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Written by George Hein
John Dewey (1859-1952) is considered by many to be America's greatest philosopher. Born and raised in Burlington, Vermont, he graduated from the University of Vermont and then taught high school sciences and algebra for two years before deciding to study philosophy at Johns Hopkins (at that time the only U. S. research university comparable to European ones). In 1884, he obtained a position in the philosophy department at University of Michigan, where he met his wife Alice, a student who lived in the same boarding house. In 1894, Dewey accepted a position as chair of three departments—philosophy, psychology and pedagogy—at the two-year-old University of Chicago. Within a year he established a laboratory school (his wife as principal), and wrote some of his earliest works on education. In 1904, when President Harper reorganized the university's departments and subsumed the school under different leadership, both Alice and John resigned and the family moved to New York, where Dewey taught philosophy (and psychology in the early years) at Columbia University for the remainder of his career.
The couple had six children, two of whom died young; both while the family was on one of their frequent trips to Europe. In 1908, the Deweys adopted an eight-year-old Italian boy during another European vacation. Alice died in 1927 and Dewey remarried in 1946 at age 87. He and his new wife adopted two young Canadian children.
When Dewey began studying philosophy in the 1870s, most professors in the field were Protestant clergymen. Dewey set out quite early to develop a new, comprehensive system of philosophy based on William James' ideas about pragmatism. His system emphasizes the importance of experience and encompassed all aspects of life as it is lived. He rejected metaphysical absolutes, final causes or ideal forms and dualisms such as the categorical distinctions between mind and body. In one of his most influential books, The Quest for Certainty (1929), he criticized all previous Western philosophy for assuming that certain knowledge was attainable, arguing that life was uncertain and in constant flux and any philosophical system needed to accommodate this condition. Democracy and Education (1916) spelled out a detailed philosophy of education that has influenced all progressive educators and is still widely read. In it, he argued that "progressive" education was the appropriate education for any society that wanted to progress towards a better social condition, meaning more democratic and with increased social justice. In this, he was reacting to circumstances of his time, not so different from today, of huge gaps between rich and poor, erosion of civil rights and xenophobic attitudes towards immigrants.
Dewey was a prolific writer as well as a profound thinker. During his long life he was considered America's leading public intellectual and delivered innumerable talks to academic, political and cultural audiences and wrote numerous essays and book reviews. The Center for Dewey Studies has published his complete works in thirty-seven volumes that cover every possible domain of philosophy, including not just pedagogy and political philosophy, but fields ranging from logic to aesthetics. His 1934 volume, Art as Experience, grew out of his long association and close friendship with Albert C. Barnes, whose magnificent art collection was intended as a pedagogic showcase in the manner that Dewey's Laboratory School was intended to explore and illustrate best pedagogic practices.
Personally, Dewey was a mild and gentle man. He and Alice lost two young children and later two grandchildren, and his wife died when Dewey was sixty-six. Despite these losses, he lived another quarter century and seems to have been optimistic and productive most of his life. He loved farming, wrote romantic poetry for a time in mid-life, and gave speeches and seminars constantly. He was a founder, active member, and later in life often honorary figure, for countless academic, political and cultural organizations. He enjoyed travel and besides the frequent European trips, Alice and he visited several countries that underwent revolutionary changes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: Japan (1919), China (1919-21), and Turkey (1924). Later, accompanied by one of his daughters or colleagues, he added Mexico (1926 and 1937), Soviet Union (1928) and South Africa (1934) to this list.
The most striking aspect of Dewey's work for me is its relevance today. Whether reading his description of schools as they are and his ideal model in The School and Society (1900), his analysis of How We Think (1911), or his views on politics in a democracy in The Public and Its Problems (1927), I'm struck by the contemporary tone. Dewey's narrative style reflects his nineteenth century roots and he is often considered difficult to read. However, increased acquaintance with the works (and rereading them) allows his thoughtful critiques of common human practices, his faith in democracy, his fierce rejection of traditional metaphysics and dualisms, and his powerful arguments for accepting life as it is with all its uncertainty and difficulties as well as delights, to shine through.