The Frontiers of Democracy, almost

The Social Frontier was a radical journal, which saw the school as an agent of social change. It was published at Teachers College for six years, starting in 1934. After that it was sponsored by the Progressive Education Association and changed its title to Frontiers of Democracy. The final issue was published in 1943.

The writers and editors for Social Frontier / Frontiers of Democracy (SF/FD) were dedicated to creating a more open society, one in which democratic participation was not simply a slogan, but a living reality. That meant expanding educational opportunities, increasing access, developing critical, socially-engaged citizens (where “citizen” means any resident), and involving all in what Dewey called the process of authority.

I’m sure the SF/FD writers would be pleased to know that the Teachers College Record and the Gottesman Libraries are “re-releasing the journal both because of its historical importance and because of its continued relevance to educators today.” The collection has been digitized and presented on a well-designed web page.

SF/FD writers would applaud the recognition of its continuing value. They would quickly understand the web as a new means for increasing access and accomplishing more of the democratic mission that they had undertaken. They would envision that teachers, parents, administrators, politicians, and the ordinary citizen as well, would certainly have some means for convenient access.

Along with that they would of course recognize the need to recover costs and to value the labor required to publish and distribute texts. But it’s hard to imagine that they would be pleased to know that the very journal they had established “to lead educators in the building of an enlightened America” (Harold Rugg) is effectively off limits to most of the people they hoped to reach, despite the new technological affordances.

How many individuals will choose to subscribe to TCRecord simply in order to access SF/FD? Even people at other universities willing to pay the appropriate costs, and current subscribers to TCRecord, are excluded since the institutional subscription does not include SF/FD. In the midst of information overload, the apparently modest terms can be off-putting: “The introductory rate of $20 is available for a limited time…Your membership will automatically renew every 365 days…No refunds are offered for early cancellation.” I suspect that at best many will decide to look at the print version if and when it’s available to them, and resign themselves to being unable to share any findings more widely with the very audience that the journal envisions.

Rugg’s books and the progressive education movement in general suffered from rightwing attacks through the late 1930’s into the McCarthy era. Today the movement suffers more from indifference and a lack of understanding of the issues involved. A paywall for a relatively obscure journal that ceased publication over 70 years ago does little to help. I assume that TC or TCRecord has full copyright, but it’s worth noting that the journal was sponsored for half its life by the Progressive Education Association (as Frontiers of Democracy), and as such only in part by TC.

In the final issue, Rugg says, “Our treasured American way of life is in great danger, not only from menacing fascists and false patrioteers, but primarily because our people, standing baffled and bewildered on the threshold of abundance are unable to bring about such a life.” Much the same could be said today; it’s a pity that the opportunity to further dialogue on these issues has been lost. As too often happens, a good project with a noble purpose undermines its own agenda, for apparently petty reasons.

2 thoughts on “The Frontiers of Democracy, almost

  1. I’d like to hear more about your mother’s experiences at Columbia. The textbooks may not be so important now, but any notes about those times could be very interesting.

    Could the Percy have been Percy Hughes http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Percy_Hughes ? I can imagine eating one lunch of apple, cheese and raw cabbage, but not for every day. If we have the right Percy, you may need to update the Wikipedia article.

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  2. Very interesting about Rugg. My mother was getting her Master’s in Education at Columbia, must have been around ’38-’39, pre-school for me, and herself had very radical ideas about education. I’ll have to search through her papers to see if there’s anything there about those days. She often later mentioned Harold Rugg and also a professor whose first name was Percy who ate apple, cheese and raw cabbage for lunch every day. As a child, that was what fascinated me, more than her revolutionary ideas. I expressed myself by throwing all her textbooks out the window at Morningside Heights one day.

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