Counts, George S. (1889–1974)

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COUNTS, GEORGE S. (18891974)

Progressive educator, sociologist, and political activist, George S. Counts challenged teachers and teacher educators to use school as a means for critiquing and transforming the social order. Perhaps best known for his controversial pamphlet Dare the School Build a New Social Order? (1932), Counts authored scores of scholarly works that advanced the social study of education and emphasized teaching as a moral and political enterprise. His work on schooling and society continue to have relevance to contemporary dilemmas in education.

Counts was born and raised in Baldwin, Kansas. His family was Methodist and, by his own account, imparted strong ideals of fairness and brotherhood. Counts earned his B.A. from Baker University, the local Methodist school, in 1911 with a degree in classical studies. After graduating, he was employed as a high school math and science teacher, an athletic coach, and principal before beginning postgraduate studies in education at the University of Chicago in 1913, at the age of twenty-four. After receiving a Ph.D. degree with honors, Counts taught at Delaware College, now the University of Delaware (19161917) as head of the department of education. He taught educational sociology at Harris Teachers College in St. Louis, Missouri (19181919), secondary education at the University of Washington (19191920), and education at Yale University (19201926) and at the University of Chicago (19261927). For nearly thirty years, Counts taught at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York (19271956). After being required to retire at the age of 65 from Teachers College, Counts taught at the University of Pittsburgh (1959), Michigan State University (1960), and Southern Illinois University (19621971).

Sociology and Education

Much of Counts's scholarship derives from his pioneering work in the sociology of education. His adviser as a doctoral student at the University of Chicago was the chairman of the department of education, psychologist Charles H. Judd. Significantly, Counts insisted on fashioning for himself a minor in sociology and social science at a time when professors of education wholly embraced psychology as the mediating discipline through which to study educational practice and problems. Although his contemporaries were fascinated with the "science of education" and its psychological underpinnings, Counts was interested in the study of social conditions and problems and their relationship to education. Heavily influenced by Albion Small and other Chicago sociologists, Counts saw in sociology the opportunity to examine and reshape schools by considering the impact of social forces and varied political and social interests on educational practice. For example, in the Selective Character of American Secondary Education (1922), Counts demonstrated a close relationship between students' perseverance in school and their parents' occupations. In the Social Composition of Boards of Education: A Study in the Social Control of Public Education (1927) and School and Society in Chicago (1928), he asserted that dominant social classes control American boards of education and school practices respectively. Because schools were run by the capitalist class who wielded social and economic power, Counts argued, school practices tended towards the status quo, including the preservation of an unjust distribution of wealth and power.

Counts's educational philosophy was also an outgrowth of John Dewey's philosophy. Both men believed in the enormous potential of education to improve society and that schools should reflect life rather than be isolated from it. But unlike Dewey's Public and Its Problems, much of Counts's writing suggests a plan of action in the use of schools to fashion a new social order.

Social Reform

From 1927 to the early 1930s Counts became fascinated with the Soviet Union precisely for its willingness to employ schools in the inculcation of a new social order. Although he later became disillusioned with mounting evidence of Soviet totalitarianism and an outspoken critic of the Communist Party (he was elected as president of the American Federation of Teachers in 1939 having run as the anti-Communist candidate), Countslike twenty-first century criticalistsbelieved that schools always indoctrinated students. What interested Counts was the schools' orientation: what kind of society did the schools favor and to what degree. As he put it, the word indoctrination "does not frighten me" (1978, p. 263). This position, in particular, later brought Counts fierce critics like Franklin Bobbit, a leader of the social efficiency movement, who countered that the schools were not to be used as agents of social reform.

Counts was accordingly critical of the child-centered Progressives for their failure to articulate any conception of a good society. He chided their preoccupation with individual growth at the expense of democratic solidarity and social justice. In his speech to the Progressive Education Association (PEA), "Dare Progressive Education be Progressive?" which later became the pamphlet Dare the School Build a New Social Order?, he argued that Progressive education had "elaborated no theory of social welfare" (1978, p. 258), and that it must "emancipate itself from the influence of class" (p. 259).

Political Activism

Counts was also a political activist. He was chairman of the American Labor Party (19421944), a founder of the Liberal Party, and a candidate for New York's city council, lieutenant governor, and the U.S. Senate. He was president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and a member of the Commission on the Social Studies of the American Historical Association. He was the first editor of the Progressive journal Social Frontier which, at its peak, boasted a circulation of 6,000, and advocated enlisting teachers in the reconstruction of society.


Counts's importance to and impact on American education remain a matter of debate. His contributions to the evolving discourse on democracy and education are evident in a great deal of his writing, specifically in his conviction that schools could be the lever of radical social change. Highly critical of economic and social norms of selfishness, individualism, and inattention to human suffering, Counts wanted educators to "engage in the positive task of creating a new tradition in American life" (1978, p.262). He wanted teachers to go beyond abstract, philosophical conceptions of democracy and teach explicitly about power and injustice. He wanted teachers and students to count among their primary goals the building of a better social order.

See also: Philosophy of Education; Progressive Education.


Counts, George S. 1922. The Selective Character of American Secondary Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Counts, George S. 1927. The Social Composition of Boards of Education: A Study in the Social Control of Public Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Counts, George S. 1928. School and Society in Chicago. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Counts, George S. 1931. The Soviet Challenge to America. New York: Day.

Counts, George S. 1934. The Social Foundations of Education: Report of the Commission on the Social Studies. New York: Scribners.

Counts, George S. 1952. Education and American Civilization. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Counts, George S. 1971. "A Humble Autobiography." In Leaders in American Education, The Seventieth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, ed. Robert J. Havighurst. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Counts, George S. 1978. Dare the School Build a New Social Order? (1932). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Curti, Merle. 1966. The Social Ideas of American Educators. Totawa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams.

Gutek, Gerald L. 1970. The Educational Theory of George S. Counts. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

Gutek, Gerald L. 1984. George S. Counts and American Civilization: The Educator as Social Theorist. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.

Lagemann, Ellen C. 1992. "Prophecy or Profession? George S. Counts and the Social Study of Education." American Journal of Education. 100 (2):137165.

Joel Westheimer

George S. Counts

views updated May 29 2018

George S. Counts

American educator and educational sociologist George S. Counts (1889-1974) was an authority on Soviet education and a leading spokesman for the social reconstructionist point of view in American education.

George Sylvester Counts, son of James Wilson Counts and Mertie Florella (Gamble) Counts, was born on a farm near Baldwin City, Kansas, on December 9, 1889. His introduction to formal education consisted of two years spent in a one-room school house. Counts managed to complete the work of four grades in those two years, and the experience left him convinced of the merits of ungraded schools. He completed his education in the conventional public schools of Baldwin City, nevertheless, and graduated from high school in 1907.

Counts attended college at Baker University, a Methodist institution located in Baldwin City, and graduated at the head of his class with a B.A. degree in 1911. He then taught science and mathematics for a year at Sumner County high school in Wellington, Kansas. The following year he accepted a joint appointment as a teacher and school principal at the high school in Peabody, Kansas. This brief but rewarding exposure to teaching and school administration helped Counts decide to pursue advanced study in education, and he enrolled in the graduate school of the University of Chicago in 1913. Meanwhile, in September of 1913, he married Lois Hazel Bailey, the daughter of a Methodist minister. They had two daughters.

Early Career in Education

At Chicago Counts majored in education and minored in sociology under such distinguished scholars as Charles H. Judd and Albion W. Small. Counts took his Ph.D. with honors in 1916 and was named head of the department of education and director of the summer school at Delaware College in Newark. During the next ten years he held successive teaching posts at Harris Teachers College, St. Louis (1918-1919); the University of Washington (1919-1920); Yale University (1920-1926); and the University of Chicago (1926-1927). In the fall of 1927 he became a member of the faculty at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he served as associate director of the International Institute from 1927 to 1932 and as professor of education until his retirement in 1956. During his career he also lectured at a number of leading universities, including Harvard, Illinois, Michigan, Stanford, and Virginia.

The author of 29 books and more than 100 articles, Counts was also an active participant in several professional and civic organizations, notably the American Academy of Political and Social Science, the American Association of University Professors, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Historical Association, the American Sociology Society, the Liberal Party of New York State, the National Education Association, and the Progressive Education Association.

Prior to his appointment to the Teachers College faculty, Counts had served as a member of the Philippine Educational Survey Commission. This experience, together with his work in connection with the International Institute at Columbia, afforded him the opportunity to contribute to the relatively new field of comparative education. Counts focused his international studies on the social institutions and educational system of the Soviet Union and in due course became perhaps America's foremost authority on Russian education. A Ford Crosses Russia (1930), The Soviet Challenge to America (1931), The Country of the Blind, Soviet System of Mind Control (1949), and The Challenge of Soviet Education (1957) were some of his noteworthy writings on Soviet culture.

Apart from his concentration on Russian education, much of Counts's teaching and research was devoted to understanding the school as a social institution, its relations to other social institutions, and its potential for fostering social betterment. Some of his early efforts along these lines reflected the prevailing interest among educators, notably Counts's mentor Charles Judd, in the application of empirical and statistical methods to the study of education and signalled Counts' arrival as an authority in areas such as secondary education and educational sociology. With regard to the latter, his School and Society in Chicago (1928) was generally regarded as a landmark study of a school system within its social context.

The Selective Character of American Secondary Education (1922) and The Social Composition of Boards of Education (1927) were two other significant books published by Counts during the 1920s. The former argued that schools were partly responsible for the continuance of social inequality, and the latter pointed to the influence on American education of the existing power structure in society. In these and other works completed during the 1920s, Counts introduced themes that foreshadowed the social reconstructionism with which he was identified in the 1930s, and, indeed, anticipated many of the arguments advanced by social and educational theorists several decades later.

A Different Approach to Education

In 1932, at the nadir of the Great Depression, Counts combined three speeches into a slim volume called Dare the School Build a New Social Order? The book led to his general acceptance as leader of the social reconstructionists, a group within the society-centered wing (as opposed to the child-centered wing) of the Progressive Education Association, that was intent on using the schools to initiate social change. With characteristic boldness, Counts argued for the replacement of traditional capitalism with some form of democratic collectivism in order to avert social and economic chaos. He called for educators to shape the attitudes of children so that they would be receptive to the idea that collective control of the economy was necessary. Thus schools, according to Counts, could become the incubators of a great society dedicated to cooperation rather than to exploitation. Anticipating the charge that his scheme smacked of indoctrination, Counts declared that all education entailed indoctrination to some extent.

Two years later Counts helped to launch The Social Frontier, a reformist journal that established itself as forum for social and educational debate and attracted some of the most distinguished liberal writers of the period to its pages. Counts was the first editor of the journal, serving in that capacity from 1934 to 1937.

All of this enhanced Counts's stature among the reconstructionists (or the "frontier group," as they were alternatively labeled) but also made him a prime target for the criticism of conservatives who viewed him as something of a communist sympathizer, bent on subverting the American way of life. Counts, however, described himself as "a cross between a Jeffersonian Democrat and a Lincolnian Republican, struggling with the old problem of human freedom and equality in the age of science and technology." It should be noted, in this connection, that Counts denounced Soviet communism in his later writings and vigorously opposed communist efforts to infiltrate the American Federation of Teachers during his term as president of that organization from 1939 to 1942.

Although Counts is probably best remembered for his ties to progressive education and social reconstructionism in the 1930s, he continued to explore the relationship between democracy and education throughout his career. His major post-war writings included Education and the Promise of America (1946), Education and American Civilization (1952), and Education and the Foundations of Human Freedom (1962).

Following his mandatory retirement from Columbia in 1956, Counts taught at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Colorado, Michigan State University, and Northwestern University. He closed out his career as a distinguished visiting professor at Southern Illinois University from 1962 to 1971. Counts died on November 10, 1974.

Further Reading

An autobiographical sketch of Counts may be found in Twentieth Century Authors: First Supplement (1955). Gerald L. Gutek, The Educational Theory of George S. Counts (1970) is the most comprehensive study of Counts's thought. John L. Childs, American Pragmatism and Education (1956) includes an informative chapter on Counts's career, and Lawrence A. Cremin, The Transformation of the School (1961), is an excellent background source. The August 1975 College of Education Newsletter, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, was a memorial issue to Counts.

Additional Sources

Counts, George S. (George Sylvester), 1889-1974., George S. Counts, educator for a new age, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press; London: Feffer & Simons, 1980.

Gutek, Gerald Lee, George S. Counts and American civilization: the educator as social theorist, Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1984. □

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