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American literature



John Dewey

American philosopher and educator

born Oct. 20, 1859, Burlington, Vt., U.S.
died June 1, 1952, New York, N.Y.

American philosopher and educator who was one of the founders of the philosophical school of pragmatism, a pioneer in functional psychology, and a leader of the progressive movement in education in the United States.

Early life
The son of a grocer in Vermont, Dewey attended the public schools of Burlington and there entered the University of Vermont. After graduating from the university in 1879, Dewey taught high school for three years. In the fall of 1882 he entered Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, for advanced study in philosophy. There he came under the influence of George Sylvester Morris, who was a leading exponent of Neo-Hegelianism, a revival of the thought of the early-19th-century German philosopher Hegel. Dewey found in this philosophy, with its emphasis on the spiritual and organic nature of the universe, what he had been vaguely groping for, and he eagerly embraced it.

After being awarded the Ph.D. degree by Johns Hopkins University in 1884, Dewey, in the fall of that year, went to the University of Michigan, where, at the urging of Morris, he had been appointed an instructor in philosophy and psychology. With the exception of the academic year 1888–89, when he served as professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota, Dewey spent the next 10 years at Michigan. During this time his philosophical endeavours were devoted mainly to an intensive study of Hegel and the British Neo-Hegelians and to the new experimental physiological psychology then being advanced in the United States by G. Stanley Hall and William James.

Dewey’s interest in education began during his years at Michigan. His readings and observations revealed that most schools were proceeding along lines set by early traditions and were failing to adjust to the latest findings of child psychology and to the needs of a changing democratic social order. The search for a philosophy of education that would remedy these defects became a major concern for Dewey and added a new dimension to his thinking.

Philosophical thought
Dewey left Michigan in 1894 to become professor of philosophy and chairman of the department of philosophy, psychology, and pedagogy at the University of Chicago. Dewey’s achievements there brought him national fame. The increasing dominance of evolutionary biology and psychology in his thinking led him to abandon the Hegelian theory of ideas, which views them as somehow mirroring the rational order of the universe, and to accept instead an instrumentalist theory of knowledge, which conceives of ideas as tools or instruments in the solution of problems encountered in the environment. These same disciplines contributed somewhat later to his rejection of the Hegelian notion of an Absolute Mind manifesting itself as a rationally structured, material universe and as realizing its goals through a dialectic of ideas. Dewey found more acceptable a theory of reality holding that nature, as encountered in scientific and ordinary experience, is the ultimate reality and that man is a product of nature who finds his meaning and goals in life here and now.

Since these doctrines, which were to remain at the centre of all of Dewey’s future philosophizing, also furnished the framework in which Dewey’s colleagues in the department carried on their research, a distinct school of philosophy was in operation. This was recognized by William James in 1903, when a collection of essays written by Dewey and seven of his associates in the department, Studies in Logical Theory, appeared. James hailed the book enthusiastically and declared that with its publication a new school of philosophy, the Chicago school, had made its appearance.

Dewey’s philosophical orientation has been labeled a form of pragmatism, though Dewey himself seemed to favour the term “instrumentalism,” or “experimentalism.” William James’s The Principles of Psychology early stimulated Dewey’s rethinking of logic and ethics by directing his attention to the practical function of ideas and concepts, but Dewey and the Chicago school of pragmatists went farther than James had gone in that they conceived of ideas as instruments for transforming the uneasiness connected with the experience of having a problem into the satisfaction of some resolution or clarification of it.

Dewey’s preferred mode of inquiry was scientific investigation; he thought the experimental methods of modern science provided the most promising approach to social and ethical as well as scientific problems. He rejected the idea of a fixed and immutable moral law derivable from consideration of the essential nature of man, since such a traditional philosophical method denied the potential application and promise of newer empirical and scientific methods.

Dewey developed from these views a philosophical ground for democracy and liberalism. He conceived of democracy not as a mere form of government, but rather as a mode of association which provides the members of a society with the opportunity for maximum experimentation and personal growth. The ideal society, for Dewey, was one that provided the conditions for ever enlarging the experience of all its members.

Dewey’s contributions to psychology were also noteworthy. Many of the articles he wrote at that time are now accepted as classics in psychological literature and assure him a secure place in the history of psychology. Most significant is the essay “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology,” which is generally taken to mark the beginnings of functional psychology—i.e., one that focuses on the total organism in its endeavours to adjust to the environment.

Educational theory and practice. Dewey’s work in philosophy and psychology was largely centred in his major interest, educational reform. In formulating educational criteria and aims, he drew heavily on the insights into learning offered by contemporary psychology as applied to children. He viewed thought and learning as a process of inquiry starting from doubt or uncertainty and spurred by the desire to resolve practical frictions or relieve strain and tension. Education must therefore begin with experience, which has as its aim growth and the achievement of maturity.

Dewey’s writings on education, notably his The School and Society (1899) and The Child and the Curriculum (1902), presented and defended what were to remain the chief underlying tenets of the philosophy of education he originated. These tenets were that the educational process must begin with and build upon the interests of the child; that it must provide opportunity for the interplay of thinking and doing in the child’s classroom experience; that the teacher should be a guide and coworker with the pupils, rather than a taskmaster assigning a fixed set of lessons and recitations; and that the school’s goal is the growth of the child in all aspects of its being.

Among the results of Dewey’s administrative efforts were the establishment of an independent department of pedagogy and of the University of Chicago’s Laboratory Schools, in which the educational theories and practices suggested by psychology and philosophy could be tested. The Laboratory Schools, the original unit of which began operation in 1896, attracted wide attention and enhanced the reputation of the University of Chicago as a foremost centre of progressive educational thought. Dewey headed the Laboratory Schools from 1903 to 1904.

Dewey’s ideas and proposals strongly affected educational theory and practice in the United States. Aspects of his views were seized upon by the “progressive movement” in education, which stressed the student-centred rather than the subject-centred school, education through activity rather than through formal learning, and laboratory, workshop, or occupational education rather than the mastery of traditional subjects. But though Dewey’s own faith in progressive education never wavered, he came to realize that the zeal of his followers introduced a number of excesses and defects into progressive education. Indeed, in Experience and Education (1938) he sharply criticized educators who sought merely to interest or amuse students, disregarded organized subject matter in favour of mere activity on the part of students, and were content with mere vocational training.

During the last two decades of Dewey’s life, his philosophy of education was the target of numerous and widespread attacks. Progressive educational practices were blamed for the failure of some American school systems to train pupils adequately in the liberal arts and for their neglect of such basic subjects as mathematics and science. Furthermore, critics blamed Dewey and his progressive ideas for what the former viewed as an insufficient emphasis on discipline in the schools.

Career at Columbia University
Disagreements between President William Rainey Harper of the University of Chicago and Dewey led, in 1904, to Dewey’s resignation of his posts and to his acceptance of a professorship of philosophy at Columbia University in New York City. Dewey was associated with Columbia for 47 years, first as professor and then as professor emeritus of philosophy. During his 25 years of active teaching, his fame and the significance of what he had to say attracted thousands of students from home and abroad to his classes, and he became one of the most widely known and influential teachers in America. Dewey’s influence extended even further after he taught and lectured in countries such as Japan (1919), China (1919–21), Turkey (1924), Mexico (1926), and the Soviet Union (1928).

Dewey’s scholarly output at Columbia was enormous; one bibliography devotes approximately 125 pages to listing the titles of his publications during these years. His thought covered a wide range of topics, including logic and theory of knowledge, psychology, education, social philosophy, fine arts, and religion. Major works dealing with each of these fields appeared over the years and clearly established Dewey as the foremost philosopher in America and as one of the nation’s most productive scholars. His Experience and Nature, published in 1925, brings together in a systematic way the more important aspects of his philosophy and is generally regarded as his magnum opus.

His interest in current affairs prompted Dewey to contribute regularly to liberal periodicals, especially The New Republic. His articles focused on domestic, foreign, and international developments and were designed to reach a wide reading public. Because of his skill in analyzing and interpreting events, he soon was rated as among the best of American commentators and social critics.

Dewey also gave his time and energy to the support of organizations and causes in which he believed. In 1895 he was a founding member of the National Herbart Society (renamed the National Society for the Study of Education in 1902), and he served two terms as chairman (1903–05) of the National Society of College Teachers of Education, which he had helped establish in 1902. Dewey became one of the founders and the first president of the American Association of University Professors in 1915, and the next year he became a charter member of the first teachers’ union in New York City. He helped found the New School for Social Research in 1919 and the University-in-Exile in 1933, established for scholars being persecuted in countries under totalitarian regimes. In 1937, at age 78, he headed a commission of inquiry that went to Mexico City to hear Leon Trotsky’s rebuttal of the charges made against him in the Moscow show trials of 1936 and 1937.

Dewey retired from the Columbia faculty in 1930, after which he concentrated on public affairs while continuing to write. Among his books on psychology and philosophy are Psychology (1887), Ethics (cowritten with James Tufts; 1908), Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920), Human Nature and Conduct (1922), The Quest for Certainty (1929), Art as Experience (1934), Logic, the Theory of Inquiry (1938), and Freedom and Culture (1939). His chief later writings on education are Democracy and Education (1916) and Experience and Education (1938).

George Dykhuizen
Clarence Henry Faust




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