A Christian Philosophy of Education and John Dewey
It doesn’t take long for anyone who has studied educational philosophy to be confronted with the philosophy of John Dewey. Learn about Dewey’s influence on today’s education system and how to preserve a Christian philosophy of education.
John Dewey has been dead for nearly half a century; nevertheless, every Christian should have some knowledge of Dewey’s life and work. First, American life and educational thought have become thoroughly permeated by his philosophy, even though this philosophy is often misrepresented or misunderstood. Furthermore, his overwhelming reputation can intimidate even Christians into accepting his philosophy of education without carefully judging their merit. The philosophy Dewey espoused and the influences in his life which contributed to it must be considered in the light of God’s Word, which admonishes all Christians to “prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
Significant Influences in Dewey's Background
Dewey's mother influenced her young son to adopt liberal Congregationalism--a practice which he later abandoned; and she encouraged him to get a college education. Dewey's father stimulated his interests in the classics--his undergraduate major. Lewis Brastow, a liberal Congregationalist pastor, convinced young Dewey that rationalism and religion are compatible and may have given him religious sanction for his commitment to democracy by teaching that Christianity requires group process for its true meaning to emerge. Finally, Dewey's first wife, Harriet Alice Chipman, was antagonistic toward orthodox theology and ecclesiastic institutions and appears to have influenced his thinking in that direction. She also stimulated, or even possibly initiated, his interests in social conditions and injustices. Two books strongly influenced Dewey's thinking. The first, written by Thomas Henry Huxley, an ardent evolutionist who was openly antagonistic toward God's Word, was entitled Elements of Physiology. It reinforced Dewey's desire for an interrelated unity among all things and increased his dissatisfaction with philosophical dualisms. The second, written by William James, the famous pragmatist and professor of psychology at Harvard, was entitled Principles of Psychology. It greatly reinforced Dewey's commitment to functional psychology--the psychological correlate of evolutionary biology.
Dewey's pedagogues, however, had the greatest influence in shaping his life. While Dewey was an undergraduate student at the University of Vermont, Matthew Buckman, the president of the University, taught him to "think for himself" rather than to accept the beliefs of others. After he graduated, H. A. P. Torrey, his former professor of philosophy, encouraged him to pursue philosophy as a career. While he was a graduate student in philosophy at Johns Hopkins University, his thinking was heavily influenced by the following three men: (a) George Sylvester Morris, who had rejected the religious orthodoxy of his own "puritanic New England upbringing" and who was secularizing philosophy, a heretofore theological subject, as quickly as he could; (b) G. Stanley Hall, who due to growing skepticism had abandoned theological studies for philosophy and literature, who had developed a psychological system structured within an evolutionary framework, and who was strongly advocating child-centered education; and (c) Charles Sanders Peirce, generally recognized as the founder of pragmatism, who placed strong emphasis on scientific methodology.
Dewey's Opportunities for Influence
Dewey had unparalleled opportunities to influence the direction of American life and education, and he took full advantage of those opportunities. His first professorial opportunity came at the University of Michigan, where he taught from 1884 to 1888 and from 1889 to 1894. As a professor of philosophy (and later Chairman of the Department of Philosophy), he found freedom from the constraints of theology; however, he still used language which made his teaching sound theologically correct even though it was not. Dewey's next teaching opportunity came at the University of Chicago, where he taught from 1894 to 1904. As Chairman of the Department of Philosophy, he had ample opportunity to practice his ideas in the Laboratory School which he founded and to promote many of his earliest writings on education. Finally, Dewey enjoyed a 26-year tenure as professor of philosophy at the prestigious Teachers College, Columbia University. During that time, he was able to influence scores of educational leaders through his teaching. As a visiting lecturer, Dewey had many opportunities to increase the breadth of his influence. He literally travelled the world advocating his ideas. Some of his lecture series were even compiled into books, such as the lectures given at Japan's Imperial University and published as Reconstruction in Philosophy. When not lecturing, Dewey was busy writing. During his lifetime he produced 36 published books and 815 published articles and pamphlets on a variety of subjects. It is impossible to determine the influence that these writings have had through the years.
Dewey argued that revealed truth does not exist and that anything that can be called truth must be determined experimentally. He claimed that nothing is inherently good or inherently evil: choice determines its nature. In a similar vein, he argued that nothing is inherently more valuable than anything else: rational assessments of the situation reveal the relative value of things. He asserted that morality is situational, that beliefs should be examined scientifically, and that change in belief is inevitable and desirable. He also rejected philosophical dualisms, such as the Biblical concepts of a mortal physical body and an immortal immaterial soul or of men who are eternally saved and those who are eternally lost. Dewey was personally committed to organic evolution. He believed that man is simply a complex animal possessing no inner being and no immortality. In essence he taught that the non-physical aspects of man are little more than a complex habit system. Furthermore, he argued that man is not naturally depraved and selfish but that his behavior is determined by his environment. It is worth noting that although Dewey denied being a behaviorist, these are characteristic beliefs of behaviorists.
Dewey considered education to be an uninterrupted continuum of activity resulting in the accumulation of connections or relations (his definition of knowledge). He believed that educational experience is not primarily cognitive. For Dewey, learning was essentially elimination, modification, or addition of habits with impulse activity as its basic ingredient. He claimed that education should seek no goals beyond the enrichment and improvement of the immediate situation and is successful if continuing education is made possible. Dewey claimed that the teacher should be simply a facilitator who functions indirectly by structuring and supplementing the educational environment and serving as an equal participant with the students in the educational process. He argued that learning should occur in the process of experience; that is, learning should be incidental to the ongoing natural activities of students rather than the result of teacher-planned activities. He also taught that thinking and genuine learning occur only through problem solving; therefore, only information related to immediate problems should be introduced by the teacher into the learning environment.
Dewey's commitment to child-centered classroom activity was complete. He believed that individualized, flexible objectives derived from each student's existing conditions or activities should guide classroom activities, that motivation to learn should be rooted in each student's immediate interests, that classroom control should be democratically derived through self-controlled students exerting peer pressure on recalcitrants, that students should be allowed freedom of thought and encouraged to be "open-minded," and that students should be evaluated only against themselves.
Warnings for Christians
Christians should not be deluded by Dewey's claims of disbelief in absolutes. Although he argued that students should be allowed freedom of thought and should be encouraged to be open-minded, the evidence indicates that his goal was to get students to give up their cherished beliefs in order to accept his. Dewey was a committed Humanist. He was one of the founders of the American Humanist Association and was on its board when it developed the Humanist Manifesto of 1933. His writings clearly indicate that he believed unequivocally in the validity of human reason, the ultimacy of science, the certainty of progress, and the self-sufficiency of man. Dewey could be used as a classic illustration of a presuppositionalist! The problem is that he held wrong presuppositions.
Christians must be aware that Dewey's ideas often sound much more innocuous than they really are. Dewey used ambiguous language, leaving ample room for varied interpretations. He frequently assigned peculiar meanings to familiar words, confusing any reader who might not be well-versed in his vocabulary. He also couched many of his ideas in language he knew would be unoffensive. Finally, he included numerous Biblical allusions. Although Dewey's style and vocabulary may be confusing, thorough study of his writings indicates that he was hostile to Biblical Christianity.
Christians must also understand that some of Dewey's assertions, taken at face value, are correct. For example, he claimed that hedonism leads to "dissolution and dissipation." He also asserted that traits such as truthfulness, chastity, and amiability are important. However, Dewey advocated these things solely because their practice was personally or socially beneficial. Although Christians acknowledge the practical benefits of right conduct, the primary reason they conduct themselves properly is obedience to God's Word. The deeper philosophical problem should be evident: Dewey was man-centered rather than God-centered. In part, he made it to early prominence because many believers did not think past the superficial.
Finally, Christians must accept the fact that it is impossible to separate Dewey's methodology from his educational philosophy. Methods are procedures or ways of teaching--they are morally neutral. Methodology is a body of methods, rules, and postulates employed by a discipline--it is unavoidably philosophical. Dewey was committed to problem solving as the only avenue of genuine learning, and he blurred the distinction between methods and methodology. While it is possible to utilize some of the same methods that might be present in Dewey's problem-solving methodology, his methodology must be rejected because it is open-ended. If there were any doubt as to whether Dewey's methodology could be separated from his godless philosophy, Dewey himself should have settled the question when he wrote that "it is impossible that [philosophy] should have any success in [its] tasks without educational equivalents as to what to do and what not to do." (Democracy and Education, p. 384)
In conclusion, though Dewey professed to believe that education has no goals beyond the immediate situation, he was not true to this profession. His goal of societal transformation is clearly expressed in Democracy and Education: We may produce in schools a projection in type of the society we should like to realize, and by forming minds in accord with it gradually modify the larger and more recalcitrant features of adult society (p. 370). Both historical and contemporary evidence indicate that Dewey was ultimately highly successful in accomplishing his true goal.
Dewey, J. (1906). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: Macmillan.
Lumm, L. W. (1996). A biblical analysis of the educational philosophy expressed by John Dewey in his original writings. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Bob Jones University, Greenville, SC.
This article is based on Dr. Lumm's doctoral dissertation.