John Dewey believed that education was the key to social change. Yet as Henry T. Edmondson effectively shows in his new book, Dewey could not defy the inherent contradictions of his own philosophy, which has left an indelible mark on American education.
Although Dewey likened himself to a modern-day Thomas Jefferson, he wholeheartedly rejected Jefferson's emphasis on cultivating personal independence and meritocratic statesmanship as the goals of public education. Instead, Dewey taught that textbooks, teachers, and the competition for grades inhibited students. Dewey's "practical teaching" emphasized cooperative learning and social adjustment. The result, Edmondson contends, is that our schools are "neither rigorously academic nor authentically vocational." They are mediocre at best.
A professor of public administration and political science at the Georgia College and State University, Edmondson recognizes that today's philosophical divide on education will take time to repair, but his book does not outline specific policies to reform Dewey's legacy. He quips that educators should simply adopt the medical philosophy, "First, do no harm."
—Diana M. Ernst
Pacific Research Institute
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This article appeared in the Winter 2006 issue of the Claremont Review of Books