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John Dewey

John Dewey
John Dewey

John Dewey (October 20, 1859 - June 1, 1952) was a American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer, whose thought has been greatly influential in the United States and around the world. He is recognized as one of the founders of the philosophical school of Pragmatism (along with Charles Sanders Peirce and William James), a pioneer in functional psychology, and a leading representative of the progressive movement in U.S. education during the first half of the twentieth century. Born in Vermont of modest family origins, from 1904, he was professor of philosophy at Columbia University, New York.


Educational philosophy

As can be seen in his Democracy and Education Dewey attempts to at once synthesize, criticize, and expand upon the democratic or proto-democratic educational philosophies of Rousseau and Plato. He saw Rousseau's as overemphasizing the individual and Plato's as overemphasizing the society in which the individual lived. For Dewey, this distinction was by and large a false one; like Vygotsky, he viewed the mind and its formation as communal process. Thus the individual is only a meaningful concept when regarded as an inextricable part of his society, and the society had no meaning apart from its realization in the lives of its individual members. However, as evidenced in his later Experience and Nature Dewey recognizes the importance of the subjective experience of individual people in introducing revolutionary new ideas.

For Dewey, it was vitally important that education not be the teaching of mere dead fact, but that the skills and knowledge which students learned be integrated fully into their lives as citizens and human beings. At the Laboratory School which Dewey and his wife Alice ran at the University of Chicago, children learned much of their early chemistry, physics, and biology by investigating the natural processes which went into cooking breakfast--an activity they did in their classes. This practical element--learning by doing--sprang from his subscription to the philosophical school of Pragmatism.

Dewey was essentially the seminal thinker of educational progressivism and an important progressive in general. His ideas, while quite popular, were never broadly and deeply integrated into the practices of American public schools, though some of his values and terms were widespread. Progressive education (both as espoused by Dewey, and in the more popular and inept forms of which Dewey was critical) was essentially scrapped during the Cold War, when the dominant concern in education was creating and sustaining a scientific and technological elite for military purposes. In the post-Cold War period, however, progressive education has reemerged in many school reform and education theory circles as a thriving field of inquiry.

Dewey and historical progressive education

While Dewey's educational theories have enjoyed a broad popularity during his lifetime and after, they have a troubled history of implementation. Dewey's writings can be difficult to read, and his tendency to reuse commonplace words and phrases to express extremely complex reinterpretations of them makes him unusually susceptible to misunderstanding. So while he remains one of the great American public intellectuals, his public often did not quite follow his line of thought, even when it thought it did. Many enthusiastically embraced what they thought was Deweyan teaching, but which in fact bore little or somewhat perverse resemblance to it. Dewey tried, on occasion, to correct such misguided enthusiasm, but with little success. Simultaneously, other progressive educational theories, often influenced by Dewey but not directly derived from him, were also becoming popular, and progressive education grew to comprehend many, many contradictory theories and practices, as documented by historians like Herbert Kliebard.

It is often thought that progressive education "failed"; whether this view is justified depends on one's definitions of "progressive" and "failed"; several versions of progressive educations succeeded in transforming the educational landscape; the utter ubiquity of guidance counseling, to name but one example, is owing to the progressive period. However, radical versions of educational progressivism were hardly ever tried, and often were troubled and short-lived. The Laboratory School , which Dewey and his wife, Alice, founded at the University of Chicago is a good example. This school failed within three years and forced Dewey to leave Chicago. He then created his famous Lincoln School in Manhattan that also failed in a short amount of time.

Deweyan pragmatism

Dewey was a second-generation pragmatist, following Charles Sanders Peirce and William James. He was not nearly so pluralist or relativist as James. He held that value was a function not of whim nor purely of social construction, but a quality inherent in events ("nature itself is wistful and pathetic, turbulent and passionate" (Experience and Nature).

He also held, unlike James, that experimentation (social, cultural, technological, philosophical) could be used as a relatively hard-and-fast arbiter of truth. For example, James felt that for many people who lacked "over-belief" in religious concepts, human life was shallow and rather uninteresting, and that while no one religious belief could be demonstrated as the correct one, we were all responsible for taking the leap of faith and making a gamble on one or another theism, atheism, monism, or whatever. Dewey, in contrast, while honoring the important role that religious institutions and practices played in human life, rejected belief in any static ideal, such as a theistic God. For Dewey, God was the method of intelligence in human life: that is to say, rigorous inquiry, or, very broadly configured, science.

As with the reemergence of progressive philosophy of education, Dewey's contributions to philosophy as such (he was, after all, much more a professional philosopher than a thinker on education) have also reemerged with the post-Cold War reassessment of pragmatism by thinkers like WVO Quine and Richard Rorty.

Because of his process-oriented and sociologically conscious view of the world and knowledge, he is sometimes seen as a useful alternative to both modern and postmodern ways of thinking. Recent exponents (like Rorty) have not always remained faithful to Dewey's original vision, but this itself is completely in keeping both with Dewey's own usage of other thinkers and with his own philosophy--for Dewey, past doctrines always require reconstruction in order to remain useful for the present time.



  • Democracy and Education
  • Excerpts from Experience and Nature (pdf file)
  • Impressions of Soviet Russia (HTML)

Secondary Sources:

  • Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (A mostly historical and biographical exploration of the human side of pragmatism and the historical conditions of its development. Useful especially for its exploration of lesser-known but key figures like Chauncey Wright , figures whose connection to pragmatism is less often recognized (like Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the importance of historical events like the American Civil War and the advent of statistics.)
  • Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy (Provides a probing genealogical analysis of the life-work of each of the key pragmatists from Peirce to Rorty, including the under-scrutizinized middle period pragmatists and pragmatically influenced thinkers like Sidney Hook and Reinhold Niebuhr, as well as a brief sketch of West's own version of pragmatism.)
  • Herbert Kliebard , The Struggle for the American Curriculum (Analyzes the complex relationship between the supposedly unrealized ideal of Deweyan theory and the concrete actuality of the competing schemes of practical progressive education.)
  • Alan Ryan , John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism (Relatively recent, 1995, study by a self-confessedly-English fan. Ryan knows Dewey well, but also Hegel and Russell and others whose writings surrounded and may have influenced Dewey. Ryan also is interested in Dewey's early family and personal Christianity, and the extent to which that persisted, or didn't, in Dewey's later life and writings.)

See also

External links

Wikisource has original works written by or about John Dewey .
  • The Center for Dewey Studies
  • The Foxfire Approach to Teaching and Learning: John Dewey, Experiential Learning, and the Core Practices. ERIC Digest.
  • The Transactional View Dewey laid out in his 1949 book "Knowing and the Known," coauthored with Arthur F. Bentley
  • The John Dewey and F. Matthias Alexander Homepage

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Last updated: 02-07-2005 10:13:28
Last updated: 03-18-2005 11:16:12