John Dewey, Evolution and Socialization

Dear Reader,

I recently ran across John Dewey’s Experience & Education (New York: Collier, 1971; first pub. 1938) at a used book store. Having read a lot about Dewey’s ideas, I felt I owed it to him to actually read his own words. It helped that the book was cheap and very thin 😉

If you are unfamiliar with the name, John Dewey is pretty much THE architect of the modern American school system. If you had to pick one person who had the greatest infuence on public education in the 20th century in the United States, it would be Dewey. As such, he is often the whipping boy for those advocating for a different way of going about things. I once did a post with brief blurbs on (secular) educational thinkers; this is what I had for Dewey:

John Dewey (1859-1952):

  • Who he was: arguably the most influential American educationalist; contributed greatly to the professionalization of the teaching profession

  • Educational ideas: purpose is not to convey knowledge but to share a social experience and integrate the child into democratic ideas; higher education for all social classes; education serves democracy which is almost a spiritual community; children participate in their own learning, but he is not entirely child-led; material should be presented in a way that allows the student to relate it to previous knowledge; education should not be a one-way street from teacher to pupils

  • What he believed: morals are social and pragmatic; secular idealism; democracy is almost a religion with him; no transcendence, i.e. there is no super-natural

Having now read some of Dewey’s own words, there is nothing here I would retract but I do think I have a better feel for the ideas and thoughts behind his philosophy.

Experience & Education is a slim volume but it also came fairly late in Dewey’s career so I hope that it is a representative and fairly well-worked out presentation of his thoughts. In some ways it is not a hard read — the chapters are short, he makes clear what he is trying to do in each one — but in other ways it is hard. The main difficulty lies in how foreign his words and ideas are to my own. It’s a bit like reading Charlotte Mason‘s own words; you need to start by having some idea of what she thinks before actually diving in.

In this book Dewey advocates for progressive as opposed to traditional education. What to Dewey was “traditional education” sounds a lot like modern classical education today (p. 6). It involves a teacher conveying a set body of information to a class of students (p. 17).  The emphasis is on the body of knowledge which is independent of the learner. While this approach rests on the assumption that there is an absolute truth to be known, it is very un-individualistic and does not take the unique learner into account.

Progressive education, of which Dewey is a partisan, is progressive in  the sense of being the new, going thing of his day but also in the sense that it relies upon a particular view of progress. In the very first sentence of the book, he tells us:

“All social movements involve conflicts which are reflected intellectually in controversies. It would not be a sign of health if such an important social interest as education were not also an arena of struggles, practical and theoretical.” (p. 5)

Do you have bells ringing in your head? I certainly did when I first read this sentence. The first word I thought of was “Marxism” — a politcal philosophy which assumes conflict as the root of everything — and the second was “evolution” [1]. Indeed Dewey, in the early 1900s, comes right on the heels of the revolution that Darwin’s theory of evolution engendered in society. It was a time when evolution became not just a way of explaining the various forms of life on earth but a way of evaluating and thinking about all aspects of life in our world.

Just as in the theory of evolution, a creature reacts to its environment, so in Dewey’s philosophy of education, the student reacts and responds to his environment. Education is a process, a kind of evolution of the individual. The body of knowledge conveyed is not important — Dewey here barely touches upon such things — but the experiences of the student are. It is a much more individual kind of education.

Dewey’s immediate object in Experience & Education is not to argue for progressive education against the traditonal model but to make the case for a better, more thought-out and less reactionary model of progressive education. To this end he spends some time discussing what experience is and how it should be pursued within the realm of education.

Not all experience is good. Some, Dewey tells us, is “mis-educative” (p. 25). That is, it does not further the ultimate goal. This raises the question: What is the goal of education, and of life? For Dewey the keyword is growth. Experience that is mis-educative does not tend toward growth. The purpose in having these educative experiences is to have . . . more educative experiences. This is the “progress” in his progressive approach. It is a never-ending process of moving from one experience to another. In Dewey’s philosophy, as in many others, the child can only know that of which he has some prior knowledge. There is over time a pushing forward but it is always by connection to what is already known (though Dewey would say “experienced,” rarther than “known”). A good experience, then, is one which leads to more experiences. It opens one up to more rather than shutting down the process. And this is key: there is a process which may be called growth or progress which feeds upon itself and the ultimate goal is to keep this process going though it has no clear end. There is no point at which one may say “It is done.” Here again we see evolutionary thinking: there is an ever-changingness which moves in a way we call “forward” though there is no end to the process and no way to evaluate what it produces other than to say whatever keeps the process going is “good.”

One might think that as there is a perpetual process in motion that this would tend toward a very hands-off approach to education but this is not the case. For Dewey does believe that the process can be derailed. The job of the teacher is to keep the process going by selecting experiences for her pupils which are both interesting and growth-producing. This is quite the task and it is not hard to see how it leads to the need for a class of professional, trained teachers. The teacher begins by discovering what experiences her pupils have already had and then she must discern the best ways to build upon these experiences by providing more of the same, connected to what has come before and yet producing growth. Though she has a class of students, yet there is a lot of concern for the individual as each student should be interested and challenged so that in the end there is “a higher quality experience” for “the greater number” (p. 34).  The teacher’s chief qualification is that she is further along in the process than her students, she has had more experiences, and so she is able to craft experiences for them.

And how do these quality exeperiences shape the student and produce growth? Through the interaction between the student and his environment, the interplay of the internal and the external. Here again we see evolutionary ideas: the individual interacts with and is changed by his environment. This change comes because there is always some sort of problem or conflict that must be dealt with. Again, as Darwin’s theory of evolution, progress is built upon struggle.

There are a couple more threads of thought we can see within Dewey’s philosophy. It has a link to behaviorism in that the child is shaped through the actions of the teacher in manipulating his environment and experience. It also relies heavily on the scientifc method [2]  which is adapted and applied to the education of the individual (p. 88).

One might from these two get the impression Dewey’s teachers are experimenting on the children. I don’t want to paint too strong a picture, however. The children are not mere pawns in a system here. In the end what Dewey desires for them is freedom by which he means the freedom to do as they choose, “to execute or carry into effect purposes” which he calls “self-control” (p. 67). Any action, he tells us, begins with an impulse or desire. But is it not enough to have a desire to do something, one must make a plan, and for it to be a successful plan, it must be built upon accurate observations of one’s situation and good judgments. The teacher again is very involved. She does does create or judge the merit of the initial impulse but when there is a desire, she guides the students in the process of learning to observe and to form a plan. This is the challenge or problem, the new experience which will lead to growth. Ideally, it is a cooperative experience in that a group of students works on a problem together. Thus one more key point of Dewey’s philosophy is that it is a social enterprise. Though much has been said about the individual, the work is ultimately social and the benefit is not just to the individual but to the society as a whole which, one presumes, is also growing and evolving.

In summary, let us note a few key ideas behind Dewey’s philosophy:

  • It is based upon evolutionary thinking which assumes that “progress” comes through the interaction of the individual with his environment. This interaction produces a kind of conflict or problem which must be resovled. With each success there is forward motion or growth so that life becomes a series of experiences or conflicts which are resolved. Though the words progress and growth as used to describe the motion inherent in this process, there is no definable end. No absolute good or ideal toward which it is all working.
  • The role of the teacher is elevated as it is she who guides the process. Thus Dewey’s philosophy led to the idea, so often assumed in our society today, that in order to teach one much have special skills and training.
  • Knowledge as such is scarcely mentioned. The goal of education is not knowledge but what Dewey calls “self-control” which is not the ability to control oneself but the ability to realize one’s desires (without ever questioning the validity of those desires) by manipulating one’s environment.
  • Though Dewey says that, as the scientific method is alway testing hypotheses, that ideas are very important in his philosophy, yet truth is not. Ideas are perhaps always being played with but there is no standard they are held up to and no absolute truth outside of the process or towards which it leads.
  • Dewey’s approach is entirely materialistic. It does not acknowledge the spiritual or even the intellectual.
  • Though its driving force is conflict, yet Dewey’s aproach does not acknowledge the great conflict of human experience which is sin. It assumes that every person in the right circumstances, given the right experiences, will achieve that forward motion which he terms growth. Nor does he (at least in this thin book)  address what happens when two people have competing desires.
  • As a homeschooler, I feel bound to point out as well that the idea that one goal of schooling is socialization can be traced right back to Dewey. Education is a social project. It is not about truth or knowledge nor it is about the development of the individual as such but it is about the forward motion of the whole system in which the individual plays a part, like a cog in a machine, so that there is the greatest “good” for the greatest number of people.

As Christians, we would agree with none of Dewey’s underlying assumptions and we must therefore wholly reject his philosophy of education. And yet it is very useful for us to be familar with it. Not only has it dominated American public education for about a century, its base ideas have so infiltrated our thinking that we are often unaware that we even hold his assumptions as our own.

Because I have been so entirely negative, I will close with a quote from Dewey that I rather like. Though we begin fron different places — he from an utterly godless world — yet he was clearly a brilliant man who expressed himself well and it should perhaps not surprise us that he did, by God’s grace, say a few insightful things along the way:


“Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns  only the particular thing he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of likes and dislikes, may be and often is much more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned. For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future. The most important attitude that can be formed is that of the desire to go on learning.” 

(p. 48)


[1] I normally specify “Darwinian evolution” since, thanks to Benjamin Wiker, I am aware that there could be other ways of viewing evolution. In this article, for the sake of brevity, I will stick to evolution to indicate Darwinian evolution which relies upon conflict as its motivating force.

[2] See my posts on Hicks’ Norms and Noblity and Taylor’s Poetic Knowledge for modern critiques of the tendency to apply the scientific method to all areas of knowledge.  Both speak from the perspective of classical education, that which Dewey rejects.

8 responses to this post.

  1. […] of Darwin’s theory of evolution in other areas beyond science. Take, for instance, education. As I wrote recently, John Dewey’s very influential, pragmatic approach to education rests heavily on evolutionary […]


  2. […] progressive education, John Dewey, while no classicist, believed essentially the same thing (see this post). Education is what makes us fit members of society. Dewey’s approach is progressive in that […]


  3. […] and not evil (Wilson, p. 47). The problem, they would say, with the modern progressive methods of Dewey and the like are that they have cut us off from the great conversation of the past. If we return to […]


  4. […] whether it be the society as a whole or the church. The modern American public school, based on the ideas of John Dewey, has a social approach. But there are also Christian approaches which verge on the […]


  5. […] American public schools are based on ideas which arise out of an ungodly, evolutionary mindset. (John Dewey, Evolution and Socialization; Evolution is a Mindset; Education and the Source of […]


  6. […] John Dewey comes to mind. His ideas about education were based on his evolutionary views. What was believed to […]


  7. […] known as the father of the modern American school system. I have reviewed his ideas previously in this post and this one. One of the things we noted when we looked at Dewey was that his ideas come very much […]


  8. […] Dewey (I have discussed Dewey a lot — see especially this post and this […]


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