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Experience and education
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The following text was originally published in Prospects: the quarterly review of comparative
education (Paris, UNESCO: International Bureau of Education), vol. XXIII, no. 1\2, 1993,p. 277-91.
©UNESCO :International Bureau of Education, 1999
This document may be reproduced free of charge as long as acknowledgement is made of the source.
Robert B. Westbrook
1John Dewey was the most significant American philosopher of the first half of the twentieth
century. His career spanned three generations, and his voice could be heard in the midst of
cultural controversies in the United States (and abroad) from the 1890s until his death, at the
age of 93, in 1952. During this long career, Dewey developed a philosophy that called for the
unity of theory and practice. He exemplified this unity in his own work as an intellectual and
political activist. His thinking was grounded in the moral conviction that ‘democracy is
freedom’, and he devoted his life to the construction of a persuasive philosophical argument
for this conviction and to the pursuit of an activism that would secure its practical realization
(Dewey, 1892, p. 8). Dewey’s commitment to democracy and to the integration of theory and
practice was most evident in his career as an educational reformer.
As he began his duties as a new member of the faculty of the University of Chicago in
the fall of 1894, Dewey wrote to his wife Alice that ‘I sometimes think I will drop teaching
philosophy directly, and teach it via
pedagogy’ (Dewey, 1894). Although he never actuallystopped teaching philosophy directly, Dewey’s philosophical views probably reached more
readers via books aimed at educators, such as
The school and society (1899), How we think(1910),
Democracy and education (1916) and Experience and education (1938), than throughthose directed principally to his fellow philosophers.
Democracy and education, Dewey oncesaid, was the closest thing he ever wrote to a summary of his ‘entire philosophical position’
(Dewey, 1916). It was no accident, he observed, that like himself many great philosophers
had taken a keen interest in the problems of education because there was ‘an intimate and
vital relation between the need for philosophy and the necessity for education.’ If philosophy
was wisdom, a vision of ‘the better kind of life to be led’, then consciously guided education
was the praxis of the philosopher. ‘If philosophy is to be other than an idle and unverifiable
speculation, it must be animated by the conviction that its theory of experience is a
hypothesis that is realized only as experience is actually shaped in accord with it. And this
realization demands that man’s dispositions be made such as to desire and strive for that kind
of experience.’ The shaping of dispositions might take place in various institutions, but in
modern societies the school was the most crucial, and as such it was an indispensable arena
for the shaping of a philosophy into a ‘living fact’ (Dewey, 1912-13, p. 298, 306-7).
Dewey’s efforts to shape his own philosophy into living fact in the schools were
surrounded by controversy, and to this day he remains a touchstone in debates over the
shortcomings of American education: a reputable villain for ‘back-to-basics’ conservatives
and an inspiring forefather for ‘child-centred’ reformers. Both sides of these debates tend to
misread Dewey’s work, to overestimate his influence, and to underplay the democratic ideals
that were at the heart of his pedagogy.
The making of an educator
John Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont, in 1859, the son of a storekeeper. He
graduated from the University of Vermont in 1879, and after a brief career as a schoolteacher
in Pennsylvania and Vermont, he enrolled as a graduate student in the department of
philosophy at Johns Hopkins University, which had pioneered graduate education on the
German model in the United States. There he came under the influence of George S. Morris,
a neo-Hegelian idealist. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1884 with a dissertation on ‘Kant’s
Psychology’, Dewey followed Morris to the University of Michigan, and assumed leadership
of the philosophy department there in 1889.
While at Michigan, Dewey met his future wife, Alice Chipman, who was his student.
Alice had come to college after several years of teaching in Michigan schools. More than
anyone else, Alice was responsible for the practical turn that Dewey’s interests took in the
late 1880s. Dewey accredited her with putting the ‘guts and stuffing’ into his work, and she
had a significant influence in the shaping of his pedagogical ideas (Jane Dewey, 1951, p. 21).
Following his marriage, Dewey began to take an active interest in public education, and he
was a founding member and officer of the Michigan Schoolmasters’ Club, which fostered cooperation
between state high school and college teachers. When he was lured away from
Michigan to the newly-founded University of Chicago by its President William Rainey
Harper, he insisted that his appointment include the leadership of a new department of
pedagogy. He successfully pressed for the creation of a ‘laboratory school’ where his ideas
could be tested. It was during the decade he spent in Chicago, from 1894-1904, that Dewey
worked out the fundamental principles of his philosophy of education and began to envision
the sort of schools his principles required.
Pragmatism and pedagogy
Over the course of the 1890s Dewey steadily moved away from absolute idealism toward the
pragmatism and naturalism of his mature philosophy. Building on a functional psychology
that owed much to Darwinian evolutionary biology and to the thinking of his fellow
pragmatist, William James, he began to develop a theory of knowledge that contested the
dualisms of mind and world, thought and action, and which had marked Western philosophy
since the seventeenth century. Thought, he argued, was not a congeries of sense impressions
or an artifact of a thing called ‘consciousness’, nor a manifestation of an Absolute Mind, but
rather a mediating, instrumental function that had evolved in order to serve the interests of
human survival and welfare.
This theory of knowledge emphasized the ‘necessity of testing thought by action if
thought was to pass over into knowledge’, and Dewey acknowledged that this proviso
extended to the theory itself (Mayhew & Edwards, 1966, p. 464). His work in education was
intended, in part, to explore the implications of his functional pedagogy and to test it by
Dewey was convinced that many of the problems with prevailing educational
practices grew out of their foundations in a faulty dualistic epistemology. He attacked this
dualistic epistemology in his writings on psychology and logic in the 1890s, and he set out to
design a pedagogy that was grounded in his own functional pedagogy. Having spent a good
deal of time observing the growth of his own children, Dewey was certain that there was no
difference in the dynamics of the experiences of children and adults. Both were active beings
who learned by confronting the problematic situations that arose in the course of their
activities. For both children and adults, thinking was an instrument for solving the problems
of experience, and knowledge was the accumulation of wisdom that such problem-solving
generated. Unfortunately, the theoretical insights of this functionalism had had little impact
on pedagogy until that point, and therefore had been ignored in the schools.
Children, Dewey contended, did not arrive at school as blank slates upon which
teachers might write the lessons of civilization. By the time the child entered the classroom,
he was ‘already intensely active, and the question of education is the question of taking hold
of his activities, of giving them direction’ (Dewey, 1899, p. 25). When children began their
formal education they brought with them four basic ‘native impulses’ —the ‘impulse to
communicate, to construct, to inquire, and to express in finer form.’ These were the ‘natural
resources, the uninvested capital, upon the exercise of which depends the active growth of the
child’ (Dewey, 1899, p. 30). Children also brought their own interests and activities from
home, and it was the task of the teacher to make use of this ‘raw material’ by guiding their
activities at school toward ‘valuable results’ (Mayhew & Edwards, 1966, p. 41).
This argument placed Dewey at odds with both the proponents of a traditional,
‘curriculum-centred’ education, and romantic reformers who advocated a ‘child-centred’
pedagogy. The traditionalists, led by William Torrey Harris, the United States Commissioner
of Education, favoured disciplined, step-by-step instruction in the accumulated wisdom of
civilization. It was the subject-matter that furnished the end and determined the methods of
education. The child was expected simply ‘to receive, to accept. His part is fulfilled when he
is ductile and docile’ (Dewey, 1902, p. 276). However, the advocates of child-centred
education, like G. Stanley Hall, and prominent members of the National Herbart Society,
argued that instruction in subject-matter should be subordinated to the natural, uninhibited
growth of the child. For them the expression of the child’s native impulses were ‘the starting
point, the centre, the end’ (ibid.). These two schools of thought on education engaged in a
fierce philosophical battle in the 1890s. Traditionalists defended the knowledge of centuries
of intellectual struggle and viewed child-centred education as a chaotic, anarchistic surrender
of adult authority. Romantics, however, celebrated spontaneity and change, and charged their
opponents with suppressing the individuality of children by means of a boring, routinized,
To Dewey, this debate pointed to another pernicious dualism, against which he set
himself. The dispute could be resolved, he said, if both sides would ‘get rid of the prejudicial
notion that there is some gap in kind (as distinct from degree) between the child’s experience
and the various forms of subject-matter that make up the course of study. From the side of the
child, it is a question of seeing how his experience already contains within itself elements —
facts and truths — of just the same sort as those entering into the formulated study; and, what
is of more importance, of how it contains within itself the attitudes, the motives, and the
interests which have operated in developing and organizing the subject-matter to the plane
which it now occupies. From the side of the studies, it is a question of interpreting them as
outgrowths of forces operating in the child’s life, and of discovering the steps that intervene
between the child’s present experience and their richer maturity’ (ibid., p. 277-278).
Dewey’s critique of the traditionalists for their failure to connect the curriculum to the
interests and activities of the child is well-known. His attack on the advocates of childcentred
education for their failure to connect the interests and activities of the child to the
curriculum is, however, often overlooked. Some critics of Dewey’s educational theory have
confused his position with that of the romantics, but he clearly differentiated his pedagogy
from theirs. The danger of romanticism, he said, was that it regarded ‘the child’s present
powers and interests as something finally significant in themselves’ (ibid., p. 280). However,
it would be wrong, to cultivate the purposes and interests of children ‘just as they stand’.
Effective education required these purposes and interests to be used by the teacher in order to
guide the child toward his understanding of the sciences, history, and arts. ‘Interests in reality
are but attitudes toward possible experiences; they are not achievements; their worth is in the
leverage they afford, not in the accomplishment they represent’ (ibid.). The curriculum was
based on the experiences of the human race, and therefore it was designed to encourage the
immature experience of the child in their activities. ‘The facts and truths that enter into the
child’s present experience, and those contained in the subject-matter of studies, are the initial
and final terms of one reality’, Dewey concluded. ‘To oppose one to the other is to oppose
the infancy and maturity of the same growing life; it is to set the moving tendency and the
final result of the same process over against each other; it is to hold that the nature and the
destiny of the child war with each other’ (ibid., p. 278).
Deweyan pedagogy called upon teachers to perform the extremely difficult task of
‘reinstating into experience’ the subject-matter of the curriculum (ibid., p. 285). This subjectmatter,
like all human knowledge, was the product of man’s efforts to solve the problems that
confronted him in experience, but, as a formal body of knowledge, it had been abstracted
from the problematic situations where it had originally developed. Traditionalists argued that
this knowledge should simply be imposed on the child in a sequence of steps determined by
the logic of this abstracted body of truth. However, when presented in this fashion, the
material was of little interest to children. Moreover, it did not allow them to discover
knowledge on their own by doing activities in which it was necessary for them to have certain
types of knowledge. In this model, children were told how to do something rather that given
the freedom to discover, first-hand, how to do it themselves. As a consequence, teachers had
to appeal to interests unrelated to the subject-matter, such as the child’s fear of pain and
humiliation, in order to produce the appearance of learning. Rather than impose the subjectmatter
on children in this fashion (or simply leave them to their own devices as romantics
advised), Dewey called upon teachers to ‘psychologize’ the curriculum by constructing an
environment in which the activities of the child would include problematic situations. In
order to solve these problems, children would have to call on their knowledge and skills of
science, history and art. In effect, the curriculum told the teacher ‘such and such are the
capacities, the fulfilments, in truth and beauty and behaviour, open to these children. Now see
to it that day by day the conditions are such that
their own activities move inevitably in thisdirection, toward such culmination of themselves’ (ibid., p. 291).
If teachers were to teach in this fashion, to direct a child’s development by indirection,
they would, Dewey acknowledged, have to be highly skilled professionals, thoroughly
knowledgeable in the subject-matter they were teaching, trained in child psychology, and
skilled in the techniques of providing the necessary stimulus so that the subject-matter would
become part of a child’s growing experience. As two teachers who worked with Dewey
remarked, such a teacher had to be capable of seeing the world as both a child and an adult
saw it. ‘Like Alice, she must step with her children behind the looking-glass and in this
imaginative lens she must see all things with their eyes and limited by their experience; but,
in time of need, she must be able to recover her trained vision and from the realistic point of
view of an adult supply the guide posts of knowledge and the skills of method’ (Mayhew &
Edwards, 1966, p. 312). Dewey admitted that most teachers did not possess the knowledge
and skills necessary to teach in this fashion, but he contended that they could learn to do so.
Democracy and education
The way a child’s character is shaped, the moral and political agenda of schooling, is
sometimes termed the `hidden curriculum.’ In Dewey’s case, this aspect of his educational
theory and practice was no less explicit, though a good deal more radical, than his other
curricular aims. Dewey was not reluctant to assert that ‘the formation of a certain character’
was ‘the only genuine basis of right living’ nor to identify ‘right living’ with democratic
practices (Dewey, 1897
Individuals, Dewey argued, achieved self-realization by utilizing their peculiar talents to
contribute to the well-being of their community, and hence the critical task of education in a
democratic society was to help children develop the character, the habits and virtues, that
would enable them to achieve self-realization. On the whole, he believed, American schools
were failing to provide an environment in which self-realization could be attained. Most
schools employed highly ‘individualistic’ methods that called upon all the students in a
classroom to read the same books simultaneously and recite the same lessons. In these
conditions the social impulses of the child atrophied, and the teacher was unable to take
advantage of the child’s ‘natural desire to give out, to do, and that means to serve’ (Dewey,
a, p. 64). Social spirit was replaced with ‘positively individualistic motives andstandards’ such as fear, emulation, rivalry, and judgements of superiority and inferiority, and,
as a consequence, ‘the weaker gradually lose their sense of capacity and accept a position of
continuous and persistent inferiority’, while ‘the stronger grow to glory, not in their strength,
but in the fact that they are stronger’ (ibid., p. 64-65). Dewey argued that in order for a school
to foster social spirit and develop democratic character in children, it had to be organized as a
co-operative community. In order to educate for democracy the school had to become ‘an
institution in which the child is, for the time, to live — to be a member of a community life in
which he feels that he participates, and to which he contributes’ (Dewey, 1895, p. 224).
Creating the conditions for the development of democratic character in the classroom
was not an easy task, especially since teachers could not impose such character on students
but rather had to create a social environment in which children took it upon themselves to
assume the responsibilities of a democratic moral life. Such a life, Dewey noted, ‘is lived
only as the individual appreciated for himself the ends for which he is working, and does his
work in a personal spirit of interest and devotion to these ends’ (Dewey, 1897
a, p. 77).Dewey realized he was placing heavy demands on teachers, and for this reason, when
describing their social role and significance in the late 1890s, he lapsed into the language of
the social gospel, which he had otherwise abandoned, calling the teacher ‘the usherer in of
the true kingdom of God’ (Dewey, 1897
b, p. 95).As this testament suggests, Dewey’s educational theory was far less child-centred and
more teacher-centred than is often supposed. His confidence that children would develop a
democratic character in the schools he envisioned was rooted less in a faith in the
‘spontaneous and crude capacities of the child’ than in the ability of teachers to create an
environment in the classroom in which they possessed the means to ‘mediate’ these
capacities ‘over into habits of social intelligence and responsiveness’ (ibid., p. 94-95).
Dewey’s faith in teachers also reflected his belief in the 1890s that ‘education is the
fundamental method of social progress and reform’ (ibid., p. 93). There was a certain logic to
this belief. Insofar as schools played an important part in the shaping of the character of a
society’s children, they could, if they were designed to do so, transform that society. The
school provided a relatively controlled environment in which the conditions of selfdevelopment
could effectively shape its course. Indeed, if teachers did their job well, there
would hardly be a need of any other sort of reform. A democratic, co-operative
commonwealth could emerge from the classroom.
The difficulty with this belief was that most schools were not designed to transform
societies but rather to
reproduce them. As Dewey acknowledged, ‘the school system hasalways been a function of the prevailing type of organization of social life’ (Dewey, 1896
b,p. 285). His beliefs about schools and teachers, outlined in his pedagogic creed, were thus not
as much beliefs about what was than about what might be. If schools were to be made
agencies of social reform rather than agencies of social reproduction, they would have to be
thoroughly reconstructed. This was Dewey’s most ambitious aim as an educational reformer:
to transform American schools into instruments for the radical democratization of American
The Dewey school
‘The school’, Dewey declared in 1896, ‘is the one form of social life which is abstracted and
under control — which is directly experimental, and if philosophy is ever to be an
experimental science, the construction of a school is its starting point’ (Dewey, 1896
a,p. 244). Dewey arrived at Chicago with a pretty good idea of the sort of ‘laboratory school’
he wanted to start. He told his wife in 1894 that:
There is an image of a school growing up in my mind all the time; a school where some actual and literal
constructive activity shall be the centre and source of the whole thing, and from which the work should be
always growing out in two directions — one the social bearings of that constructive industry, the other the
contact with nature which supplies it with its materials. I can see, theoretically, how the carpentry, etc., in
building a model house shall be the centre of a social training on the one side and a scientific on the other, all
held within the grasp of a positive concrete physical habit of eye and hand (Dewey, 1894).
Dewey proposed a school to university officials that would keep ‘theoretical work in touch
with the demands of practice’ as the most essential component of a department of pedagogy
— ‘the nerve of the whole scheme’ — and he received the support of Harper, who was
himself an important activist in the campaign for educational reform in Chicago (Dewey,
c, p. 434). In January 1896, the Laboratory School of the University of Chicago openedits doors. The school began with sixteen children and two teachers, but by 1903 it was
providing instruction to 140 students and was staffed by twenty-three teachers and ten
graduate assistants. Most of the students were from professional families, many of them the
children of Dewey’s colleagues. The institution soon became known as the ‘Dewey School’,
for the hypotheses that were tested in this laboratory were strictly those of Dewey’s
functional psychology and democratic ethics.
At the centre of the curriculum of the Dewey School was what Dewey termed the
‘occupation’, that is, ‘a mode of activity on the part of the child which reproduces, or runs
parallel to, some of work carried on in social life’ (Dewey, 1899, p. 92). Divided into eleven
age groups, the students pursued a variety of projects centred on particular historical or
contemporary occupations. The youngest children in the school, who were 4 and 5 years old,
engaged in activities familiar to them from their homes and neighbourhoods: cooking, sewing
and carpentry. The 6-year-olds built a farm out of blocks, planted wheat and cotton, and
processed and transported their crop to market. The 7-year-olds studied prehistoric life in
caves of their own devising while their 8-year-old neighbours focused their attention on the
work of the sea-faring Phoenicians, on Robinson Crusoe and adventurers, like Marco Polo,
Magellan and Columbus. Local history and geography occupied the attention of the 9-yearolds,
while those who were 10 years old studied colonial history, constructing a replica of a
room in an early American house. The work of the older groups of children was less strictly
focused on particular historical periods (though history remained an important part of their
studies) and centred more on scientific experiments in anatomy, electro-magnetism, political
economy, and photography. The 13-year-olds built a substantial clubhouse when they could
not find another suitable place for their debate club to meet. Building the clubhouse was a
group effort that enlisted children of all ages in a co-operative project that was, for many, the
emblematic moment in the school’s history.
The occupational activities pointed on the one hand toward the scientific study of the
materials and processes involved in their practice and on the other toward their role in society
and culture. Therefore, the thematic focus on occupations provided the occasion not only for
manual training and historical inquiry but also for work in mathematics, geology, physics,
biology, chemistry, reading, art, music and languages. In the Laboratory School, Dewey
reported, ‘the child comes to school to
do; to cook, to sew, to work with wood and tools insimple constructive acts; within and about these acts cluster the studies—writing, reading,
arithmetic, etc’ (Dewey, 1896
a, p. 245). Skills such as reading were developed when childrencame to recognize their usefulness in solving the problems that confronted them in their
occupational activities. ‘If a child realizes the motive for acquiring skill’, Dewey argued, ‘he
is helped in large measure to secure the skill. Books and the ability to read are, therefore,
regarded strictly as tools’ (Mayhew & Edwards, 1966, p. 26).
Katherine Camp Mayhew and Anna Camp Edwards, who taught in the Laboratory
School, later provided a full account of this remarkable educational experiment. They cited
evidence of the considerable success that Dewey and his colleagues achieved in translating
his theories into practice. Their accounts were supported by the testimony of less-interested
observers as well. For example, the 6-year-old students in the school, building on the
experiences with home activities they had had in kindergarten, concentrated their work on
‘occupations serving the home’. They built a model farm in the sandtable in their classroom
and in the schoolyard they planted a crop of winter wheat. As was the case with most
constructive activities in the school, the building of the model farm provided an occasion for
learning some mathematics:
When their sand-table farm had to be divided into several fields for wheat, corn, oats, and also for the house and
the barn, the children used a one-foot ruler as a unit of measurement and came to understand what was meant by
`fourths and halves’— the divisions made, though not accurate, were near enough to allow them to mark off
their farm. As they became more familiar with the ruler and learned the half-foot, and the quarter-foot and inch,
finer work was naturally expected of them and obtained. … When building the farm-house, four posts were
needed for the corners and six or seven slats, all of the same height. In measuring the latter, the children
frequently forgot to keep the left-hand edge of the ruler on the left-hand side of the slat, so the measurements
had to be repeated two or three times before they were correct. What they did to one side of the house, they also
did to the other and naturally worked more rapidly and more accurately as the work was repeated (Mayhew &
Edwards, 1966, p. 83-84).
In instances such as this, one can see how the child’s interest in a particular activity of his/her
own, such as building a model farm, served as the foundation for instruction in a body of
subject-matter, the skills in measurement and the mathematics of fractions. Moreover, this
method introduced children to the methods of experimental problem-solving in which
mistakes were an important part of learning. Providing children with ‘first-hand experience,’
the problematic situations largely of their own making, was the key to Dewey’s pedagogy. He
believed that ‘until the emphasis changes to the conditions which make it necessary for the
child to take an active share in the personal building up of his own problems and to
participate in methods of solving them (even at the expense of experimentation and error) the
mind is not really freed’ (Dewey, 1903, p. 237).
It is difficult to read through descriptions and accounts of the Laboratory School and
understand how Dewey has come to be seen by some critics as a proponent of ‘aimless’
progressive education. He explicitly stated his curricular goals, and they were readily
apparent in the classroom practice of the teachers with whom he worked. Dewey valued
mankind’s accumulated knowledge as much as the most hidebound traditionalist, and he
intended that the children in his elementary school would be introduced to the riches of
science, history and the arts. He also wanted them to learn to read, to write, to count, to think
scientifically, and to express themselves in a refined manner. As far as subject-matter was
concerned, Dewey’s goals for education were rather conventional, only his methods were
innovative and radical. His goals were conventional but they were also clearly expressed.
The Laboratory School was useful as a testing ground for Dewey’s functional
psychology and pragmatism, but it was even more important as an expression of his ethics
and democratic theory. ‘The social phase of education’, he said, ‘was put first’ (Mayhew &
Edwards, 1966, p. 467). The Dewey School was above all an experiment in education for
By all available accounts, Dewey was fairly successful in creating a democratic
community in the Laboratory School. Children shared in the planning of their projects, and
the execution of these projects was marked by a co-operative division of labour, in which
leadership roles were frequently rotated. Moreover, the democratic community was fostered
not only among the students in the school but also among the adults who worked there.
Dewey was highly critical of the failure of schools to allow teachers to participate in the
decisions affecting the conduct of public education. He was particularly disturbed by
reformers who wrested control of the schools from corrupt politicians only to invest school
superintendents with enormous, autocratic power. This criticism reflected Dewey’s
commitment to extending democracy beyond the polity and into the workplace. ‘What does
democracy mean’, he asked, ‘save that the individual is to have a share in determining the
conditions and the aims of his own work; and that, upon the whole, through the free and
mutual harmonizing of different individuals, the work of the world is better done than when
planned, arranged, and directed by a few, no matter how wise or of how good intent that
few?’ (Dewey, 1903, p. 233). In the Laboratory School Dewey tried to implement this sort of
workplace democracy. The work of teachers was organized much like that of the children.
Teachers met weekly to discuss and plan their work and, though no doubt constrained in their
criticism by Dewey’s commanding presence, they played an active role in shaping the school
Dewey did not have a clear strategy for making American schools at large into
institutions working on behalf of radical democracy. Although he neither intended nor
expected that the methods of the Laboratory School would be strictly reproduced elsewhere,
he did hope that his school would serve as a source of inspiration for those seeking to
transform public education as well as a training ground and research centre for reformminded
teachers and specialists. He tended in this to underestimate the degree to which the
success of the Dewey School was attributable to its insulation from the conflicts, divisions
and inequities besetting the larger society, an insulation difficult to replicate. It was, after all,
a small school comprised of the children of middle-class professionals and staffed by welltrained,
dedicated teachers with access to the intellectuals of one of the nation’s great
If Dewey did not have a plan for establishing the schools as powerful adversarial
institutions in the heart of American culture, he did have a clear vision of what he thought the
schools in a thoroughly democratic society should look like. He attempted, with some
considerable success, to embody that vision in the Laboratory School. This school was
clearly not designed for social reproduction. Although Dewey sought to connect the school to
larger social life by putting occupations at the heart of his curriculum, he self-consciously
purified these occupations of one of their most essential features as they were conducted in
American society by removing them from the social relations of capitalist production and
putting them in a co-operative context in which they would have been virtually
unrecognizable to those who performed them in the larger society. In the school, he said, ‘the
typical occupations followed are freed from all economic stress. The aim is not the economic
value of the products, but the development of social power and insight’ (Dewey, 1899, p. 12).
Freed from ‘narrow utilities’, occupations in the school were organized so that ‘method,
purpose, understanding shall exist in the consciousness of the one who does the work, that his
activity shall have meaning to himself’ (ibid., p. 16). The children’s work was unalienated
labour in which the separation of hand and brain that was proceeding apace in the nation’s
factories and offices was not present. Dewey sometimes referred to the Laboratory School as
an ‘embryonic society’, but it was far from an embryo of the society that lay outside its walls
(ibid., p. 19). It did not promise the reproduction of industrial America but rather prefigured
its radical reconstruction.
The life of Dewey’s prefigurative community was very brief and, ironically, it was a
struggle over workers’ control of the Laboratory School that led to its demise. Dewey and his
teachers, after all, did not own their workshop; the University of Chicago did. And in 1904
President Harper sided with disgruntled teachers and administrators from the school founded
by Colonel Francis Parker (which had been merged with the Dewey School in 1903) who
resented incorporation into the ‘Mr. and Mrs. Dewey School’ and feared that Alice Dewey in
particular would see no need to retain their services. When Harper fired Alice, Dewey
resigned and almost immediately accepted a position at Columbia University, where he
remained for the rest of his extended career. The loss of the Laboratory School left it to others
to interpret, apply and often distort Dewey’s pedagogical ideas and deprived him of an
extraordinary, concrete manifestation of his democratic ideals.
Although he never again had his own school, Dewey remained an active critic of American
education for the remainder of his career, and he also ventured abroad to lend his voice to
reform efforts in Japan, Mexico, Turkey, the USSR and China. It was in these places where
he had perhaps the greatest impact. Arriving in China in 1919 on the eve of the emergence of
the May Fourth Movement, Dewey was lionized by many Chinese intellectuals who, as one
historian has said, ‘closely associated his thought with the very definition of modernity’
(Keenan, 1977, p. 34).
Dewey’s democratic convictions led to his involvement in disputes with a wide range
of ‘progressive’ educators, including some who regarded themselves as faithful Deweyans.
He attacked ‘administrative progressives’ who favoured vocational education programs that,
in his opinion, were a form of class education that made the schools a more efficient agent for
the reproduction of an undemocratic society. ‘The kind of vocational education in which I am
interested’, he said, ‘is not one which will adapt workers to the existing industrial regime; I
am not sufficiently in love with the regime for that.’ Rather Americans should strive for ‘a
kind of vocational education which will first alter the existing industrial system, and
ultimately transform it’ (Dewey, 1915, p. 412). Dewey also continued to distance himself
from romantic, child-centred progressives, and in the 1920s he was moved, in an
uncharacteristic moment of public bluntness, to label their method of simply allowing
children to follow their untutored inclinations as ‘really stupid’ (Dewey, 1926, p. 59). Finally,
he even took issue in the 1930s with the radical ‘social reconstructionists’, whose thinking
was perhaps closest to his own, when they proposed programs of ‘counter-indoctrination’ to
contest a curriculum designed to legitimate an oppressive social order. For radicals to engage
in counter-propaganda, he argued, was to demonstrate a lack of confidence in the power of
the convictions they held and the means by which they themselves had presumably arrived at
these convictions. They had not been indoctrinated into the conclusions they had reached
about the shortcomings of capitalist society but had reached these conclusions by means of
‘an intelligent study of historical and existing forces and conditions’ (Dewey, 1935, p. 415).
Radical democrats had to credit their students with the capability to reach the same
conclusions by the same means, not only because this was more democratic but also because
these conclusions should be subjected to the continuous scrutiny that such education would
provide. ‘If the method of intelligence has worked in our own case’, he asked, `how can we
assume that the method will not work with our students, and that it will not with them
generate ardour and practical energy?’ (ibid.).
Dewey’s criticisms of other reformers were usually politely received, but changed few
minds. Few followed the ‘way out of educational confusion’ that he proposed. For most
educators, it posed too great a threat to traditional methods and subject-matter. At the same
time, its social implications were too radical for advocates of scientific efficiency, and not
radical enough for some proponents of social reconstruction. Furthermore, although it called
for a revolutionary curriculum that would build on the impulses and interests of children, it
was too respectful of tradition and subject-matter to satisfy romantics. Thus, as the historian
Herbert Kliebard has said, ‘his intellectual stature, his international reputation and his many
honours notwithstanding, Dewey did not have enough of a true following in the world of
educational practice to make his impact felt’ (Kliebard, 1986, p. 179).
Had Dewey continued to believe that the teacher was ‘the usherer in of the true
kingdom of God’, he might have been more distressed than he was that his pedagogical
arguments so often fell on deaf ears. However, after the First World War, the schools were no
longer the focus of his activism. This change reflected a less naive estimate of the place of the
school in social reconstruction, a substantial displacement of the classroom from the centre of
his reform vision. What had once been to his mind
the critical means for the democratizationof American life became one of a number of critical means, and one clearly secondary to
more overtly political institutions for public education. Dewey began to more openly
acknowledged that schools were inextricably tied to prevailing structures of power. Therefore
they were used as agencies for reproduction of the class society of industrial capitalism. Thus
it would be extremely difficult to transform schools into an agency of democratic reform.
Efforts to design them into more democratic institutions repeatedly ran afoul since their were
powerful forces that wished to preserve the existing social order. The defects of schools
mirrored and sustained the defects of the larger society and these defects could not be
remedied apart from a struggle for democracy throughout that larger society. Schools would
take part in the democratic social change only ‘as they ally themselves with this or that
movement of existing social forces’ (Dewey, 1934, p. 207). They could not be viewed, as
Dewey had once been prone to see them, as the vehicle for an evasion of politics.
Dewey’s philosophy of education came under heavy posthumous attack in the 1950s from the
opponents of progressive education, who blamed him for virtually everything that was wrong
with the American public school system. Although his actual impact upon American schools
was quite limited and conservative critics erred in confusing him with the progressives he had
himself attacked, Dewey proved to be a convenient symbol of opprobrium for
‘fundamentalists,’ worried about the decline of intellectual standards in schools and the threat
this posed to a nation involved in a Cold War with Communism. Following the launch of the
Russian space satellite ‘Sputnik’, as two historians of the period have said, ‘the already
swelling outcry against the educational system became a deafening roar. Everyone joined in
—the President, the Vice-President, admirals, generals, morticians, grocers, bootblacks,
bootleggers, realtors, racketeers—all lamenting the fact that
we didn’t have a hunk of metalorbiting the earth and blaming this tragedy on the sinister Deweyites who had plotted to keep
little Johnny from learning to read’ (Miller & Nowak, 1977, p. 254). Since the 1950s,
variations on this theme have become a regular, periodic feature of debate about the condition
of American public education, and each new call for a return to the ‘basics’ has brought with
it some predictable Dewey-bashing. This type of criticism (as in the case of recent best
11selling indictments by Allan Bloom and E.D. Hirsch) usually insists on misrepresenting
Dewey as a Rousseauean romantic (Bloom, 1987, p. 195; Hirsch, 1987, p. 118-27).
Although many American teachers who have most probably read Dewey and have
tried to teach as Dewey would have had them teach, critics have vastly overestimated his
influence. His legacy is less one of established practice than of adversarial vision. Most
schools are far from the ‘supremely interesting places’ and ‘dangerous outposts of a humane
civilization’ he would have had them be (Dewey, 1922, p. 334). Yet for those who would like
schools to reach Dewey’s vision, his work remains a valuable resource.
1. Robert Westbrook (United States of America). A Graduate of Yale (B.A.) and Stanford (Ph.D.)
universities. He taught at Scipps College and Yale before taking up the post of associate professor of
history at the university of Rochester (New York). He is the author of numerous articles and essays on
American cultural and intellectual history, including
John Dewey and American democracy (1991) and
Pragmatism and politics
Bloom, Allan. 1987.
Closing of the American mind. New York, NY, Simon & Schuster.Dewey, Jane. 1951. Biography of John Dewey.
In: the philosophy of John Dewey. Ed. Paul A. Schilp. NewYork, NY, Tudor, p. 3-45.
Dewey, John. 1892. Christianity and democracy.
In: early works of John Dewey. Carbondale, IL, SouthernIllinois University Press, 1971, vol. 4, p. 3-10.
——.1894. John Dewey to Alice Dewey, 1 November 1894, Dewey papers, Morris Library, Southern Illinois
——.1895. Plan of organization of the university primary school.
In: early works of John Dewey. Op. cit., 1972,vol. 5, p. 224-43.
a. A pedagogical experiment. In: early works of John Dewey. Op. cit., vol. 5, p. 244-46.——.1896
b. Pedagogy as a university discipline. In: early works of John Dewey. Op. cit., vol. 5, p. 281-89.——.1896
c. The need for a laboratory school. In: early works of John Dewey. Op. cit., vol. 5, p. 433-35.——.1897
a. Ethical principles underlying education. In: Early Works of John Dewey. Op. cit., vol. 5, p. 54-83.——.1897
b. My pedagogic creed. In: early works of John Dewey. Op. cit., vol. 5, p. 84-95.——.1899. The school and society.
In: middle works of John Dewey. Carbondale, IL, Southern IllinoisUniversity Press, 1976. vol. 1, p. 1-109.
——.1902. The child and the curriculum.
In: middle works of John Dewey. Op. cit., 1976, vol. 2, p. 271-91.——.1903. Democracy in education.
In: middle works of John Dewey. Op. cit., 1977, vol. 3, p. 229-39.——.1912-13. Philosophy of education.
In: middle works of John Dewey. Op. cit., 1979, vol. 7, p. 297-312.——.1915. Education vs. trade-training.
In: middle works of John Dewey. Op. cit., 1979, vol. 8, p. 411-13.——.1916. John Dewey to Horace M. Kallen, 1 July 1916, Horace M. Kallen papers, American Jewish
Archives, Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati.
——.1922. Education as politics.
In: middle works of John Dewey. Op. cit., 1983, vol. 13, p. 334.——.1926. Individuality and experience.
In: later works of John Dewey. Carbondale, IL, Southern IllinoisUniversity Press, 1984, vol. 2, p. 55-61.
——.1934. Can education share in social reconstruction?’
In: later works of John Dewey. Op. cit., 1986, vol. 9,p. 205-9.
——.1935. The crucial role of intelligence.
In: later works of John Dewey. Op. cit., 1987, vol. 11, p. 342-44.Hirsch, E.D. 1987.
Cultural literacy: What every American needs to know. Boston, MA, Houghton, Mifflin.Keenan, Barry. 1977.
The Dewey experiment in China: educational reform and political power in the earlyrepublic
. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.Kliebard, Herbert M. 1986.
The struggle for the American curriculum, 1893-1958. Boston, MA, Routledge &Kegan Paul, 1986.
Mayhew, Katherine Camp; Edwards, Anna Camp. 1966.
The Dewey school. New York, NY, Atherton.Miller, Douglas T.; Nowak, Marion. 1977.
The fifties. Garden City, NY, Doubleday.
The entire corpus of John Dewey’s work has been published in the recently completed, thirty-seven volume
Collected works of John Dewey
The early works of John Dewey, 1882-1898; The middle works of John Dewey, 1899-1924; and Thelater works of John Dewey, 1925-1953
. Here I list Dewey’s major writings on education from this edition inchronological order. Most of his books on education are also available in other editions, many in paperback.
My pedagogic creed. 1897,
Early works, vol. 5, p. 84-95.The school and society. 1899.
Middle works, vol. 1, p. 1-109.The educational situation, 1901.
Middle works, vol. 1, p. 257-313.The child and the curriculum. 1902.
Middle works, vol. 2, p. 271-291.Moral principles in education. 1909.
Middle works, vol. 4, p. 265-291.How we think. 1910.
Middle works, vol. 6, p. 177-356.Interest and effort in education. 1913.
Middle works, vol. 7, p. 151-97.Schools of tomorrow, with Evelyn Dewey. 1915.
Middle works, vol. 8, p. 205-404.Democracy and education. 1916.
Middle works, vol. 9, p. 1-370.Education and politics. 1922.
Middle works, vol. 13, p. 329-34.The sources of a science of education. 1929.
Later works, vol. 5, p. 1-40.The way out of educational confusion. 1931.
Later works, vol. 6, p. 75-89.How we think. (Expanded and revised edition.) 1933.
Later works, vol. 8, p. 105-352.Experience and education. 1938.
Later works, vol. 13, p. 1-62.See also: Reginald D. Archambault. (ed.)
John Dewey, lectures in the philosophy of education, 1899. New York,NY, Random House, 1966; and
Two useful anthologies of Dewey’s educational writings: JosephRatner. (ed.)
Education today. New York, NY, Putnam, 1940; and Reginald D. Archambault. (ed.)
John Dewey on education
Guide to the works of John Dewey.
Carbondale, IL, Southern Illinois University Press, 1970.
Archambault, Reginald., ed.
Dewey on education, appraisals. New York, NY, Random House, 1966.Baker, Melvin C.
Foundations of John Dewey’s educational theory. New York, NY, Atherton, 1966.Brickman, William M.; Lehrer, Stanley. (eds.)
John Dewey: master educator. Second ed. New York, NY,Atherton, 1966.
Childs, John L.
American pragmatism and education. New York, NY, Henry Holt, 1956.Coughlan, Neil.
Young John Dewey. Chicago, IL, University of Chicago Press, 1975.Cremin, Lawrence.
The transformation of the school: progressivism in American education, 1876-1957. NewYork, NY, Vintage Books, 1961.
The social ideas of American educators. Totowa, NJ, Littlefield, Adams, 1959, p. 500-41.Dykhuizen, George.
The life and mind of John Dewey. Carbondale, IL, Southern Illinois University Press, 1975.Hendley, Brian.
Dewey, Russell, and Whitehead: philosophers as educators. Carbondale, IL, Southern IllinoisUniversity Press, 1986.
The Dewey experiment in China: educational reform and political power in the early republic.Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1977.
Kliebard, Herbert M.
The struggle for the American curriculum, 1893-1958. Boston, MA, Routledge & KeganPaul, 1986.
Mayhew, Katherine Camp; Edwards, Anna Camp.
The Dewey school. New York, NY, Atherton, 1966.Rockefeller, Steven.
John Dewey: religious faith and democratic humanism. New York, NY, ColumbiaUniversity Press, 1991.
John Dewey and American democracy. Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1991.Wirth, Arthur G.
John Dewey as educator. New York, Wiley, 1966.For a guide to the extensive secondary literature on Dewey see:
Boydston, Jo Ann; Poulos, Kathleen. (eds.)
Checklist of writings about John Dewey. 2nd ed. Carbondale, IL,Southern Illinois University Press, 1978.
. Chicago, IL, University of Chicago Press, 1974. A helpful roadmap to thewhole of Dewey’s philosophy is: Jo Ann Boydston. (ed.)
(Carbondale, IL, Southern Illinois University Press, 1967-1992), comprised of12