John Dewey: The Father of Progressive Education?

In a recent issue of the TORCH AND TRUMPET (May· June) Prof. Cornelius Jaarsma sought to present a balanced picture of John Dewey “for readers who have read little, if any, of Dewey’s writings.” Professor Jaarsma is concerned to defend educational philosopher Dewey against misrepresentation, to show that he was not the father-philosopher of progressive education, and to point out his permanent contributions to American educational and social theory.

Professor Jaarsma’s Appraisal

Initially Dr. Jaarsma directs the reader’s attention to Dewey’s Christian background and notes the man’s integrity in his search for truth. Dewey moreover is to be credited with seeing the danger of dualism in Western thought: he has attacked the artificial distinction between mind and body, between the cultural and the vocational, between the elite and the peasant. According to Dr. Jaarsma, Dewey has worked for the creation of a free, cooperative society in which such “dualisms” would be eliminated and replaced by the organic unity of experience.

Thus the Christian supposedly can learn from Dewey. Professor Jaarsma observes: “Dewey’s passion for the realization of a society of free, self-directing men functioning responsibly and cooperatively in high regard for one another in their common humanity is shared by every Christian who blows what it means to love God above all else and his fellow man as himself.” He also says: “The unity of experience basic to Dewey’s theory of education should have been recognized by Christian students of education as grounded in the Biblical view of man.”

Dewey, of course, concludes Dr. Jaarsma, lacked the Christian God along with all other absolutes; nevertheless the Christian can still profit from Dewey’s “emphasis on reflective thinking in the educative process.”

The Father and His Child

It does seem to me, however, that this appraisal of Dewey is somewhat misleading at several important points. I fear that Professor Jaarsma, in his desire to be fair to Dewey and to avoid the extremes of an authoritarian view of education, has not sketched in enough of the picture. It may be true that Dewey has been unjustly blamed for the excesses of people who have claimed his authority for their procedures. And possibly in a limited way Christians can learn something from him.

At the same time this is only a small part of the picture, For one thing, Dewey seems to have had a great deal more to do with progressive education than Dr. Jaarsma is willing to grant. It is a little hard, for instance, to discount Dewey’s role in the Chicago “laboratory school.” It is even harder to believe that the legions of progressive educators did not really mean it, or that they entirely misunderstood him, when they quoted Dewey at length and treated his writings almost as a new gospel. One need only cite William Heard Kilpatrick as an example of a leading progressive educator who was profoundly influenced by Dewey.

Dewey, certainly, offered some criticisms of progressive education, and, at least at one point shortly before he died, be spoke of progressive education as a failure. Nevertheless these admonitions and warnings appear to be little more than the shock that comes to any father when he sees his child draw certain logical inferences from his own teaching. Dewey was not criticizing the “new” education itself but its inadequate application—the failure of its advocates actually to put it into practice. In Experience and Education, he has written: “There is no discipline in the world so severe as the discipline of experience subjected to the tests of intelligent development and direction. Hence the only ground I can see for even a temporary reaction against the standards, aims, and methods of the newer education is the failure of educators who professedly adopt them to be faithful to them in practice” (p. 114), The “new” education, he makes clear on the following page, is the same as the “progressive” system.

The case for or against Dewey as the father of progressive education, however, must rest upon an inner point of contact between the two. Is the thought of Dewey and the “philosophy” of progressive education, in spite of differences in detail, ultimately one in spirit and purpose? Though Dewey is not to be charged with all the faults of the lunatic fringe among the “progressives,” the answer must be a clearcut yes.

First, it is only necessary to compare Dewey’s idea of the proper classroom situation with that held by the various progressive thinkers, Though he may have placed more emphasis upon intellectual content, his ideal classroom does not differ substantially from that of the “new” educators. Both Dewey and they have taught that the classroom is to be patterned after the democratic society, a small social world that is, to a considerable measure, self-directed and self-governed. Dewey, it is true, opposed George S. Count’s idea that the school should be the instrument of social renewal, but taken in broad outlines the similarities even here are greater than the differences. So whatever merit or demerit there may be in this democratic classroom ideal, it seems evident that both Dewey and the progressive educators have advocated it.

Secondly, Dewey and the “progressives” alike have stressed “free scientific inquiry” as a major educational activity and ideal. In line with this particular interest, Dewey and men like William Heard Kilpatrick have advanced the idea that there are no final unchanging goals for action, no fixed laws, and no permanent ways of thinking. There is only hypothesis, experimentation—the scientific method directed by the sovereign, questioning ego of man.

Third, Dewey’s educational theories were a major source for the progressive teacher’s belief that learning should be centered almost entirely around the experiences of the child and that the child’s “growth” is the aim of this experience. Dewey has said that “education is a development within, by, and for experience” (Experience and Education, p. 17), and the leaders of the “new” education have believed him.

Whether or not Dewey is to be blamed directly for the watering down of subject matter in the public schools and substituting trivial experiences for it is another question. The point is rather that Dewey and his disciples have viewed the learning process as non-structural and experience-centered.

A Drift Toward Nihilism

The central flaw in the philosophy of Dewey and his followers lies in its opposition to the Christian idea of law. In spite of their optimism, this law-less approach to man and his experience tends toward nihilism. Dewey has taught a view of truth, man, the world—not even to mention God—that leaves human experience “open” and virtually norm-less and aim-less. There are no unchanging principles. That which truly works is true. Justice is what we make it. A divine law-giver, in the Christian sense, is unnecessary. Experience, says Dewey, does not need the guidance of “a single and final source of law” ( Reconstruction in Philosophy, p. 162).

The critical problem of such a philosophy is to keep the waters of experience endlessly Sowing after the dikes of law have been broken down. Somehow the pragmatist educator must discover some kind of continuity in the ongoing processes of experience. Quite properly, Dewey notes: “Hence the central problem of an education based upon experience is to select the kind of present experiences that live fruitful1y and creatively in subsequent experiences” (Ibid., pp. 16-17). But Dewey’s educational process, as Cornelius Van Til has pointed out in The Dilemma of Education, is without a principle of continuity. What holds it together? Where is it going?

Like the words of the “true poem” in Whitman’s “Song of the Answerer,” this kind of philosophy asserts no final goal or terminus:

They bring none to his or her terminus or to be content and full.

Never to be content or full! That is the end-less restlessness of Whitman’s happy nihilism as well as Dewey’s. But man cannot permanently endure change for its own sake, experience for the sake of more experience, and growth that goes on forever without exactly arriving at any place. Change (and growth) to be meaningful must be change from something to something.

It is this kind of emphasis, so characteristic of Dewey and the modern mind, that is precisely the fault of the progressive approach to learning. As a system it tends to breed aimlessness, boredom, and, ultimately, to foster a spirit of nihilism.

Dewey’s Search for Standards

Perhaps more than his followers, Dewey bas been sensitive to this charge that his philosophy of growth is aimless. In at least three different ways, he has tried to develop some kind of norm that would not violate his pragmatic theories about the nature of truth. In Art as Experience, he tried to distinguish between things experienced and having an experience. An experience, he said, has unity, structure, balance, and direction, whereas experience in general may well be aimless or mechanical. In A Common Faith he states that the “creative imagination” interfuses and unifies the scattered details of experience. And in Experience and Education, he concedes that not all possible experiences are good or worthwhile. In this work, he attempts to draw a line between “educative” and “miseducative” experiences.

Moreover, Dewey frequently assumes, without any philosophical warrant, the permanent validity of old-fashioned virtues like “honesty, industry, temperance, justice,” etc. In this slender sense, one could grant that Christian teaching has influenced Dewey’s thought.

Nevertheless these “standards” for experience and education arc really devoid of power and substantial meaning. For this reason Dewey cannot really help the Christian teacher see what further growth is, define unity, etc., any more than the progressive teacher can. That is why I think that Dr. Jaarsma is overly charitable when he informs his readers that ‘“Dewey’s theory of education should have been recognized by Christian students of education as grounded in the Biblical view of man.”

Is not his doctrine of man actually grounded in a species of radical humanism? Is it unfair to say that this system of thought presupposes, after the fashion of Pelagius, that human nature is neutral and capable of doing good when brought under the right environmental influences? Does not Dewey place almost absolute faith in man’s reason as he engages in “free inquiry”?

It also seems evident that Dewey’s ideal of freedom is irrationalistic and that his conception of experience is thoroughly naturalistic. His essential dependence, accordingly, seems to be upon Charles Darwin, C. Peirce, William James, and G. W. F. Hegel and not upon the biblical conception of man’s nature.

Upside Down Unity

In particular, it appears necessary to remind ourselves that Bavinck’s stress upon the “organic unity of human behavior including human motivation” is hardly that of Dewey’s. Bavinck’s concepts were grounded in biblical revelation, in the teaching of Genesis 1 and 2 and Psalm 139. Here we learn that man’s radical unity originates in and continues to depend upon his having been made in the image of God. Now it is just this kind of unity that pragmatist Dewey is concerned to reject or at least to distort beyond recognition. In an ultimate sense Dewey’s process philosophy lacks true unity. What “unity” it does have, however, is of a biological and naturalistic nature. It is a unity with a vengeance—a unity that substitutes the experience of the creature for the supremacy of the Creator. In fact, by virtue of man’s imaginative powers, he is able to “create” God in his own image. Dewey observes in A Common Faith that some people would have problems with his “idea that ‘God’ represents a unification of ideal values that is essential1y imaginative in origin…” (p. 43). And from within the upside-down unity of his experience man is able to make his own justice and truth. He has written in Logic, the Theory of Inquiry that “we institute standards of justice, truth … exactly as we set up a platinum bar as a standard measurer of lengths” (p. 216). In a word, Dewey believes that man’s experience is the measure of all things.

In freely expressing these differences with Professor Jaarsma, I do not want to give the impression that I am unsympathetic with his main concern. He fears a false intellectual dualism and a sterile authoritarianism, and I do too. Certainly there is much for us to learn about human nature, and it is possible for us as Christians to profit from the insights of unbelievers. At the same time, it would be unfortunate if we failed to keep in view the clear distinction between the biblical teaching on the organic unity of the divine image and the naturalistic concepts of John Dewey.

Recently we published an article on John Dewey, that enigmatic and influential American educator who has been so widely followed in recent years. To make it possible for every reader to evaluate Dewey’s positions in depth, this article has been written by C. John Miller, Orthodox Presbyterian pastor and connected with Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA.