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The Dewey Legend in American Education

Rev. John A. Hardon, S.J. [*]

In a feature article published in Education Digest in 1950, we read: “It is conceded on all hands that John Dewey is our outstanding educational philosopher; his influence on American education has been immense.” [1] This, in one sentence, is a summary of the Dewey legend. For, although it is true that Dewey’s influence on American education has been immense, it is only in a very qualified sense that we can call him an outstanding philosopher. Certainly a philosopher’s real greatness is not to be estimated by the mere extent of his influence, but also and especially by the effects, good or bad, which his philosophy has had on contemporary civilization and will have on subsequent civilization. Measured by this standard, Dewey’s title to fame must be balanced by the extent of the evil which his principles of social naturalism and pragmatic experimentalism have produced in the United States.

The Play-Complex in Education

Under modern progressivism. school discipline and work, which have been of the essence of education since the dawn of history, are to be substituted with freedom and play. According to Dewey, “. . . children should be allowed as much freedom as possible. . . . No individual child is [to be] forced to a task that does not appeal. . . . A discipline based on moral ground [is] a mere excuse for forcing [pupils] to do something simply because some grown-up person wants it done.” [2]

Written in 1915, these ideas have been adopted in thousands of American schools. Writing on the subject in 1951, a Catholic educator made this observation:

One of the principles that are doing as much as anything else to undermine American schools is the fixed notion that education has to be fun. We won’t have our children subjected to anything hard or bothersome. We have practically adopted as a national education motto: “If it isn’t easy, it isn’t educational.” [3]

He rightly traces this kind of pedagogy to the theories of John Dewey, and specifically to Dewey’s penchant for Hegelianism:

Among the more formal influences encouraging educators in their soft pedagogy is the educational theory of John Dewey.
Dewey, influenced by his early Hegelianism, declared war on all dualisms. . . . One of the dichotomies Dewey attacked was that between work and play. Unhappy about this opposition, he argued that given the proper setting (note the environmentalism), work would become play. Naturally he applied this notion to schooling and concluded that in a healthy educational environment, where children are engaged in matters of vital interest to them personally, the spirit of play will prevail. No doubt Dewey did not mean this to be taken as sentimentally as it has been by so many of his followers, but certainly his doctrine is a main prop, though not the only prop, supporting, the “play way” in American education. [4]

What are some of the consequences of this “fun-complex” in education?

The consequences . . . are many and obvious. . . . Homework is considered an old-fashioned institution, a carry-over from the days when schooling was unpleasant, an interference with the child’s and the family’s recreation. . . . Drill, repetition, recitation, and memory-work are dismissed as drudgery. [5]

The writer is acquainted with an elementary-school teacher with years of experience who was forced to give up her position because, as she said, “I could not comply with orders to allow the children to talk as much as they wished during school hours, having been told: ‘Silence in the classroom is not to be tolerated: it is repressive.’”

Education Without Teacher Domination

Along the same lines is the change from “teacher domination” to “pupil initiative” promoted by progressive education. According to Deweyan psychology, “The present approach to our young children excludes the authoritarian approach to child guidance, counsel, and teaching.” [6] Writing in October, 1951, a former high school teacher tells of her experience with this liberal type of schooling. Her article, entitled “My Adventures as a Teacher,” is a series of almost incredible incidents that are the daily lot of suffering teachers in progressive schools. [7] One day the students brought a portable radio to school and insisted on listening to a ball game during her history class; she had to submit. On another occasion, she relates, “I corrected a noisy girl who talked incessantly. Her reply was: ‘You are wasting your time telling me not to talk, because I intend to continue talking.’ Progressive education!” [8] She continues: “After three weeks of inattention, rudeness, and the growing knowledge that none of my students were reading their textbooks, I decided I had taken enough of this progressive school and decided to ask for a transfer. [9] With a long term of experience on which to draw, she sums up her verdict on this new pedagogy minus teacher domination:

Progressive education is based on some false assumptions. It assumes that all boys and girls can be entertained to a point where they will be interested in all subjects. This is untrue. . . . The old-fashioned theory that a student should study what he needs to know rather than what interests him is sounder than the new theory.
Progressive education which overemphasizes “learn by doing” and under-emphasizes “learn by thinking, reading, and writing” is turning out men and women who are not leader material. Its products are not thinking men. [10]

She concludes with pungent humor, “At one time the qualifications for teaching were personality, intelligence and a social conscience. Under the progressive system the main qualification is iron nerves . . . which drives so many teachers from the profession.” [11]

Another critic, prominent educator and author of several books on pedagogy, believes that “those in charge of what is called ‘education’ have little perception of what schooling is supposed to be or do.” [12] Concretely, he says:

A great failing of American schools is a basic irresponsibility which they develop in the students. For society there is grave danger when its youth are unchallenged in the impression that there can be reward without quest, wages without work, a master’s prestige without a master’s skill, marriage without fidelity, national security without individual sacrifice. [13]

Whence arises this sense of irresponsibility? From the lack of authoritative discipline which has been removed, on Deweyan principles, from a large segment of the public schools.

We find public school systems which promote all children at the end of each academic year regardless of whether their work has been good, bad or indifferent. Twenty years ago a high school teacher was expected to fail those who had not mastered 60 per cent of the subject matter of the course. So stern a teacher is no longer tolerated. He is subjected first to persuasion, then to pressure, to abandon such outdated ways. [14]

Scientific Method and Morality

It is axiomatic with Dewey that “educational theory . . . must contest the notion that morals are something wholly separate from and above science and scientific method.” [15] According to traditional philosophy, morality is finally based on established principles which stem from the nature of man. They are as fixed and immutable as human nature itself. “There is nothing novel in this view,” says Dewey. “Nevertheless it is an expression of a provincial and conventional view, of a culture that is pre-scientific in the sense that science bears today.” [16] The correct, modern appraisal of morality is that the scientific “method of inquiry and test that has wrought marvels in one field is to be applied so as to extend and advance our knowledge in moral and social matters.” This means that the “truths in morals [are] of the same kind as in science--namely, working hypotheses that on the one hand condense the results of continued prior experience and inquiry, and on the other hand direct further fruitful inquiry.” [17] Consequently, the only thing necessary to promote good morals among people is to furnish them, as in science, with an adequate body of facts, and to encourage them to put these facts into experimental practice with a view to arriving at some working hypothesis which may serve as a temporary standard of moral conduct.

Perhaps the most notorious application of this principle has been in the matter of sex education. Arguing that what young people need to control their libido is the knowledge of its functions and the evils of abuse, progressive educators led by Dewey have made sex instruction a commonplace in American public schools. Occasional complaints in the press indicate to what limits this instruction has gone. In a. syndicated article in Look, August 30, 1949, one mother said that “far too many of our school children are being taught far too much about sex.” [18] She goes on to explain that her sixteen-year-old daughter in high school was given assigned reading in a medical textbook on sexology, illustrated and so detailed that a few years ago a similar book could not even be purchased from the bookseller without a doctor’s certificate. It is not clear to her, she confesses, how, for example, young people in their teens “are benefited by learning the most satisfactory positions for conjugal relations.” [19]

The extent of sex instruction in progressive schools may be gauged from the following facts. A nineteen-minute sex film, called “Human Growth,” which pictures sexual details on “how life begins and continues,” has been reprinted over 215 times and is being used in hundreds of junior high schools in most of the forty-eight States. “Human Growth” made national headlines in 1949 when the citizens of Middletown, New York, led by a Catholic minority, succeeded in having the film banned from the local public schools. The McGraw-Hill Book Company has also issued 450 prints of a twenty-one-minute sex film, entitled “Human Reproduction.” Originally intended for colleges, this picture has been requested by seventy-one public school systems. It is medically graphic in illustrating the functions of the female, human body in the various stages of pregnancy.

What are the results of this mass sex education? It is commonly agreed that “sexual delinquency has increased tremendously in our public schools.” [20] And the reason? The judgment of some social workers and criminologists is that a major factor has been promiscuous sex instruction based on Deweyan scientism. For years back they have denounced this practice as a threat to American morality. Fourteen years ago in a composite statement to the press, a noted gynecologist and a social service director warned the nation of the evils of public courses in sexology. [21] Doctor Cary, New York gynecologist, attributed the lowering standards of educated women in America to the fact that “universities were providing women with knowledge of contraceptives, without emphasizing emotional entanglements.” [22] And the social service director blamed sex education in high school for much of the promiscuity “among American youth. The boys and girls became curious and want to put their knowledge in practice. I think the less said the better to people of that impressionable age.” [23]

At the University of California, the school authorities were constrained to introduce sex instruction in answer to a demand from the student body, 2,700 voting in favor of co-educational classes of instruction on the intimacies of marital and pre-marital relations. According to an official report, “No aspect of sex life and marriage is ignored. Motion pictures, including a two-reel film on childbirth . . . help strip the mystery from matters once discussed ignorantly and guiltily in private conversation.” [24] Consistent with Deweyan, scientific morality, the students periodically voted on the morality of certain questions, the majority opinion being publicized as the accepted moral standard. Following are the percentage figures for one such student referendum: [25]

Subject Percent of Total Vote
  Desirable Permissable Wrong
Pre-marital sex experience for men 10 31 59
Pre-marital sex experience for women 2 19 79
Use of Contraceptives 65 28 7

The University of California has been a Dewey stronghold since 1899, when he spoke to the philosophers of that institution on the general subject of “The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy.” [26] His last public appearance at the University of California was in 1930, to give the dedication address on the opening of the new campus in Los Angeles. [27]

Educational Liberalism and American Social Problems

In 1931, American public school teachers were warned by one of their leaders that Deweyan pedagogy was producing a generation of moral weaklings. The breakdown of authority and the demand for freedom preached by Dewey, he said, are responsible for the changed attitude on the part of grown-ups toward marriage and divorce. “It is an interesting - and sad - commentary, that the identical theory which glorifies freedom as the inalienable right of children in their education can also serve to rationalize a social standard which will inevitably deny to children in ever increasing numbers the right to a normal home.” [28]

Another authority was still more explicit. Criticizing Deweyan individualism in the schools, he maintained that “the cult of individualism which finds authority only in its own wants and satisfactions is responsible for the excessive amount of crime, for the number of divorces, for the slackened control of the family.” [29]

That was twenty years ago. Divorce statistics before and since fully confirm these conclusions that family disintegration keeps pace with educational liberalism. From 1890 to 1948, the number of divorces granted in the United States had increased from 33,000 to 408,000 per year; and the ratio of divorces to marriage increased by 300 per cent. The national ratio of divorces to marriages in 1890 was 5.5 to 100; by 1948, it had arisen to 22.0 to 100, or about one divorce to every four marriages.

In a book called Ethics, first published by Dewey and Tufts in 1912 and later translated into Chinese and Japanese, prospective teachers were told that while “the increase in divorce seems to indicate a radical change in the attitude toward marriage,” this is only another example of the revolutionary changes which are taking place in every phase of modern life. [30] “Divorce . . . does not necessarily imply that the institution of marriage is a failure, for divorced persons not infrequently marry again in the hope of a more successful union,” which practice the authors sanctify with their approval. [31] After American school teachers have been indoctrinated in these principles for forty years, the wonder is not why the nation’s social problems should exist but why they are not infinitely worse.

Growing Opposition to Dewey's Principles of Education

Within recent years, a reaction has set in against John Dewey which promises to neutralize, if not dissolve, his present hold on the educational policies of American public schools. A graphic instance of this is the dismissal in 1950 of Willard E. Goslin, superintendent of schools in Pasadena, California. Goslin, a fervent disciple of Dewey, was a former president of the American Association of School Administrators and superintendent of schools in Minneapolis, Minnesota, for five years before he came to Pasadena in 1948. In one year, he introduced a score of changes in school discipline and curriculum that brought on his head the protests of thousands of irate parents. There was to be no subject matter prescribed for class; there was to be no set program of studies; there was to be no specific period in the school day for any particular subject; there was to be no system of marks or report cards, and there were to be no examinations. It was suggested that children remain with a given teacher for a few years, working on projects which grew from their own interests. This would give rise to spontaneous learning, rather than impose upon children any systematic learning of basic skills and fundamental information.

On July 2, 1950, Willard Goslin’s resignation was demanded by the Pasadena Board of Education, under pressure from parents. Two years’ experience with progressive education was all they needed to have none of it. In the words of one of their spokesmen, “The parents did not approve of this kind of education. They sent their children to school to learn something, and when they remonstrated that nothing was being learned, they were rebuffed for being behind times. The verdict in Pasadena was that ‘education for democracy’ is not education at all; it is training for the collectivized society.” [32] The Pasadena incident made national headlines when Goslin and his fellow-Deweyites defended their dismissal by accusing the California authorities of “reactionary fascism.”

However, more significant than dissatisfaction with Dewey’s pedagogical methods has been the growing opposition to the principles on which his pedagogy is founded. And among these, the most fundamental is undoubtedly his doctrine of socialistic naturalism, whose first postulate is the denial of a personal God. Accordingly, the only religion which progressive education recognizes is the “religion” of social improvement and the progress of civil society. Divisive ecclesiastical elements, since they are inimical to civil unity, are to be eliminated. And since the basis of ecclesiasticism is religious instruction, this must be gradually but firmly eradicated from American education. “Schools,” says Dewey, “serve best the cause of religion in serving the cause of social unification.” [33] They are “more religions 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.” [34]

Now it is precisely here in the matter of religious education that Dewey’s philosophical principles have been most strongly and effectively opposed. It is safe to say that during the past several years, more than ever before in the Nation’s history, non-Catholic educators and civil authorities have restated the absolute necessity of some kind of religious training in the schools if America is to save herself from moral disintegration.

Nicholas Murray Butler, while president of Columbia University, declared in a public address: “This generation is beginning to forget the place which religious instruction must occupy in education if that education is to be truly sound and liberal . . . the United States is not pagan but religious, and must have freedom of religious teaching and of religious faith.” [35] This statement is deeply significant, coming from Dewey’s former superior at Columbia for many years.

Canon Bernard I. Bell, Episcopal scholar and educator, in an article and later in a national radio program in 1950, reduced the defects of American education to four points: (1) lack of discipline, (2) developing irresponsibility, (3) failure to train leaders, and (4) absence of religious instruction. [36] The last is “the most deep-rooted ailment of our school system.” [37] His criticism is bitter:

About all that most Americans possess nowadays in the way of religion is a number of prejudices, chiefly against faiths other than those with which they have traditional affiliations. . . . Perhaps half of them-not more-go once in a while to some church which they joined with only a foggy idea of its tenets or requirements. [38]

Historically, he points out: “Our schools were founded by those who considered religion of primary importance. . . . Yet out of our public schools come successive generations of young people born of Christian families, of the Christian tradition - and ignorant of the faith of Christianity.” [39]

However, non-Catholics have not limited expressing their dissatisfaction to mere words. Delegates of the Lutheran Church, in their national convention in 1950, passed a series of resolutions on the question of religious education of the young. They castigate the gross injustice which prevails today in the public school system. On the one hand, they state, “The children of religious parents may not receive religious education in connection with the daily public school program.” On the other hand, they maintain, “The children of godless parents are receiving at public expense the kind of education their parents want them to have.” [40] Their solution is the one which American Catholics had long recognized as indispensable. They urge “the building and maintenance of parochial schools for the children of their sect.” [41]

Moreover, in the public schools themselves, in spite of the low figure of 26.8 per cent of American cities and towns which allow released time from public schools for religious instruction, statistics for the past twenty years are very promising. Official surveys indicate an increase of 150 per cent in religious instruction programs from 1932 to 1949. In 1932, only 10.7 per cent of our cities and towns permitted released-time programs; in 1949, such programs were allowed in 26.8 per cent of the cities and town. [42]

Still more encouraging is the fact that 45.9 per cent of the cities with a population over 100,000 had released-time religious instruction programs for pupils in the public schools. In other words, the 26.8 figure is deceptively low, because it is based on the mere number of cities reporting and does not take into account the size of the cities in question. [43]


John Dewey, in one of his most frequently quoted statements, said: “Education as such has no aims.” [44] By this be meant that education, like man, is self-sufficient and an end in itself. Unlike Dewey, American Catholics and other Americans believe, with Pope Pius XI, that “education consists essentially in preparing man for what he must be and for what he must do here below, in order to attain to the sublime end for which he was created.” [45] Catholics have, therefore, developed an educational system of their own which at present numbers 4,027,511 students in nearly 12,000 institutions from elementary school to university. [46] The annual cost of operating this gigantic educational program, exclusive of the capital costs for buildings and debt service, runs over a half billion dollars - this in spite of the very low subsistence salaries paid for the services of religious teachers, who make up 90 per cent of the teaching staff. Without government assistance, this educational enterprise is made possible only through the generosity of the Catholic laity and the devotion of teachers consecrated to the work of training the young. Only God knows what sacrifices this involves, but no sacrifice is too great to protect our Catholic youth from the naturalism that has invaded secular education in the United States.

Catholic Educational Review
November 1952, pp. 577-588

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

[*] Rev. John A. Hardon, S.J., teaches dogmatic theology at West Baden College, West Baden Springs, Indiana. This is the last of three articles on John Dewey by Father Hardon. The other two were published in our 1952 September and October issues.

[1] Boyd H. Bode, “Pragmatism in Education, Dewey’s Contribution,” Education Digest, XV (February, 1950), 5.

[2] John Dewey, Schools of Tomorrow, p. 26. New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1915.

[3] Charles F. Donovan, S.J., “Dilution in American Education,” America, LXXXVI (November 3, 1951), 121.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] John Dewey, “The Philosopher-in-the-making,” Saturday Review of Literature, XXXII (October 22, 1949), 43.

[7] Virginia R. Rowland, “My Adventures as a Teacher,” The Sign, XXXI (October, 1951), 34-37.

[8] Ibid., 35.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 37.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Bernard Iddings Bell, “Our Schools-Their Four Grievous Faults,” Reader’s Digest, LVIII (January, 1951). 124.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] John Dewey, “Challenge to Liberal Thought,” Fortune, XXX (August, 1944), 190.

[16] Ibid., 188.

[17] Ibid.

[18] “Sex Education,” Look (August 30, 1949), 29.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 30.

[21] Detroit Times, February 6, 1938.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] D. Jennings, “Sex in the Classroom.” Reader’s Digest, XLVIII (February, 1946), 16.

[25] Ibid., 17.

[26] John Dewey, The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy, pp. 242-270. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1910.

[27] John Dewey, Higher Education Faces the Future, pp. 273-282. New York: Horace Liveright and Co., 1930.

[28] William C. Bagley, Education, Crime and Social Progress, p. 36. New York: Macmillan Co., 1931.

[29] Isaac L. Kandel, “The New School,” Teachers College Record, XXXIII (March, 1932), 508.

[30] John Dewey and James H. Tufts, Ethics, p. 499. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1949.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Harold J. O’Loughlin, “Progressive Education in Pasadena,” Catholic Digest, XVI (October, 1951), 93.

[33] John Dewey, “Religion in Our Schools,” The Hibbert Journal, VI (July, 1908), 807.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Nicholas Murray Butler, “Religion in Education,” Catholic Digest, VI (March, 1942), 9 and 10.

[36] Bell, op. cit., 124.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] The Catholic Transcript (Hartford, Conn.), July 6, 1950.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Edward B. Rooney, S.J., “The Relation of Religion to Public Education in the United States,” Lumen Vitae, V, 1 (January-March, 1950), 91.

[43] Ibid., 92.

[44] John Dewey Democracy and Education, p. 125. New York: Macmillan Co., 1916.

[45] Pope Pius XI, “Christian Education of Youth,” Five Great Encyclicals, p. 39. Edited by Gerald C. Treacy, S.J. New York: Paulist Press, 1939.

[46] N.C.W.C. News Service (Washington, D.C.), September 8, 1952.

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