The Tragedy of American Education: The Role of John Dewey

by Alberto M. Piedra  |  February 1, 2018  |  ARTICLES

"The process of secularization arises not from the loss of faith but from the loss of social interest in the world of faith. It begins the moment men feel that religion is irrelevant to the common way of life and that society as such has nothing to do with the truths of faith."

-Christopher H. Dawson, Religion and World History, A Selection from the Works of Christopher Dawson

The well-known American philosopher John Dewey was probably the most influential of all modern American educationalists whose tendencies towards socialization and secularism are quite apparent in all of his work. As Christopher Dawson, referring to Dewey, reminds us: "In his views our purpose for education is not the communication of knowledge but the sharing of social experience, so that the child shall become integrated into the democratic community. He believed that morals were essentially social and pragmatic and that any attempt to subordinate education to transcendent values or dogmas ought to be resisted."1 To such a nefarious degree was Dewey's stand for the socialization of education that he can be held responsible for "the establishment of the mass mind, or as he puts it: ‘The pooled intelligence' of the democratic mind."2

In many ways, Dewey was influenced by the French romantic writer (philosophe) Jean Jacques Rousseau, author of Emile ou de l'Education where he claims that education comes to us through three types of teachers or what he calls "maîtres:"3 1) from nature,  2) from listening to  contradictory lessons taught by false teachers, and 3) from experience.  Of these types of education, only the one acquired from nature brings up healthy and normal children. This is the only way to bring up well-educated men and women into the world.4  Far from avoiding that a child get hurt from falling, it would be a great mistake to let him grow without experiencing pain. He will learn from experience.5

In a similar way, John Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding offers an analysis of the human mind and the acquisition of knowledge. He maintains an empiricist theory according to which man acquires ideas through experience. That is why he is often regarded as the founder of a school of thought known as British Empiricism.6

The popular and much admired John Dewey, the principal figure in the Progressive Educational Movement in the United States, analyzed the human mind and the way human knowledge is acquired.  He offers an empiricist theory according to which ideas are acquired through experience.7 The theorists of this movement believe in an educational system that claims that both truth and knowledge are the result of observation and experience. Their ideas on education derive from a philosophy of pragmatism.  Their objective was and still is to change the fundamental approach to teaching and learning and contribute to the establishment and development of public schools in America. Is there a touch of socialization and government interference in the educational system proposed by Dewey? Personally, I believe the answer is a simple categorical YES.

Following Dewey, the progressive movement propagated the idea that, if teachers taught today as they taught in the past, we would rob them of tomorrow. For these prophets of education, the central ethical imperative was the concept and advocacy of democracy, the one and ultimate ethical ideal of humanity.8  I wonder how the great minds of Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and Cicero, not to mention the scholastics and other great scholars of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, would react to the reconstructive educational theories of the progressive education movement!

Just as Mme. Roland de la Platière, a Girondin, a firm supporter of the French Revolution and admirer of Voltaire, Montesquieu and Rousseau, cried out on her way to the guillotine:  "O Liberté, que de crimes on commit en ton nom"  (Liberty, Liberty, How many crimes are committed in your name), can it also be said in this turbulent 21st century: "Democracy, Democracy, how many crimes are committed in your name?"  Let us hope that contemporary society does not fall into the trap of believing in false gods, such as the much praised democratic system which, without a solid ethical foundation on Natural Law, can easily be corrupted and turned into a modern styled Reign of Terror. 

Some critics believed and still believe that under Dewey's educational system students would fail to acquire basic academic skills and knowledge. Others were fearful that classroom order and the teacher's authority would disappear. They probably constituted a minority at the time, but recent events seem to demonstrate that their concerns cannot be ignored. If society rejects or ignores the existence of an objective moral order and throws into the dustbin of history the concept of natural law, relativism takes its place and becomes the ethical norm of conduct in accordance with man's own personal experience and/or observations. If to these two factors we add the lack of respect and contempt for authority, we have created the formula for chaos and eventually a totalitarianism of the worst kind. Society cannot survive without order and respect for legitimate authority both at the government level and primarily at the family level where children are expected to be taught the difference between right and wrong.9 

The family is the centerpiece of a child's education, and the belief in the need for the pater familias cannot and should not be ignored.  He, together with his wife, the mother of his children, have the prime responsibility for the education of their children and should not put this crucial obligation in the hands of the school, whether private or public, much less in those of the State.

Universal education which makes for uniformity has now extended all over the word and, as Dawson reminds us: "behind the smokescreen of blue books and hand-books great forces are at work which have changed the lives and thoughts of men more effectively than the arbitrary power of dictators or the violence of political revolutions."10 He continues his analysis of universal State run education by warning his readers that "...once the State has accepted full responsibility for the education of the whole youth of the nation, it is obliged to extend its control further and further into new fields: to the physical welfare of its pupils - to their feeding and medical care - to their amusements and the use of their spare time - and finally to their moral welfare and their psychological guidance."11  This universal education will only serve to create a new Leviathan which embraces the entire field of culture, including all forms of educational institutions not excluding private nursery schools and universities.12 Given the disproportion in wealth between religious and other private institutions and the more powerful modern state, the former ones are prone to face a serious financial and academic (curricula determination) crisis in the near future. 

There is no doubt in my mind that Christian educationalists, aware of the tremendous gap which separates them from the forces that rule the world today, have to deal with ideologies which treat vital spiritual and cultural issues as lying outside their sphere of competence. This is the great challenge facing Christian educationalists in this secular world of ours. 

Let me conclude this brief article with a note of optimism, quoted from the wise British scholar Christopher Dawson:

"So long as the Christian tradition of higher education still exists, the victory of secularism even in a modern technological society is not complete. There is still a voice to bear witness to the existence of the forgotten world of spiritual reality in which man has his true being."13


1. Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Civilization, Washington, D.C., 1961.  pp. 62-63.

2. Ibid., p. 63.

3. "Cette éducation nous vient de la nature, ou des hommes ou des choses. Le développement interne de nos facultés et de nos organes est l'éducation de la nature ; l'usage qu'on nous apprend à faire de ce développement est l'éducation des hommes ; et l'acquis de notre propre expérience sur les objets qui nous affectent est l'éducation des choses."  Jean Jacqess Rousseau, Emile ou de l'Education, Paris, Garnier-Flammarion, 1966.  p.37.

4. " ces trois educations differentes, celle de la nature ne depend point de nous..."  Ibid., p.37.

5. "Loin d'être attentif à éviter qu'Émile ne se blesse, je serais fort fâché qu'il ne se blessât jamais, et qu'il grandît sans connaître la douleur. Souffrir est la première chose qu'il doit apprendre, et celle qu'il aura le plus grand besoin de savoir." Rousseau, Emile, op., cit., p. 90.

6. For a better understanding of John Locke's theory on government see: John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, Hacket Publishing Company, Inc. Indianapolis, Cambridge, 1980.

7. According to Dewey, the purpose of education is not the communication of knowledge but the sharing of social experience so that children become integrated into the democratic community. 

8. For a different perspective on Dewey, see: Robert B. Westbrook, John Dewey and American Democracy, Cornell University Press, 1991.

9. It is true that authority was often abused in the past both at the State level and under the banner of religion. The greatest gift given to man by God: LIBERTY was simply overlooked.  Lord Acton said years ago: "Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely." This statement makes no exceptions.  It applies to both civil and religious authorities, as history has given us ample proof.

10. Christopher Dawson, op. cit., p.77.

11. Dawson, op.cit,. p.78.

12. For a better understanding of the role of universities in this contemporary world of ours, see John Henry Cardinal Newman, The  Idea of a University, Yale University, 1996.  Originally published by Longman Green, London, 1899.

13. Dawson, op.cit. p. 157.