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

“If we are willing to conceive education as the process of forming fundamental dispositions, intellectual and emotional, toward nature and fellow men, philosophy may even be defined as the general theory of education.”  – John Dewey (Shook & Kurtz, 2011).

John Dewey
Photo: Library of Congress
Digital ID cph 3a51565

John Dewey was an American philosopher and educator. He founded the philosophical movement called pragmatism, was a pioneer in the field of functional psychology, and was a leader in the progressive movement in education in the United States (Gouinlock, n.d.). Dewey’s work is considered to be the pinnacle of American philosophical tradition (Gavin, 2003).

Dewey grew up in Burlington, VT. He pursued undergraduate studies at the University of Vermont and then received a doctorate in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University. Upon graduating in 1884, Dewey began teaching both philosophy and psychology at the University of Michigan. There, he became interested in the teachings of G. Stanley Hall and William James, proponents of experimental psychology and pragmatist philosophy. Dewey pursued further study in child psychology, leading him to develop his own philosophy of education to meet the needs of America’s evolving democratic society. In 1894, Dewey joined the philosophy department at the University of Chicago where he continued to refine his pedagogy. In 1904, Dewey transferred to Columbia University, and there he wrote his most famous work, Experience and Nature in 1925. Subsequent writings focused on aesthetics, politics, and religion (Gouinlock, n.d.).

Dewey fundamentally believed that a democratic society would best succeed and serve human interests when inhabited by well-informed, engaged, and curious citizens. Dewey rejected dualism between being and experience, criticizing the foundational Western philosophical belief that true, fully real or knowable beings are changeless, perfect, and eternal. Rather, Dewey asserted that all things are subject to and undergo change. Thus, beings should learn to live well and cope with change, rather than reject it. This version of pragmatism, or as Dewey called it, “instrumentalism,” demonstrates that learning and knowledge comes from discerning correlations between events or processes of change. Therefore, Dewey regarded democracy as a moral framework; Dewey viewed democracy as active social planning and collective action to guide social institutions to promote human flourishing. Unlike other moral frameworks, such as religion, Dewey believed that democracy’s inherent fallibility and experimental nature would promote individuals’ commitment to cooperative action and experimental inquiry (Gouinlock, n.d.). Humans, as problem solvers, should work together in a democracy to solve common problems, even without guarantees of success (Campbell, 1995).  

This work may also be read through the Internet Archive.

Further reading:

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: John Dewey

References: 

Campbell, J. (1995). Understanding John Dewey: Nature and cooperative intelligence. Chicago, IL: Open Court.

Gavin, W. J. (2003). In Dewey’s wake. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Gouinlock, J. S. (n.d.). John Dewey: American philosopher and educator. In Encyclopedia Britannica online. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Dewey

Shook, J. R. & Kurtz, P. (2011). Dewey’s enduring impact. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Social Welfare History Project (2017). Dewey, John (1859 – 1952): Educator, social reformer, philosopher. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/programs/education/dewey-john-1859-…rmer-philosopher/

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