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The Real John Dewey


In the minds of most people born after the Second World War, John Dewey is an exceedingly dim presence, a figure apparently left stranded on the far side of the Sixties. He has seemed the spokesman for a world view whose day has passed. His ideas have not been thought worth knowing better, and his books, by and large, have not been read.

Once, of course, it was different. For more than half a century, from the time his experimental school for children, founded in 1896, achieved its worldwide renown until his death, in 1952, at the age of ninety-two, Dewey was one of the most celebrated public intellectuals in America. He published forty books, and lectured before almost every kind of audience. He helped to create some of the most prominent political and educational organizations established in his time: the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, the League for Industrial Democracy, the New York Teachers Union, the American Association of University Professors, the New School for Social Research. His writings on education changed the way children were taught in places as far away as China; and his views were solicited on nearly every subject. “It is scarcely an exaggeration to say,” wrote Henry Steele Commager in 1950, “that for a generation no major issue was clarified until Dewey had spoken.”1

Robert Westbrook, who teaches history at the University of Rochester, thinks that neither of these Deweys—the Dewey lionized as “the national philosopher” in his own time and the Dewey generally dismissed in ours—is the real Dewey. The real Dewey, he believes, was “a deviant among American liberals,” “a minority, not a majority, spokesman within the liberal community,” “a more radical voice than has been generally assumed.” The key to this Dewey, he proposes, is his idea of democracy, and the purpose of his book is to explain what that idea was and why it remains important.

John Dewey and American Democracy is an exceptionally intelligent, rigorous, and thorough book. Although it is offered as an interpretation of one aspect of Dewey’s thought, it makes a first-rate guide through the enormous (and, many have complained, often turgid) mass of Dewey’s writing.2 Westbrook’s call for a renewed appreciation of Dewey’s relevance—his implicit claim that Dewey really belongs to the generation that failed to read him rather than to the generation that actually did—is strengthened by great learning and conviction, and it will find many responsive echoes.

Westbrook does not have much to say about Dewey’s personal life, but neither did Dewey. Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont, in 1859 (which, as few commentators have been able to resist pointing out, also happens to be the year of On the Origin of Species, a work whose influence on Dewey was paramount). Both parents were descended from generations of Vermonters. His father was a storekeeper, a witty man who recited Milton and Shakespeare around the shop, but whose greatest ambition for his sons is said to have been the hope that one of them might grow up to become a mechanic. Dewey’s mother was a strong-minded and evangelical woman. He attended the local public school, the local Congregationalist church, and, eventually, the local college, which was the University of Vermont. He graduated in 1879; there were eighteen students in his class.

Dewey was, in short, a prime example of what used to be called a New England Yankee, and the standard thing to say about his upbringing is that it bred into him the values of American democracy in their most pristine and aboriginal form. This is an understanding encouraged by Dewey himself, in one of the few places in which he commented on his own life, a curious essay of 1939 called “Biography of John Dewey,” said to have been “written by the daughters of the subject from material which he furnished.”3 In Burlington, this authorial committee explains, “life was democratic—not consciously, but in that deeper sense in which equality and absence of class distinctions are taken for granted.” (The essay goes on to remark that “the few who attended private schools were regarded as ‘sissies’ or ‘stuck-up’ by the majority,” which suggests that class distinctions were not as absent as all that from nineteenth-century Burlington.)

Westbrook dismisses this explanation for Dewey’s later egalitarianism as a myth, and he’s quite justified in doing so. Burlington was not a Yankee village in 1859; it was an industrializing community with a large working-class population of French Canadian and Irish immigrants. In other respects, it was merely provincial: Dewey later described the religious culture, impressed upon him most insistently by his mother, as “a painful oppression,” and it is hard not to believe that he struck on what was, at the time, the extremely novel idea of going to graduate school as a means of escaping the entire scene. Dewey was not, despite his famous country-mouse appearance, a small-town boy at heart. He spent ten years, from 1894 to 1904, in Chicago, which he thought “the greatest place in the world”; in 1905, he moved to New York City, where he lived (ultimately on Fifth Avenue) for the rest of his life. He used to say to his colleagues at Columbia that he didn’t see why they had summer places in Vermont. “I got out,” he told them, “as soon as I could.”4

Dewey’s homespun aura is, in fact, the one truly deceptive thing about him. His lack of affectation and self-regard was perfectly genuine, of course, and it could make him seem not only simple but simple-minded. There is a story, apparently once enjoyed as somehow emblematic of Dewey’s sense of himself, about the time he joined a parade down Fifth Avenue on behalf of one of the many liberal causes he supported, women’s suffrage. He was handed a placard and dutifully set off, but became increasingly puzzled by the laughter of the spectators he passed along the route. He had not bothered to read the sign he was carrying, which said, “Men Can Vote, Why Can’t I?”

But Dewey was not a naif, a Jimmy Stewart character whose native common sense triumphs over the pretensions of the sophisticates. His thought was formed by influences the Jimmy Stewarts of his time would have regarded with horror: Darwin, Hegel, and functional psychology. He admired Jefferson, but he rarely referred to any of the other founders, and his entire social and political philosophy was an assault on the kind of pioneer individualism conventionally associated with the early American spirit. He did not think this country had forgotten its core principles, that it had gone forward too fast. He thought it had not gone forward fast enough, and that devotion to its “core principles” was one of the things holding it back. Compared to Dewey, William James was a nostalgist.

The graduate school Dewey chose was Johns Hopkins, and it is an indication of his eagerness to leave Burlington that after his applications for fellowships had been twice turned down, he borrowed the money from a relative and went anyway. Although the three-man philosophy department at Hopkins in 1882 included G. Stanley Hall, whose work in psychology helped lay the foundations for the progressive movement in education of which Dewey would later become the hero, and Charles Sanders Peirce, whose studies in the logic of science were eventually the model for much of Dewey’s own work, Dewey chose to study with the third, now largely forgotten, member of the department, George Sylvester Morris, who was a Hegelian.

Under Morris’s tutelage, Dewey became a Hegelian, too, and, says Westbrook, he “never completely shook. Hegel out of his system.” Dewey did not deny it. Hegel’s organicism—his synthesis of spirit and matter, subject and object, human and divine—“operated,” he later wrote, as “an immense release, a liberation” from “the sense of divisions and separations that were, I suppose, borne in upon me as a consequence of a heritage of New England culture, divisions by way of isolation of self from the world, of soul from body, of nature from God”; and it left, he said, “a permanent deposit in my thinking.” 5

Hegel glued his system together, of course, with an Absolute—a transcendental Mind whose Idea the ongoing evolution of human history is supposedly working to make manifest—and Dewey began his career as an absolute idealist. He took his degree in 1884, and then (following a shake-up in the Hopkins department) accompanied Morris to the University of Michigan, where, apart from a year spent at the University of Minnesota, he worked for the next ten years.

The sort of idealism Dewey espoused put him in the mainstream of late-nineteenth-century academic philosophy. His effort, in his early work, to integrate the Hegelian system with Darwinian evolutionary theory and other developments in science on the one hand and Christian belief on the other was very much the sort of thing an ambitious young philosophy professor was expected to be doing. Dewey’s use of the findings of recent psychological research to support the notion of an Absolute, culminating in his Psychology (1887), brought him professional renown; and when, in 1894, the president of the recently established University of Chicago, William Rainey Harper, went searching for a distinguished scholar to head the philosophy department, Dewey’s was the name that came up.

It was at Chicago that Dewey transformed himself into a public intellectual. He had married, while at Michigan, Alice Chipman, a woman with an intense interest in social reform, and he began to write (though circumspectly: it was not unheard of in the 1890s for professors to be fired for expressing opinions offensive to trustees) about political and economic issues, such as the Pullman strike of 1894. He involved himself in local social welfare efforts, notably Hull House, with whose founder, Jane Addams, the Deweys became close friends. And he started his school.

Dewey’s interest in education had begun while he was at Michigan, where it was one of his duties to visit the public high schools to determine whether their graduates were qualified to enter the state university. He now began to formulate a philosophy of education, spelled out in a series of essays and in a best-selling and much-translated book, The School and Society (1899); and in 1896, he opened the Laboratory School, an experimental educational facility run by the department of pedagogy, of which Dewey was chairman, and dedicated to the principle of learning by “directed living.”

As his name for it implied, Dewey regarded the school as a testing ground for his philosophical ideas: it gave him the chance, he later explained, “to work out in the concrete, instead of merely in the head or on paper, a theory of the unity of knowledge.”6 The Platonic-sounding phrase “unity of knowledge” is a good example of Dewey’s notorious imprecision. He did not mean that everything we know is one; he meant that knowing is inseparably united with doing. For knowledge, Dewey believed, is in the first place a by-product of activity: people do things in the world, and the doing results in learning something that, if deemed useful, gets carried along into the next activity. In the traditional method of education, in which the things considered worth knowing are handed down as disembodied information from teacher to pupil, knowledge is cut off from the activity in which it has its meaning, and it thus becomes a false abstraction. One of the consequences (besides boredom) is that an invidious distinction between knowing and doing—a distinction Dewey thought socially pernicious as well as philosophically erroneous—gets reinforced.

  1. 1

    The American Mind: An Interpretation of American Thought and Character Since the 1880s (Yale University Press, 1950), p. 100.

  2. 2

    The reputation for turgidity, which has become the one thing everyone knows about Dewey, is exaggerated. All of Dewey’s writing is now available in an extraordinary new edition, which includes excellent introductions and many collateral items, among them some of the notable reviews of Dewey’s books by other philosophers. Almost any of the volumes provides a fascinating, well-documented look at the variety of Dewey’s work. John Dewey: The Early Works, 1882–1898, Vols. 1–5; John Dewey: The Middle Works, 1899–1924, Vols. 1–15; and John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925–1953, Vols. 1–17, edited by Jo Ann Boydston (Southern Illinois University Press, 1969–1991), index also available.

  3. 3

    In Paul Arthur Schilpp, editor, The Philosophy of John Dewey (North-western University Press, 1939), pp. 3–45.

  4. 4

    Quoted in Mary V. Dearborn, Love in the Promised Land: The Story of Anzia Yezierska and John Dewey (Free Press, 1988), p. 8.

  5. 5

    From Absolutism to Experimentalism” (1930), Later Works, Vol. 5, pp. 153–154.

  6. 6

    The Theory of the Chicago Experiment” (1936), Later Works, Vol. 11, p. 204.

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