John Dewey, Pragmatism, and Progressive Education

The foundational pillars of American education had already begun to crack by the mid-1800s, but they did not come crashing down until the rise of the Progressives at the turn of the 20th century, arguably led by the charismatic and revolutionary John Dewey.

Against a backdrop of rising immigration, advancing technological and scientific knowledge, challenges to classical liberal thinking, and the transition from an agrarian society to an industrial society, the Progressives called for a variety of reforms that would fundamentally alter the course of the United States. The realm of education was one of the first that would drastically change. The burden of responsibility in raising one's children was beginning to be passed from parents to schools; and in the eyes of the Progressives, public schooling was not adequately bringing up America's youth for a modern, democratic future.

Horace Mann and other 19th century reformers had already taken American education a turn away from founding traditions, but Dewey believed that more needed to be done. To him, schools were failing to prepare children for societal life in a democracy (not a republic). Schools must do away with a regimented class schedule based on the "3 R's" in favor of a "work-study-play" method of learning. Dewey believed that education is a social process, that education is "a process of living, and not preparation for future living," and that through education society can shape its purposes, economy, and the direction it wants to move.

While Dewey talked about the importance of the individual, much of his work had to do with molding the individual to fit into a democratic society. Most Americans reading this piece have been shaped by his ideas and how they played out in the real world: group projects, standardized testing, schooling broken out by age (grade) rather than capability, yearbooks, child-centered learning, field trips, school newspapers, D.A.R.E., student government, gym/P.E., tech classes, etc.

The worldviews of many Americans have been shaped by Dewey and ideas rooted in progressive education. While certainly some of the ideas were good, the greatest indictment against many of Dewey's ideas, and progressive education overall, is the utter failure of the public education system by the end of the 20th century. Before finding a better way forward for education in America, one must pull back the curtain and discover the motives and goals of John Dewey and the Progressives.

 

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"I asked Fulton County high school teacher Jordan Kohanim to write a piece about what she wanted for her students this year. Jordan joined forces with fellow Centennial High School English teachers Larken McCord and Cathy Rumfelt to write a powerful letter about their goals for their students and for all students. School resumes in Fulton County on Monday

Here is their combined effort....

Flanagan, seemingly a supporter of John Dewey's education philosophy and changes, portrays how Dewey went beyond the changes made by Horace Mann. Discussing his "laboratory school," which Dewey established in 1896, Flanagan argues that he created a school equally focused on both the student's individual pursuits and the preparation of each student to live in the community - both the...

Hager looks solely at the problem of competition and accountability with the public school system and specifically targets the progressive educators: "However, the social-management philosophes who fashioned the progressive education...

As one could guess given the name of the institute, this article urges that education on both sides of the Atlantic become more efficient and productive by enabling each participant significant choice on the matter. Lawson contends that this idea is far from where the British...

Describing the transition and evolution of education during the first several decades of the 20th century, Wiles characterizes the change as moving from a "closed" to an "open" system.  Throughout the rise of progressive thinking, Wiles argues, "no person epitomizes the acknowledgement of...

This brief introduction to Dewey's ideas asserts that the "most common misunderstanding about Dewey is that he was simply supporting progressive education. Progressive education, according to Dewey, was a wild swing in the philosophical pendulum, against traditional education methods.In progressive education, freedom was the rule, with students being...

Examining the causes of declining educational performance, Bernstein points to John Dewey's education philosophy as the cause. "[Progressive education's] main tenets have been widely incorporated into American schools. Our educators accept the premise that the target of education is not the student's rational mind. Since they believe that their goal is not to...

Prominent free-market economist and historian, Murray Rothbard, wrote an extensive 12-part analysis on the modern education system (including this piece, the last in the series).  He described the destructive trend of progressive education as being collectivistic, controlling and uniformitarian. And, in some...

In light of recent school violence, Woiceshyn takes a closer look at the progressive education philosophy. This philosophy "maintains that the cause of social strife is the unwillingness of an individual to sacrifice his convictions to the group. Dewey maintained that it is the insistence on distinctions such as 'true versus false' and 'right versus wrong'...

Emand and Fraser offer a helpful piece on Dewey's theories, which may often be confusing and seemingly contradictory. The article lays out a question, and then answers it with several quotes from various writings by John Dewey.

Gatto describes a plan developed by "Gary, Indiana, Superintendent William A. Wirt, a former student of John Dewey’s at the University of Chicago...in which school subjects were departmentalized; this required movement of students from room to room on a regular basis so that all building spaces were in constant use. Bells would ring and just as with Pavlov’s...

Anderson defines and highlights the legacies of Progressivism. He mentions two early Progressive leaders, Teddy Roosevelt and John Dewey. According to Anderson, Roosevelt exemplified the Progressives desire for a stronger executive branch and Dewey represented the Progressives dislike of a decentralized educational system. Anderson highlights 1913 as a key year because of the establishment of...

Analysis Report White Paper

Taking a markedly pro-Dewey stance, Novack discusses Dewey's international impact on educational reform as well as the necessity of such reform. Honoring what would have been Dewey's 100th birthday, Novack calls for further implementation of his theories and reforms.

"This historic context study spans more than a hundred years and the approximately 140 buildings constructed, acquired, maintained, expanded, and sometimes removed by the Minneapolis Board of Education between 1849 and 1962. The timeframe extends from the first public schools constructed in Minneapolis to the expansion of elementary and junior high schools for the post-World War II baby-boom...

Taking a rigid free-market stance on education, Hood examines the inefficiencies and failures of America's public education system. Rather than siding with one group in particular over the matter, he finds numerous problems - monopoly of the system, centralized decision-making, tenure - which contribute to the downfall of such a system.

"Wirt devised a diverse curriculum to prepare youth for the new emerging industrial state, and a significant part of Wirt's innovative currciulum included sports, games, and play activities. Wirt referred to his system as a work-study-play school, but it was also termed as the Gary plan and platoon school."

Field gives an in depth look at Dewey, including analysis on Dewey's social theories, the public's reception of him, and his thoughts on learning and education. From the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the article is cited thoroughly and examines Dewey and his philosophies with a keen academic eye.

The piece discusses the decline in America's schools, with regard to both its role as a government funded institution as well as the partnership that is formed between parent, teacher, and student. Though the structure of public education is flawed, education itself has become a political, social and cultural issue.

McCluskey discusses current social conflicts in American public schools and then explores the history of American schooling from the Founding until now.

Video/Podcast/Media

From the description: "This is a group project for teachers about the history of education from 1900-1950."

"The Travelers" describe some of the changes in society as a result of immigration, the transition from education emphasizing the "three R's" to a progressive education model of work, study, play, and the influences of Dewey and...

This is a 4-minute sample clip about Dewey from a film that is part of the series called GIANTS. It briefly explores Dewey's critique of the reflex arc concept in psychology, his belief in truth as process, and his belief in democracy.

"In this program, Columbia University professor Sidney Morgenbesser discusses the nuances of pragmatic philosophy as expressed by three of America's greatest thinkers. Moranbesser examines Peirce's theory of meaning and the notion of fallibilism that supports the changing nature of truth. James' concept of meaning, knowledge, and truth is examined within the context of the usefulness of...

"This video presents a positive view of progressive education although it begins with a parent complaining that children are not learning the fundamentals. Various educators are seen including famed John Dewey. One skeptic asserts that ideas similar to progressive education caused a collapse of the ancient Greek civilization. Current debates about educational techniques in many respects seem...

"A quick expose of why public schools in the US are mediocre. From John Dewey to now in only 4 minutes."

Primary Document

Arguably Dewey's most controversial essay, Impressions describes Soviet Russia in a strikingly positive light. Writing just as Stalin assumed official leadership, Dewey, despite finding some slightly troublesome qualities of the regime, recognized a certain legitimacy of the Soviet system. Though he...

In this piece Dewey truly does lay out his own "creed" on education, even beginning each paragraph with, "I believe."  Using his extensive background in psychology and combining it with his social philosophy, Dewey presents five sections concerning education:
1)      What Education Is
2)     ...

G.K. Chesterton’s essay on education addresses everything from what education is, to what role parents and public schooling should play in education. Chesterton believes that education is continually occurring whether or not a person is in an acceptable educational...

In late 1936 and early 1937 the famous educational theorist John Dewey issued a set of rebuttals to Robert Hutchins' book, The Higher Learning in America. Hutchins' book...

In late 1936 and early 1937 the famous educational theorist John Dewey issued a set of rebuttals to Robert Hutchins' book, The Higher Learning in America. Dewey uses his...

In this work, Lewis defends a universal law of morality: "Since I can see no answer to these questions, I draw the following conclusions. This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of...

This book and The School and Society, "which grew out of Dewey’s hands-on...

Perhaps the pioneer in progressive education, Parker helped pave the way for Dewey and others...

This book and The Child and the Curriculum, "which grew out of Dewey’s hands-on experience in administering the laboratory school at the University of Chicago, represent the...

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This FAQ provides some background on education in Minnesota, which in turn will help one to understand today's state of education.

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