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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 815

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This is the grave of John Dewey.

Born in 1859 in Burlington, Vermont, Dewey grew up in a middling family, well enough to do OK, but far from the elite. He went to the University of Vermont instead of some elite school like most people of that era who would transform the nation. He graduated from UVM in 1879. He taught for a couple of years in Oil City, Pennsylvania and then one year in Charlotte, Vermont before enrolling in Johns Hopkins University to study philosophy. That was the top program in the nation, the new research institution intended to concentrate the nation’s social scientists in Baltimore. Studying with such people as Charles Sanders Peirce, Herbert Baxter Adams, and G. Stanley Hall, he graduated with his Ph.D. in 1884. He wrote his dissertation on Kant, but it was never published and is now lost. He took his first job at the University of Michigan, where he stayed until 1894, when he left for the newly founded University of Chicago.

Associated with the growing ideas of pragmatism and increasingly influenced by the works of William James, he engaged heavily in the new field of psychology. A prolific writer, he published Psychology in 1887 and Leibniz’s New Essays Concerning the Human Understanding in 1888. These started making his name in the field. In 1894, he left Michigan for the University of Chicago, another newly founded institution promoting social science. He was elected president American Psychological Association in 1899.

He founded the University of Chicago laboratory school and was heavily involved in social reform, becoming close to Jane Addams and the settlement house movement. In fact, he was on the first board of directors for Hull House. Dewey really wanted to use his ideas to make the world a better place. Observing immigrant women and children at Hull House, he came to realize that women’s roles in society were not a product of inherent sexual characteristics, but rather of environment. This might seem obvious today, but was a major step for the 1890s. Thus, he became a major supporter of women’s suffrage and other movements to liberate women from oppression. In 1904, Dewey left Chicago after a disagreement with the administration and landed at Columbia University, where he taught for the rest of his career.

What really drove Dewey was his strong belief in democracy, making him among the most American of philosophers. His own values seem to have been on a fairly straight scale of supporting whatever led to greater democracy and opposing whatever inhibited democracy. Where he really saw this developing was in the school and it is of course in the field of education that Dewey made his ultimate impact. If democracy was going to be inculcated, it needed to happen when people were young. He published heavily on this issue. Among his works on it include My Pedagogic Creed, from 1897; The Primary-Education Fetich, from 1898: The School and Society, from 1900; The Child and the Curriculum, from 1902; Schools of To-Morrow, from 1915 and coauthored with his wife Evelyn; Democracy and Education, from 1916; and Experience and Education from 1938. In these works, he argued that children didn’t just need a rote education, but needed to be taught how to live in a democratic society. He argued for a balance between content and caring about the individual child. But he definitely rejected the idea that education should exist to train kids for a job and instead supporting training them for a life. It’s sad that we have moved so far away from these goals over the last few decades, as we return to not only K-12 but college as little more than vocational education for jobs that may well not exist in twenty years.

In order to push forward these ideas, Dewey rethought the idea of the teacher. Instead of the grim, stern disciplinarian using physical punishment to discipline children, the teacher needed to be more like a settlement house worker. Building up the child was about building up the child’s psychology with care and understanding, as well as attention to social values. Thus, teaching needed to be professionalized in order that a new generation of educators could accomplish this goal. In this, he was influenced by his own early years of teaching before graduate school. Dewey thought he was a terrible teacher and he wondered why. Those thoughts never seem to have left him.

Dewey’s impact on the history of education, not only in the United States but in nations around the globe, is enormous. He’s arguably the most influential educator in history and certainly is in the conversation. But his interests ranged far and wide. As he rose in influence during the Progressive Era, he was taken by the muckraking of the time and believed strongly that public journalism led to greater democracy. He rejected Walter Lippmann’s belief that the public was kind of stupid and needed to be taught by journalists who were experts. Rather, Dewey strongly believed in the nature of the public and argued that journalists could spur action in the populace. An committed atheist and secular humanist, he fought hard for the ideas of humanists transforming society. That was largely through politics. The Pullman Strike helped radicalize him, as he was horrified by the actions of the capitalists in crushing the workers’ movement. He never was a socialist, but he was socialist-sympathetic, a left anti-communist. This meant he directed the Dewey Commission in 1937, which sought to clear Leon Trotsky of the charges against him laid by Stalin. He was an early executive on the NAACP governing board, being one of the whites involved in the organization from the beginning. He was a huge advocate for academic freedom, working with Albert Einstein among others in the International League for Academic Freedom. He was also president of the League for Industrial Democracy, which had a student movement that was the precursor for Students for a Democratic Society.

Dewey traveled widely, including to Asia and Africa in an era when few did so. He published an unbelievable 700 articles and 40 books. Many of them were in education, as discussed above, but they also included The Public and Its Problems, his rebuttal of Lippmann in 1927; Impressions of Soviet Russia and the Revolutionary World, a travelogue showing how impressed he was with the Soviets in 1929; and Freedom and Culture, exploring the roots of fascism from 1939. Ultimately, not only was Dewey the premier philosopher of his time, but he was also among the premier public intellectuals, taking a field usually dominated by impenetrable texts and applying them broadly to society.

By World War II, Dewey’s health was declining. He died of pneumonia in 1952. He was 92 years old.

John Dewey is buried on the campus of the University of Vermont, Burlington, Vermont.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader contributions. Thanks! If you would like this series to visit other American educators, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Mary Caswell is in Hollywood, California and Alice Putnam is buried in Chicago. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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