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John Dewey - Radical Social Educator

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

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 become Deweyized." [1]

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" [2] and "Health and Sex in Higher Education" [3] 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 education.

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. [4] 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 names. [5]

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." [6] And again, since "it is radical conditions [in the world] which have changed; only equally radical change in education suffices." [7] 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." [8]

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 social life." [9]

Put in the form of a schema, we have the following three sets of correlatives: 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 of school organization
(2) Social formation is morality [10]

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." [11] Following on this basis of empiricism, "all genuine education comes about through experience." [12] It must be "definitely and sincerely … held that education, is a development within, by, and for experience." [13] 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." [14]

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. [15]

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. [16] 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." [17] Dewey comments:

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. [18]

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. [19]

Pragmatism in Education

Corresponding to the industrial revolution in 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." [20]

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 modem 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" nature. [21]

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. [22] Only in this way can we hope to rise from "relative sterility and stagnation to a career of fruitfulness and continued progress in science." [23]

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." [24] So that "apart from participation in social life, the school has no moral end or aim." [25] In religious terminology, "the moral trinity of the school [is] the demand for social intelligence, social power, and social interests." [26]

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 modem times.

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," [27] 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 education." [28]

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." [29]

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." [30] 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 by education." [31]

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. [32]

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." [33] 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." [34]

Opposition to Religious Instruction in Schools

Consistent with his attitude toward religion, as seen in a previous article, [35] 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. [36]

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 modem (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. [37]

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."' [38] 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 be outlawed.

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." [39] 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 unity out of which in the end genuine religious unity 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. [40]

And finally, in line with his distinction between "religion" and "religious" already seen, [41] 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." [42]

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." [43]

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." [44] 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 leaders.

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. [45] In the following table, which was prepared from the data of the survey by O'Connell, [46] 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. [47] Percentages of 2000 Members in 70 Teacher Training Institutions
Taking the Conservative or Naturalistic Outlook
Conservative or Traditional OutlookLiberal or Naturalistic Outlook
Academic43%Direct Life57%
Traditional Individualism36%Socialization64%
Separate Mind50%Naturalistic View50%
Total   49.42%Total   50.57%

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"; [48] (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 habits." [49]

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. [50]

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," [51] 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 modem mind.


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

  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), 606-814.

  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 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., 1938.

  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 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.

  22. Ibid.

  23. Ibid.

  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.

  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., 806.

  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 Education, 1935.

  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), 164-166.

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

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