|In 1894 John Dewey was invited to the newly founded University of
Chicago to become head of its department of philosophy and
psychology. He replied that he would accept the appointment if
the department would include the subject of pedagogy. His
proposal was approved, and Dewey became dean of the department of
philosophy, psychology, and pedagogy. Two years later he organized
his first laboratory school, in Chicago, where he put into practice
his radical theories of education. In 1904 he went to Columbia University
as professor of educational philosophy, and since then has so revolutionized
American education that "almost every public U.S. school has
BASIC EDUCATIONAL THEORIES
It is estimated that Dewey wrote upwards of 4,000,000 words on the
subject of educational theory and practice. His first two
articles in pedagogy dealt with "The Education and Health of
Women" and "Health and Sex in Higher
Education" and are symbolic of his concern with the relation in fact, identification of science and education.
Whatever changes Dewey was willing to admit in the development of his
philosophy, his pedagogy remained fairly constant over the years,
and in spite of the obscurity for which he is famous, we can
trace the roots and general outline of his principles of
Dewey prided himself on being revolutionary. Anything traditional or
conservative was ipso facto anathematized. In one short
article which he published not long before his death, he
literally exhausted the English vocabulary with disparaging terms
for those who disagreed with his radical schemes.
"Antiquarian, remote, abstract, isolated, reactionary, dead-bones,
feudal-medievalism, served their time, cleric, supernatural, scholastic
reaction, provincial, pre-scientific, systematic fixation, sterility
and stagnation, rigidity" is a partial list of such labels in a few
pages of print. His critics have observed that this was a favorite
method of argumentation with Dewey, to make dogmatic statements
without proof and then tear down the opposition by calling them
The radical theories of education which Dewey proposed are not
arbitrary, he said; they are natural concomitants of the radical
changes which have occurred in every other field of human thought
and endeavor. And all that he was doing was bringing education
into step with the progress of the times, he maintained.
According to him, there have been three great revolutions in modern
life of which the traditional school has taken little or no
account: (1) the intellectual revolution, brought about by the
discoveries of modern science; (2) the industrial revolution,
consequent upon the invention and development of modern
machinery; and (3) the social revolution, resulting from the
growth of modern democracy.
Referring to this triad of changes in globo, he said:
"One can hardly believe there has been a revolution in all
history so rapid, so extensive, so complete. [Consequently,] that
this revolution should not affect education in other than formal
and superficial fashion is inconceivable." And again,
since "it is radical conditions [in the world] which have changed;
only equally radical change in education suffices." According to
basic Hegelianism, a change in one phase of reality calls for a corresponding
change in every other: "The obvious fact is that our social life
has undergone a thorough and radical change.
If our education is to have any meaning for life, it must pass
through an equally complete transformation."
However, the step from revolutionary change to a theory of education
is not immediate. It must first pass through the medium of
philosophy, which formulates the problems created by each
revolution, and then pedagogy proposes a solution for the
problems which are found. The whole process is strictly
"scientific," proceeding from experimental facts to their theoretical
interpretation. "Philosophy of education," according to Dewey,
"is not an external application of ready-made ideas to a system
of practice.... It is only an explicit formulation of the
problems . . . in respect to the difficulties of contemporary
Put in the form of a schema, we have the following three sets of correlatives:
revolution, philosophy, and pedagogy, as conceived by Dewey:
Historical Revolution Philosophy Pedagogy
I. Science Experimentalism Scientific Method
II. Industry Pragmatism (1) Industrial subjects (2)
Learning by doing (3)
III. Democracy Socialism (1) Socialization of school
organization (2) Social
formation is morality.
EXPERIMENTALISM IN EDUCATION
Dewey never set himself to prove that the only source of knowledge is
experience and therefore that the only true concept of education is
experimentalism. He took these postulates for granted. "I
assume," he declared, "that amid all uncertainties
there is one permanent frame of reference, namely, the organic
connection between education and personal experience; or that the
new philosophy of education [his own] is committed to some kind
of empirical and experimental philosophy." Following on this
basis of empiricism, "all genuine education comes about through experience."
It must be "definitely and sincerely . . . held that education
is a development within, by, and for experience." By contrast
with "traditional education" which "was a matter of
routine in which the plans and programs were handed down from the
past," progressive education is "based upon a
philosophy of experience" which was not possible "before the
rise of experimental science."
John Dewey was enough of a psychologist to know that the most
formative years of a person's life are his childhood. In many of
his writings, therefore, he was specially concerned with using
experience as the medium of education for children, from
kindergarten through grammar school.
Assuming that perception from within and not indoctrination from
without is the secret of true education, nothing, in Dewey's
theory, should be allowed to interfere with the childish instinct
for learning by experience.
Children in their early years are neither moral nor immoral,
but simply unmoral; their sense of right and wrong has not yet
begun to develop. Therefore, they should be allowed as much
freedom as possible; prohibitions and commands, the result of
which either upon themselves or their companions they cannot
understand, are bound to be meaningless; their tendency is to
make the child secretive and deceitful.
The conclusion is that a child must not be authoritatively told
beforehand what is good or evil but should discover these
opposite realities for himself.
The resemblance between this theory of spontaneous development and
Rousseau's idea of natural human goodness is not coincidental. Dewey
frequently pays his respects to Rousseau as the first, and in that
sense, the greatest educational reformer of modern times.
Thus in the opening sentence of his book on the Schools of
Tomorrow, which was later adopted in Russia, he begins with a
quotation from Rousseau: "`We know nothing of childhood, and
with our mistaken notions of it, the further we go in education
the more we go astray. The wisest writers devote themselves to what
a man ought to know, without asking what a child is capable of learning.'"
These sentences are typical of the Emile of Rousseau.... His
insistence that education be based upon the native capacities
of those to be taught and upon the need of studying children in
order to discover what these native powers are, sounded the
keynote of all modern efforts for educational progress. It
meant that education is not something to be forced upon
children and youth from without, but is the growth of
capacities with which human beings are endowed at birth.
Consistent with the same principle, in progressive schools "the
children do the work, and the teacher is there to help them to
know, not to have them give back what they have memorized"
and not experienced. "Tests are often conducted with books
open.... Lessons are not assigned"; otherwise, the child
would be having knowledge poured into him from the outside instead
of learning it from within.
PRAGMATISM IN EDUCATION
Corresponding to the industrial revolution m commerce and economics,
Dewey postulates a similar change in education, which
concentrates on the practical and useful aspects of pedagogy.
Perhaps no phase of progressive education has been more roundly criticized.
In Dewey's own words, "We are told that scientific subjects have
been encroaching upon literary subjects . . . that zeal for the practical
and utilitarian has resulted in displacement of a liberal education
by one that is merely vocational . . . that the whole tendency is
away from the humane to the materialistic, from the permanently rational
to the temporarily expedient."
Writing in Fortune in 1944, under the title of a
"Challenge to Liberal Thought," Dewey defended this
emphasis on science by appealing to the facts of history.
The revolution in natural sciences is the parent of inventions
of instruments and processes that provide the substantial body
of modern industrial technology. This fact is so obvious as to
be undeniable.... What perhaps is not equally obvious is that
the marvelous advance in natural science has come about because
of the breaking down of the wall existing in ancient and
medieval institutions between "higher" things of a
purely intellectual and "spiritual" nature, and the
lower things of a "practical" and "material"
This is a familiar theme with Dewey. He asks his readers to compare
two simple facts of history: the primitive and undeveloped
industrial character of so-called "spiritual" cultures
and the great advancement which industry and science have made
since and where things of the "spirit" have been
de-emphasized and subordinated to material progress. It is
therefore the duty of modern education to concentrate on practical and
technical knowledge in preference to the purely intellectual in
order to neutralize the bad effects of centuries of subordination
of matter to the spirit. Only in this way can we hope to rise
from "relative sterility and stagnation to a career of
fruitfulness and continued progress in science."
SOCIALISM IN EDUCATION
According to Dewey, the fundamental concepts of instruction and
education are summed up in the one word
"socialization." The school and school organization,
including curriculum, methods, discipline, and ideals, should be
socialized because "the moral responsibility of the school and of
those who conduct it is to society." So that "apart from
participation in social life, the school has no moral end or
aim." In religious terminology, "the moral trinity
of the school [is] the demand for social intelligence, social
power, and social interests."
However, it was not merely participation in social life in general
which prompted Dewey to identify the aim of modern pedagogy with
the good of society. It is social participation in a democratic
society which demands a socialized form of education in modern
Correlative to the scientific and industrial revolutions in the
fields of knowledge and economy, there has been a democratic
revolution in the political structure of government. And the
democratic revolution means nothing, in Dewey's hypothesis, if
not the destruction of barriers between different strata of the
population. "It is fatal for a democracy to permit the
formation of fixed classes," social, cultural or religious. And
since education is a participation in social life, it must
correspond to and promote the society in which it shares.
"For education," also, therefore, "the distinction
of classes must be definitely done away with. Such is the
principle, the law, that dominates the whole social conception of
An immediate corollary to this socialistic ideal is to give all the
citizens of a democracy equal and unlimited educational
opportunities. For this reason, "the devotion of democracy
to education is a familiar fact."
But Dewey is not satisfied with "the superficial explanation
that a government resting upon popular suffrage cannot be
successful unless those who elect and who obey their governors
are educated." The real reason why education in a
democracy is of its very essence is that "a democratic society
repudiates the principle of external authority [and] must find a substitute
in voluntary disposition and interest; these can be created only
Summarily, therefore, the end of democratic education is to form a
classless society, in which social stratification has disappeared.
A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily
a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated
experience.... Obviously a society to which stratification into
separate classes would be fatal, must see to it that
intellectual opportunities are accessible to all on equable and
easy terms. A society marked off into classes need be specially
attentive only to the education of its ruling elements.
But, as the history of economics teaches us, in such a society
"a small group . . . were free to devote themselves to
higher things . . . because they lived upon the fruits of the
labor of an industrially enslaved class." Only in a
classless society, promoted by socialized education, can we be
spared "the confusion in which a few will appropriate to themselves
the results of the blind and externally directed activities of others."
OPPOSITION TO RELIGIOUS INSTRUCTION IN SCHOOLS
Consistent with his attitude toward religion, as seen in a previous
article, we should not expect Dewey to favor religious
instruction in American public schools. However, we might not be
prepared for the violent opposition to such instruction which he
steadily maintained from his earliest years in education.
Writing in 1908 in the London Hibbert Journal, under the title,
"Religion and Our Schools," Dewey observed:
If one inquires why the American tradition is so strong against
any connection of state and church, why it dreads even the
rudiments of religious teaching in state-maintained schools,
the immediate and superficial answer is not far to seek. The
cause was not, mainly, religious indifference, much less
hostility to Christianity, although the eighteenth century
deism played an important role. The cause lay largely in the
diversity and vitality of the various denominations, each
fairly sure that, with a fair field and no favour, it could
make its own way; and each animated by a jealous fear that, if
any connection of state and church were permitted, some rival
denomination would get an unfair advantage.
But this, he said, is only a superficial answer to the question:
...there was a deeper and by no means wholly unconscious influence
at work. The United States became a nation late enough in the
history of the world to profit by the growth of that modern
(although Greek) thing the state consciousness. This
nation was born under conditions which enabled it to share in
and to appropriate the idea that the state life, the vitality
of the social whole, is of more importance than the flourishing
of any segment or class. So far as church institutions were
concerned, the doctrine of popular sovereignty was a reality,
not a literary or legal fiction. Upon the economic side,
the nation was born too soon to learn the full force of the
state idea as against the class idea. Our fathers naively
dreamed of the continuation of pioneer conditions and the free
opportunity of every individual, and took none of the
precautions to maintain the supremacy of the state over that of
the class, which newer commonwealths are taking. For that lack
of foresight we are paying dearly, and are likely to pay more
dearly. But the lesson of the two and a half centuries lying
between the Protestant revolt and the formation of the nation
was well learned as respected the necessity of maintaining the
integrity of the state against all divisive ecclesiastical
divisions. Doubtless many of our ancestors would have been
somewhat shocked to realize the full logic of their own
attitude with respect to the subordination of churches to the
state (falsely termed the separation of church and
state); but the state idea was inherently of such vitality and
constructive force as to carry the practical result, with or
without conscious perception of its philosophy.
This analysis, it must be admitted, is penetrating. It gives a
logical but unhistorical basis for the opposition to religious
instruction in the American public schools. The decision of the
U. S. Supreme Court in the McCollum case was not based on Dewey's
principles or his interpretation of American history. This
decision outlawed the use of public school machinery and
specifically of classrooms for religious instruction. In its majority
opinion, the Court said that the practice of teaching religion in the
public school fell "squarely under the ban of the First Amendment,
as we interpreted it in Everson v. Board of Education
(1947). There we said: `Neither a state nor the Federal
Government can set up a Church. Neither can pass laws which aid
one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over
another.'" If we begin by falsely assuming that the traditional
doctrine of separation of church and state really means subordination
of church to state, it is only logical that such a controversial
subject as religion should be banned from public institutions of
learning. The common good of the state as a political unit requires
that anything which divides the citizens into hostile camps should
However, Dewey goes beyond this position. Not only does he oppose any
kind of religious teaching in public schools, but he claims that
only such schools minus religion are promoting the common good, which
is the unity of the state. The one thing, he said, "which
has done most to discredit the churches, and to discredit the
cause . . . of organized religion [is] the multiplication of
rival and competing religious bodies, each with its private
interpretation and outlook." Such division of peoples of different
religions is fatal to political unity. And church-supported schools
which teach their respective religions are fostering this discord. On
the other hand, he maintained:
Our [public] schools, in bringing together those of different
nationalities, languages, traditions, and creeds, in
assimilating them together upon the basis of what is common and
public in endeavour and achievement, are performing an
infinitely significant religious work. They are promoting the
social unit out of which in the end genuine religious unit must
grow. Shall we interfere with this work? shall we run the risk
of undoing it by introducing into education a subject which can
be taught only by segregating pupils . . . ? This would be deliberately
to adopt a scheme which is predicated upon the maintenance of
social divisions in just the matter, religion, which is empty
and futile save as it expresses the basic unities of life.
And finally, in line with his distinction between
"religion" and "religious" already seen,
he concludes that "schools are more religious in substance
and in promise without any of the conventional badges and machinery
of religious instruction, than they could be in cultivating these
forms at the expense of a state-consciousness."
When Paul Blanshard published in 1949 his attack on the Catholic
Church under the title, American Freedom and Catholic Power,
John Dewey praised the book, saying, "Mr. Blanshard has done
a difficult and necessary piece of work with exemplary
scholarship, good judgment, and tact." This recommendation
appears on the jacket of the book and is signed, "John Dewey,
Dean of American Philosophers." Dewey's influence may be seen throughout
Blanshard's work. His two chapters against American Catholic schools
conclude with the following quotation from Dewey, arguing against any
government support for Catholic education: "`It is essential that
this basic issue be seen for what it is namely, as the encouragement of a powerful
reactionary world organization in the most vital realm of democratic
life, with the resulting promulgation of principles inimical to democracy.'"
ESTIMATE OF DEWEY'S INFLUENCE ON AMERICAN EDUCATION
According to his followers, "the most indigenous and original
American contribution to educational method was made by John
Dewey." We have already touched upon the extent of this
"contribution" to modern pedagogy. But the question
still remains as to how deeply, de facto, Dewey's pragmatic
anti-supernaturalism has penetrated into the minds of American educational
Some years ago a government survey was made of the educational philosophies
held by 2,000 faculty members in seventy American schools for the
professional training of teachers. It gives us perhaps the best answer
to the question raised in the preceding paragraph. The survey
instrument was a list of seventy-five agreement-disagreement
statements grouped around seven basic categories which
represented two opposing philosophies of life and education. One
outlook favored traditional Christian conservatism in educational
thought and practice, the other espoused, almost verbatim, the
experimental philosophy of Dewey. The instructions given with the
questionnaire made it clear that the purpose of the investigation
was not to decide which outlook was inherently right or wrong,
but to discover which attitude these teachers of pedagogy preferred.
The results of the survey were published by the U. S. Office of Education
in 1935. In the following table, which was prepared from the data
of the survey by O'Connell, are indicated in terms of percentages
the reaction of these 2,000 teachers of teachers to the seven basic
categories in the questionnaire.
TABLE I. PERCENTAGES OF 2000 MEMBERS IN 70 TEACHER-TRAINING
INSTITUTIONS TAKING THE CONSERVATIVE OR NATURALISTIC OUTLOOK
Conservative or Traditional
Outlook Liberal or Naturalistic Outlook
Most significant is the last named category in the table: the
conservative belief in a "Separate Mind," that is,
duality of body and soul, against the naturalistic view of
identity of matter and spirit. And, as is shown in the table, an
even half of the professors of education accepted naturalistic
monism as their philosophy of life.
Two of the seventy-five statements which received the highest
naturalistic vote were the following: (1)"46. Without
passing upon the merits of communism, we might find a valuable
suggestion for us in Russia's current use of her public schools
in carrying out a deliberately planned social program in the
nation"; (2) "74. It is more true to say that the self is
the habits acquired by the individual in the course of his life than
to say that the self must be there to acquire the
Among educators themselves, the most dominant influence is
undoubtedly exercised by school administrators. In this regard it
is worth recalling that during the 1936 convention of the
National Education Association, at St. Louis, over fifteen
hundred sympathizing superintendents of schools attended the
first meeting of the newly organized John Dewey Society, established
to propagate the views of its namesake throughout America. Shortly
after his election as the first president of the Society, Archie Threlkeld,
superintendent of schools of Denver, Colorado, published a glowing
tribute to the principles of John Dewey, emphasizing his naturalistic
philosophy of life and pragmatic concept of education.
Dewey's disciples are correct, therefore, when they claim that no
other American philosopher has so deeply influenced the thought
of his generation. Without agreeing with them that he was also
"the most understanding thinker on education that the world
has yet known," American Catholics recognize that his
theories of pedagogy are a challenge to Christian education to
defend itself against the errors of socialist naturalism and to
develop its latent resources, at the risk of losing its hold on
the modern mind.
1. "Perpetual Arriver," Time, LIV, 18 (October 31,
2. John Dewey, "The Education and Health of Women," Science,
VI (October 16, 1885), 341-342.
3. John Dewey, "Health and Sex in Higher Education," Popular
Science Monthly, XXVIII (March, 1886), 606-614.
4. John Dewey, "Challenge to Liberal Thought," Fortune,
XXX (August, 1944), 154-157.
5. James A. McWilliams, "John Dewey's Educational
Philosophy," The Modern Schoolman, XXII (March, 1945),
6. John Dewey, The School and Society, p. 22. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1915.
7. Ibid., p. 25.
8. Ibid., p. 43.
9. John Dewey, Democracy and Education, p. 386. New York:
Macmillan Co., 1916.
10. Franz E. De Hovre, Philosophy and Education, trans. Edward
B. Jordan, p. 108. New York: Benziger Brothers, 1931.
11. John Dewey, Experience and Education, pp. 12-13. New York:
Macmillan Co. l938.
13. Ibid., p. 17.
14. Ibid., pp. 18, 19, 22.
15. John Dewey, Schools of Tomorrow, pp. 1-2. New York: E. P.
Dutton and Co., 1915.
16. One of the latest studies of Dewey's dependence on Rousseau is a
doctoral thesis: Arthur Huebsch, "Jean-Jacques Rousseau and
John Dewey: A Comparative Study and a Critical Estimate of Their
Philosophies and Their Educational and Related Theories and
Practices." Unpublished doctoral thesis, School of
Education, New York University, 1930.
17. Rousseau, as quoted in Dewey, Schools of Tomorrow, p. 1.
18. Ibid., p. 2.
19. Ibid., p. 28.
20. Dewey, "Challenge to Liberal Thought," op. cit., 155.
21. Ibid., 184.
24. John Dewey, Moral Principles in Education, p. 7. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin Co., 1909.
25. Ibid., p. 11.
26. Ibid., p. 43.
27. Dewey, Schools of Tomorrow, p. 315.
28. John Dewey, "L'Education au point de vue social," L'Annee
Pedagogique, III (1913), 48.
29. Dewey, Democracy and Education, p. 101.
33. Ibid., p. 102.
35. John A. Hardon, S.J., "John Dewey Prophet of American Naturalism,"
The Catholic Educational Review, L (September, 1952), 433-445.
36. John Dewey, "Religion and Our Schools, The Hibbert
Journal, VI (July, 1908), 800.
37. Ibid., 801.
38. McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203 (1948).
39. Dewey, "Religion and Our Schools," op. cit., 800.
40. Ibid., 807.
41. Hardon, op. cit., 436.
42. Dewey, "Religion and Our Schools," op. cit., 807.
43. John Dewey, as quoted in Paul Blanshard, American Freedom and
Catholic Power, p. 106. Boston: Beacon Press, 1949.
44. John S. Brubacher, A History of the Problems of Education,
p. 237. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1947.
45. "Educational Philosophies Held by Faculty Members in Schools
for the Professional Education of Teachers," National
Survey of the Education of Teachers, III, Part VII, pp. 459-507.
Bulletin 1933, No. 10. Washington, D.C.: U. S. Office of
46. Geoffrey O'Connell, Naturalism in American Education, p.
216. New York: Benziger Brothers, 1938.
47. Table reproduced from O'Connell, ibid.
48. "Educational Philosophies Held by Faculty Members," op.
cit., pp. 489-490.
49. Ibid., p. 480.
50. Archie Threlkeld, "Dr. Dewey's Philosophy and the
Curriculum," Curriculum Journal, VIII (April, 1937),
51. Ernest C. Moore, John Dewey, the Man and His Philosophy,
p. 7. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1930.