Although his name isn’t well known, John Dewey had a deep impact on American thought. He was the last of the great classical pragmatists, the generation of thinkers who developed a distinctly American school of thought rooted in practicality and personal commitment. Appropriately for a philosophical pragmatist, Dewey brought his ideas to the public in an effort to reform American society. He helped establish the anti-racist NAACP in 1910, advocated vigorously for academic freedom, and practical education. Where many countries (then and now) focused their education on rote learning and memorization, Dewey argued that democratic culture required free-thinking citizens and therefore rejected the idea of memorization-based learning.
Born in 1859, Dewey lived until 1952, and so witnessed a profound period of transformation in America. He saw the Civil War, the end of slavery, the rise of industrial inventions like cars and airplanes, then two world wars and the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement. In part thanks to these experiences, his works show a deep understanding of American culture and an equally deep faith in the democratic practices that will, Dewey hopes, continue to improve that culture and pull it into the future.
Dewey was born to a middle-class Vermont family and began his career as a primary school teacher. He never lost his passion for education, but he found that teaching young children did not satisfy his need for intellectual stimulation. He wanted to think philosophically about the goals and practices of education without the distraction of day-to-day classroom management. Scraping together funds, he enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Johns Hopkins University, where he studied Kantian philosophy. After finishing his degree, he was offered an appointment at the University of Chicago, where he continued to publish philosophical essays on logic.
At the same time, he put his philosophy into practice by establishing the University of Chicago Laboratory School, an experimental private school where he could test his ideas on education. It’s a testament to the success of those ideas that the Lab School is today one of the country’s most highly-regarded private schools (ranked 4th in the nation by the Wall Street Journal). After moving to New York in 1904, Dewey continued his advocacy and reform work. He helped establish the New School, an experimental college that boasts among its alumni major thinkers and artists such as Jack Kerouack, Hannah Arendt, and Ai Weiwei.
Dewey wasn’t the inventor of pragmatism, but he was one of a group of philosophers who brought it to prominence. The idea emerged simultaneously from several corners of American intellectual life: from C.S. Peirce and William James at Harvard; Oliver Wendell Holmes at the Supreme Court; and John Dewey at Chicago. In their philosophical and legal writings, all four shared an emphasis on concrete practices over abstract principles. Holmes, for example, argued that judges should take into account the practical consequences of their rulings and not simply adhere dogmatically to abstract principles. Laws are not eternal philosophical truths (if such things even exist) but attempts by people in a particular cultural context to fix particular problems. To apply the law correctly, then, we need to understand how that context and those problems relate to our own.
Similarly, Peirce and James wrote about the importance of practical considerations in considering philosophical propositions. The value of a philosophical proposition, James argued, was its power to affect human behavior. Consider two people with slightly different beliefs about God. If they act the same way, make the same statements, pray the same prayers, and enact the same rituals, then are they really different beliefs at all? James argued that it didn’t make sense to view beliefs as different merely because they have different psychological representations; it’s the effect on behavior that counts.
Dewey took this idea forward in his writings on politics and education. He argued that one of the goals of philosophy was to bolster democratic culture, empowering both reader and writer to further the democratic project. In everything he wrote, his goal was pragmatic: to help craft an understanding of the universe that would be conducive to freedom and equality. Specifically, Dewey argues that modern education needs to dismantle the old dualisms of the past: mind vs. body, culture vs. nature, individual vs. collective, etc. He sees all these dualisms as oversimplifications. In reality what we see are dynamic relationships in which both sides simultaneously support and challenge each other. The mind, for example, is not separate from the body but part of the body. A hungry and sleep-deprived person, for example, will have less mental capacity than one who is well fed and well rested. The body creates the mind. At the same time, mental practices contribute to physical health: think of the placebo effect or the well-known benefits of meditation. Mind and body are one, as are the other sides of the old dualisms. In order to have a functioning democratic society, Dewey argues, we have to help people get past these dualisms.
Accidental inequalities of birth, wealth, and learning are always tending to restrict the opportunities of some as compared with those of others. Only free and continued education can counteract those forces which are always at work to restore, in however changed a form, feudal oligarchy. Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.
Here Dewey sums up a central theme in his writing: the connection between democracy and education. He sees democracy as a fragile project, perpetually in danger of sliding into oligarchy or plutocracy (the absolute rule of the wealthy and powerful). The only way to avoid that fate is to educate each generation so that they are capable of carrying democracy forward. They must learn to think independently, must learn enough history that they can critically evaluate their own place in it, and must learn science so that they can understand their place in the universe and the technologies at work in their society. Education, in other words, isn’t about training individuals to succeed in the economy of a given moment; it’s about training them to uphold the social fabric on which that economy is founded.
In Pop Culture
There’s an episode of The Boondocks where Riley meets an art teacher. In many ways, the art teacher is based on Bob Ross, but there’s a little of John Dewey’s spirit in him as well. Rather than teach Riley mere artistic technique or have him memorize art history, the teacher tries to help Riley cultivate values of positive self-expression that make his street art uplifting and valuable for his community. It’s an idea that resonates with pragmatism: using education as a means to help the student prepare for participation in democratic society. He also helps Riley overcome the socially-constructed dualism between art and vandalism, proving that Riley can make street art that’s just as valuable as any piece hanging in a museum. The art teacher also ends up in a shoot-out with the police, which would have been a little too radical for John Dewey.