John Dewey and the disparagement of education in the US

Whatever else Progressive educators disagreed on, this was a cardinal principle of their faith: Independent thinking is useless to society, even dangerous. As infamously stated by American philosopher John Dewey (1859–1952), “The mere absorbing of facts and truths is so exclusively individual an 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.”

Dewey was particularly effective in advancing Progressive education because he, in effect, mixed the poison with valid principles of education. For instance, Dewey held that children learn best by experience, by choosing and engaging in hands-on projects—a principle embraced also by Maria Montessori. He helped popularize the idea that young students should engage in real-life activities that help them to gain practical skills—just as Maria Montessori did. He held that children will learn reading while poring over cookbooks, writing by jotting down a favored recipe, arithmetic by counting eggs and weighing flour, and so forth. There is some truth in all of this.

Dewey, unlike many other Progressives, did not entirely disparage academic training. At the legendary Laboratory School that he and his wife, Alice, founded and ran at the University of Chicago from 1896 to 1904, they integrated a great deal of cognitive subject matter. Katherine Camp Mayhew and Anna Camp Edwards wrote:

They continually experimented with different ways of [teaching] young students about primitive life in the Bronze Age … early Greek civilization … Prince Henry of Portugal, Columbus, and other explorers … Shakespeare’s plays; science; mathematics; algebra and geometry; English, French, and even Latin.

Further, despite his commitment to an experiential method, Dewey “taught by standing in front of his class and lecturing.”

But Dewey’s ultimate aims were another matter. He held that all learning is ultimately for the purpose of “saturating [students] with the spirit of service.” In Dewey’s view, the purpose of education is not to convey “bodies of information and skills that have been worked out in the past”; not to teach the child “science, nor literature, nor history, nor geography”; but rather to prime him for “social cooperation and community life.”

This was the stated goal of one of America’s most formidable intellectual figures. Dewey was no mere “curriculum designer” trained in modern educational theories, IQ testing, and best methods of developing differing tracks for students of diverse intellectual capacities. Rather, he held a PhD in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University and taught philosophy for decades at the University of Chicago, Columbia University, and elsewhere. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on Immanuel Kant, was expert in the history of philosophy, and much of his original writing centered in this field. He was a brilliant mind trained in academic study, and his abstruse writings on technical philosophy gained him a worldwide reputation as a towering intellect. Dewey gave the Progressive movement the sanction of “lofty philosophy.”

Dewey also pilgrimaged to the Soviet Union in 1929 and “was deeply moved by what he saw.” He reported that Soviet educators “realized that the goals of the progressive school were undermined by ‘the egoistic and private ideals and methods inculcated by the institution of private property, profit and acquisitive possession.’” He recognized the pervasiveness of Communist propaganda in the country but excused it because it promoted “the good of humanity,” rather than private gain. He even expressed a modicum of praise for the communist attempt to dismantle the family unit, which accorded with the Marxist idea that family is individualistic and pernicious to communal living.