Wednesday, December 9, 2015

George S. Counts of Kansas

Turn-off to Baldwin City, 2002

Baldwin City is a place where it’s easy to conjure the past. Located about 30 miles west of the Kansas-Missouri border, it doesn’t even begin to be part of the beyond of Kansas, the plains that stretch infinitely westward toward Colorado. It’s not out there like Dodge City, frozen in time with a Carnegie library to boot. But Baldwin City definitely takes you back a century.

You’ll get off the main road and sail up High Street with the car rolling across beautiful deep red bricks. The street had been a muddy mess until 1926 when Jim Brown, a graduate of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, finished laying the bricks at the rate of 36,000 per day. He worked from a standing position, bending down to use both hands in order to place two bricks per second. The brick carriers had a hard time keeping up and Brown would tell them to “get on the stick.” An Oneida Indian who grew up in New York State, he went on to lay brick streets all the way to Texas.

Although the Chamber of Commerce does not mention it, one of the twentieth century’s foremost intellectuals and a longtime professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, grew up in Baldwin City. Best-known in his time for the short but controversial book, Dare the School Build a New Social Order?, George S. Counts believed that education should be a lever for social reform. He abhorred the one-sided view of capitalism that he perceived in the U.S. history curriculum of the nation’s high schools. That was just one of his many brilliant critiques.

Three experiences in Counts’s early years would reverberate through nearly everything he expressed about society, culture, and education for the rest of his life. These were: coming of age on a 160-acre farm, feeling browbeaten by the Methodist Church, and leaving Kansas behind.   

On the farm, George and his three brothers worked every day but Sunday. They cleared and plowed the land; planted, cultivated, and harvested the crops; cared for the animals. Much later Counts developed his “Cow Theory of History,” which held that there would be fewer wars if every person in the world owned a cow, for the relentless badgering of humans by cows that cannot wait to be milked and fed would leave little time for anything else.  

“God is a Republican and a Methodist” was said to be the unofficial motto of Kansas. Church and community were entwined. Every summer the Methodist circuit riders came through, setting up tents on the outskirts of town, performing revivals that overflowed with music and rhetoric. In 1908, the Methodist Church adopted a new social creed that was strongly influenced by the Progressive movement. Its twelve points addressed labor conditions and social justice for working people, a truly enlightened document. By that time, Counts had left home and had one foot out of Kansas and the church.

After Counts left Kansas, he and his wife and two daughters returned for a family reunion nearly every summer until 1960. In this one way he resembled many American educators who fled the Plains. They came back to show their children where they came from.

Among the Counts siblings, only one brother stayed in Baldwin City and kept the farm going.

George Counts’s nieces and nephews recalled that he did not reconnect easily with the family. It makes sense that the tense transition from the pre-industrial culture of his youth and the onset of the modern technological age endured as a central theme of his work.

Kansas sunflowers

Drawing by Claudia Keenan


  1. The "Cow Theory of History" is hysterically weird. Funny how one of my favorite charities, "Heifer Internationsl" seeks to get a cow/goat/rabbits to every poor African family they can.

  2. I just learned that the painter Grant Wood returned to Iowa after extensive travel, including in Europe, saying: "I realized that all the really good ideas I'd ever had came to me while I was milking a cow.So I went back to Iowa."


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