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John Dewey

John Dewey (1859-1952) was an American philosopher and teacher who greatly influenced education in the United States.

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Educational Philosophy

As can be seen in his Democracy and Education (http://www.ibiblio.org/gutenberg/etext97/dmedu10.txt) Dewey attempts to at once synthesize, criticize, and expand upon the democratic educational philosophies of Rousseau and Plato. He saw Rousseau's as overemphasizing the individual and Plato's as overemphasizing the society. For Dewey, this distinction was by and large a false one; like Vygotsky, he viewed the mind and its formation as communal process. However, as evidenced in his later Experience and Nature Dewey recognizes the importance of the subjective experience of individual people in introducing revolutionary new ideas.

For Dewey, it was vitally important that education not be the teaching of mere dead fact, but that the skills and knowledge which students learned by integrated fully into their lives as citizens and human beings. At the Laboratory School which Dewey and his wife Alice ran at the University of Chicago, children learned much of their early chemistry, physics, and biology by investigating the natural processes which went into cooking breakfast--an activity they did in their classes. This practical element--learning by doing--sprang from his subscription to the philosophical school of Pragmatism. His lab school however performed so poorly that Dewey was forced to leave Chicago and his failing school in less than three years. He set up his famous Lincoln School in Manhattan where it too ultimately failed.

Dewey was essentially the foundational thinker of educational progressivism and an important progressive in general. His ideas, while quite popular, were never broadly and deeply integrated into the practices of American public schools, though some of his values and terms were widespread. Progressive education (both as espoused by Dewey, and in the more popular and inept forms of which Dewey was critical) was essentially scrapped during the Cold War, when the dominant concern in education was creating and sustaining a scientific and technological elite for military purposes.

Deweyan Pragmatism

Dewey was a second-generation pragmatist, following Charles Sanders Pierce and William James. He was not nearly so pluralist or relativist as James. He held that value was a function not of whim nor purely of social construction, but a quality inherent in events; he also held, unlike James, that experimentation (social, cultural, technological, philosophical) could be used as a relatively hard-and-fast arbiter of truth. For example, James felt that personal without "over-belief" in religious concepts used to explain common experience, human life was shallow and rather uninteresting. Dewey, in contrast, while honoring the important rule that religious institutions and practices played in human life, rejected belief in any static ideal, such as God. For Dewey, God was the method of intelligence in human life; that is to say, rigorous inquiry, or, very broadly configured, science. From the time of World War I onward, Dewey's thinking was strongly influenced by the work of F. Matthias Alexander.

Dewey has regained prominence recently in philosophy of education and in technical philosophy generally. Because of his process-oriented and sociologically conscious view of the world and knowledge, he is sometimes seen as a useful alternative to both modern and postmodern ways of thinking. Recent exponents like Richard Rorty have not always remained faithful to Dewey's original vision, but this itself is completely in keeping both with Dewey's usage of other thinkers and with his own philosophy--for Dewey, past doctrines always require reconstruction in order to remain useful for the present time.

Further Reading

Secondary Sources Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club

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