Evangelicals criticize John Dewey (1859-1952) for his advocacy of relativism and social control in education. However, there are metaphysical assertions governing his theories. His account of the mind denies human beings any access to a world beyond social experience. Dewey’s anthropology does deeper harm to Christian discipleship than his educational theories. Yet his anthropology may be influential among evangelicals themselves.
In Democracy and Education, Dewey applied his philosophy of experience, most fully developed in Experience and Nature and Art as Experience, to the task of educating children. A distinctive piece of his educational philosophy was the identification of ends. There was no telos for human life in nature. All human ends were created socially.
Dewey attacked the theory of “formal discipline,” the traditional idea that “faculties of perceiving, retaining, recalling, associating, attending, willing, feeling, imagining, thinking, etc.” must be trained to conceive of the external world accurately. In fact, Dewey asserted, such faculties “are purely mythological. There are no such ready-made powers waiting to be exercised and thereby trained.”
By contrast, the mind experiences stimuli from its environment. The nervous system operates through the senses’ “impulsive tendencies,” reflexes that are not sharply distinguished from each other but “of an indefinite variety.” While the mind is active in these experiences, selecting useful nervous responses and coordinating them for highly specific tasks, it only creates such skills. It does not discover meaning. “To talk about training a power, mental or physical, in general, apart from the subject matter involved in its exercise, is nonsense.”
For Dewey, education was meaningful only to the extent that it trained students to select and coordinate socially useful impulses. The criterion for selecting subject matter “must be social” so that a student might become “an effective member of the group.” No other end was accessible to the human mind. Dewey applied this principle to religion in A Common Faith, seeking to reform religious institutions by replacing doctrine with social experience.
An examination of Colossians 3 shows that biblical anthropology presupposes the rational faculties Dewey rejected. The telos proclaimed in this chapter is grounded in metaphysical realities beyond the human nervous system and without support in social experience. Human minds, bodies, and communities must be trained by that supernatural truth. Such an anthropology was assumed by Augustine, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and Herman Bavinck to name only a few.
Under the cultural influence of Dewey’s anthropology, evangelicals may have reinterpreted Christianity by degrees. Within the horizons of materialism, sin might be explained as physical addiction rather than moral evil. Resisting temptation might be reimagined as impulse control. Corporate worship might employ media stimuli to induce emotional states in a group. Doctrine might become either a set of loosely held abstractions or a tool for enforcing socially created ends, such as traditional values.
Dewey’s anthropology may have dismantled Christian education more completely than he ever hoped.