The people who established the social foundations of education during the 1920s and 1930s—William H. Kilpatrick, John Dewey, George S. Counts, and Harold Rugg—were all committed to social activism. This was particularly true during the 1930s and the Great Depression, when they developed a philosophy of “social reconstruction,” whose goal was to overcome the failure of the capitalist economy system by establishing a more just and equitable economic and social system.
Perhaps nowhere is the concept of a social foundations scholar being engaged in social activism more clearly articulated than in the work of George S. Counts. In his 1932 book—Dare the Schools Build a New Social Order?—he called for teachers to act as conscious social agents. As educated and concerned citizens, he felt that they could point the students whom they taught and the communities in which they lived toward a more democratic and just model of society.
This theme was repeated again in various articles published by Counts and his followers in the journal The Social Frontier, as well as in courses such as the Education 200 F, the introductory social foundations course at Teachers College starting in the mid-1930s. In the 200 F course, Counts and Rugg argued that teachers and administrators in the schools had the obligation to act for the social betterment and improvement of their students and the communities in which they lived. In general, the social foundations professors at Teachers College saw their students as future activists and leaders, who needed to be prepared for “enlightened action” and “statesmanship.”
Counts felt strongly that teachers needed to throw off what he saw as the slave psychology that had dominated the teaching profession since antiquity, and, through their actions, bridge the gap between school and society. The concept of teachers taking a more proactive role in social change has been a persistent theme in the social foundations of the education field.
During the late 1980s, for example, Henry Giroux argued in Teachers as Intellectuals that teachers need to function as “transformative intellectuals.” According to him, they should combine reflection and action in the interest of empowering students with the skills and knowledge needed to address injustices and to be critical actors committed to developing a world free of oppression and exploitation. For Giroux, such intellectuals/educators should not just be concerned with raising the test scores of their students and promoting the individual achievement of their students, but they should also be concerned with empowering students so that they can critically read and change the world when needed.
Currently, the social activist tradition in the social foundations of education most clearly manifests itself in the tradition of social justice, which calls for the conscious creation of a more just and equitable society, in terms of race, gender, and socioeconomic class. While such efforts are certainly worthwhile, they are largely theoretical. If social activism is to play a truly meaningful role in the social foundations of education, new ways need to be found to create meaning through practice, ones that are consistent with the type of social action outlined by the founders of the field.
- Counts, G. S. (1932). Dare the schools build a new social order. New York: John Day.
- Giroux, H. A. (1988). Teachers as intellectuals: Toward a critical pedagogy of learning. Granby, MA: Bergin & Garvey.
- Rugg, H. (General Ed.). (1941). Readings in the foundations of education (Vol. 1). New York: Bureau of Publications, Teachers College.
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