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