In this paper, I want to examine and challenge certain criticisms of Dewey's conception of authority. These criticisms are, broadly speaking, of two species. The first set of criticisms involves what critics have labeled Dewey's "strong" authority. These critics, the so-called "Illinois Revisionists," argue that embedded in Dewey's social and educational philosophy are assumptions about authority that lead the critics to speculate that the legitimation of authority is predicated upon an expert, professional class. This class maintains power and social control through the use of scientific, technical, and rational means. In terms of education, these critics conclude that schooling is a vehicle for the inculcation of positive values regarding science and technology and their importance in the modern world.
A second set of criticisms comes from the historian John Patrick Diggins, who argues Dewey as having a "weak" conception of authority. The argument here is that, as Dewey presupposes no metaphysical ends, and no fixed historical knowledge to draw upon, little is left over to hitch authority onto in terms of social control. What is left are individual experiences; clearly not enough to make value judgments regarding social issues. Furthermore and with respect to education, as teacher authority is said by Dewey to be minimal, and no fixed, philosophical educational "ends" are allowable, there is little to guide authority in determining future educational direction.
I intend to explore these arguments further, and then to challenge them. This will occur through a reconsideration of Dewey's position on authority-both social and educational. After completing this reconsideration, I will be in a position to bring the completed results to bear on the criticisms themselves. My thesis is that, while Dewey is clearly able to refute certain of these criticisms, others continue to hold. In particular, I concur with those arguments that read Dewey as having posited no metaphysical or educational "ends" and further positing that these ends are necessary ones if anything other than a contingent authority is to evolve. I maintain that Diggins and those who agree with him will not be satisfied by Dewey's response.
Johnston, James Scott
"Authority, Social Change, and Education: A Response to Dewey's Critics,"
Education and Culture:
2, Article 2.
Available at: http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/eandc/vol17/iss2/art2