Monday, June 13, 2005

Dewey and Hitler... together at last

Gotta get my two cents in on the Dewey debate going on at Eduwonk, Jenny D, Joanne Jacobs, and Chris Correa.

Dewey's Democracy and Education is not one of the most dangerous of all time. That is, of course, unless you are a conservative idealogue (Ann Coulter is one of their editors) and believe that children really are secondary to the educational enterprise. (And then, with no sense of irony, you can get up in front of the media to tell people that vouchers are really there to "help the children." Yeah, right.) And further, Dewey needn't spin in his grave becuause he's among good company: Darwin, Rachel Carson, and Betty Freidan also made the list. Damn those evolution believing, environment protecting, rights extending liberals.

The list was made by reactionaries and was designed not as a serious intellectual exercise, but as a way to get some cheap publicity. Sure, throw Darwin and Dewey in there with Hitler and Mao and you're bound to get people talking. And here we are...

Dewey was not -- and is not -- dangerous. Certainly, people have gone too far with his ideas in particular places and in particular times, and he said as much. But the fundamental Deweyan idea that a child's interests are important and worthwhile has not -- and should not -- fade. It's a brilliant and revolutionary idea that still has the potential to transform education into something far better than it is now-- if it's done right. And therein lies the rub.

As I've said in a few comments already, while Democracy and Education was a blundering treatise that was widely misinterpreted (because, I think, of its lack of clarity), Experience and Education was the opposite. Written when Dewey was nearing 80 years of age, it's short, clear, easily accessible, and represents decades of reflection on education after the publication of Democracy and Education. It effectively boiled all of Dewey's ideas down to their essence. It's one of the best books I've ever read and I'd welcome all comers who would like to argue about its merits.

There's a great summary here. You can probably find a $1 copy at any good used book store. If anyone knows where the full text is online, please let us know.


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