John Dewey the Progressive

John Dewey caricatIn 2005 when Human Events compiled a list of the Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries, Democracy and Education by John Dewey was number five.

John Dewey, who lived from 1859 until 1952, was a “progressive” philosopher and leading advocate for secular humanism in American life, who taught at the University of Chicago and at Columbia. He signed the Humanist Manifesto and rejected traditional religion and moral absolutes. In Democracy and Education, in pompous and opaque prose, he disparaged schooling that focused on traditional character development and endowing children with hard knowledge, and encouraged the teaching of thinking “skills” instead. His views had great influence on the direction of American education–particularly in public schools–and helped nurture the Clinton generation.

That’s an excellent, succinct summary of the prolific writer and educator who lived into his nineties, but I think Dewey’s influence is understated. In John Dewey and the Philosophical Refounding of America, Tiffany Jones Miller writes, “While many progressive academics helped effect this philosophical transformation, few, if any, were as influential as Dewey.”

Progressives were at root, utopian nanny-statists. The World English Dictionary defines a progressive as someone “favouring or promoting political or social reform through government action, or even revolution, to improve the lot of the majority.” I’m reminded of C. S. Lewis’ words from God in the Dock, in his essay, “Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare State.” The entire piece refutes progressivism.

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.

While I doubt progressives will make it to Heaven, considering they deny its and God’s existence, they are omnipotent busybodies who have declared their own absolutes. Knowing one such individual may make our lives miserable, but as a large-scale political and national movement, progressivism presents a stark reach for power. The term progressive may seem relatively benign and without any negative connotations in contrast to a reaction to the word Leftist or the Left, but Miller opens her article on Dewey by saying:

If the progressive label seems less radical today, it is only because progressivism is less well known than its liberal progeny. It was initially an academic pheno- menon far removed from American politics. Particularly in the post–Civil War American university, professors — many of whom had obtained their graduate training in German universities, and whose thought reflected the “intoxicating effect of the undiluted Hegelian philosophy upon the American mind,” as progressive Charles Merriam once put it — articulated a critique of America that was as deep as it was wide. It began with a conscious rejection of the natural-rights principles of the American founding and the promotion of a new understanding of freedom, history, and the state in their stead. From this foundation, the progressives then criticized virtually every aspect of our traditional way of life, recommending reforms or “social reorganization” on a sweeping scale, the primary engine of which was to be a new, “positive” role for the state. As the progressives’ influence in the academy increased, and growing numbers of their students sallied forth into all aspects of endeavor, this intellectual transformation gradually began to reshape the broader American mind, and, in time, American political practice. “A new regime in thought,” as Eldon Eisenach writes, “began to become a new regime in power.”

In Liberal Fascism, Jonah Goldberg states:

Philosophically, organizationally, and politically the progressives were as close to authentic homegrown fascists as any movement American has ever produced. Militaristic, fanatically nationalist, imperialist, racist, deeply involved in the promotion of Darwinian eugenics, enamored of the Bismarkian welfare state, statist beyond modern reckoning, the progressives represented the American flowering of a transatlantic movement, a profound reorientation toward the Hegelian and Darwinian collectivism imported from Europe at the end of the nineteenth century.

It would be a gargantuan task beyond a blog to give a complete overview of Dewey and his philosophy, but as a Christian mother who is also an American, there are a few facets of Dewey’s life and influence which I think are important to be aware of, and I’ll give some brief glimpses into the man through the Humanist Manifesto, his concept of freedom, and his work and influence in education.

You can’t make Socialists out of individualists — children who know how to think for themselves spoil the harmony of the collective society which is coming, where everyone is interdependent.

Caricature of John Dewey by André Koehne. GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

progressivism. Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. (accessed: February 04, 2013).
Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism (Broadway Books, New York NY: 2007, 2009) 12.


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