Strange Bedfellows: Allan Bloom and John Dewey Against Liberal Education

Patrick J. Deneen, "Strange Bedfellows: Allan Bloom and John Dewey Against Liberal Education, Rightly Understood," The Good Society, Vol. 17, No. 2 (2008), pp. 49-55.


The educational theories of Allan Bloom and John Dewey could not apparently be more at odds. Bloom argued on behalf of the aspiration of philosophy to apprehend the truth, even if through a glass darkly. Dewey argued, in contrast, that philosophy was best understood as the application of man’s capacity to alter behavior and circumstance in the pragmatic pursuit of societal and individual “growth.” For Dewey, there was no truth that could be considered fixed and final, only provisional and practicable “truths”—and why, in an early work, he argued against “the quest for certainty.”

Thus, for Bloom, education necessarily involved engagement with the great texts of philosophy not as the collection of antiquarian knowledge, but as an entrée into the great and eternal questions that are not subject to alteration or transformation. To this extent, Bloom held that human beings possess a certain nature that is not subject to fundamental change; questions that were true and alive for Socrates remain fundamentally true for us as well, in spite of vast separations of distance and time. By contrast, Dewey held that humanity, like the world itself, was defined above all by “plasticity.” A malleable substance, humanity no less than the external world was subject to alteration and remaking. The only “permanent” feature of human “nature” was its very alterability, and, in particular, the human ability to actively engage in that alteration.

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