The Weekly Sam: John Dewey’s Plan to Dumb-Down America As It Appeared in the FORUM, Vol. XXV, May 1898, Pages 315 to 328

John Dewey’s Plan to Dumb-Down America
As It Appeared in the FORUM,
Vol. XXV, May 1898, Pages 315 to 328

(Reformatted by Bob Montgomery Thomas, April 30, 2013)

The Primary-Education Fetich

It is some years since the educational world was more or less agitated by an attack upon
the place occupied by Greek in the educational scheme. If, however, Greek occupies the place of
a fetich, its worshippers are comparatively few in number, and its influence is relatively slight.
There is, however, a false educational god whose idolaters are legion, and whose cult influences
the entire educational system. This is language-study––the study not of foreign language, but of
English; not in higher, but in primary education. It is almost an unquestioned assumption, of
educational theory and practice both, that the first three years of a child’s school life shall be
mainly taken up with learning to read and write his own language. If we add to this the learning
or a certain amount of numerical combinations, we have the pivot about which primary
education swings. Other subjects may be taught; but they are introduced in strict subordination.

The very fact that this procedure, as part of the natural and established course of
education, is assumed as inevitable,––opposition being regarded as captious and revolutionary,––
indicates that, historically, there are good reasons for the position assigned to these studies. It
does not follow, however, that because this course was once wise it is so any longer. On the
contrary, the fact, that this mode of education was adapted to past conditions, is in itself a reason
why it should no longer hold supreme sway. The present has its claims. It is in education, if
anywhere, that the claims of the present should be controlling. To educate on the basis of past
surroundings is like adapting an organism to an environment which no longer exists. The
individual is stultified, if not disintegrated; and the course of progress is blocked. My
proposition is, that conditions––social, industrial, and intellectual––have undergone such a
radical change, that the time has come for a thoroughgoing examination of the emphasis put
upon linguistic work in elementary instruction.

The existing status was developed in a period when ability to read was practically the
sole avenue to knowledge, when it was the only tool which insured control over the accumulated
spiritual resources of civilization. Scientific methods of observation, experimentation, and
testing were either unknown or confined to a few specialists at the upper end of the educational
ladder. Because these methods were not free, were not capable of anything like general use, it
was not possible to permit the pupil to begin his school career in direct contact with the materials
of nature and of life. The only guarantee, the only criterion of values, was found in the ways in
which the great minds of the past had assimilated and interpreted such materials. To avoid
intellectual chaos and confusion, it was necessary reverently to retrace the steps of the fathers.
The régime of intellectual authority and tradition, in matters of politics, morals, and culture, was
a necessity, where methods of scientific investigation and verification had not been developed, or
were in the hands of the few. We often fail to see that the dominant position occupied by book learning in school education is simply a corollary and relic of this epoch of intellectual development.

Ordinary social conditions were congruent with this intellectual status. While it cannot
be said that, in the formative period of our educational system in America, authority and tradition
were the ultimate sources of knowledge and belief, it must be remembered that the immediate
surroundings of our ancestors were crude and undeveloped. Newspapers, magazines, libraries,
art-galleries, and all the daily play of intellectual intercourse and reaction which is effective today were non-existent. If any escape existed from the poverty of the intellectual environment, or
any road to richer and wider mental life, the exit was through the gateway of books. In
presenting the attainments of the past, these maintained the bonds of spiritual continuity, and
kept our forefathers from falling to the crude level of their material surroundings.

When ability to read and write marked the distinction between the educated and the
uneducated man, not simply in the scholastic sense, but in the sense of one who is enslaved by
his environment and one who is able to take advantage of and rise above it, corresponding
importance attached to acquiring these capacities. Reading and writing were obviously what they
are still so often called––the open doors to learning and to success in life. All the meaning that
belongs to these ends naturally transferred itself to the means through which alone they could be
realized. The intensity and ardor with which our forefathers set themselves to master reading
and writing, the difficulties overcome, the interest attached in the ordinary routine of school-life
to what now seems barren,––the curriculum of the three R’s,––all testify to the motive-power
these studies possessed. To learn to read and write was an interesting, even exciting, thing: it
made such a difference in life.

It is hardly necessary to say that the conditions, intellectual as well as social, have
changed. There are undoubtedly rural regions where the old state of things still persists. With
reference to these, what I am saying has no particular meaning. But, upon the whole, the advent
of quick and cheap mails, of easy and continuous travel and transportation, of the telegraph and
telephone, the establishment of libraries, art-galleries, literary clubs, the universal diffusion of
cheap reading-matter, newspapers and magazines of all kinds and grades,––all these have
worked a tremendous change in the immediate intellectual environment. The values of life and of
civilization, instead of being far away and correspondingly inaccessible, press upon the
individual––at least in cities––with only too much urgency and stimulating force. We are more
likely to be surfeited than starved: there is more congestion than lack of intellectual nutriment.
The capital handed down from past generations, and upon whose transmission the
integrity of civilization depends, is no longer amassed in those banks termed books, but is in
active and general circulation, at an extremely low rate of interest. It is futile to try to conceal
from ourselves the fact that this great change in the intellectual atmosphere––this great change in
the relation of the individual to accumulated knowledge––demands a corresponding educational
readjustment. The significance attaching to reading and writing, as primary and fundamental
instruments of culture, has shrunk proportionately as the immanent intellectual life of society has
quickened and multiplied. The result is that these studies lose their motive and motor force.
They have become mechanical and formal, and out of relation––when made dominant––to the
rest of life.

They are regarded as more or less arbitrary tasks which must be submitted to because one
is going to that mysterious thing called a school, or else are covered up and sugar-coated with all
manner of pretty devices and tricks in order that the child may absorb them unawares. The
complaint made by some, that the school curriculum of today does not have the disciplinary
value of the old-fashioned three R’s, has a certain validity. But this is not because the old ideal
has been abandoned. It is because it has been retained in spite of the change of conditions.
Instead of frankly facing the situation, and asking ourselves what studies can be organized which
shall do for to-day what language-study did for former generations, we have retained that as the
centre and core of our course of study, and dressed it out with a variety of pretty pictures,
objects, and games, and a smattering of science.

Along with this change in the relation of intellectual material and stimulus to the
individual there has been an equally great change in the method and make-up of knowledge
itself. Science and art have become free. The simplest processes and methods of knowing and
doing have been worked out to such a point that they are no longer the monopolistic possessions
of any class or guild. They are, in idea, and should be in deed, part of the social commonwealth.
It is possible to initiate the child from the first in a direct, not abstract or symbolical, way, into
the operations by which society maintains its existence, material and spiritual.

The processes of production, transportation, consumption, etc., by which society keeps up
its material continuity, are conducted on such a large and public scale that they are obvious and
objective. Their reproduction in embryonic form through a variety of modes of industrial
training is entirely within the bounds of possibility. Moreover, methods of the discovery and
communication of truth––upon which the spiritual unity of society depends––have become direct
and independent, instead of remote and tied to the intervention of teacher or book. It is not
simply that children can acquire a certain amount of scientific information about things organic
and inorganic: if that were all, the plea for the study of the history and literature of the past, as
more humanistic, would be unanswerable. No; the significant thing is that it is possible for the
child at an early day to become acquainted with, and to use, in a personal and yet relatively
controlled fashion, the methods by which truth is discovered and communicated, and to make his
own speech a channel for the expression and communication of truth; thus putting the linguistic
side where it belongs––subordinate to the appropriation and conveyance of what is genuinely
and personally experienced.

A similar modification, almost revolution, has taken place in the relation which the
intellectual activities bear to the ordinary practical occupations of life. While the child of bygone
days was getting an intellectual discipline whose significance he appreciated in the school, in his
home life he was securing acquaintance in a direct fashion with the chief lines of social and
industrial activity. Life was the main rural. The child came into contact with the scenes of
nature, and was familiarized with the care of domestic animals, the cultivation of the soil, and the
raising of crops. The factory system being undeveloped, the home was the centre of industry.
Spinning, weaving, the making of clothes, etc., were all carried on there. As there was little
accumulation of wealth, the child had to take part in these, as well as to participate in the usual
rounds of household occupations.

Only those who have passed through such training, and, later
on, have seen children reared in city environments, can adequately realize the amount of training,
mental and moral, involved in this extra-school life. That our successful men have come so
largely from the country, is an indication of the educational value bound up with such
participation in this practical life. It was not only an adequate substitute for what we now term
manual training, in the development of the hand and eye, in the acquisition skill and deftness; but
it was initiation into self-reliance, independence of judgment and action, and was the best
stimulus to habits of regular and continuous work.

In the urban and suburban life of a child to-day this is simply a memory. The invention
of machinery; the institution of the factory system; the division of labor; have changed the home
from a workshop into a simple dwelling-place. The crowding into cities and the increase in
servants have deprived the child of an opportunity to take part in those occupations which still
remain. Just at the time when a child is subjected to a great increase in stimulus and pressure
from his environment, he loses the practical and motor training necessary to balance his
intellectual development. Facility in acquiring information is gained: the power of using it is
lost. While need of the more formal intellectual training in the school has decreased, there arises
an urgent demand for the introduction of methods of manual and industrial discipline which shall
give the child what he formerly obtained in his home and social life.

 Here we have at least a prima facie case for reconsideration of the whole question of the
relative importance of learning to read and write in primary education. Hence the necessity of
meeting the question at closer quarters. What can be said against giving up the greater portion of
the first two years of school life to the mastery of linguistic form? In the first place,
physiologists are coming to believe that the sense organs and connected nerve and motor
apparatus of the child are not at this period best adapted to the confining and analytic work of
learning to read and write. There is an order in which sensory and motor centres develop,––an
order expressed, in a general way, by saying that the line of progress is from the larger, coarser
adjustments having to do with the bodily system as a whole (those nearest the trunk of the body)
to the finer and accurate adjustments having to do with the periphery and extremities of the

The oculist tells us that the vision of the child is essentially that of the savage; being
adapted to seeing large and somewhat remote objects in the mass––not near-by objects in detail.
To violate this law means undue nervous strain: it means putting the greatest tension upon the
centres least able to do the work. At the same time, the lines of activity which are hungering and
thirsting for action are left, unused, to atrophy. The act of writing–– especially in the barbarous
fashion, long current in the school, of compelling the child to write on ruled lines in a small hand
and with the utmost attainable degree of accuracy––involves a nicety and complexity of
adjustments of muscular activity which can only be appreciated by the specialist. As the
principal of a Chicago school has wittily remarked in this connection, “The pen is literally
mightier than the sword.”

Forcing children at a premature age to devote their entire attention to
theses refined and cramped adjustments has left behind a sad record of injured nervous systems
and of muscular disorders and distortions. While there are undoubted exceptions, present
physiological knowledge points to the age of about eight years as early enough for anything
more than an incidental attention to visual and written language-form.
We must not forget that these forms are symbols. I am far from depreciating the value of
symbols in our intellectual life. It is hardly too much to say that all progress in civilization upon
the intellectual side has depended upon increasing invention and control of symbols of one sort
or another. Nor do I join in the undiscriminating cry of those who condemn the study of language
as having to do with mere words, not with realities. Such a position is one-sided, and is as crude
as the view against which it is a reaction.

But there is an important question here: Is the child of
six or seven years ready for symbols to such an extent that the stress of educational life can be
thrown upon them? If we were to look at the question independently of the existing school
system, in the light of the child’s natural needs and interests at this period, I doubt if there could
be found anyone who would say that the urgent call of the child of six and seven is for this sort
of nutriment, instead of for more direct introduction into the wealth of natural and social forms
that surrounds him. No doubt the skilful teacher often succeeds in awakening an interest in these
matters; but the interest has to be excited in a more or less artificial way, and, when excited, is
somewhat factitious, and independent of other-interests of child-life. At this point the wedge is
introduced and driven in, which marks the growing divorce between school and outside interests
and occupations.

We cannot recur too often in educational matters to the conception of John Fiske, that
advance in civilization is an accompaniment of the prolongation of infancy. Anything which, at
this period, develops to a high degree any set of organs and centres at the expense of others
means premature specialization, and the arrest of an equable and all-around development. Many
educators are already convinced that premature facility and glibness in the matter of numerical
combinations tend toward an arrested development of certain higher spiritual capacities. The
same thing is true in the matter of verbal symbols. Only the trained psychologist is aware of the
amount of analysis and abstraction demanded by the visual recognition of a verbal form. Many
suppose that abstraction is found only where more or less complex reasoning exists. But as a
matter of fact the essence of abstraction is found in compelling attention to rest upon elements
which are more or less cut off from direct channels of interest and action. To require a child to
turn away from the rich material which is all about him, to which he spontaneously attends, and
which is his natural, unconscious food, is to compel the premature use of analytic and abstract

It is willfully to deprive the child of that synthetic life, that unconscious union with his
environment, which is his birthright and privilege. There is every reason to suppose that a
premature demand upon the abstract intellectual capacity stands in its own way. It cripples
rather than furthers later intellectual development. We are not yet in a position to know how
much of the inertia and seeming paralysis of mental powers in later periods is the direct outcome
of excessive and too early to appeal to isolated intellectual capacity. We must trust to the
development of physiology and psychology to make these matters so clear that school authorities
and the public opinion which controls them shall have no option. Only then can we hope to
escape that deadening of the childish activities which led Jowett to call education “the grave of
the mind.”

Were the matter not so serious it would be ludicrous, when we reflect all this time and
effort to reach the end to which they are specially consecrated. It is a common saying among
intelligent educators that they can go into a schoolroom and select the children who picked up
reading at home: they read so much more naturally and intelligently. The stilted, mechanical,
droning, and sing-song ways of reading which prevail in many of our schools are simply the
reflex of the lack of motive. Reading is made an isolated accomplishment. There are no aims in
the child’s mind which he feels he can serve by reading; there is no mental hunger to be satisfied;
there are no conscious problems with reference to which he uses books. The book is a reading lesson. He learns to read not for the sake of what he reads, but for the mere sake of reading.
When the bare process of reading is thus made an end in itself, it is a psychological impossibility
for reading to be other than lifeless.

It is quite true that all better teachers now claim that the formal act of reading should be
made subordinate to the sense of what is read, that the child has first to grasp the idea, and then
to express his mental realization. But, under present conditions, this profession cannot be carried
out. The following paragraph from the report of the Committee of Fifteen on elementary
education states clearly enough the reason why; though, as it seems to me, without any
consciousness of the real inference which should be drawn from the facts set forth:-
“The first three years’ work of the child is occupied mainly with the mastery of the
printed and written forms of the words of his colloquial vocabulary,––words that he is already
familiar enough with as sounds addressed to the ear. He has to become familiar with the new
forms addressed to the eye; and it would be an unwise method to require him to learn many new
words at the same time that he is learning to recognize his old words· in their new shape. But as
soon as he has acquired (before three years) some facility in reading what is printed in the
colloquial style, he may go on to selections from standard authors.”

The material of the reading-lesson is thus found wholly in the region of familiar words
and ideas. It is out of the question for the child to find anything in the ideas themselves to arouse
and hold attention. His mind is fixed upon the mere recognition and utterance of the forms. Thus
begins that fatal divorce between the substance and the form of expression, which, fatal to
reading as an art, reduces it to a mechanical action. The utter triviality of the contents of our
school “Primers” and” First Readers,” shows the inevitable outcome of forcing the mastery of
external language-forms upon the child at a premature period. Take up the first half-dozen or
dozen such books you meet with, and ask yourself how much there is in the ideas presented
worthy of respect from any intelligent child of six years.

Methods for learning to read come and go across the educational arena, like the march of
supernumeraries upon the stage. Each is heralded as the final solution of the problem of learning
to read; but each in turn gives way to some later discovery. The simple fact is––that they all lack
the essential of any well-grounded method, namely, relevancy to the child’s mental needs. No
scheme for learning to read can supply this want. Only a new motive–putting the child into a
vital relation to the materials to be read––can be of service here. It is evident that this condition
cannot be met, unless learning to read be postponed to a period when the child’s intellectual
appetite is more consciously active, and when he is mature enough to deal more rapidly and
effectively with the formal and mechanical difficulties.

The endless drill, with its continual repetitions, is another instance of the same evil. Even
when the attempt is made to select material with some literary or historic worth of its own, the
practical outcome is much like making Paradise Lost the basis of parsing-lessons, or Caesar’s
Gallic Wars an introduction to Latin syntax. So much attention has to be given to the formal
side that the spiritual value evanesces. No one can estimate the benumbing and hardening effect
of this continued drill upon mere form. Another even more serious evil is the consequent
emptiness of mind induced. The mental room is swept and garnished–and that is all. The moral
result is even more deplorable than the intellectual. At this plastic period, when images which
take hold of the mind exercise such suggestive motor force, nothing but husks are provided.
Under the circumstances, our schools are doing great things for the moral education of children;
but all efforts in this direction must necessarily be hampered and discounted until the schoolteacher shall be perfectly free to find the bulk of the material of instruction for the early schoolyears in something which has intrinsic value,––something whose introduction into consciousness is so vital as to be personal and reconstructive.

It should be obvious that what I have in mind is not a Philistine attack upon books and
reading. The question is not how to get rid of them, but how to get their value,––how to use
them to their capacity as servants of the intellectual and moral life. The plea for the
predominance of learning to read in early school-life because of the great importance attaching to
literature seems to me a perversion. Just because literature is so important, it is desirable to
postpone the child’s introduction to printed speech until he is capable of appreciating and dealing
with its genuine meaning. Now, the child learns to read as a mechanical tool, and gets very little
conception of what is worth reading. The result is, that, after he has mastered the art and wishes
to use it; he has no standard by which to direct it. He is about as likely to use it in one way as in
another. It would be ungrateful not to recognize the faithfulness and relative success with which
teachers, for the last ten or fifteen years, have devoted themselves to raising the general tone of
reading with their pupils. But, after all, they are working against great odds. Our ideal should be
that the child should have a personal interest in what is read, a personal hunger for it, and a
personal power of satisfying this appetite. The adequate realization of this ideal is impossible
until the child comes to the reading-material with a certain background of experience which
makes him appreciate the difference between the trivial, the merely amusing and exciting, and
that which has permanent and serious meaning. This is impossible so long as the child has not
been trained in the habit of dealing with material outside of books, and has formed, through
contact with the realities of experience, habits of recognizing and dealing with problems in the
direct personal way. The isolation of material found in books from the material which the child
experiences in life itself––the forcing of the former upon the child before he has well-organized
powers of dealing with the latter––is an unnatural divorce which cannot have any other result
than defective standards of appreciation, and a tendency to elevate the sensational and transiently
interesting above the valuable and the permanent.

Two results of our wrong methods are so apparent in higher education that they are worth
special mention. They are exhibited in the paradox of the combination of slavish dependence
upon books with real inability to use them effectively. The famous complaint of Agassiz––that
students could not see for themselves––is still repeated by every teacher of science in our high
schools and colleges. How many teachers of science will tell you, for example, that, when their
students are instructed to find out something about an object, their first demand is for a book in
which they can read about it; their first reaction, one of helplessness, when they are told that they
must go to the object itself and let it tell its own story? It is not exaggerating to say that the book
habit is so firmly fixed that very many pupils, otherwise intelligent, have a positive aversion to
directing their attention to things themselves,––it seems so much simpler to occupy the mind
with what someone else has said about these things. While it is mere stupidity not to make
judicious use of the discoveries and attainments of others, the substitution of the seeing of others
for the use of one’s own eyes is such a self-contradictory principle as to require criticism. We
only need recognize the extent to which it actually obtains.

On the other hand, we have the relative incapacity of students to use easily and
economically these very tools––books––to which most of their energies have been directed. It is
a common experience with, I will not say only the teachers of undergraduate students, but of
graduate students,––candidates for advanced degrees,––to find that in every special subject a
large amount of time and energy has to be spent in learning how to use the books. To take a
book and present an adequate condensed synopsis of its points of view and course of argument is
an exercise, not merely in reading; but in thinking. To know how to turn quickly to a number of
books bearing upon a given topic, to choose what is needed, and to find what is characteristic of
the author and important in the subject, are matters which the majority of even graduate students
have to learn over again for themselves. If such be the case,––and yet attention to books has
been the dominant note of all previous education,––we are surely within bounds in asking if
there is not something radically wrong in the way in which books have been used. It is a truism
to say that the value of books consists in their relation to life, in the keenness and range which
they impart to powers of penetration and interpretation. It is no truism to say that the premature
and unrelated use of books stands in the way. Our means defeat the very end to which they are

Just a word about the corresponding evils: We have to take into account not simply the
results produced by forcing language-work unduly, but also the defects in development due to
the crowding out of other objects. Every respectable authority insists that the period of
childhood, lying between the years of four and eight or nine, is the plastic period in sense and
emotional life. What are we doing to shape these capacities? What are we doing to feed this
hunger? If one compares the powers and needs of the child in these directions with what is
actually supplied in the regimen of the three R’s, the contrast is pitiful, tragic. This epoch is also
the budding-time for the formation of efficient and orderly habits on the motor side: it is pre-
eminently the time when the child wishes to do things, and when his interest in doing can be
turned to educative account. No one can clearly set before himself the vivacity and persistency
of the child’s motor instincts at this period, and then call to mind the continued grind of reading
and writing, without feeling that the justification of our present curriculum is psychologically
impossible. It is simply a superstition: it is a remnant of an outgrown period of history.

All this might be true, and yet there might be no subject-matter sufficiently organized for
introduction into the school curriculum, since this demands, above all things, a certain
definiteness of presentation and of development. But we are not in this unfortunate plight. There
are subjects which are as well fitted to meet the child’s dominant needs as they are to prepare him
for the civilization in which he has to play his part. There is art in a variety of modes—music,
drawing, painting, modeling, etc. These media not only afford a regulated outlet in which the
child may project his inner impulses and feelings in outward form, and come to consciousness of
himself, but are necessities in existing social life. The child must be protected against some of
the hard and over-utilitarian aspect of modem civilization: positively, they are needed, because
some degree of artistic and creative power is necessary to take the future worker out of the ranks
of unskilled labor, and to feed his consciousness in his hours of contact with purely mechanical

Those modes of simple scientific observation and experiment which go under the name
of “nature-study” are calculated to appeal to and keep active the keenness of the child’s interest in
the world about him, and to introduce him gradually to those methods of discovery and
verification which are the essential characteristics of modern intellectual life. On the social side,
they give the child an acquaintance with his environment,––an acquaintance more and more
necessary, under existing conditions, for the maintenance of personal and social health, for
understanding and conducting business pursuits, and for the administration of civic affairs. What
is crudely termed manual training––the variety of constructive activities, which, begun in the
Kindergarten, ought never to be given up––is equally adapted to the characteristic needs of the
child and to the present demands of associated life. These activities afford discipline in
continuous and orderly application of powers, strengthen habits of attention and industry, and
beget self-reliant and ingenious judgment. As preparation for future social life, they furnish
insight into the mechanical and industrial occupations upon which our civilization depends, and
keep alive that sense of the dignity of work essential to democracy. History and literature, once
more, provide food for the eager imagination of the child. While giving it worthy material, they
may check its morbid and chaotic exercise. They present to the child typical conditions of social
life, they exhibit the struggles which have brought it into being, and picture the spiritual which it
has culminated. Due place cannot be given to and history until the teacher is free to select them
for their intrinsic value, and not from the standpoint of the child’s ability to recognize written and
printed verbal symbols.

Here we have the controlling factors in the primary curriculum of the future,––manual
training, science nature-study, art, and history. These keep alive the child’s positive and creative
impulses, and direct them in such ways as to discipline them into the habits of thought and action
required for effective participation in community life.

Were the attempt suddenly made to throw out, or reduce to a minimum, language-work in
the early grades, the last state of our schools would undoubtedly be worse than the first. Not
immediate substitution is what is required, but consideration of the whole situation, and
organization of the materials and methods of science, history, and the arts to make them adequate
educational agencies. Many of our present evils are due to compromise and inconsistency. We
have neither one thing nor the other,––neither the systematic, all-pervasive discipline of the three
R’s, nor a coherent training in constructive work, history, and nature-study. We have a mixture
of the two. The former is supposed to furnish the element of discipline and to constitute the
standard of success; while the latter supplies the factor of interest. What is needed is a
thoroughgoing reconciliation of the ideals of thoroughness, definiteness, and order, summed up
in the notion of discipline, with those of appeal to individual capacities and demands, summed
up in the word “interest.”

This is the Educational Problem, as it relates to the elementary school.
Change must come gradually. To force it unduly would compromise its final success by
favoring a violent reaction. What is needed in the first place is that there should be a full and
frank statement of conviction with regard to the matter from physiologists and psychologists and
from those school administrators who are conscious of the evils of the present régime. Educators
should also frankly face the fact that the New Education, as it exists to-day, is a compromise and
a transition: it employs new methods; but its controlling ideals are virtually those of the Old
Education. Wherever movements looking to a solution of the problem are intelligently
undertaken, they should receive encouragement, moral and financial, from the intellectual
leaders of the community. There are already in existence a considerable number of educational
“experiment stations,” which represent the outposts of educational progress. If these schools can
be adequately supported for a number of years they will perform a great vicarious service. After
such schools have worked out carefully and definitely the subject matter of a new curriculum,––
finding the right place for language-studies and placing them in their right perspective,––the
problem of the more general educational reform will be immensely simplified and facilitated.
There will be clear standards, well-arranged material, and coherent methods upon which to
proceed. To build up and equip such schools is, therefore, the wisest and most economic policy,
in avoiding the friction and waste consequent upon casual and spasmodic attempts at educational

All this amounts to saying that school reform is dependent upon a collateral wider change
in the public opinion which controls school board, superintendent, and teachers. There are
certain minor changes; reforms in detail, which can be effected directly within the school system
itself. But the school is not an isolated institution: it is one of an organism of social forces. To
secure more scientific principles of work in the school, means, accordingly, clearer vision and
wiser standards of thought and action in the community at large. The Educational Problem is
ultimately, that society shall see clearly its own conditions and needs, and set resolutely about
meeting them. If the recognition be once secured, we need have no doubts about the consequent
action. Let the community once realize that it is educating upon the basis of a life which it has
left behind, and it will turn, with adequate intellectual and material resources, to meet the needs
of the present hour.


John Dewey was an atheist and a signer of the Humanist Manifesto.  

Bold added by the editor