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George S. Counts (1889–1974)

Sociology and Education, Social Reform, Political Activism, Contribution

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 (1916–1917) as head of the department of education. He taught educational sociology at Harris Teachers College in St. Louis, Missouri (1918–1919), secondary education at the University of Washington (1919–1920), and education at Yale University (1920–1926) and at the University of Chicago (1926–1927). For nearly thirty years, Counts taught at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York (1927–1956). 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 (1962–1971).

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), Counts–like twenty-first century criticalists–believed 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 (1942–1944), 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.


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):137–165.


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