A Cultural History of Education Part 5

Part 5 of 6 : The Pedagogy of Revolution
Published on January 16, 2024

Part 5: The Pedagogy of Revolution

Somewhere between the European revolutions of 1848 and World War I, restless Western intellectuals abandoned the liberal ideals of the 18th century and shifted their support to the rival tradition of “social revolution.”

The more that liberal-nationalism became an established idea in the 19th century, the quicker it went out of fashion among the ever-ill-at-ease intelligentsia. Western ideals like liberty, national sovereignty, property rights, common law, and legal equality, faded in the dawn of the 1871 Paris Commune.

In 1887, Marx’s “Das Kapital” was translated into English. Soon after, American philosopher John Dewey began his ruinous assault on classical liberal education.

The iconic Columbia University scholar’s work exposed a revolutionary state of mind that was consistent with the dramatically changing intellectual mood. Dewey rode the High Sierra of socialist visions, not the prosaic valley bottoms of productive daily life.

Marxism Defined

In his 1980 book “Marxism: For and Against,” the late American historian Robert Heilbroner sought to demystify Marx and provide a clear account of the essential elements of Marxist thought.

For Heilbroner, Marxism was contained in the legacy of Marx’s own writing plus a wide body of work that supplemented it. He acknowledged the difficulty in finding the elements in Marxism that unify the whole, but believed that Marxist theory is based on a common set of premises.

Heilbroner described an “Ariadne’s thread” connecting four premises common to all Marxist thought: the dialectical approach to knowledge, the materialist approach to history, a general view of capitalism that starts from Marx’s socio-analysis, and finally, a commitment to socialism and a belief in the unity of theory and practice.

Dialectical reasoning views the innermost nature of things to be dynamic and conflictual rather than permanent and stable. Marxism stresses the invention, rather than the reception, of knowledge. It calls for an activist approach toward knowledge itself.

Materialism focused on the productive activities of mankind. Marx located the principal motive for historical change in the struggle between economically determined social classes. From the 1920s onward, neo-Marxists of the Frankfurt School sought to gin up dialectical conflicts in competing gender, racial, ethnic, linguistic, religious, and philosophical identities.

The human condition that Marx called “alienation” was the meme that gave Marxist history an identifiable character. Marx maintained that alienation is a social pathology created by the capitalist mode of production. Workers were said to be alienated from the product of their own labour.

The fusion of a materialist starting point with a dialectical conception of historical change gives Marxism its ferociously combative nature. Marxists fight for a double victory over “social alienation” and alleged “privilege.”

Marx and Dewey

Dewey’s most vigorous professional years spanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was an era of paradigmatic eclipse during which the nature of education in North America would be permanently altered.

Like Marx, Dewey was never just an academic. He wished to influence the events and practices of his times. He was happiest when he saw his ideas translated into action.

Dewey’s early books, “The Child and the Curriculum” and “The School and Society,” went through 25 separate printings by 1950. They were written to be heard and acted upon—not just to inform, but to persuade.

From the outset, Dewey’s ideas were politically programmatic. He was dedicated to “social progress,” which he regarded as the only true objective of scholarship.

Marxism was central to Dewey’s vision of progress. He understood the essence of the Hegelian dialectic, and his ideas were inseparable from the major premises of Marxist thought.

In his 1902 book, “The Child and the Curriculum,” Dewey opens with the familiar Hegelian-Marxist idea that any significant problem “involves conditions that for the moment, contradict one another.”

“Profound differences in theory are never gratuitous or invented,” he wrote. “They grow out of conflicting elements in a genuine problem—a problem which is genuine just because the elements, taken as they stand, are conflicting.”

Dewey identified a conflict in education between the child and the curriculum, between innocent potential and a flawed traditional world. The creative energy of children was pitted against the archaic structures of classical pedagogy. It was a revolutionary struggle between the “forces of production” that move us forward and the “relations of production” that hold us back.

For Dewey, the child and the curriculum were trapped in a toxic relationship that would require dissolution and reconstruction. He saw schools as intellectual battlefields between the forces of light and darkness. His construct of the child, separated from authentic learning by a contradiction in the process, was entirely derived from Marxist dialectical analysis.

Like Marx’s proletariat, Dewey’s children were trapped in a world of opposing forces. The traditional Western paideia was alleged to be irrelevant to the child’s existential experience. Classical learning was said to be uninspiring and oppressive. In a progressive school, children would have nothing to lose but the chains of tradition.

Dewey’s Legacy

Dewey denied being influenced by Marx and made much about his objection to the idea of violent revolution. But his commitment to socialist progress put little distance between his own philosophy and Marxism.

Dewey always asserted that in the progressive school “individualism and socialism are at one.” He enthused about taking “the broader view” over the “narrow and acquisitive course.”

Dewey forecasted inevitable changes in the modes of industry and commerce. Like Marx, he was convinced that his predictions were based on “science” generated by the theory of dialectical materialism.

In one essay, Dewey was forthright in declaring that “we are in for some kind of socialism, call it whatever name we please, and no matter what it will be called when it is realized, economic determinism is now a fact not a theory.”

Both Marx and Dewey saw room for non-violent change in particular nations. Marx specifically indicated that in democratic countries like Great Britain and the United States, “the transition to socialism might be effected by peaceful and legal means.”

To push the ideological transition forward, Dewey sought to conceive a new philosophy of education. Dewey’s schools would be intricately connected with the unfolding of materialist history, and as he said, “part and parcel of the whole social evolution.”

The “mere absorbing of facts,” Dewey warned, was a selfish act in which there is no redeeming value. The new mission of the school was to become a training ground for collective cooperation, not a place set apart for the acquisition of knowledge.

In the end, Marx and the Marxists divided the West. Through Dewey and his devotees, Marxists and neo-Marists became our revolutionary professoriate, teachers of teachers, and the frenetic inspiration behind the failing schools of the present day.

We will take up the critical question of what needs to be done in the final part of this series on the cultural history of education.


William Brooks is a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. 


Related Items:

Part 1 of this series can be read here.
Part 2 here.
Part 3 here.
Part 4 here.

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