The Intellectual Environment of John Dewey, Part VII: His Hostile Caricature of Traditional Education

Written by Kerry Ellard on February 11, 2022

Dewey gave a hostile and intentionally misleading portrait of traditional/classical education, seemingly determined to bury it for good. A closer look reveals that this bad faith engagement with the history of American education stemmed from more than arrogance, utopianism, or a grand plan of ideological indoctrination. While Dewey’s political and social wisdom is dubious on many points, he had given serious thought to intellectual history, and, at least in his later life, this dismissive attitude towards the past was connected to insightful and prescient fears about the future of humanity.

As in many other areas, Emerson anticipated many of Dewey’s concerns, and likely influenced Dewey’s thinking on this matter. The circumstances were surprisingly similar by 1931, when Dewey published “The Need for a New Party,” an effort to affect a realignment in response to American political instability. But, as usual, Dewey found Emerson’s advice inadequate for modern times. In the article (published in four installments in The New Republic), Dewey wrote (emphases added).

“President Hoover's constant appeal to self-reliance, enterprise, private initiative, is simply puerile; it is a voice from the gravein which human hopes and happiness are buried. Not that these words do not represent excellent qualities, but that their exercise under existing conditions is just what has brought society to its present catastrophe. Governmental action is necessary to change these conditions and give them a new direction; only then can the honored qualities have a chance for expression.”[1]

In the post-Civil War Republican Party-dominated culture Dewey grew up in, “self-reliance” referred to an Emersonian belief in the right to make up one’s own mind and the power of individual character and creativity, not economic self-sufficiency. In “The Need for a New Party,” written during the Great Depression and the last gasp of the original Republican Party, Dewey mourns the loss not only of pre-industrial life, but of the moral ideals represented by that culture.[2] He had rarely spoken in detail of such things, having long ago decided the approach of his parents and grandparents was inadequate for the industrial era, but one gets the sense that, much like Emerson, he tried to preserve some of those values by other methods, and by presenting them as novel, cutting-edge ideas.[3]

In this article, we see Dewey paid more attention to the implications of political, moral, and historical developments than he let on with his vague, judgment-averse references to democracy, scientific habits of mind, and experimental education laboratories.[4] As with much of his post-WWI work, we get a glimpse at which political conditions he had been trying to revive from first principles.

Notably, Dewey reveals his understanding of American education evolving in connection with practical participation in the early-mid 19th-century politics, which had become increasingly democratic.[5]

As historian Robert H. Wiebe wrote of that time (emphases added):

“Common schools…taught the kind of accessible rhetoric, malleable Protestantism, and simplified virtues that underwrote the parties' expansive political networksthey transmitted America's "ideology of literacy," an ideology that without mentioning parties prepared new generations to enter 19th century partisan life: internalize a handful of basic values, read to reinforce them, and be prepared to fight for them wherever the enemy might appear. Common schools taught the children of native whites what they already knew to be true and the children of immigrants what they needed to know in order to compete on equal terms.”[6]

But this “ideology of literacy” had become not just a source of boredom and outdated ideas for Dewey by the end of World War I. It had become a source of public danger due to the rise of mass propaganda and information overload (even worse, overload with mostly irrelevant information), as I discussed in Part VI. In the propaganda age, literacy made people vulnerable to sensational stories that invited them to form strong opinions on the things they were least likely to have concrete knowledge of.

By 1931, such concerns were central to Dewey’s apparent war on literacy, likely motivated in earlier years by a belief that students were overly influenced by tradition, abstract ideas, and authoritative pronouncements rather than manipulative media. To counter that, he focused on experiential learning. But, lacking Emerson’s faith in human judgment, Dewey seems to have in his later years believed mass literacy itself was a danger to democracy, as there was now no avoiding the lifelong barrage of context-free knowledge.[7]

In Dewey’s view, Americans’ literacy was, unbeknownst to them, undermining and warping their political participation, not serving it. The emphasis on informed reading as a civic responsibility meant that most Americans were regularly exposed to corrosive propaganda. It is the same principle behind the saying that journalists are most affected by their own propaganda, because of their heavy exposure and interest in the latest press reports. Given what we know today about people’s difficulty admitting error after publicly expressing an opinion, this really threw a wrench into Dewey’s plan for advancing intelligence through spontaneous social interaction. Everyone would want to gossip about remote affairs mentioned in the latest headlines, getting themselves locked into positions from which it was hard to retreat, corrupting the collective intelligence process.[8]

It is likely that Dewey did not even believe most “elites” had both the intelligence and moral clarity to understand the threat to democracy and human progress and resist it. It required not only intellectual brilliance and holding human progress as a primary value, but a particular orientation to the world. Few people had the necessary combination of knowledge of American history and western intellectual history, skill at philosophical synthesis and sociological modeling, and sense of social responsibility.[9]

In his final years, Dewey tried to sound the alarm, spelling out explicitly what he had before only hinted at, and emphasizing above all the need for experience-based knowledge (which generally translates to community-based knowledge), and the dangers of mistaking information accumulation for knowledge. Knowledge disconnected from experience was inherently unstable, no matter how well-curated, scientific, or politically useful in the short-term, and was not the basis for a well-informed democratic citizenry or human progress.

“The average person is surrounded today by readymade intellectual goods as he is by readymade foods, articles, and all kinds of gadgets. He has not the personal share in making either intellectual or material goods that his pioneer ancestors had. Consequently they knew better what they themselves were about, though they knew infinitely less concerning what the world at large was doing…

Schooling in literacy is no substitute for the dispositions which were formerly provided by direct experiences of an educative quality. The void created by lack of relevant personal experiences combines with the confusion produced by impact of multitudes of unrelated incidents to create attitudes which are responsive to organized propaganda, hammering in day after day the same few and relatively simple beliefs asseverated to be ‘truths’ essential to national welfare. In short, we have to take into account the attitudes of human nature that have been created by the immense development in mechanical instrumentalities if we are to understand the present power of organized propaganda.”[10]

Here we see Dewey’s focus on the nature of networked collective intelligence resurface, with disturbing implications. People have developed unpredictable, emotional, associative responses en masse, due to propaganda playing on their sense of loyalty. There are now many more perspectives that one must be aware of and consider the effects of in order to take intelligent action. There is also another risk: the falling back unreflectively onto unarticulated assumptions to stabilize society amid all the noise. These assumptions either erode over time, due to a failure to explain their purpose to the next generation, or are suddenly called into question, throwing society into destructive and disorienting conflicts:

“The effect of the increase in number and diversity of unrelated facts that now play pretty continuously upon the average person is more easily grasped than is the influence of popular generalities, not checked by observed facts, over the interpretation put upon practical events, one that provokes acquiescence rather than critical inquiry. One chief reason for underestimation of the influence of generalities or ‘principles’ is that they are so embodied in habits that those actuated by them are hardly aware of their existence. Or, if they are aware of them, they take them to be self-evident truths of common sense…Then when men who have lived under different conditions and have formed different life habits put forth different ‘principles,’ the latter are rejected as sources of some contagion introduced by foreigners hostile to our institutions.”[11]

The validity of Dewey’s fears is now hard to deny; he was very prescient about how it would destroy individual judgment and shared meaning until our apparently functional modern democratic society was revealed to have become a hollow shell. Yet despite his diagnoses of these problems, and the introduction of more detailed historical, ethical, and political context to his writings, he struggled to delineate a solid political ground on which Americans could gather and recollect themselves. In large part, this was because, despite his recognition of the role played by divisive propaganda, he blamed much of the conflict and confusion on the inability of Americans to let go of “outdated” views, customs, or habits of thought, and could not resist further hostile caricaturing of the American past.[12] In Part VIII, I will talk more about the nature of this dilemma, and how it relates to modern American education.

1. “The Need for a New Party: I. The Present Crisis; II. The Breakdown of the Old Order; III. Who Might Make a New Party?; IV. Policies for a New Party,” reprinted in John Dewey et al., The Later Works of John Dewey, Volume 6, 1925 - 1953: 1931-1932, Essays, Reviews, and Miscellany(Southern Illinois University Press, 2008.)

2. See ibid. The sincerity of Dewey’s lament is unclear; the main objective was likely to borrow from the moral and patriotic authority of the ideals and advance his proposed solution to the crisis using rhetoric that Americans were known to understand and respond to. But he clearly was comfortable with the philosophical tradition, appreciated its appeal, and knew how it related to and could be used in support of his values.

3. See the previous parts in this series. His career became more Emersonian the further he got from the events of WWI, and he increasingly moved away from vaguely dismissing historical circumstances to invoking the political traditions of 19th century northern America. In 1930, the first chapter of his new book was titled “The House Divided Against Itself,” a reference to the famous 1858 Abraham Lincoln speech. See John Dewey, Individualism Old and New, 1930. By the next year, he was referring to the Great Depression as “The Irrepressible Conflict”! (This was the controversial term used by anti-slavery groups to refer to the slavery dispute before and during the Civil War.) See “The Irrepressible Conflict,” in Dewey, The Later Works of John Dewey, Volume 6, 1925 - 1953: 1931-1932.

4. By 1939, Dewey was writing that the problem of propaganda was “very directly connected with what now seems to us the over-simplification of the democratic idea indulged in by the authors of our republican government. They had in mind persons whose daily occupations stimulated initiative and vigor, and who possessed information which even if narrow in scope, bore pretty directly upon what they had to do, while its sources were pretty much within their control. Their judgment was exercised upon things within the range of their activities and their contacts.” John Dewey, Freedom and Culture, 1939. This is the same sentiment he expressed in relation to his schools substituting for the kind of experience-based education he had gotten growing up on his grandfather’s Vermont farm.

5. At other times, Dewey made bizarrely inaccurate claims about pre-20th century education in America that ignore its unusually widespread and democratic nature, saying at various times that it reflected the Founders’ desire to preserve elite British notions of education and government, perpetuated a European-style aristocratic tradition, or was designed mainly for training clergy. His accuracy on these points when discussing political and intellectual history indicates that he knew better. The simplest explanation is that he thought changes in the political situation had rendered old methods of education useless or worse, and that he wished to preempt their use in the debates over public education policy. He generally maintained that most pre-industrial era Americans were educated tolerably well outside of school, by means of community life.

6. Weibe, R.H. (1996) Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy.

7. As I noted in “Emerson on Education,” Emerson’s faith in democracy was secondary to his philosophy of “Self-Reliance.” (“Like Dewey, Emerson emphasized the individual need and ability to see ‘things in their causes, all facts in their connection.’ Unlike Dewey, he conceived of this happening not through social interaction, but by observing the patterns of Nature, which all minds had the ability to discern and subsequently communicate about. (‘By the permanence of Nature, minds are trained alike, and made intelligible to each other.’) As his Puritan ancestors used Biblical morality as an organizing principle, Emerson used Nature, and man’s God-given ability to understand Creation. This faith in every person’s judgment made him open to trusting democracy, just as the Puritans’ faith in human conscience made them open to trusting universal education.”)

8. Social media has since shown us the worst-case scenarios.

9. See, for example, “Science and Free Culture, in Dewey, Freedom and Culture (“It is not becoming, to put it moderately, for those who are themselves animated by the scientific morale to assert that other persons are incapable of coming into possession of it and being moved by it. Such an attitude is saved from being professional snobbery only when it is the result of sheer thoughtlessness. When one and the same representative of the intellectual class denounces any view that attaches inherent importance to the consequences of science, claiming the view is false to the spirit of science--and also holds that it is impossible for science to do anything to affect desires and ends, the inconsistency demands explanation. A situation in which the fundamental dispositions and ends of a few are influenced by science while that of most persons and most groups is not so influenced proves that the issue is cultural. The difference sets a social problem: what are the causes for the existence of this great gap, especially since it has such serious consequences? If it is possible for persons to have their beliefs formed on the ground of evidence, procured by systematic and competent inquiry, nothing can be more disastrous socially than that the great majority of persons should have them formed by habit, accidents of circumstance, propaganda, personal and class bias. The existence, even on relatively narrow scale, of a morale of fairmindedness, intellectual integrity, of will to subordinate personal preference to ascertained facts and to share with others what is found out, instead of using it for personal gain, is a challenge of the most searching kind. Why don't a great many more persons have this attitude?”)

10. Dewey, Freedom and Culture.

11. Ibid.

12. Dewey’s main complaint about propaganda is not that it is divisive in the usual sense (the government selling war to the public by whipping up hostility to an ”enemy”). He appears to view financial interests, not the government, as the main instigator, and the main problem as a deterioration in public judgment caused by forming opinions on distant, emotionally-charged issues, rather than the promotion of insidious views or causes.

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.