John Dewey and Dr. Barnes
To the Editor:
I ask the privilege to comment on Sidney Hook’s article on John Dewey (September issue). I was a student at the Barnes Foundation and a personal friend of the late Dr. Barnes who, on many occasions, opened his personal correspondence to me—this merely to offer a factual background for what I have to say.
That portion of the article where Dr. Hook discusses the Dewey-Barnes friendship is grossly misleading, since it omits facts indispensable to an understanding of what Dr. Hook describes as an “indulgent friendship” and a “serious shortcoming” in Dewey. By parenthetically linking up the erroneous statement that “Barnes had originally been a pugilist” with Dewey’s alleged explanation of “Barnes as a man with an inferiority complex” he admits an effort to reduce a man of greatness to a dimension which would make it possible to live with him.
The key to any clear understanding of the Dewey-Barnes relations can be found only by recognizing first the mutual interest of the two men in the scientific method as it applied especially to both the field of teaching and the appreciation of the arts; then in their collaboration in putting their “educational theories into practice” (Dewey’s words). Nowhere in the article does Hook give the facts of Barnes’ formal education—an M.D., and a Ph.D. in physiological chemistry; recognition as an international authority on paintings; years of graduate work with Dewey; and his authorship of books on art and aesthetics. In contrast to Hook’s portrayal of Barnes as “brutal” and undemocratic (which to Dr. Hook was in flat contradiction to everything that Dewey stood for) Barnes’ record of adherence to democratic principles is evidenced by the following: (1) students were always encouraged to discuss openly all differences of opinion; (2) they were selected without reference to race, color, or creed; (3) needy students were given scholarships to continue studies at home or abroad; (4) he defended with all the means at his command those whose democratic rights had been violated (Russell and others); (5) he challenged to public debate all who attacked him unfairly—a challenge never accepted.
Dewey’s acknowledgment of his “intellectual debt,” not explained by Hook, is abundantly evident in Dewey’s writings, and is best illustrated in his “Foreword” to The Art of Renoir where Dewey refers to the Barnes Foundation as “the most thoroughgoing embodiment” of his own educational philosophy. There were warm, personal ties which were never repudiated by Dewey. Dewey was not opportunistic, nor can it be believed that he would have long tolerated attempts by Barnes to “exploit” him, as Dr. Hook alleges. The suggestion that Dewey put up with Barnes in the hope of reforming him is too absurd to merit consideration here.
As to Dr. Hook’s account of Barnes’ personal relationships: (1) By admitting he “had few dealings with Barnes,” he disqualifies himself at the outset to make any authoritative statements about them; (2) his reference to Barnes’ unbridled language at the “museum” in the presence of other people is a complete distortion of what actually did take place. I have been informed by others presertt on that occasion, who knew Barnes intimately and understood his lusty sense of humor, that Barnes’ behavior was in a completely jocular vein. Dr. Hook’s unsupported charge that Barnes was guilty of “cheating” is so serious that it should not be made without giving incontrovertible evidence. Barnes’ “exploits” related to Dr. Hook by “individuals who had worked for him” are not sufficient evidence for an unbiased judgment of Barnes’ character.
Space does not permit a detailed account of the Barnes-Russell case. The Barnes-Hook correspondence, which Dr. Barnes showed me, discloses the following statements made by Dr. Hook: he “did not know there was this other side . . . morally relevant to the issues involved”; he expressed regret at “having heard only Russell’s side of the story” at the time he became Russell’s “partisan,” thus ignoring the accepted practice of examining all the avauable evidence in any controversy. Barnes’ handling of the case is one more example of his integrity and democratic practice. Too few important facts are known about the Dewey friendship for Barnes—your readers are entitled to them.
Joseph Waldman, M.D.
[Note: COMMENTARY has received a number of other letters similarly, taking issue with Sidney Hook's account of the relationship between John Dewey and Albert C. Barnes—ED.]
To the Editor:
Perhaps Mr. Barnes didn’t show Dr. Waldman all die correspondence. The facts are these. Aware that I was indignant at the treatment Bertrand Russell received at his hands, Barnes wrote me on May 8,1944, that if I wanted to know why he “fired” Russell I could find out by reading the court records, copies of which were in Dewey’s possession. Dewey then wrote me on May 10 (Barnes had sent him a copy of his letter to me) and offered to show me the records. When I saw Dewey we went over the briefs carefully. After some discussion, Dewey admitted that Barnes had no legal case, but on the basis of what Barnes had told him about a private understanding he had with Russell, he expressed the belief that Barnes had a moral case, for the reasons I set forth in my article. On May 17, replying to another letter from Barnes (sent May 12), I wrote that I had seen Dewey and was impresssed by his statement of the moral aspect of the case. Until then I had only heard of the legal side, because Barnes’ sole contention was that Russell had breached his contract, which I knew was patently false. I expressed no “regrets” in the letter and didn’t refer to myself as a “partisan.” This is pure invention on Dr. Waldman’s part. But on the grounds indicated in my article I was inclined to believe what Dewey had told me on the strength of what Barnes had said to him. I couldn’t get in touch with Russell, who was by then, I believe, abroad. When I finally succeeded, he assured me that Barnes had made the story up out of whole cloth and expressed surprise at Dewey’s naivety in believing him. The courts vindicated Russell completely despite Barnes’ prediction to the contrary. When I subsequently told Dewey of Russell’s disclaimer, he made no comment.
Even if Barnes had a better case against Russell, the methods he used against him were spiteful, cruel, and unjust. The attempt to prove that Russell was a poor teacher and scholar (in a public release of January 16, 1943) would have been hilarious if it were not so vile. Anyone who can claim that Barnes’ behavior in the Russell case is an example of “integrity and democratic behavior” doesn’t know what these words mean. Dewey made no such claim for Barnes.
I want to conclude by pointing out that I was not writing a biographical sketch of Barnes but only my opinion of Dewey’s relationship with him. It was Dewey who told me about Barnes having once been a pugilist and that he had an inferiority complex. I see nothing denigrating in either fact, if they are facts. I reported my own limited experience with Barnes accurately. This is enough to convince me that nothing Dr. Waldman says of him is incompatible with my impression of Barnes as a kind of post-Renaissance tyrant, full of energy and colorful obscenity, art-loving and -hoarding, patronizing, domineering, and completely arbitrary in his relations with human beings. He never forgave vigorous dissent or criticism except on the rare occasions when Dewey made them.
New York City