Ideas & Debates
A Marxist Critique of John Dewey: The Limits of Progressive Education
John Dewey’s Progressive Education is the centerpiece of the field of educational studies, forming the basis for writers like Paulo Freire. However, Dewey does not see that modern teacher centered schooling prepares students for alienated labor and that the primary enemy of child centered learning is capitalism itself.
May 09, 2017
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Progressive education, with its child-centered focus is a centerpiece in the field of educational studies. One would be hard pressed to find a reputable Education Department that does not read John Dewey, and student-centered teaching that is tailored to the interests and strengths of the individual student is a hallmark of many teacher preparation programs. The notion that students should not merely be empty receptacles in which teachers pour knowledge has been expanded upon and defended by progressive teachers and education theorists around the world, often in opposition to more traditional teachers, conservative administrators, the government, and the big businesses that profit from standardized education. Why is Dewey so relevant 100 years later? Why are we still fighting a losing battle for student-centered education?
The current education system arose from the needs of modern capitalism, which began to take its current form during the Gilded Age, the era after the Civil War. The Progressive Era (1890s to 1920s) emerged as a response to the excesses of capitalism, seeking to reform the system. On the other hand, anti-capitalist (socialist and anarchist) organizations that sought to mobilize the working class against the capitalists. It is in this context that John Dewey began to articulate the need for child-centered progressive education, which he argued should be based on students’ natural interests, be connected to production, and involve teamwork. Education should follow democratic principles in the classroom and thereby prepare students to participate in a democratic society. Progressive education, like the Progressive Era itself, emerged from the material conditions of capitalist society at the turn of the 20th century: the mechanization of production in factories that alienates laborers, and in schools alienates teachers and students.
Dewey fails to see that the modern education system is deeply connected to modern forms of alienated production. Students experience alienated learning in order to prepare them for alienated production. Thus, Dewey does not see that the primary enemy of child centered education is capitalism itself. Despite pointing to central problems within the system, both the progressive era and progressive education limited themselves to reforms within the confines of capitalist democracy, which were unable to stem the tide of corporatization.
The Gilded Age: Industrialization and Profits
After the Civil War, the United States underwent vast and drastic changes. “One can hardly believe,” Dewey argues, “there has been a revolution in all history so rapid, so extensive, so complete” (Dewey 1915, 22) He describes the changes in industry and the “growth of a worldwide market as the object of production, of vast manufacturing centers to supply this market, of cheap and rapid means of communication and distribution between all its parts” (Ibid., 21-22).
Economically, it was an era of intense ups and downs. From 1865-1900 there were four depressions that wrecked havoc on the country. People were starving and the government did almost nothing to aid them.
On the other hand, the spread of industrialization fueled enormous profits. Big capitalists like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan built empires by outbidding competition, keeping wages low, creating artificially high prices, and using subsidies provided by the government. They set up some of the first and largest monopolies in US history, buying up the competition so that they could set prices as high as they wanted. Not only did the early 20th century’s 1% set up monopolies, they also created a network of powerful capitalists who supported each other’s businesses.This led to the consolidation of the bourgeoisie, quite contrary to the ideology of “free market capitalism,” according to which the invisible hand of competition regulates supply and demand to everybody’s best interest.
The Rise of the Working Class
The excesses of capitalism in late 19th and early 20th centuries were clear for anyone to see. While immigrants lived in crowded New York City slums, the Rockefellers lived luxuriously. This time period saw the heyday of American labor organizing, including mass strikes and protests across the nation. It was also a political moment in which left and progressive political parties and organizations were created.
Cities were rocked by massive worker mobilizations that were violently repressed by the government. 1886 was the year of strikes, with over 1,400 in that year alone. Labor organizing and radicalism among the working class continued after 1886: there were about a thousand strikes a year in the 1890s, and in 1904 there were four thousand strikes.
From the widespread discontent and resistance emerged organized struggle that can be roughly divided into two categories: the progressives, who organized into the Populist Party, and the anti-capitalists (including anarchists and socialists). The anti-capitalists were brutally repressed, deported, and killed. Although the progressives also suffered under repressive conditions, many of their demands were met.
The Progressives: Reforming the Beast
The Populist Party (also known as the People’s Party) was created in 1891 as a result of agrarian unrest among small farmers and the discontent of the urban middle class. The Party’s demands included reform of American politics, which they saw as increasingly corrupt and monopoly based. The Populists proposed reforms such as a graduated income tax, free press, regulation of monopolies, and the election of judges. Prominent Populist Mary Elizabeth Lease said, “Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, for Wall Street… There are thirty men in the United States whose aggregate wealth is over one and one-half billion dollars. There are half a million looking for work” (quoted in Zinn 2003, 288). This speech could have been made in 2016 by Bernie Sanders, who, like Lease, does not see the exploitation of workers’ labor by capitalists as the central injustice of the system, but rather its excesses as the problem.
Anarchists, and particularly anarcho-syndicalists who were deeply involved in the labor movement were severely persecuted. Famously, four anarchists were hanged after the “Haymarket Affair.” The Socialist Party, which was formed in 1901 under the leadership of railroad worker and union activist Eugene Debs, was also involved in the labor movement and in important strikes. The party won posts as state legislators and mayors, and even got two Congressmen elected.
In 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World was formed, uniting anarchists, socialists, and leftist workers in “one big union.” At its peak in 1917, the IWW organized 150,000 workers. Unlike the Populist Party, those organized in the IWW were explicitly anti-capitalist. The IWW’s preamble read: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life. Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.”
Woodrow Wilson began an era of “alliance” with labor, attempting to co-opt part of the working class by providing concessions to some organized labor organizations. He passed laws in relation to child labor and supported organized labor. However, the concessions provided by the government did not “result in an basic change in American life or reverse the process of capitalist centralization and control” (Novack 1956). Monopolies continued to grow, as did inequalities. In fact, some of the concessions of the Progressive era were later used as weapons against the working class. For example, the Sherman Act, which was passed in 1890, was meant to break up monopolies, but in 1895 the Supreme Court said the act could be used against interstate strikes.
The concessions of the Progressive Era were strategic for the capitalist class; they are crumbs meant to contain further radicalization. While to the Populist Party, these reforms were an end in themselves, they did not see that individual reforms would not stop capitalist expansion. The progressives did not see that every victory that is given with one hand can be taken away by the other. It is within this context that Dewey proposed progressive education, which does not see that alienated education is merely a reflection of alienated labor.
Progressive Era Education: The Alienation of Students
The education system that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries alienated both students and teachers. Overcrowded classrooms, corporal punishment, lack of teacher training, run-down facilities, and low pay characterized the education system. Of course, this was the case when there were public schools available at all. Many Black students in the South did not have any schools open to them, particularly any high schools.
Schools were overwhelmingly rigid environments that did not allow children to play or explore. William Bagley’s Classroom Management stated that education should be “slowly transforming the child from a little savage into a creature of law and order, fit for life of civilized society” (quoted in Zinn 2003, 263). Schooling therefore had a central role in disciplining students. Dewey argued that the changes in education were reflections of the changes in society, such as the shift in production from the home to the factory. In pre-industrial societies, the center of production was the home and neighborhood, where weaving, cooking, and making candles mostly took place within a few miles of where the products would be consumed. By the early 20th century, this process no longer took place in the home, but rather, in factories scattered across America.
Ostensibly, a discussion of production seems very detached from a discussion of education. However, Dewey argued that children learned a great deal from engaging in pre-industrial production. He wrote, “We cannot overlook the factors of discipline and character building involved in this: training in habits of order and of industry, and in the idea of responsibility, of obligation to do something, to produce something in the world….No number of object-lessons for the sake of giving information can afford even the shadow of a substitute for acquaintance with plants and animals of the farm and garden, acquired through actual living among them and caring for them.” (Dewey 1915, 24). Therefore, according to Dewey, the modern school failed to engage children because students were isolated from reality and not involved in creating anything useful. A book about nature is no substitute for direct experience with the outdoors and taking notes from a teacher’s lecture is less educational than students working together to solve a problem.
Yet, Dewey was not only addressing an educative loss when he discussed the lack of production in learning. He was writing about the end of pre-industrial capitalist production in which people created a product from beginning to end. The Marxist concept of alienation is that in capitalism, workers are deprived of the right to think for themselves, creatively express themselves, and own the products produced by their labor. In the past, workers masterfully produced products from start to finish and could take pride in the commodity produced. Now, in order to serve the interests of the capitalists, art, creativity, and imagination have been eradicated from production, making workers mere cogs in the machine of capitalist profit.
What Dewey fails to see is that schools are merely reflections of capitalist society. The fact that schools divorce learning from production reflects the fact that workers are also alienated from production, which has been divided into repetitive and menial tasks. Likewise, students are alienated because there is no product that results from their learning, making it abstract and seemingly irrelevant to everyday life. Dewey said that in pre-industrial production, “there was continual training of observation, of ingenuity, constructive imagination, logical thought and of the sense of reality acquired through first hand contact with actualities. The educative forces of the domestic spinning and weaving of the saw mill, the grist mill, the cooper shop and the blacksmith forge were continuously operative” (Dewey 1915, 24). Children are alienated from their education because education is divorced from reality and does not produce anything. Schools prepare students to become alienated workers, teaching them to behave, not to think, produce or understand.
The Alienation of Teachers
Students were not the only people alienated in early 20th century schools. Teaching became increasingly mechanized, less creative and more rigorously controlled. According to Kate Rousmaniere, “Teachers’ advocates blamed large classes and stuffy, poorly ventilated classrooms for high rates of chronic invalidism among city teaches.” (Rousmaniere 1997, 42). Furthermore, teachers’ salaries were low, particularly because so many teachers were women. Teachers were tightly monitored, isolated from one another, and forced to administer exams. The language of business began to creep into schools, and teachers had less control over the curriculum and their classrooms. These conditions created a climate of alienation for both the teacher and student.
Administrators applied the principles of Taylorism, a method used in factories that carefully identifies each task to be done by workers, and then created a system of closely supervising, evaluating, and determining each worker’s tasks. This meant that teachers were evaluated in a slew of areas, including grammar and use of English and personal tidiness (Rousmaniere 1997, 98). The profession of teaching became proletarianized as administrators sought to exert greater control over teachers.
Teachers’ political opinions were also tightly controlled. They were forced to take loyalty oaths, “patriotic” curricula were imposed, administrators were given control of textbooks, and some books with certain political content were barred in some states (Zinn 2003, 264). Similar to the trend with the IWW, the Socialists and the anarchists, the most radical teachers were repressed and silenced. Thousands of teachers were dismissed for not complying with loyalty regulations imposed during WWI. Rousmaniere notes that teachers were attacked “. . .who expressed pacifist or anti-war sentiment, refused to take required loyalty oaths, salute the flag, or teach patriotic songs; did not advise students to buy Liberty Bonds; expressed any pro-German sentiment or belonged to any communist or socialist group; or in at least one case, was married to a German citizen.” (Rousmaniere 1997, 22).
Teachers were also not able to connect with one another, making the job even more alienating. There were no structures for teachers to share experiences and common teaching strategies. “Surrounded by children, and sharing close spaces with other adults, teachers were still strangely disconnected from one another as they taught in their classrooms, monitored the hallways and yards, and went home- ‘a lone creature in the wilderness of indifference’ recalled a former teacher (Rousmaniere 1997, 101). Teachers did not receive any guidance or support, and often got inadequate preparation for teaching. This mirrors the alienation of students who were also isolated and cut off from each other, even within the same classroom.
Standardized testing was beginning to be implemented in schools in the early 20th century. Although many teachers were skeptical of it, IQ tests began to be required. Many educators pointed out that it was not useful to administer that exam to foreign-born students who could hardly understand it. Teachers complained that the tests had nothing to do with the curriculum and overburdened them with grading, making them less able to spend time on extracurricular activities. Yet, they were forced to give the exams anyway.
More and more, the rhetoric of factory production was used in schools. According to Rousmaniere, school reformers “referred to students as ‘raw material’, the school as the production ‘plant’, and the ideal curriculum as a plan calculated under conditions of maximum theoretical efficiency.’” The President of the Chicago School Board said, “Teaching is your business. You are salesmen. Your commodity is education. You must satisfy your customers, the taxpayers” (Rousmaniere 1997, 97).
Thus, in the early 20th century, teaching began to shift from a craft to being yet another alienated industrial capitalist job. Teachers had less and less control over their classrooms, and the most radical teachers were pushed out of schools. Creativity was stifled, as was teamwork among faculty at the same school. For teachers and students, alienation characterized the school experience.
Progressive Education Emerges
Progressive education emerged in the radicalized environment of the Progressive Era where thousands of people sought reforms, and some sought revolution. Progressive education was one of the many reforms and new ways of thinking that gained popularity. Dewey proposes that changes in society necessitate a change in education. He said, “The obvious fact is that our social life has undergone a thorough and radical change. If our education is to have any meaning for life, it must pass through an equally complete transformation.” (Dewey 1915, 28). On this basis, Dewey mapped out a model of progressive education that would maintain the advantages of living in a city, while at the same time “introduce into the school something representing the other side of life—occupations which exact personal responsibilities and which train the child with relation to the physical realities of life” (Dewey 1915, 26).
One of the central tenets of progressive education is learning based on student interests, with teachers acting as guides. Dewey proposed age appropriate education at each grade level, using play and inquiry as the basis of student learning. Cooperation, sharing knowledge, and producing would be central to a progressive school. Such schools would not maintain traditional “discipline” where students sit in silence and listen passively to a teacher, but rather a typical classroom would include children excitedly exploring their interests. In fact, education may not take place in a classroom at all. Manual training and science would be as important as reading, writing, and math. This, however, should not be mistaken for creating two separate types of schools: trade schools, attended by the working class and Black populations, and liberal arts schools, attended by the wealthy. Dewey proposed to change all education, not further stratify schools to reflect the larger society.
Despite this, Dewey’s educational proposals were only fully implemented in a few schools that were primarily attended by the children of white, middle class families. One such example is Caroline Pratt’s school in Greenwich Village which was entirely self sufficient- including its own store and post office. Students ran print shops, made toys etc. “As students performed jobs, they also learned basic academic skills as well as more sophisticated principles of economics, for example. What emerged from this model was a community of independent school children who were actively engaged in their learning, while contributing to the life of their school community” (Hauser 2002). By learning and contributing to the community, students saw the practical uses of education and were not alienated by teacher-centered education, or by fragmented and anatomized production.
Dewey’s project went beyond merely reforming the classroom. He believed that progressive education would create a more democratic society, addressing many of the problems the Populist Party posed. He argued that by promoting cooperation and teaching democratic principles, students would become truly democratic citizens who would shun the excesses of modern capitalism. “Democracy has to be born anew every generation,” Dewey wrote, “and education is its midwife” (Dewey 1980, 139). On the road to a more democratic society, Dewey called for free, public education for all and was a supporter of the American Federation of Teachers, which fought for better working conditions and wages for teachers in schools.
Progressive Education Mirrors the Problems of the Progressive Era
It has been 100 years since Dewey wrote Democracy and Education. Child centered education is still a central discussion and Dewey is one of the most acclaimed and respected theorists in the field of education. Yet, the conditions in schools today have important similarities with the conditions in schools in the early 20th century— the mechanization of the system, the proletarianization of teachers, and a school system that alienates students as well as educators. Neither the Progressive Era nor progressive education could curb this trend. Progressive education suffers from the same problem as progressivism in general—it fails to see the limits of reforms within capitalism. Dewey did not recognize that the alienation of the student mirrors the alienation of workers in capitalist society. He failed to see that schools cannot be changed without changing the structure of the society that creates them. Schools are mere microcosms of societal inequalities.
Dewey did not see that the alienation of students is reflective of the alienation of workers. He somehow hopes that students will have an experience in schools that is inaccessible to workers— non-alienated production, inquiry and exploration. Dewey fails to see that schools alienate students and teachers in order to prepare them to live in an alienated society. Lenin argues that “In fact the schools were turned into nothing but an instrument of the class rule of the bourgeoisie. They were thoroughly imbued with the bourgeois caste spirit. Their purpose was to supply the capitalists with obedient lackeys and able workers...” Thus, what Dewey does not see is that the problem with schools is not that it does not prepare kids for production. Rather, schools do prepare kids for exactly the kind of alienated production that capitalism necessitates.
Furthermore, all but the most narrow reforms of schools and society are consistently blocked by the government. Radical teachers are consistently and systematically pushed out of the profession—from loyalty tests in the World War I era to purging Communists from schools in the World War II era. The most radical militants in the IWW were fired from jobs, beaten at protests, jailed and even killed. The Progressive Era shows us that some reforms can pass, but real change is blocked, often by exerting violence on the most radical sectors of society.
Thus, we cannot change schools within the confines of a capitalist system that uses education for its own interests. Novack says that Dewey “ tried to prevail upon both capital and labor to subordinate any specific class interests to some more comprehensive national interests, hoping that intelligent forward looking members of all social strata could and would unite in a common endeavor to democratize America” (Novack 1960). Like the Populist Party, Dewey did not see capital and labor as essentially antagonistic classes in society and instead, believes that capitalist democracy can be perfected and that this perfection could occur by educating students differently.
Dewey wrote in a political moment where the discussion about reform and revolution was very much alive: a social-political moment of great radicalization in which thousands of working class people organized against capitalism. The idea of overthrowing capitalism was so much in the air that the government had to ban anarchists from entering the country. Only one year after Dewey published Democracy and Education, the Bolsheviks established the first workers’ state in history. Thus, this critique of Dewey is firmly grounded in the moment in which he lived: despite being surrounded by anti-capitalist organizations around the world and in the US, such as the emerging IWW, the Socialist Party and the Communist Party Dewey remained firmly in the progressive camp, seeking reforms within the system. This remains true despite a visit to the Soviet Union in 1928. To Dewey’s credit however, he was deeply critical of the Stalinist turn in the USSR and chaired the "Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials.”
Dewey’s educational theories continue to be relevant today because the same monopolistic capitalist system continues. Monopolies have grown and expanded, with only a few companies owning nearly all the products in the supermarket, and only a few companies owning all US media. Eight of the richest people own as much wealth as half of the world. Clearly, the capitalist trends that began in the early 20th century have only deepened. In schools, the process of standardization has continued, with businesses not only being on the board of directors, but also directly owning and profiting off of schools. Standardized tests have proliferated beyond IQ tests once a year to dozens of test a year, making billions for companies like Pearson. Teacher evaluations are increasingly tied to the results of these tests and disconnected from creativity and imagination in the classroom.
As Novack argues, Dewey’s “admirable objectives cannot be achieved within the framework of an increasingly monopolistic, militaristic and despotic capitalism” (Novack 1960). In this political moment of increasing radicalization in response to the Trump administration, it is essential that teachers, leftists and progressives learn lessons from the limits and failures of the progressive era and progressive education, understanding that within capitalism, the best we can get are concessions and crumbs. For those of us who want a truly democratic system in which we can be free and creative, we have to fight for a different kind of society that emerges from the ruins of the capitalist system.
Dewey, John. 1915. The school and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,.
Novack, George. "John Dewey’s Theories of Education." International Socialist Review , 1st ser., 21 (Winter 1960).
Novack, Geroge. "The Rise and Fall of Progressivism." International Socialist Review , 3rd ser., 18 (Summer 1957): 83-88.
Rousmaniere, Kate. City teachers: teaching and school reform in historical perspective. New York: Teachers College Press, 1997.
Sadovnik, Alan R. Founding mothers and others: women educational leaders during the progressive era. New York (N.Y.): Palgrave, 2002.
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2003.