John Dewey believed that education is synonymous with instilling progressive ideas into the consciousness of the child, and that the purpose of schools is to indoctrinate the young and construct a communist society. These are the foundations for disaster.

For a hundred years the American education system has been married to the philosophy of John Dewey, whose ideas are deeply embedded in the institutions that guide its teachers. It’s sensible to know the groom at a wedding—ideally before the nuptials—and it is unfortunate that this unhappy wedding was ever consummated. Our children are suffering from our failure to provide a high-quality education that would improve their economic status.

Let’s take a look at the groom. Dewey believed that education was synonymous with instilling progressive ideas into the consciousness of the child, and that the curriculum must always be presented in the context of each student’s own experiences, which were all of equal value. He thought American culture had been infected by elitism and needed a radical reinvention. With the help of millionaire John Barnes, he instigated a progressive revolution in American education.

His influence pervaded the sphere of public education, too. When Holger Cahill’s Works Progress Administration paid millions to unemployed artists to produce art which promoted “The American Scene,” and established art centers in cities scattered across the United States during the great depression, it was Dewey’s philosophy which provided the foundations of the program. WPA Director Cahill spoke about the program at a birthday celebration for Dewey, and said that he was “one of two powerful forces, which helped to establish its character.” The other was the communist Mexican mural program which funded Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and José Orozco in the production of revolutionary propaganda.

While the influence of the WPA was cut off in 1939 when Franklin Roosevelt and Nelson Rockefeller turned toward American avant-gardism to provide them with soft power, Dewey’s authority in the education system was allowed to remain and evolve. The character of his pedagogy was revolutionary—in the preface to his famous Experience and Education he explained that he saw no point in compromising between progressive and traditional education. Instead he wanted to introduce “a new order of conceptions, leading to new modes of practice.”[1] And what was his understanding of the new order within which his reforms would stand? His affection for Trotskyite communism was deep.

The American Society for Cultural Relations with Russia, which was a front for the Communist International propaganda organization VOKS, appointed Dewey as its vice president.[2] In 1928 he went on a VOKS fact-finding tour of Russia, returning to the United States full of wide-eyed admiration for the Marxist educational experiment and writing a memoir of his trip. Although he clearly disliked the one-party tyranny he recognized in Stalin’s rule, he was deeply impressed by the communists’ use of propaganda to indoctrinate the Russian people, writing, “Perhaps the most significant thing in Russia, after all, is not the effort at economic transformation, but the will to use an economic change as the means of developing a popular cultivation, especially an esthetic one, such as the world has never known.”[3]

The essay he published about his visit praised the new society he found, justifying the non-existence of actual communist equality in any of the cities he visited as the beginning of the socialist experiment that had yet to realize its full form, and excusing the general poverty of the Russian people. Dewey even forgave the oppression he witnessed by applying startling double standards: “In spite of secret police, inquisitions, arrests and deportations of Nepmen [businessmen operating under the restrictions of the State] and Kulaks [marginally organized peasants], exiling of party opponents—including divergent elements in the party—life for the masses goes on with regularity, safety and decorum.”[4] He glossed over Russian efforts to dismantle the family unit by placing citizens in collective group homes as “a most interesting sociological experimentation” without considering the ethical issues of such an experiment and the impact upon people’s lives that must have been the result of their inevitable failure. This attitude can be extended to his approach to the entire communist experiment—he saw it all as a great experimental endeavor, regardless of the cost in human suffering it caused. Dewey described meeting an education reformer who glibly told him that there were two choices for intellectuals in the new Russia: those who refused to cooperate with the state, and those who chose to go along with it. Despite recognizing the misery caused to the former group, Dewey seemed to endorse this limitation of freedom of thought, writing, “There is no more unhappy and futile class on earth than the first, and none more fully alive and happy—in spite of narrowly restricted economic conditions, living quarters, salaries, etc.—than the second.”[6]

Considering the violent oppression Stalin was already applying to transform Russia into a major industrial power, Dewey’s account now reads as a piece of extraordinary naiveté, almost desperate in its attempts to justify the failure of the Soviet Union to live up to the fervent idealism at its heart. He writes like a deluded lover determined to excuse the egregious infidelities of his partner, however obvious they may be. In 1934, Stalin told H.G. Wells that he believed that the embrace of socialist ideas by capitalists was doomed to fail—the only way socialism could lead to utopia was through violent revolution.[7] In 1936, Trotsky, who many had expected to be Lenin’s heir, described such lip-service to the revolution as “an international school which might be described as Bolshevism for the Cultured Bourgeoisie, or more concisely, Socialism for the Radical Tourists.”[8] And while useful idiot Dewey was being briskly guided around exemplary utopian samples of communist Russia by his VOKS hosts, and published his little book, Stalin planned Trotsky’s imprisonment and sent him on his way into exile and ultimately to his assassination in Mexico, and began the liquidation of the kulaks, and his five-year plan was about to lead to the lethal famines that would kill millions in the Ukraine and other parts of the Soviet Union.[9]

Quick to recognize human rights violations, as early as 1925 an American International Committee for Political Prisoners had published a disturbing volume of “Letters from Russian Prisons,” in which the appalling situation in the gulags was described by inmates.[10] They wrote accounts of imprisonment in windowless cells; of prisoners surviving freezing temperatures wearing rags, with nothing to eat but poorly baked bread and hot water; of guards beating them viciously, but being careful not to make them bleed; of torture; of terrible untreated illnesses; of rape and abuse. The committee sent copies of the documents it had gathered to a large group of writers and thinkers, and then published their responses as a preface to the book. Shocked by the collection, luminaries like Arnold Bennett, Selma Lagerlof, Albert Einstein, Karl Capek, Sinclair Lewis, Karin Michaelis, Thomas Mann, Bertrand Russell, Rebecca West, and H.G. Wells contributed letters expressing horror and dismay that the idealism of the revolution had been converted into a tyranny worse than that of the Tzars. Even the notorious American socialist Upton Sinclair felt compelled to write, comparing Soviet excesses to America’s oppression of its own dissidents in California and appealing to the Communist leadership to do better than the capitalists.

With such stories circulating among the high priests and deacons of the Western intellectual world, it is hard to believe that John Dewey, America’s greatest philosopher, was unaware of what was happening, but, carefully shepherded away from any evidence of such totalitarian measures by his smiling Russian hosts, he excused the dominance of their propaganda because it expressed a belief in “universal humanity,” saying:

The present age is, of course, everywhere one in which propaganda has assumed the role of a governing power. But nowhere else in the world is employment of it as a tool of control so constant, consistent and systematic as in Russia at present. Indeed, it has taken on such importance and social dignity that the word propaganda hardly carries, in another social medium, the correct meaning. For we instinctively associate propaganda with the accomplishing of some special ends, more or less private to a particular class or group, and correspondingly concealed from others. But in Russia the propaganda is in behalf of a burning public faith. One may believe that the leaders are wholly mistaken in the object of their faith, but their sincerity is beyond question. To them the end for which propaganda is employed is not a private or even a class gain, but is the universal good of universal humanity. In consequence, propaganda is education and education is propaganda. They are more than confounded; they are identified.[11]

Dewey described the model Russian schools he visited as “the ideological arm of the revolution” and noted how closely they worked with the administrative organization (ie: the Communist Party) and their collaboration with “all other social agencies and interests.”[12] Education was an extension of belief in the system. Although there is an occasional air of caution in Dewey’s words, his book presents the idea of America imitating the communist experiment as a worthy and viable solution to the problems faced by capitalism. Startlingly naïve in his belief in the good will of the Russian government toward its people, and oblivious to the oppressive nature of its control, to Dewey, a “burning public faith” in the communist experiment outweighed any of the detrimental effects of living in a society in which propaganda distorted reality.

In his account Dewey quoted Lenin’s statement that Soviet education had a purely political function, saying that the purpose of schools was to indoctrinate the young and to construct a communist society. Dewey’s experiences of visiting showcase schools and institutions where communist education reforms were being applied to their fullest extent convinced him that: “The Russian educational situation is enough to convert one to the idea that only in a society based upon the co-operative principle can the ideals of educational reformers be adequately carried into operation.”[13] Although later Dewey was a persistent critic of Soviet totalitarianism, his progressive fellow-traveller philosophy was sympathetic enough to Marx that in 1936 the communist New Masses magazine was happy to endorse his book Liberalism and Social Action, saying, “John Dewey can serve most usefully and appropriately in any true liberal-radical united front in America.”[14]

Although Dewey slowly came around to recognizing Stalin’s evil totalitarianism, he clung to communist idealism, embracing Trotsky’s brand of revolutionary utopianism instead. In Moscow a court had sentenced Trotsky to death for conspiring against Stalin. Determined to defend the famed revolutionary, Dewey headed a Commission of Inquiry Into the Charges Laid Against Leon Trotsky, as a show trial held in 1937 that would exonerate the condemned and doomed man of all the charges Stalin laid upon him. The communist artist Diego Rivera had interceded with the Mexican government to provide Trotsky with refuge and gave him his home for shelter. At the trial Rivera translated the proceedings into Spanish for the journalists who were present, and accused the prosecuting attorney Carleton Beals of being in the pay of the G.P.U.—the Russian secret police. Beal walked out, accusing the commission of being absurdly biased in favor of the defendant and steering judgment to a sympathetic foregone conclusion. The trial became a fiasco. Now, pro-Stalinist New Masses journalists criticized Dewey for his handling of the performance, and presented him to its Marxist readership as a Trotskyite dupe.[15]

Such is the character of the wedding between John Dewey and the American education system, an ugly alliance of the progressive left with the failed ideas of revolutionary ideology. Dewey was correct to criticize the education system, for it was characterized by rote learning and authoritarian drills, and did little to encourage individualism, but the consequence of Dewey’s communal idealism is a rejection of fundamentals, and excellence, and superior quality in favor of an “everyone-gets-a-trophy” approach to education, which degrades the value of individualism equally as much as the system it replaced, and turns education into progressive propaganda.

Central to Dewey’s reforms was the idea that schools were social centers which should be focused on social activities. He believed that all students’ experiences were of equal value, and that all genuine education came about through experience. This focus on personal experience led to the open pedagogy of progressive schools in which the students directed their own education—seemingly ideal for the encouragement of individualism, but clearly lacking in the need for discipline and structure that children desperately need in order to thrive, and open to self-indulgent abuse.

Dewey’s emphasis on the overriding importance of individual experience in education is at the heart of the intersectional social justice movement that has overrun contemporary universities, where the postmodern desire to respect every student’s personal “truth” has dominated and crushed belief in the established truths and customs of the past.

To Dewey traditional learning from books was “dull drudgery,” secondary to the importance of learning by experience.[16] His ideas are now found applied at contemporary universities, where they have evolved into the form of “experiential learning”—unpaid internships, frequently in support of non-profit social justice organizations, and in the form of “co-curricular” activities provided by student life administrators, frequently as social justice-oriented activities.[17] This politicized, social justice co-curriculum has replaced the academic curriculum as the leader of academic thought.

We have seen the murderous and repetitive consequences of all red revolutions. We have seen the consequences of Dewey’s influence upon education. These are the foundations for disaster. Even so, education advocates would have no complaint if the system was successfully teaching the three R’s. Yet the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) says 21 percent of adults in the United States are illiterate.[18]

It’s time for a divorce. But what will be done for the children?

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Notes:

[1] John Dewey, Experience and Education, Collier, 1938, 5.

[2] Soviet Sponsored Societies of Friendship and Cultural Relations, CIA, October 1957.

[3] John Dewey, Impressions of Soviet Russia and the revolutionary world Mexico-China-Turkey, The New Republic, 1929, 31.

[4] Ibid., 24.

[5] Ibid., 78.

[6] Ibid., 66.

[7] “Owing to pressure from below, the pressure of the masses, the bourgeoisie may sometimes concede certain partial reforms while remaining on the basis of the existing social-economic system. Acting in this way, it calculates that these concessions are necessary in order to preserve its class rule. This is the essence of reform. Revolution, however, means the transference of power from one class to another. That is why it is impossible to describe any reform as revolution.” Joseph Stalin, H.G. Wells Interview, New Statesman Special Supplement, 27th October 1934.

[8] Leon Trotsky, Trans. Max Eastman, The Revolution Betrayed, Dover, 2004, 2

[9] “…we have passed from the policy of restricting the exploiting tendencies of the kulaks to the policy of eliminating the kulaks as a class.” Joseph Stalin, Concerning Questions of Agrarian Policy in the U.S.S.R., Speech Delivered at a Conference of Marxist Students of Agrarian Questions, December 27, 1929, in Joseph Stalin, Works, Volume 12, Digital Reprints, 2006, 173

[10] op cit. International Committee for Political Prisoners, Letters from Russian prisons, Albert and Charles Boni, 1925.

[11] John Dewey, Impressions of Soviet Russia and the revolutionary world Mexico-China-Turkey, The New Republic, 1929, 53-54.

[12] Ibid., 61.

[13] Ibid., 86.

[14] Corliss Lamont, “John Dewey, Marxism and the United Front (Review of Liberalism and Social Action, by John Dewey),” The New Masses, March 3, 1936, 22

[15] Marion Hammett and William Smith, “Inside the Trotsky ‘Trial'”, The New Masses, April 27, 1937, pp. 6-11.

[16] John Dewey, Experience and Education, Collier, 1938, 27.

[17] David Randall, Social Justice Education in America, National Association of Scholars, November 29, 2019.

[18] Adult Literacy in the United States, National Center for Education Statistics.

The featured image is a photograph of John Dewey at the University of Chicago (1902) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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