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 continually for several years at the University of California, Berkeley. It is also a name of a non-governmental organization (Unseen America Projects, Inc.), founded by students at Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley in the late 1980s to promote democratic, experiential education in the United States and abroad.


"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, a factory, 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 success of the first course, a group of undergraduate students taught a version of the course at Stanford in 1986; this course focused more directly 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 focused more on the issues of knowledge and interpreting information.[2] The Berkeley course has continued to be taught under the sponsorship of the political science department, an example of a student-initiated course which has been integrated into the mainstream curriculum.

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. This 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 lecture courses, applying the Unseen America concept for field social science paralleling natural-science courses.[4]

The Unseen America concept has also included proposals for student museums and protection of student history; community development banks run by students; student export-import businesses and student consulting firms, linking student initiatives and community needs.


The Unseen America movement is one of several educational movements in clinical education and service learning which have continued to gain momentum since the 1980s, promoting skills-based and community-based learning. "The 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 differs 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.

Students involved with the initial Unseen America published their syllabi and explanations of how to institutionalize similar courses in two books published during the 1990s: Escape from the Ivory Tower: student adventures in democratic experiential education and A Model Development Plan. A manual, Escape from Professional Schools, offers tools for applying the Unseen America approach to law, business and public-administration schools and social-science departments in Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa, and Latin America (based on case studies there). Student founders have gone on to develop similar initiatives elsewhere. Course founder David Lempert has offered these ideas for educational reform to universities around the world, partly through the Soros Foundation. Jim Pitofsky has founded a spinoff non-governmental organization, IDEALS, to apply the Unseen America approach at the secondary school level.


  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