John Dewey (Oct. 20, 1859 – June 1, 1952), an educational philosopher and professor, was born in Burlington, Vt., the son of a shopkeeper. He enrolled at the University of Vermont in 1875, and became familiar with evolution, social philosophy and other progressive thinking. He taught high school for several years before enrolling in the Johns Hopkins University graduate school, where he studied logic, philosophy and psychology and received his Ph.D. in 1884. He was recruited by the University of Michigan and in 1894 moved to the University of Chicago as head of the philosophy department. During his time at Michigan and Chicago, Dewey developed an interest in social issues, and became friendly with the reformers of Hull House, including Jane Addams.
Dewey’s philosophy combined idealism and experimental psychology. Influenced by the “pragmatism” of William James, he created the concept of “instrumentalism,” which held that thoughts and ideas, as products of personal experience, were the ways humans resolved the problems encountered in their environment. He did not accept the dualism of mind and body but rather that the mind itself, like the body, evolved through interaction with the environment.
Instrumentalism also defined his philosophy of education. Dewey rejected the style of teaching at the time, which emphasized lectures, memorization and repetitive instruction. He favored learning through action, and believed students do best through experience and active engagement with the curriculum. “Learning by doing” has influenced teaching in America ever since.
Dewey was an advocate for democracy and believed education was the best way to counteract the disparity of wealth brought about by industrialization. He was not against technological advances but felt that science and technology could be beneficial for all. At Chicago he and his wife established the “Laboratory School,” where his ideas of progressive education were applied and tested. He resigned over a misunderstanding with the administration at the University of Chicago and was hired by Columbia University as a professor of philosophy and later held a joint position in the Teacher’s College. He retired in 1939.
Dewey continued to write and lecture and remained influential in the major issues of the day, particularly during the 1930s and World War II. He published more than 40 books and 700 articles and was considered by many to be “America’s national philosopher.” His professional activities included terms as president of the American Psychological Association and the American Philosophical Association. Dewey was a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Association of University Professors.
He was preparing a new edition of one of his major titles at the time of his death in 1952.
Beatty, William K. (1999). “Dewey, John.” In: John A. Garraty & Mark C. Carnes (Eds.), American national biography, Vol. 6, pp 514-518. New York: Oxford University Press.
Byers, Paula Kay & Bourgoin, Suzanne Michele (Eds.) (1997). Encyclopedia of world biography, Vol. 4, pp520-523. Detroit: Gale.
Pickens, Donald K. (2008) John Dewey. In: Robert. F. Gorman (Ed.), Great lives in history. The 20th century, 1900-2000. Vol. III, pp 928-984.
Photo Source: Public Domain. Underwood & Underwood - United States Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs division. Digital ID cph.3a51565.