Reconstructionism is a belief among many in education that schools should serve as institutions that train and developed students to enact social change. This is in stark contrast to the view that schools should serve as cultural transmitters. Reconstructionists believe that reverence for the past is neglect of current and future problems. Furthermore, reconstructionists believe in making autonomous individuals who question existing norms, such as the dominant culture, and strive to make the world a just and equitable place.
One of the main influencer’s for the philosophy of reconstructionism was George Counts and his highly influential essay/speech “Dare the School Build a New Social Order?” Counts’ work was written in the context of the Great Depression and proposes that schools should be the source of change in America. His views laid the foundation for the philosophy of reconstructionism. In this post, we will focus on two main branches of reconstructionism. These branches are economic reconstructionism and democratic reconstructionism.
Economic reconstructionism tends to have a strongly suspicious view of those in power. In this view, schools are used by the elite i.e. dominant culture to conform students to the existing world view. This allows the elite to maintain power culturally and financially. Schools are either willing or ignorant participants in this system of intellectually and social oppression.
To be fair, there are examples of this taking place in history. Both Hitler and Ferdinand Marcos use various forms of “youth camps” to educate people to support the existing power structure’s worldview. Hitler had the “Hitler Youth” while Marcos had “Village Youth” which was controlled by one of his relatives. The purpose of these groups was to teach loyalty to the status quo through the transmission of state-approved values and beliefs. Or you can say oppressive cultural transmission.
Economic reconstructionists and reconstructionism, in general, are heavily inspired by Karl Marx and his communist views. This includes a deep suspicion of capitalism, which is viewed as oppressive, and catering to the whims of the rich. Marx’s focused on how the bourgeoisie uses capitalism to oppress everyone else. The economic reconstructionist tends to focus more on how those with money use education to oppress students.
The classic text of economic reconstructionists is Pablo Friere’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” In this text, Friere explains how he believes the elite actually use education to hold people down. This is based on his experience of teaching adults to read in Brazil. As he taught reading, Friere noticed that the problems were not only reading but the worldview and beliefs of the people. The students were passive, subservient, and indifferent to thinking critically or questioning. For Friere, this was due to how they had been trained in the past by an educational system controlled by those with power who wanted these characteristics in their workers.
There are naturally several concerns with this approach, Economic reconstructionism does not inspire cooperation between the oppressors and the oppressed. Both view each other as enemies which tends to lead to a zero-sum game in which one side wins while the other losses.
A second problem is that there is no end to who is oppressed. If one class topples another it becomes the new dominant group then has to fight off the new group of oppressed people. In other words, it is similar to a game of king of the hill. One group gains power and then uses the same oppressive measures it once despised to stay in power. This is one reason why communist states of today, who were once freedom fighters, are often oppressors now. To put it simply, the only thing that changed was who was doing the oppressing. This constant cycle of changing who is doing the oppressing can make a country unstable. In the end, the problems never end just the person who is blamed for causing them.
Democratic reconstructionist believes in training a politically active citizenry. In contrast to economic reconstructionists who often want to tear down the system, democratic reconstructionists want to work within the system to promote change.
To do this, schools should focus on teaching students about the democratic process, developing critical thinking skills, and solving local community problems. The focus is on problems rather than on conspiratorial views of oppression as with economic reconstructionist.
Democratic reconstructionists are highly influenced by John Dewey and progressivism. The ideas of changing society through the use of the existing system are things that he frequently encouraged through his views on democracy in the classroom. This approach is less antagonistic in comparison to economic reconstructionism. Yet, the peaceful implementation of it does not happen as much anymore. For example, many protests in the name of change have become violent in ways that did not happen decades ago such as the protesting in Hong Kong and India or the violent protesting that takes place in America now.
As such, it is common to acknowledge this approach however, many schools support the more extreme view of economic reconstructionism even though they may believe that they are supporters of democratic reconstructionism. Just examine how people speak only of removing “privilege” and bringing equality even by force if necessary in the name of democracy
Change is a part of life. There will be times when life is good and when it is bad. Reconstructionism struggles with this cycle of good and bad. The primary tenet is that there should be no bad or suffering. However, whenever the oppressed takes over they simply become the new oppressors.