John Dewey's philosophies were extremely influential in American education in the twentieth century, and will likely have lasting effects.
American philosopher and educator John Dewey was an influential force in shaping the school system during the twentieth century. He was a "public intellectual," or someone who steps out of his or her academic realm to try to bring new ideas to the general public. Dewey's philosophy centered on the general idea that ideas should be used to effect action, rather than just exist in the abstract realm of philosophy. An outspoken defender of democracy, Dewey, who spent much of his career at Columbia University in New York, was active in social and political causes as well. He helped found the American Civil Liberties Union, the Association of American University Professors, and the New School for Social Research, among his numerous other activities.
John Dewey was born on October 20, 1859, in Burlington, Vermont. His father, Archibald Sprague Dewey, was an area businessman who owned grocery stores. His mother, Lucina, had two sons, John Archibald and Davis Rich, before John, but John Archibald died in an accident. She later had John and his younger brother, Charles Miner. Dewey's father was separated from the family when the Civil War broke out, and the family was later reunited two years after the end of the war. His father had sold his grocery business when he enlisted, and after the war he became part owner of a cigar and tobacco shop.
Exposure leads to open mind
Dewey's family were descendants of old New England stock, but Burlington had a fair number of immigrants from Ireland and Quebec, Canada, as well. The area was also home to the state university, lending even more of a worldly view than was typical for a small Eastern town at the time. Much of Burlington was middle class, like the Dewey family, but some were extremely poor. Dewey's mother was a religious woman with strong morals who would take her son to work with the poverty-stricken in the slums. Later, Dewey took jobs as a newspaper deliverer and at a lumberyard. He grew up without a sense of snobbery or elitism and with a basic respect for human dignity.
The Burlington public schools were not exceptional, and Dewey was often bored, although he was a well-behaved and generally popular student, taking college preparatory sources in high school. By then, the area schools were improving, and Dewey's parents strongly encouraged his love of reading. Dewey's father loved literature, and had collected a great many books over the years. However, Dewey still enjoyed being outdoors, especially since Lake Champlain was only three blocks away. He was also an avid hiker and often took overnight camping trips into the Green Mountains.
Dewey at age fifteen enrolled in the University of Vermont, the fifth oldest college in New England, where he joined the Delta Psi fraternity and had an interest in science. He was a well-liked student, but sometimes classmates teased him for his sloppy appearance. The college held just ninety-four students when Dewey attended, and the campus was generally strict, forbidding alcohol and requiring students to go to a church of their choice each Sunday. The academic atmosphere, however, was liberal, with faculty believing that people should be free and independent thinkers. Dewey studied the classics, but became fascinated with current events. He was also heavily influenced by a physiology (medical) textbook written by T. H. Huxley which led to Dewey's belief that humans are the result of the natural evolutionary process.
Changes course to study philosophy
As Dewey spent more time reading books not directly related to his courses, his grades suffered slightly. During his senior year, he decided to pursue philosophy. He took classes in ethics, logic, psychology, religion, and economics, and raised his grade average to 92.35 percent. Along the way, a professor, H. A. P. Torrey, introduced him to the ideas of philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), but Dewey was not completely satisfied with his theories.
After graduating with his bachelor of arts in 1879 at age nineteen, Dewey wanted to teach high school. All summer he applied for work with no luck because of his young age, but his cousin, a principal at a school in Oil City, Pennsylvania, eventually hired him. He taught there for two years while he studied philosophy on his own. Later, he returned to Vermont to become the only teacher at a small private school in Charlotte, near the University of Vermont, for another two years, where the students were often unruly and often not prepared for the level of classes they were taking. He became friends again with Torrey and the two often discussed philosophy together.
Torrey during this time encouraged Dewey to abandon his career as a schoolteacher and become a philosopher at a university. Around this period, most American philosophers had been members of the religious clergy. Therefore, their thinking tended to be colored with their religious views. Only a few schools hired philosophy instructors who were not clergy, so it was a big risk for Dewey to change his course. However, one of his papers had been published in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, and Dewey gratefully took Torrey's advice, enrolling at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, to go to graduate school. He borrowed tuition money from his aunt, and at age twenty-two, in September 1882, began classes.
Finds answers in work of Hegel
Johns Hopkins had an excellent reputation for its graduate school and was open to non-theological (non-religious) philosophers. There, Dewey studied with George S. Morris, who was on leave as chairman of the philosophy department at the University of Michigan. Under Morris, Dewey was exposed to the works of German philosopher Georg Hegel (1770-1831), one of the most important thinkers of the modern era. Hegel was a great influence on the development of Karl Marx (1818-1883), who laid the foundations of socialism and communism, two political theories that sought to do away with class structures and individual ownership of property. Basically, Hegel's philosophy asserted that the mind or spirit was more important than the physical world, a concept known as "idealism." Dewey was quickly converted to Neo-Hegelianism, finding that it answered many of his questions.
In 1884 Dewey finished his Ph.D. and went to teach at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where the president, James B. Angell, was an old friend of Dewey's parents. In Ann Arbor, Dewey met and married Alice Chipman, with whom he would have six children. While teaching at Michigan, Dewey made trips around the state to evaluate college prep courses in the schools. This increased his awareness to social problems, and although he had not read any of Marx's work, he nonetheless was becoming more socialist in his thinking. He continued to teach Sunday school, but was becoming less interested in religion.
Takes over chair at Michigan
In 1888 Dewey spent a year at the University of Minnesota, but returned to the University of Michigan after his mentor, Morris, died. Much to the delight of the institution, Dewey, who had developed an excellent reputation, took Morris's position and would stay at Michigan until 1894. The next big step in Dewey's intellectual growth came after he read Principles of Psychology by William James. At this point, he abandoned the ideas of Hegel for "instrumentalism," a system that generally favors philosophy that leads to active problem-solving as opposed to abstract thought that leads to more philosophy.
Dewey was liked and respected by his students. In the book The Mind of John Dewey, George Dykhuizen reprinted an article from the university's newspaper which stated, "As a man, Prof. Dewey is modest and retiring, but his unassuming, pleasing manner attracts to him many friends. As a teacher, these same characteristics, his easy, earnest and unconscious manner before a class, the utter lack of any spirit of pedantry, and the attitude, as far as desirable, of equality with his students, whom he always treats as intelligent ladies and gentlemen and friends—these characteristics at once make the student feel at home in his class-room." The passage also noted that Dewey urged original thought, rather than repetition of class work, and said that although he had high standards, they were not unreasonable. Other sources, however, hint that Dewey could be less than exciting as a teacher, despite his profound ideas. During his tenure at Michigan, Dewey published a couple of books on ethics (morality) and numerous articles and papers.
Career thrives in New York
After the University of Michigan, Dewey in 1894 was made head of a new department of philosophy, psychology, and education at the newly established University of Chicago, which had opened its doors in 1890. There, he became friends with the women working at Hull House, a social center in the slums of Chicago devoted to improving the lives of the poor. He also began his own experimental school in order to test some of his theories of education, with his wife serving as principal. This led to conflict with the university's president, William R. Harper, who dismissed Dewey's wife in 1904. Dewey then resigned and took a position at Columbia University in New York City, where he would remain for the rest of his career.
New York was the hub of culture and politics in the early twentieth century, and some of the most intelligent minds in America were on the faculty of Columbia with Dewey. He thus had an ample environment in which to develop his own scholarship, and in the meantime he was an avid supporter of the Progressive Party. In 1929 he helped organize the League for Independent Political Action to set up a new political party, but none was ever established. He also aided in founding the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), and the New School for Social Research. He was a contributing editor for the liberal periodical The New Republic as well, in addition to numerous other scholarly and political pursuits.
After World War I, Dewey was at the peak of his career as a noted thinker. He traveled to Japan to lecture at the Imperial Institute and spent two years in China at universities there. In 1924 he went to Turkey to study their schools, and two years later, he visited the University of Mexico. In 1928 he went to the Soviet Union to examine their schools. In his later years, he was known as a rumpled-looking fellow who was usually quiet and somewhat shy.
In 1930 Dewey retired from teaching. His accomplishments were trumpeted one year earlier on his seventieth birthday, and the recognition was repeated when he turned eighty and ninety. He continued to write, and was one of the first thinkers to warn about the threat of Germany and Japan as world War II approached. In 1937 he went to Mexico to chair a commission to investigate the Soviet's claims against revolutionary Leon Trotsky (1879-1940), who was found not guilty of trying to overthrow the Soviet government. Dewey's first wife died in 1927, and in 1946, at the age of eighty-seven, he married Roberta Lowitz Grant. Dewey died at age ninety-two on June 1, 1952, at his home in New York City.
Philosophy lives on in practice
Dewey's philosophies were extremely influential in American education in the twentieth century, and will likely have lasting effects. He spoke out for more cooperation between schools and the communities they serve, and he encouraged more participation in government at all levels. A vocal champion of democracy, Dewey felt that the tiny minority of wealthy elite industrialists in the nation were a threat to a true democratic system. His remedy for this problem lie in the right kind of education. The "progressive education" system of the 1920s tried to put Dewey's ideas into practice, which centered on schools teaching the "here and now" rather than concerning themselves too much with past eras or considering possible future events. Because his theories became deeply imbedded in the educational system, many critics blamed him for all of the ills in American schools.
In the early 1980s, a renewed interest in Dewey led to scores of new studies on the man and his philosophy, and by the 1990s, one of his major works, Democracy and Education, published in 1916, had been translated into twenty-five languages. Though many of Dewey's works were published from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, David Haliburton, writing in Change, noted that his work has lasting value due to the social problems that persist in our country: "Now, as then, the hungry and the homeless challenge social resources; crime, drugs, and poverty plague overcrowded cities; and school systems struggle to provide immigrant children with the education they need to survive. In that period and ever since, Dewey, speaking as our most public and intellectual of public intellectuals, has left us a host of ideas on which to reflect."
- Change, January—February 1997, p. 24.
- Columbia Encyclopedia, 5th ed., Columbia University Press, 1993.
- Dykhuizen, George. The Life and Mind of George Dewey. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1973.
- Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2d edition, Gale Research, 1997.
- Publisher's Weekly, May 22, 1995, p. 44.
- The Reader's Companion to American History, Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
- Washington Times, August 7, 1995, p. 25.