Tracing John Dewey’s Influence on Progressive Education, 1903–1951: Toward a Received Dewey
by Thomas Fallace — 2011
Background/Context: Determining John Dewey’s exact influence on civic and social education during the early 20th century has been one of the most vexing issues facing curriculum historians. Generally speaking, interpretations of Dewey’s work and influence have been plagued by four recurring methodological limitations: First, historians tend to interpret Dewey’s work philosophically rather than historically. Second, they use their philosophically constructed Dewey to judge the fidelity of past educators against the standard of Dewey’s “true” vision. Third, historians assume that because they have read all of Dewey’s major and obscure works on education, the reformers of the past must (or should) have done so also. Fourth, historians assume rather than demonstrate Dewey’s direct influence on others.
Purpose: To overcome these limitations, this historical study traces the influence of John Dewey on the discourse of civic and social education during the formative years of the progressive education movement by focusing on the received Dewey. By examining the specific ways in which Dewey’s ideas were used by his contemporaries and peers, the author demonstrates that Dewey’s words were often employed in various and conflicting ways to support a number of different curricular agendas. Specifically, the author argues that divisions between proponents of social justice and social efficiency, which play such a central role in the historical literature on progressive education, were not necessarily apparent to Dewey’s contemporaries who cited him. In fact, Dewey’s philosophy was often used specifically to assuage the gaps between these seemingly conflicting educational goals and objectives.
Research Design: The author focuses his inquiry specifically on the curriculum materials and discourse of secondary social and civic education. He focuses qualitatively on the various ways in which Dewey was cited and used by leading and lesser-known civic and social educators during the formative years of the American curriculum, with particular focus on uses of Dewey to support social efficiency and social justice. In the tradition of historiography, the findings are reported in a chronological narrative.
Findings/Conclusions: Although the evidence presented is merely suggestive, a few summative assertions regarding Dewey’s influence on educators during the first half of the 20th century can be made. First, Dewey was often used by contemporaries to reconcile positivistic social science with pragmatic philosophy. Second, although Graham (1995) identified Democracy and Education as “the Bible of the educational reform movement then emerging,” there were in fact numerous Dewey texts cited, often without any reference to others. Third, Dewey’s philosophy was used to support reform agendas aimed at social control and social adjustment as well as social reconstruction and social justice. To say that Dewey was used primarily in support of just one (or none) of these goals is a misrepresentation.
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