EDST 580—Entry 5: John Dewey: Public Intellectual

A micro review of two articlesBiesta, G. & Miedema S. (1996) and Waks, L.J. (2013).

For this week’s readings, I was beginning to think more and more about how the ideas behind progressivism (i.e. pragmatism, and philosophy of education in the early 20th century more generally) impacted the social and political world at that time.  I think the most obvious bridge between a conception of progressivism as a set of ideas or ideologies and progressivism as a social and political structure and force in the world is the lives of philosophers themselves, and the histories of their molding societal institutions on the basis of the ideas that they held so dear.  Thus, my focus this week on two articles which purport to more closely examine the effect of John Dewey’s ideas on the political realities of his time.  Incidentally, what I have just described could be glossed as the intellectual history of progressivism.  And I have written at some length about intellectual history as a specific sub-discipline of the study of the history of education elsewhere.

Leonard Waks approaches the intellectual history of progressivism from the point of view of a specific text—namely John Dewey’s The School and Society (1899), while Biesta and Miedema’s piece is a broader overview, through three case studies, of Dewey’s influence in Europe, where he travelled fairly extensively in the last half of his life.  I want to say right off the bat that I think overall, Biesta and Miedema’s piece was much more comprehensive and useful within the boundaries it set for itself than Waks’.  However, in a sense, this is comparing apples with oranges because these two articles set out to do two very different tasks.

Biesta and Miedema dissected the influence of Dewey’s philosophy of education in three specific contexts in Europe—Russia, Turkey and the Netherlands.  They found that Dewey’s philosophy of education had varying degrees of popularity and success in terms of its adoption.  But the reasons they gave and analysis of these relative successes and failures of Dewey’s philosophical influence abroad, make this piece a most interesting contribution to my understanding of the intellectual history of education.  Biesta and Miedema found that, despite Dewey’s latter day image as a beacon of western (transatlantic, western European and North American) liberalism, that his ideas actually had the most influence in Russia and Turkey where there were major reform efforts (and later a revolution in Russia) underway.  I was surprised to learn that Vladimir Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, who was deputy minister of education in the U.S.S.R. in the 1920s and 1930s, was very much a fan of Dewey’s work.  But it seems that the mainstream opinion of Dewey’s educational philosophy in Soviet Russia began to sour during Stalin’s regime.  This is partly, as Biesta and Miedema suggest, due to Dewey’s support of Trotsky.  Given Dewey’s status as a icon of American liberalism, his relatively close link with the burgeoning soviet education system immediately after the revolution is surprising to say the least.

As they do throughout this piece, Biesta and Miedema brilliantly analyze Dewey’s influence.  As in this case, Dewey’s philosophy could be integrated into the Soviet education system on a practical level internal to pedagogy, with less quibbling about his underlying liberalism, America-centrism or his discomfort with Marxism.  The authors found, perhaps ironically, as they say, that Dewey’s philosophy ended up having the weakest influence in the Netherlands—the jurisdiction they identify as being most similar ideologically to Dewey’s home turf in the United States.  Nevertheless, the possible explanation Biesta and Miedema offer for Dewey’s philosophy’s failure to take hold in that liberal Western European nation still operates along the same lines as their analysis of Dewey’s influence in Turkey and later in Russia.  In short, Biesta and Miedema want to treat Dewey’s philosophy as a multi-faceted thing, complex not only in its origins in Dewey’s biography as a scholar, teacher and activist, but also in its interpretations and indeed misinterpretations around the world.

I’m doing Waks a bit of a disservice by cutting my analysis short here.  But time is of the essence at the moment, so I will leave my criticism at this: where Biesta and Miedema capture a lot of the complexity of the system of ideas and political realites which was progressivism in education in the first quarter of the 20th century, Waks’ picture of this movement and of the philosophy behind it is very flat.  Part of this, as I mentioned at the beginning of this review has to do with how Waks structured his piece—first around a single text of Dewey’s, The School and Society, and then in a sort of diachronic sort of way of analyzing the “then” and the “now” of American education reform.  This diachronic approach, which theoretically emphasizes the changes that occur from one period to another is over-simple, and I think does a disservice to the complexity and importance of the ideas Dewey was struggling with during his lifetime.  That is not to say that the problems of the present day in education are unimportant in light of the past.  However, it makes it a little to easy for an author to use the figure of Dewey as a stand in or booster for some contemporary ideology, which truthfully there is no way of telling whether Dewey would support or not.

So, for example, in Waks’ discussion of “occupations” in education—those “focal points of school learning”—that were so critical to the popular expression of Dewey’s progressivism in American schools (think vocational education), he gets a little carried away by the resonance that these ideas have with current trends in educational practice.  Here Waks gushes that occupations are, “natural bridges linking children as given by Nature to children as enduring educational aims prescribe they should become” (p.75).  Setting aside that Dewey spoke out constantly against prescribing any “enduring educational aims” for children, this is an instance of the oversimplification I’m trying to get at.  It is not enough to simply cut and paste ideas like “occupation” across contexts.  Sure Dewey’s jargon is vague sometimes.  And perhaps because of this vagueness his philosophy invites these kind of cut and paste moves.  But Waks fails to show the complexity of the way terms like occupation would have functioned at the turn the 20th century differ from the way they function in the present.  Indeed, there is a failure on Waks part to note that even over the course of Dewey’s own lifetime his own ideas and the way he talked and wrote about them changed.  Waks is absolutely right to want to bring Dewey’s ideas into the present.  But I think he just needs to be more careful about how he accomplishes this goal.  As it stands, Waks piece betrays a certain ideological conservatism or at least nostalgia for some fixed and enduring educational aims (perhaps “Progressivism in Education,” writ large) that I don’t think Dewey would have suffered lightly.