Author: Nancy Pearcey
John Dewey was more influential than his predecessors because, as a philosopher, he sought to construct not just an educational theory but an entire world view. That world view was based on Darwinism. In the words of Richard Hofstadter, Dewey’s goal was to devise not only a theory of education but also a theory of knowledge (epistemology) “which would be wholly consistent with Darwinism.”1 Dewey himself wrote that the task of philosophy from now on would be to perform the “act of midwifery” whereby a culture reconciled to evolutionary change in all aspects of life may be born.2 In the words of Will Durant, “What distinguished Dewey was the undisguised completeness with which he accepted the evolution theory… His starting point in every field was Darwinian.”3
What Darwinism meant for Dewey was, first of all, naturalism – the belief that human beings are part of nature and nothing more. There is no transcendent aspect to human nature, whether we call it mind or soul or spirit. These supposedly extra-natural aspects – which have been understood in various ways throughout Western history, from Plato to Aquinas to Descartes – must be “naturalized,” that is, translated into biological, Darwinian terms.
Naturalizing the mind means to see it, like the body, as “an organ evolved, in the struggle for existence, from lower forms…an organ as much as limbs and teeth.”4 Like all organs, the primary purpose of the mind is adaptation to, and interaction with, the environment. As Frederick Copleston explains, for Dewey, thought is “a product of evolution,” “a highly developed form of the relation between stimulus and response on the purely biological level.”5
In evolutionary terms, the worth of an organ is in how well it works. Claws are meant for grasping, teeth for gnawing, and wings for flying. These organs are well adapted if they enable the animal to in fact grasp, gnaw, or fly – if they do their job. Since the mind is likewise an organ, Dewey argued, the worth of an idea depends on how well it does its job, how well it produces an intended effect. Ideas are hypotheses about what procedures will enable us to get the results we want. They are valid if they work. They are judged by their consequences.
Dewey rejected the traditional belief that ideas constitute insight into a reality “out there” and that they are to be judged by whether they are true or false. Instead, the only criterion is whether they are useful. The exemplar of successful knowledge was, in Dewey’s estimate, the scientific method. Scientific experimentation consists of a series of procedures – planned operations. We look at a crystal, turn it over, put it in acid, cut it with a saw, pass an electric current through it, grind it on a wheel, and anything else that might elicit some previously unperceived quality. Knowledge is what emerges as the consequence of these procedures.6
Dewey’s goal was to transfer the experimental method to all of life: to ethics, aesthetics, and politics. For instance, Dewey argued that we must not think of ethics, any more than science, as a system based on eternal principles. For if evolution teaches us anything, it is that the laws of the past are no longer binding. “The logical concomitant of evolution,” Rushdoony explains, “is an ‘open’ universe which constantly creates its own future and its own laws.”7 Instead, Dewey argued, beliefs about values should be understood as hypotheses about what consequences will follow upon specific action in a specific situation. He hoped that over time the process of experimentation would lead to a truly experimental knowledge of what actions lead predictably to consequences that are enjoyable and satisfying.8
Of course, what satisfies me may not be what satisfies you. Dewey recognized that there must be an objective standard of morality. Having begun by declaring man to be an evolving organism, he concluded that the only valid moral end is “growth” – or further evolution. Acts are good if they create conditions that promote growth. Such a criterion does not, however, meet the need for an objective standard, for we must then ask, growth in what direction? Toward what goal or ideal? This question Dewey never answered. As Copleston notes, Dewey “speaks of ‘growth’ as though it were an absolute value and an end in itself.”9 Which, I suppose, proves the old dictum that for relativists there are no absolute values – except relativism itself.
Existentialism – the self as God
To understand how Dewey’s ideas were transmuted into the sex or drug education curriculum in your local elementary or high school, we must look at one further influence. Humanistic education is a fusion of Dewey’s progressive education and existentialism.10
Existentialism was largely an attempt to articulate what it means for human significance to declare that God is dead. The biblical teaching of creation rooted human meaning and identity in God. But in the eighteenth century, Enlightenment philosophers declared that there is no God, and if there is no God, then man must create his own identity. Reality “out there” no longer gives any answers to the human cry, Who am I?
According to existentialism, the only way to live authentically is to face squarely the fact that there is no external authority to tell us who we are or how to live. The individual is an autonomous self who must create his own identity by making choices, even though there is no standard by which he can know he is making the right choices. The individual has nothing to fall back upon but his isolated self. By his choices he produces values out of nothing. Man became a mini-god creating his own world.
Existentialism had great impact on humanistic psychology, which combined with Dewey’s progressive education to yield humanistic education. Its hidden assumptions are, there is no God or eternal truths; truth is discovered through the experimental process described by Dewey; “truths” are judged by their consequences; so are values; as long as the individual has gone through the experimental process, the values he chooses are valid, regardless of their content.
Many critiques have been made of this process-oriented approach to moral education.11 For instance, Bertrand Russell notes that Dewey’s consequential view of values leads to an absurdity. If an act is to be judged good or bad by its consequences, how do we know whether the consequences themselves are good or bad? Presumably, only by their consequences, which are in turn judged by their consequences, ad infinitum.12
Since there is no objective way to judge consequences, the result of process-oriented morality is an individualism that judges everything by personal preference – by whether I like the consequences. Dewey hoped to keep his theory of knowledge objective by restricting genuine knowledge to results of inquiry publicly verified. But as W. T. Stace points out, the slide into subjectivism was inevitable. Dewey taught, as Stace puts it, “that we ought to hold as true whatever beliefs on any subject are most advantageous to us in the long run.” The trouble is that “everyone is, of course, inclined to maintain that his own opinions on any matter are the most advantageous.”13
Or, as the editor of Progressive Education put it as early as 1926, since progressive education denies any eternal principles in favor of teaching children a process of inquiry, the end is that “Each child is a law unto himself.”14
The biological metaphor of “growth” lends itself similarly to subjectivism. In Dewey’s thought, there are no fixed goals or ideals by which growth can be directed or judged. Indeed, nothing must hamper the unrestricted growth of the child. “Let the child’s nature fulfill its own destiny,” Dewey urged, which translated into the educational practice of letting the child’s own experience be the narrow bedrock upon which he builds his views and values.
In modern values education, the child has become the autonomous self of existentialism who must create his own values without any external constraints. Lawrence Kohlberg, who, like Sidney Simon, has had a strong influence on values education, claims that the strength of his educational method is precisely that it presumes the child’s autonomy. What this means in practice becomes clear when Kohlberg asks, what happens if the school teaches values that conflict with the parents’? His answer: it is more important to respect the child’s autonomy than the parents’ rights.15
Great stress is placed on change in values education; on adapting to a changing world, as though change were a good in itself. The underlying assumption is that change will always represent progress, will always be for the better. The horrors of two world wars have dampened this evolutionary optimism, but it still appears regularly in educational materials, especially when the topic is values.
It is interesting that Kohlberg eventually saw the need for some guidance outside of the child’s own experience. He came to realize that the concepts guiding moral education must be partly “indoctrinative.” This is true, by necessity, in a world in which children engage in stealing, cheating, and aggression…16
What has happened, of course, is that the Christian consensus Parker, Hall, and Dewey relied on is finally crumbling. Educators no longer work with children who have been raised within a Christian ethical framework, who are honest and industrious even when given free rein in the classroom. As fewer parents succeed in raising their children to follow biblical ethics, whether by conviction or convention, it is becoming more obvious that children are sinners like the rest of us and that their moral training must be directive.
Misplaced religious zeal
A little-known fact about Dewey is that, as a young man, he made a decision for Christ. His early writings were on subjects such as the necessity of theology as the basis for ethics. But he later rejected the evangelical Protestantism of his youth and adopted a philosophy that was aggressively naturalistic. As Coulson told BSN, Dewey’s missionary zeal to promote his own philosophy was fueled by his rebellion against the religion of his parents.
In the end, we do not understand humanistic education unless we see that it harnesses misplaced religious impulses. Why does non-directive drug and sex education continue unabated in spite of the evidence that it doesn’t work to reduce drug use or teen pregnancy? Why don’t educators listen when proponents like Rogers, Maslow, Kohlberg, and Coulson acknowledge that they’ve changed their minds, that their ideas aren’t good educational theory after all? Because humanistic education, in its exaltation of the autonomous self, is an open rejection of any deity. It is a form of rebellion against belief in a transcendent God to whom the self is subject.
As Coulson explained to BSN, “the protest that process education makes against traditional morality is fundamentally a religious protest.” Kicking up one’s heels and declaring freedom from God is as much a religious act as is submitting to God. The recognition of a religious motive behind humanistic education helps us to understand why it has such a grip on modern education, for religion is the most powerful motive people possess. It explains why proponents cannot see, or acknowledge, the evidence that humanistic education is, quite simply, bad education.
Dewey was so preoccupied with religion that he wrote a book on the subject. Entitled A Common Faith, it proposes a religion of humanity to replace biblical religion and to redirect the religious impulse from heavenly things to earthly things. The book is a give-away that what Dewey sought to accomplish was religious in nature. The reason his educational theory has such wide appeal is that it makes contact with a religious impulse and provides his followers an alternative to Christianity.
1. Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1963), 362.
2. John Dewey, Problems of Men (New York: Philosophical Library, 1946), 20.
3. Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy (New York: Washington Square Press, 1961), 522.
4. Ibid., 522, 523.
5. Frederick Copleston, S. J., A History of Philosophy, Vol. 8, Book 3 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image Books, 1966), 357, 354.
6. Gordon Clark, Thales to Dewey (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1957), 525.
7. Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education (Nutley, NJ: Craig Press, 1968), 209.
8. Dewey’s experimental view of knowledge and values is described in his essay “How We Think” and in his books Democracy in Education and The Quest for Certainty.
9. Copleston, 377.
10. For a helpful account of the impact of philosophy on education, see George R. Knight, Philosophy and Education: An Introduction in Christian Perspective (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press. 1980).
11. Though the emphasis in this article is on critiques of Dewey, there is actually much of value in his educational theories. Many of his specific insights into educational method are excellent; his work is objectionable only when his metaphysic is dominant.
12. Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon and Schuster, Clarion Paperback, 1945), 825.
13. W. T. Stace, Religion and the Modern Mind (New York: I. B. Lippincott, Keystone Books, 1952), 165-166.
14. Cited in Henry J. Perkinson, The Imperfect Panacea: American Faith in Education, 1865-1965 (New York: Random House, 1968), 200.
15. Lawrence Kohlberg, “Stages of Moral Development as a Basis for Moral Education,” cited in Kathleen Gow, Yes, Virginia, There Is a Right and Wrong (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1980), 46-47.
16. Lawrence Kohlberg, “Moral Education Reappraised,” cited in ibid., 55
Clark, Gordon. Thales to Dewey. Boston, MA Houghton Mifflin Co., 1957.
Copleston, Frederick, S. J. A History of Philosophy, Vol. 8, Book 3. Garden City, NY Doubleday Image Books, 1966.
Dewey, John. Problems of Men. New York Philosophical Library, 1946.
Dewey, John. The Quest for Certainty. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1929, Capricorn Book edition, 1960.
Durant, Will. The Story of Philosophy. New York: Washington Square Press, 1961.
Hofstadter, Richard. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1963.
Knight, George R. Philosophy and Education: An Introduction in Christian Perspective. Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1980.
Perkinson, Henry J. The Imperfect Panacea: American Faith in Education, 1865-1965. New York: Random House, 1968.
Rushdoony, Rousas J. The Messianic Character of American Education. Nutley, NJ: Craig Press, 1968.
Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy. New York: Simon and Schuster, Clarion Paperback, 1945.
Stace, W. T. Religion and the Modern Mind. New York: J.B. Lippincott, Keystone Books, 1952.