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Unseen America is the name of a field social science course initiated and taught by students in a number of versions, starting in 1985 at Stanford University and continually taught 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 across the world.

History of Unseen America

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 History Professor Kennell Jackson Jr. and designed by then law and business student David Lempert as a special course in Branner Hall. The goal of the course was to introduce students to the "unseen" communities and aspects of American life and to return the social sciences to its roots as 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, to recreate the link between the university and the community. Lempert had previously worked as a teaching assistant in the Political Science Department and felt that book learning and televised images had disconnected students from real world problems of the communities around them as well as from taking more individual responsibility as citizens in a democratic society. Lempert had spent a year on fellowships from Stanford, working as an intern in U.S. Embassies and felt that there was little real connection between his Stanford education or what was in most social science, law, and business school texts and cases, or in classroom discussion, and reality. In this 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 and directly contrasted standard social science readings and models with the reality they observed. The course focused on model building and on 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, that 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, and taught it under the same name with sponsorship by the Political Science Department, by professor William Muir, the Conservation and Resource Studies Department, and humanities departments, as part of Berkeley's "DECAL" (Democratic Education at the University of California) offerings. That course focused more on issues of knowledge and interpreting information[2].

The course at Berkeley has continued to be taught under the sponsorship of the Political Science department, as an example of a student initiated course that has become integrated into the mainstream curriculum.

Though not under the same name, Lempert has developed several other courses using the same model, in the social sciences and humanities, including a course with Harvard University and Brown University undergraduate students to write a national development plan for a country as a development team, combining learning with a high level project and offering an alternative to top-down plans driven by international finance institutions. After three months of field work, the students prepared a plan, in Spanish, that they presented personally to Ecuadorian President Rodrigo Borja as well as on national Ecuadorian television and in the newspapers. That plan was since 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 in a parallel to that of 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 in ways that link skills directly with community needs and with student initiatives.

Books and Impact of the Unseen America

The Unseen America is one of a number of different movements in clinical education and in service learning that have continued to gain momentum in education since the 1980s and that have promoted more skills-based and community-based learning. The Unseen America, itself, was inspired by clinical education work such as Stanford Law School's East Palo Alto Community Law Project and student initiated and field education courses that were developed in the 1960s. It differs in that it focused on trying to transform the curriculum and the nature of the university to become more democratic, more empirical and more accountable to communities, rather than just "technical skill" or "donation" oriented.

Students who were involved with the initial Unseen America published their syllabi and explanations for how to institutionalize similar courses in two books published in the 1990s, "Escape from the Ivory Tower: Student Adventures in Democratic Experiential Education" and "A Model Development Plan."

A third book, in manual form, "Escape from Professional Schools," offers tools for applying the Unseen America approach to law schools, business schools, 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 founded a spinoff NGO, I.D.E.A.L.S. 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 0-787-90136-9, 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


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