Quarterly for Education and Technology: Giants of American Education: John Dewey, the Education Philosopher

Giants of American Education: John Dewey, the Education Philosopher

Sybil Eakin


Child-centered education. Self-expression. Realizing potential. Integrated curriculum. Constructing knowledge. Heterogeneous grouping. Cooperative study groups. School as community. Hands-on experience. Recognizing diversity. Teachers as coaches. Critical thinking. These are the buzzwords of educational debate as we enter the 21st Century, the latest models of school reform driven by improvement gums against the opposition of anti-progressive traditionalists and political conservatives. Beneath their contemporary styling, however, these concepts are powered by a vigorous, complex system of ideas that was first assembled and linked to school reform before 1900. Their most well-known proponent, John Dewey, was born almost 150 years ago. He spent his long life tirelessly writing voluminous essays in a dense, opaque style accessible mainly to readers with formal training in philosophy and logic.

In spite of their abstract and difficult packaging, Dewey’s ideas– many gathered under the rather formless tent of progressive education–have repeatedly provided both a foundation for school improvement and a target for education critics. Those who invoke his name and those who revile it, as well as the many who espouse or attack his ideas with no notion of their provenance, would be hard put to explain why his ghost still hovers over any serious talk about making schools better.

During his entire professional life, John Dewey, who was born in 1859 and died in 1952, was a student and teacher of philosophy. Together with Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, he helped bring academic philosophy in the United States into maturity, raising the subject to a status that rivaled that of long-established centers and leading thinkers in Europe. In 1920, receiving an honorary degree from the National University of China, Dewey was hailed as a “second Confucius.” At the celebration of his 90th birthday, Dewey insisted that he thought of himself as “first, last, and all the time, engaged in the vocation of philosophy.” All of his other interests, in politics, social issues, and education, he said, were “an outgrowth and manifestation of my primary interest in philosophy.”


Dewey’s philosophy developed gradually from his background in the evangelical Protestantism that shaped most education during his youth. Virtually all private colleges at the time were affiliated with specific churches. Even public and theoretically nonsectarian universities, including Dewey’s alma mater, the University of Vermont, stood to lose the support of legislators if any of their teachers appeared to promulgate ideas that failed to support prevailing religious doctrine. At the core of each institution of higher learning was a department of “Moral Philosophy” where the most eminent professor of the college–usually a clergyman who was also the university’s president–led undergraduates through a survey of the great philosophers of the Western tradition and interpreted each in terms of Christian doctrine.

The writings of Charles Darwin and his followers, which suggested that the truth about the material world around us and even about our own natures was best determined by empirical, scientific investigation, challenged these clergymen-philosophers. They faced new and difficult questions. Do we learn truth through experience and observation? Or are we born with innate ideas about the nature of God and our souls? Departments of Moral Philosophy began to add courses in “Physiological Psychology” as their faculties struggled to resolve such questions. Psychology was then seen as an adjunct of philosophy, a scientific tool for discovering the answers to questions that philosophy had pursued since before the time of Plato.

Although Dewey worked within the traditional religious framework for most of the first 10 years of his teaching career at the University of Michigan, several events forced him to consider practical, social issues, particularly those relating to education and democratic life. He early became involved in the university’s effort to investigate the academic preparation that the state’s public high schools were providing for future college students. His study of the education provided by the schools persuaded him of the need for an educational theory based on the best information from the fields of pedagogy, psychology, and philosophy.

Perhaps more important than his involvement with public education was Dewey’s marriage to Alice Chipman in 1886. Raised by grandparents, she was strongly influenced by her independent-minded and free-thinking grandfather, who had links with Native Americans in the West and defended their rights against the incursions of white settlers. According to John and Alice’s daughter, Alice “was undoubtedly largely responsible for the early widening of Dewey’s philosophic interests … to the field of contemporary life. Above all, things which had previously been matters of theory acquired through his contact with her a vital and direct human significance.”

Alice’s pragmatic approach combined with the ultimate test of his abstract psychological theories–the experience of observing his own children’s development. He and Alice had six children, of whom two died in childhood. They also adopted an Italian child. In addition, when he was over 80, Dewey and his second wife, Roberta Lowitz Grant, adopted two Belgian children orphaned in World War II. Max Eastman, a student and friend of Dewey, wrote, “As a logician, Dewey is at his best with one child climbing up his pants leg and another fishing in his inkwell.” The constant presence of the children “kept the problems of philosophy thoroughly mixed up in his mind with the problems of education.”


Dewey was offered the post of chair of the Department of Philosophy at the newly founded University of Chicago in 1894. Already deeply interested in matters of education and pressed by his wile to consider inequalities in society and the plight of the disadvantaged, Dewey arrived in Chicago at a time when the city was defined by its staggering social problems. Violent strikes, scandals, exposures of fraud and abuse led high-minded reformers to seek ways to assimilate the city’s explosively growing and disparate working-class immigrant groups into a viable democratic community. Led by Jane Addams, who soon became a close friend of the Deweys, these reformers proposed novel and even revolutionary changes to public institutions, including the public schools. (In recognition of Addams’ importance to their family, the Deweys named their youngest child Jane after the founder of Hull House.) Contact with these reformers and their vision of what society should be led Dewey to a new faith in democracy, which he said is “more than a form of government”; it is “a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.” As his friend Max Eastman wrote, “It was not God but man that Dewey was worried about.”

Charged with building up the Department of Philosophy into a first-class research and teaching facility, Dewey immediately strengthened the teaching staff and added courses in the fields of psychology and pedagogy–the latter subject soon spinning off into a separate department with Dewey chairing it as well. He argued that the study of pedagogy ought to be conducted scientifically, with opportunities to develop experiments that test hypotheses about teaching; and he persuaded the president and board of trustees to establish an educational laboratory, a school in which faculty and graduate students could test their theories and prove the validity of new ideas about education.

For Dewey, however, the school was more than a laboratory for research on pedagogy. In Democracy and Education (1916), his most extended work on education, he wrote, “Education is the laboratory in which philosophic distinctions become concrete and are tested” and “philosophy is the theory of education as a deliberately conducted practice.” Dewey conceived of the lab school as an experiment for testing the hypotheses underlying his entire philosophy.

To translate his philosophical abstractions into “deliberately conducted practice” in the classrooms of the new school, Dewey relied on the advice of others, particularly that of his wife. According to Max Eastman, Alice Dewey translated her husband’s abstract notions into plans for action, while his own children and the other students in the school acted as a check on unrealistic theories.

Dewey would never have started a Dewey School if it hadn’t been for Alice

Chipman [Dewey]. Dewey never did anything except to think–at least it

often looked that way to Alice–unless he got kicked into it. Nothing

seemed important to him except thinking…. Ideas were real objects to him,

and they were the only objects that engaged his passionate interest. If he

got hold of a new idea, he would sneak around the house with it like a dog

with a bone, glancing up with half an eye at the unavoidable human beings

and their chatter….

Mrs. Dewey would grab Dewey’s ideas–and grab him–and insist that

something be done. She had herself a brilliant mind and a far better gift

of expression than his. And she was a zealot. She was on fire to reform

people as well as ideas…. Dewey’s view of his wife’s influence was that

she put “guts and stuffing” into what had been with him mere intellectual


Ella Flagg Young, whom Dewey hired to teach in the Department of Pedagogy in 1900, was an equally important influence on his developing ideas. She was then 55 years old with more than 25 years of experience as a teacher and administrator of the Chicago school system and had been a district superintendent since 1887. Dewey regarded her as “the wisest person about actual schools I ever saw.” Late in his life he said, “I would come over to her with these abstract ideas of mine, and she would tell me what they meant.”

The University Elementary School (soon referred to as “the Dewey School” or “the lab school”) opened in January 1896. Six years later, its enrollment had grown to 140 with a staff of 23, plus graduate assistants. While some may have been shocked by the idea of enlisting children as laboratory animals and experimenting with their development, enough colleagues and supporters of Dewey provided pupils and financial backing to permit the school to flourish and attract national attention.

The educational philosophy of the school was rooted in key premises of Dewey’s philosophy and psychology. Primary among his contentions was the belief that a school is a microcosm of society, and that the process of education is, or should be, simply a more controlled version of the process of growth in society that all humans have always experienced. We grow when we confront the need to overcome an obstacle or solve a problem to achieve something we want or need. We observe, try out possible solutions, and learn from the results of each attempt to deal with our environments, and we never engage in these activities in isolation. As humans, we live in communities, and all our actions affect others, even as their actions affect us. (See “The Moral Training Given by the School Community,” beginning on page 7.)

According to Dewey and his followers, the schools’ first responsibility was to enlist the natural curiosity and activity of the child and direct these toward the investigation of matters of interest. Teachers, like the parents on whom their role is modeled, furnish children with “appropriate opportunities and conditions” for learning and expression, which lead to further investigation and inquiry. All activities occur in a social context, that of the shared experience of the school community, where children receive the stimulus and experience for the fullest social and moral development. Students’ progress is measured by their ability, not to repackage bundles of facts, but to demonstrate their capacity for meeting new situations intelligently and to express and share their experiences.

For Dewey, the challenge of the Laboratory School was “to discover in administration, selection of subject-matter, methods of learning, teaching, and discipline, how a school could become a cooperative community while developing in individuals their own capacities and satisfying their own needs.” Under the leadership of Alice Dewey, Ella Flagg Young, and other colleagues, the staff developed a curriculum grounded in what Dewey referred to as “occupations.” Activities such as cooking, weaving, sewing, carpentry, and metalwork led to investigation of the historical and social contexts of such activities and thence to the study of science, history, geography, and a broad range of human cultures.

A contemporary visitor described the school in 1900:

I found my way to the kitchen…. Each child had cooked one third of a cup

of flaked wheat in two thirds of a cup of water. Each had calculated how

much water he would need if he cooked half a cup…. One child was making

cocoa for all; another was making out a tabular statement showing the

proportion of water needed for each of the various preparations of wheat,

oats, and corn they had studied.

I thought how Fred [the Dewey’s oldest son] worried over his fractions, and

here were children two years younger [probably about eight years old]

working out the number of cupfuls of water and cereal that would be needed

for a family of three, five, or eight….

The teacher told me that after they had used various weights and measures

until they were familiar with them, they arranged them in tables for

convenient reference; that after they had added by threes, fives, sevens,

etc., they arranged these in the multiplication tables.

Many observers and visitors were inspired by the obvious enthusiasm and engagement 6f the children, but others, including several teachers at the school, expressed concern about the quality of the students’ mastery of essential skills or information. C. S. Osborn, who taught math to 12-year-olds at the school in 1900, wrote, “Compared to [those in] public schools, the children of this group seem to me … more spontaneous and quicker in grasping new ideas. They also seem less skillful in the mechanical operations.” He had the children buy the textbook used in public schools and tried to get them to use it. “The children … are not easily interested, and I have spent most of the time in persuading them that it is worthwhile to separate work and play for a part of the time.” Similarly, the teacher of history to 11-year-olds found that her students were “pitifully ignorant” about the positions of the states on a U.S. map, and had her group study political geography to remedy the weakness.

But Dewey seemed serenely unconcerned by doubts about his school’s success in teaching basic skills. In 1896 he wrote, “It is one of the great mistakes of education to make reading and writing constitute the bulk of the school work the first two years.” Claiming that language is “the outgrowth of social activities” and “the means of social communication,” Dewey pointed out that traditional teaching of reading provides no stimulus for expression or communication.

When the same reading lesson is given to forty children and each one knows

that all the others know it, and all know that the teacher knows it, the

social element is effectively eliminated.

Instead, when the teaching of reading and writing is built on situations in which “each one has something individual to express, the social stimulus is an effective motive to acquisition.” (Such is the theory underlying the “whole language” system of teaching reading and writing.) Dewey conceded that his system may not initially teach children to read as fast as traditional methods, but he was confident that they will “make more progress later when the true language interest develops.”


It is a rather curious fact that a man “who never did anything except to think” 100 years ago has become so intimately associated with the success or failure of contemporary schools. After he left the University of Chicago in 1904, John Dewey was never again directly involved in the administration of a school: His classes and lectures at Columbia, however, especially in the University’s Teachers College, affected generations of educators, and he continued to write about issues involving education and society throughout his active and retirement years. He traveled continuously, as countries as various as China, the U.S.S.R., and Turkey requested his expertise in creating a national system of education and a trained teacher corps.

In spite of Dewey’s lifelong involvement, progressive education, long associated with his name, would probably have followed much the same trajectory through the past century whether or not he had ever written a word about education. Most of the specific classroom practices espoused in the Dewey School had already been introduced by various educational reformers. By presenting these innovations as expressions of a new psychology and philosophy, however, and by incorporating them into his highly visible school, Dewey gave them significant currency and legitimacy. Enthusiastic supporters failed to note the irony that teaching strategies originally developed to bring effective education to the children of the working-class masses were being tested in a school enrolling the children of college professors and affluent and educated liberals.

Dewey published Democracy and Education in 1916, and the economic boom of the 1920s led to renewed interest in his ideas. Ideas about social adjustment and community life, child-centeredness, individual expression, and creativity attracted educated families. Universities established laboratory schools, and parents in suburbs such as Winnetka, Illinois, organized public high schools on progressive principles. The Progressive Education Association was founded in 1919. In the `30s, the Depression and fears of social unrest fomented by socialistic political theories tainted progressive education with charges of anarchic, undisciplined schooling. Later, with the launching of Sputnik, some Cold War ideologues charged that the “softness” of subject matter in progressive American schools accounted for the Soviet Union’s superior achievement in space.

During volatile changes in the nature and reputation of progressive education, John Dewey remained the movement’s icon and chief prophet, issuing frequent clarifications of his precepts or dissociating himself from practices that seemed to him extreme or misguided. In the 1930s, he criticized many practitioners for developing programs reflecting their “enthusiasm much more than their understanding.” Some teachers, he charged, carried “freedom nearly to the point of anarchy” and allowed students “unrestrained freedom of action and speech, of manners and lack of manners.” Instead, teachers should understand that education is “intelligently directed development of the possibilities inherent in ordinary experience.” They need to understand the role of each experience in the growth and development of the individual. Then they can guide their students to achieve the maximum possible intellectual, social, and moral development. In spite of his disclaimers, progressive education continues to be attacked for lack of rigor and discipline.


The excesses of progressive education, and the misunderstanding of Dewey’s philosophy that gave rise to them, sprang in part from the difficulty of reconciling the two central precepts of his educational theory: on the one hand, education should promote the growth and development of an individual’s potential; on the other hand, education should mirror and nurture the values of the democratic society in which it operates.

In general, growing understanding of human psychology has tended to vindicate most of Dewey’s contentions about development and learning. Educators accept that learning begins with the child’s active involvement in the subject matter; that knowledge is constantly being constructed, modified by experience, and then reconstructed; and that humans, as social beings, learn better in response to the demands of cooperation than in isolation.

Dewey’s insistence that education in a democracy should reflect the highest aims of human society, the common interests of all without regard to differences of “class, race, or national territory,” has been much harder to incorporate in practice:

School facilities must be secured of such amplitude and efficiency as will

in fact and not simply in name discount the effects of economic

inequalities, and secure to all the wards of the nation equality of

equipment for their future careers.

To provide such facilities, he admitted, may even require “supplementation of family resources” and “modification of traditional ideals of culture, traditional subjects of study and traditional methods of teaching and discipline.” Furthermore, schools should be prepared to “retain all youth … until they are equipped to be masters of their own economic and social careers.”

Although Dewey may never have envisioned the bitterness of the culture wars that threaten to paralyze education and, indeed, much of our nation’s communal life today, he was sufficiently realistic to understand that his vision would be hard to achieve. “This ideal,” he wrote, “may seem remote of execution.”

Max Eastman’s sketch, “John Dewey: My Teacher and Friend,” was published in his collection, Great Companions: Memoirs of Some Famous Friends (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Cudahy, 1942), pp. 249-298. The major critical biography of Dewey is George Dykhuisen’s The Life and Mind of John Dewey (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1973).


from Moral Principles in Education (1909) by John Dewey (1859-1952)

… The moral responsibility of the school, and of those who conduct it, is to society. The school is fundamentally an institution erected by society to do a certain specific work,–to exercise a certain specific function in maintaining the life and advancing the welfare of society. The educational system which does not recognize that this fact entails upon it an ethical responsibility is derelict and a defaulter. It is not doing what it was called into existence to do, and what it pretends to do. Hence the entire structure of the school in general and its concrete workings in particular need to be considered from time to time with reference to the social position and function of the school.

The idea that the moral work and worth of the public-school system as a whole are to be measured by its social value is, indeed, a familiar notion. However, it is frequently taken in too limited and rigid a way. The social work of the school is often limited to training for citizenship, and citizenship is then interpreted in a narrow sense as meaning capacity to vote intelligently, disposition to obey laws, etc. But it is futile to contract and cramp the ethical responsibility of the school in this way. The child is one, and he must either live his social life as an integral unified being, or suffer loss and create friction….

To isolate the formal relationship of citizenship from the whole system of relations with which it is actually interwoven; to suppose that there is some one particular study or mode of treatment which can make the child a good citizen; to suppose, in other words, that a good citizen is anything more than a thoroughly efficient and serviceable member of society, one with all his powers of body and mind under control, is a hampering superstition which it is hoped may soon disappear from educational discussion.

The child is to be not only a voter and a subject of law; he is also to be a member of a family, himself in turn responsible, in all probability, for rearing and training of future children, thereby maintaining the continuity of society. He is to be a worker, engaged in some occupation which will be of use to society, and which will maintain his own independence and self-respect. He is to be a member of some particular neighborhood and community, and must contribute to the values of life, add to the decencies and graces of civilization wherever he is. These are bare and formal statements, but if we let our imaginations translate them into their concrete details, we have a wide and varied scene. For the child properly to take his place in reference to these various functions means training in science, in art, in history; means command of the fundamental methods of inquiry and the fundamental tools of intercourse and communication; means a trained and sound body, skillful eye and hand; means habits of industry, perseverance; in short, habits of serviceableness.

Moreover, the society of which the child is to be a member is, in the United States, a democratic and progressive society. The child must be educated for leadership as well as for obedience. He must have power of self-direction and power of directing others, power of administration, ability to assume positions of responsibility. This necessity of educating for leadership is as great on the industrial as on the political side.

New inventions, new machines, new methods of transportation and intercourse are making over the whole scene of action year by year. It is an absolute impossibility to educate the child for any fixed station in life. So far as education is conducted unconsciously or consciously on this basis, it results in fitting the future citizen for no station in life, but makes him a drone, a hanger-on, or an actual retarding influence in the onward movement. Instead of caring for himself and for others, he becomes one who has himself to be cared for. Here, too, the ethical responsibility of the school on the social side must be interpreted in the broadest and freest spirit; it is equivalent to that training of the child which will give him such possession of himself that he may take charge of himself; may not only adapt himself to the changes that are going on, but have power to shape and direct them.

Apart from participation in social life, the school has no moral end nor aim. As long as we confine ourselves to the school as an isolated institution, we have no directing principles, because we have no object …

The much lamented separation in the schools of intellectual and moral training, of acquiring information and growing in character, is simply one expression of the failure to conceive and construct the school as a social institution, having social life and value within itself. Except so far as the school is an embryonic typical community life, moral training must be partly pathological and partly formal. Training is pathological when stress is laid upon correcting wrong-doing instead of upon forming habits of positive service. Too often the teacher’s concern with the moral life of pupils takes the form of alertness for failures to conform to school rules and routine. These regulations, judged from the standpoint of the development of the child at the time, are more or less conventional and arbitrary. They are rules which have to be made in order that the existing modes of school work may go on; but the lack of inherent necessity in these school modes reflects itself in a feeling, on the part of the child, that the moral discipline of the school is arbitrary ought to be an incident rather than a principle. The child ought to have a positive consciousness of what he is about, so as to judge his acts from the standpoint of reference to the work which he has to do. Only in this way does he have a vital standard, one that enables him to turn failures to account for the future.

By saying that the moral training of the school is formal, I mean that the moral habits currently emphasized by the school are habits which are created, as it were, ad hoc. Even the habits of promptness, regularity, industry, non-interference with the work of others, faithfulness to tasks imposed, which are specially inculcated in the school, are habits that are necessary simply because the school system is what it is, and must be preserved intact. If we grant the inviolability of the school system as it is, these habits represent permanent and necessary moral ideas; but just in so far as the school system is itself isolated and mechanical, insistence upon these moral habits is more or less unreal, because the ideal to which they relate is not itself necessary. The duties, in other words, are distinctly school duties, not life duties. If we compare this condition with that of the well-ordered home, we find that the duties and responsibilities that the child has there to recognize do not belong to the family as a specialized and isolated institution, but flow from the very nature of the social life in which the family participates and to which it contributes. The child ought to have the same motives for right doing and to be judged by the same standards in the school, as the adult in the wider social life to which he belongs. Interest in community welfare, an interest that is intellectual and practical, as well as emotional–an interest, that is to say, in perceiving whatever makes for social order and progress, and in carrying these principles into execution–is the moral habit to which all the special school habits must be related if they are to be animated by the breath of life.

Adapted with permission from The Essential Dewy, Vol. 1: Pragmatism, Education, Democracy, edited by Larry A. Hickman and Thomas M. Alexander; published by Indiana University Press (1998). The Essential Dewey, Vol. 2: Ethics, Logic, Psychology, edited by Hickman and Alexander, was also published by IU Press in 1998. Order by calling 800-842-6796 or by email, iuporder@indiana.edu.

Sybil Eakin, Contibuting Editor of TECHNOS Quarterly, is a freelance writer/editor living in Bloomington, Indiana, who specializes in education. Her profile of Horace Mann was published in the Summer 2000 issue of TECHNOS.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Agency for Instructional Technology

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group