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War for Men's Minds

Dewey's Pragmatism and the Decline of Education
by Edward W. Younkins

American pragmatism represents an activist development of Kant and Hegel’s idealism. As a theory of mutable truth, pragmatism claims that ideas are true insofar as they are useful in a specific situation -- what works today in one case may not work tomorrow in another case. The standard of moral truth is expediency. Ethical ideas are accepted as long as they continue to work. According to John Dewey’s (1859-1952) social pragmatism, what is true is that which works for a society (not for an individual) through the promotion of the public good. Dewey advocates a relativistic, secularized form of altruism that calls for sacrificing oneself to attain the ends of the People. In this view society, rather than the individual, passes moral judgment. Social policies are measured by their consequences instead of by abstract principles of what is right or just. There are no facts, no set rules of logic, no objectivity, and no certainty. There are only policies and proposals for social actions that must be treated as working hypotheses. The experience of consequences will indicate the need to keep or alter the original hypotheses.

For pragmatists -- knowledge of the world is impossible to separate from actions upon it. There is no reality out there -- both facts and values are products of men interacting with an environment and shaping it to their wills. Society, for Dewey, is something free men create out of their intellects and imaginations. An advocate of social malleability, he speaks of men reconstructing what they have experienced in order to impose a particular character on it, thereby bringing an explicit reality into being. Men are free to choose their own way of thinking and to create whatever reality they want to embrace. However, a man’s mind is conditioned by the collective thinking of other people. The mind is thus a social phenomenon -- truth is what works for the group.

It is participation in the common life of democratic society that realizes the freedom of the individual and produces growth in him and in society. Democracy expresses the consensus of the collective -- society is a moral organism with a “general will.” Each man is to do his duty by adapting himself to the ever-changing views of the group.

Men simply act. They usually do not and need not reflect before acting. The goal of thought is merely to reconstruct the situation in order to solve the problem. If the proposal, when implemented, resolves the issue, then the idea is pragmatically true. Truth cannot be known in advance of action. One must first act and then think. Only then can reality be determined.

Value judgments are to be made according to desires based on feelings. The test of one’s desire is its congruity with the majority of other men’s wishes, feelings, and values at that time. These, of course, can be examined and abandoned in a future context. Value judgments are instrumental, never completed, and therefore are corrigible. In the end it is feeling, for the pragmatist, that is paramount.

Dewey is primarily concerned with the democratic ideal and its realization in every sphere of life. He advocates education as a way to reconstruct children according to the pragmatist vision of man. Child-centered, rather than subject-centered, education treats the student as an acting being and therefore is focused on discrete, experiential projects. Dewey dismisses as irrelevant the teaching of fundamental knowledge such as reading, writing, math, and science. Both the educator and the students are to be flexible and tentative. The purpose of a school is to foster social consciousness. The child is to be taught to transcend the assimilation of truths and facts by learning to serve and adapt to others and to comply with the directives of their representatives. A disdain for reason and knowledge is thus combined with the practice of altruism (otherism) and collectivism.

Like Marx, Dewey comprehended and appreciated the conflictual essence of the Hegelian dialectic. Dewey stressed the clash in the education process between the child and the curriculum and between the potential and talent of the student and the structure of an outmoded school system. The traditional curriculum, loaded down with formal subjects, was unsuited to the child’s active and immediate experience. Dewey saw children as alienated from their academic work because of a contradiction between the interests of the school and the real interests of the students. There was an incongruity between the values, goals, and means embodied in the experience of a mature adult and those of an undeveloped, immature being. The teaching of abstract, general principles, and eternal and external truths was beyond a child’s understanding and a barrier to the authentic growth and development of the child.

Dewey’s new school would become a vehicle for the de-alienation and socialization of the child. The school would be an embryonic socialist community in which the progress of the student could only be justified by his relation to the group. Dewey’s activity method and manual training could produce a collective occupational spirit in the school.

Dewey, like Marx, was convinced that thought is a collective activity in which the individual simply acts as a cell in the social body. For Dewey, the individual is only a conduit conveying the group’s influence, and a person's beliefs derive from others through tradition, education, and the environment. Dewey’s notion that thought is collective, along with his enmity toward human reason and individual responsibility, led to his advocacy of collectivist economic planning. For Dewey, cognition is an activity of the group or society as a whole and innovations are the products of collective science and technology, rather than the creations of individual thinkers and doers.

John Dewey’s progressive model of active learning promoted a revolt against abstract learning and attempted to make education an effective tool for integrating culture and vocation. Dewey was responsible for developing a philosophical approach to education called “experimentalism” which saw education as the basis for democracy. His goal was to turn public schools into indoctrination centers to develop a socialized population that could adapt to an egalitarian state operated by an intellectual elite. Disavowing the role of the individual mind in achieving technological and social progress, Dewey promoted the group, rather than the teacher, as the main source of social control in the schools. Denying the ideas of universal principles, natural law, and natural rights, Dewey emphasized social values and taught that life adjustment is more important than academic skills.

Dewey explained that the subject matter and moral lessons in the traditional curricula were meant to teach and inspire, but were irrelevant to the students’ immediate action experiences. The contradiction between the students’ real interests and those of the traditional school alienated students from their schoolwork. School-age children were caught between the opposing forces of immature, undeveloped beings and the values, meanings, and aims of subject matter constructed by a mature adult. Dewey believed that students’ energy, talent, and potential could not be realized within the structure of an archaic school system.

Dewey and other members of the Progressive movement wanted a predictable method for providing a common culture and of instilling Americans with democratic values. As a result, by the end of the nineteenth century, a centrally controlled, monopolistic, comprehensive, and bureaucratic public education system was deemed to be essential for America’s future.
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