John Dewey

John Dewey

John Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont, on 20th October, 1859. An unremarkable student at school, his performance improved rapidly at the University of Vermont and in 1878 he graduated second in his class.

After university Dewey taught classics, algebra and science in a school in Pennsylvania before moving to a private school in Charlotte. Encouraged by his mentor, H. A. Torrey, Dewey became a student of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University. After completing his doctorate in 1884, Dewey found work as a teacher in Michigan.

In 1894 Dewey joined the staff of the University of Chicago as head of its new department of philosophy, psychology and pedagogy. Dewy became interested in social problems and was influenced by the ideas of the radical writer, Henry George. He also became friends with those social reformers based at Hull House such as Jane Addams, Mary White Ovington and Alice Hamilton.

Dewey became increasingly interested in the philosophy of education and in 1899 published School and Society. To test out his educational theories, Dewey and his wife started an experimental school in Chicago. The school was closed after Dewey became involved in a dispute with the university president, William Rainey Harper. Dewey now moved to Columbia University.

Dewey became influenced by the work of Karl Marx and other left-wing philosophers. Steven Best has argued: "Philosopher Sidney Hook has gone so far as to argue that Deweysim is the genuine fulfillment of Marxism. But the similarities end abruptly on a key point: Marx insisting on the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, and Dewey embracing pragmatic reform and rejecting Marxism as unscientific utopianism."

After the First World War Dewey studied education in Japan and China. He also carried out research in Turkey (1924), Mexico (1926) and the Soviet Union (1928). Dewey's praise of Soviet education brought him much criticism. He wrote several books on education and philosophy including Moral Principles in Education (1909), Interest and Effort in Education (1913), Democracy and Education (1916), Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920), Experience and Nature (1925) and The Quest for Certainty (1929).

Dewey was attacked by Leon Trotsky who claimed that although Dewey's ideas had considerable value over previous bourgeois philosophies, he condemned his pragmatism as an insidious apology for capitalism and class collaboration.

In his books Dewey outlined his views on how education could improve society. The founder of what became known as the progressive education movement, Dewey argued that it was the job of education to encourage individuals to develop their full potential as human beings. He was especially critical of the rote learning of facts in schools and argued that children should learn by experience. In this way students would not just gain knowledge but would also develop skills, habits and attitudes necessary for them to solve a wide variety of problems.

Dewey attempted to show the important links between education and politics. Dewy believed that active learning would help people develop the ability and motivation to think critically about the world around them. Progressive education was therefore a vital part of a successful democracy as it was necessary for people to be able to think for themselves. Dewey also argued that the development of critical thought would also help protect society from the dangers of dictatorship.

Dewey was a founder member of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and the American Civil Liberties Union. An early member of the Socialist Party of America, Dewey later joined the Progressive Party and supported Robert La Follette in his attempts to become president.

Dewey also joined the League for Independent Political Action. The group, that included Lewis Mumford and Archibald MacLeish, promoted alternatives to a capitalist system they considered to be obsolete and cruel.

Dewey retired from teaching in 1929 and his later years were mainly spent writing. Books from this period include The Quest for Certainty (1929), Philosophy and Civilization (1931), Art as Experience (1934), Liberalism and Social Action (1935), Experience and Education (1938), Freedom and Culture (1939) and Public Schools and Spiritual Values (1944).

In 1947 Dewey headed the commission investigating the charges against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials. Later that year he published his conclusions in the book, Not Guilty.

John Dewey died in 1st June, 1952.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) John Dewey, The School as Social Centre (1902)

It is said that one ward in the city of Chicago has forty different languages represented in it. It is a well-known fact that some of the largest Irish, German, and Bohemian cities in the world are located in America, not in their own countries. The power of the public schools to assimilate different races to our own institutions, through the education given to the younger generation, is doubtless one of the most remarkable exhibitions of vitality that the world has ever seen.

But, after all, it leaves the older generation still untouched; and the assimilation of the younger can hardly be complete or certain as long as the homes of the parents remain comparatively unaffected. Indeed, wise observers in both New York and Chicago have recently sounded a note of alarm. They have called attention to the fact that in some respects the children are too rapidly, I will not say Americanized, but too rapidly de-nationalized. They lose the positive and conservative value of their own native traditions, their own native music, art, and literature. They do not get complete initiation into the customs of their new country, and so are frequently left floating and unstable between the two. They even learn to despise the dress, bearing, habits, language, and beliefs of their parents - many of which have more substance and worth than the superficial putting-on of the newly adopted habits.

One of the chief motives in the development of the new labour museum at Hull House has been to show the younger generation something of the skill and art and historic meaning in the industrial habits of the older generations - modes of spinning, weaving, metal working, etc., discarded in this country because there was no place for them in our industrial system. Many a child has awakened to an appreciation of admirable qualities hitherto unknown in his father or mother for whom he had begun to entertain a contempt. Many an association of local history and past national glory has been awakened to quicken and enrich the life of the family.

What we want is to see the school, every public school, doing something of the same sort of work that is now done by Hull House Settlement. It is a place where ideas and beliefs may be exchanged, not merely in the arena of formal discussion - for argument alone breeds misunderstanding and fixes prejudice - but in ways where ideas are incarnated in human form and clothed with the winning grace of personal life. Classes for study may be numerous, but all are regarded as modes of bringing people together, of doing away with barriers of caste, or class, or race, or type of experience that keep people from real communion with each other.