Conservative Historian

A Brief History of American Education: Part II – The Dewey Disease

November 13, 2021 Bel Aves
Conservative Historian
A Brief History of American Education: Part II – The Dewey Disease
Show Notes Transcript

Where did the concept of using our public schools as indoctrination centers for progressive thought emanate?  Two figures, Woodrow Wilson, and American Educator John Dewey.  

A Brief History of American Education: Part II – The Dewey Disease

November 2021


Disease; “any harmful deviation from the normal structural or functional state of an organism, generally associated with certain signs and symptoms and differing in nature.”


“Children who know how to think for themselves spoil the harmony of the collective society which is coming where everyone is interdependent.” John Dewey


“As adults, we have to start thinking and believing that there isn’t really any such thing as someone else’s child. ... For that reason, we cannot permit discussions of children and families to be subverted by political or ideological debate.” Hillary Clinton 


“I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Former VA Governor Terry McCauliffe 


“When told by a liberal activist that she cared as much for Phil Gramm’s children as he did, Gramm said, “prove it, tell me their names.” An anecdote from Phil Gramm.  


Beginning with the rout of business-minded, small government, bourbon Democrats in 1894, progressive viewpoints were at the forefront of governmental thinking from that time to this. 

These beliefs culminated in the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, the first man to reject the precepts, and the essential nature, of the U.S. Constitution. George Will, in a piece in the Manhattan Institute, outlines the Wilsonian approach. The United States has arrived at this point, as Will lays it out, due to a long-running clash between two Princetonians: James Madison, the principal author of the Constitution and fourth President of the United States and a pre-revolutionary graduate of the College of New Jersey (later renamed Princeton University), and Woodrow Wilson, Princeton class of 1879, after the President of Princeton (1902–10), a left-wing leader, and the twenty-eighth president of the United States. Madison designed the constitution to divide and limit governmental power to protect liberty and natural rights. So Wilson claimed, along with other progressives and many liberals. Today that Madison’s Constitution is outdated in the modern world of democracy, large organizations, and scientific knowledge.


Wilson and his fellow progressives have thus aimed to undo Madison’s separation of powers by centralizing power in the presidency, reformulating judicial review in terms of majority rule, and giving expert administrators more leverage over national policy. Wilson, in short, aimed to “modernize” American government for efficiency, majoritarianism, and administrative expertise, while projecting American ideals upon the wider world. Will, who earned a graduate degree in politics at Princeton, is solidly on Madison’s side in this ongoing conflict. Upon noting that Wilson lost a choice of location for a graduate school when Princeton’s president, Will, concludes, “When Wilson lost, he had one of his characteristic tantrums, went into politics and ruined the 20th century.”


Will’s animosity towards Wilson tends to the intellectual, but other writers are not so measured. In Jonah Goldberg’s Remnant podcasts, the mere mention of Wilson summons a piece of the Lord of the Rings soundtrack that portends pure evil. Goldberg has also labeled Wilson “The 20th Century’s first fascist dictator” in his 2008 book Liberal Fascism. And in an article in Real Clear History, author Paula Span provides the unambiguous title of “Why Wilson Is Most Hated President.” “The Constitution was not meant to hold the government back to the time of horses and wagons,” Wilson wrote in his scholarly tome Constitutional Government in the United States (1908). He deplored the way the branches of government checkmated each other to stall progress—or what he saw as progress—and admired the British parliamentary system as more efficient.”


The problem, in the conservative critique, is what results. In George Will’s words: “Concentrate as much power as possible in Washington, concentrate as much Washington power as possible in the executive branch and concentrate enough experts in the executive branch to administer a much larger government.” And it was Wilson, adds Robert George, who made progressivism “a doctrine, not just a sensibility. He’s the guy who laid out the justifications and ideas.”


And the belief system that Wilson laid out for government was under the false patina of helping the individual, yet in reality only the state was capable of making the most fundamental of decisions for individuals. This was reflected in his New Freedom doctrine, “Now, it came to me, as this interesting man talked, that the Constitution of the United States had been made under the dominion of the Newtonian Theory. You have only to read the papers of The Federalist to see that fact written on every page. They speak of the “checks and balances” of the constitution and use to express their idea the simile of the organization of the universe, and particularly of the solar system,—how by the attraction of gravitation the various parts are held in their orbits; and then they proceed to represent Congress, the Judiciary, and the President as a sort of imitation of the solar system. The trouble with the theory is that government is not a machine but a living thing. It falls not under the theory of the universe but the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton. It is modified by its environment, necessitated by its tasks, shaped to its functions by the sheer pressure of life. No living thing can have its organs offset against each other, as checks, and live.” Wilson, like his 2008 successor, in terms of both presidency and ideology, likes to write and say things that sound profound but are full of excrement. 


Of course, the body has checks and balances. The stomach sends a clear signal; I am hungry, so feed me. The brain, allied to the stomach, is telling me that I want a piece of pie right out of the oven. But the pie is still scalding hot. My burned mouth, and the nerve endings therein, will tell my eyes and brain to knock it off and wait a bit. The brain should work as a check on the stomach, but when that check is removed, the skin steps in. Checks and balances.  


Wilson goes on in his organic theory, “On the contrary, its life is dependent upon their quick co-operation, their ready response to the commands of instinct or intelligence, their amicable community of purpose. Government is not a body of blind forces; it is a body of men, with highly differentiated functions, no doubt, in our modern-day, of specialization, with a common task and purpose. Their co-operation is indispensable, their warfare fatal. There can be no successful government without the intimate, instinctive coordination of the organs of life and action. Living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and practice. Society is a living organism and must obey the laws of life, not of mechanics; it must develop.


All that progressives ask or desire is permission—in an era when “development,” “evolution,” is the scientific word—to interpret the constitution according to the Darwinian principle; all they ask is recognition of the fact that a nation is a living thing and not a machine.”


I love that part of Wilson’s “there can be no successful government” was uttered on the 124th year of the Republic, by the man aspiring to be the 28th president.  What a phony.  


The irony is that much of the New Freedom speech railed against special interests and even talks of the American people not being children or wards of the state. But by driving a Living Constitution and rejecting the concepts of checks on governmental power, Wilson was operating in exact contradictions to his stated goals. And looking at the landscape of American progressivism today, it is hard not to see the same contradictions. According to the progressive canon of today, African Americans need affirmative action because they cannot achieve the same as whites without help – such help of which often comes directly from white liberals. The net result over the past 40 years is more power for the liberals, less achievement for the majority of the blacks.  


What Wilson misses in his comparisons is not in Newton nor Darwin. We need to go much older to the bible and the Seven Deadly Sins. The founders knew their bible and understood the nature of human desire, hence checks and balances. Wilson, although versed in the bible, clearly did not ingest this most important of its teachings.   And we come to John Dewey.  


“It is one of the great mistakes of education to make reading and writing constitute the bulk of the school work the first two years. .” John Dewey


Why so much on Wilson? Because his progressivism provided the intellectual impetus for the teachings of a failed teacher to warp public education. The failed teacher? John Dewey.


Born in 1859, Dewey spent two years as a high-school teacher in Oil City, Pennsylvania, and one year as an elementary school teacher in the small town of Charlotte, Vermont. After this three-year stint, Dewey decided that he was unsuited for teaching primary or secondary school. After studying with progressive thinkers of the day, Dewey received his Ph.D. from the School of Arts & Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. In 1884, he accepted a faculty position at the University of Michigan with the help of George Sylvester Morris, a professor of philosophy. 


In 1894 Dewey joined the newly founded University of Chicago, where he developed his belief in Rational Empiricism, becoming associated with the newly emerging Pragmatic philosophy. His time at the University of Chicago resulted in four essays collectively entitled Thought and its Subject-Matter, published with collected works from his colleagues at Chicago under the collective title Studies in Logical Theory. 


During that time, Dewey also initiated the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools to actualize the pedagogical beliefs that provided material for his first major work on education, The School and Society (1899). However, disagreements with the administration ultimately caused his resignation from the university, and soon after that, he relocated near the East Coast. In 1899, Dewey was elected president of the American Psychological Association (A.P.A.). From 1904 until his retirement in 1930, he was a professor of philosophy at Columbia University.


In 1905 he became president of the American Philosophical Association. He was a longtime member of the American Federation of Teachers. Along with the historians Charles A. Beard and James Harvey Robinson, and the economist Thorstein Veblen, Dewey is one of the founders of The New School. Beard is appropriate here as he was among the first American historians who attacked the founders in his works.  


One of the challenges with covering Dewey is the sheer volume of his writings. There was an old saw that those who cannot do teach. In Dewey’s case, since he was a failed teacher, he went one step further and wrote about teaching. Boy, did he ever. The Collected Works of John Dewey covers 71 years of Dewey’s writing in a mere 37 volumes, while the Library of Congress lists 375 books written about Dewey. But there is still enough core content to discern his true beliefs. At a high level, Dewey rejected fundamental morality and overt religiosity in education. He also dismissed the fundamental focus on outcomes in terms of core math, science and reading.  


Dewey’s vision is also captured by historian and theologian Rousas Rushdoony in his book The Messianic Character of American Education. Rushdoony says, “Dewey believed you learned through your senses and you learned by doing. Thus, the past has no value. He couldn’t see a need for the study of history, Latin, Greek, or even English. By fostering the idea that all education should rest on experience, he minimized the significance of book learning.”


Dewey’s ultimate plan was based on using public schools; minimizing the role of parents (because they might teach things like religion); changing the role of teachers to facilitators; de-emphasizing Latin, the classics, the three Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic), western history, and history in general (including the study of the Constitution and capitalism); and providing a secular environment. Sound familiar? 


Morgan K. Williams writing for the University of West Florida provides an essay entitled John Dewey in the 21st Century. Williams tries to capture Dewey directly from his writings. “Dewey described progressive education as “a product of discontent with traditional education” which imposes adult standards, subject matter, and methodologies. He believed that traditional education, as just described, was beyond the scope of young learners. As described by Dewey, Progressive education should include socially engaging learning experiences that are developmentally appropriate for young children. Dewey thought that effective education came primarily through social interactions and that the school setting should be considered a social institution. He considered education to be a process of living and not a preparation for future living. This set of beliefs set Dewey apart from philosophers that supported traditional classroom settings.”


It would be hard to imagine that Dewey, the guy who believed in students working at their own pace, that teacher’s should be facilitators and not the font of knowledge, would embrace the destruction of gifted or advanced placements programs in the name of equity, as has been done at many American schools today. But Dewey was also the guy who would put his progressivism ahead of his ideology.  


According to the estimable Foundation for Economic Education, Aaron Edmondson, a scholar on Dewey, agrees that Dewey was an abysmal communicator; he argues that readers can overcome Dewey’s lack of clarity by recognizing that he “subordinates his philosophy. To his [progressive] politics.” Using that approach, Edmonson can provide a concise overview of Dewey’s ideas without being weighed down by his writing.”


And, in addition to his social classroom, what are those ideas? “As a “microcosm of social life,” the school provided Dewey a convenient place to socialize students into adherents of progressive ideals, that is, collectivism and statism. Dewey insisted that teachers should not impose abstract aims or external standards on their students within the classroom. Instead, he endorsed learning through play and hands-on activities and defended an ad hoc curriculum that favored neither vocational nor academic subjects. Dewey maintained that socialization was just as important as teaching essential skills like reading. Edmondson concludes that our current confusion over standards and goals is a “natural consequence of Dewey’s insistence on such fluid educational standards.”


Edmondson includes chapters on the educational thought of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. What might appear to be an unusual detour is a very informative discussion of alternatives to Dewey. At times, Dewey insisted that he was heir apparent to Jefferson. Still, Edmondson shows that Dewey departed from Jefferson and Franklin by repudiating those Founders’ shared belief that a vibrant republic requires an education designed to cultivate personal virtue. Dewey’s radicalism is nowhere more apparent than in his rejection of the Founders’ educational ideals.


In The Tragedy of American Education: The Role of John Dewey, by Alberto M. Piedra, the author writes, “The well-known American philosopher John Dewey was probably the most influential of all modern American educationalists whose tendencies towards socialization and secularism are pretty apparent in all of his work. As Christopher Dawson, referring to Dewey, reminds us: “In his views, our purpose for education is not the communication of knowledge but the sharing of social experience, so that the child shall become integrated into the democratic community. 


Dewey, the principal figure in the Progressive educational movement in the United States, analyzed the human mind and the way human knowledge is acquired. He offers an empiricist theory according to which ideas are acquired through experience. The theorists of this movement believe in an educational system that claims that both truth and knowledge are the results of observation and experience. Their ideas on education derive from a philosophy of pragmatism. Their objective was and still is to change the fundamental approach to teaching and learning and contribute to the establishment and development of public schools in America. Is there a touch of socialization and government interference in the educational system proposed by Dewey? Personally, I believe the answer is a simple categorical yes,” concludes Piedra.


Following Dewey, the progressive movement propagated the idea that if teachers taught today as they taught in the past, we would rob them of tomorrow. For these prophets of education, the central ethical imperative was the concept and advocacy of democracy, the one and ultimate ethical ideal of humanity. I wonder how the great minds of Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and Cicero, not to mention the scholastics and other great scholars of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, would react to the reconstructive educational theories of the progressive education movement of today. 


The following comes from an admirer and contemporary of Dewey’s: The foremost interpreter, in educational terms, of the significant social and industrial changes through which we have passed, and the one who has done more since 1895 to think out and state for us an educational philosophy suited to the changing conditions in our national life, is John Dewey…. Believing that the public school is the chief remedy for society’s ills, he has tried to change the school’s work to make it a miniature of society itself. 


So where does the concept of Critical Race Theory fit into this narrative? First, it exists. I find exasperating that the same folks who advocate for the 1619 project, now in over 4,000 school districts, deny that CRT is real.  The 1619 Project is critical race theory.  Consider the definition of CRT by the American Bar Association, “CRT is not a diversity and inclusion “training” but a practice of interrogating the role of race and racism in society that emerged in the legal academy and spread to other fields of scholarship.” Now consider this directly from The 1619 Project, “to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year. Doing so requires us to place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country. The issue contains essays on different aspects of contemporary American life, from mass incarceration to rush-hour traffic, that have their roots in slavery and its aftermath. Each essay takes up a modern phenomenon, familiar to all, and reveals its history.” No difference.  (It should be noted I have the original copy of the 1619 Project, the one that claims that date as the true founding, not the edited version of later date.) 


Second a brief word about the concept that a rejection of CRT, and its 1619 project spawn, is a rejection of the history of our nation’s racist ills such as slavery or Jim Crow. Gaslighting is part of politics, but this is pernicious. As a schoolboy in late 1970s Wisconsin in an all-white school I was presented with several works in different types of media. The first was the mini-series Roots, which garnered 33% of all T.V.s watching the final. We were assigned Richard Wright’s Native Son and Black Boy, for extra credit. We also watched the 1972 movie Sounder. Terms such as slavery, plantation, Jim Crow, sharecropper, and racism were as well-known as George Washington and World War II. And Abraham Lincoln was as famous to us for the Emancipation Proclamation as the prosecution of the Civil War.   


Later as a teacher in the early 1990s, 30 years ago, I myself taught American History courses that featured Frederick Douglass, Booker T Washington, and W.E.B. Du Bois.  I should also add I taught about Japanese internment in World War II.  That, unlike slavery, was not in the textbook because the writers, ex teachers, wished to preserve the legacy of FDR.  I am not a fan of anecdotal justification but my claim that American children learning about slavery and racism in America is not conjecture or observation.  I taught this myself.  


It is a clear distinction to read about, understand, and acknowledge the sins of our past on the one hand.  And perpetuate those sins with the advocacy today of segregation, white guilt, and the low expectations put upon people of color. That is the difference between our history and critical race theory. These are the philosophies of the far left, and they are now in our classroom to shape our children. But the concept of a classroom reflecting society itself, and the social engineering perpetuated by Dewey and his acolytes make the classroom a perfect hothouse for germinating these theories.    


“Society is the process of associating in such ways that experiences, ideas, emotions, values are transmitted and made common. To this active process, both the individual and the institutionally organized may truly be said to be subordinate.” John Dewey


In a separate podcast, I once discussed the nature of the seven deadly sins in history and politics. 

Certain traits, gluttony, lust, and greed all emanate from an innate human desire for more. I also noted the exceptional success of capitalism was to channel these desires in such a way as to benefit society as opposed to a single person or a small group. Leftists today would argue that there is little difference between a medieval lord and a big business titan. Except for two things: first, the medieval Lord had slaves and serfs, and titans of today have neither. And second, when some Count or Duke or local strong man took your chicken, it was a win for him and a loss for you. When Jeff Bezos got super-rich, he did so by delivering an unparalleled eCommerce experience that benefits hundreds of millions.  How many are coerced into using Amazon?  Elon Musk is rich not because he steals chickens but because he makes things that people want. He wins, and so do you.  


The founders understood the nature of human avarice and thus constructed a system to rein in these aspects. The progressives aimed, and still seek to do, deconstruct that system to remake the world as they see fit. Progressives miss that in dismantling the checks and balances and separation of powers inherent in our constitution, they open it up to nefarious figures who will not possess their supposedly good goals. If Donald Trump attempted to circumnavigate the constitution to his ends, where did he learn that? This is not chicken and egg. The progressives desired a living constitution, and presidents abusing their power and a supine Congress is what they have wrought. What Dewey did in the area of education was to apply the progressive ethos to the schoolroom. 


Did he envision the paramount position of teacher’s unions, the elimination of gifted programs, the imposition of Critical Race Theory teachings, the 1619 Project, and segregation according to color? Probably not (though Wilson might have approved of all of this). 

But by nationalizing the concept of education and espousing school for building the harmony of the collective society, and then leaving it to educators without parental input on what that collective would believe, he is ultimately the author of much of what is wrong with our schools.