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.

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