Dewey also pilgrimaged to the Soviet Union in 1929 and “was deeply moved by what he saw.” He reported that Soviet educators “realized that the goals of the progressive school were undermined by ‘the egoistic and private ideals and methods inculcated by the institution of private property, profit and acquisitive possession.’” He recognized the pervasiveness of Communist propaganda in the country but excused it because it promoted “the good of humanity,” rather than private gain. He even expressed a modicum of praise for the communist attempt to dismantle the family unit, which accorded with the Marxist idea that family is individualistic and pernicious to communal living.
George Counts, another leading Progressive educator at Columbia, was even more fulsome in praise of Communism. Twice he visited the Soviet Union, becoming convinced that American schools must take the lead in transforming the United States from a capitalist into a socialist nation. Counts sought to transform Progressive education into political activism in support of socialism.
Progressive educators had long held a hodgepodge of educational theories. On the one hand, they believed that the child’s impulses should guide his education. On the other, they believed that the purpose of education was to socialize him—to teach him to conform and fit into the social order. These two components were not as contradictory as they seemed. For whether children were encouraged to act on their whims, or taught to conform to the group—or, under differing circumstances, to do both—they were never taught to think independently. The conformists will obey the state. The whim worshippers, unable to formulate principles—including political ones—will give up in despair or will be crushed by the state. Or they will learn to obey, now following the caprice of the dictator rather than their own.
Counts was explicit about the political goals of the Progressive education movement. In his book Dare the Schools Build a New Social Order?, as Ravitch notes, Counts “forthrightly called for elimination of capitalism, property rights, private profits, and competition, and establishment of collective ownership of natural resources, capital, and the means of production and distribution.” To indoctrinate children, he called for a consistent socialization of the classroom. He accused the “child-centered” Progressives of having no social theory “unless it be that of anarchy and extreme individualism,” repudiated the notion that education can “build its program out of the interest of the children,” claimed that America must become “less frightened than it is today at the bogeys of imposition and indoctrination,” and openly acknowledged that his socialist vision required indoctrination.
This was the Depression era, and Counts’s message was well received. Ravitch points out, “Virtually every prominent progressive in the 1930s agreed that the traditional academic curriculum reflected the failed capitalist economic order.”
Academic subjects in education and capitalism in economics are inextricably linked. One teaches cognitive independence, the other protects political independence. If one wishes to destroy political independence, it is first necessary to destroy cognitive independence; independent thinkers will govern their own lives and will not live as suckled wards of the state. To build a citizenry obedient to the state requires a classroom that inculcates conformity to the group.