John Dewey, Boogeyman

I have a customized layout over at Google News. It’s a great feature. I give Google a set of search terms, it generates a continually updating page of results from its database of news and commentary sources across the web.

Among the terms I track with this feature is “John Dewey.” And what I have discovered is that there is some serious hatred for Dewey in the world of conservative commentary. Or at least, hatred for some mythical version of Dewey who is somehow responsible for so much that has gone wrong with America in the last century. From time to time I’ll call attention to examples of this phenomenon.

And today I found a rather good example, the ironically-titled “Liberals Need Remedial Reading Classes “. The author, Tom Brewton, claims that the only legitimate source of morality is from some kind of metaphysically transcendent source – that standards for morality must come from someplace higher than human beings, and that these standards must be absolute. He criticizes atheistic believers in social justice by saying:

In an atheistic, secular world, the only factors are material forces, and by definition, therefore, metaphysically-based morality simply cannot exist. Thus, if the leader decrees that creating the New Soviet Man requires slaughtering a few million land-owning farmers, so be it. There are no rules of secular “morality� to stop it.

John Dewey’s atheistic and secular philosophy of pragmatism made this explicit. Dewey lectured at Columbia University in the early part of the 20th century that there can be no such things as moral standards, because Darwin had “proved� that everything is continually evolving. Thus, the only standards of conduct must be whatever gets for you what you want.

Now here’s the thing: Dewey definitely disputes Brewton’s claim that moral standards have to be absolute, or that they have to come from a transcendental source. Brewton could probably find and provide half a dozen quotes suggesting this before he finished breakfast. So if that’s going to be the field of dispute, fair enough. But Brewton goes overboard in mischaracterizing the positions of pragmatists such as Dewey.

In works like Liberalism and Social Action, Dewey explicitly criticized Marxist philosophy for focusing on economics and the material world. In Art as Experience he discussed the nature of emotionally and aesthetically satisfying experiences.

As for “whatever gets for you what you want” as the only moral standard, I wish I knew where Brewton were getting this. In The Quest for Certainty and the 1932 edition of Ethics (which Dewey co-wrote), Dewey talks about the difference between what is desired and what is desirable. The best analogy here is to the difference between what is eaten and what is edible. I am capable of going upstairs and swallowing a healthy dose or six of shampoo. That doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing for me to consume, or that consuming it is in any way beneficial to my continued existence. It may have been eaten, but it’s not edible.

Dewey argues that values work the same way. There are things we want, but getting them isn’t good for us. The trick is to figure out what these things are. Dewey argues that we can make a lot of progress on that front via reason, the same way we can figure out whether or not I should swallow that shampoo. And Dewey, who frequently criticized Stalin, would be one of the first to say that ” slaughtering a few million land-owning farmers” is pretty high up on the not-desirable list.

Now, like I said, saying that we can rationally investigate the world to determine moral standards is very different than saying that moral standards are permanent and eternal and have been revealed to us by religious figures and our social traditions. You might read books like Democracy and Education and The Public and Its Problems and not agree on the standards Dewey believes he has worked out. But that’s a very different argument than saying he has no standards at all.

Oh, and Brewton also tosses in this chestnut:

That’s akin to John Dewey’s progressive education via Rousseau, the belief that children will learn by themselves, via “experiences,� all that they need to know. Anyone for letting every student intuit calculus on his own, from “experiences�?

This is a withering critique of a position Dewey never took. In fact, in Experience and Education he explicitly argued against it right from the first page, where he criticized progressive educators of his day for getting trapped in Either-Or thinking. If too much structure, lecture, and top-down learning from teachers was the problem, then the solution must be an absence of structure, right? Wrong, says Dewey. You need both. In School and Society he talks about how students at the Laboratory School he ran in Chicago would indeed have their own projects, like trying to grow a vegetable garden. But then teachers would instruct them on the historical development of agricultural tools, on the principles of biology and chemistry that lead to better farming, and so on. Teaching in the Dewey method is actually a very demanding task, because the job of the teacher is to help provide the structure and context that lets the child see how education actually connects with one’s life outside the school and then provide the child with useful knowledge and skills.

I have a feeling we’ll be coming back to that issue quite a bit. Somewhere along the way Dewey’s theory of education got tossed in the intellectual blender and the mess is everywhere.

One Comment

  1. Comment by Mark:

    Considering Dewey’s confused and obscure writing style, it’s his own fault if sometimes his theoretical writings were misunderstood.

    But the concrete things he liked and disliked are clear enough. Prime examples are his disapproval of the Montessori Method, and his whole-hearted approval of Soviet Russia in the late 1920s. You can read about the latter in his little book “Impressions of Soviet Russia and the Revolutionary World.” The chapters about Russia are reprinted in their entirety here: