John Dewey

Who has not heard John Dewey referred to from the pulpits in our churches, from platforms, and in panel discussions and symposiums on education? In recent years his name has appeared in newspaper syndicates and editorials dealing with schools and education more frequently than that of any other philosopher and educator of the past.

Who Was John Dewey?

Isn’t he the culprit, some may ask, who is largely responsible for that sinister movement in education called Progressive Education? And isn’t Progressive Education the source of the educational “wastelands” we read about, the main reason why Johnny can’t read, the root of the breakdown of discipline in home and school, yes, the mainspring of most of our current deficiencies in the education of our youth?

If he is the father of Progressive Education, and Progressive Education is the chief source of most of the deficiencies and inadequacies. of the evils commonly attributed to it, John Dewey was indeed of far-reaching influence in American education, mostly for evil. Progressive Education conjures in the minds of many sincere, well-meaning people godlessness in education, permissiveness (absence of control and restraint). superficiality in subject matter mastery. vocationalism at the expense of a liberal education, anti-intellectualism, and nearly every vice and weakness some seem to find in contemporary education.

It is generally agreed that John Dewey was in his day and continues to be today a leading figure in educational theory and practice. A Roman Catholic professor of education, John E. Wise, in a recent book on the history of education calls him “the most important American philosopher to date.” Whether he is the primary source of Progressive Education as understood by many people is another matter.

In this article we shall take a look at some of the main currents of thought in Dewey’s philosophy as they affect education. I am trying to write for readers who have read little. if any, of Dewey’s many writings. All they know about Dewey is what they heard from others, and these others frequently had their information second-hand or third-hand. At the close I shall attempt a brief appraisal from a Christian point of view.

First let me say something about John Dewey as a man. This is important in the evaluation of any man’s thinking, but especially in the case of Dewey, for he firmly believed in what he said, wrote. and, what is more. he tried to live what he believed. Yet, despite his firm convictions. he was very receptive to criticism from others and gladly entertained views in conflict with his own.

His daughter, Jane, in a biography of John Dewey refers to the religious atmosphere of his parental home as “evangelical rather than puritan.” Inasmuch as he grew up in an agrarian community of Vermont, we may infer from this statement that Dewey came from a comparatively devout Christian home free from the authoritarianism and formalism frequently associated with Puritanism. The sincere search for truth and certainty evident throughout Dewey’s writings appears to have its source in just such an environment as described by his daughter. His great distaste for institutional authority (not for all authority) seems to have its roots here. Dewey’s sincerity and integrity with reference to truth no doubt had the same source.

Early in his undergraduate study his interest turned to philosophy under the influence of Prof. H. A. P. Torrey at the University of Vermont. Professor Torrey seems to have taken a personal interest in Dewey’s development. He went to Johns Hopkins University for his graduate work. Here were Charles Peirce, C. S. Morris, and C. Stanley Hall, all men of great fame in the development of modern thought. Professor Morris seems to have helped Dewey shape the early period of his philosophical thought. Morris was an Hegelian idealist (spiritual activity is the absolute that is the ultimate basis of all being and meaning). Under the influence of Morris this young man, earnestly seeking truth and certainty, found his first answer in the processes of rational thought. At the same time C. Stanley Hall, the Darwinian naturalist, turned Dewey’s search to the phenomena and forces of nature and to experiment as a source of knowledge. Dewey found difficulty reconciling these two currents of thought. One seemed to cancel out the other in his mind. Intellectual problems mounted. Solutions only generated more problems, more searching. Hall showed Dewey that this experience of his too was experimental, and an on-going process in the search for truth. When William Jame’s epochal work, Principles of Psychology, appeared in 1890, Dewey’s thought turned increasingly from Hegelian idealism to what he had heard from Charles Peirce at Johns Hopkins. He began to combine philosophy, a search for truth and certainty in rational thought, and science, a first· hand observation of the phenomena of nature and the control of these phenomena. He came to accept the idea that in an experimental attitude to life’s problems lies the hope of more meaningful answers to questions of truth and certainty. He saw in this a “new” approach to all problems, social, political, educational, and moral. We should note that this “new” approach arose in the crucible of a searching mind and heart of a man who had to be true to himself to be satisfied.

The “New” Approach

John Dewey appeared on the scene of history in the midst of the industrial revolution and the struggle for human rights involved therein. The labor movement in industry, adequate schooling for all boys and girls, and a growing concern for the meaning of democracy in a broader social context were among the central, focal issues of the day.

As student and teacher of philosophy he concerned himself early with a search for wisdom, that is, a right understanding of reality and the application of it to the problems of his day. Early in his search he seems to have concluded that human rights and the responsible exercise thereof are central to one’s philosophic concern. He concluded that philosophy and philosophers had failed to meet this basic need because they had throughout the Middle Ages and even to his day held to a dualism in reality, mind and body, soul and body, spirit and matter as discrete substances. Body or matter were considered to be of a lower order in the scale of values, and therefore labor and values associated with it were of a lower order than activity of the spirit and mind. Dewey saw the cleavage in society to originate in this supposed dualism. The cultural and the vocational are of two orders or levels of value, and participants of either are to be regarded of higher or lower value in the social order. Religion and morality institutionalized in church and social ideals and practices tended to reinforce these false values among men. “The poor you will always have with you” became a justification for poverty as an object for mercy. The free enterprise of the capitalistic system became a justification for the “me first” practice.

Materialism that sought to reduce mind, soul, and spirit to a physical substance and process was equally obnoxious to Dewey. The answer to the human predicament is not to be found in such reductionism or in a class struggle that strives for supremacy of one class over the other.

The mistake of the past and even of his own day, Dewey believed, lay in the search for the final or ultimate authority in some object, person, or institution. Not authority as such must be surrendered, but the search for it outside the cumulative, cooperative intelligence of free men. Dewey sought to bring his own experience of reflective thinking in the search for truth to bear on philosophical, moral, social, political, and economic problems of his day. The method of reflective thinking in the physical and biological sciences is revolutionizing man’s thinking and living. If applied to social and moral problems as well, untold benefits can accrue to the human effort, thought Dewey. Not a seeking for ultimate. unchanging ends as fixed ways of thinking and living, but using attained ends as means to further and greater ends -this, Dewey believed, is the answer to the human predicament.

To convince others of the promise of this “new” approach became Dewey’s consuming passion. For this “gospel” he has been blessed and cursed, loved and hated, both at home and abroad. He never tired of reminding his students, listeners, and readers, however, that he sought to promote no ready·made system of truth or doctrine, that he desired no disciples, but the stimulation and promotion of reflective thinking in a society of free men. He dreamed of no utopia or the infinite perfectibility of man, except a greater and more responsible use of what he understood to be man’s greatest attainment to date, the process of reflective thinking, the kind of thinking carried on by the scientist in his experimental search for truth. This he called technology. Because democracy as a society of free, self-governing men provides the best medium for the development of this technology, Dewey saw in it man’s hope for the human endeavor.

Education in a Democracy

How shall we have young people learn to be guided by reflective thinking in a society of free, self-governing men? This became a crucial question in the thinking of Dewey. It likely induced him to join the faculty of the Chicago University where pedagogy was included with philosophy and psychology in the department he came to head in 1894. At the Chicago “laboratory school,” founded in 1896, he directed experimentation of some of his ideas in learning and teaching.

The hope for a society of free, self-governing men rests with the reconstruction of school curricula, methodology of teaching, and with school organization in general. thought Dewey. Until this time schools and education generally had sought to prepare young people to live in a society where the privileged few arc supreme and the masses accept their opportunities the best they can. In a democracy all men must have the opportunity to develop and use their potentials for the welfare of all. Education in a democratic society must set free mental and physical potentials alike for responsible use. Let us organize the schools to make I his possible, said Dewey. Let classrooms be miniature societies of cooperative and interpersonal effort toward human development instead of merely listening halls for disciplined performance. The “new” approach to truth must also become the “new” procedure of the classroom. Learn to be free and responsible by exercising freedom and responsibility in situations that call for their exercise under the supervision of competent guidance.

That this “new” education would revolutionize the school and all of education became clear to Dewey’s contemporaries. Actually it was new only in the wider scope underationale Dewey gave it. For two centuries preceding Dewey similar ideas had been advocated and practiced more or less successfully on a very limited scale and in isolated situations, but lost in the crass-currents of conflict with vested interests and establishments.

Education as Continuous Reconstruction of Experience

As long as man was understood to consist of two discrete substances, mind or soul, spirit and body, somehow related to function together, the tendency was to view education as a process of filling or training the mind which as substance is superior to the body, and to bring the body in subjection to the mind. This fallacy Dewey traced from early Greek philosophy through the Middle Ages to the modem day. As long as society consisted of free men and slaves or serfs, of elite and peasants, this kind of education might do and tended to perpetuate the social order of which it was a part. Dewey rejected this dualism in education as he did all dualisms. Inhuman practices in the schools of his day (which the older generation among us recall very well, even in Christian schools) he frowned upon. But he also rejected a trend in philosophy and psychology to reduce mind and spirit to material entities or properties. He was convinced that an inner all-comprehensive unity must be recognized. This inner and outer unity of the organism he referred to as experience.

Man, Dewey held, is an organism who like all organisms interacts with his environment and in the process undergoes changes. The changes the human organism undergoes are of many kinds, physical, intellectual, emotional, moral, aesthetic, and social.

Education, rather than a filling or stuffing of the mind with ready-made ideas or a training of the mind by mental gymnastics and exercises, is a process of experiencing in which the organism is undergoing changes toward free and responsible self-direction. Education, then, is a continuing, on-going reconstruction of the experiencing organism. Schools and schooling should provide the environment in which this continuous reconstruction can take place in orderly, planned subject matter taken from past and present culture developed by man.

Authority? Yes, but the authority of a “new” approach to truth, not the authority of a fixed, established order. Subject matter for instruction? Yes, but not a ready-made body of content to be assimilated and repeated, rather a pedagogically organized body of culture to be experienced and used according to the “new” approach to truth. System, institution, government? Yes, but all these subject to constant re-evaluation according to the “new” approach to truth. Morals and morality? Yes, but subjected to the constant test of the “new” approach to truth.

Dewey and Progressive Education What many people have been led to understand as constituting Progressive Education is the excesses and what might be called “lunatic fringes” to which some who claim to be interpreting Dewey have gone. To these excesses and frequently undisciplined movements Dewey has said a firm No. He shook his finger of warning at them. Dewey and continuous educational reform may justly be linked, but not Dewey and Progressive Education. Dewey’s concern was primarily social. He did not think, however, that the school can or should try to build a new social order. This would constitute, in Dewey’s thinking, another attempt at institutionalism and absolutism, both of which he understood to be the primary sources of social evils of the past. The school, however, has the obligation in a democracy to function as a society in which the essential ingredients of a responsible freedom are learned by doing and not merely by precept. This need not exclude authority and firmness of direction. But authority as a vested interest, subject matter as readymade, systematized content to be transmitted and repeated for performance, and external control to make people conform are not educative according to Dewey. They do not promote democracy, but defeat its very purpose.

A Christian’s Appraisal

What shall a Christian say about Dewey’s views as I have tried to interpret them? 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 knows what it means to love God above all and his fellow man as himself. As Dewey in his discussion lays bare the failures of church, state, and culture in general to strive for and promote this kind of society, he speaks to the conscience of the Christian community. Brotherly love so widely preached by the church and glibly mouthed by professing Christians was practiced little in employer-employee relationship, in the classroom where cruelty often prevailed, and in society generally where barriers of several kinds blinded men to the fact that “all men are created equal.” In what Dewey so genuinely and sincerely sought the Christian community should have pointed the way, but was until recently, and in several ways still is, a recalcitrant follower. Too often Christians and Christianity in general identified themselves with the established social order. Until this day this historical fact proves to be one of tile barriers to the effective outreach of the gospel of Christ.

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. This organic unity of human behavior including human motivation Herman Bavinck tried to point out in his writings on Christian pedagogy in the early part of this century. His insights and later efforts to promote them had little effect on curricula and methodology of Christian schools in the Netherlands. Most changes for the better in Christian schools as well as in secular education can be directly and indirectly traced to the influence of this underlying principle in the teachings of John Dewey. Rather than throwing stones at Dewey, we should be thanking him for having called our attention as Christians to what we should have done and were reluctant to do until forced to it. Christian education is now beginning to put this principle into a Christian framework which is so necessary to avoid the excesses of Progressive Education.

The “new” approach to truth strongly advocated by Dewey cannot be that of the Christian. ‘The words of Psalm 36:9, In Thy light shall we see light are a Christian’s approach to all knowledge and understanding. Herman Bavinck had great praise for the contribution of educational reformers preceding Dewey, and he would have had the same for Dewey, but he was able to point the way to higher ground guided by the light of the Word. We can greatly benefit from Dewey’s emphasis on reflective thinking in the educative process, but no one can by thinking find out God. Together with all absolutes Dewey discarded God from his thinking. Yet it pleased the Lord to use him to awaken the Christian conscience and understanding to better insights socially and educationally. Let us as Christians profit from them with discretion.

Continuing the series on Molders of the Contemporary Mind, Dr. Cornelius Jaarsma, professor of Education at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI, presents his evaluation of the many contributions made by John Dewey to the educational world.