Essay / Misc.

Dewian Debacle

I have been reading a very interesting book about John Dewey by Henry Edmondson called, John Dewey and The Decline of American Education. In this book Edmondson points out that much of Dewey’s educational theory has been employed by teachers and administrators who have not taken into account his foundational ideological commitments. While Dewey’s educational theories captured the imagination of many “progressive” educators, his philosophical beliefs, which grounded his educational theory, were not as well known or understood by most academics in the field of education. Fundamentally, Dewey was driven by a scientific view of knowledge and a deep anti-religious ideology. These views of knowledge and religion have severely damaged our system of education.

An important foundation of educational theory is a clear construct of humanity. Dewey, a signer of the Humanist Manifesto, believed that knowledge comes through naturalistic/empirical investigation. Dewey, in his work Human Nature and Conduct states, “[T]hrough the development of physical science, and especially chemistry, biology, physiology, medicine and [the modern science of] anthropology we now have the basis for the development of such a science of man.” Dewey does not want to think of humanity in terms of classic notions of body and soul, and certainly he wants nothing to do with religious ideologies purporting to be knowledge.

Dewey believed that through the lens of science one could come to best understand humanity. Modern science had shown that academic inquiry no longer needed to be concerned with troublesome religious ideologies. Obsolete religious constructs of knowledge could now be shunted to the side railing of academia. For Dewey, religions views were nothing more than a set of egotistical beliefs and actions that focused on an ideal world which had nothing to do with reality. Science has allowed humanity to escape the “delusion” of Christianity which is a “dying myth.” As Dewey’s educational influence grew classic Christian concepts of anthropology, sin and salvation would no longer play any role in understanding humanity or in educating students.

Dewey wanted to replace Christianity with a new religion in which the Supreme Being is found in “nature” as it is known through science. Dewey believed that nature has all the properties of a Supreme Being, and, therefore, no Christian construct of a supreme being was necessary. Students must be able to think for themselves, and should not be held down by the fetters of outworn religious ideologies. Edmonds points out that if students clung to outmoded religious ideologies Dewey would assume that the student was not thinking intelligently.

It is also that case that Dewey held that belief in transcendent truth was a thing of the past. Knowledge in Dewian philosophy is transitory and always undergoing refinement through the sciences. Knowledge should be understood as best set of data that we have at the present time because science is always investigating and refining its understanding of reality. If one is going to pursue knowledge naturalistically you must be ready to destroy things that society used to see as valuable—this, of course, means Christianity.

Dewey’s distain for the place of religion as a knowledge tradition has done nearly irreparable damage to education, the pursuit of knowledge and our nation. To overthrow nefarious educators like Dewey we must train ourselves and future generations for intellectual struggle. Charles Malik points out the necessity for training the mind for God’s kingdom in his profound speech “The Other Side of Evangelism” where he states:

The mind in its greatest and deepest reaches is not cared for enough. But intellectual nurture cannot take place apart from profound immersion for a period of years in the history of thought and the spirit. People who are in a hurry to get out of the university and start earning money or serving the church or preaching the gospel have no idea of the infinite value of spending years of leisure conversing with the greatest minds and souls of the past, ripening and sharpening and enlarging their powers of thinking. The result is that the arena of creative thinking is vacated and abdicated to the enemy. Who among evangelicals can stand up to the great secular scholars on their own terms of scholarship? Who among evangelical scholars is quoted as a normative source by the greatest secular authorities on history or philosophy or psychology or sociology or politics? Does the evangelical mode of thinking have the slightest chance of becoming the dominant mode in the great universities of Europe and America that stamp our entire civilization with their spirit and ideals? For the sake of greater effectiveness in witnessing to Jesus Christ, as well as for their own sakes, evangelicals cannot afford to keep on living on the periphery of responsible intellectual existence.

Christianity should be at the forefront of scholarly engagement. Rigorous intellectual work enables us to effectively engage ideologies that are at odds with a Christian worldview. Individuals like Dewey who wreak havoc on our society must be engaged before they become too deeply enmeshed in our culture. Study is an important aspect of the Christian life. It enables us to inoculate our families, churches and cultures from the ideological viruses that are so prevalent in our world today.

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