Apr 15, 2009

BEDA 15 - The Social Reconstructionist

After you have been an educator for a while, you start to realize that teach and make content decisions based on an ideology. Last semester I put a name to my ideology. I became a Social Reconstructionist. Yep, that is me. A socialist soccer mom/librarian. My ideas of socialism are not however based on an economic structure. I would have to say I still camp in the capitalism tent, although, I would say on a higher ethical ground than many in our great nation. My socialist instincts are related to academic freedom and the view that education should better society through generous sharing, tolerance, empathy, and understanding.

I realized my ideology by studying a small book; Dare the School Build a New Social Order by George Counts.

I would not frequently use the term "fascinating" to describe a professional reading in curriculum/education theory, but this collection of three speeches delivered by Counts are more than fascinating. Add timeless, thought provoking, and at times, unsympathetically reproachful to those of us who consider ourselves progressive educators and parents.

The relevance to today's economic, political, and educational issues, which were first raised by Counts in 1932, then again in the 1978 preface of this edition, are uncanny, and a bit disturbing. The preface writer (Wayne J. Urban) does not believe, in 1978, that Counts should be labeled prophetic. However, we might want to reconsider this statement now that another 30 years have passed and, notwithstanding a few outdated terms circa the industrial revolution (i.e. replace "machinery" with "technology"), this book still reads fresh. If Counts was not a prophet, then I would definitely grant him the title of visionary.

In the 1930's Counts was actively denouncing the "evils" of the free market (i.e. a few very wealthy creating unwarranted recession for the masses) and how unregulated overindulgence and greed had lead to environmental destruction, energy crises, poor agricultural practices, hunger and starvation, mass unemployment, political corruption, and basically, the unraveling of the American Dream. His call to action was based on the need for educators to help prepare America's youth to combat these social injustices in an ever changing, technically advanced, and global society. Hmm, sound familiar?

Educators, he explained, must be professionally and powerfully organized so that they may demand the right and the autonomy to create appropriate curriculum for their students. Above all, educators must be willing to stand strong in the face of opposition by politicians, business leaders, and the few elite local decision makers, and be able to thoughtfully articulate and argue their positions. After all, Counts himself was accused repeatably of being a communist (which he was not) and a socialist (which he was) but continued to unabashedly defend the rights of the "masses" in a democracy.

At first I was a bit dismayed after finishing this book. I kept wondering "why after 70+ years are we still dealing with the same issues in our educational institutions and society as a whole" and "why can't the teaching profession secure the autonomy and power needed to effectively educate our students?"

However, Counts' message is also inspiring. For example, I found hope in idea that the truly "core" need of education, or the "why" we teach has not changed much, if at all, in the last 70 years; even when the content, or the "what" we teach can and should be organic and change continuously depending on cultural and technical needs of current society.

I found myself in line with Counts' belief that in the classroom teachers should not act as if they are unbiased, unfeeling, and unchanging members of society. Students, he said, should not be sheltered from adult situations and moreover teachers should in fact model how they make decisions based on their experiences, education, spiritual, and political beliefs. In this way, the teacher help create a socially and politically aware classroom where students learn (in one of many settings) how adults function productively, ethnically, and compassionately in the world outside the school.

To achieve such an environment, Counts believes that educators should not have to teach a dictated curriculum formulated by economists, business leaders, politicians, and the elite local "few", who do not have personal, in depth knowledge of the needs of their classroom community.

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