For a period of more than fifty years, George Sylvester Counts was a major figure in American education. He was, for much of his life, on the left side among educational progressives during the twentieth century. He is most closely identified with the education movement described as social reconstructionism and is considered by many to have been its leading voice throughout his long and distinguished career. He was also the preeminent American scholar on Soviet education and culture.
Counts’s activism was uncommon for an academic. The ideas he encountered while studying at the University of Chicago lured him in this direction, at least on the intellectual plane. Although his doctoral dissertation was a study of arithmetic tests and the psychology of arithmetic, he was influenced by the writings of Thorsten Veblen. Upon graduation, he quickly turned to educational and social criticism, abandoning his early interest in standard deviations, regression equations, and coefficients of correlation.
Counts’s career in higher education spanned more than a half-century. During that time, he authored twenty-nine books on American society and education as well as Soviet life and education. In 1957, his book The Challenge of Soviet Education was granted the American Library Association’s Liberty and Justice Award. It represented an example of Counts’s foresight because shortly after its publication Sputnik was launched, an event that dramatically altered the face of American education in response to the Soviet challenge.
His writings reflect several seminal works in American education, and his earliest books represented some of the first attempts at analyzing the effects of social class on the nation’s schools. Among these were The Selective Character of American Secondary Education (1922), The Senior High School Curriculum (1926), The Social Composition of Boards of Education: A Study in the Social Control of Public Education (1927), and Secondary Education and Industrialism (1929). School and Society in Chicago (1928) became very popular as one of the earliest examinations of the inner workings of a large city school system. His coauthored book Principles of Education (1924) was widely used as a text in American schools of education.
The book that most defines his legacy and for which he is best remembered is Dare the School Build a New Social Order? (1932). A small book of only fifty-two pages, it was the compilation of three addresses given to educators in the midst of the Great Depression. It was a call to action to teachers across the land, boldly seeking to enlist them in the cause of social justice. It envisioned a teaching profession elevated in its own social status and importance resulting from the leadership it would provide to communities and their schools. The power and impact of his ideas, married to the heft of his delivery, left the convention delegates of the Progressive Education Association in a silence that, for Counts, was more meaningful than applause. In fact, members suspended the remainder of the convention’s business to ponder and react to Counts’s ideas.
Moreover, his words reflect a perspective that applies no less to our own contemporary circumstance. For example, he wrote the following:
We can view a world order rushing toward collapse with no more concern than the outcome of a horse race; we can see injustice, crime and misery in their most terrible forms all about us and, if we are not directly affected, register the emotions of a scientist studying white rats in a laboratory. . . . In my opinion, this is a confession of complete moral and spiritual bankruptcy. (Counts, 1932, p. 20)
Counts began his career in higher education at Delaware College (now the University of Delaware) as department head before moving to Harris Teachers College in St. Louis for a year. He was then lured to the University of Washington, followed by Yale, the University of Chicago, and finally Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1927, where he stayed until retirement in 1955. After that, he continued teaching for many years—at the University of Pittsburgh, University of Colorado, Michigan State University, Northwestern University, and Southern Illinois University from 1962 until 1971—when he permanently retired at the age of eighty-two.
When he was recruited to Teachers College, Columbia University, it was to serve as the assistant director of the International Institute, which led him to become interested in the Soviet Union. It remained a lifelong project that he pursued alongside his research and teaching about U.S. education. A memorable journey in 1929 was when he drove a Model A Ford more than 6,000 miles across most of the Soviet Union, much of it alone and many miles on unpaved roads. This feat culminated in the book, A Ford Crosses Soviet Russia (1930).
Counts’s activist posture brought about his recruitment as candidate for president of the American Federation of Teachers, a post he won in 1939. Counts led the effort to purge the AFT of communist influence, particularly among some of its largest and most influential locals. He can be credited in part with saving the AFT because its parent union, the AFL, was poised to expel AFT locals under communist control.
- Counts, G. S. (1932). Dare the school build a new social order? New York: John Day Company.
- Counts, G. S. (1952). Education and American civilization.
- New York: Teachers College, Columbia University Press. Counts, G. S. (1971). A humble autobiography. In R. J. Havighurst (Ed.), Leaders in American education: The seventieth yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education (pp. 151–174). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Cremin, L. A. (1988). American education: The metropolitan experience, 1876–1980. New York: Harper & Row.
- Gutek, G. L. (1984). George S. Counts and American civilization: The educator as social theorist. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.
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