With the death of Professor John Dewey in June, 1952, there passed from the contemporary American scene a man whose writings probably reflected the real America since the turn of the century more revealingly than those of any other contemporary philosopher. Our faith in democracy as the ultimate guarantee of the perfectibility of society and the individual, our optimism concerning the wholly secular public school, the decline of Protestantism as a pervading Christian influence, our practical atheism, and our materialism—it is all duly recorded in Professor Dewey’s special brand of pragmatism known as instrumentalism.

As a philosopher he threw overboard all metaphysics, and he repudiated all absolutes—except, of course, the two which he introduced more or less sub rosa, namely, evolution as a cosmic and social principle, and scientific method as the only means of arriving at truth. And the only truth worth having, according to Professor Dewey, is not truth in any absolute or final sense but rather truth in the sense of “truth made,” truth provisional, truth for the time being. He refused to recognize the genuineness of any problem not in the end referable to experiment and practice, and he defined knowledge as the “intelligent control of a material situation.” Ideas are mere tools, and human intelligence is simply an “organ for the control of nature through action.” The only problems ever really solved are practical ones, whereas metaphysical and religious ones are simply outgrown. There are no eternal verities and no final answers, and any school of philosophy proposing final answers ipso facto degrades itself to a school of apologetics and propaganda.

Premium On The Provisional

Genuine progressive thinking is provisional thinking, i. e., it confines itself to the here and now, always aware of the necessity of perpetual adjustment to changing conditions. Man has no demonstrable destiny or end but only “ends that are literally endless.” Embedded as we are in the evolutionary process it does not make sense to talk about the universe as a whole, for our universe is and will forever remain a “universe in the making.” Moral and other values, therefore, have nothing of the abiding and the eternal about them.…

The import of all this for education is that it, together with everything else, will have to keep moving and changing. Accordingly, Dewey’s application of the absolutes of evolution and scientific method to education came to be known as “progressive education.” Because society learns only in the course of trying to solve its problems, the school should function as a kind of miniature society, in which progress in learning comes as a result of problem solving. The child, like the scientist and, let us hope, like the philosopher, gets his problems from the world of action and should therefore “return his account there for auditing and liquidation,” especially since the practical pursuits of modern man are of a kind as to allow “intellectualization.” Anyway, experimental science has effectually undermined the prestige of the purely intellectual studies.

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Change, evolution, and progress are incompatible with the idea of unchanging goals or aims. The proper aims of progressive education are, therefore, those which satisfy the following criteria: They should be the outgrowth of existing conditions so that they will be founded on the activities and needs of the pupil; they should enlist the pupil’s cooperation; they should be flexible; and they should be specific and immediate rather than general and ultimate. Whereas traditionally the aim of education was conceived as the realization of man’s ideal nature and true end (which for Christian education meant the realization of his destiny as a redeemed creature made in the image of God), “progressive education” knows of no ideal nature or true end. For man as a member of a universe in the making there can be only an endless series of immediate and provisional ends, ends which are themselves means to still further ends. We know that somehow we are moving, but we can never know where we are going and just how we shall get there. And so if education may be said to have anything like a general aim at all it can only be that of social efficiency—for the time being, of course. Consequently, we cannot assert that one study is more valuable than another since value is something relative, depending upon specific situation. All we can say is that culture must be socially efficient to deserve the name of culture, that it is simply a halo of vocation, that usefulness is in utility rather than in enjoyment, and that a thing has value because it is useful.

Some Critical Reflections

A few observations. To say that one subject is as valuable as any other is to say that education has no determinable goal, i. e., that it is impossible to know just what the purpose of education really is. And this brings us to the subject of Professor Dewey’s criteria of the proper aims of education. These criteria would seem to apply to bad aims as well as to good ones—even where by bad aims we meant nothing more than aims which seem to interfere with “social efficiency.” These criteria would evidently be satisfied, for example, by a successful school for the training of thieves (on whatever financial or political level), gangsters, shysters, confidence men, and so on. The aims of such a school would presumably be founded on petty thievery as a persistent activity and need of the young; they would evidently enlist the cooperation of the pupils; and they would be specific and immediate rather than general and ultimate. In fact, such a school would aptly illustrate Professor Dewey’s definition of subject matter, viz, “what one needs to know in order to do what one is interested in doing.”

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It is right here that we see the fallacy of limiting the essentials of education to the essentials of scientific method, for education and life vastly transcend scientific thinking. Professor Dewey, although recognizing the legitimacy of remote ends and interests, shows a definite preference for the immediate ones. As a result the factors of duty and conscience never really enter into the picture of progressive education, proposing as it does only those aims which place no obligation on human nature. Yet there is no good reason, whether in logic or psychology, why remote and therefore more or less external aims, aims imposed as it were from without, cannot in fact represent truly human ideals, ideals which may become internal as the result of a change of attitude. In fact psychology and psychiatry are today reasserting an old truth to the effect that a stable personality depends to a considerable extent upon such things as obedience, the recognition of authority, and self-denial. An important criterion of educational aims, a criterion ignored by Dewey, is that it should embody an ideal whose fulfillment is willed. It is simply a matter of fact that conscious mental effort has proved an important factor in past progress; and to the objection that imagined good does not sufficiently influence conduct, the answer is that by the testimony of history it is certain that imagined evil does. Dewey’s conception of interest may fit the needs of backward children; it does not fit the realities in the world of adults.

In discussing the role of the public schools in America Professor Dewey appears to be somewhat at odds with himself. He admits that as a matter of history American society made the American public school; nevertheless he recommends that the public school be used as an instrument to reform American society. Here the truth seems to be that the schools, like the philosophers, like John Dewey himself, rarely do more than reflect social conditions and the social temper, and that they do not as a rule change them. The American public will probably continue to employ the schools for the purpose of propagating the type of society in which the adults believe. After all, the adults live where the economic, political, and other problems are; hence, if there is to be any reforming at all, adult society will have to begin by reforming itself. That the schools usually reflect the society which supports them can readily be learned by looking at Russia, where a transformed adult society quickly transformed the schools.

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Professor Dewey’s notion of learning by doing has, of course, its uses, and no one has ever denied this. But it also has its limitation. There is an old saying that only fools must learn by experience—the implication being, of course, that the wide awake pupil will be able to learn both from books and from the sad experience of others. Children need not experience crime in order to be effectively warned against it. Naturally, the burnt child dreads the fire, but that hardly warrants the burning. The learning process may start on the basis of physical activities, but that does not support the conclusion that it should be kept there. All depends upon the grade of intelligence; that is to say, the lower the grade of intelligence the more numerous the physical activities apparently necessary. Children doubtless begin some of their learning as the animals do; on the other hand, animals cannot learn as children learn, since otherwise we should be able to teach them mathematics, aesthetics, and morals. One of the most interesting features of Dewey’s theory of progressive education is the paradox that a person completely the product of this theory consistendy applied would be quite incapable of reading and understanding Dewey. If philosophy—at least in one of its important phases—may be defined as “the ultimate sense of the ridiculous,” Professor Dewey’s philosophy of education seems seriously lacking in at least one important respect.

Priority Problems

In refusing to recognize the genuineness of all problems not referable to the method of hypothesis and verification on the physical level Professor Dewey, of course, brushes aside all “purely intellectual problems.” The truth is, however, that such problems do in fact determine men’s conduct to an extent far greater than is commonly supposed. Take for example such a “purely intellectual” problem as that of survival after death. The question of survival is natural to man in spite of the fact that any hypothesis about it is necessarily speculative and inconclusive. Furthermore, it is regulative of human conduct since, obviously, people act as if it were true, or false, or a matter of indifference. To justify any one of these alternatives would call for a certain amount of thinking, thinking which in the nature of the case must always be incomplete. In other words, it is simply a fact of existence to be explained—not ignored—that man is inevitably philosophical, that he thinks about problems he can never completely solve, and that he acts upon beliefs he can never hope directly and completely to verify. One may argue, of course, that modern man ought not to trouble his mind with these things, but the fact remains that he not only does, but that he can’t very well do anything else and remain normal. And that is something to be explained, not simply condemned.

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Is pragmatism something new? William James once called it a “new name for an old way of thinking.” Certainly the only thing new about Professor Dewey’s brand of it is the success with which he gave ancient doctrines an American orientation. Its denial of finality to truth, its assertion of man as the measure of all things, its evolution, its naturalism, its denial of the legitimacy of metaphysics, its definition of knowledge as a tool for discovery, its humanism, and its skepticism are as old as, respectively, Heraclitus, Protagoras, Empedocles, Democritus, Lucretius, the mediaeval nominalist, Hume, Comte, and Herbert Spencer. Nevertheless, John Dewey’s influence upon primary and secondary education in America is not easily over-estimated. In Columbia University he left behind a minor galaxy of pragmatists in the school of philosophy, who in turn have fathered thousands of “pale spiritual offspring in the jungles of Teachers College” alone. And Teachers College, despite the fact that it has occasionally been ridiculed for standing politically and socially for little more than colorlessness, mediocrity, and just plain behaviorism, has exerted a tremendous influence upon the school teachers of the American Middle West, underpaid men and women who for years have willingly spent their summers in New York City for the privilege of drinking at this new fountain of progress.

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A Final Judgment

What must be our final judgment on John Dewey as the philosopher of the American public school? It would seem to be an elementary truth that before we can hope to invent a system, whether of politics or education, which will not in the end turn out to be thoroughly bad, we should be able to take for granted the existence of something like common decency. Now, moral earnestness without religious conviction is a bare possibility—at least with the select few who happen to be the beneficiaries of a moral momentum bequeathed by generations of devout forebears. But as a rule the passing of a religion marks the decline of the moral consciousness which it created and sustained. Professor Dewey seems to have taken for granted that the common decency he himself adhered to by reason of the aftershine of a Puritan ancestry could be regarded as a ubiquitous feature of human nature as the result of evolution. If so, his philosophy of education appears to rest upon a somewhat precarious faith, a thing not quite in keeping with his strenuous disavowal of metaphysics and his reverence for scientific method. And if, in view of the present religious and moral poverty in the homes, the schools, and increasingly large sections of the churches, American education will presently have only the principles of instrumentalism to fall back on, one wonders just how long we can last as a self-governing and civilized society. John Dewey is dead, but the dominant secular temper of contemporary America which he expressed is very much alive. John Dewey’s spirit “goes marching on”—who knows to what hard destiny?


Earthen Vessels

“For He knoweth our frame;

He remembereth that we are dust.”

The God who spoke to darkness

And bid it turn to light;

Set sun and moon in heaven

And made the day and night—

Is the Father who created

Man from the dust of earth;

Who breathed into him spirit—

Gave him eternal worth.

The God of our Lord Jesus,

Who sent Him as the Light

To fill the earthen vessel

And thus show forth His might—

Is the Potter who remodels

The creatures of His Hand

Until the Glow of heaven

Shines through, at His command.

This God of matchless Power

In earth and sea and sky;

Yet stoops to bear the burden

Of one so frail as I—

In His divine compassion

Takes my infirmity;

His Hand, I know, will perfect

Those things concerning me.


Cecil De Boer, late Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College, died suddenly on November 28, 1955. His latest writings recently have been published under the title Responsible Protestantism: Essays on the Christian’s Role in a Secular Society by Eerdmans. The essay above is an abridgment of a chapter from this volume, reprinted by permission.

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