What wrecked American education in the 20th century? We hear so many excuses, so much outright lying, it’s hard to stay focused on the essential history.

In so far as you can blame one person for a large historical shift, John Dewey is the guy who mugged public education and left it bleeding in a ditch.

John_DeweyYou know John Dewey? The guy with the 200 IQ, the guy who wrote the equivalent of 50 books, the guy who seemed to live forever and remain a vital force in education for more than 60 years, the guy who had something to say on every question, you know that guy? He’s a lot to deal with. Let me cut to the chase, and deal with just two doctrines (or compulsions) that dominated Dewey’s thinking and devastated American education. Just two. And you will quickly see that when these two compulsions are allowed to take control of public education, you won’t have what used to be called education.

First of all, John Dewey was a socialist, a collectivist, a communist, use any word you prefer. He wanted everybody to be the same. He wanted to kill off American individualism. He wanted all the children in the room to be good little coworkers, cooperative, more or less identical.

Now, shine the spotlight on just this point: if you know something that I don’t know, you move to a higher level, even as I move to a lower level. I’m a C or D student, while you become an A student, and thus my superior. Social divisions are opening up in a classroom which is supposed to exhibit undifferentiated equality. 

What to do? It’s obvious. You must be kept from learning more than I do. 

John Dewey was relentless in downplaying the importance of knowledge, facts, everything that he dismissed in the memorable phrase “mere learning.” But it’s not the learning per se that he hated. It’s the differences that learning creates. Ever since the beginning of time you had A students, B students, C students. The same spectrum of differences would be there in sports, music, salesmanship, leadership, military skills, yodeling, or anything else you could possibly do in any sphere of real life. School, by definition, was supposed to deal with the academic part of life. Naturally you would have good students and not-so-good students. But Dewey stood in the doorway and said: no! We are not having any academic stuff going on here if that leads to differences. From that point on, American education was make-believe and patty cake.

Put yourself in Dewey’s mind. The vision he always pursued was the happy group of laborers — you see them in propaganda films — going off to work with a shovel over one shoulder and grins on their faces. Heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s off to work we go. Dewey wanted to build a brave new socialist world right inside each and every classroom.

In sum, Dewey hated social distinctions. To prevent what he hated, he was willing to destroy everything that schools have traditionally done. Remember, Dewey lived until 1952 and he and his clones trained all the Ph.D.’s that controlled education in the 1970s and 80s, and those people trained the ones we have to deal with now. Their socialist manias are the reason we have mediocre public schools.

Second and quite separate, Dewey and indeed all of Progressive Education was obsessed with making school easy and fun, of letting children blossom to their full potential through activity and play. The idea of forcing children to finish a task, of imposing demands, of expecting discipline and industriousness, all of this was said to be tragically oppressive for the child’s tender spirit.

Siegfried Engelmann said a wonderful thing: “Our educators are  fundamentally looking for magic.” I’ve thought about this quote a lot in the last few years. What Engelmann is saying, I believe, is that our educators actually believed they could throw puppy dog tails into a pot, say the right hocus-pocus, and children would magically know whatever it was you might want them to know. And all of this would be fun and, above all, effortless.

Obviously, this approach is nutty and dangerous. You and I, as adults, know that if we want to learn to ski or play golf, to speak Chinese, to be a chef, to drive an 18 wheeler or fly a plane, we will have to go to school. Even though we are grown-ups, well organized, and sophisticated in many ways, we will still have to study, read our instruction books, memorize stuff, and take tests, and prove over and over that we are actually mastering this things we’re trying to learn. The process might take months or years. We as adults know that we have a lot of work ahead of us. There’s no other way.

But all of our public schools are built on the absurd notion that, given a bunch of ignorant, unsophisticated kids, you can wave a wand and achieve academic magic. Little teaching need take place, because children will miraculously learn. Sure, just as you and I, no-talent beginners, can snap our fingers and shoot 72 in the next pro-am golf tournament. Magically.

What happens in practice is that the children are given The Worst Possible Preparation for the rest of their lives. They are told they don’t have to work to get an A. They are told that everything will always be easy and there is no need to hit the books and really study. It’s not necessary.

So much in public school education is essentially preposterous. This love of magic is destroying children because they go to high school, then to college, then a first job, expecting they can do little or nothing but still be successful. It would be far better for the children, and the society, to give them realistic challenges, to let them fail sometimes, and then urge them to try harder. Basically, life has only one perennial message: the greater our effort, the greater our chances. The public schools bury that message and for this we should hold our Education Establishment in contempt.

So, what’s it like inside Dewey’s misguided mind? It’s a land without facts, a world without work. In short, a realm almost insanely disconnected from real life. 

Finally, if the permissive hippie parents next door want to raise their kids unkempt and undisciplined, maybe that’s their right. But when those parents insist on raising YOUR kids the same way, you immediately see Dewey’s essential sin. He wanted to use the power of government to bully others. Dewey looked at how America was raising its children and declared: not good enough. You must do it my way.  

Bruce Deitrick Price is an author, artist, poet and education activist. See “25: Phooey on John Dewey” on Improve-Education.org. .