Dewey was particularly effective in advancing Progressive education because he, in effect, mixed the poison with valid principles of education.
For instance, Dewey held that children learn best by experience, by choosing and engaging in hands-on projects—a principle embraced also by Maria Montessori (whom we’ll discuss shortly). He helped popularize the idea that young students should engage in real-life activities that help them to gain practical skills—just as Maria Montessori did. He held that children will learn reading while poring over cookbooks, writing by jotting down a favored recipe, arithmetic by counting eggs and weighing flour, and so forth. There is some truth in all of this.
Dewey, unlike many other Progressives, did not entirely disparage academic training. At the legendary Laboratory School that he and his wife, Alice, founded and ran at the University of Chicago from 1896 to 1904, they integrated a great deal of cognitive subject matter. Katherine Camp Mayhew and Anna Camp Edwards wrote:
They continually experimented with different ways of [teaching] young students about primitive life in the Bronze Age … early Greek civilization … Prince Henry of Portugal, Columbus, and other explorers … Shakespeare’s plays; science; mathematics; algebra and geometry; English, French, and even Latin.
Further, despite his commitment to an experiential method, Dewey “taught by standing in front of his class and lecturing.”
But Dewey’s ultimate aims were another matter. He held that all learning is ultimately for the purpose of “saturating [students] with the spirit of service.” In Dewey’s view, the purpose of education is not to convey “bodies of information and skills that have been worked out in the past”; not to teach the child “science, nor literature, nor history, nor geography”; but rather to prime him for “social cooperation and community life.”