The Evolving Child: John Dewey’s Impact on Modern Education, Part 1

Author: Nancy Pearcey

Nancy PearceyWilliam Coulson developed, with Carl Rogers, some of the earliest forms of humanistic education in the United States. As he tells BSN readers, it turned out to be a system that makes students unteachable! Intellectual conversions are not a frequent occurrence in the world of academia. And that makes the story of William Coulson all the more intriguing. Coulson was a student and subsequently a colleague of Carl Rogers, the founder of non-directive (later called client-centered) psychotherapy. Rogers’s work, along with the work of Rollo May and Abraham Maslow, became known as humanistic psychology.

The humanistic psychologists felt the techniques they had developed would be useful not only in therapy but also in education. They had discovered, for example, that encounter groups can be surprisingly effective in breaking down people’s psychological defenses and helping them change their attitudes and behavior. And isn’t that what education is all about – change? Soon, encounter groups and other techniques developed in psychotherapy. Sensitivity training, role playing, and non-directive leadership began to proliferate in education, especially in courses dealing with “life-style” issues such as drugs and sexuality. The trend was often referred to as humanistic education.

At first, the idea of using psychotherapeutic techniques in the classroom was no more than a working hypothesis. As soon as it was tested, however, the hypothesis proved to be a bad one. In the late 1970s, Richard Blum of Stanford University found that students who took humanistic drug education courses actually used alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana in greater amounts and at an earlier age than control groups. Extensive replication of Blum’s tests yielded the same result.1

Tests run by Coulson and Rogers themselves turned up an even more interesting result. As Coulson told BSN, he and Rogers devised some of the earliest forms of humanistic education in the country. In 1967, they received a grant to conduct the first large-scale, systematic study of the effect on intensive small groups (encounter groups) in the classroom. Their laboratory consisted of some sixty schools in the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart school system in Los Angeles. To Coulson’s surprise, one of the first responses to their program was that the nuns who taught in the school system began to remove their black habits and leave the Catholic church. The message the nuns were picking up from Rogers’s humanistic style of education was that to be “real” individuals, they must free themselves from all external authority.

Of course, in leaving the church, as Coulson told BSN, the nuns were not really liberating themselves from external authority – they were merely shifting their allegiance from the pope to a new authority: their teachers Carl Rogers and William Coulson.2

Similar responses have been reported by parents across the country: that their children are coming home from school and saying, “I don’t need you or the church to tell me what to do, I have my own feelings and experience and I can decide what’s right for me.” Abraham Maslow got parallel results from his own form of humanistic education. As he wrote in his journals, his Jewish students developed an “almost paranoid certainty of their own absolute virtues and correctness.” Having been taught that they are autonomous selves who must make up their own minds on what is right and wrong, they became unteachable. In Maslow’s words, “My students have lost the traditional Jewish respect for libraries, teachers, and books.”3

An educational method that makes students unteachable was not what its founders had in mind. William Coulson, himself a Catholic, was not interested in a method that encourages Catholics to abandon their religion. He decided to quit. While Rogers and Maslow went on to make big names for themselves, he quietly dropped his work and took up philosophy in the hope of finding out what had gone wrong. He is now founder of the Center for Enterprising Families, through which he educates parents on the pernicious effects of the methods he once helped to develop.

Behind the facts

Despite the negative results of the studies, humanistic teaching techniques continue to be used extensively in both public and religious schools. The idea has caught on like wildfire. Teachers everywhere are told that their job is not so much to instruct as to “facilitate” students’ exploration of their feelings and attitudes. Teachers are cautioned never to “impose” their own convictions or values on students but to let children’s own values emerge as they clarify their personal experiences. The message is that each child has his own reality and must make up his own mind about life-style choices.

Ironically, more recent research continues to obtain negative results. A Lou Harris poll commissioned by Planned Parenthood in 1986 found that teens who took non-directive sex education courses reported higher rates of sexual activity than their peers who had not taken such courses.4 A study of courses on death and dying (designed to reduce children’s fear of death) found that after taking such a course children were actually more afraid of death.5

Clearly, the popularity of humanistic method among educators has little to do with its objective effectiveness. Which suggests that some motive other than a desire for educational excellence is at work here. That motive is philosophical. Humanistic techniques “fit” a certain philosophy of life to which many educators adhere. Only this explains their continued enthusiasm for a method that is obviously not working.6

To understand what that philosophy is, we must go back to the early part of the twentieth century, to the theorists who set forth the modem philosophy of education: men such as Froebel, Parker, Hall, and especially John Dewey. We will find that these theorists were profoundly influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution. In their work, they were attempting to spell out what a Darwinian view of human nature means for education. They began with a set of assumptions derived from evolution – that all reality is in the process of constant change, humans are no more than animals, there is no transcendent truth – and built a philosophy of education up from these assumptions.

Never, ever play with a loaded gun

Before analyzing the history of the philosophy of education in America, let us pause to consider in fuller detail what is meant by humanistic education. Proponents use various terms: non-directive education, process education, affective (i.e., dealing with the feelings) education, values education, confluent education, decision-making skills, and more recently New Age education. The variety of names does not indicate any real difference. The common basis of all these approaches is a blend of humanistic psychology and a process-oriented theory of values.

Humanistic psychology consists in an emphasis on personal expression, on exploring one’s feelings without any direction from the teacher (facilitator). In psychotherapy, the first step is to get people to talk openly. It may be difficult to get people to reveal what’s really bothering them; often they’re not sure themselves. The therapist can help by assuming a posture of complete acceptance toward the client, no matter what he reveals about himself. This way the therapist may help the client break through his own inner defenses and identify suppressed and painful feelings.

This is poor education. Education deals with the objective realm of facts – in the case of life-style education, with the objective dangers of drug use and early sexual activity. As Coulson explains, it doesn’t really matter “what school children feel about drugs (any more than what they feel about the alphabet). There is something to be learned, not something to “‘explore.”‘ What must be learned is that experimenting with drugs hazards their entire future.”7

To eschew objective instruction for the sake of drawing out and validating the student’s own vision of the world tends to teach the student a particular epistemology, or view of truth: namely, the conviction that there is no transcendent truth “out there” to be known objectively, only many subjective truths that are all equally valid.

The second strand of humanistic education is a process-oriented values theory associated especially with Sidney Simon and his colleagues. Simon begins with the assumption that moral values are not really any different from personal preferences – from goals, tastes, likes and dislikes. A value is anything the individual values for whatever reason, whether it is classical music or rock music, baseball or drama. Values don’t need to be justified, as though they were claims about truth; they only need to be clarified, as a tangle of subjective feelings to be sorted out.

Simon outlines seven steps of the valuing process: 1) freely choosing the value, 2) from among alternatives, 3) after consideration of the consequences of each; 4) deciding to be happy with the choice and 5) publicly affirming it; 6) then acting on the basis of the chosen value, and 7) incorporating it into one’s life. This seven-step process is presented as a neutral tool that can be used to evaluate any system of values. Yet its neutrality is really a rhetorical device used to defuse criticism. In reality, the method is ideologically loaded.

Take, for example, the first step in the process. The requirement that values be “freely chosen” disqualifies most sources of values. The values taught by parents and church have obviously not been freely chosen by the child. The “hidden curriculum” of Simon’s method is that the child should throw off the morality taught him by those in authority and explore with his peer group what is right and wrong.

Simon’s values clarification method was subject to intense controversy, even lawsuits, in the 1970s. For this reason, many curriculum authors no longer use the term values clarification and have quietly dropped Simon’s works from their bibliographies. But that does not mean they have abandoned his ideas. For instance, the teachers’ guide for “Me-ology” explicitly directs the instructor to conduct drug education discussions “free of right and wrong answers” and emphasizes that “the instructor is never judgmental.”8

Parents easily discern that this is far removed from the way they themselves teach their children about powerful and potentially damaging things like smoking or drugs. To be sure, an effective parent listens carefully to his children’s feelings and experience when teaching him how to apply basic moral principles to specific situations. But the principles themselves are taught in a didactic, authoritative manner: this is right, that is wrong.

The way parents teach is nicely illustrated by Harrison Ford in the movie Witness. When he sees an eight-year-old Amish boy reaching for his loaded pistol, Ford takes advantage of the teachable moment with the spontaneous voice of a commanding adult: “Never, ever play with a loaded gun!” The illustration is a favorite of Coulson’s. Notice that the boy is not asked how he feels about what he’s doing. Nor is he offered a seven-step decision-making process to make up his own mind about whether playing with a loaded gun is right for him. Instead, a knowledgeable adult informs him in an authoritative manner what is appropriate behavior.

Somewhere in the history of educational theory in the United States, the directive, authoritative model of teaching that parents and teachers have used through the centuries has been rejected in favor of the non-directive, subjective model favored by humanistic education. Let’s turn to that history now.

The child as organism: John Dewey’s educational philosophy

Humanistic education has its roots in the work of John Dewey. Sidney Simon credits Dewey with being the inspiration for his process theory of values. The founders of humanistic psychology -Rogers, Maslow, and May – studied at Columbia University where Dewey had his greatest influence. ‘The fact that educational theory was open to these trends in the first place was due in large part to the progressive movement in education, which was inspired by the work of Dewey. And what inspired Dewey?

Hegel – all is in process

To understand Dewey we must reconstruct the intellectual milieu in which he lived. Dewey worked and wrote approximately between 1910 and 1940. In his university days he came under the influence of Hegelianism. Hegel’s writings converted Dewey to a broad philosophy of evolutionism, including the evolution of ideas and of social institutions. In contrast to the biblical view that institutions such as marriage, parenthood, church, and state are God-ordained, Hegel taught that they arose under particular conditions in history through an evolutionary process. And as such, they can be changed according to the demands of new conditions.9 Long after he drifted away from Hegel’s other teachings, Dewey continued to favor philosophies of process and change.

Romanticism – the child as divine

Dewey’s immediate predecessors were the educator Francis Wayland Parker and the psychologist G. Stanley Hall. Parker was greatly influenced by the romantic movement and its glorification of the child. Romanticism had its roots in the writings of Rousseau, who taught that man in his primitive state is loving and good – that he has been made selfish and evil only by the constraints of civilization. And where today can we see human nature unmarred by adult rules and inhibitions? In the child.

The romanticist view of the child was applied to education in the early 1800s by Friedrich Froebel. A Hegelian, Froebel held to cosmic pantheistic evolution, seeing the entire universe as a living, evolving organism. In his view, education was the means to guide mankind’s passage to a higher order of being, the next stage of evolution. Clearly, he was not thinking of education merely as the transmission of a cultural heritage. His commitment to evolution suggested to him that each generation must surpass all previous generations – that children must be taught not to imitate the best of the past but to create something new and unforeseen.

As a result, Froebel’s educational theory stressed that children must be free to unfold and develop new ideas, new ways of living, out of their own experience. In a word, education should be non-directive. Founder of the kindergarten movement, Froebel viewed the child as analogous to a plant in a garden, whose growth must be allowed to proceed according to its own inner law of development. For evolution implies that something genuinely novel emerges in each age – something that cannot be foreseen or predicted through knowledge of what has gone before. As Froebel writes, “what is yet to come out of mankind, what human nature is yet to develop, that we do not yet know.”10 And since we do not know where evolution will go next, we cannot impose any direction on the evolving child.

G. Stanley Parker adopted Froebel’s theory but expressed even more explicitly its underlying pantheism. He wrote: “The spontaneous tendencies of the child are the records of inborn divinity.”11 Notice that where the child reveals his divinity is in his spontaneous activities, when he is not hemmed in by adult standards and morals. In Parker’s “child-centered education,” the most important thing is to stand out of the way of the child’s natural tendencies and development.

Both Froebel and Parker assumed that the child, left to himself, would naturally tend toward love, selflessness, hard work, creativity, and all the virtues Western civilization has sought to inculcate through the Bible-oriented ethic. In other words, they assumed that the Christian ideal is what man is intrinsically, biologically, and therefore saw no danger in getting rid of extrinsic training.

It is quite probable that children in the 1800s, having been brought up in a climate of hard work and moral excellence, did blossom when given freedom for self-direction. Needless to say, the same does not result today, when children are brought up in a climate of self-absorption and moral relativism.12

Psychology – the child as mechanism

Rousseau’s idea that children should be allowed to develop naturally received scientific support in the theories of Charles Darwin. There came into being a science of human development that saw the child as an evolving organism, and saw the task of education as “liberating” the child to follow his own organic pattern of growth.

Among the most influential of the scientists of human nature was psychologist G. Stanley Hall. Referred to by a contemporary as “the Darwin of the mind,”13 Hall believed education must be made into a scientific discipline. Like all science, it must be based on measurements and studies and scientific theories (like Darwinism), not on abstractions like moral principles or religious ideas about human nature. Concepts taken from biology, like instincts, were regarded as much more real than concepts taken from theology, like moral responsibility.

Hall’s educational theory, like Parker’s, stressed spontaneity and freedom.14 He interpreted Darwinism to mean that each generation has the potential to be superior to its parents – if only it can break its parents’ shackles. Hall saw schools as the agents of evolutionary progress, creating the “superman” of tomorrow. As Rousas I. Rushdoony puts it, Darwinism became virtually a scientific justification for youthful rebellion15 with schools as instigators.


Bailis, Lawrence and Kennedy, William. “Effects of a Death Education Program upon Secondary School Students.” The Journal of Educational Research, Vol. 71, no.2, November/December 1977.

Blum, Richard H., Blum, Eva, and Garfield, Emily. Drug Education: Results and Recommendations. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1976.

Coulson, William R. “Principled Morality Versus Consequentialism.” Prepared for the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Available from the Center for Enterprising Families, 2054 Oriole St., San Diego, CA 92114; (619) 527- 0146.

Hofstadter, Richard. Anti-Intellectualism In American Life. New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1963.

Kasun, Jacqueline. “Sex Education: The Hidden Agenda.” The World & I, September 1989.

Lowry, Richard J. The Journals of A. H. Maslow, 2 vols. Monterey, CA: Brooks-Cole Publishing, 1979.

Mead, George Herbert. Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century, Vol. 2 of Works of George Herbert Mead, edited and with an introduction by Merritt Moore. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1936.

Perkinson, Henry J. The Imperfect Panacea: American Faith In Education, 1865-1965. New York: Random House, 1968.

Rogers, Carl. Freedom To Learn for the Eighties. Columbus: Merrill, 1983.

Rushdoony, Rousas J. The Messianic Character of American Education. Nutley, NJ: Craig Press, 1968.

1. Blum directed the DECIDE program of elementary and secondary school drug education that originated out of Stanford University in the early 1970s. See Richard H. Blum with Eva Blum and Emily Garfield, Drug Education: Results and Recommendations (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1976). Subsequent testing is reported in .Richard H. Blum, Emily Garfield, Judy Johnstone, and John Magistad, “Drug Education: Further Results and Recommendations,” Journal of Drug Issues, Vol. 8, no.4, Fall, 1978, 379-426.

2. Carl Rogers wrote a chapter in his last book, Freedom To Learn for the Eighties (Columbus: Merrill, 1983), entitled “A Pattern of Failure,” in which he describes this and other failures of his educational methods.

3. The Journals of A. H. Maslow, ed. Richard J. Lowry, 2 vols. (Monterey, CA: Brooks-Cole Publishing, 1979).

4. Jacqueline Kasun, “Sex Education: The Hidden Agenda,” The World & I, September 1989, 494-495.

5. Lawrence Bailis and William Kennedy, “Effects of a Death Education Program upon Secondary School Students,” The Journal of Educational Research, Vol. 71, no. 2, November/December 1977, 66.

6. By “educators” we do not mean the classroom teacher, who is usually simply doing in good faith what he or she has been taught. We mean those who decide what the classroom teacher should be taught – those who write textbooks and curricula, who teach in teachers’ colleges, etc.

7. William R. Coulson, “Principled Morality Versus Consequentialism,” paper prepared for the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Available from the Center for Enterprising Families, 2054 Oriole St, San Diego, CA 92114 or call (619) 527-0146

8. Cited in Coulson, 1-2.

9. See the description of Hegelianism in George Herbert Mead, Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century, Vol. 2 of Works of George Herbert Mead, edited and with an introduction by Merritt Moore (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1936), especially 147-149.

10 Friedrich Froebel, The Education or Man, cited in Rousas I. Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education (Nutley, NJ: Craig Press, 1968), 270.

11. Cited in Richard Hofstadter, Anti-InteIlectuallism in American Life (New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1963), 366.

12. Rushdoony, 98-99, 270-271.

13. Henry I. Perkinson, The Imperfect Panacea: American Faith In Education, 1865-1965 (New York: Random House, 1968), 187.

14. Hall initiated the idea of elective courses, giving children the freedom to choose what to study. Like Parker, however, he judged children’s natural capacities in light of the well-brought-up children of his day. He assumed, for instance, that children would “naturally” be ready to study Latin and Greek in late elementary school. A mere generation later, proponents of progressive education had no use for any of the classical languages.

15. Psychological theories of conditioning, combined with evolutionary assumptions, led to the belief that “rebellion is youth’s destiny,” a belief distinct to modern culture. Rushdoony, 131.


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