How did Ultra Progressive Dewey Become America's Patron Saint of Education?
John Dewey: Bosom Serpent of American Education
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In considering modern liberal plagues, are there any worse than America’s debased “free” education system? John Dewey, patron saint of American education, ruined our school curriculum while adamantly rejecting religion yet touting of secular humanism. In fact, not only did the atheistic Dewey sign the Humanist Manifesto I, but the prolific writer probably authored much of it, as well.
The American education system is built from a model designed by Dewey, one which rejected the classics, any emphasis on rhetoric and logic, or rote memorization. Instead, the pragmatist Dewey valued experience over facts, logic or debate. In fact, the deeply progressive and anti-traditional Dewey held Marxist presuppositions. In John Dewey: An Intellectual Portrait, Sidney Hook describes his impact:
In America’s intellectual coming of age, no person has played a more important role than John Dewey. There is hardly a phase of American thought to which he has not made some contribution, hardly an aspect of American life which he has left uninterpreted. His influence has extended to the schools, the courts, the laboratories, the labor movement, and the politics of the nation.
But what has been the impact of Dewey’s ideas? As Dewey was not so much interested in individual student learning, but instead the child’s adaptation to a state-dominated society, we can well-guess the effect has been catastrophic.
I. John Dewey Bio
John Dewey is an American original:
John Dewey was born October 20, 1859, in Burlington, Vermont. He taught at universities from 1884 to 1930. An academic philosopher and proponent of educational reform, in 1894 Dewey started an experimental elementary school. In 1919 he cofounded The New School for Social Research. Dewey published over 1,000 pieces of writings during his lifetime. He died June 1, 1952, in New York, New York.
II. John Dewey: Education Guru
It was John Dewey’s work as education innovator that earned him lasting fame. He claimed to have sought to free children from slavish adherence to the past. Yet Dewey’s impact has been a horrific assault against the notion of an educated, independent society of free-thinkers trained to understand the arguments of others and make one’s own. Instead, Dewey’s model focuses upon guiding children to be more group and state oriented while sacrificing the old curriculum of the classics and rhetorical Triumvirate. Henry T. Edmondson in John Dewey and the Decline of American Education, stated:
Dewey was not most interested in the good of students but rather the successful promotion of a political program… his belief in objective truth and authoritative notions of good and evil were harmful to students and obstacles to students’ intellectual and moral growth… he waged a revolt against a canon of learning, a revolt against tradition, a revolt against moral standards, a revolt against logic—even a revolt against grammar and spelling.
Dewey wrote many books and articles on an extremely wide range of topics, but he was particularly interested in education. In his book Democracy and Education, Dewey claimed education is “the process through which the needed [political] transformation may be accomplished.” For this change, Dewey said human nature itself must evolve through his notion of education. Edmondson explains:
Dewey adopts Rousseau’s “child-centered curriculum”—as educational reformers would later call it—and he further promotes Rousseau’s classroom strategy insofar as the curriculum is only apparently centered on the child: the child’s learning environment is in reality a grand manipulation on the part of his tutor or teacher.
So Dewey wanted to replace traditional, rigorous academics with the progressive agenda used everywhere in public schools today. John Dewey wrote My Pedagogic Creed, which reveals how progressive his ideas were, as he exchanges experiences for traditional education:
ARTICLE ONE. WHAT EDUCATION IS:
I believe that all education proceeds by the participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the race…
I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself…
ARTICLE TWO. WHAT THE SCHOOL IS
I believe that the school is primarily a social institution. Education being a social process, the school is simply that form of community life in which all those agencies are concentrated that will be most effective in bringing the child to share in the inherited resources of the race, and to use his own powers for social ends.
I believe that education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.
One source describes the classrooms in Dewey’s early Laboratory School (The Dewey School):
Dewey’s laboratory school was not intended to implement a structured pedagogical plan. It was intended as a laboratory in two senses: firstly it was intended to facilitate research and experimentation into new principles and methods and secondly, it was designed to allow the children to take an experimental approach to their own learning.
The laboratory school was to be the testing ground for Dewey’s philosophical ideas and their implementation: education is the laboratory in which philosophical distinctions become concrete and are tested… If we are willing to conceive of education as the process of forming fundamental dispositions, intellectual and emotional, toward nature and fellow men, philosophy may even be defined as the general theory of education.
III. John Dewey Philosophy
Understanding Dewey’s teachings can be confusing given the large number of topics he wrote upon. He had various elements of his belief system, including secular humanism, Darwinism, pragmatism, and unquestionably Marxism. Dewey’s writing style was also famously obtuse, described by Edmonson:
The second problem is Dewey’s awful prose and ambiguous ideas. Even William James and Oliver Wendell Holmes, both admiring colleagues in the famed Metaphysical Club, recognized Dewey’s writing was often vague and confusing. Although Edmondson agrees Dewey was an abysmal communicator, he argues readers can overcome Dewey’s lack of clarity by recognizing he “subordinates his philosophy to his [progressive] politics.” Using that approach, Edmonson is able to provide a succinct overview of Dewey’s ideas without being weighed down by his writing.
John Dewey was deeply affected by the works of Charles Darwin. Here is one account:
Dewey was a philosopher of change, who consistently sought to apply Darwin’s evolutionary theories to all areas of philosophy. Dewey argued that all knowledge is derived from experience, and that ‘ideas must be referred to their consequences’—it is important to distinguish between theories and their applications. The name of the movement with which he is identified, Pragmatism, comes from the Greek word meaning ‘action’. In this practical spirit, for Dewey, philosophy’s main role is to assimilate the impact of science on human life. Dewey was therefore one of the first philosophers to take Darwin seriously. Fifty years after On the Origin of Species was published, Dewey wrote an essay entitled ‘The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy’. In it he pointed out that the combination of the words ‘origin’ and ‘species’ embodied a wider intellectual revolt, not just a biological advance.
There is no doubt that Dewey was deeply affected by Darwinism and his naturalism, especially the idea that there is no fixed human nature, that humans are evolving, and that education must be premised on these facts.
John Dewey was also a pragmatist, defined as:
Pragmatism is a philosophical movement claiming an ideology or proposition is true if it works well, that the meaning of a proposition is found in the practical consequences of accepting it, and that unpractical ideas are to be rejected.
Suffice it to say that pragmatism makes the search for morality or God irrelevant, since ideas, methods or actions can only be judged by their outcome, not by their origin or intent.
D. Dewey’s Politics—Were They Marxist?
William Brooks suggests in Was Dewey a Marxist, that while Dewey formally rejected certain elements of Marxism—especially the commitment to violent overthrow of society, we can only finally understand him as a follower of Marx:
The movement spawned by Dewey at the turn of the century is systematically woven around a common philosophy whose roots are deeply embedded in the intellectual life of nineteenth century Europe. In fact, John Dewey himself owes a yet-to-be-fully-acknowledged debt to Marxism that has produced a profound paradigmatic effect on educational theory and practice throughout this century.
Dewey accepts all of what one thinker, Robert Heilbroner, describes as the elements of Marxism which define the adherents, four in number, listed as follows:
- The dialectical approach to knowledge.
- The materialist approach to history.
- A general view of capitalism starting from Marx’s socio-analysis.
- A commitment to socialism or a belief in the unity of theory and practice.
Intellectual Sidney Hook, who wrote John Dewey: An Intellectual Portrait, considered him to be what Marxism could have been had it developed in another, more pacifist direction:
The Utopian Marxist believes that once present class conflicts are eliminated, the future will be like heaven where everyone sings according to his capacity and is measured for a harp and halo according to his need. The realistic Marxist believes that once production is democratically socialized, future conflicts between men are more likely to be settled without the bloody struggles that are a feature of present-day culture. Dewey here is much closer to the realistic Marxist…
IV. John Dewey Pedagogy—Teaching Methods
Dewey believed children must essentially teach themselves and discover their own truths in the classroom. The teacher is a facilitator in this journey. He also developed an idea called Instrumentalism for his teaching method, which rejects the notion of “truth,” but instead only measures growth caused by the method. This was an application of his theory of pragmatism for the classroom, described here.
Instrumentalism is the methodological view in Epistemology and Philosophy of Science, advanced by the American philosopher John Dewey, that concepts and theories are merely useful instruments, and their worth is measured not by whether the concepts and theories are true or false (Instrumentalism denies that theories are truth-evaluable), or whether they correctly depict reality, but by how effective they are in explaining and predicting phenomena. It maintains that the truth of an idea is determined by its success in the active solution of a problem, and that the value of an idea is determined by its function in human experience. Instrumentalism is closely related to Pragmatism...
V. John Dewey, Humanist Leader
One of the most telling records of John Dewey’s radical, progressive assault on America is related to his helping to establish the Humanist Manifesto. This statement rejected God and religion, making man the center of the universe. Dewey not only signed this document, but it is likely he authored much of it as well. It’s described here:
In 1933 a group of thirty-four liberal humanists in the United States defined and enunciated the philosophical and religious principles that seemed to them fundamental. They drafted Humanist Manifesto /, which for its time was a radical document. It was concerned with expressing a general religious and philosophical outlook that rejected orthodox and dogmatic positions and provided meaning and direction, unity and purpose to human life. It was committed to reason, science, and democracy.
Conclusion—Impact of Dewey-ism
It would probably be impossible to fully digest the full negative impact of John Dewey’s ideas upon American life and education. But we should certainly count the failure of American education as his chief outcome. It is inevitable Dewey would fail given his radicalism. He was anti-religious and a committed foe of the Bible and the idea of revelation, as well as tradition, and inherited values. Dewey claimed these beliefs reveal unintelligent thinking and oppression by the wealthy and powerful.
Dewey claimed there was no fixed human nature, so set values and beliefs block progress. So schools should not teach traditional religious and moral values, but instead should be places where the latest whims of society are passed on in an ongoing “scientific” experiment. His idea of “scientific” teaching resulted in a nihilistic refusal of truth and worship of primitive “democracy” of students teaching themselves whatever they stumble across. All this was meant to lead not to an educated populace, but a rejection of tradition and acceptance of government as the dominant mover in human life. Most importantly, school was not to be a place where logic or facts were taught, but a tool for the training of children so they can better adapt to Dewey’s brave new socialist, progressive world.