Dewey (1859-1952) was a psychologist and an educational reformer, described by Bertrand Russell, as "the leading living philosopher in America" and as having "had a profound influence, not only among philosophers, but on students of education, aesthetics, and political theory." He is described as having been a key figure in the rebirth of modern humanism.
After one year teaching in an elementary school in a small town in Vermont and two years as a high-school teacher in Pennsylvania, Dewey earned PhD at Johns Hopkins University, and in 1884 (age 25) he accepted a faculty position at the University of Michigan. (His PhD dissertation was titled "The Psychology of Kant.")
Dewey is known for his belief in democracy. He was considered a liberal, and some conservatives portrayed him a "dangerously radical." Marxist-Leninists also disliked him for his anti-Stalinism and his philosophical differences with Karl Marx. Dewey identified himself as a democratic socialist. He saw democracy as an ethical ideal rather than merely a political arrangement. He advocated thinking of women as human individuals and a supporter of women's suffrage.
Believing in democracy and rejecting authoritarianism, Dewey was focused on people learning to think for themselves and students developing problems solving skills. He viewed elementary and secondary schools as too often repressive and as often failing to promote exploration and growth. He rejected the old fashioned method of children learning by rote memory. And he wrote of education as something apart from propaganda.
Regarding journalism, Dewey rejected the model attributed to Walter Lippmann that denigrates public thought and action. Dewey believed that politics is the work and duty of each individual in the course of his or her daily routine and that journalism has a role to play in informing the public.
Dewey's ideas on education were put into practice in 1896 at the University of Chicago Laboratory School, working on education theory for nursery schools through the 12th grade. It was labeled progressive education. It was described as learning by doing and involved becoming aware of a problem, defining the problem, proposing a hypothesis to solve it and evaluating the consequences of the hypotheses. He was concerned about the rights and academic autonomy of teachers. He was a member of the first teacher's union in New York City, and he was a founder of the American Association of University Professors.
Dewey was influenced by the Principles of Psychology, published in 1890, by William James, who connected mental life and human behavior with adaptation to one's environment. Like James, in epistemology Dewey was a pragmatist, what he called "instrumentalism." He justified his belief in empiricism, for example, on the empirical method was a tool that humans used in interacting with their environment. He is said to have believed that communication creates a great community and that citizens who participate actively with public life contribute to that community.
Russell disagreed with this Dewey's epistemology. Russell was concerned with maintaining an awareness of "truth" as something independent of control. This, he believed, would help limit an "intoxication of power" that had invaded philosophy and was "the greatest danger of our time." Indeed, Mussolini considered himself a philosophical pragmatist. And in the 1920s some liberals in the United States praised Mussolini for his having made capitalism work, including making trains run on time.
Dewey shared with logical positivists (including Russell) concern with language and meaning. He was aware that sentences and words should be "adjudged only by means of context," and he held that only statements verifiable through empirical observation are cognitively meaningful. The was part of the new "scientific philosophy" of his time — an attempt to prevent the confusion that rises from unclear language and unverifiable claims.
Peter Beinart, in his book, Icarus Syndrome (published in 2011), complains that Dewey and his colleague, Charles Beard, were two of the "loudest academic cheerleaders" for US entry into World War I (seduced apparently by what was viewed as the morality of British and French democracies against the Germany and Austria-Hungary.) Beinart writes that Dewey predicted that wartime mobilization "would shift power from private to public hands, from selfish tribes to unbiased experts." They were racing beyond their empiricism and disciplined reasoning to a disappointment that turned both of them into opponents of war. In the early 1920s, Dewey urged Congress to draft legislation to abolish war. According to Beinart, "Dewey and Beard were moral perfectionists, men who would allow the greatest of evils to triumph for fear of implicating themselves in the lesser evil of war."
According to William Brooks ("Was Dewey a Marxist?") by the 1950s and '60s educational literature had "a wide spectrum of reaction to Dewey, from extravagant enthusiasm to violent denunciation." Brooks writes that Dewey denied that he was attracted to the ideas of Marx, describing himself as committed to peaceful evolution and "growth," in other words reforms rather than a violent class struggle.
There was dislike of Dewey's atheism. The science he believed in was, of course, non-theistic (agnostic), and Dewey had his own definition of God: whatever it was that made people want to strive to be their best. He favored preserving brotherhood, sisterhood and the devotion to community that exists among the faithful.
Copyright © 2019 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.