Ideas move the world.  They shape individuals, societies, and nations.  When we go our carefree way, giving no heed to the power of the intellect, it is not uncommon to discover, years later, that we took a path that led to disaster.  The problem may not be that we ignored an idea, but that we uncritically accepted one.  "Oh, had we but known!" we cry.  Think of Marx and Lenin, and "the serfs and goose-steppers" who accepted their ideology, blindly followed the party elite, and became marvelous "comrades."  The truth of the matter is that those who refuse to attend to ideas do so at their own risk.

One of these days maybe the American "booboisie" will look closely at the history of this country and ask where we went wrong.  Why are we deeply divided as a people?  Why are we in financial shambles?  Why do we hold our institutions – our schools, churches, and government – and the officials who administer them in appallingly poor regard?  Why are the media corrupt?  Why do we not safeguard our nation's borders? 

One thing is certain.  These outcomes did not occur in the blink of an eye.  No, they are attributable to a set of ideas, which took a century to germinate and to become institutionalized in what we know today as America.

One man's ideas and actions stand, in my view, as the poster-child for the unraveling of America.  His name is John Dewey.  Pictured above, he was part of the nation's intellectual avant-garde from the late nineteenth through the early and middle twentieth century.  Read a few of his books, e.g., Experience and Nature, The Quest for Certainty, and A Common Faith, and you witness his love-affair with relativism, cultural pluralism, instrumentalism, and every liberal-progressive cause of his era, including unrestricted immigration. 

Dewey was also a devout atheist, whose secularist ideas were fundamental in secularizing the curriculum of American public schools.  He dismissed traditional American culture, with its distinctively Anglo-Saxon base and Puritan roots.  He wrote that "neither Englandism nor New Englandism, neither Puritan nor Cavalier, any more than Teuton or Slav, can do anything but furnish one note in a vast symphony." He envisioned the nation as "a vast symphony" of peoples, representing many races, tribes, and ethnicities, all working in complete harmony and contributing equally to the texture and goodness of American society.  Sounds good and appears to be a worthy idea, doesn't it?  But appearances can indeed be deceptive.

Ride the subway in  New York City, from midtown Manhattan to Shea Stadium, and decide for yourself what you think of Dewey's cultural pluralism. Perhaps you, like me, will be moved by a 16-year old female Puerto Rican, who speaks only Spanish, is liberally covered with body graffiti, has a ring through her lower lip, and two small snotty-nosed children grasping her leg.  Sitting across from her was a woman in a hijab, wearing thick-rimmed glasses, obviously a Muslim, hot and uncomfortable, but stolid as a statue. Her demeanor spoke of fear, defensiveness, and oppression. In the front of the car were three black males, in baggy jeans and dirty undershirts, sporting designer sunglasses and wearing their baseball caps backwards. They were loud, boisterous, and physical.  All these passengers and the myriads like them might be contributing to "a vast symphony," but be assured that the notes they are playing are those of hopeless poverty,  ignorance, and oppression.  The "orchestra" fails to inspire.

The hopelessness of their situation is aided by a glorious public school system, which Dewey himself designed.  "And what," you ask, "is the goal of the system?" The answer is, of course, to discover the truth, so long as one understands there are no eternal, pre-existing verities.  By "truth," Dewey means the "utility" of a thought.  The goal is to discover whether it contributes successfully to the solution of a problem. Any moral or religious idea, he maintains, which does not fit into this instrumental scheme is less than helpful and even harmful to the advancement of knowledge.  Such ideas only confuse and obstruct. Values, like truth, do not precede Dewey's interrogation of experience, but are mere byproducts of it, literally the residue of successful empirical inquiry. 

So what does all this mean for students and their education?  It means that they learn only by doing.  It means that, when they seek personal guidance, an instructor can tell them, "Look, you are so many pounds of protoplasm and will, if all goes as planned,  have approximately "x-number" of years remaining to you.  See what you can do with them."  Experimentalism is not terribly enlightening as moral advice, is it?  Human beings create, in Dewey's philosophy, their own enlightenment and, in a sense, start by groping in the dark.   Just as there is no end to the process of inquiry, there is no beginning.  The individual is the ultimate mover and shaker in the universe.  The idea of a God who encompasses all beauty, goodness, and perfection is a superstition.  There is also no fixed standard by which the goodness of an act may be judged.  The meaning of one's life boils down to what one does with it.

I find Dewey's philosophy arrogant, presumptuous, and misguided.  Flawed humanity is humanity's problem, and that is a fact Dewey never grasped.  If our humanity is ultimately all we have on which to make an appeal to truth and value, then so sad for us.  I have seldom seen the human race touch anything, which afterward remains pure and holy.  Look what it has done to sexuality, to safeguarding human life, to our cities, to holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, and (yes) to public schools!

John Dewey was a brilliant pragmatic philosopher; there is little doubt about that. But the last century, ironically enough, bears tragic witness to the fact that his ideas don't "work."  We are still trying to live with them as our nation whirls dangerously out of control, with heaven and earth threatening to collapse around us.

April 29, 2010