The Social Frontier Essay

The Social Frontier is a magazine that was started in October 1934 by a group of faculty and graduate students at Teachers College, Columbia University. The magazine, which continued to be published in various forms until 1943, was the most interesting and important educational journal in the United States to emerge from the Great Depression. Largely under the intellectual leadership of George S. Counts and William Heard Kilpatrick, the journal represented a unique example of educational criticism and social and political reconstruction.

The Social Frontier, in many respects, was an extension of the call to arms that Counts had made in a series of speeches before the National Education Association in 1932. These speeches were published in the same year under the title Dare the Schools Build a New Social Order? In this and other works, Counts called for the schools and teachers to be actively involved in the social reconstruction of what he saw as the failed American economy and political system.

Counts and his followers believed that education, the schools, and the teachers who worked in them could play a critical role in the process of social reconstruction that had to be undertaken in order to emerge from the Depression. In the case of teachers, the writers for The Social Frontier considered them to be a potentially powerful social and political force who had an obligation to become engaged activists. This approach, which recognized that teachers had not only the potential but also the responsibility to act as agents of social change, represented a radical redefinition of the traditional role of the teacher in American society.

The members of The Social Frontier’s editorial board were not so concerned about the actual politics of the teachers involved (conservative or liberal), but with the fact that they should be politically and socially engaged. Nevertheless, The Social Frontier and its editors were seen as a threat by much of the political and economic leadership in the United States. The magazine was viciously attacked by the newspaper and publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst (1863– 1951), who distrusted radicals and was vehemently opposed to the socialist orientation reflected in many of the articles found in The Social Frontier.

The attacks on The Social Frontier were actually part of a larger political fight that was playing itself out within the Roosevelt administration. As C. A. Bowers has explained, the Social Reconstructionists’ views closely paralleled those of the early efforts of the New Deal “to create an organic economy and a coordinated society.” By 1935, however, the tactics of the New Deal shifted toward restoring an economically competitive society.

Unlike Roosevelt, Counts, Rugg, and Kilpatrick did not back off from their original vision. Instead, they expanded the idea that there was a social and class struggle at work in American society—one that was profoundly linked to the work of teachers. In February 1936, the John Dewey Society was formed. Much of the energy of The Social Frontier’s editorial board was dedicated to the new organization. The journal, which had increasingly emphasized the class struggle in education, began to lose a significant portion of its readership. Running short of funds and energy, the editors of The Social Frontier turned to the Progressive Education Association to try to merge their journal with the official organ of the association, Progressive Education. The Progressive Education Association unsuccessfully took over the journal. By the end of 1943, it had ceased publication.

Bibliography:

  1. Bowers, C. A. (1964). The Social Frontier journal: A historical sketch. History of Education Quarterly, 4(3), 167–180.
  2. Bowers, C. A. (1969). The progressive educator and the Depression: The radical year. New York: Random House.

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