Hank Edmondson, John Dewey and the Decline of America Education
The subtitle of the book is rich in irony -- "How the patron saint of schools has corrupted teaching and learning" -- inasmuch as Dewey was a signer of the original Humanist Manifesto and eschewed religion as just so much claptrap. One value of this book lies in arguing for one of the “ends of education” endorsed by Neil Postman in The End of Education: The American Experiment. Another is to critically examine Dewey’s legacy. According to Edmondson, a major failing of Dewey was that his theories, claims of pragmatism notwithstanding, were both vague and impracticable. According to Edmondson (and I can vouch for this, if only anecdotally), “Dewey’s ideas, and their impact on American educational thought, are poorly understood, especially among the very people who run our schools” (p. xiv). As an undergraduate student majoring in Philosophy, I was required to take a semester one a “great philosopher.” Fate would have it that that Philosopher was John Dewey. I found him difficult then and my distaste for his thought has increased over time. Yet most of this contempt was for his philosophical views and I hoped that Edmondson’s text would be helpful for understanding elements of his educational thought. In Edmondson’s book I find not only a confirmation of my previous judgments about Dewey, but a discussion of the history of education in the U.S., and thus why here are such divergent goals and methods in education. According to Edmondson, thanks to John Dewey, we are “like the prodigal son” and “the educational establishment in this country has wandered from its inheritance. This inheritance comes from ancient Greece through the Judeo-Christian tradition and the best of Enlightenment thought, especially the ideas of the nation’s founders. Perhaps the most significant development in our apostasy is the departure form the common sense in favor of grand schemes of classroom experimentation.” (p. 17)
Edmondson correlates the decline of American education with the ascendancy of Dewey-inspired progressive education. This thesis can be countered by asserting that the problem is not too much Dewey, but too little. Edmondson is aware of this criticism but insists that the answer to our educational malaise is to return to the founding fathers’ vision of education. This seems to oversimplify the problem of education into what can be called largely political terms. This political posture is not surprising when one notes that the publisher is the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Some have criticized this text because Edmondson fails to fully examine Dewey’s work. This is an unfair criticism in part because pinning down Dewey’s exact position on very many subjects is impossible. Edmondson seems to have identified a major antagonist in the goal of vibrant schools, but his answers seem a bit narrowly conceived.