Does John Dewey Care About Subject Matter?

Last week, writing my post about John Dewey’s morality, which frankly has completely disappeared from my brain even after I spent so much time trying to understand it, I made a comparison that I wanted to revisit.  I was talking about the big difference that emphasis, not factual interpretation, can have on a thinker’s import.  I was comparing Burke and Dewey – two thinkers who both ostensibly value a balance between impulse and custom (to use Dewey’s phrases), but whose contrasting emphases make all the difference: Dewey’s faith in impulse and scientific deliberation to refresh and improve society against Burke’s faith in custom and institutions to buffet against human impulse.  

I was also making the point that although I agreed with Dewey’s point that moral knowledge can be generated the same way as scientific knowledge, I thought it important that Dewey was most interested in repeating this point in order to steer us away from dogma, rather than to focus on what this wisdom of the past (on which we can build) includes.  

Specifically, I compared Dewey’s stance here to his stance in his educational writing – specifically his emphasis on skills and process over traditional subject matter.  

This is all in the context of a broader critique that I was writing about pragmatism: first, that it’s relativist; second, that it is based on a hyperbolic vision of change; third, that its vision of growth for growth’s sake is strange; fourth, that it’s a method but not a goal, a corrective philosophy, but not a foundational one.

Dewey was famously critiqued for starting an entire movement that was hostile to traditional subject matter; he has also been well-defended against these charges by critics who seem even more knowing.  In fact, I have read this apparent defense of Dewey probably more times than I’ve read the attacks on him.  I am thinking here of E.D. Hirsch’s surprising defense of Dewey in his 1996 The Schools We Need.  I myself have read and written a lot about Dewey – most of it positive – and yet I’m not sure I ever remember him talking about subject matter or specific content.  

So this made me curious – is Dewey agnostic on content, as his critics allege?  Or is he a supporter of some content, and I just hadn’t picked up on it?  

Now – why is this important?  I think it’s important because too often as I read Dewey on morality, it felt like he was ducking the question, assuring us that we could avoid the hard questions of morality if we just tried to solve the problems that were in front of us – that somehow that was what was most important.  But what are the guideposts?  It is one thing to say we should treat them skeptically, but it is another thing to say that none of them are particularly worthwhile because the world is so constantly in flux that all that matters is some notion of being prepared to adapt to the unknown.

There is a lot of Essentialist criticism – Hirsh is probably the best at this – aimed at Deweyian Progressivism to the effect that 1) There is no such thing as a generic set of important skills that can be learned without real content (much as there is no meaningful self-esteem, say many, prior to real acts of achievement), and 2) Progressives are ducking the important question of what exactly the essential knowledge is for citizens in a democracy or in any kind of reasonably stable community.  Don’t fall back on vague notions of a changing world, they say – quite usefully, I think – there is clearly some stability in what it means, for example, to be the citizen of a certain country and to understand its principles and traditions and history.   

So – is Dewey ducking the hard question of what it is students really ought to learn? Does he express any particular subjects that seem more valuable for students to learn more than others?  

For the answers, I figured I would turn back to Dewey’s most famous and definitive work on education, his 1916 Democracy and Education.


Dewey actually includes a chapter in Democracy and Education titled “The Nature of Subject Matter,” but it’s not about the subject matter Dewey thinks is important.  And it is interesting, given Dewey’s pragmatism, that he actually does believe societies transmit information and culture to younger generations – and he often emphasizes this, but stops short of suggesting what that information is or should be.  It’s as though he wishes to leave that up to individual societies or communities.  In this chapter, ostensibly about subject matter, he writes in very vague terms, calling this material, “the meanings of current social life which it is desirable to transmit” (131) or “the essential ingredients of the culture to be perpetuated” (131).  He writes that curriculum should “use a criterion of social worth” (137) and must “take account of the adaptation of studies to the needs of the existing community life” with the goal of “improving the life we live in common so that the future shall be better than the past” (137).  This is all very non-committal and very dry.  At best, you could say that he’s encouraging all individual communities to be good situational pragmatists, responding to localized conditions in adroit fashion – or you could say he’s just ducking the question.

As always, Dewey is great when talking about how these subject disciplines need to be psychologized – they constitute “working resources, available capital” (131) for the experienced educator who knows how to “command to further new experiences” by using this material (131) “in its interaction with the pupils’ present needs and capacities” (132).  

In a chapter called “The Significance of Geography and History,” Dewey finally seems to talk about a content subject area that he approves of.  He writes that “history and geography . . .  are the information studies par excellence of the schools” (150).  This is a striking endorsement for Dewey to make, and he feels this way because geography and history study the two key aspects of existence, for him – the interaction of humans (the study of whom comprises history, for Dewey) with their environment (the study of which is represented by geography).  True to form, Dewey spends most of his time describing the right and wrong ways of teaching these subjects, but he does seem to speak of geography, in particular, in quite (for Dewey) exalted language.  Dewey advocates the study of history to understand the past, but cautions against focusing on the doings of a few individuals at the expense of “the social situations which they represent” (153).  

In another chapter, called “Science in the Course of Study,” Dewey carries a similar focus on skills rather than content.  When it comes to science, the subject one would expect Dewey to value most, he’s really more focused on teaching it as a problem-solving method, rather than a body of knowledge.  He writes, “Since the mass of pupils are never going to become scientific specialists, it is much more important that they should get some insight into what scientific method means than that they should copy at long range and second hand the results which scientific men have reached” (157).  Again, hard to argue with this, but it’s not exactly an endorsement of science as an academic subject.

In a chapter called “Educational Values,” Dewey takes his most explicit stand on subject matter.  He states explicitly, “We cannot establish a hierarchy of values among studies.  It is futile to attempt to arrange them in an order, beginning with one having least worth and going on to that of maximum value” (170).  Why?  “In so far as any study has a unique or irreplaceable function in experience, in so far as it marks a characteristic enrichment of life, its worth is intrinsic or incomparable” (170-171).  As a statement of Dewey’s philosophy, this is pretty explicit: the subject material doesn’t matter, so long as it contributes to growth. 

He goes on to remind us that all value is situational and context-specific, and he states again that “the attempt to distribute distinct sorts of value among different studies is a misguided one” (171).  

Interestingly, he does say that certain subjects – he does not say which – should be taught as ends in themselves.  He gives the example of science – it should not be taught as an instrumental value, but as “something worthwhile on account of its own unique intrinsic contribution to the experience of life” (171).  But he quickly backs away from this by retreating to familiar ground, reminding us that even some as non-utilitarian as poetry can be part of a good curriculum, if it’s taught pragmatically: “An education which does not succeed in making poetry a resource in the business of life . . . has something the matter with it” (171).

Meanwhile, he bemoans that the curriculum “is always getting loaded down with purely inherited traditional matter” (172), or representing “the values of adults rather than those of children,” or “those of a generation ago rather than those of the present day” (172).  Other times, he says, curriculum is determined by what adults are familiar with, and no more.  Above all, Dewey advises us that curriculum “requires constant inspection, criticism, and revision to make sure it is accomplishing its purpose” (172).  Later he tells us that no classification of educational value “can have other than a provisional validity” (173).

Dewey also tells us that if a topic is interesting to a student, if it “makes an immediate appeal,” then it is “not necessary to ask what it is good for” (172).  That is a striking statement of pragmatism.  As long as the student is interested, “His response to the material shows that the subject functions in his life” (172).  Dewey refines this fairly remarkable sentiment when he invokes math.  While some would say it has inherent value in “habituating the pupil to accuracy of statement and closeness of reasoning,” (174), there’s nothing intrinsic in the subject that does this and makes math valuable in itself.  In fact, math does not “accomplish such results, because it is endowed with miraculous potencies called values; it has these values if and when it accomplishes these results, and not otherwise” (174).  This is really Dewey’s pragmatism perfectly put: no subject has value except in so far as it “works” to get students to learn.  There is no inherent worth in math except in so far as it gets results.  

That is a striking idea – and one I simply don’t agree with.  At one point, Dewey talks about how food is only good in so far as someone is hungry and needs it; but isn’t some food more nutritious than other food?  Aren’t some subjects inherently more important, valuable, or capable of producing learning than others?  These don’t seem to me to be hard questions to ask – but Dewey, it seems to me, avoids them.  Yes, you could say that he counsels societies or cultures or communities to come up with their own answers, but this still seems like an evasion.  


Ultimately, I think the answer to the question of, “Does Dewey think content is important?” is something a little different than I thought it would be.  The answer, I think is, “Yes, he does think subject matter content is important – but only insofar as student growth needs substance to continue its growing; yet he doesn’t care particularly much what that subject matter is, so long as it motivates students to learn and spurs more growth.” Subject matter, in a sense, is something that has to be there, but it’s much more important that whatever subject matter it is be psychologized – made to mesh with a student’s developmental stage and interests – than it is that any real cultural material be transmitted from one generation to the next.

I see almost no evidence in Democracy and Education that Dewey has any overt predilection for any set subject matter whatsoever, aside from his interest in history and geography, as already referenced.  Aside from that, he appears to me to be almost entirely agnostic about the inherent value of any academic subject whatsoever.  Math, for instance, is only valuable to the extent that it’s taught well.  

Taken this way, Dewey’s pragmatism stands as a solid reminder about the need for careful instruction, for a focus on the “bottom line” of student achievement and learning, and for communities to make their own decisions about educational value of subject matter.  But taken on its own, it seems to me to be a surprisingly agnostic philosophy when it comes to questions of educational value.