Unseen America

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Unseen America is the name of a field social sciences course initiated and taught by students in a number of versions, beginning in 1985 at Stanford University and taught for several years at the University of California, Berkeley. It was also a name of a non-governmental organization (Unseen America Projects, Inc.), founded by students at Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley to promote democratic, experiential education.


"The Unseen America" was first taught at Stanford University in the spring of 1985 as an accredited course in the Undergraduate Specials Program, sponsored by professor of history Kennell Jackson Jr. and designed by law and business student David Lempert as a special course. The course's objective was to introduce students to the "unseen" communities and aspects of American life and to return the social sciences to its roots – based on empirical work and models coming from reality, rather than from abstraction and books. The idea was also to empower students and to interact directly with the community, recreating the link between the university and the community. Lempert had worked as a teaching assistant in the political science department and felt that book learning and television disconnected students from real-world community problems and individual responsibility as citizens of a democracy. Lempert had spent a year on fellowships from Stanford working as an intern in U.S. embassies; he felt that there was little real connection between his Stanford education (or what was in most social-science, law, business-school texts and cases or classroom discussion) and reality. In the first course students visited a Native American reservation in California, a federal prison, a migrant worker camp, a military installation, a factory, a soup kitchen, and a mental institution; they directly contrasted standard social-science readings and models with the reality they observed. The course focused on model-building and field social-science skills.[1]

After the first course, a group of undergraduate students taught a version at Stanford in 1986, which focused more on social services and disabilities. The students who led that course included Xavier Briggs (now a sociologist) and Jim Pitofsky. Three students at the University of California, Berkeley, also sought to develop a version of "The Unseen America" in 1989; they taught it under that name (sponsored by the political science department, Professor William Muir, the conservation and resource studies and humanities departments) as part of Berkeley's DECAL (Democratic Education at the University of California) program. That course, which is no longer offered, focused more on the issues of knowledge and interpreting information.[2]

Lempert has developed several other courses (under different names but using the same model) in the social sciences and humanities. This included a course (with Harvard University and Brown University undergraduate students) to write a national development plan as a team for a country, which combined education with a high-level project, and offered an alternative to top-down plans driven by international financial institutions. After three months of field work the students prepared a plan (in Spanish) which they personally presented to Ecuadorian president Rodrigo Borja, on national Ecuadorian television and in newspapers. That plan has been translated into English and published as a textbook for students in sustainable development courses.[3] The University of California, Berkeley, also experimented with social-science-laboratory courses parallel to their natural-science lecture courses.[4] Lempert's Unseen America concept also included proposals to link student initiatives though student-run museums, community development banks, export-import businesses, and consulting firms, linking student initiatives and community needs, but there is no evidence that such initiatives succeeded.


Unseen America is one of several educational movements in clinical education and service learning from the 1980s which promoted skills-based and community-based learning. Unseen America itself was inspired by clinical education work, such as the Stanford Law School's East Palo Alto Community Law Project and student-initiated, field-education courses that were developed in the 1960s. It differed in attempting to transform the curriculum (and the nature of the university) into becoming more democratic, more empirical and more accountable to communities, rather than "technical-skill-" or "donation"-oriented. Student founders went on to develop similar initiatives elsewhere. Course founder David Lempert offered these ideas for educational reform to universities around the world, partly through Unseen America Projects, Inc. In the early 1990s Jim Pitofsky also operated IDEALS (Innovative Democratic Education And Learning through Service), to apply the Unseen America approach at the secondary school level. The legacy of those initiatives are unclear since those organizations no longer exist (for example Unseen America Projects' registration as a California corporation was suspended in 1991). Lempert has continued to publish articles heralding his approach, however.[5]


  1. ^ The history, theory, and courses of the Unseen America are documented in a book by founders and participants, "Escape from the Ivory Tower: Student Adventures in Democratic Experiential Education," ISBN 0-7879-0136-9, Jossey-Bass Inc. Publishers/ Simon & Schuster, 1995
  2. ^ The Oakland Tribune, May 24, 1989 -- "Novel UC Class Introduces Students to 'Hidden America'"
  3. ^ A Model Development Plan: New Ideas, New Strategies, New Perspectives, ISBN 0-275-95068-9, Praeger Publishers/Greenwood Press, 1995 (Hardback), 1998 (Paperback)
  4. ^ The course is described in "Escape from the Ivory Tower" with a syllabus
  5. ^ Taking People's History Back to the People: An Approach to Making History Popular, Relevant, and Intellectual, 2013, Democracy and Education volume 21, issue 22