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Dewey and Education

Dewey: Stalin's Propagandist, the World's Teacher

By Daren Jonescu

May 2013


Joseph Stalin had beenGeneral Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party for six years in 1928, whenJohn Dewey, "the father of modern education," toured Russia with agroup of educators. Later that year, The New Republic published Dewey's Impressions of Soviet Russia and the revolutionary world. This polemic stands as a remarkable testament toprogressivism's disdain for mankind, reason, and truth. It is also Dewey's mosthonest and concise primer on the principles of his progressive educationmethod. Anyone prepared to defend the idea of government-controlled schoolingafter reading this work is perhaps beyond reach of rational argument.

Dewey's general assessmentof the Stalinist Russia he claims to have encountered is unabashedly positive,not to say romantic. Here is a very typical example:

But since the clamor ofeconomic emphasis, coming... from both defenders and enemies of the Bolshevikscheme, may have confused others as it certainly confused me, I can hardly dobetter than record the impression, as overwhelming as it was unexpected, thatthe outstanding fact in Russia is a revolution, involving the release of humanpowers on such an unprecedented scale that it is of incalculable significancenot only for that country, but for the world. [p. 15]

Note the peculiar effect ofcombining the most understated, non-judgmental language to describe a murderousdictatorship ("the Bolshevik scheme") with the most unobjectivehyperbole ("overwhelming," "unprecedented,""incalculable") to describe something as abstract and speculative as"the release of human powers" under communism. This passage, andindeed the entire document, written by a sixty-nine year old eminentintellectual, reads like the silly postcard effusions of a ten-year-old girl onher first trip to Disneyland.

Furthermore, notice Dewey'sexpression of surprise at the disparity between the Russia he claims to haveencountered and the one he supposedly expected to find. Knowing that he iswriting for American readers inclined to disapprove of the Soviet dictatorship,Dewey carefully peppers his reminiscences with expressions of shock. Thepretense that he never expected to find Russia so wonderfully transformed bycommunism is this lifelong leftist's cynical reversal of Socratic irony -- hisfeigned wide-eyed innocence is intended to entrap the unsuspecting reader innaïve acquiescence to irrationalism. The technique is used frequently to punctuatehis most outrageous declarations of admiration for Soviet tyranny. Two moreexamples:

If I learned nothing else, Ilearned to be immensely suspicious of all generalized views about Russia; evenif they accord with the state of affairs in 1922 or 1925, they may have littlerelevancy to 1928, and perhaps be of only antiquarian meaning by 1933. [22]

I am only too conscious, asI write, how strangely fantastic the idea of hope and creation in connectionwith Bolshevist Russia must appear to those whose beliefs about it were fixed,not to be changed, some seven or eight years ago. I certainly was not preparedfor what I saw; it came as a shock. [40]

Is it possible to be"shocked" by one's own abstract interpretation? Did one of the West'sleading socialists really "learn," in 1928, to be "suspicious ofall generalized views about Russia"? Or is his "shock" reallyjust part of a predictable leftist apology for the brutality of Sovietcommunism, a sympathetic assessment that was never in doubt? You be the judgeof passages such as this one:

We all know a certain legendappropriate to the lips and pen of the European visitor to America: here is aland inhabited by a strangely young folk, with the buoyancy, energy, naïvetéand immaturity of youth and inexperience. That is the way Moscow impressed me,and verymuch more so than my own country.There, indeed, was a life full of hope, confidence, almost hyperactive, naïveat times and on some subjects incredibly so, having the courage that achievesmuch because it springs from that ignorance of youth that is not held back byfears born from too many memories. Freed from the load of subjection to thepast, it seems charged with the ardor of creating a new world. [37-38, emphasisadded]

This charming notion ofyouthful "ardor," "hope," and "confidence," mere"legend" when applied to America, is, according to Dewey, "verymuch more" truly said of Stalin's Russia.

Or consider this descriptionof a totalitarian police state:

The mass of the people is tolearn the meaning of Communism not so much by induction into Marxian doctrines-- although there is plenty of that in the schools -- but by what is done forthe mass in freeing their life, in giving them a sense of security, safety, inopening to them access to recreation, leisure, new enjoyments and newcultivations of all sorts. [55-6]

The general judgment, then,is not only that Russians under Stalin are happier and more hopeful than theyhave ever been -- than any people have ever been -- but that the regime desiresthe people's happiness, that conditions under Stalin indicate the regime'sdevotion to the well-being of the "masses." Dewey makes this pointexplicit, telling us that the new government "is one as interested ingiving them access to sources of happiness as the only other government withwhich they have any acquaintance was to keep them in misery." [67-8]

Consider the dishonesty ofrecasting the Marxist-Leninist program of forcibly undoing the traditions andreligion of a nation as the glorious achievement of a people "creating anew world" after having been "freed from the load of subjection tothe past." And lest anyone question the destructive means of"freeing" a nation from its past, Dewey insists that this allegeddestructiveness is part of the West's false narrative about Stalinism.

All that has been said ofthe anti-clerical and atheistic tendencies of the Bolshevist is true enough.But the churches and their contents that were of artistic worth are not onlyintact, but taken care of with scrupulous and even scientific zeal. It is truethat many have been converted into museums, but to all appearances there arestill enough to meet the needs of would-be worshippers. [42-3]

No, you are not reading aclever updating of Swift's Modest Proposal. This is themost influential American philosopher of the twentieth century, and the singlemost influential man in the history of public education,whitewashing the Soviet crushing of religion as mere "atheistictendencies," and admiring the violent confiscation of churches and  artworks onthe grounds that 

the buildings and "their contents of artistic worth"are "intact," "taken care of," and "converted intomuseums." And take a moment to appreciate Dewey's dismissive swipe atpersecuted believers as "would-be worshippers." He carries on, notingwith stomach-turning delight that "The collections of ikons in museums inLeningrad and Moscow are an experience which repays the lover of art for avoyage to these cities." And how, we might ask, were the previous ownersof these artifacts "repaid" for their involuntary contributions toDewey's cultural voyage?

Thus far we have establishedonly that the mature Dewey loved communism, and was prepared to say anything,no matter how vile or absurd, to defend the post-revolutionary Russia by whichhe so unconvincingly claims to have been delightfully surprised.

But what of the primarypurpose of his visit, namely the examination of Stalinist Russia's educationalestablishment? Here, Dewey's enthusiastic rhetoric carries him into rhapsodiesof self-revelation that shed the light of frankness on his often disingenuousand manipulative philosophical writings.

One cannot miss the personalpride with which Dewey admires Soviet education. Far from being a disinterestedobserver, Dewey had a vested interest in providing a favorable review of boththe methods and the results of Soviet schools, for they were fundamentally his methods, and the results, therefore, evidence for oragainst Deweyism. He is therefore predisposed to see noble intentions and greatsuccess in every use of public schools for purposes of social control,government indoctrination, and the propagandistic undermining of mankind's moral,political, and rational heritage -- purposes that he himself advocates. Thus weget flourishes such as these:

I have never seen anywherein the world such a large proportion of intelligent, happy, and intelligentlyoccupied children. [28]

For while a revival ofinterest in artistic production, literary, musical, plastic, is characteristicof progressive schools all over the world, there is no country, unless it bepossibly Mexico, where the esthetic aim and quality so dominates all thingseducational as in Russia today. [44-5]

I can speak [glowingly] ofRussia with any degree of confidence only as the animating purpose and life ofthat country are reflected in its educational leaders and the work they areattempting. [46]

And how does Dewey define"the work they are attempting," which he finds so praiseworthy? Muchof his polemic rides on what he calls the "aesthetic" element of thepost-revolutionary period, and which he regards as more important than Marxisteconomic theory. This aesthetic element has to do with the production of a newemotional sensibility which, in turn, will engender a "newmentality," one suited to totalitarian collectivism -- although Dewey iscareful to avoid describing the social system so directly, preferring, forobvious reasons, to define it only negatively, as the antithesis of "theegoistic and private ideals and methods inculcated by the institution ofprivate property, profit and acquisitive possession." In other words, theprimary function of Soviet education, of which Dewey thoroughly approves, isthe undoing of the "mentality" of individual liberty, free will, andself-determination.

Essential to achieving thisnew mentality is omnipresent communist propaganda -- which Dewey not onlydefends, but identifies as the heart of progressive education.

The present age is, ofcourse, everywhere one in which propaganda has assumed the role of a governingpower. But nowhere else in the world is employment of it as a tool of controlso constant, consistent and systematic as in Russia at present. Indeed, it hastaken on such importance and social dignity that the word propaganda hardlycarries... the correct meaning. For we instinctively associate propaganda withthe accomplishing of some special ends, more or less private to a particular classor group, and correspondingly concealed from others. But in Russia thepropaganda is in behalf of a burning public faith. One may believe that theleaders are wholly mistaken in the object of their faith, but their sincerityis beyond question. [53-4]

Once again, Dewey demandsthat we acknowledge the noble intentions of the Communist Party, which hespecifies as "the universal good of universal humanity" [54]. Andfrom this premise, the "sincere" faith in "universal" communism,John Dewey -- the most important theorist behind all public educationthroughout the civilized world -- draws the following conclusion:

In consequence, propagandais education and education is propaganda. They are more than confounded; theyare identified. [54]

The purpose of thispropaganda/education is to inculcate a change in "the mental and moraldisposition of a people" [59], in favor of identifying oneself essentiallywith the collective, while regarding one's own private interests as gratuitousand worthless. However, the progressive educator's efforts are persistently"undone by the educative -- or miseducative -- formation of dispositionand mental habit proceeding from the environment" [70], which is to say bynatural impulses and social circumstances contrary to the teachings ofcommunist self-immolation. The greatest enemy of communist education -- thecondition that inculcates belief in private property, and promotes the naturalimpulses to self-preservation and self-reliance, which Marxism reductivelycalls "profit" -- is the private family. The elimination of thefamily, therefore, is the most necessary means to the propagandistic purity ofthe progressive school.

Hence the great task of theschool is to counteract and transform those domestic and neighborhood tendenciesthat are still so strong, even in a nominally collectivistic regime. In orderto accomplish this end, the teachers must in the first place know with greatdetail and accuracy just what the conditions are to which pupils are subject inthe home, and thus be able to interpret the habits and acts of the pupil in theschool in light of his environing conditions -- and this, not just in somegeneral way, but as definitely as a skilled physician diagnoses in the light oftheir causes the diseased conditions with which he is dealing. [72-3]

Here, Dewey defends thepractice of having children spy on their parents, and report their parents'"diseased" (i.e., individualistic) behavior and attitudes, so thatthe state may undermine them more effectively. He regards this "socialbehaviorism" as "much more promising intellectually" thanphysiological behaviorism, as it "will enable schools to react favorablyupon the undesirable conditions discovered, and to reinforce such desirableagencies as exist" [75]. This is Dewey's case for public schools asMarxist re-education camps.

He lingers over thisall-important task of destroying the family, and bringing the child under theexclusive mental and moral control of the government. Nothing ever written, bythe present author or others, to persuade parents of the folly of imaginingthey can undo the damage of public education at home, can make the point asclearly as Dewey himself, speaking as a general in the opposing army.

It is obvious to anyobserver that in every western country the increase of importance of publicschools has been at least coincident with a relaxation of older family ties.What is going on in Russia appears to be a planned acceleration of this process.For example, the earliest section of the school system, dealing with childrenfrom three to seven, aims... to keep children under its charge six, eight andten hours per day, and in ultimate ideal... this procedure is to be universaland compulsory. When it is carried out, the effect on family life is tooevident to need to be dwelt upon.... [78-9]

Unfortunately, it seems thatonce this universal and compulsory "ideal" has been achieved, itseffect on family life ceases to be so "evident" to parents whosechildren are currently being hollowed out by it, scoop by scoop. In the earlierstages of the spiritual enslaving of man, the perpetrators knew exactly whatand whom they had to defeat, and saw the task as formidable. Their intellectualheirs of today have merely to complete the final clean-up of Satan's workshop-- the hard work has already been done by Dewey and other pioneers ofcompulsory public education.

Dewey, in identifying thehurdles on the path to complete collectivist social control, helps us tounderstand exactly what government educators are aiming at today, as theycomplete the progressive annihilation of mankind.

I do not see how any honesteducational reformer in western countries can deny that the greatest practicalobstacle in the way of introducing into schools that connection with sociallife which he regards as desirable is the great part played by personalcompetition and desire for private profit in our economic life.... The Russianeducational situation is enough to convert one to the idea that only in asociety based upon the cooperative principle can the ideals of educationalreformers be adequately carried into operation. [86]

In short, progressiveschools, if they are to produce the desired collectivist mentality, will do somost effectively within the broader societal context of communism. Hence:

While an American visitormay feel a certain patriotic pride in noting in how many respects an initialimpulse came from some progressive school in our own country, he is at oncehumiliated and stimulated to new endeavor to see how much more organically thatidea is incorporated in the Russian system than in our own. [106-7]

That is, the theoreticalfoundation of all compulsory schooling in the developed world is most"organically" suited to implementation in a communist dictatorship.Lest anyone -- probably a graduate of teacher's college -- object here thatDewey was an ardent democrat, and in no way inclined towards authoritarianism,I conclude with this:

Perhaps the most significantthing in Russia, after all, is not the effort at economic transformation, butthe will to use an economic change as the means of developing a popularcultivation... such as the world has never known.... The main effort is noblyheroic, evincing a faith in human nature which is democratic beyond theambitions of the democracies of the past. [31-2]

For John Dewey -- yourteacher, your children's teacher, the world's teacher -- Stalinist Russia washistory's purest, noblest example of the democratic ideal. (That Dewey, likeStalin's other propagandizing apologists, suddenly became a Trotskyite when thedam of progressive lies burst, only reinforces his disingenuousness.) Sovieteducation, most "organically" suited to communist"democracy," was the highest achievement in world schooling, and agreat source of pride for Dewey, as it was his own system, carried out morecompletely than social conditions in the West permitted at that time.

Times have changed, however.Dewey has won. Ethical individualism is, in general, dead. Collectivistself-immolation and Dewey's superficial kaleidoscope of infantile "individuality" are the social norm. Private property andfamily are on their last legs. The West has largely been "freed from theload of subjection to the past." The "aesthetic" revolution ofgovernment education (aka propaganda) has borne its deformed,inedible fruit.

Earlier progressives hadfaith that political enslavement would pave the way to educational revolution.Their intellectual heirs have learned from history that the opposite nexus,pursued gradually, may result at last in a more firmly rooted universalauthoritarianism.

We are almost there.

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