The two men who have had the greatest influence on American public education are Horace Mann and John Dewey. Mann helped implement the first statewide public school system in Massachusetts in the 1830s, while Dewey impacted educational theory.
John Dewey (1859–1952) was a philosopher and psychologist who held teaching positions at the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, and Columbia University. Though influential in many fields, Dewey’s greatest influence was in education.
Dewey stressed the importance of democracy and participation in society. When applied to the field of education, this explains his view of schools as social institutions. He emphasized the need for students to learn experientially in schools, in what is known as “progressive education.”
Along with William James, Dewey was one of the chief architects of the philosophical school of pragmatism (Dewey’s version is called “instrumentalism”), which held that a theory is true insofar as it is successful. In other words, pragmatism is concerned with what works. When applied to education, this means schools should focus on problem-solving and experiential learning rather than passing down knowledge from teacher to students.
Theologian R.C. Sproul said the following about the impact of Dewey’s pragmatism on education:
In carrying out pragmatism’s program, John Dewey succeeded in revolutionizing our public school system. He disparages epistemology, considering it a pseudo-problem and a waste of time. He repudiates both the “innate” ideas of Rene Descartes and the blank tablet of John Locke. He denies that such issues are even a problem. Dewey’s penchant for anti-intellectualism has contributed greatly to the mindlessness of public education.
In his book The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom chronicles the modern resistance to objective truth and the university’s courtship with relativism. We wonder why Johnny cannot read, write, think, and pray. What can we expect from a school system that eschews matters of epistemology from the outset? Gone is the classical method of education that produced the intellectual giants of the past—the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric that provided the foundation for the quadrivium of higher education. This was noted in the 1940s by Dorothy Sayers in The Lost Tools of Learning. (R.C. Sproul, The Consequences of Ideas, p. 200).
Dewey is often praised by modern “educators.” However, he is villainized by many conservative thinkers, and for good reason. If schools and teachers are simply concerned with what “works,” they undercut the very foundation of education—the objective truth of God and His Word. Genuine education is concerned with training persons and passing down values and traditions.
Dewey's Secular Humanism
Dewey’s secular views can likely be traced back to his being raised in a Congregational church, many of which were known for pushing liberalism and the Social Gospel in the 19th century. It thus comes as no surprise that Dewey became an atheist later in life.
Dewey’s views on philosophy and education flowed from his naturalistic worldview. He replaced Christianity with a religion of his own, secular humanism, which he described as follows in A Common Faith:
Here are all the elements for a religious faith that shall not be confined to sect, class, or race. Such a faith has always been the common faith of mankind. It remains for us to make it explicit and militant.
Dewey rejected God and His Word as central to education and replaced them with secular humanism. Democracy was Dewey’s god and the state school his church. He thus taught that education centered on the child instead of God:
the child becomes the sun about which the appliances of education revolve; he is the center about which they are organized (The School and Society, quoted in R.J. Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education, p. 154).
John Dewey should not be held in high esteem. The fact that so many public educators love him suggests that he was in fact an enemy of true education. It is also the case that Dewey’s writings are hard to read, as he writes like the philosopher that he was (which is not a compliment!). Thankfully, few have actually read his works. Yet despite this, Dewey's ideas continue to reign in America’s schools.