HM - Apr. 2014 - Landers


The History File

A Historical Review of John Dewey and Thomas Jefferson’s Educational Theories
by David Landers
Asst. Professor,
Director of Educational Programs & Outreach,
Special Collections, University Libraries
Azusa Pacific University

Thomas Jefferson and John Dewey both believed in the ability of individuals to improve if given the proper conditions. They also both believed that education was the key to the continuation of the democratic process. Their philosophies have similarities, and both have influenced how educators in the United States have developed curriculum in the public schools. It is important that we compare Jefferson’s and Dewey’s ideas of public schools and study the impact they continue to have on the nature of schools and curriculum, since educational philosophy still reflects and refers to both Jefferson and Dewey.
Blanche Brick holds that both Dewey and Jefferson stressed the importance of an individual’s responsibility for participation in a democratic society, but they differed in how they would develop that understanding of citizenship. Jefferson argued that the individual was born with a sense of moral values and could make decisions based on that “innate gift.” He believed that institutions needed to be places that helped to form that understanding and that the “ploughman could decide a moral issue as readily as the professor” (Brick, 2005, p. 20). Dewey believed that it was the institution of the schools that would provide this sense of responsibility and decision-making ability. Self-control, or individual responsibility, was not a quality waiting to come out of a person, but rather it was something to be developed through education and the schools.

Both Jefferson and Dewey strongly supported educating the people, and both men understood that in a participatory, democratic nation education would have to play a crucial role in developing its citizens. The differences between Dewey and Jefferson reflect the time period in which each man lived. Jefferson wrote of education in the hopes of a new nation and the possibilities of the promises of the Enlightenment. Dewey wrote from the dawn of a new century, the height of the Industrial Revolution in America, and the need to change a schooling system that was predominantly based on the agrarian lifestyle.

Jefferson and Dewey both proposed curriculum that should be taught, feeling that what was taught would help to develop the democratic citizen, and their influence can still be seen today. In “Jefferson’s View on Education,” Carpenter (2004) argues that Jefferson’s impact on modern social studies is very evident. “It is virtually impossible to find a U.S. Civics or government textbook that does not cite Thomas Jefferson’s faith in a well-educated citizenry as the great defense against tyranny” (p. 140). Carpenter also claims that even though social studies is a recent development in curriculum and although Jefferson didn’t have a direct connection with its formation, the subjects proposed by Jefferson are the core of what is taught today.

Jefferson believed that history was the most important subject for learning the responsibilities of a citizen in a democracy. The writings of Jefferson are used to point to the importance and value Jefferson placed on a more formal style of education. “Jefferson’s belief in the value of learning history can be found in many of his public and private documents” (Carpenter, 2004, p. 141). Knowing history would prepare people to take their place in the republican style of government under which they lived. To this end, curriculum or the subjects to be studied were important to Jefferson and even to John Dewey in later years.
While Jefferson argued that there should be an equal education for all and the focus should be on individual development, Dewey disagreed with this focus. Dewey’s strong belief in human nature and his assertion that it was not fixed but could be created by the student’s environment is the dividing line between Jefferson’s vision of education and Dewey’s vision of school and the society.

Dewey believed that schools would teach students how to be responsible citizens. He advocated for more control by the school in developing the student and asserted that schools should have a greater influence on a student’s life. Jefferson, in contrast, thought the school’s function was to help the student learn about his gifts and use them for the betterment of society; he saw it as the family’s responsibility to train the child in proper social behavior. Dewey’s view marked a sharp change of direction from Jefferson’s belief in inherent gifts. Dewey believed that a more scientific approach to education would achieve the goal of a better educational system that shaped students to take their place in society.

As we look at education in the twenty-first century, the strong influence of both Thomas Jefferson and John Dewey can still be felt and seen in how schools design curriculum that gives students a wide variety of experiences.  Jefferson and Dewey both argued for a school system that developed people to take their place in the democratic society in which they would find themselves. The ideas that they produced are still finding their place in our modern educational consciousness. The lasting idea of both of these thinkers is that the schools need to train the students how to think, not what to think and that, given the ability to think through complex ideas and challenging events, students will be able to take on their role in society and the democratic process.

Brick, B. (2005).  “Changing concepts of equal educational opportunity: A comparison of the views of Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, and John Dewey.” American Educational History Journal, 32, 166-174. Retrieved August 10, 2007, from Academic Search Elite database.
Carpenter, J. J. (2004).  “Jefferson’s Views on Education: Implications for Today’s Social Studies.” Social Studies Review, 95, 140-145. Retrieved August 20, 2007, from Wilson Web database.
Janak, E. (2006).  “A good idea gone awry: A comparative study of Jefferson’s Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge and Bush’s No Child Left Behind.” Journal of Thought, 60-68. Retrieved August 11, 2007, from Academic Search Elite.