Dewey Hate Him? And How!

I should preface this blog entry by pointing out that I’ve met and corresponded with several Objectivists recently, and the vast majority of them are perfectly reasonable and civil people. I might not agree with some of the tenets of their basic philosophy, but I’m reluctant to describe them as members of the Tinfoil Hat Brigade. However, as with any subculture—especially one that has established a solid presence on the Internet in recent years—there are a few Objectivists who become quite unhinged whenever certain topics come up. For example, while doing research for a scholarly article on Objectivist educational philosophies, I found that John Dewey, the renowned pragmatist philosopher and educator, inspires some rather extreme reactions among Ayn Rand’s followers in the Objectivist community.

dewey

John Dewey. Source: Columbia University.

I should also preface this entry by pointing out that I’m not a fan of John Dewey, be it in his role as educator or philosopher. His writing style is both dry and willfully obtuse, while his basic philosophy is, in my humble opinion, somewhat pedestrian. He is no doubt an important American thinker, but all in all I’d prefer to read almost anyone else when it comes right down to it. In other words, my attempts to point out just how unreasonable some Objectivists are when they attack Dewey shouldn’t be interpreted as an excuse to label me as an apologist for either Dewey as a person or his body of thought. I do not, in sum, have a horse in this race.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s begin by explaining the extent to which some Objectivists hate John Dewey. The most bizarre manifestation of this hate can be seen by examining a quotation that is often attributed to Dewey in which he argues that “you can’t make Socialists out of individualists. Children who know how to think for themselves spoil the harmony of the collective society which is coming, where everyone is interdependent.” Though this quote is often used by conservatives of all stripes to discredit Dewey—it even made an appearance in Anne Coulter’s 2007 book Godless—Objectivists have latched on to it as a means of illustrating how Dewey’s liberal approach to education was nothing more than an attempt to convert America into a worker’s paradise. For example, Amber Pawlik, a journalist and self-acknowledged “big fan of Ayn Rand,” used it to contrast Dewey’s so-called socialist inclinations with Montessori education and its purported emphasis on “developing the individual.”

The problem, of course, is that Dewey didn’t say anything of the sort. In fact, if you google the entire quotation—go ahead…I’ll wait—you’ll see thousands of results, yet none of them offer a means of tracking down the exact source. That’s because it simply doesn’t exist.

Whenever someone is accused of being a socialist you can almost always assume that the ghost of George Orwell will be evoked. The same holds true with John Dewey. In 2004, for example, Gennady Stolyarov, a commentator for a group called “Sense of Life Objectivists,” accused Dewey of advocating tactics associated with Big Brother from Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984. “A parallel can be produced to the theoretical suggestions of Mr. Dewey,” Stolyrov explained, “who proposed that schools remain continually vigilant in regard to the private lives of their students and even (as was also the purpose of the Spies in Oceania) recruit the youths themselves to watch their relatives with suspicion, all with the motive of broadening the influence of the socialist State.” Again, this is a completely unfounded claim—at no point did Dewey ever encourage educators to use children to spy on their parents. Dewey believed in state-run education, but one would be hard-pressed to suggest that he supported giving the state control over every aspect of our lives.

One prominent Objectivist even accused Dewey of espousing a philosophy that encouraged school shootings. In April 1999, just as the Columbine massacre was making headlines across much of the planet, Glenn Woiceshyn, a senior writer and curriculum expert for the Ayn Rand Institute, claimed that “the phenomenon of school violence, of classroom terrorism, gang fights, [and] the use of deadly weapons” was a by-product of Dewey’s views on education. Dewey’s purported disdain for reason and logic—an argument that can be dispelled by, you know, actually reading his works—were the culprits in this particular instance. Without reason to guide them, Woiceshyn argued, students are reduced “to the status of beasts—to slaves of their impulses—where no rational persuasion is possible. Their only ultimate recourse is to deal with each other by brute force—by the law of the jungle.”

So why all the hate?

In order to answer this question, one must go straight to the horse’s mouth. Ayn Rand, the founder of the Objectivist movement, often singled out Dewey’s philosophy as being particularly destructive because, unlike Rand and her peers, he didn’t believe in universal truths. His philosophy, in short, saw truth and knowledge as phenomena that were constantly being revised, an argument that flew in the face of Objectivism and its emphasis on immutable truths. Interestingly enough, Rand’s dislike of Dewey’s philosophy was such that she actually banished one of her acolytes from her inner circle for two years during the late-1950s after he expressed a fondness for Dewey and other so-called “subjectivist” philosophers.

rand

Ayn Rand. Source: PBS.

And yet Rand’s scorn for Dewey alone doesn’t explain why her followers’ hate for the soft-spoken Columbia professor has only amplified in recent years. I would suggest that part of the problem is the very medium in which this blog is being transmitted: the Internet. Anyone who has taken part in an internet comment board knows that many online comments are nothing more than hyperbole and bile—what I like to call “hyperbile.” Though this alone doesn’t explain some of the arguments mentioned above, it might explain why John Dewey, a man who died well before the Internet was just a gleam in Uncle Sam’s eye, has been described by at least one New Jersey-area Objectivist as being “one of the most evil men to occupy America in the last 150 years.”

This topic is also briefly addressed in Jason Reid, “The Ayn Rand School for Tots: John Dewey, Maria Montessori and Objectivist Educational Philosophy during the Postwar Years” Historical Studies in Education 25 (Spring 2013): 73-94.

For more on Dewey’s reception on the internet, see Craig Cunningham’s excellent website.

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8 thoughts on “Dewey Hate Him? And How!

  1. You may want to revise your treatment. John Dewey went to the Soviets on special invitation, was handled by the KGB, and wrote a book after his first visit, “Impressions of Soviet Russia and the Revolutionary World”, in which he gushed like a lovesick puppy about “the marvelous development of progressive educational ideas and practices under the fostering care of the Bolshevist government-and I am speaking of what I have seen and not just been told about.” Your dismissal of his Socialist ideals is inaccurate.

    • Appreciating certain aspects of the Soviet educational system is not the same as being a socialist. Though “Impressions of Soviet Russia and the Revolutionary World” does have plenty of positive things to say about Bolshevik experiments in education, it also points out its many excesses. For example, Dewey took the Soviet system to task for being “infected with propagandistic tendencies,” many of which he found to be “obnoxious to me personally.” He also argued that the best educational efforts were not, in fact, being run by the state, but rather by voluntary organizations such as independent labor unions.

      • Need more evidence? Regarding Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward”, depicting Utopian Socialist, all-powerful bureaucratic America by the year 2000, John Dewey said, it was “one of the greatest modern syntheses of humane values.” He then ranked it as #2 on his list of most influential books since 1885 (Columbia U), right behind Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. You might also check out his 1934 essay “The Great American Prophet” in which he fantasizes about an American version of Socialism. I’ve read Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto. I’d never elevate them to influential

        Moreover, marveling at the Bolshevik ideas and practices is a bit more than “appreciating certain aspects.” Criticizing certain tactics of Educational Progressivism while affirming the plans, ideologies, and strategies simply means that he’s an inside player that genuinely wants the Soviet ideas to succeed – with slight tactical revision. Like Trotsky to Stalin, with less dramatic distinctions. The concept that children learn like collectivists from other children, and reinvent every wheel built, and aim at indoctrination of visions via the inculcation of values (i.e. values clarification), instead of adhering to Essentialism, Perennialism, or Empiricism is 100% counter to Western and American ideals and the education that made a liberated and productive society.

        So they adopt Progressivism, Constructivism, and various forms of Idealism, for the past 100 years, we see the social and epistemological devastation.

        At any rate, with all of this evidence in mind, it’s very difficult to honestly maintain apologetics for Dewey with phrases like “so-called Socialist inclinations”, “bizarre”, and “hate.” Also his ideas were not liberal, as the “Liberal Arts” have always been, and will always be defined as the culmination of the Trivium, Quadrivium, and philosophy in curriculum. Dewey was a socialist, his ideas were socialist, and his contribution to the eradication of American education was in league with the Socialist Unions, Ford & Carnegie foundations to dominate education with Constructivism and Progressivism, crowding out Empiricism, Perennialism, and Essentialism. The fact that he didn’t carry a hammer and sickle is irrelevant. Whether he had Fabian or “evolutionary” Socialist tactics or Marxist-Leninist revolutionary tactics is irrelevant to the point that he was a Socialist, and advanced Socialism in society through public education policies and philosophies.

        Also, preference is not the same as intolerance. Speaking candidly is not hate.

      • You do realize that it’s ridiculous to deem Dewey a socialist by simply citing a book review from the 1930s? This period of American history was defined by the worst economic crisis the world had ever seen, an era in which intellectuals on both the left and the right began flirting with a whole host of utopian theories. If that’s how you judge someone’s life work, then you need to understand that some of the leading conservatives during the Cold War era—including Irving Kristol, Whittaker Chambers, and Sidney Hook—can be labelled socialists as well. Hell, even Ronald Reagan was a staunch New Dealer during the 1930s.

        It’s also important to note that citing one book review is not a particularly convincing means of proving your point. The scholarly article that inspired this blog post actually argues that Maria Montessori—whose educational strategies are revered by Conservatives—was much more of a socialist/utopian dreamer than Dewey ever was. How did I substantiate my argument? By citing her published work on education. I’ve yet to see one example from Dewey’s work—and it should be noted that he was an incredibly prolific writer—in which he comes out in favor of establishing a socialist system in the United States. This is exactly why the phony quote I mentioned in my blog post gained such currency on the internet in recent years: because Dewey’s enemies have been unable to find anything concrete to prove their claims that Dewey was hell-bent on transforming America into a socialist state.

        Your claim that Dewey was also chummy with the Bolsheviks is also lacking in context. Dewey had some good things to say about the Soviet state during the 1920s—there’s no denying this—but his optimism quickly soured once the excesses of the new regime came to light in the mid- to late-1930s. In fact, he sharply criticized Stalin’s show trials and propensity for mass murder on a fairly regular basis. By contrast, Maria Montessori was still saying favorable things about the Soviet Union until her death in 1952, well after the Cold War had intensified.

        Your claims about Marx’s signature texts are simply mystifying. If you can’t agree that the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital weren’t “influential,” then I can’t help you out. Both of these works served as founding texts of several communist states, including, of course, the Soviet Union, which posed an existential threat to the west for over 70 years. In other words, both texts shaped the late-19th and 20th centuries in ways that we’re still dealing with today. I get that you can’t stand the basic philosophy in these books, but to deny their influence on the course of human affairs over the past 150 years is just daft.

        Your point about Dewey’s attack on essentialism is, once again, entirely devoid of historical context. Essentialism was undermined not by Dewey—his opponents really do give this man way too much credit—but rather by the technological and scientific advances of his era. After all, essentialist approaches are difficult to maintain when the pace of change is so rapid. In a similar vein, you may find constructivism distasteful, but it’s hard to deny the basic argument that all sorts of ideas and theories that were once considered “truth” have been thoroughly discredited in favor of new paradigms. Dewey wasn’t saying anything controversial here; he was simply taking note of the world around him.

        Your claim that Dewey had no respect for empiricism is just plain wrong. Indeed, Dewey’s approach has frequently been referred to as “immediate empiricism” and is based on firsthand observation of phenomena.

        Lastly, “speaking candidly” may not be hate, but using phony quotes and absurdly heightened rhetoric to discredit someone who’s been dead for 61 years is troubling to say the very least. The scholarly article I wrote on this topic ends by suggesting that Dewey haters might be taken more seriously if they stop relying solely on blind rage and intellectual dishonesty to make their points. Something to consider.

      • Let’s follow more evidence. John Dewey was an ardent Socialist. In his youth, he lauded Marx and Bellamy. In the prime of his career, he became the President of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society (1939), which had renamed itself to LID in 1921. In his twilight years, he accepted ascendency as the honorary national chairperson of the LID. ISS/LID was the American counterpart to the Fabian Society, if you’re unaware.

        So John Dewey was always a Fabian Socialist, as I have already said, and only the blind or ignorant could deny. A comprehension of Socialism combined with John Dewey’s theories and writings like “Psychology, 1896”, “My Pedagogic Creed, 1897” or “The Primary School Fetish, 1898”, will reveal his designs on inculcating collectivism through education.

        So let’s add these facts to the record, which happened to be already more than “one book review.” If you recall, I mentioned: 1) a personal ranking of generationally influential books, 2) his own marveling at Bolshevik ideas and practices, 3) a Socialist-ideology-lauding book review, and 4) the collectivist implications of Progressivism in epistemology (his magnum opus).

        To deflate your conflation of Dewey’s criticism of Stalin – Trotskyites and Fabian Socialists also criticized Stalin. Were they ardent Socialists nonetheless?

        Scientific and technological advances have nothing to do with Essentialism. Essentialism thrived well through the rapid changes of the 19th century. Moreover, a teacher-centric approach does fine with science and technology. I speak this with one of the most elite scientific degrees that can be awarded – Engineering Physics. My pedagogues blended Empiricism and Essentialism. There was room for nothing else. No socratic method. No behavior. No mind-raping psychology tactics aimed at revising history and collectivizing me. No populist subordination through wideband delphi. None of Dewey’s Progressivism. No Constructivism. None of George S. Counts Reconstructivism.

        Essentialism is not difficult to maintain at all, even today. Educational doctrine is a choice. We know the implications, and we know the choices. We won’t be deceived.

        In terms of constructivism, you’re entirely mistaken, yet again. It’s very easy to deny the significance of knowledge reform. “Justified true belief” of the world changes, truth does not. Look up epistemological history. Dewey was saying controversial things, and so were the sophists who rode alongside him. Knowledge is reformed constantly. As one truth is known, another is lost, as beliefs flux, and justifications are buried. Knowledge is not eternal, nor is it progressive. Truth is eternal. Men can be ignorant of entire aspects of it. They can come to know truths, and they can entirely lose connection to truths.

        Men like Dewey contribute to the latter by eradicating the symbols and systemic tradition evolved in our language, and conditioning their “animal-human” into drawing their reason from their own intuition, their peers, their behaviors, and emotions. This collectivist brain-rape is very much required for Dewey’s dream of an American Socialist utopia. Mush-brains disconnected from “justified true belief” and objective history are good little participants in central plans. They haven’t the faculties to pre-empt folly, they haven’t the memory of helpful “justified true belief”, and they haven’t the connection to the evolution of tradition systematized in formal language to carry wisdom from the past into current affairs. Driven by emotions and wicked insecurities from their extirpated individualism, they make good useful idiots and pliable receivers of manufactured consent.

        Dewey’s approach is “frequently referred to” by whom specifically, as “immediate empiricism.” Semantic deception like that doesn’t invent itself. The fools who sought to deceive or persuade with this ridiculous phrase need either a better moral compass or education. They should be directed to William James and C.S. Peirce, to understand where Pragmatism shattered the significant tie to Empiricism, feeding John Dewey’s Progressivism. Dewey has next to nothing in common with Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. I would challenge anyone to plausibly align Dewey’s commentary to their treatment of primary & secondary qualities, modes, substances, relations, ontology of knowledge, existence, universals, perception, skepticism, and personal identity.

  2. Let’s start with the red herrings now. One fish you present leads us to an irrelevant but interesting question – is it understandable for his time period, that John Dewey was an arch-Socialist of the Fabian disposition?

    The American Great Depression was not the worst economic crisis the world had ever seen. Consider the Black Death, the Fall of Rome and successive barbarian incursions, the Fall of Constantinople, Kaiser Wilhelm’s ravaging of Europe, the Jacobins, and the Native North/South-American adaptation to foreign diseases. You’ll readily find utopian propositions forcefully conceived as early as Plato. Dewey and the progressive crew weren’t exactly breaking new ground, and they had all the privilege and knowledge at their disposal as correct and wiser intellectuals like Hayek and von Mises. So, no, it doesn’t follow that they advocated Socialism during times of economic hardship simply because of the hardship – it was not a fait accomplis in any reasonable estimation.

    Comprehending connections between Jacobins (such as Progressives, Fabian Socialists, Marxist-Leninists, etc.) entails a process of historical analysis. Hegel’s dialectic was laughed at by the consensus of philosophers, but the Jacobins found use for it in the desperation of their own folly, and Marx took those follies to the next level of catastrophe. The Christian Socialists are a good study in regards to utopian influence. Christian Chiliasts provided fertile visions (pre-analytic cognitive acts), so that the Socialists could supplant Christian metaphysics with mystical materialist metaphysics, dialectical materialism, and their own faith-based views of history. It wasn’t profound, intelligent, or new at all. That these Socialist ideas (with their accompanying Fabian or Marxian tactics) ever influenced anyone is a study of human desperation, hubris, feeble intellect, delusion, and impatience.

    Regarding your perception of my helpless daftness.

    If we say that Das Kapital and the Utopian Socialist “Looking Backward” were influential, we lack prudence. The prudent question is – were they notorious or famous?

    Only by denying the evidence of history could someone claim that they were famous instead of notorious. When a scholar is asked to produce a ranking of the most influential books of the past generation on behalf of a university – he would have a number of choices – Socialism by von Mises? Das Kapital? Looking Backward? And on, and on.

    Those kind of lists do not mean sensational, or arbitrarily ‘influential’ in a populist sense – they called upon these men to promote eternal ideas that would someday find interest in a millennia like “The Republic.”

    If Dewey had listed Das Kapital as #1 and Socialism/Economic-Sociological Analysis by von Mises as #2, we might think he could be a neutral observer, correctly posing the thesis/antithesis of social/economic thought of that generation. Promoting “Looking Backward” destroys that notion. But, with all the facts we have enumerated at this point, this is more of an exercise in critical thinking than direct relevance to the question.

    Regarding the mention of Conservatives. Admittedly another Red Herring, but an interesting discussion to follow:

    We ought not accept the false dichotomy of left and right. Political ideology (law, government, security) bends in 2-space from Liberty to Authoritarianism, and Innovation (experimentation) to Tradition (evolved systemic wisdom). As a matter of fact, Fascism was nothing more than a dressed up version of Guild Socialism. While the less-educated call Fascists right-wing, in fact, that is a Big Lie. Fascists are as south as Communists, and only slightly to the right, simply because of the historical mysticism invoked in the imagery and propaganda of the state. Ownership in name only, robbed of the full power of disposal, and “National Socialism” is still Socialism. Semantics comprise the greatest difference between Fascists and Communists.

    That said, Jacobin political origins encompass most socialism, including Progressives, Fabian Socialists like John Dewey and George S. Counts. Social Democracy and the polices of Destructionism and Interventionism were always known to eliminate Free Markets, liberty, and democracy, and incrementally lead to heavier Socialism in theory – and time has proven the theories correct.

    Referring to Reagan’s support of the New Deal during his years as a radio broadcaster and actor, in some kind of equivocation to Dewey’s Bolshevik admirations, influence in the PEA, writings on inculcating collectivism through education, and lifelong leadership in Fabian Socialism, is quite a stretch. Would you like to point to any other unqualified actors who supported some policy in a particular era to prove a point that entertainers make political mistakes incessantly?

    Maria Montessori.

    Please produce evidence of significant Conservative advocacy of Montessori schools. I’m actually interested in pursuing that folly, if it is actually true and not an anecdotal fabrication. As for the fact that Montessori targeted pantheistic adherents quite successfully, who were already vulnerable to collectivism, with a New Age flavor I would agree. Pointing to another Socialist to detract from John Dewey’s Fabian Socialism and contributions to “evolve the cosmos” as Montessori said, is simply a textbook propaganda technique.

    • This is a lot to absorb and, as much as I’d like to de-bunk your claims, I just don’t have the time to go through this on a point by point basis (I’m in the midst of writing a book, one that’s completely unrelated to Dewey). Perhaps more importantly, I really don’t think you’ll be convinced by my arguments anyway (here’s a taste: your attempt to distinguish truth from knowledge strikes me as sophistry, and your definition of “influential” is just plain wrong). Long story short: it’s futile at this point to try to win you over to my view on things, especially if it comes at the expense of my other academic activities. Agree to disagree, etc…

      Nonetheless, there is one part of your response to which I will respond. You asked for “evidence of significant Conservative advocacy of Montessori schools.” Please check out Objectivist educational literature from almost any era. Rand and her peers love Montessori’s methods, and have even suggested combining it with home-schooling. Their embrace of Montessori, moreover, is almost always positioned as a means of combating Dewey’s ideas, even though his strategies had very little impact on postwar schooling, another point you’ll no doubt disagree with me on. Again, agree to disagree…

  3. Can anyone please help me locate a copy of 1934’s “The Great American Prophet”? I’d like to read it for myself, however several internet searches have lead me only to conversations *about* it rather than to copies *of* it! Thank you.

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