John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism
In the first half of the twentieth century, John Dewey was America’s most celebrated philosopher. More than a philosopher, he was a public intellectual who wrote about politics and education, science and faith, for an audience beyond the academy. When Dewey died in 1952, at age ninety-three, Henry Commager described him as “the guide, the mentor, and the conscience of the American people; it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that for a generation no issue was clarified until Dewey had spoken.”
In the decades following his death, however, Dewey’s work was largely ignored. Academic philosophy became increasingly technical and regarded Dewey’s broad speculations as fuzzy and old-fashioned. Even moral and political philosophers, embroiled in debates about utilitarian versus Kantian ethics, found little reason to turn to Dewey. Except in schools of education, where his influence persisted, few students read his books. Meanwhile, the central political debates of the day—about the scope of rights and entitlements, about the relation between government and the economy—had little to do, or so it seemed, with Dewey’s political teaching.
In recent years, Dewey has made a comeback. Why this is so, and whether the Dewey revival holds promise for contemporary philosophy and politics, are among the questions that Alan Ryan poses in John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism. Ryan’s book is itself an expression of the Dewey revival it describes. It follows the publication a few years ago of Robert Westbrook’s excellent biography, John Dewey and American Democracy, and coincides with the appearance of other books and articles on aspects of Dewey’s thought. Ryan, an English political theorist who teaches at Princeton and will soon return to Oxford, is a spirited and sympathetic guide to Dewey’s life and thought. He describes his book less as a full-fledged biography than as “a friendly but critical tour of the ideas that established Dewey’s astonishing hold over the educated American public of his day.” In this aim, Ryan admirably succeeds.
If the narrative occasionally flags, the fault lies less with the author than with his subject. Rarely has so eventful a life been led by so colorless a figure. Like few philosophers of his day or ours, Dewey lived a life of public engagement. A leading voice of Progressive reform, he founded an experimental school in Chicago, worked with the social reformer Jane Addams at Hull House, and supported women’s suffrage and Margaret Sanger’s birth control movement. He became the nation’s foremost apostle of what came to be called progressive education and a hero to school teachers. He helped to establish the American Association of University Professors, the New School for Social Research, and the American Civil Liberties Union. He traveled to Japan, China, Turkey, Mexico, and the Soviet Union to lecture and advise on educational reform, and chaired an unsuccessful attempt to form a new political party based on social democratic principles. At the age of seventy-eight, Dewey …