John Dewey (1859-1952): Philosopher, Social Reformer and Educator

John Dewey (1859 - 1952)

John Dewey (1859 – 1952)
Photo: Library of Congress
Digital ID cph 3a51565


Introduction: John Dewey was the most significant educational thinker of his era and, many would argue, of the 20th century. As a philosopher, social reformer and educator, he changed fundamental approaches to teaching and learning. His ideas about education sprang from a philosophy of pragmatism and were central to the Progressive Movement in schooling. In light of his importance, it is ironic that many of his theories have been relatively poorly understood and haphazardly applied over the past hundred years.

Dewey’s concept of education put a premium on meaningful activity in learning and participation in classroom democracy. Unlike earlier models of teaching, which relied on authoritarianism and rote learning, progressive education asserted that students must be invested in what they were learning. Dewey argued that curriculum should be relevant to students’ lives. He saw learning by doing and development of practical life skills as crucial to children’s education. Some critics assumed that, under Dewey’s system, students would fail to acquire basic academic skills and knowledge. Others believed that classroom order and the teacher’s authority would disappear.

To Dewey, the central ethical imperative in education was democracy. Every school, as he wrote in The School and Society, must become “an embryonic community life, active with types of occupations that reflect the life of the larger society and permeated throughout with the spirit of art, history and science. When the school introduces and trains each child of society into membership within such a little community, saturating him with the spirit of service, and providing him with instruments of effective self-direction, we shall have the deepest and best guarantee of a larger society which is worthy, lovely and harmonious.”  (Source: NPR Only a Teacher (Accessed: 10/7/2015).

Early Years and Education: John Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont on October 20, 1859. His father was Archibald Sprague Dewey. Archibald was a Vermont Farm boy that owned a grocery store. Dewey’s mother was Lucina Rich Dewey whom came from a well to do family. Her grandfather and father were politicians that each held government posts for several years. All of her brothers were college graduates, and because of her up bringing she was a firm believer that her sons must complete their schooling though to the college level. There were four children in the Dewey family, which were all boys. John was the third child and was named after his oldest brother John Archibald, who had enlisted and served throughout the Civil War and died from severe burns nine months before John was born. John only took the first name because the middle name Archibald was never given to him.

John’s mother Lucina was a very strict, religious woman. She was adamant about all of her sons being right with God and getting their education. John and his brothers attended public schools in Vermont. At the age of fifthteen he graduated from high school and went to the University of Vermont. He attended the university for four years along with his brothers. At the university Dewey read the works of Charles Darwin which had a great influence in Dewey’s life works. He graduated in 1879 with a major in philosophy. The late summer after graduation went to work with a relative in Oil City, Pennsylvania as a high school teacher. He taught in Oil City for two years. In the spring of 1881 during his last year teaching in Oil City he wrote a paper entitled The Metaphysical Assumptions of Materialism. He sent this paper to the editor of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy and returned to Burlington, Vermont and to teach at a high school near his home. He also studied a year privately with his former instructor Henry A.P. Torrey. While in Burlington his paper was published.

In September 1882 Dewey enrolled at the Johns Hopkins University. He applied for a fellowship, but did not get accepted and had to borrow five hundred dollars from his aunt to pay his tuition. At the university he studied under George Sylvester Morris, who taught philosophy, and Granville Stanley Hall, who taught psychology. During his last year there, he published his fifth paper, The New Psychology. He received doctorate shortly after he delivered his paper in 1884 and took a position at the University of Michigan. There he taught psychology classes. Between teaching classes he wrote Applied Psychology in 1886. This book was to be used as a school textbook. These facts were taken from the book Young John Dewey. During this same year he married his first wife Alice Chipman. The couple had six children with only four surviving into adulthood. They had been married forty-one years when she passed away in 1927.

Teaching Career: In 1888, John went to the University of Minnesota to be a philosophy professor. He taught there for only a year when George Sylvester Morris died at the University of Michigan. Dewey was asked to come back to the University of Michigan to fill Morris’s place. The fall of 1889 John went back to Michigan to be the head in the philosophy department. Dewey taught there until 1894 (Coughlan, 1975).

During his last years at the University of Michigan Dewey was making light of the way experimental science and learning goes hand and hand. John went to the University of Chicago in 1894. Dewey started his “Laboratory School” also known as the “Dewey School” in 1886. This developed the school of thought, called pragmatism. Pragmatism means that in school the curriculum should be based on everyday life and combined it with lessons. During this same year John wrote the “Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology”. This paper illustrated how the environment effects learning based on natural selection. John’s wife Alice was the principle in the Dewey School.


Time magazine cover June 4, 1928
Photo: Public Domain

Dewey had a fight with William Rainy Harper, the president of the University of Chicago, about how the laboratory should be run. Dewey was forced to resign in 1904. At this point in time he was well known and a new offer for a position came fast. Columbia University hired him and this is where Dewey spent the rest of his teaching career. he retired in 1931.

He continued to work after retirement, attempting to analyze society and politics. He wrote The Theory of Inquiry in 1938, speculating how species learn and strive forward in the environment. John Dewey passed away in 1952.

Source: Muskingum University – Compiled by Peggy Hickman (May 2000): (Accessed: 10/6/2015).






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