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March 3, 2016 - WRECKING BALL EDUCATION - False Prophets, Pt 1: Wundt, Hall, Dewey, and the Psychologization of Education

For those new to this series, Wrecking Ball Education (WBE) highlights people and/or ideas that have in some way either had a devastating effect on true education or, conversely. those that suggest pathways for knocking down false reforms and restoring opportunities to teach and learn substantively. At Resounding Books, we're not interested in playing it safe. We don't publish sanitized thoughts. You may not agree with us on everything you read on our blog...but we're pretty sure you'll at least find nuggets worthy of consideration...things you didn't know, interesting connections you hadn't previously recognized, or reasons to examine the already-familiar from a new angle.   

For this installment of WBE, Resounding Books is pleased to present the first of several guest blogs by Craig Sower. A professor of English and Teacher Education at Shujitsu University since 1998, he lives with his wife, Mitsuko, in Okayama, Japan. He holds a Master of Arts in Teaching from the School for International Training. Craig has an abiding interest in the reflective practice of teaching, history of education and education reform and has researched and written extensively in this field.

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Education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform…the teacher is engaged not simply in the training of individuals, but in the formation of the proper social life…in this way the teacher always is the prophet of the true God and the usherer in of the true kingdom of God. ~ John Dewey, 1897 [1]


Professors of education no longer invoke the name of God in sermons to their novitiates, but they frequently do call upon God’s self-anointed messenger, John Dewey. Indeed, his words are so ubiquitous at teacher conferences and in the literature that his authority is seldom questioned. Unlimited faith in the science of progress, however, neither began nor ended with Dewey. The early 20th Century (what Ravitch called “the Age of the Experts”[2]) was an exciting time. Progressives around the world thrilled to the prospect that the best among them would soon reveal the mysteries of nature, cure the human condition, and lead the masses into a bright new future. True, experts sometimes disagreed among themselves, but on one point they were unanimous: the people need experts to solve the problems of their broken lives. Dewey was a product of this age, and two giants in educational psychology prepared his way: Wilhelm Wundt and Stanley Hall.


Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) established Europe’s first experimental psychology laboratory at the University of Leipzig in 1878. Considered the founder of structural psychology, he personally trained many of the world’s first psychologists. Wundt believed people are animals “devoid of spirit and self-determinism”[3]; his work inspired the Behaviorism of Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner. On this view, since people are incapable of realizing their potential on their own, it falls to elites to act on their behalf. In the labs of Wundt and his associates, advancing knowledge was a matter of finding sharper instruments, measuring inputs and performance, and predicting outcomes. His research produced such innovations as lobotomies and electric shock treatment. A gifted physiologist, he helped reduce humans to subjects of medical experiments, a practice continued by later Germans in a more grisly context. All this was celebrated as demystifying human nature but, as C. S. Lewis warned, “if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be.”[4] Wundt taught many influential American students, the first of whom was G. Stanley Hall.


Hall (1844-1924) received Harvard University’s first Ph.D. in psychology in 1878. After graduating, he moved to Leipzig to study with Wundt, returning to the U.S. and establishing a psychology laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in 1883. John Dewey was among Hall’s first students. Hall was a devotee of the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the enlightened genius who sent his own five illegitimate children to foundling homes before writing his extended sermon on childrearing, Émile, or On Education, in 1762. This mystical tome remains on the reading lists of leading graduate schools of education throughout the world today. Rousseau drew the child as a Noble Savage who would achieve authentic greatness if liberated from the corrupting influences of the family, society and civilization.

Hall’s 1883 article, The Contents of Children’s Minds, implied that children’s interests should guide education, but he sought instead to replace traditional goals with his own. His views illustrate one of the inherent conflicts between the child-study movement on one hand, and teacher-led social reform on the other. If children were actually free to drive the curriculum according to their interests, schools would have no principled basis for denying academic credit for 4-H projects, NRA marksmanship classes, Call of Duty®, or religious study groups—outcomes well outside the comfort zone of most education reformers. But Hall did not truly propose to turn schools over to children he merely wanted to substitute his own judgments for those of parents and teachers. He attacked the academic curriculum as harmful to children and disparaged mathematics, geography, and language arts. He wrote that it was unnecessary for most children to learn to read but that, if they must, they should not do so until at least the age of eight. Citing European schools, Hall advocated different courses of study starting at age eight: one for the chosen few going on to college, and another for those destined for work. Hall used the Rousseauan faith as a screen for this differentiated curriculum.

French philosophy was not the only thing European that fascinated Hall. He was attracted to theories on the racial memory of Das Volk, became an admirer of German authoritarianism, developed a taste for Social Darwinism, was an early proponent of selective breeding and forced sterilization of undesirables, and came to believe that excessive individualism was bad for the U.S. Had he lived a few years longer he could have seen similar pseudo-scientific theories of racial eugenics, romanticism, social efficiency, and anti-intellectualism acted out on a national stage. While Hall’s beliefs make him sound like a kook, he was no isolated nut; he was a hugely influential character and central to the development of psychology and educational theory in the U.S. He served as Professor of Psychology and Pedagogics at Johns Hopkins University (1882-88), was president of Clark University (1889-1920), became the first president of the American Psychological Association in 1892, and was a featured NEA speaker throughout the early 1900s. Hall and his students, Henry Goddard and Lewis Terman, collaborated with Edward Thorndike in establishing the field of educational psychology along Wundtian lines.


Undoubtedly Hall’s most famous student, John Dewey (1859-1952) eclipsed his teacher’s fame and continues to tower above all other education reformers down to the present day. His stature was due partly to his longevity, partly to the sheer volume of his writing—some 700 articles and over 40 books—and partly because of his political and social contacts. He came of age at exactly the right time and place to join in the progressive movement, traveled widely, and had thousands of students. In 1950, just two years before the great man’s death, Henry Commager wrote of him: “So faithfully did Dewey live up to his own philosophical creed that he became the guide, the mentor, and the conscience of the American people; it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that for a generation no issue was clarified until Dewey had spoken.”[5] Dewey first rose to prominence in 1894 as the chairman of the University of Chicago’s new department of philosophy and psychology. Shortly thereafter, he founded the Chicago Laboratory Schools, where he experimented with pedagogical theories based on Rousseau’s ideas. His book, The School and Society, published in 1899, is basically Dewey’s progress report on the laboratory school, complete with pictures of children’s drawings, diagrams of ideal school buildings, and a chart depicting the “isolations of the school system itself.”[6] There is much to be admired in the book and in the school he oversaw, and his students were no doubt engaged in novel ways that enhanced their learning.

That said, The School and Society reveals the beginnings of what became a pattern for Dewey and his followers. “We are apt to look at the school from an individualistic standpoint, as something between teacher and pupil, or between teacher and parent … Yet the range of the outlook needs to be enlarged. What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy … Here individualism and socialism are at one. Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.”[7] In introducing what he termed the “New Education,” Dewey began to make the case that the individualistic, family-centered school of the past was antiquated, undemocratic, and selfish. In place of the “isolations” of the old system, he proposed modern definitions of self-fulfillment and democracy, in which individual identity and freedom could only be realized collectively. Dewey helped shift the locus of control away from the family, home and school, and towards outside experts who, according to Dewey, knew more about children than did their parents and teachers. Applied to a single experimental school in the Midwest, staffed with brilliant and dedicated teachers, these ideas would not have mattered much. In less capable hands and applied throughout the country, however, his New Education was less benign.

Dewey’s emphasis on experts came to fruition in Teachers College at Columbia University (TCCU) where he held sway from 1904 until his retirement in 1930. He and his colleagues established hegemonic control over American teacher education that continues to this day. At TCCU, like-minded educators such as psychologist Edward Thorndike and social efficiency proponent David Snedden used their roles as prominent social scientists to justify the differentiated curriculum, empower pedagogical experts, and redefine democracy.[8] They put pupils’ self-esteem over learning facts or developing good habits, and advocated de-emphasis of reading. Throughout his career, Dewey wrote and spoke out on such topics as the child-study movement, the perils of academic curricula, vocational training for the masses, delayed reading for children, removing parents and teachers from their traditional roles in favor of educationists, curtailing individualism, and changing the definition of American democracy. At many junctures a word from Dewey could have curbed the excesses of his more exuberant followers. But, aside from a few mild rebukes, he usually chose either to remain silent or to advance TCCU projects under his imprimatur.

Genuflection to John Dewey is as common today as benedictions once were in American education. However, his ideas did not arise in a vacuum. Wundt, Hall, and their contemporaries were convinced of the righteousness of their cause. Their protégé, John Dewey, was wholly devoted to his calling as a modern-day Moses leading a lost people to a new Promised Land where they would at last be free from the human condition. Twelve decades later it is up to parents, teachers, and citizens to decide if Dewey’s ideas of social reconstruction led by educationists should continue to play this role. There is a reasonable case to be made that they should not.



[1] In Lawrence A. Cremin, The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education 1867-1957 (New York: Vintage Books, 1961), p. 100.

[2] Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform (New York: Touchstone, 2000), p. 88.

[3] Paolo Lionni & Lance J. Klass, The Leipzig Connection: The Systematic Destruction of American Education (Portland, Oregon: Heron Books, 1980), p. 13.

[4] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (London: Macmillan Publishing, 1944), p. 80.

[5] Alan Ryan, John Dewey and the high tide of American liberalism (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995), p. 19.

[6] John Dewey, The School and Society (Chicago: Chicago University, 1899, Twelfth Impression). For some of the specific graphics described, see p. 60.

[7] Ibid, pp. 3-4.

[8] Part 2 will explore in greater detail how science was used to justify IQ testing, eugenics, and vocational education.