Dewey's Copernican Revolution

Shane Rosenthal
Tuesday, September 1st 2009
Sep/Oct 2009

Last fall, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran an article outlining some of the challenges facing public schools in our time. The report included a school official who was quoted as saying that middle schools in the area should no longer be thought of as "cold, instruction-driven places." I was amazed by that particular comment. How could any school official in the business of educating and instructing today's youth possibly characterize instruction as being "cold"? Wouldn't it be like a doctor saying that today's hospitals are no longer "stale medicine-driven places"? But the article continued, "'I look at them and I tell them, you are the center of your universe right now,' said Mary Ann Goldberg, principal of Wydown Middle School….'We are orbiting around you to help you. If you think it's all about you, it is all about you.'"

I for one certainly don't recall being orbited around while I was in junior high school. If I had been, I probably would have asked my teachers to blast K.C. & the Sunshine Band throughout the school's P.A. system. Actually, that's probably inaccurate because I'm not sure that a person at the center of the universe needs to ask anyone "permission" to do anything at all. So, I probably would have said: no more social studies, no more math, no more English, and certainly no more homework! The school year would have been approximately two months long and, outside of art and woodshop, I'm not sure what other classes I would have chosen to continue. Now, obviously I have taken Ms. Goldberg's words in an absurd direction, for no school would ever allow students to make such decisions. But that's just it. If a school is in a position of authority to allow or disallow this sort of thing, then no matter what school officials say, the school is really in charge and students must orbit around it.

It may be a surprise to some readers that the approach of this particular school administrator is not new by any stretch of the imagination. For example, in his book The School & Society, first published in 1899, John Dewey complained that the older and more traditional schools were "passive," "mechanical," and "uniform" both in curriculum and method. "The center of gravity," he wrote, "is outside the child. It is in the teacher, the textbook, anywhere and everywhere you please except in the immediate instincts and activities of the child himself." But he went on to say that a change was coming upon the world of education and was beginning to disturb the old center of gravity. "It is a change, a revolution, not unlike that introduced by Copernicus when the astronomical center shifted from the earth to the sun. In this case the child becomes the sun about which the appliances of education revolve; he is the center about which they are organized."

A few thousand years earlier, Solomon offered a radically different approach to pedagogy when he wrote that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Prov. 9:10). Now, this is something you're not likely to hear in our day, and not merely because of the religious character of the assertion. The concept of fear itself is almost completely missing from our institutions of education across the board. Education, we are told, must be fun, engaging, dynamic, relevant, and accessible. But how does fear relate in any way to the acquisition of wisdom? To put it simply, fear implies a kind of authority. We fear a police officer when driving down the highway because he has the authority to arrest us. We fear a bear in the woods because of its ability to harm or kill us. And children fear parents and teachers because of their ability to impose consequences for disobedience.

But why is the fear of the Lord the true beginning of wisdom? Because it's a way of saying, "You are not your own" (1 Cor. 6:19) and that you are accountable to someone beyond the scope of parents, principals, or policemen. At the end of the day, God is at the center of the universe and we all orbit around him. All authorities are derived from and find their ultimate source in God himself.

But post-Enlightenment Europe was not content to keep the spotlight on God's sovereign power indefinitely. As man became the measure of all things, pedagogical views began to shift away from the older, more authoritarian model to a newer, more anthropocentric approach. As early as 1814, Sir Walter Scott described in some detail a shift he perceived to be taking place in the education of his time. Serious study was being replaced with "instructive games," and students therefore had no "reason to dread the consequences of study being rendered too serious or severe." So he offered the following poignant critique:

It may…be subject of serious consideration, whether those who are accustomed only to acquire instruction through the medium of amusement, may not be brought to reject that which approaches under the aspect of study; whether those who learn history by the cards, may not be led to prefer the means to the end; and whether, were we to teach religion in the way of sport, our pupils may not thereby be gradually induced to make sport of their religion.

Here we find a fantastic evaluation of this new approach. If the means of education is amusement and entertainment, then students just might begin to prefer the means to the end. And this is especially dangerous in an age like our own that is defined almost entirely by entertainment. After all, MTV is much better at amusement and titillation than the typical math teacher.

In his classic work The Idea of a University, first published in 1852, John Henry Newman warned, "Do not say, the people must be educated, when, after all, you only mean, amused, refreshed, soothed, put into good spirits….I do not say that such amusements, such occupations of mind are not a great gain; but they are not education….Education is a high word." Newman then outlines some of the popular slogans about education in his time, saying that,

Learning is to be without exertion, without attention, without toil….Whether it be the school boy or the school girl, or the youth at college, or the mechanic in the town, or the politician in the senate, all have been the victims in one way or another of this most preposterous and pernicious of delusions.

Newman's point here is that the attempt to make learning fun and amusing actually ended up devaluing the quality of education itself. Wisdom requires thinking, exertion, toil, and attention. It is rarely easy, and those who attempt to make it so end up dumbing down the content of what is to be taught. A simple example is the difference between the older approach of requiring children to memorize questions and answers from a particular catechism, versus a typical Sunday school class of churches in our own day, complete with crayons, glue, and cartoon pictures of Bible characters. Today's children may be more entertained, but are they better equipped in things Christian?

Of course, the close of the nineteenth century witnessed the rise of what became known officially as the school of progressive education, which, more than anything else, was founded upon the writings of John Dewey and his call for a Copernican revolution in the world of pedagogy. In his very influential book My Pedagogic Creed (1897), Dewey went so far as to argue, "The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences." Notice how he bristles at the idea of a teacher imposing ideas and habits as an external authority in the life of the child. For Dewey, this model is more about power than education. What he didn't realize was that the two are inextricably linked. Teaching implies a master/disciple relationship, which itself implies a hierarchy of authority.

Later in his career Dewey elaborated further on this point as he outlined the differences between traditional versus progressive education:

To imposition from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality; to external discipline is opposed free activity; to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience; to acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill, is opposed acquisition of them as means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal; to preparation for a more or less remote future is opposed making the most of the opportunities of present life.

Traditional Education
Imposition from above
Learning from texts and teachers
Acquiring skills by drill
Preparation for the future

Progressive Education
Expression of individuality
Learning through experience
Making vital appeals
Making the most of the present

According to Dewey, traditional approach to education was guilty of imposing things from above and outside the life of the student. Its focus was on texts and teachers in order to prepare the child for the future. By contrast, the new progressive approach shifted focus to the present experience of the child, attempting to make vital appeals, allowing for self-expression and individuality. But how can the student make the most of the present when he is forced to study irrelevant Latin verbs? How can Latin possibly have any vital appeal? In fact, Dewey himself argued along these lines: "It is unsound to urge that, say, Latin has a value per se in the abstract." So, the new criteria for determining the value of Latin became the student's own perception of its usefulness, as Dewey himself admitted, "When pupils are genuinely concerned in learning Latin, that is of itself proof that it possesses value." In fact, historian Richard Hofstadter actually cited this as one of the sources in his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1962). As he observed, "An urgent desire to learn Latin or any other such subject is not a 'natural' impulse in any child." And so wherever progressive education was in full force, Latin began to disappear as a required subject in schools across the country. In our day, it's hard to find a school that offers this classical language even as an elective.

According to Hofstadter, Dewey's project of educational reform was part of a larger goal of the reformation of society. And this could not take place "unless the child is placed at the center of the school, unless the rigid authority of the teacher and the traditional weight of the curriculum are displaced by his own developing interests and impulses." So the teacher is not one who uses his authority to impose ideas and habits on the child, but rather is seen as a learning coach who introduces the child to new and vital experiences.

By the mid-1920s, progressive education began to be so widespread that it caught the attention of Princeton New Testament scholar J. Gresham Machen, who complained that it was not only decadent but contributed to a wholesale "depreciation of the labor of learning facts."

In fact, Machen observed that the new approach ended up discouraging "hard work," and had produced a serious decline in the education of his day. In the summer of 1932, Machen elaborated further on this point in an address delivered to the Bible League of London,

This child-centered notion of education seems to involve emancipation from a vast amount of drudgery. It used to be thought necessary to do some hard work at school. When a textbook was given to a class, it was expected that the contents of the textbook should be mastered. But now all that has been changed. Storing up facts in the mind was a long and painful process, and it is indeed comforting to know that we can now do without it. Away with all drudgery and all hard work! Self-expression has taken their place. A great discovery has been made-the discovery that it is possible to think with a completely empty mind.

Machen seems to be arguing that hard work and drudgery cannot in fact be removed from the experience of the student if real education is to take place. And this is because real education requires hard work and labor. Memorization, for most people, is difficult, painful, and tiring, rather than refreshing and exciting.

In February 1941, Mortimer Adler added to this discussion in a little known essay he published for The Journal of Educational Sociology titled "Invitation to the Pain of Learning." In this article, he observed that one of the biggest reasons American education is so "frothy and vapid" is that both parents and teachers "wish childhood to be unspoiled by pain." Childhood, it is thought, "must not be made to suffer the impositions of discipline or the exactions of duty, which of course are painful." Rather, Americans had come to believe that it must "be filled with as much play and as little work as possible." And so he writes that elaborate schemes began to be devised to make learning fun and exciting, by the creation of games and other methods. As a result, agencies of education had ended up turning the entire nation "into a kindergarten." "It must all be fun. It must all be entertaining…learning must be made as effortless as possible-painless, devoid of oppressive burdens and of irksome tasks."

But like Machen, Adler was unconvinced of the effectiveness of this bold new approach, and his principal objection rested with the fact that thinking itself was difficult work:

Anyone who has done any thinking, even a little bit, knows that it is painful. It is hard work-in fact the very hardest that human beings are ever called upon to do. It is fatiguing, not refreshing. If allowed to follow the path of least resistance, no one would ever think. To make boys and girls, or men and women think-and through thinking really undergo the transformation of learning-educational agencies of every sort must work against the grain, not with it. Far from trying to make the whole process painless from beginning to end, we must promise them the pleasure of achievement as a reward only to be reached through travail.

This was essentially the point of the thought experiment I presented at the beginning of this essay. For if I was really at the center of the universe, and it was really the job of the school to orbit around me, then as an immature seventh grader, I would have preferred only the fun and easy classes, and would certainly have chosen to opt out of any subject I perceived difficult or labor intensive. But thinking itself is difficult. According to Adler, pain and work are simply the "irremovable and irreducible accompaniments of genuine learning." He therefore recommends that we "leave entertainment to the entertainers and make education a task and not a game."

In her book, The Feel Good Curriculum: The Dumbing Down of America's Kids in the Name of Self-Esteem, Maureen Stout writes a great deal about the problems she personally encountered as a teacher in today's educational climate. Despite giving her students numerous detailed instructions about their assignments, many "simply refused to do what was required of them." What she didn't realize at the time was that her students "didn't think that anything should be required of them!" This lack of effort was, in Stout's thinking, the result of a student-centered curriculum. Stout then recounts some of the discussions she had with her colleagues about this issue. "Sure, everyone has those problems; that's just the way students are nowadays," said a few. "Students get bored easily and expect to be entertained," said another, "so you have to make the class as exciting as possible." In the end, however, she came to realize that the pervasive attitude in modern educational circles is not conducive to real learning. "We have created schools that are child-centered in the extreme, where every aspect of schooling is organized around…what children want and perceive to be in their best interests and not what is in reality the best for them." Stout therefore concluded by arguing, "If we teach kids that they are the center of the universe and that schools revolve around them, they will come to believe that they are entitled to everything they want in schools, whether that be good grades, easy assignments, no homework, or turning up in class only when it pleases them."

Sometimes the art of acquiring wisdom is referred to as the "cultivation of the intellect." But think about that metaphor of cultivation for a moment. Spreading mulch is not what most would consider a "fun" or an "exciting" activity. Frankly, it's a rather difficult and unpleasant task! But this particular burden serves a crucial function since it provides the soil with the nutrients it needs for a good harvest. It also requires a great deal of patience, for the labor is intensive, yet there are no immediate rewards. One must wait until harvest day to enjoy the fruits of labor.

Christians are called to make disciples of all nations. But are we to do this without any discipline or effort? Even Peter admits that some of Paul's writings are "hard to understand" (2 Pet. 3:16). If some portions of Scripture do in fact contain difficult concepts, then it seems reasonable that we should attempt to prepare our followers for the difficult work of proper biblical interpretation. And this requires the slow and patient work of personal transformation through mind-renewal (Rom. 12:1-2).

The author of Hebrews was up front about the fact that some of the things he wished to convey were in fact "hard to explain." But this was amplified by the fact that the recipients of his letter had become "dull of hearing" (Rom. 5:11-12). Unfortunately, our culture, with its focus on entertainment and instant gratification, has conspired against us, making us guilty of this in the extreme. We don't like to be lectured or preached at, we prefer sound-bites to C-SPAN, and we generally prefer to "see the movie" rather than "read the book." Visit the youth center of a typical megachurch on Sunday morning and you're likely to see kids playing basketball, ascending rock climbing walls, or sitting on couches playing X-box. You might discover that "youth worship" basically amounts to a Christian rock concert, and that the morning message is delivered in an entertaining and upbeat style familiar to those who've watched Comedy Central. But as Christian Smith documented in his survey of over 5,000 religious youths, the great majority of teens, even among those who attend church regularly, cannot articulate even the most basic elements of the Christian faith when asked to do so.

According to George Barna, the fundamental principle of Christian communication is the fact that "the audience, not the message, is sovereign." So here we find John Dewey's Copernican revolution, not "out there" in the secular schools but right in the center of mainstream evangelical Christianity. And while today's public schools offer their own competing versions of "child-centered" education, your local Christian bookstore sells Joel Osteen's Become a Better You faster than any other product. Churches in your neighborhood are busy presenting relevant and dynamic messages to help you live life in today's world; but because the Bible's teaching about justification, atonement, satisfaction, propitiation, imputation, resurrection, and predestination are too deep, lofty and "theological," those topics simply don't get a lot of coverage.

In the Book of Proverbs, Solomon personifies wisdom as a chaste woman who plays hard to get (8:17). In order to catch her, one must wait outside her gates, watching for her with great patience (8:34). Folly, on the other hand, is a prostitute who is on every street corner (7:12). She attempts to persuade men with her smooth words and seductive speech (7:5; 21), and she's an easy lover who is always within reach. But Solomon goes on to explain that whoever finds wisdom finds life (8:35), and those who are not "attentive" to her words end up following the adulterous woman who brings them down to the chambers of death. "For many a victim has she laid low, and all her slain are a mighty throng" (7:26-27).

If we are interested in the pursuit of wisdom for ourselves and our children, then we ought to reconsider the importance of Solomon's proverb, that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." In a day of child-centered schools and market-driven churches, we desperately need to recover the sense of fear. God is at the center of the universe, not us. Or, as the King James translators expressed it in their translation of Psalm 100:3, "Know ye that the LORD, he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture."

1 [ Back ] Valerie Schremp Hahn and Kevin Crowe, "Middle Schools Stand Out," St. Louis Post-Dispatch (1 August 2008).
2 [ Back ] John Dewey, The School and Society (New York: The University of Chicago Press, 1900), 51.
3 [ Back ] Walter Scott, Waverley (London: Penguin Books, 1985), 46-47.
4 [ Back ] John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1905), 144.
5 [ Back ] John Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed (New York: E. L. Kellog & Co., 1897), 9.
6 [ Back ] John Dewey, Experience & Education (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 19-20.
7 [ Back ] John Dewey, Democracy & Education (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1916), 284.
8 [ Back ] Dewey, Democracy & Education, 284.
9 [ Back ] Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Vintage Books, 1962), 377.
10 [ Back ] Hofstadter, 363.
11 [ Back ] J. Gresham Machen, What Is Faith? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1925), 15.
12 [ Back ] J. Gresham Machen: Selected Shorter Writings, ed. D. G. Hart (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2004), 136.
13 [ Back ] Mortimer J. Adler, Reforming Education (New York: Collier Books, 1977), 233-34.
14 [ Back ] Adler, 233-34.
15 [ Back ] Adler, 235.
16 [ Back ] Maureen Stout, The Feel-Good Curriculum: The Dumbing Down of America's Kids in the Name of Self-Esteem (Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2000), 2.
17 [ Back ] Stout, 2.
18 [ Back ] Stout, 36.
19 [ Back ] Stout, 208.
20 [ Back ] George Barna, Marketing the Church (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1988), 145.
Tuesday, September 1st 2009

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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