John Dewey and the Decline of American Education: How the Patron Saint of Schools Has Corrupted Teaching and Learning

John Dewey and the Decline of American Education: How the Patron Saint of Schools Has Corrupted Teaching and Learning

by Henry T. Edmondson III

The influence of John Dewey's undeniably pervasive ideas on the course of American education during the last half-century has been celebrated in some quarters and decried in others. But Dewey's writings themselves have not often been analyzed in a sustained way. In John Dewey and the Decline of American Education, Hank Edmondson takes up that task. He begins with an…  See more details below


The influence of John Dewey's undeniably pervasive ideas on the course of American education during the last half-century has been celebrated in some quarters and decried in others. But Dewey's writings themselves have not often been analyzed in a sustained way. In John Dewey and the Decline of American Education, Hank Edmondson takes up that task. He begins with an account of the startling authority with which Dewey's fundamental principles have been - and continue to be - received within the U.S. educational establishment. Edmondson then shows how revolutionary these principles are in light of the classical and American traditions. Finally, he persuasively demonstrates that Dewey has had an insidious effect on American democracy through the baneful impact his core ideas have had in our nation's classrooms, and he proposes practical steps that ought to be taken in order for us to "disinherit Dewey."

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John Dewey and the Decline of American Education

How the Patron Saint of Schools has Corrupted Teaching and Learning
By Henry T. Edmondson III

ISI Books

Copyright © 2007 Henry T. Edmondson III
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-932236-51-4

Chapter One

Dewey's Troubling Legacy

My advice to all parents is ... anything that Wm. Heard Kilpatrick & Jhn. Dewey say do, don't do. - Flannery O'Connor

John Dewey's ninetieth birthday celebration was an international event. Jay Martin writes, "Salutations arrived from all over the world. Programs of speeches about Dewey's importance were organized in Canada, Denmark, England, France, Holland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Norway, Sweden, and Turkey." A three-day symposium was held in Tokyo; commemorative events were held in Mexico and Istanbul as well. In the United States, a fund was established to raise $90,000 to contribute to causes of his choice and a three-day birthday event was held in New York City in which over "one hundred schools and learned societies held programs of tribute to Dewey." Dewey, with characteristic humility, said afterwards that he had been uncomfortable with all the "fuss and bother."

By all accounts, Dewey was a benevolent man. My interest in Dewey began in graduate school, and grew out of my interest in the American founding period. When I came to realize how important the educational views of the founders were to the success of their political project, I then turned my attention to Dewey, to try to determine what his educational revolution meant to the original founding intentions. During that time I was introduced to a member of the faculty at my university, who as a child, had delivered eggs for Dewey, produced on the philosopher's farm in Burlington, Vermont. His memory of Dewey, not surprisingly, was that of a kind, gentle, and patient man.

What, then has happened? How has Dewey become the bête noire of traditionalist educational reformers and why do many of his advocates often find themselves in the role of defending him? To be sure, Dewey is not only controversial, but is regarded with antipathy by some, including the individual who, with overblown rhetoric, told me that Dewey is "the Antichrist!" How do we explain this controversial legacy that only seems to grow more intense with each passing year, and with each drop in the academic performance of American students?

The beginning of such an inquiry must be recognition of the extent of Dewey's influence today. Indeed, in this period of crisis in American schools, a sound understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of American education is impossible without a firm grasp of John Dewey's contribution. Although the ideas of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Dr. Benjamin Rush, and others of the founding generation still enjoy moderate influence here and there in American schools and universities, the prestige of Dewey's thought has long superseded that of the founders. He remains "a towering figure."

Revivals of Dewey's thought appear at regular intervals, the latest signaled by the completion in 1990 of the thirty-seven-volume compendium of Dewey's works by the University of Southern Illinois Press, a commendable endeavor that has made Dewey's prolific but disparate body of writings more accessible than ever. Additional evidence of continued interest in Dewey's relevance includes the republication of Sidney Hook's 1939 uncritical apologetic for Dewey's thought, John Dewey: An Intellectual Portrait (1995), Alan Ryan's John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism (1997), Jennifer Welchman's Dewey's Ethical Thought (1995), James Campbell's Understanding John Dewey: Nature and Cooperative Intelligence (1995), Robert B. Westbrook's John Dewey and American Democracy (1991), and Jay Martin's biography, The Education of John Dewey (2003). Reading Dewey: Interpretations for a Postmodern Generation offers fresh formulations of Dewey's thought in education, ethics, psychology, and philosophy. One of the boldest uses of Dewey is the educational theorist Alfie Kohn's The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and "Tougher Standards" (1999), in which the author employs Dewey to muster resistance to the gravitational pull back to traditional pedagogy. Dewey's influence, especially his romantic views of human nature and his insistence on "community," is also deeply imprinted on another of Kohn's books, Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community (1996). In a general introduction to Dewey's philosophy, Raymond Boisvert argues that the political, social, economic, and educational challenges of the new millennium give fresh immediacy to Dewey's attempt to construct a new foundation for democracy. Similar appeals are frequently made in the many psychology and educational journals and conferences that populate the academic landscape.

At times, such calls for a revival of Deweyan approaches have a tone of outright reverence. An article on Dewey and moral education employs a telling, if odd, metaphor: "The Crux of Our Inspiration." Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, in The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other (2003), recommends Dewey's My Pedagogical Creed as a "provocative and incisive series of essays" offering "guiding principles about education, teaching and curriculum, child development, and the relationship between school and society." In an appeal for innovative school reform, Shaking Up the Schoolhouse, author Phillip Schlechty recommends that education leaders familiarize themselves with "classic" literature "such as the works of Shakespeare and the Bible-and with the writings of profound thinkers in the field of education such as John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead, and Bertrand Russell." An article in the leading education periodical Education Week went so far as to recommend Dewey's ideas as a guide for helping students to assimilate the tragedy of September 11, 2001.

At the same time, there have appeared a few volumes tying Dewey to American educational decline. For example, educational theorist Kieran Egan's Getting It Wrong from the Beginning explores the contemporary dominance of progressive education and its deteriorating effect on U.S. schools. In Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform, respected educational historian Dianne Ravitch notes John Dewey's influence in generating at least two of the misconceptions that now cripple American education: the use of schools to solve social and political problems and the depreciation of academics in favor of assorted "activities." In Class Warfare: Besieged Schools, Bewildered Parents, Betrayed Kids, and the Attack on Excellence, political scientist J. Martin Rochester points to Dewey as the source of most contemporary abuses in education policy; and Charles J. Sykes's Dumbing Down Our Kids is an exposé of the problems of contemporary education and their source in the progressive education movement.

The Elements of Dewey's Thought

Unfortunately, despite his iconicstatus, Dewey is rarely read and his work is poorly understood in public schools and in colleges of education. Future teachers often learn a little bit "about" Dewey the man and educator, but they are never given the opportunity to assess critically the Deweyan ideas that underlie their classes and permeate their professional organizations. Educational bureaucrats, activists, and accrediting agencies do not seem to appreciate the source of the ideas that inspire their work, either. Political scientists, who might be expected to have the training and objectivity to furnish a different perspective on Dewey's educational thought, usually concentrate on his political and social philosophy, mostly found in such volumes as Democracy and Education (1915), The Public and Its Problems (1927), Liberalism and Social Action (1935), and Freedom and Culture (1939). As a political and social philosopher, Dewey is famous for his advocacy of contemporary liberalism, if not socialism. For instance, he argued for greater government involvement in society at large because our enjoyment of equality depends upon such intervention. In Human Nature and Conduct (1922), he contends that freedom is meaningless if government does not actively intervene in the private sector to enable its citizens to enjoy that freedom. Freedom "from oppressive legal and political measures" is not sufficient for the enjoyment of liberty, writes Dewey. What men need is a social "environment" that will help them obtain their "wants" as well as their needs (HNC, 305-6).

This focus on Dewey's social and political philosophy, however, brings only one dimension of his work into view. It neglects Dewey's own assertion that in order to fully appreciate his philosophy it should be read as a complete system. Given the breadth of Dewey's work, this is admittedly a difficult task. Dewey explicitly argues, nonetheless, that all philosophy-like life in general-should be considered as a whole. Focusing only upon artificially delimited aspects of his thought makes it difficult to see the larger picture.

In fact, for the educator and the political scientist alike, studying Dewey's educational philosophy offers a unique advantage, for it is in his educational thought that all the dimensions of his philosophy intersect. In other words, for Dewey, all philosophy is, in a sense, educational philosophy, because it is only in education that all branches of philosophy find their consummation. Education was Dewey's passion, the field in which his political aspirations, moral philosophy, and psychological innovations found their purpose. Indeed, Dewey's instrumentalism teaches precisely that philosophy is so much wasted time and effort if it is not "useful."

Dewey may have hoped to influence intellectual life through other dimensions of his work, but he expected to change the world through his educational thought. In order to do so, he explains in Democracy and Education, he must "contend not only with the inertia of existing educational traditions," but also with the opposition of those who control business and government, since they depend upon the educational system to produce workers and citizens (DE, 319). Such philosophical and political reconstruction is essential, Dewey believes, to preserve the American democratic experiment-indeed, to save it from destruction. In order to survive, American democracy must be transformed by a revolution in education, followed by a social and economic revolution. One cannot occur without the other, but education must first be revolutionized because it is "the process through which the needed transformation may be accomplished" (DE, 332).

Dewey is often described as a philosophical pragmatist, a designation he shares with two other American philosophers, William James and Charles Peirce. He acknowledges in the closing pages of Democracy and Education that "[t]he theory of the method of knowing which is advanced in these pages may be termed pragmatic" (DE, 344). Dewey argues that education-even more than politics-should promote the practical over the abstract. To pursue change through politics can be frustratingly slow; using education to change the world is far more efficient. The ultimate result of such change is political and social transformation.

Yet, ironically, Dewey's educational system has every appearance of being grossly impractical. The more one reads Dewey, the more one is forced to conclude that his self-styled pragmatism is not so much a "practical" choice as it is a convenient cover for his politics. Dewey's philosophy, then, must always be interpreted in light of his preoccupation with social change. Indeed, in some places Dewey chooses the more militant term "instrumentalism" rather than "pragmatism" to describe his philosophy because the former signals a stance more decidedly opposed to the ideas that retard progress. In his view, traditional notions of human nature, of the structure and process of democracy, and of the nature of truth itself all must be reworked (DE, 331).

Later in his career, Dewey characterized his work as "experimental," and this term may well be the most appropriate of all, since it points to the anti-utilitarianism evident in his thought. There are times when Dewey's unrelenting passion for discrediting and demolishing all that is traditional compromises his pragmatism to the point that his philosophy descends to nihilism. Dewey is intent on razing the traditional landscape as a prerequisite to building anew, which is why he is often more concerned with undermining tradition and conventional religion than he is with finding more efficient ways for students to learn.

Indeed, Dewey's thought is characterized by hostility, not only to traditional religion, but to all abstract or metaphysical ideas, even though his own writing is at times irremediably abstract. He argues, for example, that belief in objective truth and authoritative notions of good and evil are harmful to students. Dewey's ostensible rationale for so strongly opposing such ideas is that they are obstacles to students' intellectual and moral growth. Dewey's real opposition, though, may arise from his concern that a belief in objective truth is an impediment to the promulgation of his own philosophical ideas. Indeed, for someone so ostensibly concerned that students think for themselves, Dewey can be surprisingly dogmatic.

It is a commonplace these days for this or that educational reform to be promoted because it is "for the good of students"-and to expect that everyone will accept such a claim at face value. A study of Dewey's thought, however, compels us to be suspicious of this kind of rhetoric. It is not going too far to say that, in the final analysis, Dewey is not most interested in the good of students but rather the successful promotion of a political program. If that political program also happens to be for the academic and moral benefit of students-as he undoubtedly thought it was-then that is a happy coincidence.

Rousseau in the Classroom

The single most important influence on progressive education, both European and American, has been Jean-Jacques Rousseau's educational treatise Emile, which was itself a reaction to conventional pedagogy. Dewey, like other reformers, was profoundly influenced by Rousseau. In Schools of Tomorrow (1915), Dewey notes approvingly that the eighteenth-century French philosopher is "very recently beginning to enjoy respect" (ST, 290). Some have even hailed Dewey's Democracy and Education (1916) as "the most notable contribution to pedagogy since Rousseau's Emile." Dewey shares Rousseau's optimistic view that human beings are basically benevolent and human nature is easily molded, and he believes with Rousseau that moral education designed to subdue human nature by overcoming vice is harmful to students. Dewey shares Rousseau's rejection, not only of tradition, but also of conventional religion, although he does not share the private nonconformist religious aspirations to which Rousseau occasionally admitted. Dewey adopts Rousseau's "child-centered" curriculum-as educational reformers would later call it-and he further follows Rousseau's classroom strategy insofar as the curriculum is only apparently centered on the child: the child's learning environment is in reality a grand manipulation on the part of his tutor or teacher. Rousseau disdained educational goals and ideals just as Dewey would later do. In both cases, the opposition to such standards is supposedly for the sake of immediacy and relevance in the learning process. For both educators as well, learning largely consists of hands-on experience.

Both Rousseau and Dewey depreciate the importance of books for students, in Rousseau's case at least until well into adolescence. With Dewey, it is not clear when or if books should ever become a primary component of a student's education. Rousseau urges that his student Emile learn a useful trade; Dewey also emphasizes vocational education, primarily because he finds it easy to manage that particular learning experience in the interest of preparing students to be social reformers. Finally, both Dewey's and Rousseau's educational thought is motivated by a belief that education should promote freedom, although neither thinker unambiguously defines what freedom means. Dewey's only serious disagreement with Rousseau has to do with the latter's individualistic educational plan: for Dewey, education must be a predominantly social experience.


Excerpted from John Dewey and the Decline of American Education by Henry T. Edmondson III Copyright © 2007 by Henry T. Edmondson III. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Henry T. Edmondson III is Professor of Public Administration and Political Science at the Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Georgia. Besides Dewey, he has written a number of articles and books on Jefferson, Shakespeare, and Flannery O'Connor, including the recently published Return to Good and Evil: Flannery O'Connor's Response to Nihilism.

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