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The Question of Dewey's Impact on Curriculum Practice

by Herbert M. Kliebard - 1987

In responding to Tanner's book review, the author discusses why he thinks John Dewey’s curriculum work remained largely confined to the world of ideas and had relatively little impact on school practice.

Naturally, I was most gratified by Laurel Tanner’s generous review of my book. When the editors of Teachers College Record invited a reply, I first thought only of just saying thank you and leaving it at that. But there does seem to be one point of some substance on which Tanner and I disagree, and I decided to take this opportunity to elaborate on it in a way I did not in my book. The matter concerns why I think John Dewey’s curriculum work remained largely confined to the world of ideas and had relatively little impact on school practice. In taking that position, I was, of course, aware that my position ran contrary to much popular and even scholarly opinion, since for many people Dewey and American education are practically synonymous.

At one level, at least some of the things that have become identified with Dewey’s ideas on education now appear commonplace in American schools. Probably most conspicuous among these is the air of informality that prevails in today’s schools compared, say, with schools at the turn of the century and extending through the 1950s. There is a certain convivial banter that characterizes most of the language that students and teachers use when they talk to one another, and, insofar as dress is concerned, the stiff collar and the petticoat have given way to open shirts and slacks. But it would be a mistake to see this as a significant break with the reliance on external authority in the world of schools that Dewey so much deplored. One has only to read contemporary accounts such as Philip Cusick’si to realize that keeping order remains the controlling purpose of American schools, so much so that it almost does not matter what is taught. Under these circumstances, Dewey’s longstanding emphasis on getting students to think in a systematically critical way about their world, more often than not, receives short shrift. Once we strip away the catchwords like "learning by doing" and "activity" that plagued Dewey most of his life and get down to his irreducible core, we are left with a curriculum that equips the vast majority of our school population to become intelligent masters of the world in which they live, and I think we are a very long way indeed from even approaching anything like that.

One case in point is the searing indictment that Frances Fitzgerald has provided of what is included in social studies textbooks.ii Since teaching is (alas) still closely tied to recitations from textbooks, it is not unreasonable to assume that what is taught bears a strong relationship to what those textbooks contain. Fitzgerald makes a very convincing case that the tormenting controversies, the moral dilemmas, the competing interpretations of historical events — the very stuff that makes the social studies worth including in the curriculum in the first place-have essentially been stripped from those textbooks in favor of bland and factual (or quasi-factual) accounts of what happened. For Dewey, the very heart of the curriculum was social, beginning with social occupations, like building shelter and making clothing, and extending systematically outward to a sophisticated understanding of our social institutions; there is little in American schools, so far as I can tell, that reflects that central thrust. There have, of course, been examples of outstanding teaching both before and after Dewey, but the connection between those examples and Dewey’s ideas remains to be demonstrated. If there is a public elementary or secondary school anywhere that self-consciously or conspicuously follows even the most elemental curricular principles that Dewey set forth, then I certainly do not know about it.

Tanner points to some examples of Dewey’s influence in her review, and, again, on a certain level her argument appears plausible. As I look beyond the subject labels, however, I am forced to conclude that the resemblances to Dewey’s ideas are more apparent than real. Unfortunately, space permits me only to take a stab at a couple of those examples. With respect to ‘vocational education in a comprehensive setting," it is true that Dewey strongly opposed a proposal by the ex-superintendent of schools of Chicago that would have split off vocational education from general education in Illinois through a bill requiring separate school boards for each system. As things turned out, the comprehensive high school, not separate vocational schools, did indeed become the standard in American education, but there are more persuasive reasons for that outcome than Dewey’s rather parochial debate with Edwin Cooley. More to the point is that the controversy over separate vocational schools led to a short but rather bitter exchange with David Snedden on the question of what vocational education was all about. Snedden, reacting to Dewey’s position, argued that "vocational education is, irreducibly and without unnecessary mystification, for the pursuit of an occupation."iii Dewey’s version could hardly by more inconsonant, concluding in his reply that it was the duty of educators to strive for "a kind of vocational education which will first alter the existing industrial system, and ultimately transform it.”iv Needless to say, Snedden’s version with its emphasis on occupational skill training was the ultimate victor in terms of what vocational education became, while Dewey’s "industrial intelligence" in the sense of an acute awareness of what makes an industrial society tick is almost nowhere to be found. Similarly, two of Tanner’s other examples, industrial arts and home economics, instead of becoming the starting point for an understanding of and participation in an idealized social life, have become instead the practical skills of sawing and cooking and hammering and sewing, the very things that Dewey argued against so eloquently.v It appears to me now more than ever that lying just below that first layer of resemblance between Dewey’s ideas and curriculum practice, there exist not trivial but profound differences.

The whole issue of influence is a notoriously difficult one to establish, and, in my book, I used figures like Snedden and Franklin Bobbitt not as examples of people who magisterially steered the course of American schooling but as weather vanes who could indicate which way the curriculum winds were blowing. Poor Dewey, I am afraid, always seemed to be pointing the other way. In any case, I should like to express my gratitude to Laurel Tanner, not simply for her gracious comments about The Struggle for the American Curriculum, but for pressing me into at least a somewhat more elaborate defense than I presented in the book of what I am sure remains a controversial interpretation.


i Philip A. Cusick, The Egalitarian Ideal and the American High School (New York: Longman, 1983).

ii Frances Fitzgerald, America Revised: History Textbooks in the Twentieth Century (Boston: Little Brown, 1979).

iii David Snedden, "Vocational Education," New Republic 3, no. 28 (May 15, 1915): 41.

iv John Dewey, "Education vs. Trade-Training—Dr. Dewey’s Reply," New Republic 3, no. 28 (May 15, 1915): 42.

v John Dewey, School and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1900), pp. 15-22.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 89 Number 1, 1987, p. 139-141
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 563, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 9:37:20 PM

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