Dewey’s Misrepresentations of Traditional American Education

Written by Kerry Ellard on March 4, 2022

Dewey’s Misrepresentations of Traditional American Education

In his later years, John Dewey acknowledged criticisms of the modern progressive education system. His remarks on the topic are suggestive, yet little-explored.

In a speech at a Philadelphia school in the 1930s, Dewey described three forms of American schooling: Monastery, Bargain Counter, and Laboratory.[1] “Laboratory” schooling, he explained, did not yet exist. It was a vision that could only now start to be implemented, thanks to “Bargain Counter” schooling having “prepared the way” for it.[2] So, what is Bargain Counter education?

Bargain Counter education referred to the modern progressive education system. Dewey listed its most common criticisms:

  • Declining quality due to “catering to the needs of large numbers.”
  • Letting “inexperienced and unwise” young people decide what they wanted to study, rather than offering them sensible guidance.
  • Education having become “scattered,” “attenuated,” and “diluted” due to the lack of organization, shared meaning, and stability that used to be provided by a canon.
  • A focus on utilitarian and superficial aims, like making money or getting a better job.[3]

Dewey’s reply to these criticisms is startling:

“…our universities and colleges, and also our high schools, and to some extent even our elementary schools, have been under attack on the grounds that this broadening out instead of being an enrichment is a thinning, while dilution and attenuation have made a course of study congested. The training which the youth now gets lacks depth--it is something merely on the surface. While I do not wholly agree with these criticisms, I have nevertheless ventured to take the title ‘bargain counter education,’ as a characterization of certain phases of the present education. It is hardly possible to discuss how far these criticisms are really justified. The reason is that different people have such very different standards.”[4]

This is precisely the crux of the critics’ complaints: they believed that progressive education lacked standards for judging choices as better or worse in any reliable manner, even as judged in a completely culture-bound way.[5] In its efforts to avoid oppressive or arbitrary authority, the progressive model discouraged getting people “on the same page,” as it were, creating greater divergence of individual expectations and making social interactions less predictable.[6] Without knowing the norms of the society in which they lived, individuals could not engage with the society and its culture in a confident and meaningful way. The way Dewey introduced the criticisms indicates that he was aware of this complaint. The passage is too wordy and rambling to excerpt, but he implies that all critics shared a preference for “so-called cultural education.”[7]

Here is the most important line of Dewey’s speech: “If one person thinks that closer connection with life is an advance in education, and another thinks that it is a term of condemnation since the essence of culture is that it shall not be too closely related to the practical needs of everyday life, there is clearly no point of contact between them.”[8]

This false dichotomy continues to plague American education debates today. Dewey’s framing suggests that progressive education is about closer connection with life, and that the entire notion of culture is at odds with this purpose. This is because he defines culture as something inherently remote from the practical needs of everyday life.[9] One could think Dewey is saying that this is how critics view it, and that they are wrong in their assumptions, but he does not offer an alternative definition of culture. He seems to believe that the notion of culture itself opens the door to oppressive authority or outdated traditions. But, he offers no way of resolving the conflict between progressives and their critics, repeatedly saying things like “They will judge what is going on very differently because they have different standards…But this is too large a question to go into here.”[10]

The biggest issue with Dewey’s philosophy is that he makes no effort to reduce his foundational questions to manageable proportions, which further encourages the remoteness of schooling from everyday life. This may have been fine for Dewey, given his desire that education remain experimental and evolving, but it cannot serve as a basis for policymaking or high-level social coordination. Dewey seems to acknowledge this:

“Some of these criticisms…seem to be justified. Some of these courses try to teach things which can only be learned in the actual business or calling itself, while they do not take sufficient account of the rapid changes that are going on, since the teachers are out of contact with industry and teach the way things were done five or ten years ago rather than the way they are done now in the actual callings of life. And they are still less in contact with the way things are going to be done five years from now. In consequence, even the so-called practical courses in the long run are often not very practical. We may make all these admissions about certain tendencies in our present system of education, and may yet say that we have accomplished one very important thing; we have at least broken down the obstacles and barriers which in the traditional education, the so-called cultural education, stood between the mass of the people and the possibility of their receiving anything worthy of the name of education.[11]

Dewey seems to be saying that his main purpose was to destroy traditional education, which he claims as a triumph for the masses. Yet, he goes on to say that “the older kind of education relied upon the wisdom and the culture of the past to determine what was good for young people…to study,” and that “the elements of the earlier education, which made for discipline and culture,” have fallen away.[12]

This gives the game away. America’s educational tradition is defined primarily by its democratic nature and focus on practical community participation—in other words, preparation for citizenship in a self-governing community. This is the culture that many critics were nostalgic for, but you’d never know it from Dewey’s bizarre description of that educational model: “Monastery” education!

There were very few monasteries in early America, famous for its Protestant republicanism, and for its unique fusion of democratic and classical education. Dewey appears to wink at this near the conclusion of his speech, which is almost an inversion of historical reality:

“We have at least taken the first step in making education universally accessible, so that there is more reality than there used to be in the ideal of equality of opportunity for all. We have also at least broken down the wall that used to exist between what was called culture and vocation; for in fact the older type, that which I have called the "education of the monastery,"(or which I might have called that of the pulpit, if I had another social class as a type), assumed that the people who were to acquire culture were people of leisure. Only those who had a substantial economic background which rendered it unnecessary for them to engage in any calling or business received education. On the other hand, it was assumed that people who went into the active callings of life, especially those which in any way involved the use of the body and the hands, were people who were, of necessity, shut out from any high culture, being condemned to a life of contact with physical, material things, so that in their callings there was no avenue to things of value intellectually and artistically. This bargain counter education, therefore, even taking it at its lowest level, has got rid of this dividing line, this complete separation between vocation and culture; or, in other terms, between theoretical things and practical things; between action and doing on the one hand, and knowledge and understanding on the other.”[13]

To see how much the story changed over the course of Dewey’s lifetime, compare this with the 1869 remarks of Harvard President Charles William Eliot:

“As a people, we do not apply to mental activities the principle of division of labor; and we have but a halting faith in special training for high professional employments. The vulgar conceit that a Yankee can turn his hand to anything we insensibly carry into high places...We are accustomed to seeing men leap from farm or shop to court-room or pulpit...”[14]

And also with those of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose own life calls into question the alleged “complete separation” between vocation and culture:

“A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast with his days, and feels no shame in not 'studying a profession,' for he does not postpone his life, but lives already.”[15]

Arguably, Dewey’s main contribution to American progressive education was the idea that a democratic society could be negotiated via the interactions of people in a cultural and institutional environment that were not yet (or at least not yet sufficiently) democratic. It was he who completely separated the “theoretical things” from the “practical things,” which allowed him to suggest that a community could organize itself around the practice of democracy without first committing itself to, and bringing up its children with, a theory of democracy. This contradicted the traditional understanding and experience of how to fulfill America’s democratic potential—by means of leaders and parents emphasizing the responsibility to live up to the principles and spirit on which the country was founded.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Emerson, W.R (1841) Essays, First Series, Self-Reliance".

6. As an example of this dynamic, historian Robert H. Wiebe noted that the thriving 19th century American democratic culture relied on a shared ”public map—sorting friends from enemies, defining how contests would be settled, and making connections between immediate and distant issues.” However, he labeled this a ”the white man’s public map,“ which implicitly suggests that no guidance can be taken from the ”features” of that map by those trying to enliven American democracy in a more inclusive era (making any necessary modifications to reflect the change conditions, of course.) See Robert H. Wiebe, Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.),

7. Dewey, “Monastery, Bargain Counter, or Laboratory in Education?”

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid. (“[Critics] claim that education in meeting these demands has become utilitarian, ‘practical’ rather than cultural; that its aim is simply to help an individual make his way industrially, so that he can earn money more easily, or get a better job than he could if he did not have this training.”)

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid. The word “pulpit” is associated with Protestantism—and American politics--not Catholicism.

Kerry Ellard

Kerry Ellard earned a B.S. in Communication and a B.A. in Political Science from Boston University, and a J.D. from Boston College Law School. During school and after graduation, she worked in law, education, and government. Most recently, she has worked as a tutor, independent historian, and sociological analyst. Kerry lives in Boston, where she enjoys playing with her dog and attending concerts.