Daniel Hager is a freelance writer in Lansing, Michigan.
George S. Counts is not a widely recognized figure in twentieth-century American education, but he was extremely influential. Twenty-five years after his death, the damage caused by this one-time president of the American Federation of Teachers lives on.
The first step in counteracting his effects is to challenge the premise on which he operated and which remains entrenched in public thinking—that governments should be involved in elementary and secondary schooling.
Counts carried the premise beyond simple involvement. Tax-funded teachers, he maintained, must enlarge their task past mere classroom instruction and become primary forces in fundamentally restructuring the nation socially and economically. From the eminence of Columbia University’s Teachers College, where he was a faculty member from 1927 to 1955, he was in demand as a speaker to professional educators, and in 1932 he delivered three speeches that he combined into a book titled Dare the School Build a New Social Order? Although he muted the radicalism of his thesis by phrasing it interrogatively, he clearly answered the question in the affirmative. Powerfully organized teachers using the medium of the classroom should steer the young away from the bankrupt American individualism of the past toward a future in which all would work for the common good. Strong social and economic planning, according to his vision, would deliver bounty and the good life for all.
In Counts’s view, the masses were helpless victims of twentieth-century industrialism. Their rescue would have to be effected by persons anointed to that noble calling, messianocrats who knew better than the people themselves what the people needed. Teachers should become part of the self-appointed elites that must carry out that mission.
The ironies endemic to messianocracy abounded in Counts’s life. For instance, he fancied himself a champion of the common man but lived uncommonly well. He purchased a Pennsylvania farm to which he repaired often from his New York City home. In 1931, when the unemployment rate was 15.9 percent, he had a salary of $15,000, the equivalent of a six-figure income today. During the same period he was referring to “the most terrible form of human madness—the struggle for private gain.”
Counts believed that because “the urge for private gain tends to debase everything that it touches,” capitalism had to go. “With its deification of the principle of selfishness, its exaltation of the profit motive, its reliance upon the forces of competition, and its placing of property above human rights, it will either have to be displaced altogether or changed so radically in form and spirit that its identity will be completely lost.”
He grew up on a northeastern Kansas farm in the waning days of the agrarian order, which fostered self-reliance. But industrialization had raised “the most profound issue” of the day—“the issue of the control of the machine. In whose interests and for what purposes are the vast material riches, the unrivaled industrial equipment, and the science and technology of the nation to be used? . . . [A]ll of these resources must be dedicated to the promotion of the welfare of the great masses of the people.” He stated, “If property rights are to be diffused in industrial society, natural resources and all important forms of capital will have to be collectively owned.” He concluded that “the growth of science and technology has carried us into a new age where ignorance must be replaced by knowledge, competition by cooperation, trust in providence by careful planning, and private capitalism by some form of socialized economy.”
Counts was enamored of the Bolshevik experiment then under way in the Soviet Union and in 1929 made a 6,000-mile automobile journey through the nation. In an irony that apparently escaped him, he did not secure a vehicle in that collectivized economy, where automobiles were scarce and ownership tightly controlled by the government. Instead, he bought a new Ford, the product of the capitalist system he scorned, and paid only $661.42 for it, delivered in Leningrad, including $23.57 in spare parts.
He traveled through the Soviet Union like a wide-eyed farm boy just arrived in the big city. Although he acknowledged the stifling inefficiency of the bureaucracies he encountered, he stated that “as an intellectual achievement the revolution has been an astounding success.” The vast 1928 Five-Year Plan for industrialization and agricultural collectivization was being implemented, and he admired its visible results. Already in 1929, however, as Vladimir V. Tchernavin documented in I Speak for the Silent: Prisoners of the Soviets, the Five-Year Plan was in a shambles, and the nation was being kept afloat by the GPU, the secret police that operated an economy within an economy through wealth produced by expendable slave labor.
But Counts glowed “that a new morality is emerging. . . . The welfare of society as a whole is being placed above the narrow self-interest of the individual.” When he looked at the children, “I thought of the latent powers which a rational system of nurture and education would bring to full fruition.” As he traveled the “workers’ republic,” he found that “the workmen know that they rule the country and take great pride in the belief that theirs is the first society in history to be so governed.” Against the backdrop of “centuries of poverty” under the czars, now “both pessimists and optimists . . . dream of an era of material plenty” because “the new order will be realized through the introduction of machines and the careful ordering of the processes of production.”
Back home a year later Counts read a copy of a Russian schoolbook on the Five-Year Plan and responded that “practically every page carries the mark of genius.” He translated it into English, including a chapter that caricatured capitalism and claimed the system inevitably collapses because “they work without a plan.” In his preface Counts wrote, “Perhaps the most challenging feature of the little book . . . has to do with the relation of education to social planning. . . . The American teacher will be forced to put to himself the question: Can we not in some way harness the school to the task of building a better, a more just, a more beautiful society?”
Retreat from Bolshevism
By the mid-1930s Counts had to retreat from his ardor for the Soviets as their internal repression became widely known. He was active by then in advancing organized teachers as a political force. In 1939 he was elected to the first of his three terms as national president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). He had recently discovered that international communists had been infiltrating the organization, and during his tenure three large AFT locals were purged for being under communist control. He affirmed his anti-communism in 1949 by co-writing, with his administrative assistant, Nucia Lodge, The Country of the Blind: The Soviet System of Mind Control.
But Counts remained throughout an adherent of collectivism, committed to the principles of benevolent messianocracy. In 1941 he began a political career on a local level with the American Labor Party. That career included an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate from New York in 1952 for the American Liberal Party. Following his compulsory retirement from Columbia University at 65 in 1955, he took several short-term positions with education schools. He then spent nine years, until 1971, at Southern Illinois University, where he was so admired and influential that in 1980, six years after his death, the university press published a tribute, George S. Counts: Educator for a New Age. The new age in education had turned increasingly collectivist as the National Education Association (NEA) became in the 1960s and 1970s as militant as its smaller rival, the AFT.
In a free society, collectivists have a right to their beliefs but not a right to other people’s money to propagate their beliefs. The legacy of George S. Counts is that successive generations of protégés have leveraged public money to their own advantage and the advancement of their agendas.
Counts complained in 1932 that “almost everywhere it [the existing school] is in the grip of conservative forces and is serving the cause of perpetuating ideas and institutions suited to an age that is gone.” His final irony is that his intellectual descendants are now the conservative forces seeking to preserve a status quo unsuited to the present age. He was considered a progressive, but now the progressives are those who want to detach all schooling from state control.
Today’s reactionaries balk at even a hint of competition, such as charter schools and tuition vouchers. Such devices give only an illusion of competition, however, because they still depend on coercively obtained funds. As long as this “free” money funneled through the public treasury exists, it distorts the market and the seller-buyer relationship.
The genuine new age in schooling will be one that rids itself of messianocracy, which is no more appropriate in that field than in any other. A freed schooling market stripped of public funding will determine which suppliers offer customers the best value according to the customers’ own interests, irrespective of the windy aspirations of the contemporary Countses.
But what about those who can’t afford to pay for schooling? The marketplace will drive prices down. Entrepreneurs will see to that, just as Henry Ford brought a road tour of Russia within the grasp of George S. Counts.
But if the price is still too high? As Leonard Read is said to have responded, “If you had to pay the entire costs of your child’s schooling yourself, wouldn’t you do it?”
- George S. Counts, Dare the School Build a New Social Order? (New York: The John Day Company, 1932), p. 17.
- Ibid., p. 47.
- Ibid., p. 43.
- Ibid., pp. 45–6.
- Ibid., p. 48.
- George S. Counts, A Ford Crosses Soviet Russia (Boston: The Stratford Company, 1930), p. 186.
- London: Hamish Hamilton, 1935.
- A Ford Crosses Soviet Russia, p. 181.
- Ibid., p. 145.
- Ibid., p. 172.
- Ibid., p. 191.
- M. Ilin, New Russia’s Primer: The Story of the Five-Year Plan (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1931), p. v.
- Ibid., pp. viii–ix.
- Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1949.
- Dare the School Build a New Social Order?, p. 5.