Education Opinion

John Dewey Speaks to Us Today

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 02, 2014 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

We often write about the frontier, that area ahead of us on this journey of leading schools. Just recently we posted about looking forward to the horizon in order to be better informed about what lies ahead. We encourage walking, open eyed, into the frontier rather than waking up in it. Today, however, we are looking back. The past does have lessons to offer. If history teaches us little else, it is that it repeats itself. Our resistance to change and our life’s need for it, our valued traditions and our excited desire for newness....these opposites are part of the human dance. This cycle is an inherent part of the human struggle. Few become comfortable with it.

So with great respect, we posthumously invite John Dewey, as our guest blogger, to share part of a speech he made circa 1899. From current research, we do know there are schools and districts, teachers and leaders, who have embraced the words below and are moving forward...with the Common Core, teacher and principal evaluation and with fiscal hard times... with confidence and success. Others are spinning. We are being asked to hold both the individual student and our society at large, with the larger view than our daily work. It isn’t new. Dewey speaks to it below.


We are apt to look at the school from an individualistic standpoint, as something between teacher and pupil, or between teacher and parent. That which interests us most is naturally the progress made by the individual child of our acquaintance, his normal physical development, his advance in ability to read, write, and figure, his growth in the knowledge of geography and history, improvement in manners, habits of promptness, order, and industry-- it is from such standards as these that we judge the work of the school. And rightly so. Yet the range of the outlook needs to be enlarged. What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy. All that society has accomplished for itself is put, through the agency of the school, at the disposal of its future members. All its better thoughts of itself it hopes to realize through the new possibilities thus opened to its future self. Here individualism and socialism are at one. Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself. And in the self-direction thus given, nothing counts as much as the school, for, as Horace Mann said, “Where anything is growing, one former is worth a thousand re-formers.

Whenever we have in mind the discussion of a new movement in education, it is especially necessary to take the broader, or social, view. Otherwise, changes in the school institution and tradition will be looked at as the arbitrary inventions of particular teachers, at the worst transitory fads, and at the best merely improvements in certain details -- and this is the plane upon which it is too customary to consider school changes. It is as rational to conceive of the locomotive or the telegraph as personal devices. The modification going on in the method and curriculum of education is as much a product of the changed social situation, and as much an effort to meet the needs of the new society that is forming, as are changes in modes of industry and commerce.

It is to this, then, that I especially ask your attention: the effort to conceive what roughly may be termed the “New Education” in the light of larger changes in society. Can we connect this “New Education” with the general march of events? If we can, it will lose its isolated character; it will cease to be an affair which proceeds only from the over-ingenious minds of pedagogues dealing with particular pupils. It will appear as part and parcel of the whole social evolution, and, in its more general features at least, as inevitable. Let us then ask after the main aspects of the social movement; and afterward turn to the school to find what witness it gives of effort to put itself in line...


It seems hard to believe that these words, from over a century ago, fit our current state. Perhaps the struggle that continues is part of the change process. If so, since change is constant, this is a struggle in which we may always be engaged. Perspective may be achieved by thinking about Dewey’s words and appreciating that these challenges will persist. It is just our time to lead.

Dewey, John. (1900) The School and Society. University of Chicago. (Not in Copyright Status)

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.