Undoing John Dewey’s Impact on American Public Education

By Mark J. Koscak

He is known as the father of progressive education, a renowned philosopher, a genius, an intellectual giant, the co-founder of the ACLU and the NAACP, an evolutionist, a humanist, a communist, an atheist, and a fierce enemy of Christ. Who is he? His name is John Dewey.

John Dewey (1859-1952) began a movement that transformed the American educational landscape. Dewey shared the theory behind this movement in an essay he wrote in 1898 titled The Primary Education Fetish. The foundation of his thinking was the theory of evolution, and he exalted this argument to a new loftier level by applying evolution to education. For his movement to be successful, the traditional Christ-centered education of the time needed to be discarded.

Using Schools to Reconstruct Society

Dewey’s movement had a new vision for schools. He wanted to use schools as instruments for the reconstruction of society. Dewey didn’t want to educate children to think for themselves: “Children who know how to think for themselves spoil the harmony of the collective society which is coming where everyone is interdependent.”1 His vision veered dramatically from the traditional Christ-centered approach to education.

Teacher David Vaillancourt explains that Dewey’s plan “rejected the classics, any emphasis on rhetoric and logic, or rote memorization. Instead, the pragmatist Dewey valued experience over facts, logic, or debate.”2 Dewey’s vision is also captured by historian and theologian Rousas Rushdoony in his book The Messianic Character of American Education. Rushdoony says, “Dewey believed you learned through your senses and you learned by doing. Thus, the past has no value. He couldn’t see a need for the study of history, Latin, Greek, or even English. By fostering the idea that all education should rest on experience, he minimized the significance of book learning.”

A Dramatic Change in Direction

Dewey recognized that “change must come gradually. To force it unduly would compromise its final success by favoring a violent reaction.”3 Samuel Blumenfeld and Alex Newman discuss this quote in their book Crimes of the Educators: “In other words, deception would have to be used in order for this long-range, complex plan to be successfully implemented.”

Vaillancourt shares that Dewey believed “the key element that held the entire existing system together was high literacy. It gives the individual the means to seek knowledge independently, to question the status quo and to exercise one’s own judgment. Literacy allows us to think for ourselves.” Blumenfeld and Newman also share, “Dewey stated that the only way to undermine the capitalist system was to get rid of the emphasis primary schools placed on the development of high literacy and independent intelligence.” According to Dewey, “It is one of the great mistakes of education to make reading and writing constitute the bulk of the school work the first two years.”4

Dewey also believed the role for teachers should change: rather than teach a body of knowledge, the teacher should help the child learn by experience and learn alongside the child. This was a great contrast to the previous approach where teachers were the experts.

Dewey’s direction was based on using government schools; minimizing the role of parents (because they might teach things like religion); changing the role of teachers to facilitators; de-emphasizing Latin, the classics, the three Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic), western history, and history in general (including the study of the Constitution and capitalism); and providing a secular environment. The end product was designed to prepare students to be good citizens in a socialist society (students who don’t read very well or think very well for themselves).

Dewey’s Success

John Dewey began discarding traditional Christian curriculum on an extensive scale, and his vision has been successfully implemented throughout the country. Numerous reports and books document the success of the Dewey agenda and the ensuing downward trends. The 1983 government report, A Nation at Risk, and the previously mentioned book, Crimes of the Educators, are just two examples that do an excellent job of documenting plummeting literacy and SAT scores and the general statistical decline of education across the nation.

Additionally, a regular review of the news demonstrates the impact to our country of this slow but increasingly steady direction in education. Recent topics include the emergence of a credible socialist candidate for President, the Reason-Rupe poll showing that 58% of college-age Americans have a favorable view of socialism,5 and the trend at universities to implement new civics courses that teach students that a good citizen is a radical activist as contrasted with the old civics classes that taught the foundations of law, liberty, and self-government.6

To say that Dewey has impacted our culture is an understatement. We may not agree with his philosophy, but we must give credit where credit is due: John Dewey’s vision transformed the American educational landscape. The result of his vision for our culture and country is overwhelming, and it begs the question, “How do we undo the damage that Dewey has wrought?” How do we get back to:

  • a Christ-centered education that provides students with a biblical worldview?
  • giving the responsibility to educate our children back to the parents?
  • teachers that model Christianity and teach a Bible-based curriculum that holds Christ as the center of all things?
  • an education that recognizes the six days of creation while examining the theory of evolution?
  • teaching children to think for themselves?
  • an emphasis on literacy and the three Rs during the early school years?
  • striving for excellence and a love of learning versus citizenship?

Undoing Dewey One Student at a Time

One way to undo Dewey’s impact is to help parents make an intentional and informed decision regarding the education of their children. Too many parents follow the world’s way without the intentional pursuit of godly wisdom to make this decision. Parents should use prayer, Bible study, biblical counsel, and a strong desire to teach children the fear of the Lord to help them review the educational options available. The research will not only uncover the option of state education that denies God but will also reveal a rich variety of answers that honor God and restore many of the aspects of education that were lost in the implementation of Dewey’s vision. Options include homeschool, Christian school, university model school, educational co-ops, and more. Who can you encourage to make a prayerfully informed and intentional educational decision for their children?

Undoing Dewey Through Christian Education Ministries

Another way to undo Dewey is to support and promote Christian education ministries. Inspire your pastor and church to embrace their local Christian schools and homeschools and encourage the families who choose these forms of K-12 education. Start or assist groups that are reaching public school students through Christian clubs and Christian after-school programs. Join the cause of Renewanation whose vision is “to see culture transformed by giving millions of children a biblical worldview.” There are numerous ways to partner with ministries that are on the front lines in the battle for the hearts and minds of our children. Discover more at renewanation.org.


Mark Koscak is Director of Development at Providence Academy in Johnson City, TN. Mark spent 20 years in the business world in various leadership positions before he was called full-time to raise funds for Providence Academy. He is also the creator and director of the Christian Storytelling Festival (christianstorytellingfestival.com), a scholarship fundraiser that edifies the Christian community through story and song and has included guest artists Stephen McDowell, The Isaacs, Steven Curtis Chapman, and more. Mark is married to Beth, and they have two children.


This article originally appeared in The Renewanation Review® magazine. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted here by permission of Renewanation. For more information regarding Renewanation, visit renewanation.org.


FOOTNOTES

1. Ellis Washington, “John Dewey’s Dunces,” WND.com, last modified January 25, 2013, http://www.wnd.com/2013/01/john-deweys-dunces.
2. David Vaillancourt, “The Dewey Deception,” The Middle Road, last modified February 18, 2016, https://drvcourt.com/2016/02/18/the-dewey-deception.
3. John Dewey, The Primary Education Fetish (1898), 315-328.
4. John Dewey, The University School (University of Chicago Press, 1896), 128.
5. Emily Ekins, “Poll: Americans Like Free Markets More than Capitalism and Socialism More Than a Govt Managed Economy,” Reason.com, last modified February 12, 2015, http://reason.com/poll/2015/02/12/poll-americans-like-free-markets-more-th.
6. Colleen Flaherty, “Report Warns of ‘New Civics,’ Seeks Requirement,” Insidehighered.com, last modified January 11, 2017, https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2017/01/11/report-warns-new-civics-seeks-requirement.