In praise of Dewey

One way to look at Dewey [1] is as a radical liberal and a social reformer who identified the importance of a common humanity to personal and social growth [2]. He was an academic and the prototype of the public intellectual, contributing to political debate, active in teacher unions, supporting the settlement movement and setting up his own experimental schools. His commitment to democracy led him to be on the right side of many of the arguments that dominated his life and times and still matter today. He saw mass immigration into the USA as an opportunity for generating a national democratic culture, he was patriotic but not a militarist, he was an early supporter of women’s rights. He was prescient when it came to philosophy – a pragmatist and ‘fallibilist’ [i.e. he understood that we might be wrong] in a way that was unusual in his time – and wanted us to search for consensus based on reason. He was romantic about community and what it offered for social life but was forward looking, urban based and not interested in rural idylls. He was politically radical while remaining, unusual among radicals of the time, anti Marxist and anti Stalinist. He was not afraid to talk ‘truth unto power’ in USA or on a global stage. He chaired the ‘Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials’ that exposed the absurdity of the Stalinist purges in the 1930s but was not impressed by Trotskyism. He was, in spite of everything, wilfully optimistic about life and our ability to make sense of it. It should not matter in the consideration of his ideas, but it seems he was a playful, though distracted parent, and he endured the death of two of his children bravely.

Dewey has drifted in and out of favour over time but he is still a key point of reference for educators. His work has always managed to wind up conservative commentators on education on the largely mistaken grounds that he was a ‘progressive’ educationalist [3]. Having recently had an election here in the UK, when evenly mildly expressed social reform took a bashing, expect to see another attack next year on Dewey to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of his landmark book ‘Democracy and Education’. So what did he believe that upset the conservative Right? In a nutshell he saw that learning was triggered by problem solving and wanted to put inquiry at the heart of learning. He was forward thinking too in the way he thought about language and saw communication as core to learning. For example in ‘Democracy and Education’ [4] he writes:

To be a recipient of a communication is to have an enlarged and changed experience. One shares in what another has thought and felt and in so far, meagerly or amply, has his own attitude modified. Nor is the one who communicates left unaffected. Try the experiment of communicating, with fullness and accuracy, some experience to another, especially if it be somewhat complicated, and you will find your own attitude toward your experience changing; otherwise you resort to expletives and ejaculations. The experience has to be formulated in order to be communicated. To formulate requires getting outside of it, seeing it as another would see it, considering what points of contact it has with the life of another so that it may be got into such form that he can appreciate its meaning. (Dewey 1916 [1947]:12)

This sets Dewey up as a very radical thinker about education, but perhaps this was because his opposition to didactic teaching took centre stage, given that didaticism was the dominant mode of teaching in his day. Less time has been given to his critique of so called progressive teaching because this was, and has always been, something of a sideshow. Nonetheless it is worth clarifying that in ‘Democracy and Education’ he was not advocating that children should take over their schools but was asking how can we help children generate habits for later democratic participation in society. Similarly, his idea of ‘learning by doing’ sounds very experimental and unfocused but this was not what he was saying. Rather he felt that while learning was triggered by problems you should not flay around wildly trying to solve a problem, instead you needed to think reflectively and socially on what to do. A problem-solving curriculum was a structured one with important roles for teachers and teaching. It is just that the structure and the preparation for teaching was different to what didactic instructors imagined. His key point was that the teaching of concepts needed to be rooted in experience, not learnt by drill. Here [5] he differentiated between ‘genuine ideas’ and surface assimilation:

Suppose it is a question of having the pupil grasp the idea of the sphericity of the earth. This is different from teaching him its sphericity as a fact. He may be shown (or reminded of) a ball or a globe, and be told that the earth is round like those things; he may then be made to repeat that statement day after day till the shape of the earth and the shape of the ball are welded together in his mind. But he has not thereby acquired any idea of the earth’s sphericity; at most, he has had a certain image of a sphere and has finally managed to image the earth after the analogy of his ball image. To grasp sphericity as an idea, the pupil must first have realized certain perplexities or confusing features in observed facts and have had the idea of spherical shape suggested to him as a possible way of accounting for the phenomena in question. Only by use as a method of interpreting data so as to give them fuller meaning does sphericity become a genuine idea (Dewey, 1910: 109.)

To sum up, Dewey was concerned with education as an end in itself and he offered a child centred approach that was not over romanticised or sentimental. In politics he was a democrat (small d) worried about the ways that our democratic instincts were skewed by special interests and inequalities. In philosophy he saw that we were responsible for interpreting the world but saw this as reason for optimism rather than existential pessimism. So what is there not to like? He was, and will remain, forever criticised from the socialist left for lacking an economic analysis of capitalism – this would, following Marx, place Dewey as a ‘utopian’ though a practical one who, in his own way, believed that the point was not to understand the world but to change it. For sociologists Dewey was too ready to see the world through the lens of what bound us together rather than through structures of class and other social formations that pulled us apart. And more generally social scientists do not get his action-oriented inquiry in the way that educators do. His views on education are never going to appeal to conservative thinkers, even ones who have taken the time to read him. However a more widely expressed criticism is that he was unnecessarily vague as to what he was advocating and in fact he might be a lot more, or for that matter a lot less, radical than we think. He offered little too, in the way of detail, in terms of pedagogic strategies. Another recurring but often unacknowledged difficulty with Dewey was that he was really only writing about children and education. Indeed you want to imagine that his university classes, like his experimental schools, were full of activity, practical experimentation and lively debate, but they were not and for me that is the most disappointing thing about him.

[1] Dewey (1859 – 1952) is widely celebrated as a philosopher, social psychology social but is often assumed to have given his name to the Dewey system of library referencing. However that was Thomas Dewey. More importantly Donald Duck had a nephew Dewey (plus two others Huey and Louie) but the name probably was again taken from Thomas rather than John.
[2] This view of Dewey as a radical liberal is articulated in Ryan, A. (1995). John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
[3] Professor Robert Pring wrote:
Indeed, when I came to Oxford I was seated at dinner next to Lord Keith Joseph who had been Secretary of State for Education under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He accused me of being responsible for all the problems in our schools – because I had introduced teachers to John Dewey. And subsequently there was systematic attack on Dewey even from philosophers as well as journalists and politicians. Professor O’Hear, for example proposed that ‘[i]t is highly plausible to see the egalitarianism which stems from the writings of John Dewey as the approximate cause of our educational decline’. In Pring, R. (2007) John Dewey, London: Bloomsbury Press.
[4] Dewey, J. (1916 / 1947). Democracy and Education. New York: The Macmillan Company.
[5] Dewey, J. (1910). How We Think. London: D. C. Heath & Company available online at

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