Dewey Watch: Thinking for Themselves

You’d think that conservative opponents of John Dewey would have their hands full dealing with what the man wrote over the course of his lifetime. But that hasn’t stopped some bizarre misquotes from working their way into the conversation. A few weeks ago my Technorati watchlist pulled up a blog that contained the following statement, alleged to be by Dewey:

You can’t make Socialists out of individualists. Children who know how to think for themselves spoil the harmony of the collective society which is coming, where everyone is interdependent.

Now, this sounds so completely unlike anything I’ve ever read Dewey say that I wondered where the quote came from. My curiosity was further encouraged when I did a web search and found the quote on hundreds of web pages – none of which could cite a particular text, lecture, or occasion on which Dewey said this. The closest I could find to an attribution was the year 1899 – which is the year that Dewey gave the lectures that formed the basis for The School and Society, one of his key books on education. So I turned to the Past Masters database, which contains a searchable full-text database of both The Collected Works of John Dewey and The Collected Correspondence of John Dewey. I put in various phrases from the longer quote and asked for results.

I came up empty.

I did some more searching in the archives of the electronic Dewey mailing list, and learned that a few years back, the users of that list tried to track down the original source of the quote as well. They had no more luck at pinning down the attribution than I did. So while I can’t completely rule out the idea that this quote was made in a context not included in the Collected Works or the Collected Correspondence, my best guess is that this is a caricature of a paraphrase that somehow came to be seen as a direct quote. The only other alternative I can think of is someone deliberately falsifying a citation, and I’d like to be more charitable than that.

As long as I was in the database, I decided to see what Dewey does say about the notion of children and people thinking for themselves. I got the following hits for the exact phrase “think for themselves” from Dewey’s published writings. (There were two additional hits, one from an account of an interview with Dewey, and one from an unpublished manuscript. I wanted to focus on the published instances for this post.)

From The Middle Works Vol. 8 (1915), page 398:

If we train our children to take orders, to do things simply because they are told to, and fail to give them confidence to act and think for themselves, we are putting an almost insurmountable obstacle in the way of overcoming the present defects of our system and of establishing the truth of democratic ideals. (Schools of Tomorrow, Chapter 11)

In the passage from which this quote is taken, Dewey does mention the idea of collective action. But he is explicitly talking about democratic government. Here’s the larger passage:

The conventional type of education which trains children to docility and obedience, to the careful performance of imposed tasks because they are imposed, regardless of where they lead, is suited to an autocratic society. These are the traits needed in a state where there is one head to plan and care for the lives and institutions of the people. But in a democracy they interfere with the successful conduct of society and government. Our famous, brief definition of a democracy, as “government of the people, for the people and by the people,” gives perhaps the best clue to what is involved in a democratic society. Responsibility for the conduct of society and government rests on every member of society. Therefore, every one must receive a training that will enable him to meet this responsibility, giving him just ideas of the condition and needs of the people collectively, and developing those qualities which will insure his doing a fair share of the work of government. If we train our children to take orders, to do things simply because they are told to, and fail to give them confidence to act and think for themselves, we are putting an almost insurmountable obstacle in the way of overcoming the present defects of our system and of establishing the truth of democratic ideals. Our State is founded on freedom, but when we train the State of to-morrow, we allow it just as little freedom as possible. Children in school must be allowed freedom so that they will know what its use means when they become the controlling body, and they must be allowed to develop active qualities of initiative, independence, and resourcefulness, before the abuses and failures of democracy will disappear.

If democratic government is not a means by which individuals come together so that their collective judgement can determine the state’s course of action, then what is it? (It is true that Dewey wants to expand the notion of a democratic society, and that’s an issue that’s up for debate – maybe democracy shouldn’t be a way of life, the way Dewey advocates. But that’s a wholly different argument.)

From The Middle Works Vol. 11 (1918-1919), pages 120-121:

This is the psychological factor which cooperates with the physical centralization of the agencies of news gathering and distribution to develop the new paternalistic solicitude for the masses who cannot yet be trusted to think for themselves. (“The New Paternalism.”)

Now this quote, with its talk of masses who can’t be trusted, is pretty close to the way some opponents characterize Dewey. But Dewey is, in fact, criticizing this paternalistic attitude, arguing that it’s a bad idea to try and shape the public’s thinking by withholding or distorting information. In larger context, I think this is clear:

Let us make democracy safe for the world by a careful editing and expurgation of the facts upon which it bases the opinions which in the end decide social action. The men most active in urging that state paternalism be surrendered in exchange for private initiative in transportation, banking, investments and manufacturing (barring of course benevolence to the poor working man through a protective tariff) will be most vigorous in solicitude to safeguard against private initiative in belief.

From The Middle Works Vol. 15 (1923-1924), page 175:

We need, on the whole, more elbow-room for activity of the outer sort, more freedom and spontaneity of action in the schoolroom and on the playground than we usually get, not because that is the act of self-expression or end in itself, but because, with a certain degree of elbow-room we can get opportunity for the students to think for themselves, to work out their own plans, to formulate their own problems, to carry their ideas into execution, and to test their plans and ideas to determine how they work out. (“Individuality in Education.”)

Now this is definitely an area where Dewey’s critics have unloaded both barrels – this idea that giving the student more freedom contributes to a loss of discipline and a failure of the student to actually learn. I disagree with that criticism, but that’s a topic for another time. What’s important to note here is that Dewey argues that his emphasis on freedom for the student is justified because it helps the students learn to think for themselves. This is, in fact, a very individualistic approach, whether one approves of it or not.

From The Later Works Vol. 5 (1929-1930), page 341:

The College, more than most educational institutions of whatever sort, has been truly educational in living up to its effort to lead students to think–which means, of course, to think for themselves. (“Labor Politics and Labor Education.”)

Dewey is speaking here of Brookwood Labor College, an institution devoted to training labor leaders, which wound up feuding with the administrative leadership of the American Federation of Labor. Brookwood was accused of being too radical and possibly sympathetic to communism, and so the AFL wanted its member unions to withdraw all support. Dewey supported the College. Which, again, will do nothing to dissuade those who think Dewey was a communist himself. But look again at the way Dewey praises the College – he says it taught its adult students how to think, which means that it taught them how to think for themselves. So if teaching students to think for themselves is somehow supporting of communism, that would make the alleged 1899 quote a logical contradiction.

From The Later Works Vol. 6 (1931-1932), pages 97-98

Democracy will be a farce unless individuals are trained to think for themselves, to judge independently, to be critical, to be able to detect subtle propaganda and the motives which inspire it. (“American Education Past and Future.”)

I think that one speaks for itself. In fact, I may put it on a bumper sticker.


  1. Comment by astraltones:

    Hello Mr. Thomer,
    I was a student in one of your Fall 05 classes and have become a pretty frequent visitor to your blog as of late. Kudos on the Calvin and Hobbes purchase by the way, I’m a big fan.

    As for this post, I felt the last quote pressing for the essential importance of “critical” citizenship is very important but very complex. With all the liberal (Washington Post, NBC, etc) or conservative (Wall Street Journal, FoxNews, etc) biased news sources out there, where is one supposed to gather information in order to separate, as Dewey puts it, “subtle propoganda” and fact?

    Great blog by the way. Keep it up.

  2. Comment by Dave Thomer:

    Welcome to the site, astraltones. (And around here, call me Dave.)

    To your question – one issue is learning how to analyze an argument. This is key in reading editorials, commentaries, and analysis pieces, which is where I believe most of the ideological nature of a New York Times or a Wall Street Journal presents itself. Figure out what conclusion a writer is trying to make you agree to, and then determine what information the writer is using to support that claim. If you look at the miner story, one of the big problems is that it was difficult to figure out exactly where writers were drawing their information from, and why we should think that’s reliable. If you understand some of the basic rules of logic and reasoning, you can spot when a writer is making a claim that’s hard to justify. Over time, you”ll come to find sources that are more trustworthy than others.

    Reading different sources with different ideological viewpoints helps – if one source is relying on incomplete or misleading information, another might catch what’s missing. Looking for documentary evidence is important. Understanding what independent research is available is critical.

    To bring it back to what Dwey says, if students learn how to critically evaluate the things they encounter, information providers are going to have to provide stories that bear up to their scrutiny. That won’t completely end ideological differences, but it might make the ideological dispute more open and honest.

  3. Comment by Paul Ernest:

    Dear Dave – thanks for clarifying this (mis)quotation from Dewey. Having come across it in a list of quotes from philosophers and educators at it rang false. So like you I looked it up and found this page. It’s great that you spent time not only showing that any of the the usual sources do not provide this quote, but also that it is inconsistent with the spirit of his ideas!
    Like you I am a proponent of critical thinking – especially in math education – my field.

    In a recent paper I gave on ‘Challenging Myths about Mathematics’ (my powerpoint is on Slideshare) I summarize critical mathematics citizenship as follows:

    Teach critical citizenship via maths
    Mathematics should socially and politically empower students as numerate critical citizens in society to:
     Critically understand uses of mathematics in society
     Use maths in social and political activity, for betterment of students and democratic society as a whole
     Interpret and critique uses of maths in social, commercial and political claims in adverts, headlines, blogs, reports, etc
     Understand limits of validity of uses of maths, what decisions are concealed, and reject spurious or misleading claims
     Scrutinize financial sector and government systems and procedures for objectivity, correctness and hidden assumptions
     Address ethical implications of maths applications to balance instrumentalism, dehumanization and separated values
    Every citizen needs these capabilities to defend democracy and values of humanistic and civilised society

    Please note that this involves critiquing liberal pronouncements as much as conservative ones! Following you, Dave, I could now add
     Scrutinize arguments using mathematics for flaws in reasoning and logic such as unjustified inferences and conclusion, non-sequitor jumps in reasoning, overgeneralizing from limited evidence, etc.

  4. Comment by Joe Budd:

    Several years ago, I saw a “quote” allegedly by Dewey and did some tracking that suggested he never said those words.

    Along the way, I did find a 1950s red scare era book still available on the John Birch Society website in which the author had made a comment in which she “characterized” Dewey’s “subversive” ideas…And her words became a “Dewey quote” that reappears in right wing commentary. Ann Coulter’s book was one of many that cited it without attribution.

    I’ll try to find my notes on that.

  5. Comment by Paul Parker:

    Thank you Dave. I found this quote on a flaky Anti NWO web-site. Ditto the above comments form Paul Ernest.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *