John Dewey--Radical Social Educator

Author: Fr. John A. Hardon


Rev. John A. Hardon, S.J.

In 1894 John Dewey was invited to the newly founded University of Chicagoto become head of its department of philosophy and psychology. He repliedthat he would accept the appointment if the department would include thesubject of pedagogy. His proposal was approved, and Dewey became dean ofthe department of philosophy, psychology, and pedagogy. Two years later heorganized his first laboratory school, in Chicago, where he put intopractice his radical theories of education. In 1904 he went to ColumbiaUniversity as professor of educational philosophy, and since then has sorevolutionized American education that "almost every public U.S. schoolhas become Deweyized."[1]


It is estimated that Dewey wrote upwards of 4,000,000 words on the subjectof educational theory and practice. His first two articles in pedagogydealt with "The Education and Health of Women"[2] and "Health and Sex inHigher Education"[3] and are symbolic of his concern with the relation — infact, identification — of science and education.

Whatever changes Dewey was willing to admit in the development of hisphilosophy, his pedagogy remained fairly constant over the years, and inspite of the obscurity for which he is famous, we can trace the roots andgeneral outline of his principles of education.

Dewey prided himself on being revolutionary. Anything traditional orconservative was ipso facto anathematized. In one short article which hepublished not long before his death, he literally exhausted the Englishvocabulary with disparaging terms for those who disagreed with his radicalschemes. "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 afew pages of print.[4] His critics have observed that this was a favoritemethod of argumentation with Dewey, to make dogmatic statements withoutproof and then tear down the opposition by calling them names.[5]

The radical theories of education which Dewey proposed are not arbitrary,he said; they are natural concomitants of the radical changes which haveoccurred in every other field of human thought and endeavor. And all thathe was doing was bringing education into step with the progress of thetimes, he maintained.

According to him, there have been three great revolutions in modern lifeof which the traditional school has taken little or no account: (1) theintellectual revolution, brought about by the discoveries of modernscience; (2) the industrial revolution, consequent upon the invention anddevelopment of modern machinery; and (3) the social revolution, resultingfrom the growth of modern democracy.

Referring to this triad of changes in globo, he said: "One can hardlybelieve there has been a revolution in all history so rapid, so extensive,so complete. [Consequently,] that this revolution should not affecteducation in other than formal and superficial fashion is inconceivable."[6]And again, since "it is radical conditions [in the world] which havechanged; only equally radical change in education suffices."[7] According tobasic Hegelianism, a change in one phase of reality calls for acorresponding change in every other: "The obvious fact is that our sociallife has undergone a thorough and radical change.

If our education is to have any meaning for life, it must pass through anequally complete transformation."[8]

However, the step from revolutionary change to a theory of education isnot immediate. It must first pass through the medium of philosophy, whichformulates the problems created by each revolution, and then pedagogyproposes a solution for the problems which are found. The whole process isstrictly "scientific," proceeding from experimental facts to theirtheoretical interpretation. "Philosophy of education," according to Dewey,"is not an external application of ready-made ideas to a system ofpractice.... It is only an explicit formulation of the problems . . . inrespect to the difficulties of contemporary social life."[9]

Put in the form of a schema, we have the following three sets ofcorrelatives: revolution, philosophy, and pedagogy, as conceived by Dewey:

Historical RevolutionPhilosophyPedagogy

I.    ScienceExperimentalismScientific Method

II.   IndustryPragmatism(1) Industrial subjects(2) Learning by doing(3) 
      Active school

III. DemocracySocialism(1) Socialization ofschool organization(2) Social 
      formationis morality.[10]


Dewey never set himself to prove that the only source of knowledge isexperience and therefore that the only true concept of education isexperimentalism. He took these postulates for granted. "I assume," hedeclared, "that amid all uncertainties there is one permanent frame ofreference, namely, the organic connection between education and personalexperience; or that the new philosophy of education [his own] is committedto some kind of empirical and experimental philosophy."[11] Following onthis basis of empiricism, "all genuine education comes about throughexperience."[12] It must be "definitely and sincerely . . . held thateducation is a development within, by, and for experience."[13] By contrastwith "traditional education" which "was a matter of routine in which theplans and programs were handed down from the past," progressive educationis "based upon a philosophy of experience" which was not possible "beforethe rise of experimental science."[14]

John Dewey was enough of a psychologist to know that the most formativeyears of a person's life are his childhood. In many of his writings,therefore, he was specially concerned with using experience as the mediumof education for children, from kindergarten through grammar school.

Assuming that perception from within and not indoctrination from withoutis the secret of true education, nothing, in Dewey's theory, should beallowed to interfere with the childish instinct for learning byexperience.

Children in their early years are neither moral norimmoral, but simply unmoral; their sense of right and wronghas not yet begun to develop. Therefore, they should beallowed as much freedom as possible; prohibitions andcommands, the result of which either upon themselves ortheir companions they cannot understand, are bound to bemeaningless; their tendency is to make the child secretiveand deceitful.[15]

The conclusion is that a child must not be authoritatively told beforehandwhat is good or evil but should discover these opposite realities forhimself.

The resemblance between this theory of spontaneous development andRousseau's idea of natural human goodness is not coincidental. Deweyfrequently pays his respects to Rousseau as the first, and in that sense,the greatest educational reformer of modern times.[16] Thus in the openingsentence of his book on the Schools of Tomorrow, which was later adoptedin Russia, he begins with a quotation from Rousseau: "`We know nothing ofchildhood, and with our mistaken notions of it, the further we go ineducation the more we go astray. The wisest writers devote themselves towhat a man ought to know, without asking what a child is capable oflearning.'"[17] Dewey comments:

These sentences are typical of the Emile of Rousseau....His insistence that education be based upon the nativecapacities of those to be taught and upon the need ofstudying children in order to discover what these nativepowers are, sounded the keynote of all modern efforts foreducational progress. It meant that education is notsomething to be forced upon children and youth fromwithout, but is the growth of capacities with which humanbeings are endowed at birth.[18]

Consistent with the same principle, in progressive schools "the childrendo the work, and the teacher is there to help them to know, not to havethem give back what they have memorized" and not experienced. "Tests areoften conducted with books open.... Lessons are not assigned"; otherwise,the child would be having knowledge poured into him from the outsideinstead of learning it from within.[19]


Corresponding to the industrial revolution m commerce and economics, Deweypostulates a similar change in education, which concentrates on thepractical and useful aspects of pedagogy.

Perhaps no phase of progressive education has been more roundlycriticized. In Dewey's own words, "We are told that scientific subjectshave been encroaching upon literary subjects . . . that zeal for thepractical and utilitarian has resulted in displacement of a liberaleducation by one that is merely vocational . . . that the whole tendencyis away from the humane to the materialistic, from the permanentlyrational to the temporarily expedient."[20]

Writing in Fortune in 1944, under the title of a "Challenge to LiberalThought," Dewey defended this emphasis on science by appealing to thefacts of history.

The revolution in natural sciences is the parent ofinventions of instruments and processes that provide thesubstantial body of modern industrial technology. This factis so obvious as to be undeniable.... What perhaps is notequally obvious is that the marvelous advance in naturalscience has come about because of the breaking down of thewall 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" nature.[21]

This is a familiar theme with Dewey. He asks his readers to compare twosimple facts of history: the primitive and undeveloped industrialcharacter of so-called "spiritual" cultures and the great advancementwhich industry and science have made since and where things of the"spirit" have been de-emphasized and subordinated to material progress. Itis therefore the duty of modern education to concentrate on practical andtechnical knowledge in preference to the purely intellectual in order toneutralize the bad effects of centuries of subordination of matter to thespirit.[22] Only in this way can we hope to rise from "relative sterilityand stagnation to a career of fruitfulness and continued progress inscience."[23]


According to Dewey, the fundamental concepts of instruction and educationare summed up in the one word "socialization." The school and schoolorganization, including curriculum, methods, discipline, and ideals,should be socialized because "the moral responsibility of the school andof those who conduct it is to society."[24] So that "apart fromparticipation in social life, the school has no moral end or aim."[25] Inreligious terminology, "the moral trinity of the school [is] the demandfor social intelligence, social power, and social interests."[26]

However, it was not merely participation in social life in general whichprompted Dewey to identify the aim of modern pedagogy with the good ofsociety. It is social participation in a democratic society which demandsa socialized form of education in modern times.

Correlative to the scientific and industrial revolutions in the fields ofknowledge and economy, there has been a democratic revolution in thepolitical structure of government. And the democratic revolution meansnothing, in Dewey's hypothesis, if not the destruction of barriers betweendifferent strata of the population. "It is fatal for a democracy to permitthe formation of fixed classes,"[27] social, cultural or religious. Andsince education is a participation in social life, it must correspond toand 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 conceptionof education."[28]

An immediate corollary to this socialistic ideal is to give all thecitizens of a democracy equal and unlimited educational opportunities. Forthis reason, "the devotion of democracy to education is a familiarfact."[29]

But Dewey is not satisfied with "the superficial explanation that agovernment resting upon popular suffrage cannot be successful unless thosewho elect and who obey their governors are educated."[30] The real reasonwhy education in a democracy is of its very essence is that "a democraticsociety repudiates the principle of external authority [and] must find asubstitute in voluntary disposition and interest; these can be createdonly by education."[31]

Summarily, therefore, the end of democratic education is to form aclassless society, in which social stratification has disappeared.

A democracy is more than a form of government; it isprimarily a mode of associated living, of conjointcommunicated experience.... Obviously a society to whichstratification into separate classes would be fatal, mustsee to it that intellectual opportunities are accessible toall on equable and easy terms. A society marked off intoclasses need be specially attentive only to the educationof its ruling elements.[32]

But, as the history of economics teaches us, in such a society "a smallgroup . . . were free to devote themselves to higher things . . . becausethey lived upon the fruits of the labor of an industrially enslavedclass."[33] Only in a classless society, promoted by socialized education,can we be spared "the confusion in which a few will appropriate tothemselves the results of the blind and externally directed activities ofothers."[34]


Consistent with his attitude toward religion, as seen in a previousarticle,[36] we should not expect Dewey to favor religious instruction inAmerican public schools. However, we might not be prepared for the violentopposition to such instruction which he steadily maintained from hisearliest years in education.

Writing in 1908 in the London Hibbert Journal, under the title, "Religionand Our Schools," Dewey observed:

If one inquires why the American tradition is so strongagainst any connection of state and church, why it dreadseven the rudiments of religious teaching instate-maintained schools, the immediate and superficialanswer is not far to seek. The cause was not, mainly,religious indifference, much less hostility toChristianity, although the eighteenth century deism playedan important role. The cause lay largely in the diversityand vitality of the various denominations, each fairly surethat, with a fair field and no favour, it could make itsown way; and each animated by a jealous fear that, if anyconnection of state and church were permitted, some rivaldenomination would get an unfair advantage.[36]

But this, he said, is only a superficial answer to the question:

...there was a deeper and by no means wholly unconsciousinfluence at work. The United States became a nation lateenough in the history of the world to profit by the growthof that modern (although Greek) thing — the stateconsciousness. This nation was born under conditions whichenabled it to share in and to appropriate the idea that thestate life, the vitality of the social whole, is of moreimportance than the flourishing of any segment or class. Sofar as church institutions were concerned, the doctrine ofpopular sovereignty was a reality, not a literary or legalfiction.Upon the economic side, the nation was born toosoon to learn the full force of the state idea as againstthe class idea. Our fathers naively dreamed of thecontinuation of pioneer conditions and the free opportunityof every individual, and took none of the precautions tomaintain the supremacy of the state over that of the class,which newer commonwealths are taking. For that lack offoresight we are paying dearly, and are likely to pay moredearly. But the lesson of the two and a half centurieslying between the Protestant revolt and the formation ofthe nation was well learned as respected the necessity ofmaintaining the integrity of the state against all divisiveecclesiastical divisions. Doubtless many of our ancestorswould have been somewhat shocked to realize the full logicof their own attitude with respect to the subordination ofchurches to the state (falsely termed the separation ofchurch and state); but the state idea was inherently ofsuch vitality and constructive force as to carry thepractical result, with or without conscious perception ofits philosophy.[37]

This analysis, it must be admitted, is penetrating. It gives a logical butunhistorical basis for the opposition to religious instruction in theAmerican public schools. The decision of the U. S. Supreme Court in theMcCollum case was not based on Dewey's principles or his interpretation ofAmerican history. This decision outlawed the use of public schoolmachinery and specifically of classrooms for religious instruction. In itsmajority opinion, the Court said that the practice of teaching religion inthe public school fell "squarely under the ban of the First Amendment, aswe interpreted it in Everson v. Board of Education (1947). There we said:`Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a Church. Neithercan pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer onereligion over another.'"[38] If we begin by falsely assuming that thetraditional doctrine of separation of church and state really meanssubordination of church to state, it is only logical that such acontroversial subject as religion should be banned from publicinstitutions of learning. The common good of the state as a political unitrequires that anything which divides the citizens into hostile campsshould be outlawed.

However, Dewey goes beyond this position. Not only does he oppose any kindof religious teaching in public schools, but he claims that only suchschools — minus religion — are promoting the common good, which is the unityof the state. The one thing, he said, "which has done most to discreditthe churches, and to discredit the cause . . . of organized religion [is]the multiplication of rival and competing religious bodies, each with itsprivate interpretation and outlook."[39] Such division of peoples ofdifferent religions is fatal to political unity. And church-supportedschools which teach their respective religions are fostering this discord.On the other hand, he maintained:

Our [public] schools, in bringing together those ofdifferent nationalities, languages, traditions, and creeds,in assimilating them together upon the basis of what iscommon and public in endeavour and achievement, areperforming an infinitely significant religious work. Theyare promoting the social unit out of which in the endgenuine religious unit must grow. Shall we interfere withthis work? shall we run the risk of undoing it byintroducing into education a subject which can be taughtonly by segregating pupils . . . ? This would bedeliberately to adopt a scheme which is predicated upon themaintenance of social divisions in just the matter,religion, which is empty and futile save as it expressesthe basic unities of life.[40]

And finally, in line with his distinction between "religion" and"religious" already seen,[41] he concludes that "schools are more religiousin substance and in promise without any of the conventional badges andmachinery of religious instruction, than they could be in cultivatingthese forms at the expense of a state-consciousness."[42]

When Paul Blanshard published in 1949 his attack on the Catholic Churchunder the title, American Freedom and Catholic Power, John Dewey praisedthe book, saying, "Mr. Blanshard has done a difficult and necessary pieceof work with exemplary scholarship, good judgment, and tact." Thisrecommendation appears on the jacket of the book and is signed, "JohnDewey, Dean of American Philosophers." Dewey's influence may be seenthroughout Blanshard's work. His two chapters against American Catholicschools conclude with the following quotation from Dewey, arguing againstany government support for Catholic education: "`It is essential that thisbasic issue be seen for what it is — namely, as the encouragement of apowerful reactionary world organization in the most vital realm ofdemocratic life, with the resulting promulgation of principles inimical todemocracy.'"[43]


According to his followers, "the most indigenous and original Americancontribution to educational method was made by John Dewey."[44] We havealready touched upon the extent of this "contribution" to modern pedagogy.But the question still remains as to how deeply, de facto, Dewey'spragmatic anti-supernaturalism has penetrated into the minds of Americaneducational leaders.

Some years ago a government survey was made of the educationalphilosophies held by 2,000 faculty members in seventy American schools forthe professional training of teachers. It gives us perhaps the best answerto the question raised in the preceding paragraph. The survey instrumentwas a list of seventy-five agreement-disagreement statements groupedaround seven basic categories which represented two opposing philosophiesof life and education. One outlook favored traditional Christianconservatism in educational thought and practice, the other espoused,almost verbatim, the experimental philosophy of Dewey. The instructionsgiven with the questionnaire made it clear that the purpose of theinvestigation was not to decide which outlook was inherently right orwrong, but to discover which attitude these teachers of pedagogypreferred. The results of the survey were published by the U. S. Office ofEducation in 1935.[45] In the following table, which was prepared from thedata of the survey by O'Connell,[46] are indicated in terms of percentagesthe reaction of these 2,000 teachers of teachers to the seven basiccategories in the questionnaire.


Conservative or Traditional Outlook       Liberal or NaturalisticOutlook

Static                                      61%              Dynamic                           39%  
Academic                               43%              Direct Life                         51%
Science                                   47%              Philosophy                        53%
Traditional Individualism          36%              Socialization                      64%
Heredity                                 56%               Environment                     44%  
Passive                                   53%               Active                               47%  
Separate Mind                        50%              Naturalistic View               50%

                             Total     49.42%                                    Total      50.57%

Most significant is the last named category in the table: the conservativebelief in a "Separate Mind," that is, duality of body and soul, againstthe naturalistic view of identity of matter and spirit. And, as is shownin the table, an even half of the professors of education acceptednaturalistic monism as their philosophy of life.

Two of the seventy-five statements which received the highest naturalisticvote were the following: (1)"46. Without passing upon the merits ofcommunism, we might find a valuable suggestion for us in Russia's currentuse of her public schools in carrying out a deliberately planned socialprogram in the nation";[48] (2) "74. It is more true to say that the self isthe habits acquired by the individual in the course of his life than tosay that the self must be there to acquire the habits."[49]

Among educators themselves, the most dominant influence is undoubtedlyexercised by school administrators. In this regard it is worth recallingthat during the 1936 convention of the National Education Association, atSt. Louis, over fifteen hundred sympathizing superintendents of schoolsattended 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, ArchieThrelkeld, superintendent of schools of Denver, Colorado, published aglowing tribute to the principles of John Dewey, emphasizing hisnaturalistic philosophy of life and pragmatic concept of education.[50]

Dewey's disciples are correct, therefore, when they claim that no otherAmerican philosopher has so deeply influenced the thought of hisgeneration. Without agreeing with them that he was also "the mostunderstanding thinker on education that the world has yet known,"[51]American Catholics recognize that his theories of pedagogy are a challengeto Christian education to defend itself against the errors of socialistnaturalism and to develop its latent resources, at the risk of losing itshold on the modern mind.


1. "Perpetual Arriver," Time, LIV, 18 (October 31, 1949), 36.

2. John Dewey, "The Education and Health of Women," Science, VI (October16, 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), 144-154.

6. John Dewey, The School and Society, p. 22. Chicago: University ofChicago 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: MacmillanCo. l938.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid., p. 17.

14. Ibid., pp. 18, 19, 22.

15. John Dewey, Schools of Tomorrow, pp. 1-2. New York: E. P. Dutton andCo., 1915.

16. One of the latest studies of Dewey's dependence on Rousseau is adoctoral thesis: Arthur Huebsch, "Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Dewey: AComparative Study and a Critical Estimate of Their Philosophies and TheirEducational and Related Theories and Practices." Unpublished doctoralthesis, 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.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. John Dewey, Moral Principles in Education, p. 7. Boston: HoughtonMifflin 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.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid.

32. Ibid.

33. Ibid., p. 102.

34. Ibid.

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. NewYork: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1947.

45. "Educational Philosophies Held by Faculty Members in Schools for theProfessional 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 Education, 1935.

46. Geoffrey O'Connell, Naturalism in American Education, p. 216. NewYork: 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), 164-166.

51. Ernest C. Moore, John Dewey, the Man and His Philosophy, p. 7.Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1930.

Taken from:
The Catholic Educational Review
Oct., 1952.