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Sunday, July 1, 2007

John Dewey and the Decline of American Education

Dewey’s Ideas Have Had Disastrous Consequences for American Education over the Past 50 Years

Intercollegiate Studies Institute • 2006 • 200 pages 

Henry Edmondson describes his book, John Dewey and the Decline of American Education, as “a simple exegesis of Dewey’s writing, with commentary suggesting how his thought finds expression in contemporary American education.” He reminds us that ideas have consequences, and Dewey’s ideas have had disastrous consequences for American education over the past 50 years.

Anyone who attempts to write about John Dewey’s ideas is immediately presented with two problems. The first is selecting works from the vast corpus of writing by and about Dewey. The Collected Works of John Dewey covers 71 years of Dewey’s writing in a mere 37 volumes, while the Library of Congress lists 375 books written about Dewey alone. Edmondson, who teaches political science at Georgia College and State University, focuses on four of Dewey’s major works, Democracy and Education, Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology, Schools of Tomorrow, and Experience and Education. He also draws from a number of Dewey’s other major works in educational philosophy, political and social philosophy, and ethics, as well as a wide range of secondary source material. Overall, Edmondson’s coverage of Dewey’s thought is excellent.

The second problem is Dewey’s awful prose and ambiguous ideas. Even William James and Oliver Wendell Holmes, both admiring colleagues in the famed Metaphysical Club, recognized that Dewey’s writing was often vague and confusing. Although Edmondson agrees that Dewey was an abysmal communicator, he argues that readers can overcome Dewey’s lack of clarity by recognizing that he “subordinates his philosophy to his [progressive] politics.” Using that approach, Edmonson is able to provide a succinct overview of Dewey’s ideas without being weighed down by his writing.

Throughout the book, Edmonson highlights Dewey’s disdain for religion, tradition, and inherited values. Dewey claimed that such beliefs are at least signs of unintelligent thinking and, at worst, outright oppression by the wealthy and powerful. Philosophically, Dewey argued that, because human nature is always in flux, fixed values and beliefs are inimical to progress. Consequently, he declared that schools should no longer be a venue for teaching traditional religious and moral values. Instead, Dewey believed that schools should be places where the child’s impulse and whim rule—insofar as those impulses and whims are consistent with the values of Progressivism.

Dewey did not, however, contend that schools should be places of uninhibited activity, as many unfamiliar with his work believe. Edmondson points out that Dewey was a man blinded by his desire to see schools as the means to implement a comprehensive program of progressive social change. As a “microcosm of social life,” the school provided Dewey a convenient place to socialize students into adherents of progressive ideals, that is, collectivism and statism.

Dewey also rejected religion and traditional values in favor of encouraging perpetual experimentation via the scientific method. Edmondson sees this as a streak of nihilism in Dewey’s thought, which might be the most worrisome consequence of adopting pedagogy based on his ideas. One needs to look no further than the legion of constructivist-based programs, such as “I Like Me” and “values clarification,” to identify the kind of destructive influence Dewey’s ideas have had on schooling in the United States.

Within the classroom Dewey insisted that teachers should not impose abstract aims or external standards on their students. Instead, he endorsed learning through play and hands-on activities, and defended an ad hoc curriculum that favored neither vocational nor academic subjects. Dewey maintained that socialization was just as important as teaching essential skills like reading. Edmondson concludes that our current confusion over standards and goals is a “natural consequence of Dewey’s insistence on such fluid educational standards.”

Edmondson includes chapters on the educational thought of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. What might appear to be an unusual detour is actually a very instructive discussion of alternatives to Dewey. At times, Dewey insisted that he was heir apparent to Jefferson, but Edmondson shows that Dewey departed from both Jefferson and Franklin by repudiating those Founders’ shared belief that a vibrant republic requires an education designed to cultivate personal virtue. Dewey’s radicalism is nowhere more apparent than in his rejection of the Founders’ educational ideals.

Finally, Edmondson offers a number of ways that we can renounce our Deweyite inheritance. They fall into two broad categories: philosophical coherence and excellence in teaching. Philosophical coherence includes implementing reforms that restore clarity, traditional values, and the liberal arts to our schools. Edmondson also calls for the abolition of the middle-school, schools of education, and student-learning outcomes, all of which impede genuine educational innovation. He also wants to encourage excellence in teaching by maximizing teacher autonomy and improving teacher preparation.

Those aren’t bad ideas, but what we really need is the one reform that cuts the Gordian Knot—separation of school and state. Dewey’s philosophy would probably never have taken root and wouldn’t last long in an environment where parents made their own choices and spent their own money for education.

  • The Foundation for Economic Education, founded 1946, works for a free and prosperous world.