John Dewey Was Wrong

Nineteenth century saw a dazzling advancement of theoretical and experimental physics and its unprecedented impact on technology. From the improvement of engines at the beginning to the invention of radio at the end of the century, physics became the envy of all scholarly disciplines. Auguste Comte, a French philosopher, dreamed of a science of society, a “social physics,” and invented sociology. Wilhem Wundt, a German philosopher, hankered after a science of the mind and invented psychology.

Education was not immune from the “physics bug” and many philosophers and philosophers-turned-psychologists of late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries became educators, each claiming that their educational philosophy were based on “science.” The common feature of these philosophies was the emphasis on the interest of the student in learning, and the degree to which this was emphasized depended on the sociopolitical view of the inventor of the philosophy.

The general topic of the role of philosophy and politics in education is not the focus of this post. Here, I am concentrating on one “school” of philosophy that was dominant in the US and was influential in shaping the American education then and for years to come.

Pragmatism in American Education

John Dewey is arguably the most influential American educator. Virtually all current philosophies of education practiced in America have been influenced by Dewey and his philosophy of pragmatism. Charles Sanders Peirce is accredited with founding this philosophy, the essence of which he has summarized in his maxim: “Consider the practical effects of the objects of your conception. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object.” In other words, the practical effects of a thought are the thought. Dewey paraphrased this maxim in his theory of education: “The value of any theory as bearing on human activity is determined by practical application. If it [does not have any practical application] it is practically useless, no matter what claims may be theoretically urged on its behalf.” (see here, page 195)

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