John Dewey

From Conservapedia
Jump to: navigation, search
John Dewey
John Dewey cph.3a51565.jpg

Born October 20, 1859
Burlington, Vermont
Died June 1, 1952
New York City
Spouse Alice Chipman

Roberta Lowitz Grant

John Dewey (October 20, 1859 - June 1, 1952) was a major American philosopher and a leading liberal commentator on public affairs. After 1900 he became a leading exponent of pragmatism or as he called it, "instrumentalism". He viewed the intellect as something that strive instrumentally for future experiences, or a vehicle for processing problems. Dewey focused on everyday life, and excluded metaphysical musings.[1]

Dewey was especially influential as an advocate and philosopher of "progressive education." He sought the reconstruction of society through education in which children discovered knowledge for themselves rather than repeat rote learning. Dewey was one of the main intellectual forces behind American liberalism, 1900–1930, especially in his emphasis that the spirit of democracy has to be lived daily rather than be merely a procedural device for elections.

Although pragmatism faded in importance in American philosophy after 1930, it has seen a revival since the 1980s with the writings of Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam, and others. Dewey was a very prolific writer, with dozens of books and 766 articles in 151 different periodicals. His style, however, tended toward vagueness.
Time June 4, 1928; read the cover story


Born in Vermont to an old Yankee family, Dewey was brought up in a religious environment of pius Congregationalists. He attended the University of Vermont, taught school for three years, then attended the new graduate university, Johns Hopkins, receiving his PhD in 1884 with a doctoral dissertation on a phase of Kant's psychology. While at Johns Hopkins, he studied under George Sylvester Morris. At this stage Dewey was a strong Hegelian.

Dewey taught philosophy at the University of Michigan until 1894, when he was called to the University of Chicago, where President W. R. Harper was creating overnight one of the world's two or three greatest universities. Dewey headed the School of Education, and worked closely with philosophers and with the intellectuals based at Hull House. His now adopted the philosophy of pragmatism that had been developed by Charles Sanders Peirce and William James. By 1903 the "Chicago school" of Pragmatic Instrumentalism was in full swing, and the educational experiments initiated in Dewey's "laboratory school" were beginning to influence educational theory at leading universities. After fighting with Harper Dewey went to Columbia University in 1904, where he was based until his retirement in 1930. Worldwide recognition was seen in his invitations to consult on educational policy with emerging nations, notably China, Japan, Turkey, Mexico, and the Soviet Union.


Dewey played a major role in stopping Stalinist infiltration of the American intellectual community and in developing an anti-Stalinist policy. He generally supported American foreign policy, including both World Wars, and was a strong opponent of both the Soviets and the Nazis. His argument that true liberals have to reject cooperation with Stalinists became a permissible position in the late 1930s, including among some liberals.

Dewey was a longtime supporter of labor unions and in 1932-33 played a key role in purging Communists from the teachers' union, arguing they were not truly dedicated to education. He rejected the then current Stalinist position that the purpose of the union is to join the "class war" in order to promote the "cause of workers against employers." Nevertheless, the Communists took control of the union and in 1935 Dewey helped start the Teachers Guild, a new anti-Stalinist union for teachers in New York City. In 1935 the national union expelled the Communist local and made Dewey's Teachers Guild the official union.

Dewey chaired the 1937 “trial” of Leon Trotsky, held in Mexico City during the Great purge. The trial absolved Trotsky of attempting to assassinate Joseph Stalin and incite war against the Soviet Union.[2] Overall, the hearings constituted a decisive moment in American liberalism, which had previously been uncritical in its praise of Soviet Communism. By the time of the trial. Dewey and many American liberals began to examine the Russian Revolution more closely and became convinced of its corruption.[3] At no time in his career was Dewey a Marxist; indeed he was a sharp, hostile critic of Marx.


Dewey was perhaps the foremost theorist of democracy since the days of Thomas Jefferson. Dewey's emphasis on grass roots participation rather than elite rule has been adopted by conservatives.

In the 1920s Dewey engaged in a major debate with journalist Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) on the impact of the technology on democracy. Both agreed that the communications revolution had created a large and more complex world, that political and social institutions had not kept pace with the changes wrought by technology, that the masses were more susceptible to propaganda, and that modernity threatened democracy. Their critiques diverge on solutions, especially whether or not democracy could be saved. While Lippmann saw the public as unredeemable and subject to mass manipulation, Dewey thought that more public involvement in socio-political affairs was needed and that tools of mass communication could be used to this end.[4]

In his writings from the 1920s and 1930s, Dewey placed his concept of participatory democracy in opposition to both classical liberalism and the technocratic elitism of Lippmann. Whereas classical liberalism saw in democracy the means for reconciling individual interests, Dewey upheld democracy precisely because the communication that it fostered enabled the individual to identify and understand his interests within a moral framework. In practice, however, Dewey found in the individualist assumptions behind classical liberalism the strongest arguments against leaving policy decisions in the hands of Lippmann's "responsible administrator."[5]

Dewey feared that the growth of specialization would cause the fragmentation of both knowledge and the intellectual community. Dewey opposed leadership by social scientists, believing they would alienate people and keep them from participating in the democratic process. Instead, he put his faith in the creation of an educated public, whose individualism would give way to common interests, resulting in a political environment within which social issues could be discussed, debated, and decided.

Progressive Education

Progressive education maintains that children should be the center of the educational universe, that children can be active learners who learn best by experience rather than by memorization, that a nurturing environment is essential to the educational process, and that women are ideally suited as teachers. Dewey did not believe students could learn well without teachers to help link their prior experience to the experience available in school.

By 1900 the reduction in average family size, new gender roles in middle-class families, and the softening of religious orthodoxy were the social context of Progressive education that led to a new appreciation of childhood. The writings of European educators Johann Pestalozzi and Friedrich Froebel drew readers who had bad experiences with traditional schools that valued discipline and memorization at the expense of individuality. Educational practitioners who claimed to follow the views of Pestalozzi and Froebel added their own variations and disagreed among themselves. Nevertheless, Dewey and the advocates of the new education shared and accomplished a new way of thinking about the child, the curriculum, and the purposes of schools.

The problem Dewey could not solve was that progressive educators like himself encountered all across America a highly bureaucratic system of school administration that in general was not receptive to new methods. The failure of Dewey's ideas to transform schools can be attributed to his assumption that schools exist to promote the maximum learning by students; more often they produce what parents and administrators really want: happy kids who do not cause trouble.[6]

Favors local control of schools

Invited in 1924 by the new republican government in Turkey to draw up a report on the country's educational system, Dewey warned about the dangers of centralization and the removal of local control. The Turkish "Law of Unification of Instruction", however, precluded the implementation of his recommendations, mandating instead the use of education to enforce the ideology of the new state and creating a Ministry of Education which was a centralized bureaucracy rather than merely an intellectual guide in the way that Dewey envisaged.[7]

Impact on China

Just before the May Fourth movement of 1919, Dewey was invited to China by members of China's new intellectual circles. In the following two years, Dewey toured and lectured in many cities in China and systematically propagated pragmatism. Pragmatism caught on wildly, prevailing throughout intellectual and educational circles. At the same time, because his theories fitted in with the needs of the May Fourth movement's ideological emancipation and China's economic development and educational reform, Dewey became the focus of the media and a favorite foreign thinker and educator in intellectual circles in China. Many scholars absorbed pragmatism's positivist spirit and developed Chinese modern positivist philosophy and historical studies. In the meantime, Dewey's educational theory also became the soul of the new educational system of China through its influence on the key links in the reforms and on the standards and curricula of the new educational system. Pragmatism was replaced by Marxism after 1949, but Dewey's reputation has been revived since the fall of Mao.

Dewey and religion

Dewey mostly avoided religious topics. Important exceptions include his 1892 address "Christianity and Democracy" given to the University of Michigan Students' Christian Association and his 1933 Terry Lectures at Yale University—the basis of his 1934 book A Common Faith. In A Common Faith Dewey attempted to somehow separate the experience of the "religious" from the supernatural aspects of "God" and "religion".[8] According to the scholar Steven C. Rockefeller, Dewey was an American Feuerbach and keenly interested in gutting what he saw as Christianity's "false" and "harmful" supernatural characteristics. Both Dewey and Feuerbach believed that they possessed a deep philosophical understanding of Christianity. Their shared belief rejected the Incarnation and all other biblical miracles.[9] Dewey viewed conservative Christianity (i.e., Protestant fundamentalism and mainline Catholicism) as a dark, evil lair harboring political enemies if not intellectual rivals of his own philosophy and its emphasis on "intelligence" as well as "religious" feelings. This can be seen in part in a 1924 essay titled "Fundamentals" written for the New Republic[10]

Those traditionalists and literalists who have arrogated to themselves the title of fundamentalists recognize of course no mean between their dogmas and blank, dark, hopeless uncertainty and unsettlement. Until they have been reborn into the life of intelligence, they will not be aware that there are a steadily increasing number of persons who find security in methods of inquiry, of observation, experiment, of forming and following working hypotheses.
Dewey was surprised by the strong sway that neo-orthodox figures like Reinhold Niebuhr were coming to hold over the liberal academy—his 1934 A Common Faith was a reaction towards, what was to him and other religious/secular humanists, a still very unacceptable and even repulsive form of Christianity. For not only did Niebuhr never deny, but he sometimes upheld biblical supernaturalism.


Dewey has been referred to as a "totalitarian socialist who envisioned total government control over all education through the agency of public schools." Dewey's book, Democracy and Education, was listed by Human Events magazine as fifth in a list of the ten most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries behind The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx, Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler, Quotations from Chairman Mao by Mao Zedong, and the Kinsey Report by Alfred Kinsey.[11]


  • "education is all one with growing; it has no end beyond itself,"
  • "education consists primarily of transmission through communication,"
  • "education is a constant reorganizing or reconstructing of experience."

Further reading

  • Anderson, Elizabeth. "Dewey's Moral Philosophy" Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2009) online
  • Caspary, William R. Dewey on Democracy (2000) online edition
  • Cuffaro, Harriet K. Experimenting with the World: John Dewey and the Early Childhood Classroom. (1995). 123 pp.
  • Dykhuizen, George. The Life and Mind of John Dewey. (1973). 429 pp., good biography online edition
  • Feffer, Andrew. The Chicago Pragmatists and American Progressivism. (1993). 279 pp. schoalrly study of Dewey and George Herbert Mead
  • Festenstein, Matthew. "Dewey's Political Philosophy" Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2009) online
  • Fott, David. John Dewey: America's Philosopher of Democracy. (1998). 167 pp.
  • Hoy, Terry. The Political Philosophy of John Dewey: Towards a Constructive Renewal (1998) online edition
  • Kloppenberg, James T. "Pragmatism: An Old Name for Some New Ways of Thinking?" Journal of American History 1996 83(1): 100–138. in JSTOR
  • Leddy, Tom. "Dewey's Aesthetics" Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2009) online
  • Martin, Jay. The Education of John Dewey: A Biography (2002) online edition
  • Murphy, John P. Pragmatism: From Peirce to Davidson (1990) online edition
  • Rockefeller, Steven C. John Dewey: Religious Faith and Democratic Humanism. (1991). 683 pp.
  • Ryan, Alan. John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism. (1995). 395 pp.; a major scholarly interpretation
    • Alter, Stephen G. "The Pitfalls Of Comparative Context: Deweyan Democracy in Transatlantic Perspective". Reviews in American History 1997 25(1): 89–94. 0048–7511; review essay on Ryan (1995); online at JSTOR
  • Welchman, Jennifer. Dewey's Ethical Thought. (1995). 229 pp.
  • Westbrook, Robert B. John Dewey and American Democracy (1991), the standard scholarly biography
  • online books by and about Dewey

Primary sources

  • Dewey, John. The Collected Works of John Dewey (37 vol. 1961-1991). The Early Works: 1892-1898 (5 volumes); The Middle Works: 1899-1924 (15 volumes); The Later Works: 1925-1953 (17 volumes); contents

Selected books by Dewey

  • Dewey, John. Outlines of a Critical Theory of Ethics‎ (1891) full text online
  • Dewey, John. The School and Society (1899, 1915). full text online
  • Dewey, John. How We Think (1910, 1933)
  • Dewey, John. The influence of Darwin on philosophy: and other essays in contemporary thought‎ (1910) full text online
  • Dewey, John. Democracy and education: an introduction to the philosophy of education‎ (1916) full text online
  • Dewey, John. Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920) full text online
  • Dewey, John. Letters from China and Japan‎ (1920) full text online
  • Dewey, John. Human Nature and Conduct (1922) full text online
  • Dewey, John. The Public and Its Problems (1927)
  • Dewey, John. Experience and Nature (1925, 1929)
  • Dewey, John. The Quest for Certainty (1929)
  • Dewey, John. A Common Faith (1934)
  • Dewey, John. Art as Experience (1935)
  • Dewey, John. Experience and Education (1938)
  • Dewey, John. Logic, The Theory of Inquiry (1938).
  • Dewey, John. full text of books online

See also


  2. Isaac Deutscher, The Great Purges, edited by Tamara Deutscher (Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1984), p. 7.
  3. Jay Martin, "John Dewey and the Trial of Leon Trotsky," Partisan Review 2001 68(4): 519-535. 0031-2525
  4. Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (1922) and The Phantom Public (1925); John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems (1927)
  5. Matthew Festenstein, "The Ties of Communication: Dewey on Ideal and Political Democracy," History of Political Thought 1997 18(1): 104-124. 0143-781x
  6. William J. Reese, "The Origins of Progressive Education," History of Education Quarterly 2001 41(1): 1-24. 0018-2680; Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (2000), p. 169; David Tyack, The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education (1974) p. 197-98.
  7. Selahattin Turan, "John Dewey's Report of 1924 and His Recommendations on the Turkish Educational System Revisited," History Of Education 2000 29(6): 543-555.
  8. Reinhold Niebuhr and John Dewey: An American Odyssey, Daniel F. Rice, 1993, State University of New York Press, ISBN 0-7914-1345-4, pages 43-58 (these pages are Chapter 5 titled "A Common Faith")
  9. John Dewey: Religious Faith and Democratic Humanism, Steven C. Rockefeller, Columbia University Press, 1991, ISBN 0231073488, ISBN 9780231073486, 683 pages
    • Choice v. 29 (March 1992) p. 1094 Title: John Dewey
    "The way in which Rockefeller (Middlebury College) has presented the generally accepted two periods of Dewey's development (childhood through the Michigan years and from Chicago on) enables him to show the continuous role of religion in Dewey's life and thought as his thought evolved. What emerges is not only a broadened perspective on Dewey's naturalism, but the best intellectual biography of Dewey that we have. . . . The book fills a need that George Dykhuizen's The Life and Mind of John Dewey {BRD 1973} did not, despite all that work's value as a factual resource."
    • Library Journal v. 116 (March 1, 1991) p. 91
    "Rockefeller shows how Dewey's evolving thought was closely related to the events and experiences in his life, and he interweaves both throughout the narrative, rather than considering them separately--a very effective strategy. . . . Aside from its value as a major study of Dewey's life and thought, this work has great value in showing how contemporary sensibilities which are persuaded by the natural-scientific worldview can, at the same time, maintain a religious orientation."
  10. John Dewey: Religious Faith and Democratic Humanism, Steven C. Rockefeller, p.442

External links