John Dewey and the Decline of American Education:How Patron Saint Of Schools Has Corrupted Teaching & Learning
By Henry T. Edmondson III
Pbk, 134 pages | ISI Books | ISBN 193223652X | US$15
This is an excellent book — brief, pithy and readable — though 20 years in the making. Readable for whom? Parents who are active in their children’s education at home and at school, teachers, and most particularly those who are preparing to be teachers, if they are allowed to disagree with the status quo.
The last is a big “if” and justifies much of the author’s diatribe against Deweyism, because two Diploma of Education students with whom I discussed some of the issues while reading the book accepted most of Edmondson’s arguments but agreed that they had to conform in their essays with the views in vogue with their lecturers. Not much has changed in almost half a century since I did the Dip Ed, when we students agreed among ourselves that it would be a sign of intellectual integrity to fail it.
Deweyism was around then, as it is today, though I would not accept that all of education’s ills can be laid at the feet of John Dewey. Nor would I agree with all of the educational ills that the author identifies: some things are simply different.
Who was John Dewey and why was he apparently so influential? Dewey (1859-1952) was an American philosopher of education whose pragmatic promotion of the practical over the abstract resonated with the spirit of his times. This was further emphasised and, to some extent, contradicted by his anti-utilitarian experimentalism, based on an excessive admiration for the experimental methods of the natural sciences which he wished to foster in the social sciences.
In itself this is not necessarily bad, if kept within bounds, but Dewey compromised his pragmatism by his unrelenting passion for discrediting all that was traditional in education, particularly any religious influence. This obsession obscured his original efforts to find more efficient ways for students to learn.
Dewey was a prolific writer and, curiously, many of his books touched on issues in the writings of Jacques Maritain, another philosopher and former scientist, who understood the nature and limitations of the experimental sciences. Maritain pointed out the ambiguities and disastrous confusion of ideas in Dewey’s writings.
Dewey caricatured the Aristotelian idea of the learner as the active agent in education, an idea which he acquired in his earlier study of philosophy. One of the problems with this is correctly identified by Edmonson as disregard for history — not only formal study of the subject, but also history as part of the intellectual framework of any discipline. Many of my own students are a-historical in their outlook on their studies and on life.
Despite this, his emphasis on the student as the active agent in learning and the community role of the school touched the hearts of his readers and listeners. This influence as a Professor at Columbia and Chicago was profound, widespread and long-lasting.
Many of the first group of senior educationists in Australia in the 1930s – in universities, government departments and the Australian Council for Educational Research — were Dewey converts who had studied in North America and who inducted their neophytes into his pragmatism. Not that Dewey can be blamed entirely for Deweyism. He was no intellectual lightweight: he could see through the “playway” approach in which activity replaces thought rather than stimulates thought.
Thus the current Deweyist fad of constructivism in curriculum development attempts to pattern a student’s learning after the manner in which the student constructs his or her “own reality”. This is an example of the triumph of ideology over ideas and leads Edmonson to tackle ways to turn back the tide. While arguing for a return to a canon of learning, the author recognises that there are no shortcuts to analytic and reasoning skills: critical thinking only comes with a well-trained mind. For example, my own view is that when a grounding in Euclid was abandoned in mathematics we threw the baby out with the bath water. The problem was not with Euclid but how geometry was taught.
Finally, the author argues for parental participation in schooling — not in the paternalism that Dewey inspires — but rather in a principled recognition of the primacy of the parental role. This leads him to a consideration of what “public” should mean in education. If we are speaking of “quality education” as a public good, “public” here should refer to society and not just to government.
Professor Tony Shannon is the Master of Warrane College, at the University of New South Wales in Sydney