Nicola Siciliani de Cumis


Dewey, Makarenko and the “Pedagogical Poem”

between analogies and differences 





     The subject of this report has a complex treatment, so  we should pay more attention to the  various terms of the question: and first of all to the interlacement of the probable connections and interferences  between John Dewey and Anton S. Makarenko, in relation to their personality, culture,  mutual acquaintance  and   their  unlike contexts  of belonging.  But this is too far from the aim of this report.

     However it is  necessary to start from contradictory opinions on Dewey and Makarenko, both in USA and in URSS; and to bear at least these  bibliographic indications, to begin with: J. Boydson – R. L. Andersen, John Dewey: A Chechlist of Translations 1900-1967,  Southerns Illinois University Press, Carbondale, 1969; A.H. Passow, Influenza di John Dewey sull’educazione nel mondo, in Dewey. Ieri e oggi. Edited by N. Filograsso and C. Nisi, Urbino, Quattro Venti, 1989, pp. 75-81 (with  important bibliography); many  recent essays in reviews “Soviet Education” and  “East/West Education” etc. But, as for Makarenko and his world,  we can not prescind from  some Dewey, Impressions of Soviet Russia. II. A Country in a State of Flux, in id., The Later Works, 1925-1953, Volume 3: 1927-1928, Edited by J.A. Boydston Textual Editor, P. Boysinger. With an Introduction by D. Sidorsky, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville, 1984, pp. 208 sgg.

        Besides, it is impossible to undervalue the presence of  Dewey in URSS a long time before of the Revolution: and  to remember  Stanislas T. Šatskij, Moisei M. Pistrak, Aleksandr Zelenko etc., pedagogists and educationalists, with ascendency into Dewey’s work. Moreover a  different investigation is the deepening about the Pavl N. Ignatev, liberal and progressive Minister for Public Education before 1917, who like reformer was inspired by Dewey.

       The question therefore is this: to read again in renewed way  the  Pedagogical Poem, and  to understand the connections between the critical Dewey pedagogy and the Makarenko’s polemic in opposition to the sovietic bureaucrats of social education. The controversy of Makarenko with the “Pedagogic  Olymp” (with the official pedagogy)  has his foundation into an hidden philosophy; Dewey is a professional philosoph with a pedagogic conception who excludes every bureaucratic logic and ethic procedure. 





            The research’s conjecture


       An objective agreement is present  between Dewey and Makarenko  on subject of “play” (to play is indispensable to well-balanced  growt of personality). The “play” is in the beginning the conceptual and operative place of the whole philosophy and of the consequent pedagogy. And this is an argument who associates to  the subject of the “aims” in connection to the “means”, in the ambit  of  the human (phisical, inellectual, moral, social etc.) “developement” [N. Siciliani de Cumis, Makarenko a sessanta anni dalla morte, in “Scuola e Città”, April 2000, pp. 145-157, with an appendix: A. S. Makarenko, Il gioco (1937), now in Italia-Urss/Russia-Italia. Tra culturologia ed educazione 1984-2001. Con la collaborazione di V. Cannas, E. Midolla, V. Orsomarso, D. Scalzo, T. Tomassetti, Roma, Quaderni di “Slavia”/1, 2001, pp. 225-248]. 
        Like Dewey,  the author of the Pedagogical Poem is persuaded  that the correct formulation and resolution of the problem of conformity to aims encounters with outmoded views and prejudices in life and daily  concerns, and with certain entranced “pedagogical commonplace” and “fixed ideas”. The new pedagogical logic and educative action  shouldn’t  be distrupted  by “a priori Judgments” and “hypertrophied syllogisms”, by the failure to consider creative experimental work of sufficient lenght and complexity, well validated by genuine results.

       Makarenko in the Pedagogical Poem, like Dewey in Logic, the Theory of Inquiry and in Theory of Valuation, resolved methodological, theoretical, and ethical-organizational problems in a dialectical unity rather than separately, thereby strengthening links between pedagogical theory and practice.  The Makarenko’s controversy  with  the “pedologia” (and on other hand with the “’free-and-easy’ upbringing”) and the Dewey’s controversy with the “logic atomism”, with the  “abstractness” of the “abuse of tests” etc., are quite  coherent.  

      This original integrated approach to the investigation of upbringing processes enabled both to discover and to implement the advanced pedagogical tendencies of  their time, and  to foresee precisely the prospect of the theory and practice of new  upbringing. So Dewey in the theorethical, educational and aesthetical works, that the researcher Makarenko into practical experience  made use of three paths of cognition and action in  indissoluble unity: the theoretical metod of scientific research; original social-pedagogical esperiences; and estehic assimilation of reality.

        Particularly a book like  Art as Experience (1934) and a novel like the Pedagogical Poem (1933-1937) are  two different expressions  of same general  educational project. But the condition of life and social class, the respective contexts and the  immediate aims  of  everyone are different. Makarenko proposes to oneself a “communist education”, Dewey intends to give the best social contents to democracy.

       Makarenko experiments with “the new man” (“Socialist”) and with his peculiar freedoms, Dewey warrants theoritically and practically the premises of  mondial  widening of  the educational perspective. They compare  problems of correlation between action’s  aims and instruments, and they  determine together the creative procedures of a individual and collective improvement: a  gradual improvement, according to Dewey;  through steps (“burst’s pedagogy“), according to Makarenko.            

      Besides,  Dewey and Makarenko are persuaded that the true logic of pedagogical means and systems of edicational means is not confined to the narrow realm of school  but entails the broad social life of the community, of the State.  It is in the exploitation of  these principles and traditions that already quite clearly Makarenko and Dewey distinguish a society from all others.

      A Dewey’s work like School and society (well known in USSR) and the Pedagogic Poema (immediately traslated in USA) proceedes in same direction. Also into the Dewey works  we do not find the same  idea of “collective”. We find rather the idea of  generical “group”. But both Makarenko and Dewey think that “personality” is  formed by means of “social relations” (the parent-child relationship,  friendly relations, sexual intercourse,  relations between employer and worker,   business relations etc.). And they - Dewey as philosoph-educator and Makarenko as educator-writer  -   work on the potentation of personality, by means of the growth of the sociality  (into the “collective” or into the “group”). 

     This is the reason because Makarenko  is always against all the pedagogical theories and  self-criticist towards the sovietic results on the education. This is the reason why Dewey is sensible always to the  numerous applications of every pedagogy and his democracy…

       However not accidentally   when  Dewey  gone in USSR  (1928), with regard  to the “besprizorniki” (that is the “wild children”, of the same type of the “deserted children”, about which Makarenko narrates in the Pedagogical Poema)  and their education,  he expressed oneself  in these terms:


       Two-thirds of the children are former “wild children” orphans, refugees, etc., taken from the streets. There is nothing surprising, not to say unique, in the existence of orphan asylum. I do not cite the presence of this one as evidence of any special care taken of the young by the Bolshevik government. But taken as evidence of the native capacity of the Russian stock, it was more impressive than my command of words permits me to record. I have never seen anywhere in the world such a large proportion of intelligent, happy and intelligently occupied children. They were not lined up for inspection. We walked about the grounds and found then engaged in their various summer occupations, gardening, bee-keeping, repairing buildings, growing flowers in a conservatory (built and now managed by a group of particularly tough boys who began by destroying everything in sight), making simple tools and agricultural implements, etc. Not what they were doing, but their manner and attitude is, however, what stays with me. I cannot convey it; I lack the necessary literary skill. But the net impression will always remain. (J. Dewy, Impression of Soviet Russia, cit., p. 212).


And in conclusion:


         If the children had come from the most advantageously situated families, the scene would have been a remarkable one, unprecedented in my experience. Wen their almost unimaginable earlier history and background were taken into account, the effect  was to leave me with the profoundest admiration for the capacities of the people from which they sprang, and an  unshakable belief in what they accomplish. I am aware that is a marked  disproportion between the breadth of my conclusion and the narrowness of the experience upon which it rests […]  (Ibidem).



         After about seven years, in the 1935,  Dewey  provides  an  ulterior evidence of  his attention  to the world of Makarenko. In general on the URSS and particularly on  the Ukraine (the place  where the  sovietic educatinalist principally has operated), Dewey writes:


     The nine divisions of the Educational Exhibit present the vast scope of the educational work of the USSR. They also reveal the close articulations of the various lines of work. Pre-school work, technical education in  the factories, popular instruction of the masses, improvement of health, individual and public, are not so many independent lines centrifugally conducted, but part of a planned social system, having a common goal.

     Such a unified system suggests excessive centralization and growth  of  bureaucratic routine. But in the USSR there are powerful forces operating against these undoubted perils. There is the ardor and the enthusiasm of youth, together  with a habit of self-discipline. There is also the federated system, allowing great autonomy to the federated socialist states – witness, for example, the exhibit of the Ukraine. Then is the cultural autonomy of the various racial minorities.

     There is one phase of the exhibit to which I wish to call special attention. If industry is to become what  agriculture once was – a way of life and not an enslavement to machines, every factory must become itself an educational institution. It must be devoted to producing human beings inspired with social purposes, informed with knowledge and equipped with something more mechanical skill.             


 [J. Dewey,  Foreword to Education in the Soviet Union. First published in Education in the Soviet Union, ed. W. A. Neilson. Catalogue of an exhibition under the auspices of the American Russian Institute for Cultural Relations with the Soviet Union, held in the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, 16 January to 22 February 1935 (New York: American Russian Institute, 1935), p. 3; and now in J. Dewey, The Later Works, 1925-1953. Vol  II: 1935-1937. Edited by A. Boydston. Textual Editor, K. E. Poulos. Associate Textual Editors: B. Levine. A. Sharpe, H. F. Simon. With an Introduction by J. J. McDermott, Carbondale d Edwardsville, Southern Illinois University Press, 1987, p. 509].



       The Dewey’s notations are very important, both for agreement        and for  antithesis. They encourage the reasons  about the connection of Dewey, Makarenko and the Pedagogical Poem between  analogies and differences.




      A dialogue in the distance?


       Particularly, the above-mentioned notations  associate with a  further circumstance. The subject of the Pedagogical Poem  was  of public knowledge  in USA  since  the thirties, and  exactly  Dewey  introduces enthusiastically  to the American spectators the film of  Nikolaj V. Ekk, Putëvka v  žiz’n (1931) [The Road to Life, 1933],  variously connected to the pedagogic action of Makarenko; and it is not casual that the title of Makarenko’s  novel, into American translation,  is  exactly The Road to Life... [D. Scalzo, Per un confronto tra il “Poema pedagogico  e “Verso la vita” di Nikolaj V. Ekk, in N. Siciliani de Cumis, Italia-Urss/Russia-Italia, cit., pp. 349-402].
       On the one hand Dewey, on the other  Makarenko. Dewey  is not   unknown to Makarenko and he is mentioned in the makarenkian works. While is suggestive the supposition that Makarenko, in the Pedagogical Poem, alludes to the limits of the educational and ethical Americanism  and  therefore,  rightly or wrongly, at least indirectly, also to Dewey’s ideology.

        Dewey  who  -  as we said  above   -  has visited  the  USSR  in the 1928. At the same time, in the Pedagogical Poem, Makaranko  was to meet the American  gentlemen (also pedagogues). With following narrative and instructive result:



          Visitors would come to us on Sundays – students, workers’ excursions, pedagogues, journalists. The newspapers and magazines printed simple,  friendly accounts of our life, illustrated by portraits of the boys and snapshots of the hog-house and woodworking shop.[...].

         Foreigners were being  brought to see us more and more frequently. Well-dressed gentlemen narrowed their eyes politely at our primitive prosperity, the ancient monastery domes, the boys’ thin cotton overalls. Nor could we impress them with our cowsheds. But the lively boyish  faces, the restrained business-like hum, the almost imperceptible  irony of the glances directed at speckled hose and short jackets, at smoothly-groomed countenances and diminutive notebooks – these did seem to make an impression on our visitors.



       And so on:


       They bombarded their interpreters with insidious questions – for some reason unable to  believe that we had broken up the monastery wall, though there was obviously no wall any more. They asked permission to speak to the boys, and I gave it, only strictly stipulating that there should be no questions about the boys’ pasts. This put them on their guard, and started them arguing. The interpreter, a trifle embarrassed, told me:

          “They want to know why you conceal the past of your changes. If it was bad – all the more credit to you!”

          But it was with entire satisfaction that the interpreter transmitted my reply:

          “We don’t want any credit. I only ask for the most ordinary delicacy. We don’t pry into the past of our visitors.”

          The visitors blossomed out into smiles and nodded cordially.

          “Yes, yes!”

          Then they departed in their expensive motorcars, and our life went on as before.



[A. S. Makarenko, The Road to Life: an epic of education, traslated from the Russian by I. And T. Litvinov, Moskow, Foreing Languages Publiching House, 1951, pp. 408; and A. S. Makarenko, Sočinenija, Tom pervyj. Pedagogičeskaja poema, Moskva, Izdatel’stvo Akademii pedagogičeskich nauk RSFSR, 1950, pp. 601-602].