John Dewey the Social Engineer

Dewey left the University of Michigan in 1894 and went to the University of Chicago where he established what was called a laboratory school “to exhibit, test, and conduct research in educational methods centring on the child.” (The school I attended from second to twelfth grade was a laboratory school—a legacy of Dewey). An argument with the university president led to Dewey taking a position in 1904 teaching philosophy at Columbia University and Teachers College of Columbia University. He remained there until he retired.

In Liberal Fascism Jonah Goldberg summarizes Dewey’s influence on education:

Progressive education has two parents, Prussia and John Dewey. The kinder- garten was transplanted into the United States from Prussia in the nineteenth century…One of the core tenets of the early kindergartens was the dogma that “the government is the true parent of the children, the state is sovereign over the family.” The progressive followers of John Dewey expanded this program to make public schools incubators of a national religion. They discarded the militaristic rigidity of the Prussian model, but retained the aim of indoctrinating children. The methods were informal, couched in the sincere desire to make learning “fun,” relevant,” and “empowering.” The self-esteem obsession that saturates our schools today harks back to the Deweyan reforms from before World War II. But beneath the individualistic rhetoric lies a mission for democratic social justice, a mission Dewey himself defined as a religion. For other progressives, capturing children in schools was part of the larger effort to break the backbone of the nuclear family, the institution most resistant to political indoctrination.1

Dewey and other progressives viewed the school as the agent of change. He was not so much an educator as a social engineer who saw education as a means to an end. Rev. Hardon writes:

It is unfortunate that so many studies on Dewey have concentrated on his peda- gogy, ignoring the fact that he was primarily a philosopher whose interest in education, on his own confession, was a matter of practical efficiency. He was simply using education as the most effective instrument for putting his principles of philosophy into living practice.2

Trojan horse

From my limited reading on Dewey I must agree. Education was a Trojan horse through which Dewey and other progressives could effect their utopia. Dewey wrote “My Pedagogic Creed” in 1897, and if you read it you’ll find that Dewey saw education as an instrument of change. You’ll also see Dewey’s self-contradictory ideas. Within one sentence he expects the teacher not to impose ideas or habits yet the teacher is supposed to select “influences” and assist the child in “properly responding to these influences.” He advocates child-centered education, but the purpose of education is not so much to enhance the individual growth of the child as it is to enable the child to find his place in a group and “to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs.”  Dewey closes his creed by saying.

I believe that every teacher should realize the dignity of his calling; that he is a social servant set apart for the maintenance of proper social order and the securing of the right social growth.

I believe that in this way the teacher always is the prophet of the true God and the usherer in of the true kingdom of God.

Dewey’s view of the teacher as “a social servant set apart for the maintenance of proper social order and the securing of the right social growth,” has a definite religious tenor, but his references to God and God’s kingdom had nothing to do with the Bible. Dewey was thinking along the lines of what Jonah Goldberg called a “secular religion of the state,”3 and teachers were its guardian priests, priestesses, and missionaries.

I believe that education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.

Diamond Border

UPDATE: In How to Pollute a Mind: Lessons from John Dewey and Van Jones Chuck Rogér writes:

Following the principles of Friedrich Froebel, “inventor” of kindergarten, Dewey proclaimed that schools should condition children for the desired “social order”[vi]. Teachers must stress “mutually helpful living” in order to indoctrinate children in collectivism. Schools must deemphasize facts, knowledge, and real-world skills[vii]. Dewey changed the “whole conception of school discipline,” thus birthing the noisy, disorganized classroom whose business is to fill children with “a spirit of social cooperation and community life”[viii]. The kids don’t need to understand “economic value.” They need “social power and insight”[ix]….

Dewey drafted educators in a war on traditional America, promising that when teachers ready each child for “membership” in society,

… saturating him with the spirit of service, and providing him with the instruments of effective self-direction, we shall have the deepest and best guaranty of a larger society which is worthy, lovely, and harmonious[xv].

With this proclamation 111 years ago, Dewey launched the progressive mission to erase individuality and breed automatons to “serve” society. It’s hard to ignore the similarity between Dewey’s “worthy” society and Barack Obama’s call for “all students to engage in service” to America.

Not satisfied with simply envisioning a lovely society, Dewey cast one of his most destructive legacies when he made the otherworldly contention that the child must “play” to his heart’s content in order to achieve his “supreme end,” the “fulness [sic] of realization of his budding powers, a realization which continually carries him on from one plane to another”[xvi]. Dewey’s silliness fired up the “self-esteem” movement.

The Roman numerals in brackets are Rogér’s footnotes to his references given at the link.
Trojan horse on corintian aryballos. {{PD-1923}} – published before 1923 and public domain in the US.
Dewey biography sources: John Dewey, University of Chicago Laboratory SchoolsJohn Dewey.
1,3Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism (Broadway Books, New York NY: 2007, 2009) 326–327, 337.
2Rev. John A. Hardon, S.J., “John Dewey: Prophet of American Naturalism,” The Catholic Educational Review, Sept., 1952.


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