John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism

Alan Ryan
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995
414 pp., $30.00 hc

Henry Gonshak
Montana Tech-UM

When John Dewey died in 1952 at the ripe old age of 92, he was widely acknowledged (even by some conservatives who loathed his ideas) as the most important American philosopher and public intellectual of the twentieth century. Although saddled by a turgid prose style and comparably colorless personality, for over half a century Dewey enjoyed the status of national sage (How quaint the phrase sounds today). He pioneered a system of progressive education that revolutionized the country's public educational system-, was, along with William James, the leading proponent of the American philosophical school of pragmatism; articulated a politics of democratic socialism that rejected both communism and laissez-faire capitalism; and participated in some way in most of the major social and political events of the day, thus serving as a model of a figure his own writing touted, "the engaged intellectual."

After his death, however, Dewey's influence waned. Starting in the late '50s, conservative intellectuals began blaming Dewey for almost everything wrong with modem American culture: an educational system that supplanted a traditional content-based curriculum with touchy-feely notions about the value of raising student "self-esteem"; moral relativism that sneered at religion and absolute standards of good and evil; big government that shackled the free market and the venerable American ethos of rugged individualism. In the '90s, however, Dewey's reputation has resurged, at least in academic circles, in good part due to the near concurrent publication of two acclaimed, largely laudatory biographies: Robert Westbrook's John Dewey and American Democracy (1991), and Steven Rockefeller's John Dewey (1991). Now British-born Princeton professor Alan Ryan has added a third volume to this growing collection of pro-Dewey works with his problematic but valuable John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism.

The major problem with Ryan's book is that it is neither an intellectual biography nor a strictly critical study of Deweyan thought, containing too few details about Dewey's life to be properly labeled biography, but too many to qualify as a work of pure criticism. This reviewer wishes Ryan had tilted in favor of biography. Frankly, I tended to flag when wading through Ryan's extended critiques of Deweyan ethics, aesthetics and metaphysics, only to revive each time the author discussed how Dewey applied his ideas to the task posed by a specific social or political activity--e.g., chairing the commission of inquiry that judged the validity of the charges leveled against Trotsky during the Moscow show trials, or trying unsuccessfully to form a third national political party.

In skimming over the main events of Dewey's life, Ryan provides lamentably sketchy portraits of figures who clearly played key roles in the evolution of Dewey's character and thought: in particular, his mother, whose fervent Congregationalist faith ironically may have led to her son's later agnosticism and marked hostility toward institutionalized Christianity, and his first wife, a bright, ambitious, politically progressive woman who directed the Laboratory School at the University of Chicago (which put Dewey's educational theories into practice).

Ryan might have been wise to follow, at least to some degree, the vastly different approach taken in Mary V. Dearborn's well-received Love in the Promised Land: The Story of Anna Yezierska and John Dewey (I988), which describes Dewey's passionate (though perhaps unconsummated) affair with a Russian Jewish immigrant who authored melodramatic novels about immigrant life--an affair to which Ryan devotes all of one paragraph. The mere fact that Dearborn was able to turn this odd romance into a full-length work is proof that Dewey was not quite the bloodless figure found in Ryan's book.

This imbalance aside, Ryan does provide an accessible, detailed study of Dewey's major ideas as expressed in such works as Democracy and Education (1916), The Quest for Certainty (1929), The Public and Its Problems (1927), and Art as Experience (1934). However, Ryan's analysis of Dewey's thinking is marred by one serious flaw. In the preface, Ryan states that he sees Dewey's views as highly relevant to contemporary America; he goes on to draw intriguing historical parallels between the problems rife in the 1890s, when Dewey came of age, and those plaguing the 1990s (e.g., decaying inner cities, explosive class conflicts, endemic political corruption, large influxes of poor, uneducated immigrants). But Ryan fails to fully apply Dewey's ideas to modem-day America in order to discover what, if any, solutions his thinking might offer to contemporary dilemmas. Where might Dewey stand on the furor over "political correctness" and other current academic controversies? Is his brand of democratic socialism relevant to contemporary American politics? Save for an occasional hasty aside, Ryan never addresses these and related questions.

Nonetheless, Ryan's analysis of Dewey's ideas is sufficiently thorough that the reader can speculate as to how Dewey might have approached today's academic disputes. Dewey's public feud in the 1930s with the young, flamboyant president of the University of Chicago, Robert Hutchins--a dispute sparked by Dewey's negative review of Hutchins' book The Higher Education in America (1936)--uncannily parallels the current debate between the academic left and right over liberal arts curricula in contemporary American universities. Along with Mortimer Adler, Hutchins was the creator of the Great Books program at the University of Chicago, a program which would later include among its faculty such conservative academic worthies as Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom. In an argument foreshadowing the thesis of Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987), Hutchins maintained that the principal function of higher education was to imbue a select group of intellectually superior students with the great truths of Western culture. His book bluntly concluded: "Education implies teaching. Teaching implies knowledge. Knowledge implies truth. The truth is everywhere the same. Hence education is everywhere the same" (279).

This formulation challenged everything Dewey believed as a philosopher and educator. In his typically sober, reasoned defense of "progressive education," he offered the following negative characterization of Hutchins' traditional pedagogy:

The main...objective is to prepare the young for future responsibilities and for success in life by means of acquisition of organized bodies of information and prepared forms of skill.... Since the subject matter as well as standards of conduct are handed down from the past, the attitude of the pupils one of docility, receptivity and obedience. Books, especially textbooks, are the chief representatives of the...wisdom of the past, while teachers are the organs through which pupils are brought into effective contact with the material. (282)

Regarding the "wisdom of the past," Dewey agreed with Hutchins that students should study the history of Western culture. But, unlike Hutchins, he felt that such study was less important for its own sake, than as a means for students to acquire practical knowledge that would help them meet present-day challenges. If knowledge of the past wasn't useful (in the broadest sense of the word), Dewey saw little reason to study it. Concerning Hutchins' belief in "universal truths," the underlying principle of Dewey's pragmatic philosophy was that truths, values, morals are never transcultural or transhistorical, but, instead, must be studied and evaluated in the contexts of the particular historical, social and political situations in which they arise. Naturally, some books and ideas are better than others, but none can legitimately claim the status of Universal Truth. Finally, Hutchins' traditional pedagogy, as Dewey shrewdly observed, renders both teachers and students essentially passive, since the teacher is a mere conduit for "truth," which the student then inertly receives. Such passivity is totally opposed to Dewey's own educational model, which stresses active, participatory learning. (Dewey, e.g., supported vocational education not because he believed in training students to be the slaves of industry, but because he thought such education taught children how to actively work with others for a common good.) Most important, Dewey saw progressive education as teaching students to be informed participants in a well-functioning democracy, resisting threats to democratic freedoms posed by political and corporate monopolies, aware of the importance of intellectual independence and individual rights, but also understanding that rights engender responsibilities to the community at large.

To my mind, turgid prose notwithstanding, Dewey won the debate with Hutchins. In applying their dispute to the contemporary academic scene, I'm not implying that if Dewey were around today he'd be fanatically pro-P.C. Nor am I suggesting that Dewey's ideas on education are beyond criticism; on the contrary, the fact that Dewey's educational writings rarely contain specific proposals about lesson plans or texts is a real problem. On the other hand, Dewey's likely rebuttal to "The Great Books" crowd--i.e., in sum, that their agenda is covertly anti-democratic--seems more persuasive than almost anything currently being argued by the academic left.

Dewey's ideas also may illuminate such current crazes in educational reform as "distance learning." After all, a "virtual classroom," in which teachers and students are isolated at individual computer terminals, destroys the idea of classroom-as-democratic-microcosm at the heart of Deweyan education. And it's easy to imagine what Dewey would say about an approach to education being pushed exclusively by corporations, administrators and politicians--the very representatives of the status quo that Dewey's populist pedagogy trains students to question and resist.

Contents | Home