kitchen table math, the sequel: John Dewey and Progressivism

Sunday, May 4, 2008

John Dewey and Progressivism

Excerpts from The Great Reading Disaster by Mona McNee (2007).

“Dewey was an adherent of the school of thought known as Pragmatism, which asserted that no object, idea or knowledge had any value apart from its practical consequences. From this he developed the idea that education must be relevant, later a Progressivist watchword. Child-centered education meant the pupils should not have to learn anything unless they could immediately understand its relevance, and this principle swept away what was regarded as the dead hand of pre-existing knowledge and culture. There was no need to burden children with a mass of facts that they could not perceive as related to their own experience and, more particularly, were not interested in.
Relevance would help children work things out for themselves – the discovery method. This would seem to mean that vast numbers of pupils should be endlessly re-inventing many varieties of the wheel in the absence of established information, but in practice it produced nothing so useful, nor was it intended to. The value was perceived to lie in their efforts, regardless of whether their actual findings were right or wrong. For these little research workers, from the age of three onward, the important thing was the process not the product. No-one seemed to feel that deliberately leaving children ignorant in this way was a dumbing down that could damage them in adulthood, and no-one seemed to recall that useful findings have often emerged from apparently irrelevant aspects of learning.
But children have short attention spans. The cannot work in blind faith and need to know that their efforts are achieving something; otherwise they are discouraged. So if they achieve only errors, that implants a sense of failure. To overcome this, Progressivism urged teachers to give constant praise, regardless of whether the products were true or false. No-one must feel inferior; “all must have prizes.””

“Concern for process not product led to the slogan that children were being trained to think for themselves. Combined with the emphasis of caring praise, rather than concern for truth, it led on to hostility to testing. Process would be very difficult, if not impossible, to test while product, which would lend itself to testing, was considered unimportant. Moreover, test-marking would involve differentiation and that would undo all the solicitous work of awarding equal praise. Thus, in spite of his pragmatic emphasis, Dewey deprived himself of the test scores that would have provided feedback on the practical consequences of his methods.”
“Inevitably, Dewey’s child-centered discovery method necessitated smaller classes, which entailed greater expense. His Progressivist school in Chicago gradually reduced the pupil-teacher ratio to about four children to each teacher or aide, and it was the resulting high cost that led the University to ask him to leave. Insistence upon small classes became a general feature of Progressivism.”

“Dewey’s discovery method, based on relevant experiences in small classes, was set in the context of Hegel’s philosophy of the connectedness of all things: nature, society, and the individual. He regarded all kinds of boundaries as artificial divisions in what should be a continuous whole, and therefore urged the abolition of traditional school subjects in favour of cross-curricular projects that would demonstrate the interlocking nature of reality.
In pursuit of connectedness, Dewey felt that the individual mind should not be differentiated from the social group. He abominated the development of a separate inner personality, which he took as a sign of social divisiveness.
What is called inner is simply that which does not connect with others – which is not capable of free and full communication. What is termed spiritual culture has usually been futile, with something rotten about it, just because it has been conceived as thing that a man might have internally – and therefore exclusively. (1916)

Thus he wrote off all unusual mental talent and distinctive genius, believing that the only worthwhile culture was that which could be shared with the greatest number of others – a lowest common denominator. He called for education to be organized as group work, with constant dialogue with the group, to develop co-operative problem-solving and decision-making in a common mode. Ideally, groups should also relate to other groups to promote collective similarity. This was another reason for rejecting tests. They would distinguish an elite and he preferred to blur distinctions and embrace multiculturalism.
Deweyism is inherently self-contradictory. For all his talk of child-centeredness, he really aimed to sacrifice children’s individuality to the group – social engineering related to Hegelism and also to his own leftist political stance, which stressed equality, often a means of leveling down. While he derided the traditional authority he wanted to replace, he did not hesitate to incorporate a more intense authority of his own. He extended the concept of a democratic community from the political arena to the classroom, demoting the teacher from being an older, wiser expert on the curriculum to being a mere facilitator to arrange the learning that the child democracy decided. He asserted that children derive most benefit from programs that they themselves have discussed and negotiated. This did not encourage genuine thinking for oneself, as the individual had to bend to the ideas of the majority, and the majority might also have been bent to the will of the dominant child, not necessarily the brightest or the wisest.”

“Dewey also bequeathed another legacy; the role of the educational guru. Teachers who had worked diligently for years to turn out large numbers of literate pupils became as nothing in comparison with Progressivist ideologues, who became world figures. Guru status was enviable and the respect it accrued from pontification became an end in itself. These powerful people had a vested interest in supporting the Progressivism that exalted them.”


Lsquared said...

Wow, thanks for the post. This is a really interesting way to look at the whole constructivist point of view

Instructivist said...


To think that this charlatan is the patron saint of ed schools.