‘Educators, parents, and students must be induced to abandon the educational path that, rather blindly, they have been following as a result of John Dewey’s teaching.’
– Dwight Eisenhower
John Dewey’s title as the father of modern education is widely accepted by most people. He is regarded as one of the founders of progressive education and you’d be hard pressed to deny his rightful place among the intellectual giants of the 20th century. Many think he was a genius. Few educational theorists have equaled his widespread impact on societies throughout the world. Walk into any school and you will see Dewey’s influence at work. His thoughts and contributions have even extended to courts, laboratories, the labor movement, and politics. For someone that only taught two years of high school, his views on education tower over all others. No one is even close, then or now. Indeed, history has been kind to the revered educator.
With that said, it’s time to question and reassess the thoughts of Dewey. What is the real nature of our inherited education system? If we want to improve a system that many feel is broken, we need to take a closer look at the original architect. Seldom has an educator drawn on such diverse viewpoints as Dewey did. While most assume he had the best of intentions, what if they’re wrong? History has a way of telling only one side of the story. Painting the famous in only a glowing light. Perhaps it’s worth digging deeper into the untold story of this famed educator.
Many education systems have been built from a model designed by Dewey, one which rejected the classics, any emphasis on rhetoric and logic, or rote memorization. Instead, the pragmatist Dewey valued experience over facts, logic or debate. In his 1899 book School and Society, Dewey writes: ‘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 merely learning, there is no clear social gain in success thereat.’ What was taught was no longer relevant thanks to Dewey. The how and why were the main considerations. The watering down of curriculum had begun.
In those two sentences Dewey relegates all art, science, mathematics, philosophy and history to the trash heap of irrelevancy. For those that believe there has been a dumbing down of education thanks to progressives, there’s your smoking gun. Dewey was not primarily concerned with teaching knowledge. He was concerned with instilling new attitudes and indoctrinating educators with the experimental psychology of Wilhelm Wundt. John Dewey was a social engineer. He wasn’t interested in education as you and I understand the term. In fact, Dewey intended to subvert and diminish traditional education.
In 1896, Dewey created his famous Laboratory School allowing him to devise a curriculum that broke from traditional schooling. The key element that held the entire existing system together was high literacy. It gives the individual the means to seek knowledge independently, to question the status quo and to exercise one’s own judgement. Literacy allows us to think for ourselves. If you’re wondering why the look say method of reading was pushed in schools, leading to a generation of illiterate students, look to Dewey. According to Dewey, ‘It is one of the great mistakes of education to make reading and writing constitute the bulk of the school work the first two years. The true way is to teach them incidentally as the outgrowth of the social activities at this time.’ Dewey knew that the reading program he was suggesting was not as effective as traditional methods. Unfortunately, his social agenda overshadowed effective instruction.
In Dewey’s seminal essay The Primary Education Fetich is a sentence that is telling: ‘Change must come gradually. To force it unduly would compromise its final success by favoring a violent reaction.’ He knew that what he was doing would have a negative impact on education. Dewey and the progressives have wreaked havoc on the learning of millions. It’s time we wake up and face the truth.