The Forgotten Philosopher: A Look at John Dewey

Posted Oct 19, 2002
Last Updated Oct 26, 2011

One of the greatest minds in history is fading away. The man who owned this mind died in 1952 at the age of ninety-two. A philosopher, his concern was democracy and its ideals, and no small portion of his thinking went to the problems of education. In his time he was among the most prominent voices in America, commanding the admiration of those who agreed with his views, and respect for his mind even from those who were of different persuasions; now, he seems to be only a footnote, a name in history classes. His books are not read much anymore, his ideas slowly erode from memory. The man: John Dewey, the last great American philosopher.

There is a saying that advises us to let the dead bury the dead. Dewey used this phrase himself in one of his books. So why worry about him? Why fuss over the fact that people are forgetting John Dewey? Whenever someone admonishes us to dust off some book and read it, we usually know that the person admonishing us is paranoid and eccentric. What good would it do any of us to read his work?

Among educators Dewey is not altogether forgotten. Some still view his ideas as revolutionary and visionary; others view him as a culprit behind many educational problems that have gripped our nation for decades. But an ironic fate has befallen the philosophy of the man who has been labeled one of the most significant American thinkers since Thomas Jefferson. His ideas seem to be misunderstood by so many people, even intellectuals who have read his works. True, educators have not completely forgotten his name, but few know more than that; his philosophy is unknown despite his reputation in the field. Those who blame him for ruining education often blame him for ideas that never were Dewey’s: many times these critics accuse him of holding ideas that Dewey was adamantly opposed to. At other times, people who seem to hold views that are strongly Deweyan indict Dewey. It is obvious from these circumstances that educators have heard about Dewey, but they have never encountered Dewey’s work first-hand.

Much of the problem here can be attributed to Dewey himself: his literary style was often dry at best. No doubt many people have begun to read Dewey’s books only to be discouraged by his style. Oliver Wendell Holmes said that Dewey wrote as "God would have spoken had He been inarticulate but keenly desirous to tell you how it was” (JDAD, 341). Bertrand Russell told Max Eastman that he found Dewey to be "such a dull writah” (BRL, 436).

Perhaps this is too much emphasis on Dewey’s style, for most philosophical writers fail to accommodate the half-hearted reader. The point is that Dewey was a philosopher "for the people” who communicated in a fashion not suited for the people in general. Perhaps it was inevitable for his writings to become obscure: the common man does not have the desire to delve into difficult and obscure philosophical texts, even though those texts were intended for his benefit. Those who do read philosophical texts tend to read traditional philosophy, which Dewey’s was definitely not. One critic of Dewey "took comfort in the fact that Dewey’s book [Democracy and Education] would be "greatly handicapt” because it was too hard for the average educator to read” (JDAD, 182).

This makes the question of whether we should read Dewey’s books more interesting. If Dewey’s books really were so dull and technical, what reward would readers gain from his works? Another question to ask is why Dewey was so highly esteemed in his time if his mode of communication really was difficult?

The first question is easily answered: there is no inherent relationship between good ideas and divine portrayal of those ideas. It would be rash to assume that dry literature has nothing valuable to offer, and that eloquence necessarily entails wisdom. The bias against writing such as Dewey’s is that we would rather read something easy and pleasing. Dewey’s books are not the easiest books to read, and pleasure obtained from them is likely to be more intellectual than exciting, which turns away most readers.

Dewey was more admired in his time because he was a living member of society who was a critic of the nation as it was then. He was probably respected because his philosophical views were great enough to overcome his unexciting exposure of his mind. Also to his aid in his day was the fact that most intellectual work was dry, though seldom as intellectually taxing as Dewey. Needless to say, this style is no longer the intellectual standard, and little patience is spared for him to speak to us from his grave.

Dewey’s educational philosophy is still revolutionary, despite the claims of people such as E. D. Hirsch, Jr. and Allan Bloom who blame it for the problems in current education. When they claim that Dewey’s educational philosophy has had the most influence on education in America, they expose the fact that they do not understand Dewey’s philosophy. Anyone who does become intimate with Dewey’s work will realize how little his ideas are integrated into American education. Dewey’s ideas are just as radical today as they were in his lifetime; they are ignored now as much, if not more, than fifty years ago. What is worse about the light thrown on John Dewey decades after his death is that his critics, which seem to know so little about him, have become popular—Hirsch, Jr. and Bloom both had national bestsellers that misinformed any of the thousands of readers that uncritically read their books.

In a nutshell, Dewey’s pedagogy was one with three distinctive traits: it was democratic in that it called for pluralism. It was a disciple of the scientific method in that it was a systemic approach at solving problems and forming judgments, both practical and moral. It prized directed experience as an ongoing process of means as ends and ends as means. These three traits of Dewey’s philosophy are tied to all that he wrote and thought, though his critics do not deal with these aspects so much as his leanings towards the political left.

Democracy

Dewey felt that democracy was the ideal social structure, the one best suited to the needs and aims of all people; under no other political scheme was it possible for general citizens to have allowance and responsibility to grow individually and culturally. All other systems hindered personal and social growth in Dewey’s scheme. Any form of despotic state used fear to such an extent that it became one of the only factors that kept the state in union, and the other factors that would naturally cause people to work together in their social environments were perverted and wasted. "Instead of operating on their own account they are reduced to mere servants of attaining pleasure and avoiding pain” (DE, 84).

The cultural paralysis was seen in the fact that "there is no free play back and forth among the members of the social group. Stimulation and response are exceedingly one-sided.” Both the rich and poor suffer: the poor in that they have little involvement in the courses taken in their lives; the rich in that their "culture becomes sterile” (DE, 84).

Dewey asserted that "democracy has always been allied with humanism, with faith in the potentials of human nature” and that "democracy means the belief that humanistic culture should prevail.” He advised that democracy is not something that will necessarily happen if "human nature is left to itself, when freed from external arbitrary restriction” (FC, 97). Democracy, for Dewey, was a moral issue that required efforts born in democratic vision. Democracy was Dewey’s tool of progress. But Dewey also saw that democracy did not guarantee progress.

The imperative of democracy in education was obvious from Dewey’s point of view: if a democratic society wants to train its children the ways of democracy, schools would need to incorporate democratic methods into their systems. For Dewey, schools were responsible for developing democratic dispositions and tools: acute social awareness; critical assessments of existing social institutions; skepticism; voluntary cooperation. In the end, the best tool for democracy, which was highly democratic in Dewey’s view, was the scientific method. Dewey saw in democracy, aided with these tools of enlightenment, the social structure most capable of growing, progressing, in an ethical and humane way. He wrote, "As a society becomes more enlightened, it realizes that it is responsible not to transmit and conserve the whole of its existing achievements, but only such as make for a better future society. The school is the chief agency for the accomplishment of this end” (DE, 20). The school was for much of Dewey’s life the primary source of progress in a dynamic democracy.

The Scientific Method

Because Dewey’s faith in democracy was so strong, and because he was not so optimistic to think that people would always and naturally make good decisions, he was compelled to put education high on his list of social priorities. Like Jefferson, Dewey felt that it was essential that the public be enlightened with knowledge; moreover, Dewey laid more emphasis on judgment than the "mere” accumulation of facts: people were to have the best method of forming good judgments. That method was the scientific method.

Pointing out that "emotions and imagination are more potent in shaping public sentiment and opinion than information and reason” (FC, 16), Dewey argued that democracy needs a public that is able to make decisions rationally. Since "credulity is natural” (DE, 188), leading to dogmatism which is antagonistic to democracy, a system to counter-act the tendency was needed. The scientific method, the most efficient and effective way to form accurate approximations at truth, was the perfect tool.

Dewey defined the scientific method as a systemic approach at forming hypothesis about our world or forming judgments for making decisions to solve problems. Broken down, the method involves (i) a problem or difficulty which is presented to a person; (ii) imaginative and tentative ideas concerning actions and meanings that could solve the difficulty. These ideas are procured from past experiences similar to the current situation, or from reasonable guesses; (iii) experimentation with ideas upon the situation; (iv) reflection and evaluation. The results are judged, meaning is gained, and the process repeats and continues until a working solution is found.

Understanding this method gives Dewey’s conception of democracy potency. Dewey saw this method as the way for individuals to empower themselves and society to progress. With the powerful objective nature of this method, useless and harmful institutions and ideas could be discarded from a society. "Education has accordingly not only to safeguard an individual against the besetting erroneous tendencies of his own mind—its rashness, presumption and preference with what chimes with self-interest to objective evidence—but also to undermine and destroy the accumulated and self-perpetuating prejudices of long ages” (HWT, 25).

Again, "At present, the work of teaching must not only transform natural tendencies into trained habits of thought, but must also fortify the mind against irrational tendencies current in the social environment, and help displace erroneous habits already produced” (HWT, 26). One of those social habits that Dewey wanted to destroy was the long-standing habit of dividing the world into two realms of Mind and Matter, Body and Spirit. He saw this as a useless by-product of irrational philosophical tradition that permeated most thought. Dewey wanted to discard it for something less dichotomous: those who worshipped Mind over Matter were just as flawed as those who put Matter over Mind were. The scientific method fit perfectly into Dewey’s conception: it used the mind when problems were encountered and thought was used to find a solution; it used the body and world to experiment upon the ideas produced by the mind. The mind, Dewey argued, is not a separate realm from the body or physical world, but an organic part of the world.

Ends as Means

A by-product of the pre-scientific philosophical habit of dividing the world into Mind and Matter was the tendency to glorify the End over the Means used to get there. But by doing so, philosophers and people in general were blind to the continuity between the two—there is no essential difference between the two unless there really is a distinction between our world of Matter and some other world called Spirit which is somehow more real. Since Dewey saw no distinction—our world is definitely real—he found ends and means to be of the same nature.

If some end is sought, certain means are employed to reach that end. What Dewey asked was what reasons do we have to reach some end? Say that a student wants to know German. The end in view is the knowledge of the German language. But why would a person want to know the German language? Dewey argued that learning this would be fruitless unless one’s intent was to reach the end in order to use it to go further towards more ends. The student learns the German language in order to read German texts and talk to Germans. So the end lost its position as an "end” and became a point of transition. It became means.

Dewey wrote: "In contrast with fulfilling some process in order that activity may go on, stands the static character of an end which is imposed from without the activity. It is always conceived of as fixed; it is something to be obtained and possessed. When one has such a notion, activity is a mere unavoidable means to something else; it is not significant or important on its own account. As compared with the end it is but a necessary evil; something which must be gone through before one can reach the object which is alone worth while. In other words, the external idea of the aim leads to a separation of means from end, while an end which grows up within an activity as plan for its direction is always both ends and means, the distinction being only one of convenience. Every means is a temporary end until we have attained it. Every end becomes a means of carrying activity further as soon as it is achieved. We call it end when it marks off the future direction of the activity in which we are engaged; means when it marks off the present direction. Every divorce of end from means diminishes by that much the significance of the activity and tends to reduce it to a drudgery from which one would escape if he could” (DE, 105-106).

The implications for education were far-reaching. Subjects and facts could not be forced on students in a way that alienated the topics from their meanings. A teacher could not implore his students to study history because history was in itself ultimately important: a teacher had to show what the study of history did to empower and broaden a student’s mind and activities.

A modern critic of American education and politics is the late Allan Bloom. He criticized Dewey’s conception of education, but it is obvious that he did not understand Dewey’s intent. Bloom wrote that "Dewey’s pragmatism—the method of science as a method of democracy, individual growth without limits, especially natural limits—saw the past as radically imperfect and regarded our history as irrelevant or as a hindrance to rational analysis of our present” (Bloom, 56). Such a statement is pure baloney. Dewey wrote, "Policies framed simply on the ground of knowledge of the present cut off from the past is the counterpart of heedless carelessness in individual conduct. The way out of scholastic systems that made the past an end in itself is to make acquaintance with the past as a means of understanding the present. Until this problem is worked out, the present clash of educational ideas and practices will continue. On the one hand, there will be reactionaries that claim that the main, if not the sole, business of education is transmission of cultural heritage. On the other hand, there will be those who hold that we should ignore the past and deal only with the present and future” (EE, 78).

Another critic of American education who criticizes Dewey is E. D. Hirsch, Jr. His claim is that there is a certain set of factual information that every American needs to know. In the back of his book Cultural Literacy is a list of "What Literate Americans Know.” He begins his book by attacking Dewey as the most influential and damaging factor in American education. Hirsch asserts that because Dewey emphasized direct experience and not, in Dewey’s words, "the piling up of information,” Dewey was misled. Hirsch tied Dewey to Rousseau, implying that Dewey was an adherent of the French philosopher’s ideas: namely, that Dewey was against adult participation in the education of the young. Hirsch accuses Dewey of creating a form of educational anarchy, of leaving children’s education to themselves; of keeping knowledge away from education. But such an implication is false and misleading.

Dewey wrote: "Just as, upon the whole, it was the weakness of the "old education” that it made invidious comparison between the immaturity of the child and the maturity of the adult, regarding the former as something to be got away from as soon as possible and as much as possible; so it is the danger of the "new education” that it regard the child’s present powers and interests as something finally significant in themselves” (SSCC, 193). Dewey was against leaving a child to himself: "the question of education is the question of taking hold of his activities, of giving them direction. Through direction, through organized use, they tend toward valuable results, instead of scattering or being left to merely impulsive expression” (SSCC, 36).

Hirsch, like Bloom, does not understand Dewey’s philosophy. Dewey was against the stockpiling of facts if it was done without purpose and connection with the individual. There are so many facts that could be known, but it would be beyond our capabilities to know them all. Dewey felt that creating a static list of things to know was an inefficient way to educate. The process of arbitrarily deciding exactly what facts were to be learned was inefficient in that many of the facts learned would never make useful connections to the lives of people. For example, Hirsch’s list contains the name "John Dewey.” A student could learn John Dewey’s name, even that he was an American pragmatist philosopher, yet that knowledge is going to be useless in the lives of most people who don’t have any need or field of relevancy. Knowing John Dewey is useless information unless it serves a purpose. What’s more, we see that Hirsch felt so strongly about his list of things to know, but he seemed fairly ignorant of a name on his list, a name he started off by attacking.

Better to learn facts as one pursues some goal, as the facts become directly relevant. Otherwise facts gained only have the potential to gain meaning, and many facts will turn out to be disconnected, never finding their place in a person’s experience. Facts grow naturally out of meaningful experience, but meaningful experience which leads to more facts do not necessarily flow from facts.

As for Hirsch’s claim that "Dewey wrongly believed that adult culture is "unnatural” to young children” (Hirsch, xvi), he shows enormous ignorance of Dewey’s idea. Culture was always a part of Dewey’s education, and to think that Dewey wanted to keep adult culture out of the lives of children is ridiculous. Adult culture is necessarily a part of children’s education. Dewey felt that what was important was that specific facts of adult culture should not become the ends of education, but a part of education.

Dewey is dead, but his ideas are still full of significance. Those who claim that Dewey’s philosophy has had dramatic results on education would be well advised to read some of Dewey’s books. It would quickly become apparent that scant few of Dewey’s principles are much a part of formal education. Dewey was not so influential as critics believe, mostly because many critics have assumptions about Dewey. Dewey would have the same criticisms of today’s schools as he did for earlier schools, and his ideas are just as radical now as they were in his life.

Dewey wrote that "the tragic weakness of the present school is that it endeavors to prepare future members of the social order in a medium in which the conditions of the social spirit are eminently wanting” (SSCC, 15). The conditions wanting were democracy, rational judgment conducive of the scientific method, and a conception of experience that recognizes the continuous nature of ends as means of further action.

It would be against the grain of Dewey’s idea to teach people about Dewey and his philosophy without context or purpose. The purpose here is to show how little Dewey’s ideas have influenced education; how little some of Dewey’s detractors know about Dewey; and how Dewey’s pedagogy has the possibility to enhance educational mentalities. The obstacle that most keeps Dewey’s conception as a minor contributor to education and society at large is inertia. Schools and governments and people are all reluctant to change; they are reluctant to raise the standards of social service that Dewey called for; they do not want his demanding responsibilities. In the end, they are apathetic or lazy.

What Dewey wanted was ideal, but it was not utopian. He knew that we should do better, that we could do better. The question was more whether there was a will to do better.

It is impossible to capture the whole of Dewey’s philosophy in one small essay, but it is possible to give a sense of what Dewey wanted. He was a great man in his own right, a unique and hopeful American. He had flaws like the rest of us, but he was among our best. I do think that he has meaning for us still.

George Will semi-facetiously remarked that we ought to replace the political portraits on our paper currency with cultural icons. He left our subject for the highest value of currency: "$10,000: Wealth without wisdom is not merely barren, it is a menace. Therefore here, at the pinnacle of the currency that is supposed to serve the store of value, is the place for philosophy in the form of a man who is not much read anymore, which is our loss: John Dewey” (Will, 325). I agree. But I would think that Dewey would rather be on the one-dollar bill, or twenty, something that is useful for all of us. Dewey was a utilitarian, and he would’ve wanted to be used as much as possible.


References

  • Bloom, Allan. 1987. The Closing of the American Mind (Bloom). New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Dewey, John. 1944. Democracy and Education (DE). New York: The Free Press.
  • Dewey, John. 1938. Experience and Education (EE). New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.
  • Dewey, John. 1989. Freedom and Culture (FC). Buffalo: Prometheus Books.
  • Dewey, John. 1991. How We Think (HWT). Buffalo: Prometheus Books.
  • Dewey, John. 1957. Reconstruction in Philosophy. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Dewey, John. 1964. The School and Society and The Child and the Curriculum (SSCC). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Hirsch, E. D. 1987. Cultural Literacy (Hirsch). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • Moorehead, Caroline. 1992. Bertrand Russell: A Life (BRL). New York: Viking.
  • Westbrook, Robert. 1991. John Dewey and American Democracy (JDAD). Ithica: Cornell University Press.
    Will, George. 1994. The Leveling Wind (Will). New York: Penguin Books.

Comment

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Dawn Burts

Jan 23, 2008

I enjoyed your article on Dewey!



Kindest regards,

Dawn Burts
Angry Teapot Level Design Awards

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