What Does Progressive Education Really Look Like? Part I: Philosophical Foundations

Written by Kerry Ellard on January 17, 2022

John Dewey wrote, in 1939’s Freedom and Culture, that “Shrewd observers have said that one factor in the relatively easy victory of totalitarianism in Germany was the void left by decay of former theological beliefs. Those who had lost one external authority upon which they had depended were ready to turn for another one which was closer and more tangible.”[1]

One such shrewd observer may have been professor and political philosopher Leo Strauss, who said as much in a lecture given not long afterward.[2] “One or the other modern pedagogue…might argue [that] it is not unnatural that the intelligent section of a young generation should be dissatisfied with what they are told to believe by the older generation,” Strauss said in that same lecture, “and that they should have a strong desire for a new word, for a word expressing their longings, and, considering that moderation is not a virtue of youth, for an extreme word.”[3]

There is something Dewey-an about the “modern pedagogue” Strauss describes. While Dewey did not encourage “extreme” words or nihilistic impulses, and he had taken a great interest in the impact of German philosophy in WWI, he was fixated on young people having new and resonant words and not relying on the past or authority.

Strauss continued, “Moreover, he would conceivably say, it is not unnatural that the young people, being constitutionally unable to discover that new word, are unable to express in articulate language more than the negation of the aspirations of the older generation.”[4] Young people tended towards this specific kind of nihilism, Strauss suggested, something Dewey had begun warning against, telling progressive educators to avoid automatically opposing things that resembled traditional organization.[5]

But Dewey seemed unable to go where Strauss went next: “But I must disagree with the modem pedagogue all the more in so far as I am convinced that about the most dangerous thing for these young men was precisely what is called progressive education: they rather needed old-fashioned teachers, such old-fashioned teachers of course as would be undogmatic enough to understand the aspirations of their pupils. Unfortunately, the belief in old-fashioned teaching declined considerably in post-war Germany.”[6]

Just before the above-quoted remark in Freedom and Culture, Dewey had written that “the historic influence of religions has often been to magnify doctrines that are not subject to critical inquiry and test. Their cumulative effect in producing habits of mind at odds with the attitudes required for maintenance of democracy is probably much greater than is usually recognized.” He also spoke of the way in which literacy renders people vulnerable to war propaganda, using Germany as one example.[7]

Dewey’s concerns about the passive, unreflective absorption of others’ opinions are valid. As I have written, it gives the idea that a society’s values are stable, when it is in fact easily overturned whenever destructive opinions are offered to such unanchored people. And yet, the only way to guard against this would seem to be anchoring oneself in something meaningful, and having leaders capable of effectively communicating with people about disconnects and getting them back on track.

In an outline of the lecture, Strauss pointed to why this failed to happen in the German case: “On the affinity of progressivism to nihilism: progressivism leaves the aim undefined; it therefore opposes an indefinite No to the given order.” In that way, a non-nihilistic motive—a desperate but unsuccessful attempt to acquire meaning—can lead to nihilism.[8]

Arguably, this is what happened to progressive education. The progressives bet on a dedication to science to produce solutions had failed to manifest. In 1939, Dewey could see the problem looming: Did science have “intrinsic moral potentiality”? In other words, was science “capable of influencing the formation of ends for which men strive”? If not, science was limited to increasing the ability of men to attain ends they had formulated based on wholly non-scientific influences. This latter position, Dewey noted, had historically been the province of “theologians,” implying, as it did, “the necessity for recourse to some other source of moral guidance [God].”[9]

Dewey was struck by the fact that “a similar position”—the inherent amorality of science—"is now taken in the name of science.” To Dewey, this development was either a sign of cultural confusion or an ill omen for democracy. Today, one may be tempted to mock Dewey for believing that science can produce moral judgments, but Dewey has an unexpectedly clever, if not totally convincing, retort.

Yes, he acknowledged, science could not produce clear ethical commandments in the manner of pre-modern authorities, such as theologians. But surely, when a conflict arose, we could still be expected to determine “desire and purpose by scientifically warranted beliefs,” rather than abandoning ourselves to a life of raw power struggle. Science may not provide us in advance with an easy answer to each dispute, but surely we can manage enough responsibility to think about our desires and control them accordingly. The existence of desires and interests that influenced the formation and valuation of ends did not invalidate our agency or the existence of moral facts. We choose whether to act on our desires and interests, which were themselves “moral facts” that required us to bring “intelligence equipped with knowledge” to deal with them.[10]

In an earlier book, Dewey had made a similar point in his defense of liberalism. We only had three options for getting things done in life: using our intelligence, “drift and casual improvision,” and “the use of coercive force stimulated by unintelligent emotion and fanatical dogmatism.”[11] The “stimulant” he was referring to often took the form of war propaganda, which he found was frighteningly effective at suspending the capacity for intelligent action in most people.[12]

“If [science] is incapable of developing moral techniques which will…determine [the social relations and arrangements it is shaping through technological developments],” Dewey warned, “the split in modern culture goes so deep that not only democracy but all civilized values are doomed.” The problem America faced in 1939 was that “a culture which permits science to destroy traditional values but which distrusts its power to create new ones is a culture which is destroying itself.”

Dewey eerily predicted the destructive dynamics underlying critical race theory (desires and interests being held to negate moral facts, rather than being recognized as moral facts themselves), post-modern deconstructionism (“a culture which permits science to destroy traditional values but which distrusts its power to create new ones”), and identity politics (“groups having a functional basis will probably have to replace those based on physical contiguity.”)

In making these realizations, Dewey came to sound quite a bit like Strauss, which may explain why he ended up where he did: with the Declaration of Independence.[13] Maybe progressive education could work by finding a way to overcome the problem Strauss described: “[The opponents of the young nihilists] believed to have refuted the No by refuting the Yes, i.e. the inconsistent, if not silly, positive assertions of the young men”?

Strauss said this was insufficient, because “one cannot refute what one has not thoroughly understood,” and the complacent adults around them were unable to see though the water in which they were swimming. It did not occur to them that these young people might reject the principles of the current society even if they had been dissuaded from committing to others. This problem was compounded by the fact that progressive teachers were unable to meet the need for an explanation “in articulate language” of “the positive, and not merely destructive, meaning” of their students’ “aspirations.”[14]

Perhaps this is exactly what Dewey’s philosophy is missing, at least in its more common interpretations.[15] But more in-depth scholarship from the last decade attempts to address this problem with material from his later books, which focused more on real-world political dilemmas than on education theory or democratic philosophy,[16] or by comparing Dewey’s work to others’ and discerning meaningful patterns.[17]

“My reading of Dewey in this essay is not anti-foundationalist. Instead, when confronted with the crisis of war and exception, Dewey articulated a basic foundation, democratic faith, on which incredibly variable democratic worlds can be built. There are no preconditions for democratic faith. This faith is the precondition, the a priori, the foundation of democracy. Hence, the rhetorical problem of translation: of how best to render democratic faith to the jaded ears of a postmodern generation. For Dewey, democracy without a moral foundation is vacuous, an instrument of oppression and war rather than of education and empowerment. And without a foundation in democratic faith, understood as respect for one’s interlocutors and opponents based in shared recognition humanity and the capacity for intelligence, deliberation is likewise impossible. Consequently, democratic faith has profound rhetorical consequences.”[18]

In the last 10-15 years, other scholars have installed a foundation under Dewey using Ralph Waldo Emerson or Booker T. Washington.[19] Interestingly, many of the Emersonian concepts said to “compensate” for Dewey’s weaknesses have also been noted in Maria Montessori’s works.[20]

Is it finally possible to find a foundation for progressive education? Yes, but as even Dewey noted, it is culture-bound, as we can see in Booker T. Washington, whose career illustrates the true nature of progressive education. We probably need to balance it with alternatives and/or take a more situation-specific approach.[21] This, as well as the Montessori connection and Dewey’s apparent reversal on the importance of analyzing cultural norms, will be explored in Part II of this series.

1. John Dewey, Freedom and Culture (New York: G. B. Putnam's Sons, 1939.)

2. I imagine that Dewey and Strauss had some familiarity with each other’s arguments by 1939, due to overlapping interests and social/professional connections, but can’t say for sure. In 1943, Strauss reviewed Dewey’s German Philosophy and Politics, which had originally been published in 1915, with a revised edition appearing in 1942. (World War I seems to have led Dewey to rethink many of his assumptions). Interestingly, the review ends with the following paragraph: “In attacking Germany philosophy Dewey defends not simply the cause of democracy, and international order, but a particular interpretation of that cause-his own philosophical doctrine. He seems to think that democracy is as much bound up with a belief ‘which is frankly experimental’ as political absolutism is with ‘a philosophy of absolutes.’ No one will deny ‘that philosophical absolutism may be practically as dangerous as matter of fact political absolutism.’ But is it not also true that the ‘frankly experimental’ ‘method . . . of success’ has proved very dangerous in the hands of unscrupulous men, and that the belief in an ‘absolute’ inspired the words ‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights’?” See Social Research, 10(4), 505–507, 1943, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40981987. Internal citations omitted and emphases added.

3. Leo Strauss, “German Nihilism,” Lecture, General Seminar of the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science of the New School for Social Research, New York, February 26, 1941. See note xiv, below.

4. Ibid.

5. Dewey, Freedom and Culture.

6. Strauss, “German Nihilism.”

7. Dewey, Freedom and Culture.

8. Strauss, “German Nihilism.”

9. Dewey, Freedom and Culture.

10. Ibid.

11. John Dewey, Liberalism and Social Action (G. P. Putnam, 1935).

12. See ibid., note xiv, below, and Jeremy Engels, “Dewey on Jefferson: Reiterating Democratic Faith in Times of War,” in Trained Capacities: John Dewey, Rhetoric, and Democratic Culture, edited by Gregory Clark and Brian Jackson (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2014), 87-105, https://www.academia.edu/5278423/Dewey_on_Jefferson_Reiterating_Democratic_Faith_in_Times_of_War_forthcoming_in_Trained_Capacities_John_Dewey_Rhetoric_and_Democratic_Culture_.

13. See Dewey, Freedom and Culture, note 2, above, and Steven B. Smith, “Reading Leo Strauss,” New York Times, June 25, 2006, https://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/25/books/chapters/0625-1st-smith.html (“Strauss offered a deliberately provocative account of what might be called the ‘modernity problem’ that had been widely debated in prewar European circles, but which was still relatively unknown to Americans of that era. Prior to Strauss, the most important current of twentieth-century American political thought was John Dewey's ‘progressivism.’ Against the view that the advance of science, especially the modern social sciences, was bringing about the progressive triumph of freedom and democracy, Strauss rang an alarm bell. Strauss argued by contrast that the dynamics of modern philosophy and…value-free social science, were moving not toward freedom and well-being but to a condition he diagnosed as nihilism. In Strauss's counternarrative of decline, the foundations of constitutional government as understood by the American framers were gradually being sapped and eroded by the emergence of German-style historicism according to which all standards of justice and right are relative to their time and place. All of this was presented as the outcome of a densely detailed history of political thought in which all the trappings of German scholarship were on full display. His analysis was bold, audacious, and learned. The ensuing controversy pitted those advocates of American progressivism against Strauss, who regarded modernity as a mixed blessing that required certain premodern classical and biblical teachings to rescue modernity from its own self-destructive tendencies.”) Emphases added.

14. Strauss, “German Nihilism.” Strauss continued: “…the very refutations confirmed the nihilists in their belief; all these refutations seemed to beg the question; most of the refutations seemed to consist…of repetitions of things which the young people knew already by heart…the great authorities of [modern] civilisation did no longer impress them; it was evident that only such opponents would have been listened to who knew that doubt from their own experience, who through years of hard and independent thinking had overcome it. Many opponents did not meet that condition. They had been brought up in the belief in the principles of modem civilization…Consequently, the attitude of the opponents of the young nihilists tended to become apologetic…The ideas of modern civilization appeared to the young generation to be the old ideas… The situation of modem civilisation in general, and of its backbone, which is modem science, both natural and civil in particular, appeared to be comparable to that of scholasticism shortly before the emergence of the new science of the 17th century: the technical perfection of the methods and terminology of the old school…appeared to be a strong argument against the old school… The only answer which could have impressed the young nihilists, had to be given in non-technical language.”

15. See note xiv, above. The themes found in Strauss’s remarks have some striking commonalities with some of those found in Naoko Saito and Stanley Cavell, “In Search of Light in Democracy and Education: Deweyan Growth in an Age of Nihilism,” In The Gleam of Light: Moral Perfectionism and Education in Dewey and Emerson (Fordham University Press, 2005), 1–16, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvh4zg37.5,

16. See Engels, “Dewey on Jefferson: Reiterating Democratic Faith in Times of War.”

17. See, for example, Saito and Cavell, “In Search of Light in Democracy and Education: Deweyan Growth in an Age of Nihilism, and Ronald Chennault, “Pragmatism and Progressivism in the Educational Thought and Practices of Booker T. Washington,” Philosophical Studies in Education 44 (January 2013): 121–31, https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1015729.pdf.

18. Engels, “Dewey on Jefferson: Reiterating Democratic Faith in Times of War.”

19. See Saito and Cavell, “In Search of Light in Democracy and Education: Deweyan Growth in an Age of Nihilism,” Chennault, “Pragmatism and Progressivism in the Educational Thought and Practices of Booker T. Washington,” and Melvin L. Rogers, The Undiscovered Dewey: Religion, Morality, and the Ethos of Democracy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), doi:10.1017/S0022381609990612.

20. See P. Frierson, The Moral Philosophy of Maria Montessori, Journal of the American Philosophical Association, 7(2), 2021, 133-154, doi:10.1017/apa.2019.41; Saito and Cavell, “In Search of Light in Democracy and Education: Deweyan Growth in an Age of Nihilism, J. Benjamin Raber, Doctoral Dissertation, "Progressivism's Aesthetic Education: The Bildungsroman and the Struggle for the American School, 1890-1920," 2014, http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:12271800, and Kerry Ellard “Montessori's Initial Reception in America,” Montessorium, May 7, 2021, https://montessorium.com/blog/montessori-initial-reception-america.

21. See Dewey, Freedom and Culture; Chennault, and “Pragmatism and Progressivism in the Educational Thought and Practices of Booker T. Washington.”

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.