John Dewey and the Decline of American Education

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John Dewey and the Decline of American Education by Henry T. Edmondson III Intercollegiate Studies Institute * 2006 * 200 pages * $25.00

Reviewed by Terry Stoops

Henry Edmondson describes his book John Dewey and the Decline of American Education as "a simple exegesis of Dewey's writing, with commentary suggesting how his thought finds expression in contemporary American education." He reminds us that ideas have consequences, and Dewey's ideas have had disastrous consequences for American education over the past 50 years.

Anyone who attempts to write about John Dewey's ideas is immediately presented with two problems. The first is selecting works from the vast corpus of writing by and about Dewey. Tlte Collected Works of John Dewey covers 71 years of Dewey's writing in a mere 37 volumes, while the Library of Congress lists 375 books written about Dewey alone. Edmondson, who teaches political science at Georgia College and State University, focuses on four of Dewey's major works, Democracy and Education, Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology, Schools of Tomorrow, and Experience and Education. He also draws from a number of Dewey's other major works in educational philosophy, political and social philosophy, and ethics, as well as a wide range of secondary source material. Overall, Edmondson's coverage of Dewey's thought is excellent.

The second problem is Dewey's awful prose and ambiguous ideas. Even William James and Oliver Wendell Holmes, both admiring colleagues in the famed Metaphysical Club, recognized that Dewey's writing was often vague and confusing. Although Edmondson agrees that Dewey was an abysmal communicator, he argues that readers can overcome Dewey's lack of clarity by recognizing that he "subordinates his philosophy to his [progressive] politics." Using that approach, Edmonson is able to provide a succinct overview of Dewey's ideas without being weighed down by his writing.

Throughout the book, Edmonson highlights Dewey's disdain for religion, tradition, and inherited values. Dewey claimed that such beliefs are at least signs of unintelligent thinking and, at worst, outright oppression by the wealthy and powerful. Philosophically, Dewey argued that, because human nature is always in flux, fixed values and beliefs are inimical to progress. Consequently, he declared that schools should no longer be a venue for teaching traditional religious and moral values. Instead, Dewey believed that schools should be places where the child's impulse and whim rule-insofar as those impulses and whims are consistent with the values of Progressivism.

Dewey did not, however, contend that schools should be places of uninhibited activity, as many unfamiliar with his work believe. Edmondson points out that Dewey was a man blinded by his desire to see schools as the means to implement a comprehensive program of progressive social change. …