John Dewey

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Editors: Judith S. Baughman , Victor Bondi , Richard Layman , Tandy McConnell , and Vincent Tompkins
Date: 1998
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 1,449 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1280L

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About this Person
Born: October 20, 1859 in Burlington, Vermont, United States
Died: June 01, 1952 in New York, New York, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Philosopher
Updated:Dec. 16, 1998
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Pioneer. John Dewey was an innovator in the fields of education, psychology, and philosophy. His theories of education were radically different from those previously employed in America and brought him to the forefront of the movement known as "progressive education." Dewey's influence was not limited to America, for at various times during his life he served as educational consultant to Japan, China, Turkey, and Mexico. He believed that research as well as teacher training should be part of the mission of any university's education department. In addition, Dewey was one of the most prominent moral philosophers of the twentieth century.

The Laboratory School. After graduating from the University of Vermont in 1879, Dewey taught high school for three years before entering Johns Hopkins University, where he received his doctorate in philosophy in 1884. After ten years at the University of Michigan, he became head of the department of philosophy, psychology, and pedagogy at the newly founded University of Chicago. In 1896 he organized the University Elementary School, better known as the Laboratory School. Here Dewey could test his pedagogical innovations as well as his more general philosophical principles. While in Chicago he formed personal and professional relationships with philosophers William H. Mead and James H. Tufts and reformer Jane Addams. In 1903 the Laboratory School was merged with the Francis W. Parker School. This merger precipitated to a series of disputes with University of Chicago president William Rainey Harper that ultimately led to Dewey's resignation in April 1904. In less than a month he had been hired by Columbia University president Nicholas Murray Butler. For the rest of his life Dewey was associated with Columbia, first holding a primary appointment in the department of philosophy and then a joint appointment at the Teachers College.

Progressive Education. Dewey was heavily influenced by the pragmatism of William James and developed it into a scientifically oriented theory of education known as "instrumentalism." Based on his research, Dewey saw education as the accumulation and assimilation of experience. He contended that a child learns through his or her experiences and activities, thereby developing into a balanced personality aware of many things. This theory changed the philosophy of children's education from an emphasis on lecture, memorization, and drill to a focus on students' becoming more actively involved in the learning process; this concept could be described as "learning by doing."

Functional Psychology. His How We Think (1910) demonstrated his theory of functional psychology, which viewed stimulus and response as the functional and correlative means of organic coordination and direction; in the book, he explained how the theory worked in the context of educational and social interactions. Dewey believed that thought arises from efforts to solve problems; when thoughtful action is directed at solving those problems, the learner then uncovers "truth". He wrote extensively on this theory in Essays in Experimental Logic (1916). His conception of thinking, known as "instrumentalism," was closely related to the philosophy of pragmatism expounded by William James and Charles Pierce, the philosophy that dominated this era.

Democracy and Education. Dewey's philosophy of thought was eventually translated into specific curricular practices, most notably through the work of his colleague at Columbia, Professor William Heard Kilpatrick. But Dewey's greatest contribution to American education was probably his "epoch-making" 1916 volume, Democracy and Education. In this book he argued forcefully for an American public education system that turned the "ideal of equality of opportunity into reality." Dewey insisted that it was fatal for a democracy to permit the formation of fixed economic classes, to have one system of education for the upper and middle classes and another for children of wage earners. "Over-bookish education for some and over-practical for others brings about a division of mental and moral habits, ideals, and outlooks, he suggested, commenting on the prevailing system of trade-training programs for some versus exclusively academic programs for others. Dewey felt that all children should be exposed to both types of education: "Academic education turns out future citizens with no sympathy for work done with the hands and no training for understanding social and political difficulties. Trade training turns out future workers who may have greater immediate skills than without training, but no enlargement of mind and no insight into scientific and social implications of the work they do." Dewey warned that trade training would never prepare pupils to adjust if the trade they pursued became obsolete. Dewey had great faith in the American public school system, which he called the "only fundamental agency for good." Predicting that the great accumulation of wealth at one social extreme and the conditions of dire necessity at the other in 1916 would make democracy even more difficult in the years to come, Dewey believed that only a system of education which allowed the downtrodden to forge ahead in life could truly support a democracy.

Schools of Tomorrow. Although not as monumental a volume as Democracy and Education, Dewey's 1915 book Schools of Tomorrow written in collaboration with his wife, Evelyn, clearly expressed his philosophy of education. It was these tenets that helped clarify the Progressive Education Association's core beliefs in 1919. Dewey wrote, "Conventional education trains children for docility and obedience; the careful performance of imposed tasks because they are imposed regardless of where they lead is suitable only for creating a society in which there is one head to care for and plan the lives and institutions of the people." This training, the Deweys argued, interferes with the successful conduct of society and government in a democracy. "If we train our children only to take orders and fail to give them the confidence to think and act for themselves, we are putting almost insurmountable obstacles in the way of overcoming the defects of the present system and establishing the truth of democratic ideals." As for the curriculum itself, the Deweys insisted that for the great majority of students whose "major interests are not abstract ideas and who must pass their lives in some practical occupation," schools needed to develop a method of education to bridge the gap between the purely intellectual and theoretical side of life and the students' preparation for future occupations. Dewey sharply criticized some vocational training for dispensing with the essential cultural and historical grounding he believed necessary for liberal education in a democracy.

Dewey's Influence. In civic organizations and in national affairs, Dewey was an activist and even a leader in many liberal causes. He served as a trustee for Hull House, the settlement house founded by Jane Addams to serve Chicago's immigrants, and assisted in 1916 with the foundation of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), a teachers' union within the AFL-CIO. Dewey's educational ideas were first put into practice in schools such as the Laboratory Schools, founded by Dewey himself, at the University of Chicago, and the Walden School in New York City, founded by Margaret Naumberg in 1915. Dewey served as the first president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and was a charter member of the American Civil Liberties Union. With the eminent historian Charles A. Beard, he was a founding member of the New School for Social Research in New York City. During his long and prolific career, Dewey's influence on educational thought and the entire American educational establishment was multi-faceted and profound. His philosophy of instrumentalism and his numerous books on educational method provided the principal intellectual foundations of progressive education, the influence of which can be traced through the century to the liberal education policies of the 1960s. Significant among his later writings were Human Nature and Conduct(1922); Liberalism and Social Action (1935);Freedom and Culture (1939); and Problems of Men(1946).

Moral Philosopher. Dewey's theories also stressed the moral aspects of education, and he bemoaned the separation of the moral and the intellectual in traditional educational systems. In many of his works Dewey outlined and defined his conception of the moral life. These works include Ethics (written with Tufts, 1908), Democracy and Education (1916), and Human Nature and Conduct (1922). He was a founder of the New School for Social Research (1919). In addition to his research and teaching duties, Dewey was the first president of the American Association of University Professors and was a charter member of the American Civil Liberties Union, the League for Industrial Democracy, and the League of Independent Political Action.

Influence. Dewey retired from Columbia and was named professor emeritus in 1930 but continued writing and consulting. His theories drew criticism from realists as being too vague and from theists for being too naturalistic. However, despite these charges Dewey had more influence on the direction of American education than any other theorist in the twentieth century.


  • John Brubacher, A History of the Problems of Education (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1947);
  • John Dewey, Democracy and Education (New York: Macmillan, 1916);
  • John Dewey, Experience and Nature (Chicago: Open Court, 1925);
  • Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology (New York: Holt, 1922);
  • Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed (Washington, D.C.: Progressive Education Association, 1929);
  • Dewey, The Philosophy of John Dewey (New York: Holt, 1929);
  • Dewey, The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relationship of Knowledge and Action (New York: Minton, Balch, 1929);
  • Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (New York: Holt, 1920);
  • John and Evelyn Dewey, Schools of Tomorrow (New York: Macmillan, 1915);
  • Martin Dworkin, Dewey on Education (New York: Columbia University Teachers College Press, 1959);
  • George Dykhuizen, The Life and Mind of John Dewey (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1973).


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Gale Document Number: GALE|K1602000157