The hermeneutics of reading Dewey have always been complex. Interpretations of Dewey are rooted in the social, political, and educational contexts of the readers, and Dewey has had a vast global readership. It’s been argued that much of what has been said and done in Dewey’s name is tenuously related to Dewey’s “actual” writing and ideas as readers have adapted their interpretations to the demands of their time, place and perspectives.
Prompted by an undergraduate teacher education student’s unexpected questions about Dewey’s philosophy and socio-political beliefs, this paper presents a discourse analysis of contemporary right-wing representations of John Dewey. Using a snowball sample of search terms and links, I identified web content, mostly blogs, that invoked or interpreted Dewey’s ideas and/or socio-political stances. In total, the analysis draws from dozens of items, mainly online articles and blog posts, totaling several hundred pages of text. I address these pieces as elements of neo-conservative discourse in the sense that discourses are “ways of structuring areas of knowledge and practice” that “do not just reflect or represent social entities and relations, [but] construct or constitute them.” Across these texts, I identify a number of common and significant rhetorical practices and claims [re]constructing the figure John Dewey and his work. The texts’ rhetorical practices encompass commonly used text elements, including epithets, descriptors, and associations. In addition, fairly consistent themes, claims, and arguments regarding Dewey appear across multiple sources.
Within the neo-conservative discourse and in keeping with those highly negative descriptors, Dewey is associated with many prominent, 20th-century, totalitarian leaders and revolutionaries, including Hitler, Stalin and Trotsky, Marx, and the Bolshevists. While many sites make only a passing comparison of Dewey to one of these figures, the conservative periodical Human Events places Dewey’s Democracy and Education at number five on its list of the “10 Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries.” Other books on the list include The Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, and Quotations from Chairman Mao at numbers one, two, and three respectively, as well as Marx’s Das Kapital, The Kinsey Report, and The Feminine Mystique. Compte, Nietzsche, and Keynes round out the list with works promoting positivism, challenging conventional morality, and promoting government intervention in the economy, respectively.[i] Other associations include Darwin, Rockefeller, and Hegel, and commonly mentioned associations include the National Education Association (NEA), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the United Nations, and UNESCO. The epithets, descriptors, and associations attributed to Dewey give a sense of how his work is situated within the neo-conservative discourse’s map of the intellectual and political world. His character and influence are consistently portrayed as entirely negative and highly dangerous. Dewey’s work is associated with some of his century’s most deadly ideas and regimes, and his politics are portrayed as in-line with the most extreme and totalitarian people of his time.
Through a process of what Eco called “aberrant decoding,” right wing sites depict a Dewey who actively conspires toward “the goal of atheist tyranny” through “the deliberate dumbing down tactics” used in schools today. An unexpected finding of this analysis was the connection of the concerns of the far-right regarding John Dewey and his work, not just to small scale conspiracy, but to a conspiracy theory that seems to be a foundational narrative—that of the New World Order as described by the text, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Conflating Dewey’s work and ideas with those of other thinkers and educational and social activists of diverse views and goals, right-wing bloggers envision a long-term conspiracy of the left that today culminates in Obamacare and failing public schools as it works toward eliminating freedom, religion and capitalism. The paper concludes with reflections on the implications of neo-conservative perspectives for teacher educators who assign and discuss Dewey’s writings in foundations of education courses.
Bruno-Jofré, Rosa, and Schriewer, Jürgen, eds. 2012. Routledge International Studies in the Philosophy of Education : Global Reception of John Dewey's Thought : Multiple Refractions Through Time and Space. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge. Accessed September 12, 2014. ProQuest ebrary.
Dewey, John. 1916. Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: MacMillan.
Eco, Umberto. 1979. The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Fairclough, Norman. 1993. Discourse and Social Change. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Morse, Charles A. “How Communist Is Public Education?,” Enter Stage Right, March 25, 2002, http://www.enterstageright.com/archive/articles/0302/0302publiced.htm
“Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries,” Human Events, May 31, 2005, http://humanevents.com/2005/05/31/ten-most-harmful-books-of-the-19th-and-20th-centuries/
Rawlings, Matt. “Dear New Atheists, Would You Like to Live in North Korea?,” Pastor Matt, Christian Worldview and Apologetics, February 2014, http://pastormattblog.com/2014/02/24/dear-new-atheists-would-you-like-to-live-in-north-korea/
Wink, Bill. Liberal equals socialist equals communitarian equals Fabian society equals agenda 21. Available from http://www.middletownca.com/LIBERAL-EQUALS-SOCIALIST.htm (accessed 9/12/2014).
Gene Zimmer, “Skull & Bones Society: How the Order Controls Education,” Foundation for Truth in Reality, http://www.sntp.net/education/sutton_dewey.htm.