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).
John Dewey died in 1st June, 1952.