In Thrall to Dewey’s Ghost

By its very nature, Progressivism does not prize, and therefore cannot prioritize, actual learning.

By Steven Miller
  • Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The basic problem with Nevada's colleges of education is that their core teacher-training agenda is—speaking candidly—essentially bogus.

To be sure, this problem is not the Silver State’s alone. For decades, American ed-schools have trotted out Progressivist dogmas, presenting them as genuine teacher development. Indeed, as education historian Diane Ravitch and others have shown, it was this agenda that, historically, was behind the rise of American colleges of education.

The preeminent fountainhead of these faux theories of education was John Dewey, who lusted throughout his long life to make American schooling an instrument of state socialism. Though a self-proclaimed apostate from the German philosophy that initially infatuated him, Dewey remained a committed Hegelian in many ways—with a commensurate soft spot for Marxist and other German authoritarianisms.

The late Arthur Ekirch, in The Decline of American Liberalism, noted that, just before America’s entrance into World War I, Dewey was plumping for it with an “emotional and pseudo-mystical ode to American nationalism.” This from a supposedly realistic and pragmatic American philosopher—who just two years before had been highly critical of German romantic and medieval notions of war.

Dewey was enthusiastic for the war because he saw it as a perfect way to justify replacing locally oriented American schools with a thoroughly national and compulsory educational system that would, German-style, mass-produce nationalist citizens. In 1917, Dewey penned a revealing New Republic article that hectored former allies on the Left for opposing U.S. entrance into the bloody fray. Their pacifism, he complained, ignored the “immense impetus to reorganization [of the nation] afforded by this war.”

After the war, communist educators in the Soviet Union noted the doctrinal affinities between Dewey’s theories and Marxism and began trying out the theories out. One prominent Soviet educator, Albert P. Pinkervich, compared Dewey’s thought to that of contemporary German educators and noted that “Dewey comes infinitely closer to Marx and the Russian Communists.”

Visiting the Soviet Union several times during the 1920s, Dewey published a serious of articles in The New Republic giving glowing impressions of his visits. Hailing the “marvelous development of progressive educational ideas and practice under the fostering care of the Bolshevik government,” the essays culminated in 1928. In the 1930s, however, notes Canadian educator William Brooks, “Dewey’s infatuation with the Soviet state declined in direct proportion to the Central Committee of the Communist Party’s own disappointment over the debilitating effects of progressive education on Russian graduates.”

What experience kept showing, even in Soviet Russia, was that Dewey’s theories about education simply did not suffice if effective learning was the goal. Ironically, given the fact that Rockefeller endowments supported Dewey’s academic career at the University of Chicago and Columbia University, it was the grandchildren of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. himself who would first suffer damage from “progressive” doctrines. Four of the five children of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. attended the soon-to-be famous Lincoln experimental school—also funded by the Rockefeller fortune—which was heralded as “a laboratory to develop and test new curricula adapted to ‘the needs of modern living.’” Years later, however, at least two of the attending grandchildren would report major personal literacy difficulties. Laurance directly attributed his inability to read and write adequately to the Lincoln School, while Nelson, future governor of New York, would admit that reading for him was a “slow and tortuous process” that he did not enjoy but compelled himself to do.

Nevertheless, for progressive education’s enthusiasts its utopian promises always outweigh experience. This has been especially so for professional educationists, for whom it not only generates and justifies an entire career—serving as gatekeepers for public school teachers—but also provides a ready-made army of political allies for what essentially remains a war for political power. Thus Teachers College at Columbia became a place for pilgrimage, and the Lincoln School became the model for what should be touted back home.

Dewey’s disciples turned his ideas into an educational orthodoxy, but they couldn’t make that orthodoxy into a genuinely productive teaching methodology. Progressivism’s most famous (and arrogant) slogan—“We teach children, not subject matter”—reveals the fundamental problem: By its very nature, Progressivism does not prize, and therefore cannot prioritize, actual learning.

Still today, Nevada’s colleges of education make social welfare and multicultural concerns their highest teacher-training values. This explains much about the persistent inadequacy of Nevada public education.

Rather than serving the bests interests of Silver State children, teacher training at UNR and UNLV remains stubbornly in thrall to the ghost of John Dewey.

Steven Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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