establishment must define what it means to be a worthwhile human being then force it down the throats of children. If the children or their parents resist, all power available should be used to break that resistance. It puts me in mind of a quote attributed to Rudyard Kipling: “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is hard business. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”

And one by John Taylor Gatto:

“Growth and mastery come only to those who vigorously self-direct. Initiating, creating, doing, reflecting, freely associating, enjoying privacy — these are precisely what the structures of schooling are set up to prevent, on one pretext or another.” (The Underground History of American Education)

To read more on education philosophies that have shaped today’s schooling, get a hold of a copy of Selected Readings in the Philosophy of Education, Edited by Joe Park, Ph.D.

As an antidote, read The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto


6 Responses to Dare the School Build a New Social Order?

  1. Sam Steen says:

    I am not sure how well you understand Counts.

    “Dare the school…” is the product of a fervently socialistic, pre-WWII mind. I’m willing to cut him some slack — even Ronald Reagan was a liberal back then! To us, the claptrap is clear, but Counts lived in an era of horrible extremes.

    What you may not be aware of is that Counts was an exemplar of HONESTY at a time when socialist educators (to whom the “Dare” presentations were made) were just beginning to embark in earnest on their clandestine program to wrest control of American education from parents, and so redefine all children according to their design.

    I do not agree with Counts at all, but he advocated an open and honest socialism among educators, rather than the “stealth” approach (he called it obscurantism) that won the day. He was ostracized by the educational establishment of the time (forebears in every sense of today’s NEA) because his opponents rightly reckoned that the majority of Americans would never accept the radical agenda — if they were to prevail, so they reasoned, they would have to cloak their efforts in the rhetoric of fair play. Counts lost all “credibility” with the progressives, once he showed his “true colors.”

    Counts was a fool, but he was the last honest socialist-teacher in America.

  2. tdbwd says:

    Dear Mr Steen,

    Thanks much for the information about Counts. You’re right — I didn’t know those things about him. I agree that it’s always important to keep the context of the times in mind when judging a person’s attitudes, but I don’t believe that changes how hard we should come down on the ideas themselves (and you indicate that you believe the same), especially when the individual feels justified in trying to use the force of state to impose his ideas on others (either directly or indirectly).

    On the plus side, Counts’s honesty provides a glimpse into the attitudes of educators of that era (an attitude that persists today), so he has, maybe unintentionally, done today’s citizens a small favor.

    This issue brings to mind two quotations:

    Most of the harm done in the world is done by good people, and not by accident, lapse, or omission. It is the result of their deliberate actions, long perservered in, which they hold to be motivated by high ideals toward virtuous ends. – Isabel Paterson

    The urge to save humanity is almost always a false-face for the urge to rule it. — H.L. Mencken

  3. Fallon says:

    This is a great post- with illuminating comment from Sam Steen. I am reading Dewey now and get the same feeling as you had about Counts!
    Best, Dan

  4. tdbwd says:


    Thanks much. From time to time I peruse teacher blogs, where it is often clear that many teachers still consider themselves the saviors of society and feel they have the right to dismiss parents as barriers to progress. The attitudes of the past are a light on the present human condition. The world has changed a lot but, ironically, people have not.


  5. Dave says:

    As a teacher, and also someone who has studied the history of education philosophy and practices, it seems to me that the question of whether teachers should “consider themselves saviors” or “dismiss parents” has more to do with whether the values of the community agree with the value of the writer than with some higher philosophical ground.

    For example, I teach in a somewhat liberal/progressive community. The belief of the majority of the parents in our community is this: evolution is fact, sex before marriage is OK, same sex marriage is OK. So, as a teacher in this community, should I concede to the wishes of parents and and condone those three ideals? If my personal positions are different (and, for the record, they are), should I “consider myself a savior of society” by teaching creationism, abstinence and male/female only marriage?

    The history of education shows that when a group has been protesting for years that educators should follow the parents and not try to teach personal values, these same groups flip flop once their personal values no longer are held by the current culture. This has been repeated over the last century and a half.

    The first groups who were fighting for teachers to teach progressively to try to get children to abandon the values of their parents were the conservative, patriotic protestants who called on education to teach the indians/italians/germans/etc. what it means to be American. This was before Dewey and Counts. It was considered a sacred patriotic act to teach students the virtues of honesty, hard work, protestant Christianity, submitting to authority, etc.

    Now that the culture has changed, those same groups are chastising teachers for exemplifying the current American culture and blame us for interfering when we do.

  6. tdbwd says:


    Thanks much for writing. You bring up a number of good points, yet I think they all lead to the same fundamental problem.

    Values do fluctuate over time and vary from one community to another, and teachers do find themselves in awkward positions as a result. The problem is when school is a function of the government. Parents lose their freedom to choose mentors who support their own values, and not only are indivdual families forced to concede their principles to politics, so are whole communities. The more centralized schooling becomes, the more this is the case.

    Schools have grown increasingly into places where academics almost take a back seat to worldviews. I would not choose most of the worldviews that prevail and are taught, both explicitly and implicitly, in public schools, but I support the right of other parents to make those choices for their own children.

    The next question is: should they — or I — have the right to make those choices with our neighbors’ money and to the detriment of those who disagree with us?

    No matter how impossible we think a fully independent system of education is in this country, I think we should all be able to agree that the one we have now is contrary to the principles of liberty as envisioned by most of our country’s founders. We are becoming increasingly a people fully defined in the most fundamental and important ways by our government. Is that liberty?

    Instead of trying to refine our practice of freedom, we are slowly destroying it — and we’re doing it largely through public education.

    As far as chastising teachers goes, this is a very complicated issue. Teachers take a lot of flak for situations they have not authored, yet many teachers (I read a lot of teacher blogs) are ardent missionaries of particular worldviews and feel no compunction about promoting them in classrooms full of children who are there by compulsion. Many feel caught between a rock and a hard place — with a passion to teach and help and few places to go to do it besides public school classrooms.

    The situation we face is tough. The ideal option of full freedom of education is just as tough. Doing what’s right is tough. So, we have a tough job ahead of us. We should probably roll up our sleeves and get a little busier. There are people around the world vying for their freedom and facing far more difficult tasks than liberating their children in an already free country.

    Dave, thanks for stirring our minds. I’d love to hear more from you.


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