John R. Shirley
24 October 2007
“Social Studies and the Social Order”
This article poses the question whether social studies instructors should be “transforming” society, or “transmitting” information. William B. Stanley describes the history and approach of three different perspectives. The first perspective is the “education for social transformation” approach represented by George Counts during the 1930s.
Counts wanted teachers to “build a new social order”. He believed that democratic “social justice” and power redistribution was necessary for a true democracy. His Marxist-based ideas called for forcing new ideas upon students for “the existence and evolution of society”, and declared that educators must accept this fact.
John Dewey rejected Count’s social transformation. He believed that learning would also be a transformative process, but that instructors would assist in this process by giving students the intellectual tools to help them participate in their own transformation. Stanley says that Dewey’s focus was on educational method, instead of a specific desired outcome as Count espoused. Dewey did believe in social change, but was certain that this change could not help occurring in democratic and well-educated citizens. He believed that attempting to impose any certain ideology during the teaching process was both immoral and counterproductive.
The conservative critique of education for social transformation stems from democratic realism, individualism, and free market theory. Democratic realism posits that industrialization and urbanization has broken down the previous network of small communities from which individuals could draw informed opinions useful for determining both local and national interests. Walt Lippman powerfully represented the democratic realist approach during the 1920s and ‘30s.
Lippman believed that only disinterested experts were capable of making the necessary decisions for the public’s national interests. He believed that media influence and government propaganda made impossible the democratic ideal of rule by consent from an informed citizenry.
Free market theory, in this article, is referring to ideas by Richard Posner. Like Lippman, Posner believes that most Americans are incapable of truly understanding the issues and acting in both their and the country’s best interests. Posner believes that politicians “sell” their candidacy to voters. Participating in elections helps the public feel involved with their governance, and ensures that politicians actually work to gain public support. While most individuals will not be able to grasp complex policy, over time, the public will be able to determine if their elected officials are acting in their best interests.
Stanley concludes that social studies educators cannot be neutral. “Every teacher,” he writes, “whether consciously or not, is working in some relation to the dominant social order.” Stanley believes a strongly indoctrinating approach is immoral, but that Dewey’s ideas of instilling the intellectual tools for citizens to realize their own, useful political are ultimately unrealistic. Stanley describes progressive approach as “a helpful middle course” that will give educators a moral grounding with a positive goal that may one day be achieved.
Why should it be assumed that the educator cannot successfully “transmit” the values most espoused by his/her society (without transformative drive)? Is this an unspoken belief that society is not living up to its own values?
Why must we assume that creating a well-versed society that is intellectually capable of political self-direction is only a worthy goal at present? Why cannot we believe that the view Stanley claims in this article (though not perhaps in the following letter) John Dewey espoused is actually truly possible?
William B. Stanley, “Social Studies and the Social Order: Transmission or Transformation?” Social Education, September 2005, 282.