By W. F. Warde (George Novack)

John Dewey’s Theories of Education

Written: 1960
Source: International Socialist Review, Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter 1960.
Transcription/Editing: 2005 by Daniel Gaido
HTML Markup: 2005 by David Walters
Public Domain:George Novak Internet Archive 2005; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

October 20, 1959 marked the one-hundredth anniversary of John Dewey’s birthday. This eminent thinker of the Progressive movement was the dominant figure in American education. His most valuable and enduring contribution to our culture came from the ideas and methods he fathered in this field.

Dewey won a greater international following for his educational reforms than for his instrumentalist philosophy. Between the two World Wars, where previously backward countries were obliged to catch up quickly with the most modern methods, as in Turkey, Japan, China, the Soviet Union and Latin America, the reshapers of the educational system turned toward Dewey’s innovations for guidance.

Most broadly considered, Dewey’s work consummated the trends in education below the university level initiated by pioneer pedagogues animated by the impulses of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. This was especially clear in his views on child education which built on ideas first brought forward by Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Froebel in Western Europe and by kindred reformers in the United States.

In its course of development on a world scale the democratic movement forced consideration of the needs and claims of one section of the oppressed after another. Out of the general cause of “rights of the people” there sprouted specific demands voicing the grievances of peasants, wage workers, the religiously persecuted, slaves, women, paupers, the aged, the disabled, prisoners, the insane, the racially oppressed.

The movement to reform child education must be viewed in this historical context. Children as such are not usually included among the oppressed. Yet they necessarily compose one of the weakest, most dependent and defenseless sections of the population. Each generation of children is not only helped but hindered and hurt by the elders who exercise direct control over them.

Just as society may deny satisfaction to the physical, educational and cultural needs of the young, so their parents and guardians may slight or ignore their rights. Most adults cannot be held individually culpable for such misdeeds; they, too, have been shaped by the society around them and are goaded by its necessities. Through them and others around them the rising generation suffers from the inadequacies of their social inheritance and the evils of their surroundings. Growing children are normally unaware of the remoter social causes of their misfortunes and miseries; even their elders may not know about them. So they direct their resentments, as well as focus their affections, upon the members of their immediate circle. The novels of the past 150 years provide plenty of pathetic tales and tragic descriptions of family conflicts at all age levels.

Children cannot formulate their grievances collectively, or conduct organized struggle for improvements in their conditions of life and mode of education. Apart from individual explosions of protest, they must be helped by spokesmen among adults who are sensitive to the troubles of the young and are resolved to do something about remedying them.

However, the impulsion for educational reform does not come in the first place from any abstract recognition of the deprivations suffered by the young. It arises from reactions to widespread changes in the conditions of life which affect all age groups. Their new situation forces both parents and children to seek new ways of satisfying the new demands thrust upon them. The child brought up in a tenement or an apartment in crowded city streets has different needs and faces more complex and perplexing problems than the child on a family farm. The families who have migrated from Puerto Rico to Manhattan since the end of the Second World War can testify to this.

The problems of readjustment differ somewhat according to the child’s social status. The class structure quickly impresses its stamp upon the plastic personality, conditioning and regulating the relations between the sexes, the rich and the poor, the upper, middle and lower classes. This determines both the characteristics of the educational system and of the children tutored and trained under it.

Each broad struggle against antiquated social and political conditions since the French Revolution has evoked demands for the reconstruction of the educational system. The kindergarten and child-play movement now incorporated in our public schools was part and parcel of the ferment created by the French Revolution. Thomas Jefferson first called for national free public schools to defend and extend the newly won American democracy. The utopian socialists, in accord with their understanding that people were the products of their social environment, gave much thought to the upbringing of children and introduced many now accepted educational innovations.

The communist colony in New Harmony, Indiana, founded by Robert Owen in 1826, pioneered a pattern in free, equal, comprehensive and secular education that had yet to be realized throughout this country over a century later. From the age of two the children were cared for and instructed by the community. The youngest spent the day in play school until they progressed to higher classes. There the Greek and Latin classics were discarded; practice in various crafts constituted an essential part of the program. The teachers aimed to impart what the children could most readily understand, making use of concrete objects and avoiding premature abstractions. They banished fear and all artificial rewards and punishments and appealed instead to the spontaneous interest and inclinations of the children as incentives for learning. Girls were on an equal footing with boys.

The educational reformers of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries dealt with the two distinct aspects of children’s problems. One concerned the claims of childhood as a specific and independent stage in human growth. This perennial problem arises from the efforts of adults to subject growing children to ends foreign to their own needs and to press them into molds shaped, not by the requirements of the maturing personality, but by the external interests of the ruling order. Rousseau had protested against this when he wrote:

“Nature wants children to be children before they are men . . . Childhood has ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling, peculiar to itself, nothing can be more foolish than to substitute our ways for them.“

The other involved efforts to reshape the obsolete system of schooling to make it fit the revolutionary changes in social life. These two problems were closely connected. The play school, for example, was devised not only to care for the specific needs of very young children but also to meet new needs which had grown out of the transformations in the family affected by industrial and urban conditions; it was no longer a unit of production as in feudal and colonial times but became more and more simply a center of consumption.

Dewey’s theories blended attention to the child as an individual with rights and claims of his own with a recognition of the gulf between an outdated and class-distorted educational setup inherited from the past and the urgent requirements of the new era.

The educational system had to be thoroughly overhauled, he said, because of the deep-going changes in American civilization. Under colonial, agrarian, small-town life, the child took part in household, community and productive activities which spontaneously fostered capacities for self-direction, discipline, leadership and independent judgment. Such worthwhile qualities were discouraged and stunted by the new industrialized, urbanized, atomized conditions which had disintegrated the family and weakened the influence of religion.

In the city the training of children became one-sided and distorted because intellectual activities were dissociated from practical everyday occupations. Dewey wrote:

“While the child of bygone days was getting an intellectual discipline whose significance he appreciated in the school, in his home life he was securing acquaintance in a direct fashion with the chief lines of social and industrial activity. Life was in the main rural. The child came into contact with the scenes of nature, and was familiarized with the care of domestic animals, the cultivation of the soil, and the raising of crops. The factory system being undeveloped, the house was the center of industry. Spinning, weaving, the making of clothes, etc., were all carried on there.“

“As there was little accumulation of wealth,” Dewey continued, “the child had to take part in these, as well as to participate in the usual round of household occupations. Only those who have passed through such training, [as Dewey himself did in Vermont], and, later on, have seen children raised in city environments, can adequately realize the amount of training, mental and moral, involved in this extra-school life ... It was not only an adequate substitute for what we now term manual training, in the development of hand and eye, in the acquisition of skill and deftness; but it was initiation into self-reliance, independence of judgment and action, and was the best stimulus to habits of regular and continuous work.“

“In the urban and suburban life of the child of today this is simply memory,” he went on to point out. “The invention of machinery, the institution of the factory system, the division of labor, have changed the home from a workshop into a simple dwelling place. The crowding into cities and the increase of servants [!] have deprived the child of an opportunity to take part in those occupations which still remain. Just at the time when a child is subjected to a great increase in stimulus and pressure from his environment, he loses the practical and motor training necessary to balance his intellectual development. Facility in acquiring information is gained; the power of using it is lost. While need of the more formal intellectual training in school has decreased, there arises an urgent demand for the introduction of methods of manual and industrial discipline which shall give the child what he formerly obtained in his home and social life. The old schooling had to be renovated for still another reason. The curriculum and mode of colonial education had been largely shaped by medieval concepts and aims. The schools were controlled by the clergy and access to them was restricted to the favored few, the wealthy and well born. The teacher tyrannized over the classroom, imposing a schematic routine upon a passive, obedient, well-drilled student body.

In The School and Society Dewey pointed out how haphazardly the existing school organization had grown up. It was composed of oddly assorted and poorly fitting parts, fashioned in different centuries and designed to serve different needs and even conflicting social interests.

The crown of the system, the university, had come down from medieval times and was originally intended to cater to the aristocracy and train an elite for such professions as law, theology and medicine. The high school dated from the nineteenth century when it was instituted to care for the demands from commerce and industry for better-trained personnel. The grammar school was inherited from the eighteenth century when it was felt that boys ought to have the minimum ability to read, write and calculate before being turned out to shift for themselves. The kindergarten was a later addition arising from the breakup of the family and the home by the industrial revolution.

A variety of specialized institutions had sprung up alongside this official hierarchy of education. The normal or teachers’ training school produced the teachers demanded by the expansion of public education in the nineteenth century. The trade and technical school turned out skilled craftsmen needed for industry and construction.

Thus the various parts of our educational system ranged from institutions of feudal formation like the university to such offshoots of industrial capitalism as the trade school. But no single consistent principle or purpose of organization unified the whole.

Dewey sought to supply that unifying pattern by applying the principles and practices of democracy, as he interpreted them, consistently throughout the educational system. First, the schools would be freely available to all from kindergarten to college. Second, the children would themselves carry on the educational process, aided and guided by the teacher. Third, they would be trained to behave cooperatively, sharing with and caring for one another. Then these creative, well-adjusted equalitarians would make over American society in their own image.

In this way the opposition between the old education and the new conditions of life would be overcome. The progressive influences radiating from the schools would stimulate and fortify the building of a democratic order of free and equal citizens.

The new school system envisaged by Dewey was to take over the functions and compensate for the losses sustained by the crumbling of the old institutions clustered around the farm economy, the family, the church and the small town. “The school,” he wrote, “must be made into a social center capable of participating in the daily life of the community . . . and make up in part to the child for the decay of dogmatic and fixed methods of social discipline and for the loss of reverence and the influence of authority.” Children were to get from the public school whatever was missing in their lives elsewhere that was essential for their balanced development as members of a democratic country.

He therefore urged that manual training, science, nature-study, art and similar subjects be given precedence over reading, writing and arithmetic (the traditional three R’s) in the primary curriculum. The problems raised by the exercise of the child’s motor powers in constructive work would lead naturally, he said, into learning the more abstract, intellectual branches of knowledge.

Although Dewey asserted that activities involving the energetic side of the child’s nature should take first place in primary education, he objected to early specialized training or technical segregation in the public schools which was dictated, not by the individual needs or personal preferences of the growing youth, but by external interests.

The question of how soon vocational training should begin had been under debate in educational circles since the days of Benjamin Franklin. The immigrants, working and middle classes regarded education, not as an adornment or a passport to aristocratic culture, but as indispensable equipment to earn a better living and rise in the social scale. They especially valued those subjects which were conducive to success in business. During the nineteenth century private business colleges were set up in the cities to teach the mathematics, bookkeeping, stenography and knowledge of English required for business offices. Mechanics institutes were established to provide skilled manpower for industry.

These demands of capitalist enterprise invaded the school system and posed the question of how soon children were to be segregated to become suitable recruits for the merchant princes and captains of industry. One of the early nineteenth century promoters of free public education, Horace Mann, appealed both to the self-interest of the people and to the cupidity of the industrialists for support of his cause on the ground that elementary education alone could properly prepare the youth for work in the field, shop or office and would increase the value of labor. “Education has a market value; that it is so far an article of merchandise, that it can be turned to pecuniary account; it may be minted, and will yield a larger amount of statutable coin than common bullion,” he said.

Dewey, following his co-educator, Francis Parker, rejected so commercial-minded an approach to elementary education. They opposed slotting children prematurely into grooves of capitalist manufacture. The business of education is more than education for the sake of business, they declared. They saw in too-early specialization the menace of uniformity and the source of a new division into a master and a subject class.

Education should give every child the chance to grow up spontaneously, harmoniously and all-sidedly. “Instead of trying to split schools into two kinds, one of a trade type for children whom it is assumed are to be employees and one of a liberal type for the children of the well-to-do, it will aim at such a reorganization of existing schools as will give all pupils a genuine respect for useful work, an ability to render service, and a contempt for social parasites whether they are called tramps or leaders of ’society.’ “Such a definition did not please those who looked upon themselves as preordained to the command posts of the social system.

Each stage of child development, as Gesell’s experiments and conclusions have proved, has its own dominant needs, problems, modes of behavior and reasoning. These special traits required their own methods of teaching and learning which had to provide the basis for the educational curriculum.

The kindergarten was the first consciously to adopt the methods of instruction adapted to a particular age group. Dewey extended this approach from pre-school age to primary and secondary schooling. Each grade ought to be child-centered, not externally oriented, he taught. “The actual interests of the child must be discovered if the significance and worth of his life is to be taken into account and full development achieved. Each subject must fulfill present needs of growing children . . . The business of education is not, for the presumable usefulness of his future, to rob the child of the intrinsic joy of childhood involved in living each single day,” he insisted.

Children must not be treated as miniature adults or merely as means for ministering to adult needs, now or later. They had their own rights. Childhood was as much a period of consummation and of enjoyment of life on its own terms as it was a prelude to later life. The first should not be sacrificed to the second on penalty of wronging the child, robbing him of his just due and twisting his personality development.

Socially desirable qualities could not be brought forth in the child by pouring a ready made curriculum into a passive vessel. They could be most easily and fully developed by guiding the normal motor activities, irrepressible inquisitiveness and outgoing energies of the child along the lines of their greatest interest.

Interest, not outside pressure, mobilizes the maximum effort in acquiring knowledge as well as in performing work. The authoritarian teacher, the cut-and-dried curriculum, the uniform procession from one grade to the next and the traditional fixed seats and desks laid out in rows within the isolated and self-contained classroom were all impediments to enlightened education. Whenever the occasion warranted, children should be permitted to go outdoors and enter the everyday life of their community instead of being shut up in a classroom “where each pupil sits at a screwed down desk and studies the same part of some lesson from the same textbook at the same time.” The child could freely realize his capacities only in an unobstructed environment.

The child learns best through direct personal experience. In the primary stage of education these experiences should revolve around games and occupations analogous to the activities through which mankind satisfies its basic material needs for food, clothing, shelter and protection. The city child is far removed from the processes of production: food comes from the store in cans and packages, clothing is made in distant factories, water comes from the faucet.

The school has to give children, not only an insight into the social importance of such activities, but above all the opportunities to practice them in play form. This leads naturally into the problem or “project method” which has come to be identified with the essence of the progressive procedure.

Children soak up knowledge and retain it for use when they are spontaneously induced to look into matters of compelling interest to themselves. They progress fastest in learning, not through being mechanically drilled in prefabricated material, but by doing work, experimenting with things, changing them in purposive ways.

Occasionally children need to be alone and on their own. But in the main they will learn more by doing things together. By choosing what their group would like to do, planning their work, helping one another do it, trying out various ways and means of performing the tasks, involved and discovering what will forward the project, comparing and appraising the results, the youngsters would best develop their latent powers, their skill, understanding, self-reliance and cooperative habits.

The questions and answers arising from such joint enterprises would expand the child’s horizon by linking his immediate activities with the larger life of the community. Small children of six or seven who take up weaving, for example, can be stimulated to inquire into the cultivation of cotton, its processes of manufacture, the history of spinning devices. Such lines of inquiry emerging from their own interests and occupations would open windows upon the past, introduce them naturally to history, geography, science and invention, and establish vivid connections between what they are doing in school and the basic activities of human existence.

Participation in meaningful projects, learning by doing, encouraging problems and solving them, not only facilitates the acquisition and retention of knowledge but fosters the right character traits: unselfishness, helpfulness, critical intelligence, individual initiative, etc. Learning is more than assimilating; it is the development of habits which enable the growing person to deal effectively and most intelligently with his environment. And where that environment is in rapid flux, as in modern society, the elasticity which promotes readjustment to what is new is the most necessary of habits.

Dewey aimed to integrate the school with society, and the processes of learning with the actual problems of life, by a thoroughgoing application of the principles and practices of democracy. The school system would be open to all on a completely free and equal basis without any restrictions or segregation on account of color, race, creed, national origin, sex or social status. Group activity under self-direction and self-government would make the classroom a miniature republic where equality and consideration for all would prevail.

This type of education would have the most beneficial social consequences. It would tend to erase unjust distinctions and prejudices. It would equip children with the qualities and capacities required to cope with the problems of a fast-changing world. It would produce alert, balanced, critical-minded individuals who would continue to grow in intellectual and moral stature after graduation.

The Progressive Education Association, inspired by Dewey’s ideas, later codified his doctrines as follows:

1. The conduct of the pupils shall be governed by themselves, according to the social needs of the community.

2. Interest shall be the motive for all work.

3. Teachers will inspire a desire for knowledge, and will serve as guides in the investigations undertaken, rather than as task-masters.

4. Scientific study of each pupil’s development, physical, mental, social and spiritual, is absolutely essential to the intelligent direction of his development.

5. Greater attention is paid to the child’s physical needs, with greater use of the out-of-doors.

6. Cooperation between school and home will fill all needs of the child’s development such as music, dancing, play and other extra-curricular activities.

7. All progressive schools will look upon their work as of the laboratory type, giving freely to the sum of educational knowledge the results of their experiments in child culture. These rules for education sum up the theoretical conclusions of the reform movement begun by Colonel Francis Parker and carried forward by Dewey at the laboratory school he set up in 1896 with his first wife in connection with the University of Chicago. With his instrumentalist theory of knowledge as a guide, Dewey tried out and confirmed his new educational procedures there with children between the ages of four and fourteen.

This work was subsequently popularized by the leading faculty members of Teachers College in New York after Dewey transferred from Chicago to Columbia University. From this fountainhead Dewey’s ideas filtered throughout most of the teachers training schools and all the grades of public instruction below the university level. His disciples organized a John Dewey Society and the Progressive Education Association and have published numerous books and periodicals to propagate and defend his theories.

Dewey’s progressive ideas in education have had a curious career. Despite the criticisms they have received from the right and from the left, and even within Progressive circles, they have no serious rival. Today, on the century of his birth, they are the accepted and entrenched creed on education from Maine to California.

Yet this supremacy in the domain of educational theory has not been matched by an equivalent reconstruction of the educational system. Dewey’s ideas have inspired many modifications in the traditional curriculum, in the techniques of instruction, in the pattern of school construction. But they have not changed the basis or the essential characteristics of the school system, and certainly not the class stratification of American society.

Such restricted results are not a very good testimonial for the principal product of a philosophy which demands that the merits of a theory be tested and judged by its ability to transform a defective situation,

How is this ineffectiveness in practice to be explained? If Dewey’s procedures, ideas and aims are so admirable—as they are—why after fifty years haven’t they succeeded in accomplishing more in the spheres of educational and social reform? Why have they fallen so far short of expectations and even become one of the favorite targets of reaction?

[First of a series of two. Next: “What Happened to Dewey’s Theories?”]

Trotsky’s Tribute to Dewey

Credit for the definitive exposure of the infamous MOSCOW frame-up trials engineered by Joseph Stalin, goes to the “Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made Against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials.” This impartial body was headed by John Dewey and conducted hearings in Coyoacan, Mexico, from April 10 to April 17, 1937, hearing the testimony of Trotsky and examining a massive amount of documentary evidence. After nine months of work in consultation with its legal advisor, John Finerty, of worldwide fame in the defense of Tom Mooney and of Sacco and Vanzetti, the Commission made its report which was published in 1938 by Harpers & Brothers under the title, “Not Guilty.” At the hearing, in one of the great speeches of our time, Trotsky summarized his defense, concluding with a tribute to Dewey and the Commission:

“Esteemed Commissioners! The experience of my life, in which there has been no lack either of successes or of failures, has not only not destroyed my faith in the clear, bright future of mankind, but, on the contrary, has given it an indestructible temper. This faith in reason, in truth, in human solidarity, which at the age of eighteen I took with me into the workers’ quarters of the provincial Russian town of Nikolaiev—this faith I have preserved fully and completely. In the very fact of your Commission’s formation—in the fact that, at its head, is a man of unshaken moral authority, a man who by virtue of his age should have the right to remain outside of the skirmishes in the political arena—in this fact I see a new and truly magnificent reinforcement of the revolutionary optimism which constitutes the fundamental element of my life.

“Ladies and Gentlemen of the Commission! Mr. Attorney Finerty and you, my defender and friend, Goldman! Allow me to express to all of you my warm gratitude, which in this case does not bear a personal character. And allow me, in conclusion, to express my profound respect to the educator, philosopher and personification of genuine American idealism, the scholar who heads the work of your Commission.”