EDST 580—Entry 6: Radicalizing Progressivism in Education, Part I: Randolph Bourne

Snelgrove (2008)Society, Education, and War: John Dewey and his student Randolph Bourne.

Randolph Bourne, from Wikipedia.

One of the persistent questions I have run into regarding the suitability of a progressivist ideology to education in the present day has been that of its radicalism.  Naturally, as I addressed in my last entry regarding the reading from Waks (2013), it is not sufficient to simply recycle the progressivism of the early 20th century, to re-brand it and plunk it down in present-day schools.  The radical work that John Dewey and others were doing a century ago would not even hold up as progressivism in education today, let alone radical progressivism.  And luckily, Dewey and the other scholars and practitioners of progressivism in education were prescient enough to realize that.  In other words, progressivism can never be an end in itself, but only a means to some other educational end.  Still, this instrumentalism (Sidney Hook’s coinage for the philosophy behind progressivism in education) is insufficient as well.  In a future blog entry I shall take a closer look at a specific critique of instrumentalism.  But today I want to look at a couple of ways that I think progressivism ought to be updated in order to remain a useful set of ideas in the 21st century.  I like to think of this updating as a radicalization—progress for progressivism, if you will.  And my entry point this time will be the history of John Dewey’s relationship with one of his students, Randolph Bourne.

David Snelgrove, of the University of Central Oklahoma, in his 2008 article, “Society, Education and War” gives a detailed look at the relationship between John Dewey and his one-time student at Columbia University, Randolph Bourne.  As Snelgrove notes in the first sentence of his article, Bourne took a different position on the United States entry into World War I than his professor.  Bourne’s position was a pacifist position.  And though his relationship with his beloved teacher became fraught with conflict, Dewey ultimately admitted that Bourne had been right.  Yet, tragically, Bourne died during the influenza epidemic shortly after the War and was never able to make amends with Dewey, who he apparently retained the utmost respect for despite their differing politics.

Bourne’s relationship with Dewey has all the makings of a great Hollywood screenplay.  Bourne, who was deformed from birth due to misuse of a forceps, was a precocious genius, and wrote brilliantly and prolifically throughout his tragically short life.  Only after failing to receive financial aid to Yale and struggling for half a decade in New York City was he admitted to Columbia (on a full scholarship), where he had at least one class with Dewey, who became his mentor.

Bourne was well known in New York activist circles, and at first he uniformly praised pragmatism—the philosophical underpinnings of progressivism in education.  But more than Dewey, I think Bourne understood the dangers of allowing pragmatism (and thus progressivism) to harden into a useless system of dogmas.  So, even when Dewey came out in favor of War, Bourne knew that the right thing to do and what pragmatist and progressivist ideology demanded of him was NOT that he fall in line behind his mentor, but challenge what he saw as a flawed line of thought.  And challenge it he did.

In a series of essays collected as The Radical Will Bourne argued that Dewey’s argument for entry into WWI so as to position the United States to be able to set the terms of the peace, was pragmatism in its weakest form—pragmatism as a mere instrument.  In his essay, “Twilight of Idols,” Bourne questioned, “How could the pragmatist mind accept war without more violent protest?” (qtd. in Snelgrove, p.155).  And as I mentioned above, even Dewey ultimately admitted that Bourne was right.  But I want to argue briefly here, that Dewey’s mistake was not simply a mistake of mere instrumentalism.  His judgement was clearly clouded by his latent Nationalism—or Americanism as he more likely would have understood it.

Snelgrove’s article, brilliantly dissects a series of lectures Dewey delivered on the eve of the United States entry into World War I at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.  This series of lectures is collected in Dewey’s middle works as “German Philosophy and Politics.”  And it is an interesting piece of writing indeed.  I have downloaded it, and plan to read it soon, as it looks like it may shed some light on Dewey’s eschewal of Marxism along with German idealism in general, especially as that idealism related to German nationalism as Dewey saw it.  But rather than rejecting nationalism overall as one of the destructive, evil forces driving Europe and the U.S. into war, Dewey, as Snelgrove describes it, retreats to a competing nationalism.  Dewey imagined that America as a nation, with its mythos of rationality and liberty would somehow be able to induce the other nations of Europe to create a more just peace.  But in fact, this was not the case, and as history showed, the First World War quickly gave way to the rise of Fascism and World War II.

It is baffling to me how Dewey was able to put so much stock in Americanism above all other nations.  This commitment to America’s exceptionality among other nations, is a deep flaw in Dewey’s thought which comes out even in his discussion of the philosophy of education.  As Snelgrove notes, the bulk of Dewey’s longer tracts on the philosophy of education were published around the time of the First World War.  So, it is not a stretch to say that for Dewey “democracy and education” really meant “American democracy and education.”  It is difficult to express my disappointment at Dewey’s persistent mistake thus.  Why was such a well-travelled guy so tied to the superiority of the nation of his birth?  Why wasn’t the arbitrariness of Americanism more obvious?  Perhaps for Dewey it became so after 1945.  But by that time, I’m afraid that the damage to progressivism had been done, and the onset of the Cold War ensured that pragmatism and progressivism in education could have no place in a world politics based on the fear of a nuclear catastrophe.  It is easy to see in the 21st century that Americanism was never a good idea.  Thankfully the Cold War has passed; but it has been replaced by a sort of global police surveillance state.  The good news is that since the evils of Americanism are all the more evident now, it should be easier than ever for teachers to detach their progressivism from the nationalism which has distorted it for nearly a century.  And so hopefully, in the spirit of Randolph Bourne, we can continue to struggle against such broken dogmas as nationalism and further radicalize progressivism in education.


Bourne has a ghost,/ a tiny twisted unscared ghost in a black cloak/hopping along the grimy old brick and brownstone streets/ still left in downtown New York,/ crying out in a shrill soundless giggle;/ War is the health of the state.          John Dos Passos, 1919 quoted in Snelgrove, 2008

EDST 580: Course Blog Introduction

Philosophical origins, historical realities and political consequences of progressivism in American higher education in the last 100 years


As part of my final FINAL reckoning with my UBC graduation requirements as I prepare to move back to Japan to welcome my son into the world, I am going to be devoting part of my blog space over the course of the next twelve weeks or so to discussing some selected readings around progressivism in education in the United States.  I will link the course syllabus and rationale here: FISHER EDST 580 Proposal.  As you can see, I’m a little behind schedule already with the blog posts.  But I aim to be caught up by the end of next week.

I am still not sure exactly what shape this course blog is going to take—how much depth I will go into in my analysis of the articles I am reading.  But, as I discuss in the rationale for the course (linked above) I’ll be reading in the historical, philosophical and other education-centered literature for three broad themes:

1.  What progressivism in higher education meant for its practitioners, promoters and philosophers during its heyday in the first third of the 20th century.

2.  What impacts progressivism has had in higher education in terms of curriculum and other structural changes to institutions.

3.  How progressivism continues to (or fails to) influence the way we think and do higher education in the 21st century.

A few texts kind of exist in the background of my readings for this course, even though I will not be reading them this term.  John Dewey’s Democracy in Education (1916) is one.  Another is Lawrence Cremin’s Transformation of the School (1961).

This quote from a 1954 speech given by Cremin, whose later work on progressivism in education still stands as a benchmark in the history of higher education:

Granted we have gone beyond the reform programs of the last generation, there are still kindergartens that could learn much from Patty Smith Hill, slum schools which could take profitable lessons from Jane Addams, and colleges which still haven’t realized that the natural curiosity of the young can be a magnificent propellant to learning.  The Progressive Education Association is dead; and progressive education itself needs searching reappraisal.  But I think we will find that some of the best of what the progressives tried to teach has yet to be applied in American schools (Cremin 1954, quoted in Reese 2013).

I couldn’t agree more with Cremin’s 1954 appraisal.  And furthermore, I’d be willing to apply most of what he says here to 2014.  As Cremin outlines elsewhere in this speech in some detail, progressivism in education was always in some sense opposed to more conservative American cultural movements.  On this basis, nearly 60 years after Cremin was writing, with neo-conservative elements dominating the education system in the United States again, a return to progressive educational values is long overdue.

In my reading for this week, William J. Reese, in a 2013 History of Education article, gives a good exposition of the history of progressive education in the United States, with emphasis on the Lawrence Cremin’s contribution to the historiography of the movement during its decline in the middle of the 20th Century.  Reese, I think rightly, points out that whatever claims historians like Cremin have made about the dominance of progressivism as a political ideology or otherwise as a social force in American society, adherence to “progressivism” meant many different things to the different actors in American education systems.  So, clearly, as Reese warns, relying on the writings of only a few elite public intellectuals like John Dewey, or Jane Addams as exemplars of progressive voices, elides much of the complexity of the larger movement.  And the work that these early activists, philosophers and teachers started still needs to continue.

Despite the added complexity that Reese wants to add to the history of progressivism in education, he is still comfortable identifying a few overarching ideas that can reliably be glossed as central to the movement.  Reese does not go so far as to deny that progressivism in education exists as a cohesive movement as he says Herbert M. Kliebard has argued.  But the picture of progressivism Reese presents is arguably broader since it includes individual teachers and schools that Cremin excluded in his intellectual history that relied heavily on the writings of influential figures like Dewey and others, who were not always teachers themselves but theorists or in some cases administrators.

I think that overall Reese’s expanded, complexifying historiography of progressivism in education is a good step to take.  But I also think that it continues to be important to return to the authors of the central texts of the movement.  At the beginning of his article, Reese admits that a lot of the dissonant interpretations of the meanings of progressivism in education stem from mis-readings (intentional or not) of primary philosophical texts of the movement.  Dewey is one author who is as well known for misinterpretations of his philosophy as he is for his philosophy itself.  And this is a problem that Reese admits would be helped if more historians, teachers and school administrators actually read Dewey’s writing.  Reese’s reading of Cremin recommends a multi-pronged approach to the historiography of progressivism in education: one that includes the voices of public intellectuals like Dewey, Addams, Freire, and Horton, as well as the voices of teachers and others who were responsible for bringing these well known progressive ideas about education into practice.  This is precisely what I aim to do over the course of the next 12 weeks in my guided reading course, EDST 380.  You will be able to find updates on this blog tagged with the course number, EDST 380, as well as other specific topics from the syllabus as appropriate.  And I will include links to electronic versions of each weeks’ readings as I am able to as well.

Check back later this week for some discussion of more of the philosophical origins of progressivism in education.  Specifically, I’m excited to take a look at philosopher Sidney Hook’s stab at The Metaphysics of Pragmatism.  Hook was a student of John Dewey, and according to Westbrook (1991) was Dewey’s intellectual heir apparent except for his more open affinities with Marxism.  Hook was also briefly considered as a candidate to serve with Dewey on the Advisory Council of Black Mountain College, as some of my research into Dewey’s correspondence with the college indicates.

P.S.  I have cited a lot of other people’s writing here in not particularly clear fashion.  This is partially because I think that the dictates of style manuals like the APA get unwieldy VERY quickly when they are used on the Internet.  Details about most authors and writing I refer to can be found in the syllabus for the course.  I will likely include some bibliographic references in future posts.  But while I am not treating these blog entries as “formal” “peer-reviewed” essays in the same sense as my graduating paper, I do anticipate this writing being reviewed and read by my peers.  To that end, please use the comment space below freely, especially if a source I am using is unclear.

Cremin, L. (1954)

Reese, W.J. (2013)