Site hosted by Build your free website today!

Education for Social Reconstruction in a Democracy: Plato and American Pragmatism Agree on Curriculum and Method

** NOTE: The plain-text version of this article, below, has been corrected by the author to remove typographical errors generated by an OCR (optical character reader). Page breaks have been indicated in [square brackets]. Footnotes originally indicated by half-sized superscripts have been entered in [square brackets]. This article was published in two different journals: "The Cutting Edge" and "Focus on Learning." Citations are provided for both journals, although the one for "Focus on Learning" is incomplete. The page numbers in this webpage refer to "The Cutting Edge."


Kenneth R. Conklin, "Education for Social Reconstruction in a Democracy: Plato and American Pragmatism Agree on Curriculum and Method," THE CUTTING EDGE, IX, 2 (Winter, 1978), pp. 20-25.

Kenneth R. Conklin, "Education for Social Reconstruction in a Democracy: Plato and American Pragmatism Agree on Curriculum and Method," FOCUS ON LEARNING, VI, 2.



by Kenneth R. Conklin

Virtually all commentators agree that Western civilization is in the midst of a profound crisis which, throughout the last half century, has challenged the basic assumptions of our social system. To speak of a "crisis" that has lasted for fifty years is not a contradiction in terms: fifty years is a short time in the scale of history. And we are dealing with a crisis of historic magnitude -- a challenge to the basic assumptions of Western civilization since the Renaissance. This is no trivial "crisis" as in the current usage of that term. It is profound and fundamental. In North America the crisis manifests itself as a questioning of the democratic process and the capitalist economics, and a loss of faith in the power of reason and in the ability of science to solve our problems.

To say that there is a crisis is to say that things have reached a turning point. There must soon be fundamental changes in the everyday folkways and underlying assumptions that hold people together. Some commentators such as Communists and Christian fundamentalist eschatologists claim to know the shape of the future, and argue that we should use education as a tool to bring that well-defined future into the present. Other Pragmatic commentators only know that the future may be very different from the present in ways they cannot specify, and argue that we should use education to develop alertness, analytical power, openness to change, and other cognitive and affective attributes conducive to insightful and efficient adaptability.

Two of the fundamental commitments of modern western civilization are relativism and democracy. We assume there are no absolutes or if there are any that they cannot be known.

Therefore we conclude that people are free to arrive at whatever rules and actions they find mutually acceptable by consensus, majority vote, or the survival of the strongest. For example, John Dewey and his followers in education developed curricula and teaching methods that are based -on the assumptions of Pragmatist relativism and democracy, and that transmit these assumptions to the next generation. Dewey and his followers argue that the crisis of western civilization must be solved by application of the democratic group decision-making process. They urge that the role of education is to prepare children to become fully vested adult participants in this process. We cannot predict the substantive outcomes of this process, they assert, but we know that the process is highly adaptable and self-correcting. Thus, by teaching children the skills of democratic group decision-making, we are both passing on an essential element of our heritage and also providing the next generation with the skills they will need to solve the crisis and reconstruct the social order.

["The Cutting Edge" End page 20 / Begin page 21]

Stanley's Curriculum Proposal

One of Dewey's most influential followers in education is William O. Stanley, whose book, Education and Social Integration,[1] examines the nature of our crisis and the manner in which education should help resolve it. Stanley points out that industrialization, urbanization, specialization, and mass communication have produced a breakdown of the homogeneous communal values which characterized the social stability of the previous century. Our crisis is magnified by the rapid rate of invention and change, but no mere slowdown in progress would put things in order. At the heart of the crisis is a massive confusion and disagreement over fundamental values and folkways. Because of this confusion over basic values, the schools have no generally accepted source of authority for policy, curriculum, and teaching methods. Indeed, the school becomes a battle-ground where large-scale social conflicts are manifested in disagreements over school policy, and the curriculum becomes a crazy-quilt patchwork of apparently unrelated subjects.

Stanley's analysis thus far might be summarized in the following syllogism:

Education transmits the culture.
The culture is confused.
Therefore, education transmits cultural confusion.

The cultural confusion is institutionalized as conflict and vacillation in school policy, and is transmitted directly to the students through incoherent and irrelevant curriculum and teaching techniques. Thus, students grow up with no stable set of individual or group values, and become confused participants in the continuing confusion of their culture.

Stanley's proposed solution might be summarized by converting the previous factual syllogism into a prescriptive one.

Education should transmit the culture.
The culture is confused.
Therefore, education should transmit the cultural confusion.

At first this conclusion seems ironic and even insane. But upon closer inspection it discloses a genuine and brilliant solution which Stanley actually proposes in the course of his lengthy argumentation.

Stanley notes that it is always the proper task of education to transmit whatever culture is supporting it. He shows that our culture is presently characterized by confusion and conflict over basic values. Therefore, he concludes, the task of the school is to teach children about this confusion and conflict. By doing so we will produce well-informed adults. A crucial part of Stanley's argument is his belief that although the crisis in our culture is so profound that it has challenged even the fundamental universal assumptions in Gunnar Myrdal's American Creed,[2] the people retain tenaciously their faith in the moral rightness and practical applicability of the democratic process. Therefore, Stanley says, the school has the authority to transmit this essential commitment and to operate in accord with it.

Stanley's proposal is to make the study of important current controversies the heart of

["The Cutting Edge" End page 21 / Begin page 22]

the social studies curriculum, and indeed the core of the whole curriculum. The curriculum transmits the culture. Furthermore, Stanley proposes that students be required to participate in the democratic process of studying, debating, and settling these controversies for themselves. Thus, the teaching method modifies the culture.

Stanley anticipates more than the passive transmittal of culture. His proposal holds out hope for a solution to the social crisis. The school becomes the most active institution promoting social reconstruction. Children will grow up to be well-informed and concerned about the controversial issues. They will possess the skills of democratic decision-making; and they will share a commitment to abide by the results of the democratic process.[3]

Stanley's proposal claims to identify the proper mission and locus of authority for the school in the face of social confusion, and to provide a way out of that confusion. But in addition, Stanley's proposal is a brilliant intellectual synthesis of the best elements in the theories of Dewey and his followers, and it even incorporates some concerns of the new romanticism. Stanley's proposal focuses the curriculum on the exciting social and moral controversies which fascinate and concern young people at the very time they are seeking personal identity. In this way, the curriculum begins by identifying the felt needs of the romanticism. Stanley's proposal focuses the curriculum on the exciting social and moral controversies which fascinate and concern young people at the very time they are seeking personal identity. In this way, the curriculum begins by identifying the felt needs of the students in their all-too-real problematic situation. Dewey's theory of the scientific method, or complete act of thought,[4] is the paradigm for Stanley's proposed teaching method. Kilpatrick's project method[5] is clearly in use. We have an interdisciplinary core curriculum which is both child-centered and socially relevant. Because Stanley's proposal would make the school committed only to the democratic process, but not to substantive solutions to most social controversies, it is more conservative and more likely to gain public acceptance than the more radical reconstructionist proposals of George Counts[6] and Theodore Brameld.[7] Stanley's curriculum and teaching method closely resemble a way of applying in school the "method of practical intelligence" for solving intergroup conflicts, developed by Raup, Axtelle, Benne, and Smith.[8] This method, according to its authors, causes the characters of the participants to undergo transformation, paving the way to genuine reconciliation and consensus.

We have seen that Stanley's proposal is firmly and intentionally grounded in Dewey's pragmatist relativism and commitment to democracy. It is precisely in tune with the American ethos. What a surprise it would be if Stanley's proposal were also endorsed by Plato's absolutist, elitist philosophy! Yet such is the case. Stanley and Dewey endorse the study of controversial issues as a technique for perpetuating their ideal social system while resolving conlict in the context of that system. Plato would endorse the same curriculum, which he considers objectively bad, because it occurs in the context of a bad social system (democracy) and because the curriculum would help overturn that social system by exaccerbating its internal contradictions. The Platonic Perspective

The Platonic analysis is complex, but profound and practical. It depends upon three main points: absolutism, elitism, and the Socratic "discovery" method. According to Plato, there are

["The Cutting Edge" End page 22 / Begin page 23]

absolute truths, valid in all times and places for all people. These absolutes yield different practical prescriptions under different circumstances, but once we have a definite set of circumstances then there is only one correct solution to a controversial issue. The absolutes are knowable, but very few people have the intellectual power and moral perseverence to know them thoroughly and interpret their practical bearing. The good society is governed wisely. Thus, the bulk of the people, who lack wisdom, will be completely absorbed in producing and consuming ordinary goods and services. Society will be governed by a hierarchy in which the degree of wisdom one possesses determines their level of authority.

Plato emphasizes the distinction between knowledge and right opinion. Knowledge is certainty of some truth, apprehended through personal discovery. Right opinion is merely the belief in an opinion which happens to be true. Someone may hold right opinion by luck, by rote learning, or by imitating someone else. To all outward appearances, right opinion might look the same as knowledge. Both lead to correct conclusions. But the person who has knowledge has made a personal discovery which gives them absolute certainty; thus, their leadership is stable and reliable and inspires justifiably confident followership. The wise policy-makers have knowledge, while the masses are capable of right opinions as taught by those having real knowledge.

The entire distinction between knowledge and right opinion centers on the element of personal discovery that leads to certainty. While right opinion can be learned through passive listening or obedient followership, knowledge can be obtained only by active searching and personal discovery. The teacher of right opinion lectures, punishes, and rewards; but the teacher of knowledge can only facilitate or guide students toward discovery.

The Socratic method is based on the assumption that someone is blocked from discovering truth so long as they are already filled with wrong or right opinion. Thus, the first task of a teacher of knowledge is to help students see for themselves that they do not yet have knowledge. The student who has wrong opinion must explore the consequences of that opinion in order to discover why it is wrong, while the student who has merely right opinion (but not yet knowledge) must discover personal uncertainty and real ignorance. When students discover their ignorance and acknowledge it openly and contritely, they are ready and will beg for instruction.

The teacher may even shame or humiliate them for being ignorant in order to test the students' sincerity and perseverance; yet despite such shaming, the students will acknowledge their ignorance and beg for help. Now the well-known Socratic "midwife" process begins, with the teacher leading the student toward personal discovery of knowledge through the student's own resources. For our purposes in this essay, the midwife process is not important: what is vitally important is the initial preparation when the students discover their own ignorance and beg for help.

Plato's argument in support of Stanley's proposal for studying controversial issues can now be made clear. In fact there are two arguments. The more obvious Platonic argument is as follows: The ideal social system is a hierarchy in which the masses, who are not capable of

["The Cutting Edge" End page 23 / Begin page 24]

wisdom, follow by right opinion the leadership of the few wise people who have discovered absolute knowledge and who have the skill and courage to interpret that knowledge into practice. Democracy is an unjust social system that must inevitably lead to disaster, because in a democracy the unwise masses are the rulers. In order for goodness and justice to prevail, the rulers of any society must be wise. This applies even to a democracy, where the masses are the rulers. Thus, we need to help the masses become wise. Plato thinks that that is impossible. But those who believe in democracy evidently believe that it is possible, as the American emphasis on free public mass education and the land grant college system attest. Stanley's proposal for including the study of controversial issues as the core of the public school curriculum is therefore strongly endorsed. The masses will become well-informed on substantive issues and will master the skills believed necessary for achieving wisdom: skills of scientific inquiry, rational debate, and democratic group decision-making.

There is a much more subtle and far-reaching Platonic argument in support of Stanley's proposal. This argument is an adaptation of the Socratic method, for use in instructing a whole populace. Plato would agree with Stanley and Dewey that our culture is in the midst of profound confusion and crisis in its common folkways and underlying values. Most importantly, Plato would agree that the American people have a commitment to democracy which is so tenacious that it remains unaffected despite the challenge to other basic values. Plato doubtless would regard the commitment to democracy as an example of wrong opinion; and the tenaciousness with which this commitment is held indicates how much pedagogical work must be done in freeing the people from this error.

We cannot simply tell the people about the injustice of democracy, because they will not understand. We cannot simply overthrow the system and institute Plato's Republic by proclamation, because the people would resist such imposed change covertly or even through rebellion. We must deal with the people's commitment to democracy in the same way we would deal with any student's commitment to a wrong opinion: assume for the sake of argument that the wrong opinion is correct and help the student explore and undergo the consequences. When the student recognizes the bad consequences, the wrong opinions will be abandoned and the person asks for instruction. Stanley and Dewey have shown very convincingly that a commitment to democracy implies the use of the democratic process in school in order to study current controversial issues as the core of the curriculum. So this is precisely the teaching method and curiculum Plato would recommend.


When people begin to accept their democratic responsibility to understand the controversial issues, they will soon learn how complex, difficult, and time-consuming those issues are. As people begin to accept their democratic responsibility to abide by the democratic group decision-making process, they will see for themselves how biased most people are and they will feel the sting of unwise decisions made by uninformed or impassioned majorities. People will come to recognize that they have neither the time nor intelligence nor desire to understand and solve social problems. They will then wish to turn over such matters to experts, and. they will understand the importance of finding experts who are not merely facile but wise.

["The Cutting Edge" End page 24 / Begin page 25]

Thus, the adoption of Stanley's proposal would eventually help the people recognize that their commitment to democracy is wrong. It would prepare the people to discover for themselves the need for a belief in absolutes and the need for a hierarchical political system where peoples' power and authority are proportional to their wisdom. What would happen is the playing out of a Hegelian process of thesis and antithesis, in which the thorough practical adoption of the democratic commitment leads to the establishment of its opposite.

Pitirim Sorokin tells us that Western civilization perpetually goes through centuries-long cycles of alternation between absolutist and relativist cultural systems.[9] Sorokin shows that we are now at the peak of a relativist system that has been growing since the Renaissance, and we are destined very soon to undergo a total collapse of this system due to its internal contradictions and its lack of universal values. There will be instability, wars, and revolutions until the relativist system disintegrates and is replaced quite suddenly, by absolutism. Perhaps the adoption of the Stanley proposal would enable educators to help reconstruct the social order in the manner in which Plato predicted, thereby resolving the social crisis and easing the transition toward the absolutist system which Sorokin claimed is historically inevitable in the near future.


1. William O. Stanley, Education and Social Integration. New York: Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University, 1953. 2. Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1944. 3. Secondary school teachers can get help in the theory and practice of teaching about controversial issues by reading Mauice P. Hunt and Lawrence E. Metcalf, Teaching High School Social Studies: Problems in Reflective Thinking and Social Understanding. 2nd ed.; New York: Harper and Row, 1968. 4. John Dewey, How We Think. New York: D. C. Heath, 1933. 5. For an introduction to the theory and practice of Kilpatrick's project method, see Harry S. Broudy and John R. Palmer, Exemplars of Teaching Method. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1965, chapter 11. 6. George Counts, Dare the Schools Build a New Social Order? No. 11 John Day Pamphlets. New York: John Day, 1932. This essay has been widely reprinted. See, for example, Rena Vassar, ed., Social History of American Education. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1965, Vol. II, pp. 274-288. 7. Theodore Brameld, The Climactic Decades: Mandate to Education. New York: Praeger, 1970. See also by Brameld, Education for the Emerging Age: Newer Ends and Stronger Means. New York: Harper, 1961. 8. R. Bruce Raup, George Axtelle, Kenneth Benne, and B. Othanel Smith, The Improvement of Practical Intelligence. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1950. 9. Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics. New York: American Book Company, 1937.

[end of article]


Send comments or questions to:

You may now look for another scholarly article published by Ken Conklin before he came permanently to Hawai'i



(c) Copyright 2012 for this website, by Kenneth R. Conklin, Ph.D. All rights reserved