By W. F. Warde (George Novack)

The Fate of Dewey’s Theories


Written: 1960
Source: International Socialist Review, Vol. 21, No. 2, Spring 1960. Pages 54-57, 61.
Transcription/Editing: 2005 by Daniel Gaido
HTML Markup: 2005 by David Walters
Public Domain:George Novak Internet Archive 2005; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.


This is the second of two articles. The first was published in our Winter 1960 issue and dealt with the main features of John Dewey’s theories of education. The author showed how the Progressive movement in the field of child education resulted from the rise of industrial capitalism. The entire social structure and cultural pattern of the colonial period was destroyed and the theory and practice of education had to be revamped. The Progressive movement was an attempt of enlightened elements of the middle class to meet the new social problems with a democratic educational system that would have profound effects in creating a rational and harmonious social order. The article concluded with the question: Why haven’t Dewey’s theories been realized in practice? And why have they become a favorite target of reaction today?

Dewey went wrong, not in what he proposed for the school itself, but in his lack of understanding of the forces at work in American society and of the real relations between the educational and the economic systems, under capitalist rule.

For Dewey, education was to be the principal means for correcting economic evils and attaining progressive political ends. The school system was to serve as the major institution for carrying the democratic processes initiated by the founding fathers to their logical conclusion. He fervently believed in Emerson’s prophecy: “Efficient universal education ... is the mother of national prosperity . . . We shall one day learn to supersede politics by education.“

The transformed schools would remake American society in two ways. First, by bringing forth the most desirable attitudes in the student body, experimental education would create new generations of inquiring, equalitarian-minded, scientifically oriented individuals. These in turn would intervene in the solution of social, economic and political problems and remodel our culture after the pattern of their school training and experiences.

Progressive teachers would thereby become the leaders of social advancement. By their guidance of the youth and their partnership with the parents in Parent-Teachers Associations, they would convert the school into a central powerhouse of democratic doctrine which would enlighten and energize the community and eventually the nation.

“Education,” Dewey declared in My Pedagogic Creed (1897), “is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.” This key proposition exposes the fundamental flaw in his position. He assumed that his aims of democratic education could either be harmonized with those of the capitalist regime or, wherever these came into conflict, the democratized schools, their supporters and graduates would prevail against the forces of reaction. He staked the whole fate of progressive education and the future of American life on this assumption.

In reality, the kind of education he urged went counter to the dominant traits and trends of capitalist development.

The modes of life and learning inside the schools were at variance with the realities of the business civilization outside. Dewey was aware that the school provided only a fraction of the social influences at work upon the child’s development, and usually not the most decisive ones. The emotional responses, behavior and standards of city children are shaped far more by circumstances in the home and family, the neighborhood and the streets, by the social level they occupy, and by the media of commercialized mass culture than by the classroom. James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan and Richard Wright’s Black Boy present two extreme cases of this predominance of the external environment over the school. But processes similar to those depicted by these realistic novelists for Chicago’s South Side go on in some measure among all parts of the juvenile population.

The spotlight has been thrown on the “Blackboard Jungles.” But children made miserable, resentful and rebellious by poverty, malnutrition, discrimination, and lack of recreational facilities, are only the most obvious victims of the capitalist environment. The sharp contrasts between the intellectual habits, moral values and code of conduct instilled in the schools and what they experience around them generate deep uncertainty, confusion and frustration among growing children in all walks of American life.

If children are treated as equals at school, they encounter many gradations of poverty and wealth outside. If students are taught to be mutually helpful, considerate and cooperative, the first commandment of the acquisitive and competitive world around them is “look out for number one.” Teachers prate about decency and kindness while the TV, movies and comic books glorify crime, brutality and violence. Honesty may be the best policy-but what about the fixed TV quizzes?

How can education proceed with serenity and security when fears and rumors of war and H-bomb annihilation are ever-present? And the more enjoyable learning is made in progressive schools, the more intolerable is the monotony and drudgery of factory and office occupations afterwards.

“A society of free individuals in which all, through their own work, contribute to the liberation and enrichment of the lives of others, is the only environment in which any individual can really grow normally to his full stature. An environment in which some are practically enslaved, degraded, and limited will always react to create conditions that prevent the full development even of those who fancy they enjoy complete freedom for unhindered growth,” Dewey wrote. The virtues of progressive education were counteracted and corroded by the evils of the capitalist environment.

The liberal thinkers of the Progressive school found themselves in a dilemma whenever they bumped up against these realities of capitalist life. On the one hand, they opposed any indoctrination in the schools. As advocates of “the open mind,” they said that children should not have any preconceptions imposed upon them by their elders but should be encouraged to inquire freely and arrive at their own conclusions.

It was an enigma how neutral and impartial teachers in neutral and impartial schools were to produce progressive-minded students. After all, the “free intelligence” they hoped to cultivate did not operate in a void or in a society where everyone shared “a common knowledge, a common worth or a common destiny,” as Dewey put it. Progressive education had to make its way in a society torn by antagonistic class interests. The disciples of Dewey could not in fact adhere to their angelic impartiality if they wished to further the cause of progressive education. The progressive educationists were in a small minority pitted against a majority of teachers with orthodox views not only on education but on most other matters. If they were not to be rendered impotent by conservatism, the Deweyites were forced to cast aside their assumed neutrality on disputed issues and lead their students along the path of liberalism.

Even their efforts to obtain reforms within the confines of capitalism stirred up fierce resistance from the business interests who insisted that the schools serve aims geared into the operations of capitalist enterprise. Businessmen wanted docile and trained personnel for their offices and factories and voting sheep for their parties. They did not need independent, critical-minded individuals but standardized units who could function as interchangeable parts in their organizations.

They could no more tolerate free discussion and unhindered consideration of social and political questions in the classrooms than they could in the country at large. Teachers with unorthodox views were liable to infect the younger generation.

In the 1920’s Upton Sinclair wrote The Goslings and The Goose-Step which showed how subservience to Big Business was bred and enforced in the schools. In the early 1930’s the more respectable Commission on Social Studies in the Schools subsidized a study of freedom of teaching since the First World War by the prominent American historian Howard K. Beale.

Here are some of his findings: School administrators were usually unsympathetic to the inquiry. They “are not interested in freedom.” Many teachers “care nothing about freedom or a study of freedom and want only to draw their salaries with as little effort as possible . . . The multiplicity of examples of fears of teachers about supplying facts is in itself eloquent testimony of the lack of freedom in the schools.”

In conclusion, Beale exclaimed: “Can teachers who are cringing, obedient ’hired men,’ cowards, and hypocrites create citizens of courage and integrity? As the writer completes this study, he is appalled by the extent to which American teachers are dominated by cowardice and hypocrisy. There are admirable exceptions. Yet almost universally teachers teach not what they would like, but only so much of it as they dare.”

This was said at the height of the New Deal when teachers had much more latitude in expressing liberal and even radical opinions than they have enjoyed since. Over the past twenty-five years the area of freedom has appallingly contracted. Today public school and college teachers, bedeviled by conformist, loyalty tests, and witch-hunts, are the most timid, vulnerable and terrorized section of the middle-class intellectuals.

The situation of social studies teachers in the secondary schools had grown so untenably oppressive that in 1954 the noted sociologist David Riesman proposed “that social studies be abandoned in the public schools, since they could not, without more protection for the teachers, be taught with any candor or vigor ...” - Constraint and Variety in American Education, pp. 127-128. The remnants of his own liberal conscience prompted Professor Riesman to remark that “John Dewey, with his orientation towards problem-solving as the principal basis of thought, and towards the school as a factor in the life of the community, would probably have regarded my view as an unwarranted concession to reaction.” So it was. But the fact that the suggestion was put forward in earnest indicates how much the capitalist steamroller has succeeded in flattening out the spirit of inquiry and the progressive’s will to struggle.

The “cowardice and hypocrisy” which so disturbed Professor Beale has been saddled upon the teachers by the actual overlords of their profession. State control once meant liberating education from religious control; it now means subordinating education to the upper classes who dominate the government, determine the school budget and police its personnel. In 1922 the Brooklyn Eagle asked: “Why should public money be employed to produce teachers disposed to break the established order rather than sustain it?” The representatives of the money masters take care to insure that the hand that writes the teachers’ paychecks is the hand that rules the schools.

“Perhaps the most dangerous, because the most general and most subtle, control over teachers is that exercised by business,” reported Beale. “Businessmen . . . dominate most boards of school trustees whether private or public . . . Business’s chief interest in the schools is the indoctrination of pupils and teachers with concepts that will silence criticism of business and its methods and insure large profits for the future. Reforms, which might limit its profits, must never be discussed in the schools . . . Men are so used to confusing their own desires with fine principles that most men seeking to control the schools in order to protect their business probably have really convinced themselves that this is an act of pure public service,” he ironically comments.

Business, big or little, directly or indirectly, has the economic, political and propaganda power to exercise a veto over the whole realm of American education. For Dewey the schools came first, but education for the masses has no such priority for the plutocracy. During the depression businessmen slashed educational appropriations and crippled the schools to save their own pocketbooks. Nowadays, during the Big Boom, Congress passes a $40-billion program for building highways because the Defense Department, steel, cement, auto and oil corporations were behind it and then turns down any appropriation for school construction. Federal appropriations for education are at the bottom of a budget of which two-thirds go for military purposes. Evidently guided missiles with atomic warheads are more important for capitalist survival than students who might have critical minds.

Dewey looked to the educational system to lift American culture, like a giant crane, to ever greater heights and lead the American people to a wider democracy, step by step, generation by generation. But the level of education cannot be higher than the surrounding social structures permit. Dewey loaded onto the institution of education more than it could be expected to bear. The forward movement imparted by his ideas proved considerably weaker than the backward pressures of the monopolist regime which kept dragging education down to its own level.

So it was that the progressive crusade registered such meager and disappointing results over the past half century. Today the exhilarating experimental Úlan of the early years has evaporated. About as much of the progressive proposals as can be accommodated to the status quo has been incorporated into current public school practice. But the movement itself appears afflicted with hardening of the arteries, like the rest of contemporary liberalism. Enlightened educators are asking in bewilderment: where do we go from here?

The evolution of the strictly experimental schools has been exceedingly ironic. These laboratory schools were to serve as pilot plants where new methods would be evolved and tested and the ideals of progressivism would flourish. Instead they have become private precincts of a narrowing cult, almost exclusively patronized by the offspring of well-to-do parents dissatisfied with the public schools. They have not come closer to the community and the workaday world, as Dewey projected, but grown more isolated and turned back upon themselves.

Professor Harold Rugg of New York University, himself a leading light among the progressive educationists, detected this retrograde tendency some time ago: “From 1942 to 1945 I spent forty-odd days in a score of older progressive schools, choosing principally those that had the advantage of many years of uninterrupted experiment under fairly continuous administration,” he wrote in Foundations of American Education, pp. 19-21. “I saw some good teachers in action—occasionally true artist-teachers—who respected their young people as Persons and carried on their groups as societies of equals. I saw them reflecting the American psychology of freedom and action—the young people free to move about and talk, and each one expected to speak of what he sees in his own unique way . . . Their climate of opinion was marked by a spirit of inquiry rather than of dogmatism; teachers sent young people to sources and put responsibility on them for organizing material and for facing issues. Thus the old dissectional atomism of the mechanical school had largely disappeared and young people were being offered a program in which total jobs, total enterprises, could be confronted and to which each could bring as much of himself as possible. In psychological terms this was no mean achievement . .

“But . . . something seemed to be missing in these schools. A strange aloofness from society seemed to mark them . . . They seemed afraid of forthright realistic dealings with the actual conditions of their local communities; certainly they dodged most of the major controversial issues of the day . . . After fifty years of creative study and innovation our people had found no effective way to incorporate youth into the actual design and operation of society; they are still regarded as onlookers, as observers,—and unofficial at that. This revealed itself clearly in the inability of the schools—except in two of those I have seen, where an excellent program is under way—to engage the young people in socially useful work which is significant in their personal lives.”

At the bottom of Dewey’s naive and almost magical belief in the omnipotence of education in relation to the rest of social life was the implicit and unexamined assumption that progressive education could find everything necessary to realize its aims within the existing social system. He shared this outlook with the entire Populist-Progressive mass movement which tried in vain to smash the stranglehold of the monopolies upon American life, on the assumption that it could manage capitalism more fairly than the capitalists.

Dewey’s exaltation of education as the prime solver of social problems was a direct translation into general theory of the aspirations of the rising middle classes who looked to the education of the younger generation as the justification of their own struggles and sacrifices and as the guarantor of progress. The immigrants envisaged their sons becoming lawyers, doctors, dentists, professors or successful business men—and their daughters marrying such prizes—achieving higher social status along with financial security. The native-born workers likewise cherished the hope that education would enable their children to raise themselves out of the working class.

The specific demand for the innovations of progressive education came, however, mostly from middle class intellectual circles who were not very radical in their political outlook but were keenly cognizant of the deficiencies of traditional schooling. “These (Progressive) schools were ’protest’ schools, expressions of the parents’ rebellion against the regimentation of childhood,” writes Rugg. “They were formed in the years of the nation-wide shift from the conventional practices and allegiances of the nineteenth century to the new ones of the twentieth. The parents were themselves caught in a period of rebellion against the old ways of living and of hectic attempts to improvise new ones. It was natural that this same spirit of revolt and improvisation should mark the work of these schools in these first years. It was in the spirit of ’Try anything once and see if it works.’ I recall dozens of times when that phrase was bandied about in the early days of the Lincoln School. It was educational innovation—not thought out, designed experiment.”

Disappointment with the fruits of progressive experimentation is one of the factors in the present widely discussed “crisis of American education.” Conservative spokesmen are exploiting its shortcomings to discredit the entire venture of progressivism. The attacks of the anti-progressives have increased in intensity over the cold-war period.

They have made Deweyism the scapegoat for all the failures of the educational system. Johnny, they cry, isn’t taught to read, spell or figure. The schools are too full of “frills and fads.” Deweyism is almost un-American and the abettor of “a crawling socialism.”

It may be true that here and there overindulgent teachers have placed too little emphasis upon the acquisition of the elementary tools of culture and that this unbalance in the curriculum needs correction. Dewey himself never slighted the importance of the formal elements in instruction but simply insisted that they serve the more informal activities in a rounded educational development.

The right-wing critics, however, want to do more than correct one-sidednesses. They aim to wipe out the “new-fangled notions” and go back to the old-fashioned ways. They urge a revival of the classical curriculum through “The Great Books,” the institution of more discipline and uniformity, the reinstatement of the 3 R’s as the core of primary instruction, the inculcation of religion and moral lessons. Their prescriptions would not only sweep away the advances made under progressive tutelage. They would shift the responsibility for the failures of American education from the capitalist culprits to the liberal educators who did their best to improve the schools.

American education cannot “go back where it came from,” either to the obsolete traditional methods or to the Utopian premises of the original progressives. It has to move to higher ground, taking off from the ideas and achievements of Dewey’s school.

“To educate on the basis of past surroundings is like adapting an organism to an environment which no longer exists. The individual is stultified, if not disintegrated; and the course of progress is blocked,” Dewey once wrote. Those in quest of a fresh approach to the problems of American education should heed these words.

The conditions which confront the present generation are vastly different from those at the beginning of the century when Dewey first put forward his ideas. The changeover from colonial and rural to urban and industrial life which so preoccupied him has not only been completed; the countryside itself has become modernized and mechanized. The mighty influences of corporate wealth, the rise of organized labor, and the contest between these two giant social forces dominate our national life, including that of the middle classes wedged in between them. The world arena is the stage of a prolonged struggle for supremacy between a capitalism in retreat and the advancing forces of socialism.

The old social fabric is rotting and collapsing and a new one is being woven before our eyes. Any theory of education which refused to take these fundamental features of our era as its starting point would be divorced at its root from social reality and sterilized at its source. Dewey maintained that education must be socially and practically useful—and what is more useful than a correct understanding of the economic and class forces operating around us and their effects upon the educational process?

Dewey himself learned from the experiences of the Progressive movement and drew certain conclusions from them. In the thirties he came to recognize that the schools in and of themselves could not be the prime instrument of social change. “It is unrealistic, in my opinion,” he then wrote, “that the schools can be a main agency in producing the intellectual and moral changes, the changes in attitudes and disposition of thought and purpose which are necessary for the creation of a new social order. Any such view ignores the constant operation of powerful forces outside the school which shape mind and character. It ignores the fact that school education is but one educational agency out of many, and at the best is in some respects a minor educational force.” - Social Frontier, May 1937.

He advocated that progressive education associate more closely with the labor movement. He had earlier taken the initiative in organizing the teaching body into unions and was one of the founders of the American Federation of Teachers. He called upon teachers to “ally themselves with their friends against their common foe, the privileged class, and in the alliance develop the character, skill and intelligence that are necessary to make a democratic social order a fact.“

Under the impact of the Great Depression he took the further step of proclaiming his belief in socialism. His socialism was of the Norman Thomas type: a vague ideal of justice, equality and democracy which would ensure the material welfare of everyone in the community and the spiritual self-realization of the individual. It hovered on the borderline of liberalism and socialism.

He rejected scientific socialism which taught that the independent struggle of the working class for power was the only way to abolish privilege and parasitism and achieve real democracy. This cut straight across his own middle-class, “supra-class” outlook. Neither in his politics nor his educational theory would Dewey admit that the differences between capital and labor could be deep and irreconcilable. He tried to prevail upon both capital and labor to subordinate any specific class interests to some more comprehensive national interests, hoping that intelligent, forward-looking members of all social strata could and would unite in a common endeavor to democratize America.

Some of his left-wing followers abandoned the original injunction of the progressive educators that the teacher and the school should abstain from taking sides on controversial issues and openly proclaimed the need for active alignment with the forces working for a new social order. Among these was Professor George S. Counts of Teachers College who wrote a book in 1932 with the challenging title: Dare the School Build a New Social Order?

More recently a tendency called Reconstructionism, headed by Theodore Brameld of New York University, has come forward. It stresses the duty of educators to prepare students for a voluntarily planned society. However, its theoreticians disagree on what this new society is to be like and how it is to be attained.

One thing is certain. The big business masters of America know what they want: schools which serve their “free enterprise” profit system. Their opponents ought to be equally clear about what kind of replacement is required for a suitable education in this modern world.

Horace Greeley, the radical editor of the N. Y. Tribune before the Civil War, wrote in his Hints Toward Reforms: “Before Education can become what it should be and must be, we must reform the Social Life whence it proceeds, whither it tends.” Dewey and his fellow progressives tackled the problem from the other end. They tried to reform the educational system before and without effecting a thoroughgoing reorganization of the social system. Consequently their experimentation did not yield the promised results.

Looking back in 1956 to the hopes expressed by Dewey in 1899 that the schools would remake society, Professor Riesman observed that the opposite had come about. The schools and colleges had become so pressed into conformity that they could no longer act as a countervailing force against the predominant trends of their environment.

Does Dewey’s vision of democratically functioning schools in a free and equal society have to be given up, as reactionaries demand and despairing liberals fear? The guiding principles of his educational policy remain the most viable cultural creation of the defunct Progressive movement. Their admirable objectives cannot be achieved within the framework of an increasingly monopolistic, militaristic and despotic capitalism. But they can be realized under a workers’ democracy such as the socialist movement aspires to build.

To link the future of progressive education with the prospects of socialist revolution in the United States is almost as repugnant to our liberals as to the conservatives who combat them. They hope to gather the harvest in the field of education without first plowing up the social soil.

And yet American history shows how much a successful revolution of the people can do for educational progress. The First American Revolution made possible free universal public education in this country. The Civil War cleared the way for the rapid expansion of the public schools and shattered the Southern slave stronghold of illiteracy and backwardness, even though integration has still to be won in its public schools over seventy-five years later.

Immediately present, however, is the Russian example dramatized by the launching of Sputniks and Luniks. Here is the most spectacular illustration of the tremendous impulsion revolution can give to education in backward community

Americans regard themselves as the most advanced nation on earth. This cocksureness has suddenly been put in doubt. The complacent rulers of the country have been jolted into the realization that they have fallen behind the Soviet Union in military and space technology. Admiral Hyman Rickover and others bitterly blame Dewey’s philosophy for the failure of the schools to produce enough technical and scientific personnel to keep up with the Soviet racketeers.

But the challenge of Soviet education ought to convey a quite different message to the American people than it does to the monopolists and militarists who are primarily concerned about preparing for World War III. It is a forceful warning that our schools are far from fulfilling their function of preparing the youth for this age of nuclear energy, space exploration, automation—and the transition from capitalism to socialism.

“In America we have built many wonderful school buildings, and we have put more of our teenagers in the custodial care of the high school than has any society in history,” says Edward U. Condon, past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “Nevertheless we have an uneasy feeling that this enormous educational apparatus is not doing as much as we feel it ought to do. Too large a proportion of our high school graduates are unable to read and write English; almost none have a mastery of any foreign language; the overwhelming majority are quite illiterate about mathematical reasoning and are ill at ease even with arithmetic; very few have any disciplined grounding in the basic principles of any science.“

But the most alarming educational lag is not in the natural sciences, as Admiral Rickover and Professor Condon state. It is in the social sciences. Marxism and socialism, which in one form or another are taken as guides by the majority of mankind today, are taboo in our schools. Schoolchildren and college students are not given a fair chance to learn the fundamental facts about the profit system and class society they live in and little objective information about the socialist alternative to it. They are as much the victims of obscurantism in this vital field of knowledge as the students of feudal times who were forbidden by the Church and State to inquire into the discoveries and teachings of the new physical science.

The Soviet educational system and its methods need not be taken as a model for uncritical emulation. It has accomplished great things in liquidating illiteracy, spreading culture, training professional, technical and scientific workers. But it remains regimented, formalized and authoritarian.

Between 1923 and 1933 Dewey’s experimentalism considerably influenced the Soviet schools through the Commissar of Education Lunacharsky. These innovations were uprooted under Stalin. By the late thirties school uniforms, strict teacher control, formal pupil-teacher relations and formal classroom procedures, organization and discipline were reintroduced and persist to this day.

Despite this retrogression in educational methods, the impetuous advances of Soviet education offer an anticipation of the immense opportunities that could be opened up for educational progress under a socialist government in the rich United States.

The younger generation would be treated as the most precious of social assets and from infancy to maturity its needs would receive the highest priority. Freed of the crushing burdens of the military budget and the restrictions of profiteering, the government of the working people could allot all the resources and human energies required for a vastly expanded educational program. This would be a keystone of its economic and cultural planning.

The work of the head would be united with the work of the hand from the start of the educational process. The curriculum would aim to give children such a grasp of science, technology and the productive processes that they could take their places without difficulty as active citizen-producers of a cooperative community. And there would be plenty of places for them to fill which would develop the powers and skills they acquired in school.

Experiments in teaching techniques would be systematically encouraged and improvements adopted as speedily as possible. The schools, not the advertisers and private monopolies, would be the first beneficiaries of new technical devices like television. Unharassed by overwork and anxieties, fathers and mothers would have the time, energy and inclination to participate with their children as partners in their educational progress.

The ideal of democratic schools serving a democratic society, which inspired Dewey’s philosophy of education—schools where scientifically formed and informed intelligence promotes freedom, equality and progress—would then become the guide to everyday practice.