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Friday, November 2, 2012

Where Enduring Revolutions Start

John Dewey (1859-1952) was the Father of American Progressive Education. As a world-class philosopher, and head of Teacher’s College at Columbia University, Dewey made a lasting impact on American educators and American schools. 

Dewey’s ideas were influenced by William James (1842-1910), who championed the darwinized notion that truth is always in a state of flux. Truth, according to James, “happens" to an idea, ever evolving and ever in process. Truth adapts to fit its environment. Truth which was once fitting for a particular social environment may not be fitting today. Only the fittest truth survives, and if it doesn’t fit, it is no longer truth.

"Objective," "absolute," "universal," or "total" truth, for James, did not exist. Truth was what works. This way of thinking, called pragmatism, is America’s distinctive (and destructive) contribution to Western thought. It was a radical departure from Luther, Comenius and Webster.

According to social pragmatism, society itself becomes the shaper of what is truly fitting for the times in which one lives. Right and wrong, true and false, good and evil are relative to the current aspirations of the group. As culture changes, values change. As values change, culture changes, and so the evolutionary process of progressive truth goes on and on.

Dewey sought to merge social pragmatism with American education, and helped the process along through “progressive education." The public school is the natural place for social formation to take place. What better place to shape truth? Change requires a certain suppleness of mind, and young minds lend themselves better to the process.


Elementary school. That's where enduring revolutions start.
 
Progressive education resists unchanging dogmas, such as those taught by the Bible. The very word "dogma" has a negative connotation. The idea of absolute, unchanging, universal truth is shunned, and people who hold such outmoded ideas are "narrow-minded." Puritanical.

Education for the progressive educator is a process by which a person becomes "open-minded," guided by independent human reason, unencumbered by Revelation. People clarify their own values. The "imposition" of values by The Book, is o-p-p-r-e-s-s-i-v-e.


In My Pedagogic Creed, Dewey refers to the teacher as "the prophet of the true God and the usherer of the true kingdom of God." I'll share more about Dewey's "God" and "kingdom" later.

What recently took place among 125 classmates who cheated on the exam at Harvard began in third grade.



John Dewey in 1902. That's not a Bible in his hands. I'm not a betting man, but if I were, I'd wager he's holding a volume of William James' Principles of Psychology.
[Photo public domain]


William James spent the bulk of his career teaching at Harvard. A nice-looking man! His concept of Veritas, however, would not have passed muster with Harvard's first board. But Professor James posed no problem for the Unitarians who took over the school in 1805. [Photo public domain]

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