If John Dewey’s theories had been accurate, it should have been the beginning of a bright new age of understanding. Instead, the world of the young has become uglier and increasingly self-centered…

The story of American public education begins with Horace Mann. It was Mann who popularized the idea that American schools should teach all students, be non-sectarian, and tax-supported. A little less than a half-century passed between Mann’s death and the advent of John Dewey.

That half-century may well be the most dynamic period of American History. In Horace Mann’s world, schools were small, scattered, and teachers had to teach a small number of widely-varied students in one-room schoolhouses. By 1900, there were still many rural schools, but the United States was quickly becoming an urban nation. Whether attracted to city lights or forced out by crippling debts, many farmers were moving to the cities. Once there, they mixed with immigrants sweeping into the nation. In some ways, city life was more convenient—and certainly more entertaining. But urban life was also more dangerous and demanded skills that the schoolmarm could not teach in her one-room school.

To respond to those changes a political movement grew. The historian’s shorthand term for this movement is progressivism. If Horace Mann set out education’s goals, then John Dewey provided the progressive methodology. The following comes from an admirer and contemporary of Dewey’s:

The foremost interpreter, in educational terms, of the great social and industrial changes through which we have passed, and the one who has done more since 1895 to think out and state for us an educational philosophy suited to the changing conditions in our national life, is John Dewey….  Believing that the public school is the chief remedy for the ills of society, he has tried to change the work of the school so as to make it a miniature of society itself.[1]

Dewey was prolific, having written or collaborated in the writing of more than thirty books from 1887 to 1949, as well as myriad articles. That output, plus the obtuse nature of Dewey’s writing style, makes it difficult to briefly sum up his thoughts. What follows will be a capsule view of a complex philosophy.

Dewey’s overall position is sometimes called Pragmatism, holding that knowledge arises through, “an active adaptation of the human organism to its environment.”[2]  Knowledge and truth are discovered by the student instead of being imparted by the teacher. Truth changes according to changing circumstances. Success lies not in knowing the tried-and-true lessons of life but in the ability to adapt by discarding outworn ideas and embracing new standards.

According to Dewey, traditional schools inculcated obedience, which he argued was a ‘negative virtue,’ inconsistent with democratic society. Lecture and rote-learning produced students that were docile, unquestioning, and likely to submit to authority.

Dewey held that:  

  • In addition to factual material, schools should promote:
    • Physical and mental activity, including play
    • Contact with nature
    • Development of one’s ability to express oneself and understand others
  • Within the school, children should:
    • Actively work rather than passively listen
    • Learn about life by doing
    • Develop attitudes of co-operation and responsibility
    • Develop the ability to use tools, both manual and mental
    • Grow in originality and initiative
    • Help to govern the school  

Here can be seen many aspects of modern school life. Physical education, field trips, student councils, team sports, and a focus on problem solving all derive from the musings of John Dewey. Dewey’s dismissal of traditional morality can be seen in many places in his writing, as when he stated, “Morals that professedly neglect human nature end by emphasizing those qualities of human nature that are most commonplace and average; they exaggerate the herd instinct to conformity.”[3]

However, in other writings, Dewey was less critical of the herd. Like most progressives, he had a deep distrust of the value of the individual:

Individuals are led to concentrate in moral introspection upon their own vices and virtues, and to neglect the character of the environment.… Let us perfect ourselves within, and in due season changes in society will come of themselves is the teaching. And while saints are engaged in introspection, burly sinners run the world.[4]

For Dewey, the drive toward the collective was virtually automatic. The young needed to be able to live and function in a world that was not primarily composed of individuals:

Society is the process of associating in such ways that experiences, ideas, emotions, values are transmitted and made common. To this active process, both the individual and the institutionally organized may truly be said to be subordinate.[5]

An example of the practical effects of this philosophy is the emphasis on having students work in groups.

Under Dewey’s leadership, Columbia’s Teachers’ College became the premier school of education in the United States. Its graduates fanned out to other universities. By the time of his death in 1952, Dewey was roundly acknowledged to be the most influential American educator.[6] Dewey’s influence only grew after his death. For decades, his methods were applied in large urban school districts, but seldom in rural ones. Smaller school districts, with fewer resources and a ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ attitude, often scoffed at Dewey’s progressive methods.

By the 1960s, that had changed. Better transportation made it possible for several rural schools to consolidate.  Many of those newly consolidated districts were suburban. Modern suburbanites demanded schools that employed progressive methods. By 1970, it was safe to say that every certified teacher had been trained by the disciples of John Dewey.

If Dewey’s theories had been accurate, it should have been the beginning of a bright new age of understanding. Instead, the world of the young has become uglier and increasingly self-centered.

What really happens when you couple Dewey’s pragmatic and collectivist ideas with the value neutrality that grew out of Mann’s non-sectarianism? The product is a philosophy that sees the student as merely an animal who functions in a kind of stimulus/response/adaptation cycle. Education is tedious because its utilitarian nature subverts development of the ability to see the beauty that underlies much literature, history, and the natural sciences. At the same time, its collective nature devalues them as individuals. Their souls deadened, students see only an ugly world—one which they do not care to understand.  

Progressive education has ultimately failed because its premises are anti-human. Mann’s and Dewey’s ideologies must bear much of the responsibility for the deplorable state of American public education.

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[1] Ellwood C. Cubberly, Public Education in the United States – A Study an Interpretation of American Educational History (Cambridge, MA: The Riverside Press, 1947), 506-507.

[2] A useful introduction to Dewey’s philosophy is his entry on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[3] John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct – An Introduction to Social Psychology (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1922), p. 6.

[4] John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1920) p. 196.

[5] Ibid, p. 207.

[6] William T. Kane, S.J., History of Education (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1954), pp. 422-423.

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9 replies to this post
  1. The truth of your comment that ‘the world of the young has become uglier and increasingly self-centered’ is verified by the ‘no platform’ movement in schools and the inward-directed, self-justifying morality of social media. Dewey’s agenda was instrumental in the shift from knowledge-based learning to child-based learning, and the subsequent moral morass in which we live today.

  2. I can’t believe the timing of the publishing of this essay. My husband is subscribed to Hillsdale College online Courses, maybe eight lectures for, Constitution 101. This morning , he emailed me lecture seven titled, “The Progressive Rejection of the Principles of the Declaration “. I now have an eye opening glimpse of knowledge explaining this Socialist creep throughout our culture. I urge anyone reading this to watch the lecture.
    Thank you Mr.Benson!

  3. Dewey viewed and treated the human mind like a random access machine. He was truly the bane of education where ‘information’ replaced ‘comprehension’ as the basis and criterion for what is considered knowledge and intellect. The damage he is responsible for is just awful. But when novelty and innovation are valued over traditional substance of tried and true results, he was worshiped. The early 20th century was awash with these innovators in many fields and the arts. Music may never recover.

  4. I guess I’ll try to inform what was in the lecture, I did take some quick notes. Dewey, and others, went to Europe to be educated in German Progressive ideas, John Hopkins University was founded to further these ideas. Also many others who were educated in this German Progressivism came back here to change the direction of education all over the country, to “change” the thinking of students from the founding American values of checks and balance, as exhibited in nature,Natural Law, to believing that the government is an organic entity (Darwin), no checks and balance, but one of fluid organic life. Government will adapt to the ever changing times and to make sure everyone adapts to what government decrees, so everyone must adapt or die. Evolution. This new Nationalism of State Socialism taught in our schools aimed to change all thoughts of individual rights of life, liberty, and happiness to be put out of view to the individual student; men as community is superior to men as individual. I guess this means that everyone must march to he same drum.

  5. What are your thoughts on the movement called “full inclusion”? It’s basically integrating children and teenagers with mental and/or physically disabilities, no matter the severity of it, within “regular” classrooms in the name of equality and civil rights. As a future school social worker, logically I cannot fully support this movement. Those who are in full support of the movement cite that the “separate but equal” is really “separate but not equal”, bringing in Brown v Education.

  6. I agree with the article that the educational system has been subverted by a Frankfurt School type system that is based more on something “that sees the student as merely an animal who functions in a kind of stimulus/response/adaptation cycle.” Learning has definitely diminished and been replaced with a more Pavlovian style of reaction/reward.

    I am a product of the 60s educational system, which had not gone completely socialist at the time, but was on the road heading to it.
    As life went on I ended up getting a Masters degree in Organizational Learning and Instructional Technologies, which included adult learning theory, i.e., how people learn, including children.
    There are 3 main learning styles, visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Visual and auditory make up approximately 70 to 80 percent of learners, which is what the educational system is focused on. Kinesthetic learners (those that need to be able to apply the information/knowledge in some manner using their hands/bodies, etc.) are the ones that would always be day dreaming or asking how will I use that in life? To which the teachers rarely had any kind of answer that made sense, mainly because they didn’t know themselves. So, kinesthetic learners are left out for the most part.
    The educational system knows about these learning styles, but instead of separating them into the groups they should be in to make learning easier for all, they lump them all together creating enormous problems for the kinesthetic learners, who are made to feel that they are slow learners or just dumb, which is anything but the case. The article mentions this sort of educational process, and it is for some learners very detrimental. For the visual and auditory learners, they tend to excel in that kind of environment even if what they are learning is nonsense.

    An experiment that was done in my school district in the 5th and 6th grades was meant to help poor performing students by mixing them in with the high performing students, and removing the average performing students to be separate in their own classrooms. What they thought was a great idea turned out rather badly to say the least. It was the 60s! The poor performing students were already smoking marijuana, smoking cigarettes, and drinking alcohol. Many of the poor performing students were considered some of the cool kids for various reasons, which when mixed with the high performing students, some of whom were the nerds, they did not get the results they wanted, which was drawing the poor performing students up to at least the average performance level because the high performers were helping them and their good habits were being picked up by the poor performers. Instead, the poor performers got the higher performers to start smoking marijuana, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, etc., and their grades started to drop, rather than the poor performers grades rising. After a couple of years they dropped the program realizing what a dismal failure it had been.

    Education needs to be separated by learning styles so the kids have a chance to learn in an environment which is better suited to their learning style. Lumping all the kids together just creates the problem of the kinesthetic learners thinking they are dumb and can’t learn, which isn’t true. They can learn, and learn very well when dealt with in the proper manner.

    As a kinesthetic learner myself, I was told by my High School counselor that I would never succeed in College and should just learn a trade. Well, I wasn’t really the trade school type, but I did go to College and ended up with three degrees, so I guess I did ok.

  7. Some may criticize this essay as simplistic. Well, what if human nature and the well lived life call for simplistic solutions?

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