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25: Phooey on John Dewey


25: Phooey on John Dewey

First off, let it be stated that John Dewey was a phenomenally brainy and productive guy. During a long life, he wrote more articles and books than you could read in a year. Indeed, he wrote so much on so many topics that he surely said some things that you would agree with, no matter what your opinions are. In some weird way, he made everyone a Deweyite. For example, in his book “The School and Society” he perfectly states my own philosophy on education: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children.” Exactly. The problem is that the onslaught of Dewey’s words has tended to work against that goal. His efforts, in their totality, have tended to create precisely the sort of education that the best and wisest parent wouldn’t wish on a tuna.

So the question is: how was this one very smart man able to cause so much damage? What, really, were the poisons in his philosophy, and in his soul? Don’t worry I’ll try to analyze all of Dewey’s writing; there’s a hopeless quest. I’m nominating one very short book--“My Pedagogic Creed”--as our single best portal into Dewey’s mind and into the stunted world of 20th century American education. Hang on. This is a good ride.

The year: 1897. Dewey’s age: 38. “My Pedagogic Creed” is a fascinating and original work. It's almost art, in the exotic sense that Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus” is art. They’re both breezily dogmatic, stating a thousand decisive Truths, perhaps a few of which are even true. Here's the key point. Wouldn’t we like Dewey to say he has concluded or demonstrated or observed or discovered something? He does not. Here’s what he says 74 times in My Creed: "I believe...I believe...I believe...” You want education as fevered religious vision, read Dewey. Here’s four of these staccato beliefs:

“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.

I believe that the subject-matter of the school curriculum should mark a gradual differentiation out of the primitive unconscious unity of social life.

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.

I believe, therefore, that the true center of correlation on the school subjects is not science, nor literature, nor history, nor geography, but the child's own social activities.”

Here’s what you need to watch with Dewey. He says education but he means indoctrination. He believes the reason kids go to school is to learn to be part of a group. Dewey had absorbed his collectivism from Marx, Hegel and other big thinkers of the 1800s and had, apparently, never doubted it. But how will we reach that brave new world? That is the tactical problem which Dewey is trying to solve in “My Pedagogic Creed.”

You see the offhand way he tosses aside the traditional school subjects. This contempt for knowledge, for facts, for truths--which Dewey states so openly---has stained the entire twentieth century. Please note the irony. He is himself hugely educated. But he has little interest in letting your kids join him. Instead, he is obsessed with their “social activities.”

Listening to John Dewey, you’d think that children have no families, homes, parents, siblings, friends, relatives, neighbors, communities, sports, religions, hobbies, no life outside the school. If they aren’t socialized at his school his way, they’ll be lost souls. Such arrogance. So Dewey inverts the main reason for the school’s existence, which is to provide the intellectual discipline and direction that might not be provided by all those other forces. Dewey wants to take schools out of the education business, as traditionally understood, and put them in the conditioning (or parenting) business. He gallops to this conclusion:

“I believe that the community's duty to education is, therefore, its paramount moral duty...Through education society can formulate its own purposes, can organize its own means and resources, and thus shape itself with definiteness and economy in the direction in which it wishes to move.

I believe that when society once recognizes the possibilities in this direction, and the obligations which these possibilities impose, it is impossible to conceive of the resources of time, attention, and money which will be put at the disposal of the educator....

I believe that with the growth of psychological service, giving added insight into individual structure and laws of growth; and with growth of social science, adding to our knowledge of the right organization of individuals, all scientific resources can be utilized for the purposes of education.”

I can't claim to understand everything Dewey says. I invite you to judge for yourself the murky, imprecise language; the wild claims and sweeping ambition; and the self-aggrandizement lurking behind every word. Especially savor this: THE RIGHT ORGANIZATION OF INDIVIDUALS. This phrase is clearly totalitarian. It drafts a blueprint for commissars to follow. How is Dewey best described? A control freak? An ideological extremist? A dreamer? For me, there’s something pathetic about this shy and awkward professor trying to take over the world via "progressive" education. Socialism, I often suspect, is finally the revenge of the nerds.

Recall what the world was like in 1897. Having staggered away from the wreckage of the Civil War, the United States had by 1880 entered a period of vast technological innovation, territorial and financial growth, huge swaggering success in every direction. In 1898, a year after “My Pedagogic Creed,” the US would defeat Spain in a war. Perhaps, in some exquisitely sensitive way, Dewey was reacting against all this brutish, bourgeois success. Or perhaps, in some weird shadowland way, he was trying to replicate this triumphalism in his own field. Or (I would guess) both! He clearly wanted to dominate education, and through control of the schools, the larger society. (Dewey, with Rockefeller money, helped found Teachers College; by 1912 it was the fourth largest graduate school in the US.)

Well, it’s possible Dewey didn’t have a mean bone in his body. But he clearly launched a war against academic content; and he endorsed a huge upsurge in meddling by faux-educators now empowered with something called “psychological service.”....But all I’ve said so far, as damning as it is, is only half the case against John Dewey.

The Second Half

The last years of the 19th century were a watershed of another kind. Science had grown to be a huge strapping giant. Its chief delight was in bullying the old guys, Religion and Philosophy. Religion responded by becoming tentative and wishy-washy. Philosophy reacted in a unique way: it embraced, one might say, the enemy. For five thousand years Philosophy had asked the big questions: what is the meaning of life, why are we here? Perhaps the world was tired of big questions; perhaps nobody could top the final outpourings of Kant, Schiller, Hegel. Almost overnight, Philosophy began to talk like a math professor; it moved into the laboratory; it wanted to be scientific. Around 1905 Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell were writing their “Principles of Mathematics” (published 1910-1913). In 1918 Ludwig Wittgenstein published the “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.” Both works dealt with what you could logically say. Answer: very little. So here, suddenly, was the death knell of windy speculations, of cosmic theorizing, of bull, of metaphysical mush and gush.

Two pieces of bad news emerged from all this. Mainstream Philosophy became sterile, divorced from ordinary life, boring, irrelevant. Second chunk of bad news: the mush-and-gush tendencies that Philosophy dropped like a plate of rotten eggs were now picked up by Education.

Pretty, right? Two trains passed in the night. About 1900. Philosophy tossed off thousands of years of earnest debate and tried to be dry and scientific. Education tossed off thousands of years of earnest teaching and began a descent into endless self-serving palaver about its true identity and purpose. John Dewey was the pivot man in the second transformation. He introduced a stealthy manipulation and incoherent mushiness into American education that we still cannot escape. Look back at all those quotes from “My Pedagogic Creed”--the language is soft and squishy and nearly beyond comprehension. Here’s four more of his shimmering nebulosities:

“I believe that the only way to make the child conscious of his social heritage is to enable him to perform those fundamental types of activity which make civilization what it is.

I believe, therefore, in the so-called expressive or constructive activities as the center of correlation.

“I believe that this gives the standard for the place of cooking, sewing, manual training, etc., in the school...

I believe that the study of science is educational in so far as it brings out the materials and processes which make social life what it is.”

Well, John Dewey was one of smartest people this country produced. But at the end of the day I tend to think of him as a quack--a genius perhaps but still a quack. He subverted education. He subverted the language of education. Who even knows what "the center of correlation" and "the basis of concentration" are? Not to mention "individual structure," "laws of growth," and all the rest. Long after he died there are still thousands of educators wandering in the intellectual wilderness that Dewey created.

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Some may wonder if I’ve been fair. So let’s take a look at my personal nomination for Most Revealing Dewey Quote Of All Time:

“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.” (The School and Society, 1899)

Note how casually he discards all that we call scholarship, academic content, liberal arts, humanities. Dewey says that facts, truths and learning must go because they have no obvious social motive, no clear gain.
Really?? Well, what about these gains? Students become the skilled scientists, engineers, doctors, administrators and workers we absolutely must have. Students become better parents, citizens, neighbors, voters, investors, business owners. Students learn about the past and transmit it to the future, giving continuity to the society. Students become the superior teachers we’ll need in the future. Students learn to enjoy the life of the mind...No, Dewey says, no on all counts.

All the dumbing down we've seen in the last 100 years is right there in that little quote. Facts and truths?! As if these are some piddling irrelevancy instead of the primary reason that kids go to school. Mere learning? As if it’s pond scum.


To do justice to the mischief Dewey caused, we would need a writer like Robert Ludlum. He could write a thriller called “The Dewey Deception.” Make no mistake, this was a secret conspiracy. Dewey and a tiny group of pals (supported by Rockefeller’s guilty millions) engaged in a furtive plot to transform the United States into a secular and Socialist country. To make this happen, they determined that the young must be made less literate, less informed, than the parents. One generation into the future, these dumbed-down Americans would surrender their dreams of freedom. Recall how casually, in his Creed, John Dewey dismissed math, history, science, literature, geography--in order to make room for cooking, sewing, and manual training! Now, here’s what must be confronted directly: would the average American have voted for this? Of course not. So Dewey had to preside over a slow-motion coup carried out, for all practical purposes, in the dark of night. And thus began 100 years of deceit, disingenuousness, and dishonesty. The Dewey Deception is an apt name.

Unfortunately, many of today’s educators are Dewey’s clones, working the shadowy con that Dewey concocted so long ago. If you want to improve education in this country, you first have to shoo away these lost souls. Their distinguishing trait is that they no longer talk of What to teach but entirely about Why and How. The problem is that these soi-disant educators can do a perfect, bang-up, super-sensational job by their own lights, concocting an infinitude of programs, methodologies, theories, studies, research, insights, slogans and conceptual breakthroughs, but children can still end up no more knowledgeable than bricks. Indeed, that often seems to be the goal. The way we save our schools is to bury Dewey’s ghost. It has caused enough mischief.

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“What the best and wisest parent
wants for his own child,
that must the community want for
all of its children.”





"21: A Tribute to Rudolf Flesch"

PS: As you might imagine, I've had misgivings about my title. Phooey? Admittedly, it's somewhat juvenile. But Dewey presents us with a special situation: immense pretension and pomposity, that need to be punctured. Ed schools treat Dewey as a mix of Saint Paul and Jesus Christ. Whatever nonsense these schools want to teach, they say, "Dewey tells us that..." My hope is that young teachers will find this title in Google and think, "What's this?! Not everyone thinks Dewey is a god??"

Here's another thought: even putting aside my article, there's one thing you should especially hold against John Dewey. He and his buddy John Kilpatrick, about 1915, absolutely destroyed Maria Montessori's growing popularity in our country. This woman was a giant among educators; she cared about children. Dewey was a Socialist; he cared about imposing his theories on an unsuspecting nation. For what he did to Montessori, that alone, he deserves: Phooey on John Dewey. When it comes to what the best and wisest parents would want for their own children, Montessori is a reasonable first choice. She was focused on growth and acceleration: talk at three, write at five, read at seven. Keep those kids moving! Dewey's teachings are all about dilute, delete and delay, which means dumb and dumber. Phooey.

Another aspect is that Dewey and colleagues downplayed literacy. This gave, I believe, the impetus to keep pushing sight-reading (or Whole Word), even as evidence accumulated that dyslexia is chiefly caused by faulty reading pedagogy, not faulty brains. I've speculated elsewhere that dyslexia is the country's great unreported scandal. So far. (See "42" Reading Resources" for more about Whole Word.)

I have a video on YouTube titled "John Dewey and the Burden of Ideology." To my amazement, it has attracted almost 10,700 views. And many aggressive comments. Ed schools still teach that Dewey walked on water. More and more, I think of Dewey as America's favorite quack.

© Bruce Deitrick Price 2007-2011