The Weekly Sam: Looking Backward 123 Years Later By Samuel Blumenfeld

(This article was originally published in 2011)

The year 2011 marks the 123rd year since the publication of Edward Bellamy’s famous
utopian novel, Looking Backward, in which the author depicted a happy, socialist
America in the year 2000. In Bellamy’s optimistic fantasy, greed and material want
ceased to exist, brotherly harmony prevailed, the arts and sciences flourished, and an
all-powerful and pervasive government and bureaucracy were efficient and fair.
The book became enormously popular, selling 371,000 copies in its first two years and a
million copies by 1900. Its influence on American progressive educators and
intellectuals was enormous. In fact, it became their vision of a future American paradise
in which human moral perfectibility could at last be attained.

The extent of the book’s influence can be measured by the fact that in 1935, when
Columbia University asked philosopher-educator John Dewey, historian Charles Beard,
and Atlantic Monthly editor Edward Weeks to prepare independently lists of the 25 most
influential books since 1885, Looking Backward ranked as second on each list after
Marx’s Das Kapital. In other words, Looking Backward was considered the most
influential American book in that 50-year period.

John Dewey characterized the book as “one of the greatest modern syntheses of humane
values.” Even after the rise of Hitler’s National Socialism in Germany and
Marxist-Leninist communism in Russia, Dewey still clung to Bellamy’s vision of a
socialist America. In his 1934 essay, “The Great American Prophet,” Dewey wrote:
“I wish that those who conceive that the abolition of private capital and of energy
expended for profit signify complete regimenting of life and the abolition of all personal
choice and all emulation, would read with an open mind Bellamy’s picture of a socialized
economy. It is not merely that he exposes with extraordinary vigor and clarity the
restriction upon liberty that the present system imposes but that he pictures how
socialized industry and finance would release and further all of those personal and private
types of occupation and use of leisure that men and women actually most prize today….

“It is an American communism that he depicts, and his appeal comes largely from the
fact that he sees in it the necessary means of realizing the democratic ideal….
“The worth of Bellamy’s book in effecting a translation of the ideas of democracy into
economic terms is incalculable. What Uncle Tom’s Cabin was to the anti-slavery
movement Bellamy’s book may well be to the shaping of popular opinion for a new
social order.”

Bellamy envisaged America becoming socialist by way of consensus rather than
revolution. In turn, Dewey, who spent his professional life trying to transform
Bellamy’s vision into American reality, saw education as the principle means by which
this transformation could be achieved. He spent the years 1894 to 1904 at the University
of Chicago in his Laboratory School seeking to devise a new curriculum for the public
schools that would produce the kind of socialized youngsters who would bring about the
new socialist millennium.

The result, of course, is the education we have today–a minimal interest in the
development of intellectual, scientific, and literacy skills and a maximal effort to produce
socialized, politically correct, individuals who can barely read.
Today, many years later, the University of Chicago stands as an island of academic
tranquility in Chicago’s Southside, surrounded by a sea of social and urban devastation
caused by the philosophical emanations from Dewey’s laboratory and other departments.
Charles Judd, the university’s Wundtian professor of educational psychology, labored
mightily to organize the radical reform of the public school curriculum to conform with
Dewey’s socialist plan.

According to Dewey, the philosophical underpinning of capitalism is individualism
sustained by an education that stressed the development of literacy skills. High literacy
encourages intellectual independence which produces strong individualism. It was
Dewey’s exhaustive analysis of individualism that led him to believe that the socialized
individual could only be produced by first getting rid of the traditional emphasis on
language and literacy in the primary grades and turning the children toward socialized
activities and behavior.

In 1898, he wrote a devastating critique of traditional Three R’s education, entitled “The
Primary-Education Fetich (sic),” in which he took to task the entire centuries-old
emphasis on literacy. He wrote:

“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.”

He then mapped out a long-range, comprehensive strategy that would reorganize primary
education to serve the needs of socialization. “Change must come gradually,” he wrote.
“To force it unduly would compromise its final success by favoring a violent reaction.”
If what he was advocating was so beneficial, why would it favor a violent reaction?
The simple fact is that when parents send their children to school they want them to
become good readers. They don’t send them to school to become socialists.
Obviously, Dewey had learned a lot from the Fabian socialists in England whose motto
was Festina lente–”Make haste slowly.”

Part of the new primary curriculum was a new method of teaching reading, an
ideographic method that teaches children to read English as if it were Chinese, by simple
word recognition, as if each word were like a Chinese character. It was called the
“look-say or sight” method. In fact, it was at the University of Chicago that Charles
Judd’s protégé, William Scott Gray, developed the Dick and Jane reading program which
in the 1930’s became the standard method of teaching reading in American schools and
has caused the devastating epidemic of functional illiteracy in America.

By 1955, the reading problem had become so severe that Rudolf Flesch felt compelled to
write a book about it, Why Johnny Can’t Read. But it didn’t move the educators to
change anything. They were firmly committed to Dewey’s plan to create a socialist
America. Indeed, in 2007, the National Endowment for the Arts released a somber
report on the state of American literacy. Its chairman, Dana Gioia, stated: “This is a
massive social problem. We are losing the majority of the new generation. They will not
achieve anything close to their potential because of poor reading.”

False doctrines lead to tragic consequences. Chicago’s Southside, New York’s Harlem
and East Bronx, Boston’s Roxbury, and other such third-world type enclaves in American
cities, peopled by the new American underclass, all of whom have attended American
government schools, are the making of the arrogant eugenicist doctrines, policies, and
strategies of the progressive movement. Progressives, of course, will never admit
responsibility for the human wreckage they have created
. In fact, they have deified Dewey, attributing the failures of progressive education to
everything but Dewey.

Meanwhile, Bellamy’s consensus utopia is far more remote today than it was in 1888.
The present economic mess created by the socialists in Washington–with, unfortunately,
some help from the Bush Administration–cannot possibly evolve into anything Bellamy
would have recognized. At least back then many intelligent people entertained the
delusion of human perfectibility and that utopia was possible.

Today, after the horrible events of the 20th century, we know that Bellamy’s basic
analysis of capitalism and human nature was false. But the fact that diehard socialists
still exist in America and occupy the highest ranks of power in Washington is proof that
man is indeed a fallen creature and capable of the kind of evil that destroys nations. We
survived John Dewey and Edward Bellamy. But will we survive Obama?

(The late Sam Blumenfeld was two generations ahead of his time.  Become a member of the Sam Blumenfeld Archives-a free on-line resource: