This article was developed as a proposal for a Ph. D. thesis at the Faculty of Education, McGill University. It was published in Discourse, The St. Lawrence Institute, Winter, 1994.
In 1975 I published an article entitled “Some Reflections on Canadian Education” in the History and Social Science Teacher. I argued then that Canada had never produced an indigenous philosophy of education but had accepted imported ideas, first from Europe and later from the United States.
I pointed out that, by the late nineteenth century, the classical curriculum of the British grammar school, imported in the early years of colonial North America, gave way to the ideas of European social revolutionaries like Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Herbart and Froebels. These philosophers changed our perception of the school’s purpose, slowly eroding the traditional concentration on formal literacy and the acquisition of knowledge, and giving way to an increasing concern with the methods of teaching and the interests of the child.
The influence of the continental Europeans was soon complemented by John Dewey, the American philosopher who probably had the greatest single influence on Canadian education in the twentieth century. The renowned American philosopher led a long and prolific life as a writer, teacher and political activist. Dewey launched a frontal assault on the traditional school beginning with the publication of his persuasive dual treatise The School and Society and The Child and the Curriculum in 1899 and 1902. Dewey’s major work Democracy and Education (1916) had a Promethean effect on educational theory and practice around the world.
As far as I know, Dewey himself never crossed the northern border, but his ideas took Canada’s educational establishment by storm. The impact of his progressive philosophy became increasingly evident in this country as Dewey’s disciples began to turn his ideas into a new educational orthodoxy. The progressive model of what came to be known as “active learning” or “pragmatism” captured the hearts and minds of generations of Canadian teachers, and continues to dominate the thought of most of Canada’s educational theoreticians.
Most of Dewey’s proponents and opponents acknowledge his place as one of the most important philosophers in this century. Few educational theorists have equalled his widespread influence, which was not limited to his own society but felt throughout the world. Anyone who takes the trouble to look at the educational literature of 1950s and 1960s will discover a wide spectrum of reaction to Dewey from extravagant enthusiasm to violent denunciation. Seldom has an educator called forth such diverse viewpoints with regard to his value both to education and society. In spite of all this,
Despite his influence, I am unaware of the existence of a full biography of John Dewey or any systematic scholarly exposition of his thought. When Sidney Hook, Dewey’s student in his Columbia days, retired in 1968, he had hoped to concentrate on a defense of the thought of his late friend and professor, but soon found other subjects more topical and compelling during his tenure at the Hoover Institution.
I believe that Professor Hook’s first instincts were sound. It is high time that scholars began to re-examine and perhaps reassess the thought of John Dewey. In my “reflections on Canadian education” published as a young teacher of history in the mid-nineteen seventies, I posed the following question:
“What … is the real nature of our inherited education system and how effective has it been in realizing the goals it has set for itself?”
The question was simply put and my answer at the time was far from comprehensive. “Unfortunately,” I wrote, “…one of the most striking characteristics of our [progressive] education system is the obscurity of its aims and objectives.”
Over the years, I have come to believe that my early response was woefully inadequate and that the original question begs further inquiry. The aims, objectives, content and methodology of the progressive movement seem to have produced an eclectic mosaic of modern schools and educational activity.
I would now, however, like to argue that the movement spawned by Dewey at the turn of the century is systematically woven around a common philosophy whose roots are deeply embedded in the intellectual life of nineteenth century Europe.
In fact, my contention is that progressive educators have not only been social revolutionaries in their own right, but that John Dewey himself owes a yet-to-be-fully-acknowledged debt to Marxism that has produced a profound paradigmatic effect on educational theory and practice throughout this century. Canadian education has borrowed heavily from this paradigm, perhaps at the expense of developing a philosophy more attuned to the realities of our own North American culture, heritage and time.
The intention in this essay is simply to initiate an academic inquiry. The witness I would like to examine is John Dewey himself and the question is the matter of the connection of his work with the theories of Karl Marx.
In short, I would like to pose the question, Was Dewey a Marxist?
Experiences in the Modern World
The life of a great man is understood in the light of questions put about that life. It is my belief that a detailed examination of Dewey’s relationship to Marxism can explain a great deal about the form and content of modern schools. For now, however, I would simply like to put forward the proposition that Dewey found Marxism useful, if not indispensable, in the formulation of his educational theories, and that most historians of education have not succeeded in telling us very much about the sources or consequences of his thought.
Experience has taught me that there can be a mixed reception in the educational community to this kind of inquiry. For example, in 1979, I worked with Professor Yarema Kelebay of McGill University on a project mandated by the Quebec Association of Teachers of History. As two former Presidents of that Association, we were asked to analyze the contents of a new Canadian history syllabus that had been developed for Quebec high schools by the Quebec Ministry of Education. We concluded that the course of study was profoundly anti-capitalist and embraced a Marxist economic interpretation to the exclusion of all other perspectives on Canadian history. The reaction to our conclusions was stormy to say the least, and there was a great deal of opposition to the thesis, primarily on the basis that this was not the sort of thing that should be brought up in polite company.
In 1987, we presented a similar curriculum analysis, this time on the teaching of high school economics, to the Canadian School Trustees Association Annual Congress in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. We reported that we found an unmistakable tilt in economics education toward Fabian and Keynesian themes, and a general absence of the corpus of thought that supported the idea of a free marketplace. Again there was a strong mixed reaction. I recall one trustee approaching us after the session who said: “We’re small business people from Alberta. Now I understand why my daughter has returned from school with such a hostile attitude to our way of life.” On the other hand, many participants were actually angry that our session should have been allowed to be given at all, and said so in no uncertain terms. Professor Kelebay has reported to me that he has had similar reactions in the academic community after the publication of his recent article entitled “Capitalism to Socialism,” in which he argues that there has been a paradigmatic shift to the left which has almost entirely superseded the “Colony to Nation” theme of Canadian Whig historiography.
These negative reactions may simply demonstrate that the scriptures of the progressive curriculum are not often read these days, and few educators have troubled to study their nineteenth century pioneers very carefully. In The School and Society Dewey recalled Plato’s definition of a slave as “… one who in his actions does not express his own ideas but those of another man.” The development of appropriate educational policy can be crucial to the well-being of a society. Policy developers should not become unwitting slaves to other men’s ideas especially when those ideas may become destructive of the goals and purposes of the very societies they seek to serve. However, as Professor Kelebay pointed out in the conclusion to “Capitalism to Socialism:’ “… paradigms tend to be tenacious [and] it will require both courage and work to effect change.” Before change and a shift to more appropriate policy is possible, the slaves must be set free, and that is part of the task of the inquiry I am proposing.
Dewey: a Brief Biographical Sketch
In what sense can it be suggested that Dewey was a Marxist? What was Dewey’s probable knowledge of and affinity for the socialist traditions of the nineteenth century?
There is a need to reconcile the public memory of Dewey as an American prophet of “democracy” and education, with the unfortunate, and extremely limiting, current view that Marxism is a charge rather than a description; an act of accusation rather than a tool of analysis and explanation. This may not prove to be easy task but I believe it can be done.
I would like to begin with two preliminary questions. Did Dewey, in his formative academic years, have the opportunity to become a Marxist and did his subsequent writing and conduct demonstrate a substantive Marxist influence? A prima facie historical case can certainly be made to indicate that Dewey would have had a good chance to come under the influence of Marx.
Karl Marx was one of the most influential men in modern history. Judging by the legions of people who have regarded themselves as his followers, and the number of organizations which they have set up, it can be said that he inspired the greatest mass movement of modern times; a movement which transcended national, racial, religious and continental boundaries. After his death, western intellectuals engaged in lengthy heated debates over the meanings of his ideas and how best to apply them. Intense discussions took up much of the period from the 1880s to the outbreak of World War I, and continued with renewed vigour after the successful Bolshevik coup and the creation of the Soviet Regime in 1917.
John Dewey grew up in this generation. He was born on October 20, 1859 in Burlington, Vermont. He received a B.A. in philosophy in 1879 from the University of Vermont. He taught high school for two years in South Oil City, Pennsylvania; then entered John Hopkins University to emerge in 1884, one year after Marx’s death, with a Ph.D. on “The Psychology of Kant.” At the early age of twenty-three, Dewey had injected himself into the European scene through the publication of his first article, “The Metaphysical Assumptions of Materialism,” which was abstracted in French in the Revue Philosophique in January 1883.
In the decades that followed, Dewey’s life became one of teaching, scholarship and publication. Many publications were dedicated to educational problems with special attention to elementary and secondary school education. With his arrival at Columbia University in 1904, Dewey began to concentrate more on creative work in philosophy, but he always maintained a close connection with the field of education. For many years he offered a course in the philosophy of education at Teacher’s College, Columbia, and his pedagogical ideas continued to reach educators all over the world. The extent of the interest in Democracy and Education is evident from the fact that it was translated into many foreign languages including Russian, Chinese, German, Italian, Spanish, Hebrew, Japanese, Swedish, Arabic, Persian, Serbo-Croatian and Turkish.
Dewey’s retirement from Columbia in 1930 at the age of seventy did not deter him from taking up causes which he felt were important. He accepted the chairmanship of the Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made Against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials of 1937-38; and in 1941 he edited the Bertrand Russell Case, charging the City College of New York with intentionally depriving the noted British socialist philosopher of an opportunity to teach in the United States.
When a complete biography of Dewey is written, it will be possible to become more aware of the broad range of his activities, but suffice to say for now he was an active participant in the world intellectual community until the time of his death at the age of ninety-two on June 1, 1952.
For the purposes of this paper, I want to begin by asking the reader to recall the intellectual mood of the era in which John Dewey worked. His formative and perhaps most vigorous and creative years spanned the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Dewey lived in changing times; in a period of paradigmatic eclipse. Even before he came of age, the radical era of eighteenth century liberal, revolutionary nationalism had become dominated by the great conservative state builders of the post 1948 era: Napoleon III, Cavour and Bismarck. The more that “liberal” nationalism became a de-radicalized dominant ideology; the more it grew out of fashion among the ranks of the intelligentsia. Between 1848 and 1917 young, restless idealists on both sides of the Atlantic came to support the rival tradition of “social” revolution. National ideals based on liberty, property rights and legal equality were surpassed. Their romantic, heroic reputation faded in the twilight of the Franco-Prussian war and the dawn of the Paris Commune. From Proudhon, Saint-Simon, Lassalle, Kautsky and, most importantly, Marx came new ideas which would legitimize an ideological schism that had no equivalent counterpart since the Protestant reformation.
Through the new mass journalism and machine-like political organizations, Marxism played a central role in forming the rival revolutionary tradition. The formation of German Social Democracy, British Fabianism, Russian revolutionary violence and western syndicalism were all part of this adversary tradition. Marx and the Marxists divided the world. They became a collective revolutionary professoriate; the universal teachers of teachers. They provided the intellectual tools for the construction of a more didactic past and a new and better future.
Das Kapital was first translated into English in 1887, just three years before John Dewey began to produce his landmark essays on North American schools and traditional curriculum. Dewey’s work indicates a mind that rode with this changing intellectual mood — one that rode the High Sierra of the visionary, not the common valley bottoms of daily American life.
What was Dewey’s vision for the new schools and a new curriculum? Did it mirror Marx’s own vision for the creation of a new world and a higher form of humanity? I would like to direct the reader’s attention to these questions by employing an uncomplicated method of inquiry which William F. Buckley Jr. once attributed to the German-American philosopher Leo Strauss. That is “… by a careful analysis of the text, trying to understand the author as he had understood himself and the deceptively simple practice of taking the text seriously.”
One of the first difficulties in assessing the level of Marxist influence in a work lies in arriving at some generally acceptable consensus of what it means to be a Marxist. In Marxism: For and Against (1980), Robert L. Heilbroner, the widely known American expert on political and economic theory, goes a long way toward demystifying Marxism for the average reader and rendering a clear description of the essential elements of Marxist thought.
For Heilbroner, Marxism “…constitutes the legacy of Marx’s writing plus a body of work that supports, supplements, and at times supersedes it.” He acknowledges the difficulty in finding the elements that unify the whole, but believes there is a recognizable identity to Marxist thought based on a common set of premises. He contends that any analysis containing these premises can be properly classified as “Marxist” even if the writer does not identify it as such himself.
Heilbroner goes on to describe an “Ariadne’s thread” comprised of four premises common to all Marxist thought. These he summarizes as follows:
- The dialectical approach to knowledge.
- The materialist approach to history.
- A general view of capitalism that starts from Marx’s socio-analysis.
- A commitment to socialism or a belief in the unity of theory and practice.
Dialectical reasoning views the innermost nature of things to be dynamic and conflicting rather than inert and static. The dialectical thinker searches within things for their contradictory attributes. Heilbroner elaborates on the dialectical approach to knowledge and explains its fundamental connections with the Marxist analysis. In the Greek sense of the word, he points out that dialectical reasoning suggests an “activist” approach toward knowledge itself. Marxism stresses the production rather than the passive receipt of knowledge. This position vindicates the Marxist commitment to some form of social revolutionary activity.
The second basic dialectical idea is that the true nature of all reality is not rest; but motion. Change is the essence of being. The third is the Hegelian idea of “contradiction” meaning that reality actually consists of the “unstable coexistence and successive resolution of inherently incompatible forces.”
Materialism is a view that highlights the central role played in history by the productive or economic activities of mankind. From this perspective, Marxists locate the principal motive for historical change in the struggle between economically determined social classes. This becomes evident in an adversarial view of history which directly relates to the oppositional perspective of dialectical philosophy.
The fusion of a materialist starting point with a dialectical conception of historical change gives Marxism its distinctive combative character. Heilbroner also pointed out that Marxist history ultimately points to a double victory for mankind – a victory over the domination of class rule and a victory over the deformation of alienation.
For Marx, the domination of class rule created fierce tensions within capitalist society. These tensions were rooted in an unequal access to wealth. This condition resulted from an inherent contradiction in the capitalist “mode of production.” The contradiction existed between what Marx called “the forces of production” and “the relations of production.” The first concept embodies the skills and arts of the people; the second the social arrangements that directed these human forces and allocated their output. These were the two internal divisions of the “mode of material life” which Marx said “conditions the social, political, and intellectual life process in general.”
The particular human condition which Marx called “alienation” was the other important dialectical theme which gave an identifiable character to Marxist history. Alienation, Marx maintained, is a form of social and psychological deformation created by the capitalist mode of production. In pre-capitalist economies, work was intricately woven into the social and political functions of society. But the specialization of labour that developed under industrial capitalism separated the working person from the product of his own labour. The products he produced now confronted him as a thing apart and thus, he was alienated from his work.
Marxist socio-analysis also reveals what for Marxism is the innermost secret of the capitalist mode of production. Capitalist profit does not accrue simply through clever dealing in the exchange of goods. It is the structure of capitalism itself which appropriates the “surplus value” of the workers’ labour. The actual source of profit is in the difference between the value of the labour sold by the worker and the value of the commodity that was produced through his labour. The worker is systematically “exploited” because this difference – or “surplus value” – always goes to the capitalist at the end of the process.
Marxists are convinced that the application of Marx’s socio-analytic methods will shed light on the past and serve as a guide to a better future. Their commitment to socialism is a natural marriage of theory and practice, which they believe will usher in a new socioeconomic formation and a brighter chapter in the history of mankind.
There are two major themes in this grand design. Change will be required both in the “forces of production” and the “relations of production.” The first assumes a gradual improvement in the technological means of providing human prosperity. The second implies an escape from the confines of traditional political, cultural and religious beliefs as well as the enslaving relationships created by capitalist proprietorship.
Not all Marxists have come to the same conclusions about an ultimate confrontation with the capitalist system. There have, of course, been considerable differences of opinion between orthodox and revisionist writers in the Marxist tradition. Nevertheless, all Marxists begin from either an orthodox or modified understanding of the nature of capitalism that derives from Marx’s original insight. Heilbroner asserts that, armed with a full awareness of these basic themes, it is possible to separate, with a fair degree of accuracy, work that deserves to be called Marxist and work that does not.
Dewey & Marx
To begin a cursory analysis of the thought of John Dewey and his relationship to Marxism, I would like to return to a consideration of his two early works on education, The Child and the Curriculum and The School and the Society. The former went through twenty-five separate printing runs by 1950, and as Leonard Carmichael pointed out in his introduction to the 1956 combined edition:
“These two treatises were not prepared to be read in silent, closed studies by learned doctors. They were composed to be heard. They were written to be acted upon. They were intended not only to inform but also to persuade.”
Like Marx, Dewey was never just an academic. He wished to influence the events and practices of his times, and he was happiest when he saw his ideas translated into action.
How can we better understand what John Dewey regarded as the guiding premises of his own life and work? How do we go about understanding this author as he understood himself?
We probably learn most about a great writer by carefully reading what he wrote in the context of the time in which it was written. Dewey himself pointed out that he rejected traditional political philosophy. He said that it led to an empty “consideration of the logical relationship of various ideas to one another” and away from what he considered as “the facts of human activity.” Dewey intended to develop a philosophy that would take in the broad field of human activity with which he was concerned. From the beginning, his philosophy was “politically programmatic.” He addressed himself to social progress which he regarded as the only true objective of philosophy.
As I have already pointed out, the ideas of Karl Marx played a central role in the visions of social progress pursued by intellectuals in Dewey’s era, and Dewey’s own vision does not seem to have been an exception. Dewey certainly understood the essence of the Hegelian contradiction in the same way Marx did. Dewey’s language appears to be inseparable from this particular premise of Marxist thought. The Child and the Curriculum begins with the discovery of an inherent contradiction in the educational process and its enunciation in dialectical terms. Dewey declared that:
“Profound differences in theory are never gratuitous or invented. They grow out of conflicting elements in a genuine problem – a problem which is genuine just because the elements, taken as they stand, are conflicting. Any significant problem involves conditions that for the moment, contradict one another.”
Throughout Dewey’s work, the significant conflict in the educational process is between the child and the curriculum; between innocent potential and the accumulated culture of a flawed adult world; between the energy and the talent of the students and the structures of an archaic school system; between the “forces of production” that can move us forward and the “relations of production” that hold us back.
For John Dewey, the child and the curriculum were trapped in an unsuitable marriage that would require dissolution followed by resolution through “reconstruction” and “growth.” The traditional curriculum – laden with formal subjects, religion and moral lessons – was designed to teach and inspire, but its fundamental irrelevance to the child’s immediate, active experience, rendered its content uninspiring and unteachable. The idea of a child, not simply bored by inadequate instruction, but systematically separated from his studies by an inherent contradiction in the learning process is likely to have been derivative of Marxist dialectical analysis. The dialectical perspective led Dewey to describe the traditional education process as “contradictory” because he felt it was unfolding in a way that was both necessary to and destructive of the process itself.
The conflict between the child and Dewey’s caricature of the traditional curriculum is a dramatic saga of tension and alienation. Dewey’s children are alienated from school work by a contradiction existing between their real interests and those of the school. Like Marx’s proletariat, they are caught up in a world conditioned by the interaction of opposing forces. The fundamental opposing factors in the process were “an immature undeveloped being” and “certain social aims, meanings, values incarnate in the mature experience of the adult.” Specialized studies divided and fractured the child’s world. Facts were abstracted and analyzed from different points of view or rearranged to suit principles outside the child’s understanding. The ties of affection and “the connecting bonds of activity” were destroyed.
Dewey saw the schools of his day as intellectual battlefields between the forces of reaction and enlightenment. The former fixed their attention solely upon “the importance of the subject matter of the curriculum.” They ignored the contents of the child’s own experience. Their studies pretended to reveal a “great wide universe” with “fullness and complexity.” But, the “teaching of external and general truths” only became an opiate for the educator and an obstacle to the real growth and development of the child.
Just as Marx had chosen the end product of the capitalist system, the commodity itself, to begin his analysis of capitalism, Dewey chose the child, the end product of the school, as the starting point of his analysis of education.
From here he launched a revolutionary assault on unprogressive teachers. His legions inscribed on their banners:
“The child is the starting point, the center, and the end. His development, his growth, is the ideal. It alone furnishes the standard. To the growth of the child all studies are subservient; they are instruments valued as they serve the needs of growth. Personality, character, is more than subject matter. Not knowledge or information, but self-realization, is the goal.”
The children had nothing to lose but the chains of the curriculum. Self-realization was a worldly transcendence that would remake the child into a perfect model of the new socialist man.
Dewey’s second early essay on education, The School and Society, continues in the same vein. Most chapters were designed to stand alone as lectures in education, so they tend to repeat and elaborate on familiar themes in Dewey’s work. In a chapter on “The School and Social Progress,” readers are reminded that the school is much more than a collection of individuals. Students should not enter simply to acquire knowledge as a businessman enters the marketplace to acquire profit. The progress of an individual can only be seen in relation to the needs of the community.
Dewey asserted that in the school “individualism and socialism are at one” and it was “especially necessary to take the broader view” over the narrow and acquisitive course. Like Marx, Dewey informed his readers that inevitable changes were forthcoming in the “modes of industry and commerce” and, again like Marx, Dewey was convinced that his predictions were based on scientific laws generated through the methods of dialectical materialism. Indeed, in one of his later works, Dewey was very forthright in declaring that:
“We are in for some kind of socialism, call it whatever name we please, and no matter what it will be called when it is realized, economic determinism is now a fact not a theory.”
In the light of his convictions, Dewey sought to conceive a new philosophy of education. Dewey’s school would be intricately connected with the unfolding of materialist history or as Dewey put it “part and parcel of the whole social evolution.”
The new school would become an instrument of de-alienation. Dewey echoed the Marxist contention that the intimate connection between men and their occupations which had existed in preindustrial society had been lost in the capitalist mode of production. He alerted his readers to the concentration of industry and division of labour that “had practically eliminated household and neighbourhood occupations.” The new mission of the school was to become a training ground for cooperative labour, instead of a place set apart in which to learn lessons.
Dewey warned that the “mere absorbing of facts” was a selfish act in which he could see no redeeming value: “There is no obvious social motive for the acquirement of mere learning; there is no clear social gain in success thereat.”
Dewey was convinced that the introduction of manual training and the activity method would create a vigorous occupational spirit in the educational process. The school would affiliate itself with the life of the child and the community. It would become an embryonic socialist community. The new school communities would become incubators for peaceful social revolution. Dewey saw the new school providing a unique and irresistible example to capitalist society because its aim was “not the economic value of the product but the development of social power and insight.” School, liberated from the religious influences — which, like Marx, he regarded as medieval superstitions — would demonstrate to all that it was neither God nor Providence but the earth and man’s labour that were responsible for all progress.
Training in “social directions” would raise the child’s consciousness and allow him to “locate the source of our economic evils.” Evil was hidden in the structures of late capitalism, and, like Marx, Dewey saw a rewrite of history as the key tool of the exorcist. For Dewey, there were no grounds for including classical history in the curriculum, but:
“Not so when history is considered as an account of the forces and forms of social life … Whatever history may be for the scientific historian, for the educator, it must be an indirect sociology — a study of society which lays bare its process of be-coming and its modes of organization.”
Dewey’s entire chapter on “The Aims of History in Elementary Education” recommends nothing less than a Marxist history for the new curriculum. If history was to become “dynamic” and “moving,” its “economic and industrial aspects” had to be emphasized. This alone could prevent the tendency to “swamp history in myth, fairy story and merely literary renderings” of the bourgeois culture he sought to usher out.
Yet, John Dewey frequently denied his attraction to the ideas of Karl Marx and made much of what he declared to be Marx’s fundamental error: the belief that a violent class struggle was a means toward social progress.
In hindsight one has to wander whether or not Dewey’s commitment to peaceful evolution, the “method of intelligence,” and the concept of “growth,” really put very much ideological distance between himself and the Marxists. Dewey was certainly no Lenin. He did not work with the brutal edge honed by the memory of a martyred brother. But neither did Marx.
In Sidney Hook’s evaluation of Marx’s intellectual contribution, Marx & the Marxists, he reminds us that although Marx was “sceptical of the likelihood that ruling social groups would peacefully surrender the reins of power,” he also saw room for progressive developments in certain states.
Marx specifically indicated that given the existence of democratic traditions in countries like Great Britain and the United States, “the transition to socialism might be effected by peaceful and legal means.”
Indeed, Professor Hook also pointed out that Marx concerned himself “only briefly with the strategy of the march to socialism.” He believed the working class would come to power in different ways in different countries and his own revolutionary role was primarily catalytic.
In summary, Hook asserted:
“… Marx conceived of his “party” neither as a conspiratorially organized underground army nor as group intent upon imposing dictatorship over the proletariat, nor even as a special political party. Its function was primarily to exercise educational leadership.”
Dewey’s own commitment to socialism through education was equally enthusiastic and seen to be very much above board.
Dewey & Socialism
Despite his declared abhorrence of revolutionary violence, Dewey was not deterred from accepting an opportunity to visit Stalin’s Soviet Union in the summer of 1928. He went as a member of an unofficial delegation of twenty-five American educators under the sponsorship of the American Society for Cultural Relations with Russia.
Dewey’s philosophical influence on socialist educators in Russia can be traced back to the 1905 revolution, but since his most prominent followers did time in Czarist prisons, his ideas were not brought to full prominence until after 1917. Nevertheless, his early Soviet disciples said they found much value in the work of John Dewey. One prominent Soviet educator, Albert P. Pinkervich, in comparing Dewey to contemporary German educators, said “Dewey comes infinitely closer to Marx and the Russian Communists.” There is little indication that Dewey found this sort of comparison to be extreme or uncomplimentary.
Dewey published a series of laudatory impressions of Soviet Russia in The New Republic between 1920 and 1928, most of which developed a less than cautious “new world in the making” theme for Soviet Russia.
Throughout the 1930s, however, Dewey’s infatuation with the Soviet state declined in direct proportion to the Central Committee of the Communist Party’s own disappointment over the debilitating effects of progressive education on Russian graduates. Apparently, the products of Dewey’s “project method” were becoming increasingly ill-equipped to fulfil Stalin’s Five Year Plans. In light of the somewhat embarrassing implication that only capitalist societies had the resilience to survive Dewey’s progressive educational reforms, he may have reacted with the wrath of the scorned. In 1937 he accepted the leadership of the Trotsky inquiry which exonerated Stalin’s mortal enemy of all charges laid by the Soviet State. His involvement in The Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Laid against Leon Trotsky resulted in a communist campaign of personal vilification that portrayed Dewey as a defender of capitalism and imperialist reaction.
Dewey’s dramatic squabble with Stalin and the Communist Party may have done much to maintain his reputation as a downhome Vermont pragmatist and divert generations of Western educators from asking more serious questions about the sources of his thought.
In the Encyclopedia Americana, William Brickland depicts John Dewey as “the most influential American thinker of his time” who “never ceased his struggle to better the lot of humanity in all parts of the world.” But Dewey’s philosophy is somewhat vaguely described as having “followed the idealism of Hegel” and gradually drifted “toward the pragmatism of William James.” It is suggested that his educational theory was based on a personal philosophy called “instrumentalism” or “experimentalism” and that the “progressive education movement” (also left undefined) simply adopted and often distorted Dewey’s ideas.
A record of Dewey’s involvement with socialist organizations – such as the People’s Lobby in Washington and the League for Industrial Democracy – is provided but not described as such. Yet, the author seems to go out of his way to suggest that Dewey broke with the Teacher’s Union in the 1930s “because of what he felt were leftist tendencies.”
Conclusion: Modern Educational Theory
Dewey’s intellectual dominance in education coupled with the carefully measured, even reluctant criticism of his philosophy, is reminiscent of a situation which Gertrude Himmelfarb recently uncovered in British historiography (The New History & the Old).
“Why,” she asked, “in a country so resistant to the Marxist socialism, have there been so many dominant Marxist historians?” Why in a nation whose unique institutions and traditions are “so notably inhospitable” to Marxism, has the field of national history been so influenced by Marxist interpretations? She offers two reasons for this. The first is an act of will; the second one of omission.
Himmelfarb argued that the extraordinary influence of Marxism in British Historiography was not an inevitable intellectual side effect of industrial capitalism. It was, rather, a conscious ideological commitment by a group of dedicated Marxist historians to impose their interpretation on Britain’s national history.
Non-Marxist, liberal, critics contended that every historical work must be evaluated on its own merits. They tended to discount the influence of ideological affiliations. Consequently, they tended to disallow any consideration of Marxist influence.
The suggestion of Marxist influence was disallowed solely on the grounds that it would be strident and improper – “rather like an ad hominem argument.”
Himmelfarb argued that it is “neither irrelevant nor ungracious” for critics to point out the influence of Marx in contemporary works of history or literature. Indeed, not to do so would be counterproductive because it meant refusing to take seriously that which the author may have seen as central to his own analysis. The apparent reluctance to consider Dewey’s relationship to Marxism may stem from one or more similar reasons.
Complicity with a Marxist agenda by influential Canadian educators — like the case of the C.P. historian’s group which flourished in England — offers the scholarly sleuth an enticing search for a smoking gun. But the methods of Chapman Pincher are, in my opinion, unlikely to uncover many educational conspiracies that will cause Canadians to lie awake at night.
In fact, former British Minister for Higher Education, George Walden, recently suggested that, even in Marx’s adopted homeland, it would be wrong to consider the moral instability of British educational values as the result of some Marxist conspiracy. “I sometimes think that a full-blown Marxist conspiracy in English education would have been more bracing” he said. “What we have had instead is a vulgarized, bastardized version of the creed, not Marxist but Marxoidal.”
Unfortunately, a well-ordered philosophy is no longer taken seriously as a source of success or failure in education. The much talked about problems in our schools are, for the most part, examined in material terms. Aside from the ethnocentric issue of language of instruction and other politically correct diversions, all parties seem to have agreed to discuss education almost entirely as a fiscal issue. The conventional progressive paradigm, albeit with frequent revisions and practical modifications, remains fundamentally unchallenged. In two full terms as an elected Commissioner in my Montreal school district, I was unable to sustain any real interest in a consideration of ideological influence and alternative ideas.
For the most part, elected public officials have conceded control over the content of education to appointed “professionals” and any trespass into that jurisdiction is regarded with utmost impatience. Unfortunately, shying away from this challenge will in no way contribute to the long term recovery of our schools and the societies they serve.
This preliminary inquiry into John Dewey’s relationship with Marxism is intended to provoke a fuller investigation of Dewey’s philosophy as well as that of the other influential educational theorists in the twentieth century. It is also intended to raise the question of Marxism’s general relevance to a systematic analysis of Canadian education.
To address these matters would require more than one full treatise. To avoid doing so out of reluctance to appear impertinent or ungracious, can only lead to a long term acceptance of what may be systematic and symptomatic error in educational theory. Surely we have a responsibility to seek as full and complete an understanding of the form and content of our schools as we possibly can. It is up to us to ensure that the paradigms which guide our practice are congruent with the customs and qualities which our society has tested over time.
The educational community should never surrender its right to dissent and raise questions about the nature of our culture. The longing to play a role in the development of a good and just society remains one of the highest and most valuable motivations of the teacher. But in the shadow of so many twentieth century societies that have been fractured, vulgarized and impoverished by Marxist ideology, it may be time to begin a more open discourse about the sources of thought that set the agenda for our schools.
William Brooks is Chairman of the Social Sciences Department at Lower Canada College and a co-founder of the St. Lawrence Institute.