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At the 1932 Progressive Education Association’s (PEA) annual conference during the height of the Great Depression, George Sylvester Counts’s speech stunned his audience into a silence that spoke louder than applause (Cremin 1964). His speech Dare Progressive Education Be Progressive? (1932) prompted convention organizers to “suspend the remainder of the business of the convention in order instead to ponder and react to Counts’s ideas” (Urban 1972, vi). Though this speech impacted how many educators thought about their work, Counts’s overall contributions surpass his significant PEA address.

Important Intellectual Contributions to Education
Dare Progressive Education Be Progressive (1932) emerged from Counts’s research in the 1920s on social-class assumptions underlying the American educational system and his perceptions of the nation’s economic crisis. He argued (Counts 1932, 258) that the PEA’s focus on child-centered education betrayed an upper-middle class orientation and, to become genuinely progressive:

. . . it [the PEA] must emancipate itself from the influence of this class, face squarely and courageously every social issue, come to grips with life in 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 somewhat less frightened than it is today at the bogeys of imposition and indoctrination.

Counts’s social class critique of the PEA (1932, 259) argued that its organizational vision was complicit with an unjust historic capitalism “in which dire poverty walks hand-in-hand with the most extravagant living that the world has ever known.” Further, Counts’s critique (1932, 260) argued for “the development of a coordinated, planned, and socialized economy.” This socialized economy required that Americans “set ourselves to the task of reconstituting and revitalizing” (Counts 1932, 261) the tradition of the American Dream, and argued for the creation of collectivist orientations in American education that would serve as a guide in American life.

Counts’s most anthologized work Dare the School Build a New Social Order? (1932) elaborated on his PEA address. This book served to document several of Counts’s most important contributions to educational thinking, including:

Counts’s most important contributions continued as points of reference throughout his intellectual and political careers.

Educational and Career Backgrounds
Counts’s research focused on the socio-cultural foundations of education. He explored topics such as the role of social class in high school education and the formation of school boards in the American educational system. Counts also visited many countries and helped develop the field of comparative education. He was a member of the Educational Survey Commission to the Philippines and Associate Director of Teachers College’s International Institute. As a result of his work in comparative education, Counts visited more than 17 countries, including three extensive trips to the ex-Soviet Union. In 1946, he worked with General Douglas MacArthur’s team of advisors concerning the reconstruction of education in Japan. As a result of his research and practical experience in comparative education, Counts became nationally prominent for his international perspectives on education, especially regarding the social, cultural, and historical background of the Soviet Union.

Counts also became politically active. As National President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) from 1939–1942, Counts led a newly elected anti-communist administration to reconcile the split between the AFT and Teachers Guild Local #5 that had seceded the union in 1935 because of the AFT’s leftist orientation. Counts also became New York State Chairman of the American Liberal Party during the mid-1950s. Counts was an active member of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Academy of Education. Though many people considered Counts to be an industrial socialist, his political work spoke mainly to his liberal orientation.

Contributed by James C. Jupp, Martin Middle School, Austin, TX Independent School District

Counts, G. S. 1932. Dare progressive education be progressive? Progressive Education 4(9): 257–63.

Counts, G. S. 1932. Dare the school build a new social order? New York: John Day.

Cremin, L. A. 1964. The transformation of the American school: Progressivism in American education 1876–1957. New York: Vintage

Urban, W. J. 1972. Preface. Dare the school build a new social order? Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

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