Dewey's wrong approach to education

"Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. “ ~John Dewey

While in general, I am not a big fan of analyzing quotations out of context, I am familiar with Dewey's educational philosophy. So when I saw the above quote, I immediately winced. This is what is destroying our educational system.

First, "Education is not preparation for life..." is absolutely false. Education is preparation for life. That is why we have degrees that signal the end of a student's studies and a transition to the work world. Students select majors in order to learn a subject that they can later apply in their work. That is why as a professor, I approach each class as if the students will leave my classroom and use what they learned in their life. The classroom may temporarily consume a student's life, but the entire purpose of education is to prepare the students for a productive and virtuous adulthood.

Dewey would have us believe that "education is life itself". Leaving aside that this statement is confusing at best (which I believe he does on purpose), equating education with life accomplishes two of Dewey's goals, to reify knowledge acquisition and at the same time, to de-objectivize (my own made up term) concepts. If education is life itself, then knowledge acquisition through education is an end in itself. If education and life are synonymous, then our life is nothing but education and learning. When do we ever apply the knowledge? When do we act? Dewey would likely argue that the act of acting helps us to gain new knowledge. But that is not necessarily so. A person may act in the same self-destructive ways for many years. The mere act itself does not necessitate learning.

The second goal of Dewey, to de-objectivize concepts, is also accomplished with this statement. Dewey's statement rests on the assumption that life is a complex mixture of emotions, social relationships, ideas, and work. By equating life and education, Dewey proposes that education should be a complex mixture of emotions, social relationships, ideas, and work. By including the social aspects in the definition of education, Dewey attempts to de-emphasize the objective nature of concepts. He attempts to make concepts subjective in nature (de-objectivize). The blatant subjectivism makes education of objective concepts impossible.

"Subjectivism is the belief that reality is not a firm absolute, but a fluid, plastic, indeterminate realm which can be altered, in whole or in part, by the consciousness of the perceiver." ~ Ayn Rand.

If education succumbs to subjectivism, then a person will be presented with no firm or absolute concepts in which to live. They will be left with emotion filed, pseudo-understanding of ideas. Reality will always be a mystery to them and often conflict with what they "believe". This can only lead to suffering with the frequent contradictions of what they believe and the facts of reality.

Dewey's argument gains some logical plausibility because he equates "learning" with "education". But this should not be the case. Certainly, you can continue to learn after school. But "education" is a systematic program of study. A proper education helps a person to learn the conceptual skills he needs to live his life. A person may also learn some of the concepts need to live his life, without a formal education.

The correct approach to education can be glimpsed from this quote by Ayn Rand:

"The only purpose of education is to teach a student how to live his life—by developing his mind and equipping him to deal with reality. The training he needs is theoretical, i.e., conceptual. He has to be taught to think, to understand, to integrate, to prove. He has to be taught the essentials of the knowledge discovered in the past—and he has to be equipped to acquire further knowledge by his own effort." ~ 'The Comprachicos' in The Return of the Primitive
I would further recommend Leonard Peikoff's "Philosophy of Education" lecture for a sketch of a proper education based on Ayn Rand's ideas.


  1. True.

    Here are some other quotes (from “My Pedagogic Creed") of John Dewey that corroborate what you say and that make your point clearer:

    “the true center of correlation on the school subjects is not science, nor literature, nor history, nor geography, but the child’s own social activities;”

    “language…is fundamentally and primarily a social instrument. … When treated simply as a way of getting individual information…it loses its social motive and end;”

    “there is, therefore, no succession of studies in the ideal school curriculum;”

    “education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.”

    I wrote about Dewey and modern education here:


  2. Thanks Michael.

    I enjoyed your coverage of Dewey as well. Spot on.

  3. Thanks. :)

    Glad you attacked him, too. It cannot be done enough, now-a-day!!

    We need to fight for a rational system of education; some of our intellectual and political activism will be for naught, if we don't.

    And of course, it all has to be part of the broader, more fundamental task of fighting for reason.

  4. And the quote you analyze is another of the many ideas used by irrationalists to try to extend the rule of force over man.

    Government schools have gone from education to all sorts of other controls over the mind and body of man.

    Students, to learn, since education and life are so closely bound together, must be given after-school care. And breakfast. And lunch. And vaccines. And a safe home. And speeches by Presidents.

    All whether you want it or not...it is not the parent's place to say...

  5. whats your views(s) on classical education ?

    would be interested in hearing them. I will be writing a dissertation on the topic.

  6. Mo,

    My knowledge of classical education is extremely limited, so I'm hesitant to comment. It is an area I would like to learn more about.

    From what little I have learned, I would probably classify it as better than most modern education, but guilty of an intrinsic approach to knowledge. If you have further insights, I would love to hear them.


  7. hey John

    From what it seems there are two main types of classical education: secular and Christian.

    both advocate a more intellectual view of education with a focus on reasoning skills and the three Rs.

    I have not looked into its disadvantages as of yet but will sure to report back.

    one thing I wonder with progressive education is whether it goes all the way back to the likes of Immanuel kant and Jacques Rousseau