Moral Principles in Education (1909)


This essay, “Moral Principles in Education,” by John Dewey, delves into the profound relationship between education and morality within the context of a democratic society. Dewey argues against the artificial separation of intellectual and moral development, asserting that the primary purpose of education is to cultivate socially responsible individuals. He criticizes traditional rote learning methods, advocating instead for active, constructive learning experiences that mirror and prepare students for engaged citizenship.

Dewey emphasizes the school’s role as a microcosm of society, where students learn through participation in a genuine community. He critiques the overemphasis on individualistic competition and abstract moral instruction, arguing that true moral growth stems from understanding the social impact of one’s actions. Dewey emphasizes the importance of a curriculum that equips students with the knowledge, skills, and social intelligence to navigate and contribute to a rapidly changing world.

Key Findings:

  • Moral education is not about teaching abstract rules: It’s about cultivating social intelligence, power, and interest in students.
  • Schools should be microcosms of society: Offering practical, collaborative experiences that reflect real-world challenges and opportunities.
  • Traditional rote learning is inadequate: Active, constructive learning engages students and fosters social responsibility.
  • The curriculum should be socially relevant: Connecting subjects like history, geography, and even math to real-world social issues.
  • Character development requires more than knowledge: It demands the development of good judgment, emotional responsiveness, and the ability to act effectively.


  • The Social Purpose of Education: Readers will learn that education is not just about individual achievement but about preparing students to be active, responsible members of society. This involves understanding social structures, contributing to community well-being, and adapting to a changing world.
  • The Importance of Active Learning: Dewey stresses the limitations of passive learning and advocates for methods that engage students in doing, creating, and collaborating. This approach fosters a deeper understanding of concepts, develops critical thinking skills, and promotes social responsibility.
  • The Need for a Socially Relevant Curriculum: The essay highlights the importance of connecting what students learn to real-world applications and social issues. This fosters engagement, relevance, and a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of knowledge and social life.
  • Character as a Dynamic Process: Dewey challenges the notion of character as a static set of virtues. He argues that true character development involves cultivating a dynamic interplay of intellectual judgment, emotional responsiveness, and the ability to translate knowledge into effective action.

Historical Context:

Written in 1909, Dewey’s essay reflects the progressive era’s concerns about social change, industrialization, and the role of education in a democracy. The rise of urbanization and immigration fueled anxieties about social cohesion and the need for citizens capable of navigating a more complex world. Dewey’s emphasis on social responsibility, critical thinking, and practical skills reflects these concerns.


  1. Moral principles are not confined to specific virtues: Dewey argues that morality encompasses all aspects of social life, including how individuals interact, contribute to their communities, and navigate change.
  2. Traditional education often fosters individualism: Dewey criticizes the emphasis on individual achievement and competition, arguing that it can hinder the development of social responsibility and cooperation.
  3. A narrow focus on citizenship is insufficient: Dewey believes education should prepare students for a wide range of social roles, including family members, workers, and community members.
  4. The meaning of school subjects is rooted in social context: Subjects like history, geography, and math should be taught in a way that connects them to real-world social issues and applications.
  5. Character development requires more than good intentions: Dewey stresses the importance of cultivating judgment, emotional intelligence, and the ability to translate knowledge into effective action.
  6. Moral education is an ongoing process: It is not limited to specific lessons but should be integrated into all aspects of school life, from curriculum to interactions.
  7. The school should be a microcosm of a functioning society: This means fostering collaboration, a sense of community, and opportunities for students to take on meaningful roles and responsibilities.
  8. Passive learning is less effective than active learning: Dewey argues that students learn best when they are actively engaged in doing, creating, and applying knowledge.
  9. Education should prepare students for a changing world: This requires equipping them with adaptable skills, critical thinking abilities, and the capacity to learn and grow throughout their lives.
  10. Effective moral education requires a belief in its possibility: Educators must believe that students can be guided to develop strong moral character and a commitment to social good.


(The text provided does not contain specific statistics.)


  1. Moral Ideas: Ideas that have become integrated into an individual’s character and influence their actions for the better.
  2. Ideas About Morality: Information or knowledge about moral concepts that may not necessarily translate into moral behavior.
  3. Social Efficiency: The ability to function effectively and contribute positively within a social context.
  4. Faculty Psychology: An outdated theory that viewed the mind as composed of separate, independent faculties, such as memory or reason.
  5. Pathological Training: Focusing primarily on correcting wrongdoings rather than fostering positive, proactive behaviors.
  6. Formal Training: Teaching moral habits that are specific to the school environment and may not transfer to broader social contexts.
  7. Social Intelligence: The ability to understand and navigate social situations effectively, including perceiving social cues and responding appropriately.
  8. Good Judgment: The ability to assess situations accurately, weigh different perspectives, and make sound decisions.
  9. Emotional Responsiveness: The capacity for empathy, compassion, and understanding the feelings and needs of others.
  10. Utilitarian: A philosophy that emphasizes practicality and usefulness as the primary criteria for decision-making.


(The text relies more on philosophical argumentation than on specific illustrative examples.)


John Dewey’s “Moral Principles in Education” remains a powerful call for an education that goes beyond rote learning and narrow definitions of success. He advocates for schools that cultivate critical thinkers, effective communicators, and socially responsible individuals. Dewey’s emphasis on connecting learning to real-world social contexts, fostering collaboration, and nurturing emotional intelligence provides a timeless framework for an education that prepares students to navigate the complexities of a democratic society.

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