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.
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.
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.