The Intellectual Environment of John Dewey, Part V: The Problem of Influence

Written by Kerry Ellard on December 17, 2021

In Parts III and IV of this series, I noted that Dewey’s approach was part of a mid-19th-century American tradition exemplified by people like Whitman and Emerson, whose projects Dewey explicitly identified with. I suggested, however, that his own project was compromised by his rejection of their belief in intellectual independence and non-social intelligence. In denying some sort of transcendent grounding of the individual mind, Dewey dismissed the possibility of constructive personal influence and example.

Instead, he fixated on destructive personal influence, though he believed this to be rooted in unchosen structural incentives rather than character flaws. Everyone was at the mercy of environmental forces. Yet, Dewey did seem to believe there was some basis of common ground between people, or at least believed in the existence of shared cultural reference points that could be reached through constant conversation and active social interaction (for example, through play).

It is a mistake to infer, from these beliefs, that Dewey was fixated on “fun.” Dewey’s concerns were heavy ones. He emphasized play because he believed it was a source of direct and spontaneous learning, one which was not subject to untoward influences. For Dewey, this was a matter of hanging on for dear life—the only hope for salvation. It was not an unserious or whacky new attitude; this is extraordinarily close to what Emerson argued in the 1840s, for both adults and children, inside and out of school. Dewey’s recommendations were not intended to be limited in influence on the formal education of children, but to give them tools that would serve them daily for the rest of their lives.

Emerson’s Influence

As I wrote in “Emerson on Education,” Emerson rhapsodized about how when a child“ wishes to learn to skate; to coast, to catch a fish in the brook, to hit a mark with a snowball or a stone,” a slightly older child is always eager to show off his knowledge of “these sciences.” Play and learning are the same, in the sense that they involve true curiosity—a person’s mind must sincerely (spontaneously, or in reaction to something in the environment) take an interest in the material to truly engage with and learn from it. A command to simply learn is not sufficient.

Emerson, of course, understood that most of us must work to learn things we have no real interest in, but need in order to function. He saw this as a necessary part of education, but certainly not the bulk of it, or the main purpose of it—he knew it was not knowledge. Insisting “the two elements, enthusiasm and drill” were not “incompatible,” Emerson said educational drills were about “performance,” demonstrating that the student had mastered certain skills and concepts and could use them with precision. “…That power of performance is worth more than the knowledge. He can learn anything which is important to him now that the power to learn is secured: as mechanics say, when one has learned the use of tools, it is easy to work at a new craft.”

Just like Dewey, Emerson emphasized learning through activity, including play, community socialization, and manual work, as well as tailoring education to develop the distinct talents of each individual, and addressing “the imagination” and the whole person.

In neither case was this intended to make all school activities “fun” or “easy” for children, as critics of Dewey often assume.[1] Such criticism fails to truly grapple with remarks like those Dewey made in 1915: “No individual child is [to be] forced to a task that does not appeal... A discipline based on moral ground [is] a mere excuse for forcing [pupils] to do something simply because some grown-up person wants it done."[2] One would be concerned about this only if they believed there was something deleterious about obeying authorities, and while automatic rejection of authority is dysfunctional, overriding one’s personal inclination in deference to another carries obvious risks. Understanding the difference between legitimate and illegitimate authority is necessary to basic judgment and effective action.

Just as Puritans feared their community being led astray by “Old Deluder Satan,” just as Emerson feared character- and creativity-crushing conformity, and just as Lincoln feared America’s “moral lights” being blown out around him, Dewey feared that unquestioned authority could quickly slide into a tyranny of immorality and mental darkness. But he differed from them by concluding that no authority was safe; that if you gave authority an inch, they’d take a mile. This was the natural result of Dewey’s doubt that credible individuals or moral codes had the ability to coordinate resistance in the mass media era. A torrent of calculated manipulation had uprooted the cultural conditions in which good character was formed and authentic morality could be discerned.

Emerson had responded to a similar crisis of authority by attempting to translate the community’s moral code into something applicable to and discernible in the new social circumstances. He also used it to coordinate the efforts of individuals of strong character and moral credibility, hoping to create enough cultural leaders who could stabilize the community. Dewey, however, believed that individuals were so easily overpowered by inappropriate outside influences that the only choice was to remove it altogether and throw oneself entirely on one’s spontaneous impulses.[3] This meant that all social interaction was reduced to people spontaneously responding to each other with a focus on the present and an awareness of the fact that they were all subject to each other’s influences.[4]

As with Whitman and Emerson, to understand Dewey, one must look beyond the often optimistic, seemingly freewheeling tone to his cold-eyed assessment of the political catastrophe he feared was looming. This will be discussed in Part VI of this series.

1. See, for example, Rev. John A. Hardon, S.J., “The Dewey Legend in American Education,” Catholic Educational Review, November 1952, 577-588, http://www.therealpresence.org/archives/Education/Education_009.htm.

2. Quoted in ibid.

3. See this criticism of Dewey: “Dewey, influenced by his early Hegelianism, declared war on all dualisms...One of the dichotomies Dewey attacked was that between work and play. Unhappy about this opposition, he argued that given the proper setting (note the environmentalism), work would become play. Naturally he applied this notion to schooling and concluded that in a healthy educational environment, where children are engaged in matters of vital interest to them personally, the spirit of play will prevail.” Ibid. The question is, how do all these ideas connect for Dewey?The key phrase is “engaged in matters of vital interest to them personally.” The “spirit of play” does not refer to aimless playing with dolls, but to natural interaction, to the creative and social impulses, to “flow states.”

4. Hegel’s philosophical influence on Dewey is obvious here: “One’s self-consciousness…will be dependent on one’s recognition of those others as similarly recognizing oneself as a self-conscious subject. Such complex patterns of mutual recognition constituting objective spirit thereby provide the social matrix within which individual self-consciousnesses can exist as such. It is in this way that the Phenomenology can change course, the earlier tracking of shapes of individual consciousness and self-consciousness effectively coming to be replaced by the tracking of distinct patterns of mutual recognition between subjects.” Redding, Paul. “Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Winter 2020, Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2020. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2020/entries/hegel/.

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.

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