Making Moral Assertions: John Dewey and Race

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A Guest Post by Alex Boggs: 

In my studies for doctoral classes, I came across several thinkers and educators that influenced the field substantively. One such thinker is John Dewey. Dewey is a powerhouse of educational thought, particularly when it concerns skills-based curricula and lessons whose objective is to develop better-equipped citizens. He wrote in the early twentieth century after completing most of his training in the late-nineteenth century. He impacted the field of education so deeply that he is still referenced by scholars today building off his research. Much like the work of Vygotsky, Pavlov, and Skinner, Dewey has made a name for himself through his notoriety in the academy. This occurs to the extent of people following in the footsteps of Dewey and applying his ideas to the current education climate. Some take the praise of Dewey too far, as some scholars have pointed out. However, many in the educational school of the academy revere Dewey and operate as if they were his acolytes. As a budding historian, this raises a few eyebrows.

Dewey was an advocate for civil and social rights, and for improving the overall lives of children. These are certainly noble pursuits, worthy of praise and a positive reputation in the academy. However, when scholars so closely conjoin their present ideas to those proposed by Dewey in the past, a noteworthy problem arises. The result is a modern interpretation of Dewey’s thought that is anathema to the historian’s craft. At the heart of this thinking is a flawed sense of historical analysis.

Ultimately, it is wrong of scholars to provide a contemporary interpretation of Dewey’s pedagogy, while ignoring its deeply-rooted historical context. In the field of history, this would be regarded as a blatant case of presentism. Most often this comes from scholars who assert that Dewey should have reflected more on race.  Looking at Dewey by applying present morals to his ideas or body of work is poor scholarship. Understanding the context in which Dewey lived is crucial to understanding the heart of what he advocated.

Dewey first and foremost was a staunch supporter of civil rights in the early twentieth century. As Susan Carle notes, Dewey was an influential part of the initial years of the NAACP and worked to promote the importance for all to have access to quality education. An article by Sam Stack Jr., however, reveals that many people have misconstrued Dewey’s statements, suggesting that they applied only to those in affluent white neighborhoods. However, this is mostly false, as Dewey himself was an advocate of multiculturalism as a fundamental component to developing a society that was prepared to engage with the challenges of the twentieth century.

Stack Jr. himself is typical of many modern scholars by lambasting Dewey’s lack of involvement in breaking down racial barriers with his writing. He notes,

We especially need to be wary of our devotion to Dewey when it comes to race. Given Dewey’s insistence that philosophy be informed by the context of ‘real life,’ it is dismaying that Dewey wrote very little about the contradictive role that race and racism play in lived experience.

This quote is somewhat troubling for a few reasons. First, the quote itself misunderstands the role of historical context in interpretation (whether because of their interpretation of Dewey’s contextualism, or poor historical analysis). Second, despite Stack Jr.’s attempts to qualify it, the selection has implications that skew the actual context of Dewey.

Perhaps the best way to highlight why Dewey’s context of racism might not align with that expected of him from these scholars, is covered aptly through John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. During his ventures in the South, Steinbeck came face to face with a brand of racism that he had not before encountered and did not understand. The virulent and rabid racism that was prevalent in the Jim Crow South, which grew monstrously, was plainly evident to Steinbeck in late 1960 when he was traveling through the south with his dog Charley. He coalesces his understanding of race by saying he was “kept out of real and emotional understanding of the agony not because I, a white, have no experience with Negroes but because of the nature of my experience.” Steinbeck admits that he experienced a phenomenon in the South undergoing the tumult of desegregation that he did not adequately understand because he grew up in a different social context.

Steinbeck’s story pertains directly to an analysis of Dewey because it highlights the importance of context in discussions about race. Often, we are unable to see outside of our experience with race, or social issues, because our context makes us unfamiliar with others’ perspectives. This contextual foreignness takes on added importance in the realm of history, as we are even further removed from the lives of historical figures. Dewey commented quite frequently on the subject of race, but did so in ways that were embedded in his progressive mindset. The philosophies of Dewey were often couched in the socialist and Marxist principles contemporary to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. His writings frequently refer to social reform in education, and his experience working to help build the NAACP and ACLU point to his advocacy of human rights. Dewey’s focus on class and social standing does not take away from the discussion of race in these contexts; it does, however, show that he had a different way of looking at the issues of race plaguing America.

Dewey’s involvement with racial awareness in the early twentieth century was shown in more muted and subdued ways. Yet, evidence points to his interest in race in America insofar as his expertise led him – which was education. In many ways, his advocacy of multicultural schools was an indictment on the homogeneity of many schools in the United States, not just in the American South. Even still, scholars continue to ignore Dewey’s philosophical and geographic context (Dewey was from Vermont) by continuing to assert that he said “virtually nothing about racism in American society.”

Dewey’s dealings with race and his subsequent interpretation by modern scholars in education departments reveal two important questions in regards to morality. First, should Dewey have been more outspoken than he already was about race in the early 20th century? To this, I would say a reserved no, for all of the arguments mentioned previously on context. Second, should modern scholars show more empathy when looking at Dewey as a historical figure? Here I would give a resounding yes. After all, it is this emotional connection that allows students and scholars to better understand the context of people in the past.

[A Note by Russ Allen] Boggs’ article aptly reveals the complexity involved in a study of John Dewey. As he points out, the assertion by modern scholars that Dewey “should have reflected more on race” has both moral and historical implications. These implications cut much further and deeper than a simple analysis can convey. The Work of Redemption hopes to feature more of Boggs’ thoughts on this topic in the near future. 

 

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Alex Boggs is earning his Ed.D through Liberty University. His research focuses on using documentary filmmaking for the purpose of promoting historical thinking in secondary school classrooms. Boggs also has an M.A. degree in 19th and 20th century European and American history. You can follow him on twitter @jayfianakis.  

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