John Dewey the Man

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.

University Hall, Ann Arbor MIAs a student, as an education major, and as a teacher I was subjected to some of the winds of educational fads—there are few areas with a greater gulf between theory and practice than that of education. Anecdotes about Dewey in the class and at home illustrate this.

In 1997 Linda Robinson Walker wrote two articles for Michigan Today. In the first one, “John Dewey at Michigan, The First Ann Arbor Period, 1884-1888: The University—and an inconoclastic student who became his wife—shifted the philosopher away from his early orthodoxies,” she gives a brief biographical sketch of his life, and included several anecdotes about his classes at the University of Michigan.

His teaching style was not without problems. “He would fall silent for several moments in the middle of lectures,” says the Dewey Center’s Hickman. “Some of his students saw it as incompetence, others as responding to their questions.”

…Dewey’s classes fascinated students, who considered them exotic. The Argonaut recorded this exchange: “Dewey in Logic: ‘Mr. H., give an example showing the fallacy of non sequitur.’ Mr. H: ‘A man is a tree; a stone is a house; ergo, a bird is a reptile.’ Prof. Dewey: ‘Very well, Mr. H., only it’s rather an extreme case.'”

Between 1884 and 1886, Dewey was accorded a kind of honeymoon in student publications that let him slip through the nets cast for professors’ absurdities. But in 1888, the attacks, called “grinds,” began. The Oracle, the leader in the satire trade, reported that students were “vending the only authorized translation of Dewey’s Psychology at fabulous prices.”…the anonymous author of Sophster’s New Dictionary created this definition: “Dew(e)y.-Adj. Cold, impersonal, psychological, sphinx-like, anomalous and petrifying to flunkers.”

More Dewey “grinds”

…One of them in the 1889 Oracle began: “Last night I spent a horrible three hours. I was doomed to take the place of several delinquent professors. First, I must be Dewey in Logic. Did you ever try to be utterly impersonal? to be entirely petrified except as to the eyes? to hold every muscle still, take all expression from the face, every shadow of a yes or a no, never to show by a twitch when a fellow is making a fool of himself or look surprised when he makes a good recitation? Well, it’s work, I can assure you, since my experience last night.”

From a November 1888 Argonaut

“O what is the matter with yon, lank girl,
A pale and wild and haggard she?
Oh, don’t you know, the old man said,
She’s taking Dewey’s Psychology.
Once she was fair to look upon,
Fair as a morning in June was she,
And now the wreck you see to-day
Is caused by Dewey’s Psychology.

A year had passed, again I strayed
By the Medic’s hall; what did I see
But some whitened bones of a girl who died
Taking Dewey’s Psychology.

The poem isn’t surprising as Walker writes “a brief biography in the Argonaut called Dewey’s Psychology “one of the ‘stiffest’ text books in existence.”” Admittedly this is in the early part of Dewey’s career, but he had been teaching for several years when these grinds began to be published. My experience is limited to one school, but I have to tell you that most of my education courses in college were the most boring and the least profitable of all those that I took. The courses were taught by several different education departments, and they were tediously stifling.  My professors who were enthused and knowledgeable about their subjects were in other fields. I learned more about teaching effectively from homeschool material, than from college courses. There is an incongruity here between theory and practice!

In “John Dewey at Michigan, The Second Ann Arbor Period, 1889-1894: The Birth of Pragmatism,” Walker gives us some glimpses of Dewey’s family life.

Professor and Mrs. Trueblood were dinner guests in the Dewey home on one occasion. They were not aware of the fact that John and Alice Dewey were developing some interesting theories and practices on the education of children. When, from self-protection, Mrs. Trueblood attempted to restrain one of the children from using her as a target, Mrs. Dewey shook her head and whispered, “Leave him alone. His father is studying him.”

If Mrs. Trueblood was a target, I can only guess this was a dinner table food barrage.

Some of their Ann Arbor neighbors censured the Deweys’ unorthodox methods. Mrs. Alfred Lloyd, the wife of a philosophy professor, told Savage of other parents “who had to convince their own children that they couldn’t ignore shoes and stockings as the Dewey children did. Once a local policeman was prodded by some well-meaning neighbors into advising Mrs. Dewey about the severe climate. Mrs. Dewey promptly told the policeman that it was none of his business as she was quite capable of bringing up her own children.”

Oh, the irony—John Dewey will proceed throughout his life to tell America how her children should be reared and taught.

The daughters of Burke A. Hinsdale, an historian who lived next door to the Deweys, told Savage that the Dewey children’s doctor “gave up doctoring the Deweys because she would not sanction their ways of caring for their children. They always had colds and sniffles.”…

More anecdotes about John Dewey

…In his house at Ann Arbor, Dewey’s study was directly under the bathroom, and he was sitting there one day, absorbed in a new theory of arithmetic, when [s]uddenly he felt a stream of water trickling down his [b]ack. He jumped out of his chair and rushed upstairs to find the bathtub occupied by a fleet of sailboats, [t]he water brimming over, and his small boy Fred busy with both hands shutting it off. The child turned as he opened the door and said severely, `Don’t argue, John, get the mop!’

The Deweys’ belief in the innate goodness of children, their encouragement of their children’s experimental forays into the world, and their determination to provide as much freedom as they could for those forays, shaped John Dewey’s philosophical speculations.

While these anecdotes are both amusing and appalling in turn, they don’t describe children who were taught respect for adults or self-control. They don’t describe children who were well-cared for and loved by having their foolishness curbed and their minds instructed in wisdom. Parents who continue to believe that children are innately good in the face of experiencing food fights and backtalk are not reality-based. There is a disconnect between theory and practice that tells the truth of the silliness of Dewey’s pragmatism. This, dear readers, is the man who shaped educational philosophy and theory in America in the public schools. The dots are easy to connect, not between theory and practice, but between Dewey’s theories and their devastating consequences.

Children in their early years are neither moral nor immoral, but simply unmoral; their sense of right and wrong has not yet begun to develop. Therefore, they should be allowed as much freedom as possible; prohibitions and commands, the result of which either upon themselves or their companions they cannot under- stand, are bound to be meaningless; their tendency is to make the child secretive and deceitful.
Schools of Tomorrow, (E. P. Dutton and Co., New York NY: 1915) 1-2.
. . . children should be allowed as much freedom as possible….No individual child is [to be] forced to a task that does not appeal….A discipline based on moral ground [is] a mere excuse for forcing [pupils] to do something simply because some grown-up person wants it done.
Schools of Tomorrow, (E. P. Dutton and Co., New York NY: 1915) 211.

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