John Dewey and Progressive Education

David Wiles, Eaps 760

Sometimes a phenomena is evident even though the words to articulate it are missing. For me, the first three decades of the 20th century represented the grudging and unspoken concession to the fact that understanding complex organization means appreciating an open, dynamic system. Further, the variable in the transformation toward understanding open versus closed is the description of people that work in organizations. The political machine of blind loyalty and unending obligation is a closed system. The mechanical assembly line of standardized "time and motion" is also closed. Surely, the idealized expression of structure and function that uses institution to eliminate all sources of human variability is the most closed of all.

The first three decades of the 20th century represent striving toward open systems. Certainly, the organized and disorganized efforts of people to express collective will were politics of challenge. Political interest groups were (and remain today) a dynamic of controversy and confrontation. You must concede an open system to use words like compromise, mediation and adaptation when talking about governing or production. By the middle of the Great Depression few people responsible for operating organizations were thinking otherwise. The repeal of Prohibition did not mean a new morality as much as a concession to the unmanageability of a rigid and static meaning of law.

Regardless of the political challenge of organized interests, no person epitomizes the acknowledgment of open system reality more than John Dewey. This philosopher and educator made the variability and integrity of the individual the cornerstone of this writing. The word "progressive" became associated with forms of declaring the individual as the most important feature in understanding how organizations work and what reason or logic must come to mean in a civilized society. John Dewey believed in knowing through critical inquiry and basing evaluative judgment on pragmatic verification. A person using the "problem solving approach" and the "experimental focus" of scientific method to govern their own life is the building block of how reasonable and ethical organizations operate. Schools should be "child centered" with the curriculum and instruction tailored to facilitate the development of the individual.

John Dewey and progressive education became very popular during the time the American society was searching through and discarding turn of the century. An ethical twist on concern for the individual associated Dewey with humanism. Humanism, as the value of each person in the human race, was somewhat different from the Human Relations movement in business that determined individual motivation could be an "intervening variable" in raising productivity. Dewey and the Progressive Education Association would be closer to the Maslow theory of development toward self actualization or McGregor's Theory Y and the intrinsic motivation of individuals engaged in work. John Dewey described the intellectual and ethical underpinnings of what the educated worker might look like.

Progressivism was also identified with liberalism- old style liberalism of believing in social justice and mandates for advocacy. During the Great Depression this association played well. After World War Two "right wing" conservatives spent a decade translating progressive education and liberalism as a communist plot -fuzzyheaded and a dangerous doctrine. The irony of taking the idea of the individual and critical inquiry as one and the same with the mass society model of inevitable determinism was lost on the conservative detractors. Besides, in the cold war climate of absolute goods and bads, who cared to mince around with nuances and historical context?

Certainly, John Dewey philosophy and progressive education have major implications for the meaning of schooling organization and educational management. With the individual at the center of focus, the teaching organization and governing arrangment becomes the embedding features. Some would argue the Compact for Learning mandate carried a "Deweyian" tone between 1991 and 1993.


  • The John Dewey Center;
  • Outline of Progressive education;
  • Lawrence Cremin, The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education (1964);
  • John Dewey, How We Think (1910);
  • John Dewey, Democracy and Education (1926);
  • John Dewey, Logic:The Theory of Inquiry (1938);
  • John Dewey, The Child and the Curriculum (1956);
  • Robert Prewat, "Misreading Dewey: Reform, Projects and the Language Game", Educational Researcher (24, 1995);
  • David Tyack and Margaret Hansot Managers of Virtue (1985);
  • Kimball Wiles Supervision for Better Schools (3rd edition, 1967).