Dewey v. Dewey

John Dewey’s Democracy and Education makes Human Events’ list of the Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th centuries. (So does Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique.)

But Dewey is taking the blame for his followers’ excesses, writes Chris Correa, quoting from a 1928 Christian Science Monitor.

He made it clear that he approves of such freedom for children as releasing them from wooden benches where they have sat in rows like galley slaves in Roman triremes so that now they may push their chairs around the classroom to the position which suits them best. But, he said, in the effort to allow “child interest” to determine the day’s work there has come an indulgence of casual whims “not likely to lead to anything fruitful.”

“Dewey suggested teachers were too concerned with catering to students’ interest and were not giving enough thought to organizing their learning of subject matter in meaningful ways,” Chris writes. Again the Monitor:

In his opinion teachers waste much time thinking about the individual differences of their pupils which “might better be devoted to discovering some worth-while activity and to arranging the conditions under which it can be carried forward.”

Education debates never go away; they just cycle round, again and again.

Jenny D has more thoughts on the dangers of Dewey.

About Joanne


  1. JennyD has a very informative post on why Dewey might deserve his place on the list.

  2. I couldn’t make much sense out of the list, particularly the honorable mention list. What the heck is wrong with Origin of Species? Then I saw the list of judges. Hardly a fig leaf of even mildly moderate balance. Phyllis Schlafly? Really!

  3. The first line of the article reads:

    HUMAN EVENTS asked a panel of 15 conservative scholars and public policy leaders to help us compile a list of the Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries.

    That pretty much sets the tone, don’t you think? After all, the site bills itself as “The National Conservative Weekly”.

    Looking at the list, there’s hardly a one that isn’t awful and a couple of them so destructive that the author ought to be slapped and if dead, dug up and slapped.

    And other then Origin of the Species, and Descent of Man I assume, what other books do you think shouldn’t be in the list?

  4. Well, I must confess I have not read the Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, or Mao’s Quotations–and sadly others on the list.

    I would certainly not include: Silent Spring, Unsafe at Any Speed, Coming of Age in Samoa, The Kinsey Report. Feminine Mistique was cetainly a subject that needed to be kicked off even if one does not like that particular take. In Population Bomb, Ehrlich gets the time line horribly wrong but the concept is certainly sound and we see the world now fighting over the clean water, steel, oil, cement, aluminum and space that 6.5 billion people require.

  5. It is “The National Conservative Weekly” after all but even if it were a scientific journal a number of the books you listed would still have no place. Silent Spring, Unsafe at Any Speed, Coming of Age in Samoa and The Kinsey Report have all been thuroughly debunked as junk science.

    As for Paul Ehrlich he’s not the latest in a long line of resource-depletion hysterics but he certainly mined the vein early and often. The granddaddy of the breed, the person whose name is synonymous with the mind-set, Thomas Malthus, repudiated his famous predictions when they didn’t come true. That’s a degree of honesty his modern followers, including Paul Ehrlich, might do well to emulate.

    From the book “The Ultimate Resource” by Julian Simon the man who took the measure of Paul Ehrlich with his (more or less) famous bet:

    A professor giving a lecture on energy declares that the world will perish in seven billion years’ time because the sun will burn out. One of the audience becomes very agitated, asks the professor to repeat what he said, and then, completely reassured, heaves a sigh of relief, “Phew! I thought he said seven million years!”

    (Sauvy 1976)

  6. Of course they cycle, Joanne. They’re debates about human nature. No matter what your view may be it’s tough to acknowledge when you’re wrong. Most people just stay in there pitching.

  7. Atlas –

    When you consider the devastating effects banning DDT in the third world has had on the fight against malaria there, allowing millions of cases, many fatal, that should never have happened, I think Silent Spring has earned its place.

  8. Actually several African countries are currently using DDT to good effect. Small amounts sprayed on interior walls are excellent in killing mosquitoes. DDT is available in many countries, just not in the US. The problem came from the blazing overuse of the product, mainly on cotton.
    Carson did well to alert us to the deadly effects of DDT as it is magnified in bioaccumulation in second and third level consumers.

  9. atlas wrote:

    Actually several African countries are currently using DDT to good effect.

    Even though they’re under considerable pressure to not use DDT.

    Carson did well to alert us to the deadly effects of DDT

    Yes, too bad she had to lie to do though. I suppose the ends justify the means even if the ends were bogus.

    And of course, as Quincy points out, there’s the toll Ms. Carson took of helpless third-worlders sacrificed on the alter of environmental purity.

  10. lindenen says:

    I think they put Silent Spring on the list because apparently much of the science is bogus and the omerta on DDT has killed millions of Africans mainly children. I’ve read before that some researchers think that some of the poeple listed as suffering from AIDS in Africa actually have malaria, but were listed as AIDS patients because they can’t get money for malaria, but they can for AIDS.

    Lots of nasty people used Darwin’s work to justify putting Jews in ovens, or sterilizing the poor, etc. So I do agree with that one actually. From what I’ve read, the Kinsey Report is full of bad data and its creators had even worse ethics.

  11. Inaccuracy is what happens when one shoots from the hip. Atlas is right in that DDT is not outright banned, though it is highly discouraged by first-world entities, which has caused millions of unneeded deaths. Even if the science were sound, Ms. Carson would still deserve her place on the list.

  12. lindenen wrote:

    Lots of nasty people used Darwin’s work to justify putting Jews in ovens, or sterilizing the poor, etc.

    I’m more inclined to think that Darwin’s work is on the list because of the evolution wars.

  13. Darwin was the first to make a scientific study of the origin of species, after all. Just like Galileo with solar system structure, and Einstein with near-lightspeed mechanics (and later, gravitation). Many prominent conservatives of their times (but not the more intelligent ones) also damned Galileo and Einstein.

    The anti-science activists are strongest when it comes to the biological sciences. Very few of them still rant about Galileo and his “heresy”, or Einstein and his “Jewish science”. But Darwin is still fair game.

  14. There’s still a pretty vocal contigent of biblical literalists who believe the universe was created about 6,000 years ago. They aren’t getting the traction that the Creation Science-types are getting. Although even with them there’s more bang then buckshot.

  15. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    Not a bad list, though I would definitely leave out the Darwin and Nader books–they should not be easily dismissed as ‘junk science’, even if controversial. We conservatives are not well served by those extremists who would tarnish anything that doesn’t support their religious world view. In a free society, there should be a marketplace of ideas, in which the good ones stand the test of time and produce a better society.
    The theory of evolution and natural selection has not been ‘debunked’–faith cannot debunk anything (that’s why it’s called FAITH) and shouldn’t be included in scientific inquiry. Teach religion in religion classes, period.

    I hate Nader politically, but admire the emergence of consumer rights advocacy in many cases, and he was the consumer rights pioneer.
    Rachel Carson is more problematic– she was the ‘useful idiot’ who may have been technically correct about the harmful effects of DDT, but who spawned a generation of those environmental extremists who failed to conduct a proper cost-benefit analysis–the cost of not using DDT (more malaria) outweighed the benefit to the environment.

  16. greeneyeshade says:

    In “Left Back,” quoted by Jenny D., Diane Ravitch says it is possible to have schools that are “academically rigorous and pedagogically venturesome.” — she sent her child to one, and cites the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School as another. But schools like that seem to require a cadre of informed and active parents … and Dewey himself, or someone very much like him, running the shop.
    Dewey doesn’t seem to have made himself easy to interpret, either. When Sidney Hook, the philosopher and strong advocate of progressive education, died, one of the obituaries I saw said Dewey had complimented Hook on making Dewey’s philosophy clearer than Dewey had done himself.