I am often asked to name those educators responsible for the change in primary reading instruction which has led to the decline in literacy in America. People ask this because by the time they understand the history of the reading problem and of the dumbing-down process that has been going on in our public schools for the last 60 years, they recognize that all of this is not the result of a series of accidents but of conscious, deliberate decisions made by our educational leaders.
After 35 years of research, I can state without equivocation that the prime mover in all of this was none other than John Dewey, who is usually worshiped by liberals as the father of progressive education. We all know that he was the philosophical leader of the movement, but few know that he attended to such details as to how children should be taught to read. Yet, the change in the teaching of reading is probably Dewey’s greatest contribution to the transformation of American education from an academically oriented process to a social one.
The progressives were a new breed of educator who came on the scene around the turn of the last century. Most were members of the Protestant academic elite who no longer believed in the religion of their fathers even though many of them came from good Christian families. Some of them even had fathers who were ministers and missionaries.
These sons rejected the religion of the Bible and put their new faith in science, evolution, and psychology. Indeed, men like G. Stanley Hall, James McKeen Cattell, Charles Judd, James Earl Russell traveled to Germany to study the new psychology under Prof. Wilhelm Wundt at the University of Leipzig. It was these men who later imposed the new psychology on American education and transformed it permanently from its academic function to one dedicated to behavioral change.
John Dewey was introduced to the new psychology by G. Stanley Hall at Johns Hopkins University. In 1887, at the tender age of 28, Dewey felt that he knew enough about psychology to write a textbook on the subject, entitled fittingly Psychology. In 1894, Dewey was appointed head of the department of philosophy, psychology and education at the University of Chicago, which had been established two years earlier by a gift from John D. Rockefeller. In 1896, Dewey created his famous experimental Laboratory School where he could test the effects of the new progressive curriculum on real children.
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Sam Blumenfeld (photo)