John Dewey and Mathematics

I am a fan of John Dewey, but I wonder about his attitude towards
mathematics.

I say this because in his book,
How We Think, I sense a dislike for
the memorization needed to learn arithmetic.

He does not say as much about mathematics as he does other
topics, but I found what he had to say about math in his work,
Democracy and Education.  You can read the one paragraph on
mathematics in this book on
this web page, but I will reproduce
the main point below:

Dewey:
Mathematics is said to have … cultural value in its enlargement
of the imagination in dealing with the most general relations of
things; even religious value in its concept of the infinite and allied
ideas.  But clearly
mathematics does not accomplish such results
because it is endowed with miraculous potencies called
values
...."  

I believe the paragraph above indicates a lack of respect for
mathematics, but I leave that for you to decide.

Barzun Versus Dewey

The following quote is from page 67 of From Dawn to
Decadence
by Jacques Barzun:
"...
the work of art must by its order mirror the hierarchical order
of the world, which is a moral order.  Whether by intuition or
convention, the artist must know how to convey this reality
."

I believe mathematics, like art, reflects something special about
the universe around us.  In that sense, mathematics
is endowed
with miraculous "potencies" (Dewey's word) that reflect order and
values immanent in the universe.

I have enormous respect for John Dewey, but he was never a
mathematician, never connected with mathematics, and could not
fathom the "
religious value" (his words) of mathematics.

Plato Versus Dewey

In Plato's Republic, Book 7, Plato says,

"
Then it would be fitting, Glaucon, to set this study down in law
and to persuade those who are going to participate in the
greatest things in the city to go to caluculation and to take it up,
not after the fashion of private men, but to stay with it until they
come to the contemplation of the nature of numbers with
intellection itself, not pracicing it for the sake of buying and
selling like merchants or tradesmen, but for war and for ease of
turning the soul itself around from becoming to truth and being."

Plato believed the leaders of a great city should be well grounded
in mathematics (calculation), in plane geometry, and solid
geometry as well.  Plato believed there was something special
about mathematics that touched the soul and revealed truth.

Summary

I say that John Dewey not only had a beligerent attitude towards
mathematics, he had a beligerent attitude toward religion.  The
basis of this second assertion lies in John Dewey's signing the
Humanist Manifesto.  Dewey was a great supporter and advocate
for civil society and democracy, but I believe he could not see
past his nose.  He was a materialist and could not believe there
was a purpose mathematics or to life beyond material and
political accomplishments.

As much as Dewey valued democracy, no democracy can long
flourish if it is based only upon the material, ignoring the spiritual
dimension of humanity, which is the only reliable safe-guard for a
civil society.

I believe John Dewey's negative attitude towards mathematics
has been transferred to the colleges of education, transferred to
the teachers trained with this negative attitude, and transferred
into the elementary school curriculums across America, inflicting
enormous damage upon the education of our children.

Robert Canright
Timeless Way Foundation

Copyright © 2008-2013 Robert Canright