Dewey's Disciple

Dewey Disciple Johnson

I’ve been commenting on the history of education on and off now for a couple of months. Recently, I’ve pointed out that John Dewey is considered the “Father of Progressive Education.” He had many disciples who put his ideas into practice.

One of those was Marietta Pierce Johnson who started a school in Fairhope, Alabama, in 1907. She called it the Organic School. Here were her basic tenets:

  • There were no achievement groupings for students
  • Children were never be compared
  • No homework or exams were part of the education process
  • “Play” was a central component of learning, particularly folk dancing; only folk dancing and classes in the arts were required for all students
  • No child was allowed to fail (which wasn’t hard, considering there were no exams)

Sound like fun? Well, yes, but that’s all it really was—fun. Dewey was impressed, however. He commented,

Her main underlying principle is Rousseau’s central idea, namely: The child is best prepared for life as an adult by experiencing in childhood what has meaning for him as a child; and, further, the child has a right to enjoy his childhood.

Quoting Jean Jacques Rousseau is hardly the means to winning my support. He’s the philosopher who fathered illegitimate children, and rather than take the responsibility to raise them himself, turned them over to an orphanage instead. Of course he would focus on the rights of a child—he never grew up himself. He was childish in all his ways.

While I can’t say that Johnson’s ideas have taken over education completely today, her imprint—and that of her mentor Dewey—is clearly evident. How does this educational approach prepare anyone for real life?

 And then, of course, there’s the need for actual effort on the part of the students.

Educational Philosophy: Man as Animal

Meet Edward Thorndike, a follower of John Dewey, of whom I wrote a couple days ago.

Thorndike also had a major influence on American education. His contribution was to take behaviorist psychology, which looked upon man as simply a higher form of animal, and apply it to his educational philosophy.

He concluded that because man was just an animal, and not a unique creation made in the image of God, he should be treated as an animal. Rats were put through mazes; Pavlov conditioned dogs to respond to an external stimulus. Thorndike said that insight should be used on people as well. He came up with an approach we call “conditioning through stimulus-response techniques.”

While it is true that man can be conditioned to a certain degree, he is not an animal. Rather, he has a moral sense and the ability to grasp the difference between right and wrong. Man is not a creature whose actions will be dictated solely by his environment.

Interestingly, it was Thorndike who introduced new methods of testing based on his philosophy—true/false and multiple-choice exams. So I tell my students I refuse to treat them like dumb animals by giving them such exams; instead, I treat them as free moral agents made in God’s image. They should be happy to be given the opportunity to think and write.

How true.

The Dewey Factor (Part II)

Yesterday, I showed how John Dewey, the “Father of Progressive Education,” was one of the authors and signers of the Humanist Manifesto, a blatantly antichristian document. Today, let’s go a little further.

Dewey’s educational philosophy can be summarized in four points, as follows:

There is no such thing as an eternal truth.

What happens when this is the starting point for education? You are left in a vacuum, morally and spiritually.

Education should be child-centered.

This sounds good. After all, isn’t education for the children? However, what this means in Deweyspeak is that children will direct their own education—they will decide what they want to learn. How many children do you know who are aware of what they need to learn?

Experience is more important than booklearning.

There’s always an element of truth in error. Yes, experience can add a lot to one’s education. Field trips can be quite beneficial. All history students should see the most significant historical sites. Yet for Dewey and his followers, this meant that experience was the primary means for learning. Books were not that important. In fact, Dewey didn’t believe children should be taught to read until they exhibited a desire to learn how. I thought it was a teacher’s responsibility to make sure students could read. Not according to Dewey.

Schools should be embryonic communities.

All schools should be turned into social laboratories to ensure children are “socialized.” Make the schools just like the community by having students help run the office, etc. While there can be value in some of this, that’s not the main reason for a school. The emphasis is on socialization—preparing students to fit into their society. For Dewey, that society was going to be a socialist one. Everyone needs to know their place in the “new order.”

To me, this is scary stuff, the more so because we now see much of what he wanted coming to fruition. Our education system may not use the word “progressive” as often as before, but the philosophy that currently dominates education is manifestly progressive.

The Dewey Factor (Part I)

Let’s take a break from purely political anaysis today. Instead, let’s look at one of the reasons we are where we are as a nation, and why some of our political problems exist. To do so, we need to recognize what has happened to our education system over the past 100+ years.

We have to start with John Dewey, who has earned the title “Father of Progressive Education.” That “progressive” label is almost always poison. What were Dewey’s contributions to our current ills?

First, Dewey was one of the principal architects of the 1933 Humanist Manifesto. What are some of the key planks in this Manifesto? Here are some samples:

First: Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created.

Second: Humanism believes that man is a part of nature and that he has emerged as the result of a continuous process.

Fourth: Humanism recognizes that man’s religious culture and civilization, as clearly depicted by anthropology and history, are the product of a gradual development due to his interaction with his natural environment and with his social heritage. The individual born into a particular culture is largely molded by that culture.

Fifth: Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values.

Eighth: Religious Humanism considers the complete realization of human personality to be the end of man’s life and seeks its development and fulfillment in the here and now.

Tenth: It follows that there will be no uniquely religious emotions and attitudes of the kind hitherto associated with belief in the supernatural.

Fourteenth: The humanists are firmly convinced that existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society has shown itself to be inadequate and that a radical change in methods, controls, and motives must be established to the end that the equitable distribution of the means of life are possible. The goal of humanism is a free and universal society in which people voluntarily and intelligently co-operate for the common good. Humanists demand a shared life in a shared world.

Summary: the universe was not created, but just somehow existed; man is not a special creation of God but a mere result of a continuous process (translation: evolution); religion is a human construct, gradually developed over time; there is no such thing as the supernatural (i.e., nothing above nature); there is no life after death, so everything we do is for the here and now; capitalism is a source of evil, so we must switch to a socialist system.

These points form the foundation of Dewey’s worldview. No problem if he doesn’t influence others, but Dewey’s influence has been vast. More on that in a later posting.