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.”
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. 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 …