By Aleksey Bashtavenko
John Dewey famously argued that an educated populace is the backbone of a Democratic society. The school of thought he espoused has been known as “progressive education” which promoted egalitarianism, intellectual creativity and above all, a pro-Democratic mentality. Dewey stood fiercely opposed to the traditional paradigm of education where the pedagogue provided information and the students passively received it. For him, genuine learning must always take an active form where students are free to pursue intellectual inquiry in an autonomous fashion. In his own teaching, he encouraged students to ask difficult questions, challenge conventional wisdom and display creative initiative.
At a time when our institutions of higher learning seem divorced from these ideals, one cannot refrain from asking where we must have gone wrong. Dewey was a proud political progressive and many modern liberals regard him as iconic figure of their ideology.His credentials as a forward-looking intellectual and a champion of egalitarianism are impeccable. He was the only philosopher who was alive at a time when Bertrand Russell released his famous “History of Western Philosophy” and therein, Russell claimed that he was “almost sorry to have to disagree with Dewey” because of the profound respect he had for the man.
Russell’s panegyric was hardly an idiosyncratic sentiment of a marginalized radical. Today, academic institutions from the K-12 to Ivy League graduate schools are dominated by political liberals who heartily endorse the tenets of Dewey’s social philosophy.
Throughout his writings on the matter, he repeatedly professed his devotion to two ideals that he saw as intimately intertwined: education and democracy. The connection between the two has been so fundamentally ingrained into our collective consciousness that we can hardly see them as distinct from each other. Based on this assumption, we often surmise that the more education the average person receives, the better! The more college degrees our institutions award, the brighter our citizenry must be and the more capable they must be of thinking critically. Therefore, it should stand to reason that our society must be becoming increasingly more democratic. However, even the most elementary comparison of the modern era with the progressive Era in which Dewey lived suggests that any notion of a substantive democratic progress must be illusory.
In over 94% of Presidential Elections, the Candidate who raises the most money wins . This is even more of a stark reality today than it was a 100 years ago when voters were less influenced by the mainstream media. Highlighting that observation, Paul Lazarsfeld authored a provocative paper titled “the election is over” urging politicians to not waste their money on persuading voters to change their mind. At the time, it seemed virtually self-explanatory that the inner-city unionized blue-collar workers would invariably vote Democrat and the rural religious conservatives would vote Republican. Anyone who publicly contemplated changing their political allegiance risked becoming a pariah in the most ignominious manner conceivable.
While very few voters understood the philosophical underpinnings of their political allegiances, they were able to provide a clear account of what their party stood for. They did not need to rely on sentimentalized ideals and vague abstractions. Clearly, that is no longer the case today when a significant percentage of millennials profess commitment to socialism and a free-market economy . Similarly, they are in favor of additional government services as long as their taxes do not increase “too much”. When asked to define a liberal, they resort to broad generalization such as “somebody who doesn’t discriminate against anyone”, “someone who does not look down upon others”, and “somebody who wants progress”. Similarly, they describe a conservative as someone who “does not care about the poor”, “does not want to help others” and “is merely concerned with the rich”.
Not only are these students not capable of providing a coherent and a comprehensive account of their ideology, they appear to be total ignoramuses when it comes to elementary facts of American history. An African-American student answered that the Confederates won the Civil War, a Sports Management major did not know who serves as the Vice-President today and a psychology major did not who we gained our independence from. What they did know was who Brad Pitt is married to and that conservatives only want to oppress the poor. What can explain such a massive disconnect between what politicians want us to expect from our system of education and what it actually delivers? The answer to that question is simple: the system of education was not designed to live up to any of these ideals.
It wasn’t John Dewey but Horace Mann who laid down the foundation for the modern system of education. The Massachusetts senator was deeply troubled by the cultural implications of the Industrial Revolution. As he witnessed the liberating potential of capitalism and the flourish of individualism that came with it, he called for drastic measures to address this problem with. Contemporaneously, Prussia was recovering from a heavy defeat at the hands Napoleon which the military leaders attributed to a lack of discipline in the ranks. Therefore, the nobility attempted a profound transformation of the nation’s collective consciousness by coercing the public to cultivate a distinctive set of values including unconditional obedience to authority, conformity and orderliness. These were the pivotal values on which Horance Mann’s system of education was founded.
In light of this premise, it should not be surprising that our college campuses have degenerated into cesspools of mediocrity and vulgarity that routinely churn out morally and intellectually deficient human beings. It is also not an accident of history that the demand for higher education increased at the apex of the Civil Rights movement. Similarly to how Otto Von Bismarck founded the welfare state to cool the revolutionary ardor of the peasantry, Horace Mann founded the system of education when the liberating potential of the Industrial Revolution proved too much for the elites to bear. When the Civil Rights movement appeared to be getting out of hand, the ruling class have once again called upon the system of education to stage a resurgence of the Americanization of Prussian values. In so doing, they have not empowered the student-body to become enlightened actors in a democracy but created a multitudinous chattel pliable for political manipulation and vulnerable to economic exploitation.