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XII. The Dawn of Modern Education

John Dewey (1859-1952)

In recent lessons, we have followed a series of anti-Catholic developments in human thought and practice. We saw three massive movements which declared open war on Catholic tradition: the Protestant Revolution, the Scientific Revolution and the foundation of the secular American school system. Each of these movements, when looked at carefully, may be characterized by the attempt to undermine the authority of the Catholic Church and undo the effects Christianity has had on human civilization since its founding.

In this lesson we will look deeper into the philosophical and historical context of the American public school system to understand how it evolved from a Protestant endeavor to create an anti-Catholic American citizenry into a secular machine for cultural change. Prepare yourself to see the fruits by which we may know that the string of revolutions that occurred between 1600 and 1900 were not the work of God.

The Fruits of the Scientific Revolution

We studied the writing of Francis Bacon, in which he argued–contrary to all Christian and classical history–that the senses, empowered by scientific instruments would lead men out from the “dark age” of faith-based reasoning brought to its zenith by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. Many of his ideas, along with his fellow scientists, were couched in religious language as they needed to be to find acceptance among his religious hearers. However, the seeds were sown for what would be the most shocking consequences.

As scientists gained greater knowledge of the forces and workings of nature, the time came to set them to practical use. Since ancient times, human society was centered on a relatively unchanged system of agricultural production, whereby the production of goods took place at the speed of nature. The famous Roman Cato (Roman consul and philosopher) summed up the happiness of the agricultural life when he wrote sometime before 150 BC:

“It is true that to obtain money by trade is sometimes more profitable, were it not so hazardous; and likewise money-lending, if it were as honourable…The trader I consider to be an energetic man, and one bent on making money; but, as I said above, it is a dangerous career and one subject to disaster. On the other hand, it is from the farming class that the bravest men and the sturdiest soldiers come, their calling is most highly respected, their livelihood is most assured and is looked on with the least hostility, and those who are engaged in that pursuit are least inclined to be disaffected.” (De Agricultura)

Moreover, communities were close-knit and largely self-sufficient. Most children were raised for a life of manual labor and but a small percentage were sent off to the university for liberal arts studies. William Cobbett captured this reality in the 1820s as he wrote:

“You should bear constantly in mind, that nine-tenths of us are, from the very nature and necessities of the world, born to gain our livelihood by the sweat of our brow. If they be, as now and then one will be, endued with extraordinary powers of mind, those powers may have an opportunity of developing themselves; and if they never have that opportunity, the harm is not very great to us or to them.” (Cottage Economy)

However, the practical applications of scientific discoveries were made in the areas of manufacturing and agriculture–precisely those by which the common peopled gained their livelihood. The improved ability to produce metals allowed the construction of complex machines. The development of steam power replaced the need for draft animals and human effort with more machines. The machines that were built were used to make bigger and stronger machines and the common people, along with their animals, watched as their skills were rendered obsolete by the metal creatures being developed in the laboratory. The scientific harnessing of natural forces and mechanical advantages gained were employed to replace manual labor and the social and economic earthquake that resulted is known as the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution

The applications of scientific discoveries targeted five fundamental areas of life:

  1. Textile production,
  2. Metallurgy,
  3. Mining,
  4. Agriculture and
  5. Transportation.

Textile production, rather than depending on the shearing and spinning of local workers was increasingly performed by machines. Advances in metal production allowed wood to be replaced as the primary material used for tools and equipment. The steam engine allowed water to be pumped out of deep mine shafts, allowing coal to be extracted in greater quantities than before. The development of metal ploughs, seed drills and steam-powered tractors eliminated the use of draft animals and manual farm labor, allowing landowners to work greater tracts of land with less and less men. The construction of canals and railways allowed natural resources to be drawn from lands previously untouched and products to be transported into areas previously too distant from centers of trade for men to develop. Steam power allowed mills to be built in places where water-powered mills would not have been able to exist. In essence, human and animal labor was replaced by machinery as the foundation of human economy.

Of course, the industrialists celebrated these developments as great improvements to the human condition and for them they were indeed. Wealth gathered into the hands of the machine owners, while the traditional social structure of the farm and neighborhood was destroyed. Machines were gathered into “factories” that all manufacturing could take place under a single roof before being conveniently sent off to a worldwide marketplace. Men without work in the country had to relocate to the cities to find work in the factories, on the railways or in the mines. Eventually, their families followed and found work of their own.

The managers of the factories were seeking efficiency and profit and that meant bypassing the elder laborers for women and children. After all, the new jobs being created were not heavily physical in nature and often required little more than supervision–work perfect for children. Children were put to work for entire days and along with women given the most unhealthy and dangerous tasks. They were worked so badly that the first labor laws limited work by children under 18 years old to twelve hours per day!

As the upper classes worked for the protection of women and children from exploitation, child labor laws were established. Ultimately, however, child labor was made illegal. This meant that children were no longer needed about the farm and could not work in the factory. The traditional school calendar and schedule were based around the assumption that children had to help at home. However, the urbanization produced by the industrial revolution led to the development of a new school model.

The effects of this cultural revolution were described by the philosopher John Dewey in 1900:

“The change…that overshadows and even controls all others, is the industrial one?the application of science resulting in the great inventions that have utilized the forces of nature on a vast and inexpensive scale: the growth of a world-wide market as the object of production, of vast manufacturing centers to supply this market, of cheap and rapid means of communication and distribution between all its parts. Even as to its feebler beginnings, this change is not much more than a century old; in many of its most important aspects it falls within the short span of those now living. One can hardly believe there has been a revolution in all history so rapid, so extensive, so complete. Through it the face of the earth is making over, even as to its physical forms; political boundaries are wiped out and moved about, as if they were indeed only lines on a paper map; population is hurriedly gathered into cities from the ends of the earth; habits of living are altered with startling abruptness and thoroughness; the search for the truths of nature is infinitely stimulated and facilitated, and their application to life made not only practicable, but commercially necessary. Even our moral and religious ideas and interests, the most conservative because the deepest-lying things in our nature, are profoundly affected.” (John Dewey, School and Society)

An Education to the New Society

The summary of the effects of the Industrial Revolution above were provided by John Dewey, who is no mere historian or sociologist. Dewey was quite a fascinating man. He was an atheist, who is recognized in history as a key contributor to several philosophical movements of the early 20th century including: pragmatism, secular humanism and progressivism.

More important to our discussion, however, is the profound influence he had on American education in the early 1900s. Dewey taught at the University of Chicago and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College, two of the most influential institutions for the development of modern educational theory in the early 1900s. What we must reflect on is that his explanation of the historical situation in which he lived (quoted above) reveals how conscious the educational theorists were of the changes they were making in the 1900s. They understood clearly that the revolution of society and culture in which they lived was comprehensive and unprecedented in history. Notice the adjectives used to describe the events: vast, rapid, extensive, complete, hurriedly, startling, abrupt, and so on. It is not normally good when changes take place that are deep, extensive…and rapid.

What is frightening about this movement, however is not the history of the discoveries and applications themselves, but the opportunity that Dewey and his fellow pragmatists seized upon to implement equally radical and rapid changes in education. Today, we look back at traditional Catholic culture and wonder where it went as though it was slowly lost by accident. When you read Dewey’s words, realize how clearly the educators understood what they were doing and what the consequences were.

“That this revolution should not affect education in some other than a formal and superficial fashion is inconceivable.

Back of the factory system lies the household and neighborhood system. Those of us who are here today need go back only one, two, or at most three generations, to find a time when the household was practically the center in which were carried on, or about which were clustered, all the typical forms of industrial occupation. The clothing worn was for the most part made in the house; the members of the household were usually familiar also with the shearing of the sheep, the carding and spinning of the wool, and the plying of the loom. Instead of pressing a button and flooding the house with electric light, the whole process of getting illumination was followed in its toilsome length from the killing of the animal and the trying of fat to the making of wicks and dipping of candles. The supply of flour, of lumber, of foods, of building materials, of household furniture, even of metal ware, of nails, hinges, hammers, etc., was produced in the immediate neighborhood, in shops which were constantly open to inspection and often centers of neighborhood congregation. The entire industrial process stood revealed, from the production on the farm of the raw materials till the finished article was actually put to use. Not only this, but practically every member of the household had his own share in the work. The children, as they gained in strength and capacity, were gradually initiated into the mysteries of the several processes. It was a matter of immediate and personal concern, even to the point of actual participation.

We cannot overlook the factors of discipline and of character-building involved in this kind of life: training in habits of order and of Industry, and in the idea of responsibility, of obligation to do something, to produce something, in the world. There was always something which really needed to be done, and a real necessity that each member of the household should do his own part faithfully and in co-operation with others. Personalities which became effective in action were bred and tested in the medium of action. Again, we cannot overlook the importance for educational purposes of the close and intimate acquaintance got with nature at first hand, with real things and materials, with the actual processes of their manipulation, and the knowledge of their social necessities and uses. In all this there was continual training of observation, of ingenuity, constructive imagination, of logical thought, and of the sense of reality acquired through first-hand contact with actualities. The educative forces of the domestic spinning and weaving, of the sawmill, the gristmill, the cooper shop, and the blacksmith forge, were continuously operative.

No number of object-lessons, got up as object lessons for the sake of giving information, can afford even the shadow of a substitute for acquaintance with the plants and animals of the farm and garden acquired through actual living among them and caring for them. No training of sense-organs in school, introduced for the sake of training, can begin to compete with the alertness and fulness of sense-life that comes through daily intimacy and interest in familiar occupations. Verbal memory can be trained in committing tasks, a certain discipline of the reasoning powers can be acquired through lessons in science and mathematics; but, after all, this is somewhat remote and shadowy compared with the training of attention and of’ judgment that is acquired in having to do things with a real motive behind and a real outcome ahead. At present, concentration of industry and division of labor have practically eliminated household and neighborhood occupations, at least for educational purposes. But it is useless to bemoan the departure of the good old days of children’s modesty, reverence, and implicit obedience, if we expect merely by bemoaning and by exhortation to bring them back. It is radical conditions which have changed, and only an equally radical change in education suffices. We must recognize our compensations, the increase in toleration, in breadth of social judgment, the larger acquaintance with human nature, the sharpened alertness in reading signs of character and interpreting social situations, greater accuracy of adaptation to differing personalities, contact with greater commercial activities. These considerations mean much to the city-bred child of today.”

In essence, Dewey is admitting that the society being destroyed by the Industrial Revolution and urbanization was an excellent one. Children grew up with a sense of responsibility, respect, the need for sound judgment, the value of community and so on. Dewey admits that no amount of school lessons could ever reproduce what those children learned through their everyday experience at home and on the farm. Nevertheless, the changes that were transforming society demanded that something new be designed–no matter how good the old was and for how long. As he stated: “That this revolution should not affect education…is inconceivable.”

What were the benefits of this revolution? Dewey lists them without any judgment concerning their value in comparison with what was being destroyed: growth of a worldwide market, increased speed of distribution, increased speed of transportation, increased speed of communication. Every benefit listed concerns material wealth, while the losses from traditional society concern the moral life of families and children. Here we see the real evil of these movements: the progress was entirely material and temporal, while the impoverishment was moral and spiritual.

As we learned earlier, the Scientific Method was not unknown to the ancient philosophers, but undesired. Here we see why. All of the so-called advances of the modern industrialized world belong to the needs of the body–and they do not come at no cost to the soul. As these changes were being made in American history, the thinkers and planners and “reformers” knew perfectly well what was happening. Dewey explains it in perfect clarity: the soul of man was being sold for the comforts of the flesh.

Democracy and Education

Dewey’s ultimate vision was to transform schools from places where children went to gain mastery of a handful of traditional academic subjects to a new society of its own. He believed that by creating a microcosm of the adult world children could learn to participate in a free society, learn to communicate and make good social judgments and develop those skills and interests that they judged to be most beneficial for themselves.

The preparation of healthy, docile workforce along with future inventors of new technologies became the goal of the schools. Inasmuch as the household and neighborhood systems of the past were to be relevant no more, relations between students and their parents were de-emphasized and their relationship to their peers and advisors within the school system given greater emphasis. Children needed to be trained for participation not in family life, but in the new industrialized and democratic society. The school expanded from a school house to a laboratory with instruction in mechanical and industrial arts, home-making, natural and social sciences, health and physical education, fine and performing arts and citizenship. The advances made in assembly line efficiency in the factories were applied to the organization of schools, with each child being moved along in a row. Man was at last reduced to one more machine being manufactured and prepared for the cause of social progress.


Such were the ultimate fruits of the Scientific Revolution. Note that the legal efforts of the Protestants to forbid Catholic participation in the public schools provided the precedents that ultimately allowed the secular takeover of the schools, with the Protestants drinking the cup of their own folly to the dregs. Their first rebellion against the Catholic Church was a sign that evil things were coming. The rest simply flowed out from the door they opened at the Reformation.

With the Industrial Revolution every aspect of society changed–and that often within a single generation! Families gave up the means of production (the farm) and moved to the cities so that they could be closer to the factories. Despite dangerous working conditions, women and children also worked in the mines and factories until the abuses were finally outlawed. This produced an army of idle youths with nothing to do in the cities other than go to school. The school leaders, including John Dewey, redesigned the school so that it would no longer function as a meeting place where children learn five or six subjects, but an artificial society in which children could be trained to embrace and enter into the brave new world outside.