While many will only vaguely recognize the man’s name, rare indeed is the person whose childhood has not been impacted in some way by the theories of John Dewey (1859-1952). With a lengthy career straddling the 19th and 20th centuries, Dewey was a celebrated New England intellectual who taught at Columbia University and delivered lectures as far abroad as Japan, China, and the Soviet Union. The Laboratory School he founded at the University of Chicago in 1896 was to become world-famous, as was the vision of universal democracy he promoted through numerous challenging, ambitious books.
If we want to better understand why the West is on its present course, it behooves us to consider this foremost apostle of democratic education. To this day teacher certification programs bear the mark of Dewey’s influence, an influence which extends well beyond the public school system—and well beyond America.
From the outset Dewey’s aim was to promote democracy, and as a result he had to confront the fact that “democracy” may be defined differently by different people. His conception is summarized as follows in Democracy and Education (1916):
A society which makes provision for participation in its good of all its members on equal terms and which secures flexible readjustment of its institutions through interaction of the different forms of associated life is in so far democratic.
The key words in the preceding dense quotation are equal terms and flexible readjustment. Dewey deemed equality to be the primary goal of society, and inflexible resistance to change to be the chief obstacle. To be sure, he did not wish for change to go too far, lest society break with convention absolutely and descend into moral chaos. But in his view there was no real danger of such a break, since the normal human temperament was “too inertly conservative both by constitution and by education” for a complete break to ever occur. Per Dewey, the danger to democratic society always comes from those who are too conservative and too respectful of tradition; there is no danger of ever being too liberal, or too critical of tradition.
Why Dewey found respect for tradition dangerous can be summed up in two words: applied science. Man has acquired enormous powers via technology, he observed, and in his judgment these powers are incompatible with archaic values still held over from more primitive social conditions. So he called for a “directed reconstruction of economic, political and religious institutions”, the agents of which were to be democratically-minded teachers and administrators. One of the first priorities of this army of educators was to seek out a new arbiter of right and wrong by which to guide reconstructed institutions. Often, as Dewey explained in The Quest for Certainty (1928),
the arbiter is found in the past, although there are many ways of interpreting what in the past is authoritative. Nominally, the most influential conception doubtless is that of a revelation once had or a perfect life once lived. Reliance upon precedent, upon institutions created in the past, especially in law, upon rules or morals that have come to us through unexamined customs, upon uncriticized tradition, are other forms of dependence.
According to Dewey, the piety upon which traditional morality was based stifled the ethos of independence indispensable for a flourishing community. So piety had to go. Of course, once conduct is no longer based upon “a revelation once had or a perfect life once lived”—a thinly-veiled reference to Christianity—another problem arises, as Dewey himself realized. “Where will regulation come from if we surrender familiar and traditionally prized values as our directive standards?” The question had a surprisingly simple answer: “Very largely from the findings of the natural sciences.” A scientific age called for a scientifically-formulated morality.
Rejecting devotion to transcendent truth and the classical curriculum which responds to it, Dewey proposed instead instrumentalism—a quasi-Darwinian version of philosophical pragmatism whereby mind and truth are conceived in purely evolutionary terms. What is the mind? A tool for coping with the environment. What is “true”? Whatever is practical, whatever works. Instrumentalism led Dewey to regard most religions and philosophies as little better than egocentric escapism. Again, from The Quest for Certainty:
All the theories which put conversion ‘of the eye of the soul’ in the place of a conversion of natural and social objects that modifies goods actually experienced, is a retreat and escape from existence – and this retraction into self is, once more, the heart of subjective egoisms. The typical example is perhaps the otherworldliness found in religions whose chief concern is with the salvation of the personal soul […] The Aristotelian-medieval conviction that highest bliss is found in contemplative possession of ultimate Being presents an ideal attractive to some types of mind; it sets forth a refined sort of enjoyment. It is a doctrine congenial to minds that despair of the effort involved in creation of a better world of daily experience.
This critique of “otherworldliness” and of “the salvation of the personal soul” had been already foreshadowed in Dewey’s highly influential Democracy and Education:
The idea of perfecting an “inner” personality is a sure sign of social division. What is called “inner” is simply that which does not connect with others – which is not capable of free and full communication. What is termed spiritual culture has usually been futile, with something rotten about it, just because it has been conceived as a thing which a man might have internally – and therefore exclusively.
Applied to the Catholic faith, then, Dewey’s “directed reconstruction” entails much more social activism and much less Eucharistic adoration. It is not that there is no place whatsoever in his plans for religion, but that the ultimate rationale for religious activities would be therapeutic benefit to society rather than intimacy with God. For the Catholic, the point of working in a soup kitchen is to draw closer to Christ by manifesting His salvific love. For Dewey, the only conceivable value to the Christian religion lies in the fact that it encourages people to work in soup kitchens.
That Dewey wielded such enormous clout within the American educational establishment appalled conservative writers such as Russell Kirk, and for obvious reasons. Contempt for “inner personality” is by definition a totalitarian sentiment, the democratic preference for conferences, committees, and textbooks over brute force notwithstanding. Indeed, in light of Dewey’s efforts to eliminate “social division,” the widespread American assumption that non-democratic regimes are necessarily totalitarian and hence illegitimate comes to look more than a little ironic. How many Roman patricians or medieval kings ever plotted to abolish their subjects’ innermost selves?
Nor have Dewey’s reforms led to an especially competent or scientifically-enlightened citizenry. A 2006 Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) survey indicates that less than half of 7,000 college seniors surveyed were aware that the siege of Fort Sumter preceded the battle of Gettysburg, even as over 30% of college graduates responding to a later ISI survey were unable to identify all three branches of the US government. In 2014, a Nielsen report suggested that the average American absorbs over five hours’ worth of television per day.
To be sure, Dewey should not be made solitary scapegoat for the rise of vulgarity and collapse of academic standards. Yet it is hard to believe that the vacuousness and superficiality paraded daily by movie stars, politicians, and journalists—and those who idolize them—is entirely unrelated to the fact that America’s most celebrated pedagogue censured the contemplative act as an expression of despair. We should not be surprised by poor math and science scores, either. Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, and the iconic Darwin himself were all instructed via the very classical tradition that Dewey and his followers demolished.
That said, it is only fair to add that nothing could have been further from Dewey’s mind than the mediocre and mercenarial career certification factory which passes for education today. And hostile as he was to “Aristotelian-medieval conviction,” he at least respected Christian doctrines enough to think about them, which is more than can be said for the presidents and administrators of too many Catholic universities and parochial schools. There is even a spark of truth to his critique of individualism, since Christ’s second commandment implies that the salvation of each man’s personal soul is contingent upon his concern for his neighbor.
This very concern, of course, must be one of the motivations for a Catholic counterattack upon John Dewey’s project. By making the modern milieu more anti-Catholic, Professor Dewey unwittingly contributed to dehumanization.