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John Dewey and the Education of America

12:00 AM, Jun 14, 1999 • By WILFRED M. MCCLAY
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The name of John Dewey generally evokes hissing from conservative intellectuals. But there is at least one way in which even they ought to find his example admirable. Dewey was easily the most prominent American philosopher of his time, and over the course of an enormously long life -- from 1859 to 1952 -- he showed a breadth of interest, a seriousness, and a systematic thrust that reminds us of a time when philosophy was something more than the arid pastime of jargonmongers or the handmaiden of identity politics. One can hardly think of a subject, whether in technical philosophy or workaday politics, on which Dewey did not weigh in during his long, productive career.

The huge resulting body of work brought him a good deal of veneration in the years before his death. His championing of scientific naturalism, educational reform, activist government, civil liberties, academic freedom, and democratic socialism led the New York Times to enthrone the grandfatherly Dewey as "America's Philosopher." The University of Paris, in conferring an honorary degree, extolled him as "the most profound and complete expression of the American genius." The historian Henry Steele Commager gushed that Dewey was "the guide, the mentor, and the conscience of the American people," adding, "it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that for a generation no major issue was clarified until Dewey had spoken."

Of course, such testimony is open to question -- if only because it remains uncertain how well those who poured honors upon Dewey actually understood him. The nub of the problem is the philosopher's legendary prose, an ever-babbling brook of abstract, bureaucratic, latinate words. Dewey seems to have had a positive dislike of metaphors, images, stories, and concrete examples, and his relentlessly bland and textureless verbiage quickly loses even the most determined reader. All too often, he expends fifty stilted and color less words to say -- well, what exactly he is saying remains the question.

Consider this characteristic sentence from 1931:

Wherever purposes are employed deliberately and systematically for the sake of certain desired social results, there it is possible, within limits, to determine the connection between the human factor and the actual occurrence, and thus to get a complete social fact, namely, the actual external occurrence in its human relationships.

Is Dewey here saying something incredibly complex -- or something of almost tautological simplicity?

Or consider this from 1916:

Social efficiency is attained not by negative constraint but by positive use of native individual capacities in occupations having a social meaning. Is this an argument for romantic schooling -- or the truism that people work better in jobs they like?

Among Dewey's admirers nowadays, it is a common complaint that both his acolytes and his critics have oversimplified and misconstrued this heir of the distinctly American tradition of philosophical pragmatism, the third in the triumvirate of great American philosophers with Charles Sanders Peirce and William James.

But it's worth asking why the misreadings of Dewey, both those of the progressive followers who worshipped him and those of the conservative opponents who despised him, are more interesting than the truisms that may have been his actual intent. To read page after murky page in the two volumes of The Essential Dewey recently edited by Larry Hickman and Thomas M. Alexander -- and to consider the philosopher's influence on American socialism, secular humanism, epistemological uncertainty, and permissive anti-traditional education -- is to be forced to a single conclusion: An author who is pervasively misunderstood and misused has probably not really been misunderstood and misused. An aesthetically wanting style of writing that lends itself to constant misinterpretation must reflect at last the deep and disturbing intellectual intention of its creator.

Dewey was born two years before the Civil War, the son of a storekeeper in Burlington, Vermont. Burlington was not merely a bucolic American small town, but a growing city, with all the typical dislocations and social problems. The tension between the fading rural life of America and emerging industrialization -- and the hope of finding ways to reconstruct the essential elements of community in the impersonality of the machine age -- became central concerns in Dewey's social and political thought.