John Dewey and the Chaos of Contemporary Public Education
The dismal and declining student performance at America’s public schools is no accident. Nor is the pervasive bullying by peers and repression by teachers that the brightest, best-mannered, and most accomplished students encounter in public schools today. Both are the direct results of the educational philosophy promulgated by John Dewey (1859-1952), the originator of “Progressive” education and a self-proclaimed advocate of collectivism and opponent of teaching objective knowledge in the schools. Dewey’s ideas have largely shaped the ways in which today’s American public education system works—or, more accurately, does not work.
To call John Dewey a socialist is no exaggeration or derogatory epithet. It is the literal truth. Dewey read and greatly admired Edward Bellamy’s 1887 novel, Looking Backward, which described an egalitarian utopia in which private property was abolished and the capitalist system was a relic of the past. In the 1920s, Dewey wrote extensively in praise of the Soviet education system—so much that he was invited to visit the Soviet Union in 1928 and observe schools in the USSR. He based many of his recommendations for American education on the Soviet model.
Two of Dewey’s foremost targets were individualism and objective truth. In his 1920 work, Reconstruction in Philosophy, Dewey vehemently opposed the classic Western idea of the individual as “something given, something already there.” Consequently, he derided the free, capitalistic society, where the individual tends to be viewed as “something to be catered to, something whose pleasures are to be magnified and possessions multiplied.”
Instead, Dewey asserted, society is what makes the individual who he is, and social institutions “are not means for obtaining something for individuals, not even happiness. They are means of creating individuals.” So much for the Founding Fathers’ conviction that the inalienable individual rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are primary and that “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” For Dewey, society and government come first; they shape individuals and make them what they are, and it is ultimately “society,” through government, that must decide how each individual is to best serve “it.”
Not only does Dewey’s philosophy completely overlook the existence of free will and the possibility of individuals shaping themselves; it also denigrates the pursuit of any kind of knowledge or accomplishment, unless “society” deems it to be useful. In Dewey’s words, “initiative, inventiveness, varied resourcefulness, assumption of responsibility in choice of belief and conduct… are not absolute but relative to the use that is to be made of them. And this use varies with the environment.”
That is, if “society” (that is, whichever group of powerful officials arrogates to itself the name “society”) decides that mathematics or science or literature are dangerous or not worth pursuing, then, for Dewey, this means that they are dangerous or not worth pursuing. Admirable qualities of individuals, such as resourcefulness or initiative, can also be suddenly declared vices if “society” sees fit. For Dewey, there is no absolute truth or absolute virtue; everything changes with the times, is subject to eternal flux, and can be inverted in an instant if the whims of “society” dictate it.
In education, Dewey’s view of the primacy of society was translated into the desire to socialize children above all. He wrote: “I believe that the social life of the child is the basis of concentration, or correlation, in all his training or growth. The social life gives the unconscious unity and the background of all his efforts and of all his attainments.” In practice, this meant an increased emphasis on group activities and children spending time around their peers and conforming to those peers’ often inane and destructive expectations, rather than learning objective facts.
Indeed, Dewey greatly discouraged the study of objective facts. He wrote, “I believe that we violate the child’s nature and render difficult the best ethical results, by introducing the child too abruptly to a number of special studies, of reading, writing, geography, etc., out of relation to this social life.” So when we encounter illiterate teenagers, or kids who cannot identify China or France on a map, or high school graduates who cannot string a grammatically correct sentence together, or college students who must take remedial algebra because they cannot solve a simple linear equation, we are actually seeing what Dewey wanted to happen. Learning reading, writing, mathematics, or geography early sets children apart from their “society” of peers and inhibits the kind of subjection and conformity that Dewey tried to bring about from an early age.
Dewey most detested talented young students who strove to learn as much real knowledge as they could, irrespective of the obstacles placed in their way. He admitted this explicitly when he wrote in The School and Society (1889), “The mere absorption of facts and truths is so exclusively an individual affair that it tends very naturally to pass into selfishness. There is no obvious social motive for the acquirement of mere learning, there is no clear social gain in success thereat.” Because learning objective knowledge empowers the individual and enables him to obtain greater heights of accomplishment and virtue, Dewey saw this as a threat to the social engineering he wanted to attain. Anything that did not directly fit into his agenda of top-down control was to be discouraged—and, of course, one cannot centrally plan human curiosity, ingenuity, ambition, and desire for self-improvement. These qualities resist Dewey’s impulse to create the individual; thus, the natural implication of Dewey’s system was to stifle and suppress such attributes.
We no longer need to be puzzled as to why public school teachers so often sit by idly while the majority of their students taunt, harass, threaten, and even physically assault their most accomplished classmates. Indeed, we need not even be surprised that some public school teachers encourage such bullying by rudely suppressing genuine questions from exceptional students and accusing them of “monopolizing” classroom time. These educators are simply implementing Dewey’s ideas.
Within public schools, the “society” that Dewey glorifies consists of the ever-changing trends, prejudices, fashions, and behaviors of the majority of school-aged children; “socializing” children means getting them in line with how most of their peers behave—even if this includes cursing, promiscuity, risky “experimentation,” and ganging up on the children who are “different.” What is important under the Dewey system is not adherence to some universal and absolute standard of the true and the good, but rather conformity to whatever social standard has been established within a given age group—which is virtually always the dismal lowest common denominator.
If Dewey were alive today to see America’s public schools, he would not consider them failures. They are the faithful embodiments of everything he wished to attain. If anything, Dewey would want the public schools to teach even fewer objective facts and allow even less outstanding individual accomplishment by students. But those of us who desire a future in which people are free, prosperous, and competent will beg to differ.
More: Education in a Free Society
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