[This one sort of ran away from me. It started with just taking some notes about the historical sources and kind of just exploded from there. This all is very provisional for me. I don’t trust the commentary. Mostly you should read it for the sources cited. OK, caveat lector etc.]
George Counts was a fire-breathing advocate for using school to influence students’ political views. Specifically, Counts comes down in favor of the political indoctrination of students:
You will say, no doubt, that I am flirting with the idea of indoctrination. And my answer is again in the affirmative. Or, at least, I should say that the word does not frighten me. We may all rest assured that the younger generation in any society will be thoroughly imposed upon by its elders and by the culture into which it is born. For the school to work in a somewhat different direction with all the power at its disposal could do no great harm. At the most, unless the superiority of its outlook is unquestioned, it can serve as a counterpoise to check and challenge the power of less enlightened or more selfish purposes.
This is from Counts’ 1932 talk, “Dare Progressive Education Be Progressive?” It was delivered in front of the Progressive Education Association, and caused quite a stir:
The challenge of Dr. Counts was easily the high point of the program. Following the dinner meeting at which he spoke, small groups gathered in lobbies and private rooms to discuss, until far into the night, the issues raised in Dr. Counts’ sharp challenge. These discussions were marked by a general willingness to accept the viewpoint of Dr. Counts that the schools have a real responsibility for effective social change. There was, however, a considerable difference of opinion as to how this was to accomplished. The method of indoctrination, advocated by Dr. Counts, was widely questioned.
I took this quote from Richard Niece and Karen Viechnicki’s very interesting article on Counts’ talk. They cite many contemporary educators’ reactions to Counts’ talk. They ran the gamut, from complete agreement to shock at his frank talk of power and imposition on the child. For his progressive audience, it was the talk of indoctrination of the child — as opposed to commitment to the child’s own natural flourishing — which was truly shocking. Counts was trying to steer his audience away from children and towards socialism.
Niece and Viechnicki think that Counts’ speech split the progressive movement in a way that ultimately led to its dissolution. “The chasm between child-centered supporters and social welfare advocates became too vast to bridge.”
In 1935, three of Counts’ talks — including his live-wire PEA lecture — were reprinted as Dare the School Build a New Social Order? Intriguingly, the section on indoctrination was rewritten to include an anecdote about Counts’ discussion with the Commisar of the Soviet school system:
The advocates of extreme freedom have been so successful in championing what they call the rights of the child that even the most skillful practitioners of the art of converting others to their opinions disclaim all intention of molding the learner. And when the word indoctrination is coupled with education there is scarcely one among us possessing the hardihood to refuse to be horrified. This feeling is so widespread that even Mr. Luncharsky, Commissar of Education in the Russian Republic until 1929, assured me on one occasion that the Soviet educational leaders do not believe in the indoctrination of children in the ideas and principles of communism. When I asked him whether their children become good communists while attending the schools, he replied that the great majority do. On seeking from him an explanation of this remarkable phenomenon he said that Soviet teachers merely tell their children the truth about human history. As a consequence, so he asserted, practically all of the more intelligent boys and girls adopt the philosophy of communism. I recall also that the Methodist sect in which I was reared always confined its teachings to the truth!
Counts is just absolutely delicious in the way he stares power in the face. He’s just so quotable:
That the teachers should deliberately reach for power and then make the most of their conquest is my firm conviction…In doing this they should resort to no subterfuge or false modesty. They should say neither that they are merely teaching the truth nor that they are unwilling to wield power in their own right. The first position is false and the second is a confession of incompetence. 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.
People just don’t talk like that anymore, unless they’re part of antifa or something. It’s a blast.
Is Counts right? He is absolutely insistent that teaching involves imposition and indoctrination. Another juicy quote:
There is the fallacy that the school should be impartial in its emphases, that no bias should be given instruction. We have already observed how the individual is inevitably molded by the culture into which he is born. In the case of the school a similar process operates and presumably is subject to a degree of conscious direction. My thesis is that complete impartiality is utterly impossible, that the school must shape attitudes, develop tastes, and even impose ideas.
I think it’s clear that Counts, at some level, is right. School is an imposition; teaching is an imposition. So is parenting.
But there are impositions, and there are impositions. Counts correctly notes that all education is an imposition on a child. Then he says teachers should unilaterally take control of the curriculum and train children in the truths of socialism in the hopes of creating a class of socialist revolutionaries. Woah, Counts!
“Any time you watch a TV show it changes your mood, how you think,” George Counts might’ve said, “so the question isn’t whether or not to use TV for mind control but how.” George Counts is the sort of fellow responsible for Facebook’s emotion control experiment. He’s really into controlling people, but then again he’d be happy to tell you that himself.
It’s true: all education is an imposition on the student, parents and communities, but should we or should we not try to minimize this imposition? That’s the question that George Counts doesn’t ask.
Personally, I like to think of our education system in terms of tensions and equilibria. It’s not a question of the amount of imposition but the direction of those impositions. Some parts of society want us to impose professional training on children. Others want political training. We also want to use our powers of imposition to impose a safe environment, where kids are happy and safe.
And I think this is more-or-less how schools should be. They should be places that find points of balance between the competing needs of students and communities. At school, we use our powers of imposition towards contradictory ends so that a broad range of students can get something out of these institutions.
It’s true — there’s no neutrality in school — but we shouldn’t mistake the slurry, messy non-neutrality of schools for an institution with a particular aim and purpose. Counts’ vision would be a disaster for public education, I have no doubt.
W.E.B. Du Bois was not a fan of George Counts’ take on education. In a 1935 address to black teachers in Georgia — a few things I’ve read say that he was addressing the Counts controversy in this talk, but I can’t see where exactly — he began by deemphasizing the ability of schools to effect direct social change. “The public school,” he says, “is an institution for certain definite ends. It is not an institution intended or adapted to settle social problems of every kind.”
Du Bois, however, was a big believer in the ability of knowledge to erode social barriers, eventually:
Now, of course, indirectly, and in the long run, all men must believe that human wrong is going to be greatly ameliorated by a spread of intelligence; that the spread of such intelligence beyond the confines of a narrow aristocracy and the pale of race, down to the masses of men, is going to open great and inexhaustible reservoirs of ability and genius. But, mind you, this intelligence is the essential and inescapable step between the school and the social program, which cannot be omitted without disaster. The school cannot attack social problems directly. It can and must attack them indirectly by training intelligent men, and these intelligent men through social institutions other than the school will work for a better organization of industry, a juster distribution of income, a saner treatment of crime, a more effective prevention of disease, a higher and more beautiful ideal of life without race, prejudice and war.
Du Bois goes on to criticize the ability of progressive education trends — “new methods of teaching” — to address the needs of black children. Du Bois takes aim at the entire progressive education enterprise, preferring a sort of early version of the “back to basics” approach:
What we need, then, and what the public school, college and university must supply, is intelligence concerning history, natural science and economics; and the essential key to this intelligence is a thorough, long-disciplined knowledge of the three “R’s.” To assume that instead of this, and be allowing the curriculum of the public school to encroach upon thorough work in reading, writing and arithmetic, we can cure the ills of the present depression by training children directly as artisans, workers and farmers without making them intelligent men, is absolutely false.
Du Bois, though, is clear that this sort of training can’t possibly help the impoverished and oppressed break through all on its own. School can educate, but the rest of the work happens outside the institution.
There’s a fascinating moment when Du Bois talks about his disappointment of his daughter’s education in a progressive school:
My daughter attended as a child a first-class kindergarten and a progressive grade school. But there was so much to study and to do, so much education rampant, that when she went to a real school and entered the fifth grade, she had to stop everything and learn the multiplication table. The learning of the multiplication table cannot be done by inspiration or exortation. It is a matter of blunt, hard, exercise of memory, done so repeatedly and for so many years, that it becomes second nature so that it cannot be forgotten.
I remember a parent-teacher conference with the mother of a student of mine who was black. I couldn’t tell if she was particularly concerned about my class, but she was very clear about her concerns: “My son is a black boy, and he’s going to leave school a black man in a society where it’s not easy to be that. I want to make sure his math won’t hold him back.” I hear that parental concern in Du Bois.
Du Bois, like Counts, is just so direct and quotable. (“The pressure upon Negroes is to increase our income. That is the main and central Negro problem.”) They also shared a love of communism. (Du Bois would suffer terribly at the hands of McCarthyism, an episode I know basically nothing about.)
While reading Du Bois’ address, I found myself thinking of James Baldwin’s remarkable Talk to Teachers, and Baldwin’s closing message:
Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school, and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours of every day and would then return to their homes and to the streets, children who have an apprehension of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker, I would try to teach them – I would try to make them know – that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal. I would try to make each child know that these things are the result of a criminal conspiracy to destroy him. I would teach him that if he intends to get to be a man, he must at once decide that his is stronger than this conspiracy and they he must never make his peace with it. And that one of his weapons for refusing to make his peace with it and for destroying it depends on what he decides he is worth.
Du Bois would probably have little patience for this project, and he’d probably also take issue with Baldwin’s characterization of the purpose of schooling:
The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity.
This comes much closer to Counts’ progressive view on the role of school, but Baldwin has no interest in indoctrination. He is interested in self-sufficiency, the ability to decide. Baldwin just wants school to tell the truth about the world, so that students don’t blindly make their choices.
I do think that something like a mish-mash of Baldwin and Du Bois is possible in our schools today. Baldwin was not a teacher, and (as far as I know) didn’t have any concrete views on curriculum, not like Counts did. Where do those lessons about America come? How are they learned? Is Baldwin talking about the curriculum, skills and knowledge, or is he talking about the space between all that stuff?
So much happens in the empty space of school. Kids are formed by the ephemeral qualities of school just because school is where they are for (if all goes well) more than a decade of their lives — everyone’s influenced by their environments, no? Kids will make friends, find adults to admire and despise, and learn a way of moving through their world. Kids really do take something from all that other stuff when they leave — though what any particular student takes with them may vary. Tricky, maybe impossible to engineer, yes, but there are chances in school to help children really understand their place in the world, and we shouldn’t lie.
Eric Gutstein is a professor of math education at University of Illinois. Following Paulo Freire, he talks about math education for reading and writing the world. In other words, math education should help you understand social injustices and also lead to you battling them.
Gutstein’s pedagogy is nicely encapsulated in his article Teaching and Learning Mathematics for Social Justice. The piece is his account of the two years he spent teaching social justice math at an “urban, Latino high school.” His approach is a version of real-world math, and he is a big believer that engagement with personally relevant mathematics leads to better learning and more positive feelings about math.
Much to discuss in Gustein’s work. I’m interested, mostly, in the Counts’ question: are we OK with indoctrination?
There is no clear and direct statement, ala Counts. We do get a very measured statement that seems to address the concern of imposition of political views:
I did not try to have my students answer questions so much as raise them. Questions such as why females, students of color, and low-income students score lower on SAT and ACT exams are not easily answerable–and students did raise that question in one of our projects…And I did not want my students to accept any view without questioning it. I did share my own opinions with my students because I agreed with Freire’s contention that progressive educators need to take the responsibility to dispel the notion that education can be the inactive transfer of inert knowledge and instead to promote the idea that all practice (including teaching) is inherently political I take Freire to mean that educators need to be explicit in their views while at the same time to respect the space of others to develop their own.
There is a lot of “yes, but…” going on here. Yes, I share my political views with my students, but I don’t ask them to accept them on my authority. Yes, I show my students examples of social injustice, but I don’t offer simplistic answers. (Though Gutstein in his paper describes prompting his students to explain why they thought a given injustice arose. I think that this inevitably supports students in forming definite answers to the questions he raises.) For Gutstein, we are to be explicit in our political views and design math lessons around them, but we are to also give students space to develop their own views. (Where?)
Counts might have caused a fissure in progressive education by placing a wedge between child-centered and social justice progressives; Gutstein represents an attempt to reconcile these forces in his own pedagogy. For that matter, it aims to satisfy Du Bois by claiming rigor and mathematical sophistication for his students, and Baldwin too by aiming for student independence in deciding what to believe, as long as they’re armed with the truth.
And what would Counts say? I imagine this would bother him. After all, how can you claim that you’re leaving room for students to develop their own views when you’re hand-picking topics to support your political views? (Counts on curriculum: “the dice must always be weighted in favor of this or that.”) He would see in Gutstein a contradiction, an attempt to erase himself from the role of political influencer even though he totally echoes Counts’ line in saying teaching is inherently political.
If teaching is inherently political, then why not own up to the attempt to politically influence your students? Own up, man!
For better or for worse, though, we aren’t living in the 1930s. (Come to think of it — of course it’s better that we aren’t living in the 1930s.) Back in those days communism was a semi-respectable political view, fascism wasn’t funny, an educator like Counts could earnestly go around talking about power grabs, and everyone had the distinct feeling that the world was about to fall apart at the seams — they were correct. School was up for grabs, along with everything else, and advocates for social reform wanted a piece.
This is not the world we live in now. We’ve been through the 20th century. Schools are now places of compromise, as reflected in Gutstein’s rhetoric. George Counts, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin all tug at school, along with like seven other totally different tuggers.
And because of all this — because schools are places of compromise, and because they should be — I am generally not excited by teachers trying to help their students come to take one side in a political controversy.
It’s not that I want politics out of schools. There’s no reason for that, and politics is part of the story that we need to tell — Baldwin is right. Du Bois is also right: schools have enough trouble teaching the curriculum, and can only create social change indirectly, by educating students who go on to create institutions for good.
Counts, however, is wrong, and to the extent Gutstein echoes him I think he is wrong as well. True: there’s nothing “natural” or apolitical about education. But I think we do our best job when schools accurately reflect the incompatible desires our society places on schools, rather than taking a particular social desire and running with it. So while schools will never be politically neutral, I think in our lessons we should try.