John Dewey’s “My Pedagogic Creed” is his declaration of beliefs concerning education and what he believes education should be. Dewey sets out to impress his audience by breaking his creed into sections befitting an official declaration. Dewey obviously wishes for readers to understand the importance of what he is stating. These sections are broken down into what he lists as five Articles, which assists in conveying not only a sense of authority, but of importance. The point to providing a rudimentary outline is that Dewey aims to be taken seriously, not only as a member of the pedagogy, or a philosopher, but also as someone having a stake in society. While the audience who reads this work may primarily be educators and academics, it seems clear Dewey is writing to everyone: all of society has a stake in the future and education, and so pedagogy and the institution of education are key. In order to persuade this audience, Dewey employs several rhetorical choices such as his flat tone, polysyndeton, repetition and his assertion of beliefs regarding education to effectively persuade his readers into considering the adoption of his ideals.
John Dewey sets out to establish his ideals first in the naming of his article, “My Pedagogic Creed.” From this title it is to be immediately understand that his work must be taken as a system of beliefs. Having earned his PhD at John Hopkins University before going on to teach at the University of Michigan, and then followed by a position at the University of Chicago, there may be no better authority of issues related to education and the pedagogy than Dewey. However, his style of writing, or voice, is not immediately authoritarian. Quite the contrary, while there is a great deal of energy that has been expended in his writing, his tone seems almost flat, or his verbiage expressed with a great deal of ambivalence. For example, the beginning sentence reads, “I believe that all education proceeds by the participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the race.” (Dewey 460). The structure is quite metered, as if the intent were to establish authority, which the sentence does, but the energy behind the statement is dull. This effect may be produced by the word choices that Dewey employs. In this example, the choices used – such as referring to a student as an “individual” and society as “the race” – are formal to the point of being unemotional and lacking in any sentimentality. In a way this seems at odds with his topic, since the education of children typically brings forth some notion of expected care, but Dewey chooses to write a piece that persuades through ethos, that is to say his words are meant to appeal as a guide to the ways of education, rather than appealing to emotions or to logic. Dewey makes it clear that he is against all forms of sentimentalism, as he states when discussing method, “I believe that next to deadness and dullness, formalism and routine, our education is threatened with no greater evil than sentimentalism” (469). From this it can be concluded the Dewey maintains a flat tone in an effort to remove sentimentalism and persuade through the offering of what could be, rather than what is. It may be that his intent is for the reader to focus on what is being conveyed and not who is writing the words. If Dewey has opted for a muted tone, it is because it works to remove urgency or exasperation, allowing readers to slow down and take in his statements. His ambivalence works to create an attitude of possibility meant to appeal not only to the school teachers, college professors, education administrators, and those who toil in academia as reformists, but also the parents of school-aged children, the student entering a teaching program and the taxpayer who supports education.
In his attempt to appeal to this wide audience, Dewey appears to have preferred to take a measured approach for purposes of instruction. He begins with expansive paragraphs in Article One, though his use of complex sentencing – polysyndetic structures – is most pronounced in Article Three, as Dewey appears to want to stress his beliefs. This creates the effect of a slower, more absorbent, way of reading. This can be seen when he states, “I believe, therefore, that the true centre of correlation of the school subjects is not science, nor literature, nor history, nor geography, but the child’s own social activities” (Dewey 463). Here, the use of polysyndeton creates the effect of pausing between reading each subject listed, absorbing what the “centre of correlation” is not before finally focusing on what it ought to be. By doing so Dewey provides a laundry list of subjects that are rather not beneficial to young learners, and he is emphasizing this through the use of rhetorical devices in order to capture attention in an attempt to draw a line in the sand daring education reformists and purveyors of rote learning to step over.
Once Dewey has established these complex sentences and longer paragraphs in Article One, his metered approach becomes apparent as the paragraphs become shorter and the sentences easier to follow. Since Dewey has already forced an absorbent way of reading, he has secured the reader’s attention and now employs the use of repetition to create more of a pithy, authoritative way of writing. Though all of his paragraphs within Article One began with the words “I believe,” the long length of each paragraph prevented it from being particularly noticeable as repetition. In Article Two onward, paragraphs become much shorter, some containing only one sentence. The effect is a strong sense of repetition that creates a more forceful idea of his beliefs, and a stronger sense of loss if those beliefs do not match with what the reader is seeing in society. It is a somewhat similar effect that one feels when hearing Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. While employing this repetition, Dewey also uses each statement as a building block for the next. For example, he says “I believe that these interests are to be observed as showing the state of development which the child has reached” as a single paragraph followed by, “I believe that they prophesy the stage upon which he is about to enter” (468). By the use of the pronoun “they,” it is clear that one statement relies on the other, despite being written as separate paragraphs. The effect of so much repetition is that each of his statements, as they build upon each other, must still be carefully considered individually. Every paragraph in his article, then, is a statement unto itself and could almost be referred to as his maxims within this creed. With his entire piece broken down into five sections, and each section broken down into multiple paragraphs, it would be easy to recite his work as one recites a law, where one might state, “in Article Four, paragraphs six,” and anyone could find his specific idea as easily as using any reference material. In this way, then, Dewey has employed repetition as a means of both creating impact and a sense of organization in order to create a creed in the truest sense of the word. It is both guiding in its principles and entirely systematic.
The use of rhetorical devices in John Dewey’s “My Pedagogic Creed” provides a clear example of how well-conceived stylistic choices can be used to create the desired effect upon an audience. Through a careful use of a flat tone to create a sense of ethos and a measured writing style that employs complex sentences with polysyndetic structure, Dewey manages to control the way his work is read and absorbed. After establishing a metered reading style, he shortens his paragraphs in order to draw attention to repetition, creating more impact for each statement he makes. By doing this, Dewey invites readers to see and understand education in a new light. If Dewey were merely writing for a narrow audience he would have perhaps used more expansive, pedagogical terms. Instead, he created a piece that invites the layperson—parents and future students—to view education through a different prism: one that opens the learner to the world.