Conflating the ideas of Dewey and Spencer

Robin ZebrowskiIn a recent issue of Educational Theory, 58(3), Robin Zebrowski (pictured right) details some of the areas typically conflated in comparing the ideas of John Dewey with those of Herbert Spencer.

In educational scholarship, a number of comparisons have been made between the work of John Dewey and Herbert Spencer, many claiming that Spencer’s influence is unmistakable in Dewey’s theories or even that Dewey is derivative of Spencer. However, one must look beyond the surface similarities of Dewey and Spencer and recognize the drastically divergent views that each held on those very foundational notions upon which each built his educational program. In this essay, Robin Zebrowksi examines the theories of evolution, the directionality of organism and environment interaction, the agency of the individual, and the conceptualizations of progress in the respective works of Dewey and Spencer. Their underlying beliefs about the world and how it operates show that their philosophies cannot be reconciled. The educational theories that follow from these discrepancies, Zebrowski concludes, have incompatible and distinct implications for the classroom.

It is worth noting that Zebrowski’s criticism is directed primarily at Kieran Egan‘s book of 2002, Getting It Wrong from the Beginning: Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget.  (My own comments on this work can be found in the article I published last summer in Perspectives on Science.)

See also:

  • Dewey, J. (1894). [Review of the book “Hedonistic Theories from Antippus to Spencer” by John Watson.] Psychological Review, 3(2), 218-222. “The examination of Mr. Spencer takes up his ethical doctrine both in its hedonistic psychology, its evolutionary aspects and the relation of one of these to the other, with a view to showing that Mr. Spencer’s general formula of evolution throws no light on moral conduct; that his psychology destroys the reality of obligation, and does not justify the transition from egoism to altruism; while the idea of a completed life and completed society held up as the goal from the side of evolution have no special coherence with the ideal of pleasure set up on the analytic side.” (p. 221)
  • Dewey, J. (1904). The Philosophical Work of Spencer. Philosophical Review, 12, 159-175.
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About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

2 thoughts on “Conflating the ideas of Dewey and Spencer

  1. The “John Watson” whose book Dewey reviews (in the references) was NOT famed behaviorist John B. Watson (who was a teenager in 1894) but the primary philosophy professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. He was regarded as second in status only to Harvard’s Josiah Royce among North American Idealist philosophers (a stance that Dewey himself had been schooled in at Johns Hopkins by George Sylvester Morris, but that he was abandoning in the mid-1890s).

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