john dewey and the decline of american educationSeveral years ago (January 2004), I had the privilege of meeting Hank Edmondson at a Liberty Fund colloquium in Arizona on the thought of C.S. Lewis. Hank and I found we were kindred spirits, immediately. We’ve seen each other several times since, and we’ve maintained a correspondence since then, sometime purely out of friendship and sometimes out of academic alliance.

Hank is Professor of Political Science and Public Administration at Georgia College and State University as well as the literary executor of the estate of Flannery O’Connor. He also directs the Center for Transatlantic Studies. As might be obvious (or should be), Hank is a really, really interesting person.

His most recent book, not surprisingly, is equally interesting to his own renaissance-style life.

In 2006, ISI Books published his excellent intellectual biography of the infamous John Dewey, John Dewey and the Decline of American Education: How the Patron Saint of Schools Has Corrupted Teaching and Learning. Yes, this review is five years late, but I just had the chance to read it this week. Frankly, it’s brilliant in its take, and it’s stunning in its many insights.

Really a prolonged essay—or series of essays—John Dewey and the Decline summarizes with great skill the rather elusive Nietzschean, progressive, pragmatist, and nihilist thought of Dewey. Indeed, on almost every page quoting Dewey, the reader of Hank’s book feels the syphilitic ghost of Nietzsche swirling the Abyss. Dewey, in Hank’s solid take, becomes a prudish, American version of the mad 19th century philosopher. Frankly, though, it would be hard for any reader of TIC not to choose Nietzsche over Dewey, should one be forced to make such a nasty choice. Nietzsche, after all, at least reeked of manhood and individualism. Dewey’s effete qualities, by contrast, promote not the exaggeration of personality, but the destruction of it through permanent experimentation in the classroom. If Nietzsche’s world is found in 1984, Dewey’s is found in Brave New World.

. . . . and, of course, in many modern American classrooms. Because of Dewey, Hank contends, American classrooms lack seriousness, purpose (beyond the immediate), integrity, honor, benevolence, and, most importantly, mental, physical, and spiritual discipline. Because of Dewey, in large part, teachers mistreat their students, regarding them as mere material to be molded and shaped, to fit the social needs of the moment and the tyranny of the subjective. Because of Dewey, public education, mixed, strangely, with a perverse nationalism and a desire for the anti-objective and anti-transcendent, embraces the worst aspects of western civilization, promoting the Sophists rather than Socrates.

As such, Hank notes with great effectiveness that Dewey influenced the past century of educational theory (or lack thereof) through William H. Kilpatrick at Columbia’s Teacher’s College. One can find Dewey’s continuing influence in the shape and thought of Schools of Education as well as throughout most of our primary and secondary schools. The right and the left, dominated by the unthinking conformists of our post-modern world, embrace Dewey and Dewey’s ideas, mistaking, as Albert Jay Nock noted in 1931, that which is truly democratic for that which is merely accessible.

True to his own form and essence, Hank’s wit comes through in a number of ways in John Dewey and the Decline, sometimes so powerfully that my guffaws spilled over into the hall next to my office. Believe it or not, in some of my reactions, I was louder than my colleague, Burt Folsom (this is not feint praise; Burt has, possibly, the world’s loudest laugh). For example, Hank notes that any opponent of Dewey is often dismissed by his disciples as simply not having properly understood Dewey’s thought. In another example, Hank mocks Dewey’s extremely poor writing style, noting vividly that the education philosopher never could explain any of his thought with any effectiveness, repeating his incoherence over and over again, in every book he published.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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9 replies to this post
  1. The essence of progressivism, or what Dewey insisted upon calling "instrumentalism," is rejection of the past. In all the years I taught American intellectual history (which is a bit of a joke in itself) I never subjected my students to Dewey's incredibly bad writing, or his sloppy thought. Instead, I assigned Thorstein Veblen's "The Theory of the Leisure Class," since it sums up everything Marx, Darwin, Freud, Dewey, the Fabians, and the Frankfort School ever thought about, and says it with the humor that Brad here assigns to Hank. Veblen of course believed all that nonsense, which is why every student of 20th century history should read him. I don't know Mr. Edmondson (I want to meet him) but he sure sounds like my kind of guy. One thing Brad does not mention here is another common thread of the progressives, and I hope Mr. Edmondson includes it. They were all, ultimately, even the supposedly pious Woodrow Wilson, in revolt against Christianity. Robert Crunden's "Ministers of Reform" (although he rather liked the sob's) shows in some detail what I had been teaching for forty years–the progressives were all Calvinists of one sort or other who lost their faith and replaced it with "social science." Thanks, Brad, for bringing this cool dude to my attention as I am trying to finish my little book on teaching.

  2. Dear Man Married for 50 Years. Yes, Hank does a very nice job of explaining Dewey's hatred for orthodox religion, tradition, and all things from the past. Dewey is even creepier than I imagined, frankly. I don't know Cruden's MINISTERS. I don't know Cruden's work well, but I thought he was an anti-progressive? I was wrong, I assume? Yours, Married for 13 Years (well, in five days)

  3. I apologize for the brevity of my comment, and for its potential for sounding less than generous in spirit. It was too-hastily posted, and I was a bit surprised that it was allowed through. I will follow up very soon with a longer comment expanding on what I find disappointing here.

  4. Pete, absolutely no worries. You're always honest and straightforward, as a friend, a thinker, and a colleague. It's just one (or several) of the many things I love about you. And, yes, please expand on your criticisms of my review and on why we should take Dewey seriously. If it's a long response, we'll post it separately. Just email it to me. I'm eager to read what you have to write! Your friend, always, Brad

  5. Many thanks, Brad, for your affirmation. As I post here, I’m conscious of the fact that for some readers I would not clearly count as a conservative, though I am profoundly and permanently shaped by my sojourn since graduate school with the conservative intellectual tradition. For those who don’t know me, I read, take seriously, and teach a number of figures who tend among conservatives to evoke some serious venom. Full disclosure: I not only like Dewey and the other classical pragmatists and take them very seriously, but also Derrida. This may be enough for some to conclude that *I* am not to be taken seriously. I know that you don’t conclude that, and I very much appreciate it.

    I have not read Edmondson’s book (I will get to it before I teach Dewey again), so my rather hasty (in Treebeard’s sense) and impulsive response above is only to your review. There is no sense in which I would try to argue that Dewey is not as obnoxiously (from a traditionalist point of view) progressive in his social, political and educational thought as you would assume. As I look back at it more carefully, the two elements of your review (and first comment following) that especially bothered me were the following, stated briefly:

    First, it seems to me that you yield to the common temptation of ad hominem rhetoric. The clearest examples of this are “the syphilitic ghost of Nietzsche,” and Dewey’s allegedly being “effete” and “creepy.” If this actually characterizes anything of the substance of an argument, it seems to me equivalent to many contemporary writers (and some of my professors in school) dismissing Plato or St. Augustine based on a shallow understanding of their approaches to sexuality. I believe this level of rhetoric does nothing but alienate readers who do not already agree, like much of the current rhetoric from all political directions in the U.S., including less “imaginative” conservatives. Now, perhaps I’ve missed something here that will be clearer to me when I actually read Edmondson.

    Second, I am always very puzzled by claims that Dewey is an exceptionally bad and incoherent writer. Admittedly, I have not spent much time with his writings on education as I have his more metaphysical and epistemological works (this reflects clearly the slant of my main interests). In general, I find the latter to be exceptionally lucid (though not always EASY to read). It seems to me that his choice of words and phrasing, though sometimes not stylistically impressive in the way William James can be, are generally very carefully and skillfully chosen. Perhaps if I look more closely at the works on education than I generally do, I will find that they come closer to fitting your characterization. But even allowing that Dewey may be a “bad” writer in some sense, judgments regarding the value of his thought do not follow. Note that I would NOT argue that Hegel, Heidegger, or Derrida are lucid writers, but I have found them well worth the effort in spite of this.

    Beyond this, Brad, you and I will talk in person soon. I am open to discussion with others if they are interested.

  6. Oh, one more example. You refer to "Dewey's hatred for orthodox religion, tradition, and all things from the past." Dewey was certainly no friend of orthodox religion, and I do not mean to deny here that his valuation of tradition is inadequate. But I don't see how any reader of Experience and Nature could say that Dewey HATES "all things from the past." Compare the fan of Genesis (the band) who feels compelled to establish that Rush "totally sucks." (Can I say that on this blog?)

  7. I am definitely interested in hearing more of your thoughts on Dewey; it's not easy for me to find lucid defenders of Dewey who are also aware enough of the conservative tradition to make conversation fruitful.

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