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 on George S. Counts

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 Biography 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.