If you haven’t read “My Pedagogic Creed,” you don’t know Dewey.
John Dewey (not to be confused with no-relation Melvil, who devised the library classification system) is universally recognized as one of the fathers of modern education. What history is more fully revealing him to be, however, is the sire of universal schooling’s greatest failing and bastard offspring: chronic illiteracy.
In the 4,076 words Dewey devoted in 1897 to his declared educational beliefs (each of the 73 paragraphs begins with “I believe”), the word “reading” appears only three times in two sentences—and in one it is negatively described: “I believe that we violate the child’s nature … by introducing the child too abruptly to a number of special studies, of reading, writing, geography, etc., out of relation to this social life.”
The word “social,” conversely, appears about 55 times.
It also serves as the principal pedagogical anchor to which teaching is tethered: “I believe, therefore, that the true centre of correlation of the school subjects is not science, nor literature, nor history, nor geography, but the child’s own social activities.”
A year later, in 1898, Dewey’s anti-literacy philosophy took a more frontal-assault approach in his essay “The Primary-Education Fetish.”
“There is … a false educational god whose idolaters are legion, and whose cult influences the entire educational system,” he wrote.
What was this unworthy golden calf and who were its classroom blasphemers? Language studies and elementary school English teachers.
The idea that “learning to read in early school life” was important foundationally, he suggested, was a “perversion” since young minds would struggle with the language nuances and rhetorical devices that make great literature great.
Besides, he also asserted, young eyes aren’t ready for the close-up detail reading requires. “The oculist tells us,” he wrote, “that the vision of the child is essentially that of the savage.”
Finally, learning to read at a young age reduced it to a mechanical action that lacks relevance to a child’s interests.
The legacy of Dewey’s dismissal of early reading as irrelevant drudgery is catalogued in the annual Kids Count Data Book and–just as he wished–two-thirds of America’s fourth-graders can’t read at grade level.
Significant problems arise today regarding continuing fidelity to Dewey’s “progressive” thinking about education.
First, the passage of time changes things, and what might have been progressive 100 years ago can actually become regressive today. Indeed, that was Dewey’s main argument against what he called “high literacy” in the first place.
He prefaces his entire premise on the claim that as American society had changed, it rendered traditional teaching methodology ineffective. He acknowledged that focusing the first three years of schooling on reading had been historically productive.
“It does not follow, however, that because this course was once wise it is so any longer. … [T]he fact that this mode of education was adapted to past conditions is in itself a reason why it should no longer hold supreme sway,” he wrote. What were those past conditions? The relative isolation of rural communities, in which the main distinction between the educated and uneducated person was the ability to read and write.
Dewey freely admitted that where such conditions still existed (and in 1898, there were many), his ideas had no meaning. But using old education methods in newer, more connected, more densely populated, more industrial environments would leave individual students “stultified, if not disintegrated; and the course of progress is blocked.”
“It is in education, if anywhere, that the claims of the present should be controlling,” he declared definitively.
Our present is now nearly 20 years into the 21st century, and it looks as different from Dewey’s 1898 America as his time did from the epoch of the Constitutional Convention.
So many assumptions he took for granted regarding general society, social structure, family constructs, community mores and morality, gender attitudes, race relations, et al., are themselves now relics of a former time. The fetish has now come full-circle: There is social overdose today, and literacy starvation.
By Dewey’s well-reasoned conclusion—that a revolution has taken place in “the relation which the intellectual activities bear to the ordinary practical occupations of life”—our education problems in 2019 can’t possibly be solved by the methods of his “bygone days.”
The over-saturation of information for children today, especially those in disadvantaged circumstances, creates its own intellectual poverty, not unlike that which Dewey himself said required early reading skills.
“If any escape existed from the poverty of the intellectual environment, or any road to a richer and wider mental life,” he wrote, “the exit was through the gateway of books.”
By books, Dewey meant classic humanities literature containing timeless principles and ideas, not the under-thought pulp churned out today that simply adds to the clutter.
Progressive thinking today would mean a turn away from the Old Education of Dewey’s then-modern dreams. He could not have envisioned the steady march of civilization producing so much more drug abuse and violent crime, so many more broken homes, so much less active parenting.
Without the gateway skill of reading, young schoolchildren can and do suffer insurmountable setbacks.
The false god whose cult needs undoing is Dewey.