Dewey: The Progressive Era's Misunderstood Giant

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John Dewey has been called the "most influential writer on education" and the "greatest philosopher" this country has produced. He's also one of the most misunderstood, oft-quoted, and least-read educational commentators of the progressive era.

"Dewey, in fact, is an icon who was picked up for better or for worse on all sides of most debates," says Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, a professor of history and education at New York University. One reason for Dewey's complicated reputation is simply that he lived so long--from 1859 to 1952--and wrote so copiously during a period of enormous change.

"That's part of the problem of Dewey," argues Diane Ravitch, a senior research scholar at NYU. "He wrote so much over so many years. Forty years later, the schools didn't look the same. So people always had a choice: Do you pay attention to the Dewey of 1902 or the Dewey of 1938?"

Starting With the Concrete

Born in Burlington, Vt., to a modest, middle-class family--his father ran a grocery business--Dewey graduated from the University of Vermont and then taught high school in Pennsylvania for three years before earning a graduate degree in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University.

He moved from there to the University of Michigan and then to the University of Minnesota before settling in Chicago in 1894 to chair both the philosophy and pedagogy departments at the University of Chicago. There, he founded the Laboratory School of the University of Chicago in 1896 to study his educational theories in practice.

Dewey believed that people learn by putting thought into action: primarily, by confronting problems that arise while engaging in activities that interest them. He advocated that education start with a child's interest in concrete, everyday experiences and build on that understanding to connect with more-formal subject matter. At the Lab School, children participated in experiences drawn from community life and occupations.

The curriculum was built around themes, such as "progress through exploration and discovery," which were supplemented by specific work in languages, mathematics, the fine and industrial arts, science, music, history, and geography.

Dewey also saw schools as engines of democracy in which children would learn citizenship through practice. In them, children would form the habits of mind that would enable them not only to live in society but also to improve it.

In 1899, his first major book on education, The School and Society, attempted to spell out the relationship between the education of the young and the development of an intelligent citizenry.

Dense and Difficult

Dewey's writings touched on the arts, politics, and nature, as well as education. But while he was prolific, his writing was dense and often difficult. In The Transformation of the School, Lawrence A. Cremin wrote of the "frequently discussed problem of Dewey's style, described by Irwin Edman as 'lumbering and bumbling,' by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes as 'inarticulate,' and by Williams James as 'damnable; you might even say God-damnable.' "

Dewey, people often said, lived in the present. The slim, mustachioed scholar was supportive of young people and eager to listen to their concerns, but reluctant to indulge in his own reminiscences. His lectures at Columbia University were delivered in a slow--some said meditative--cadence. "His classes were well attended," said one observer, "but the lectures were not well listened to."

Still, William Heard Kilpatrick, one of the most popular lecturers at Teachers College from the 1910s to the 1930s, would describe Dewey as his "master." In his biography of Kilpatrick, who also lived to the ripe age of 93, John A. Beineke quotes from Kilpatrick's diaries: " 'I feel in some measure that I am best qualified of those about here to interpret Dewey. His own lectures are frequently impenetrable to even intelligent students.' "

Scholars continue to argue about which of the two men had more influence on progressive educational practice, and whether Kilpatrick faithfully interpreted Dewey's ideas or misconstrued them. In his biography of Dewey, Robert B. Westbrook argues that "much of what critics (then and now) attacked as aimless, contentless 'Deweyism' was in fact aimless, contentless 'Kilpatrickism.' " But in And Then There Were Giants in the Land, Beineke asserts: "That Dewey ever disavowed Kilpatrick, even indirectly, would be difficult to prove."

Some scholars blame Kilpatrick more than anyone else for what they view as the denigration of subject matter. But Ravitch places the onus on Dewey. "If you look at all of the things that are happening in American education that are anti-intellectual," she says, "there is a line that takes you back to John Dewey, and there is no escaping it."

'Thorndike Trumps Dewey'

Dewey's most direct attempts to influence practice were when he ran the Lab School, which he left in 1904. During his eight years at the elementary school, "Dewey began to develop a very promising approach to scholarship in education," Lagemann says. "Unlike most people, he wasn't sitting in a university office studying education, he was doing it with kids and teachers and trying to work out problems of practice."

In her forthcoming book, John Dewey's Defeat, Lagemann argues that in leaving the University of Chicago for Columbia in 1905, Dewey essentially ceded the field of education research to Edward L. Thorndike and other "administrative progressives." Those scholars thought research should be conducted in the university, that researchers should not be a part of schools, other than to test students, and that they could generate laws of learning for a primarily female teaching force to carry out. In Lagemann's view, "Thorndike trumped Dewey."

"I think it is fair to say that Dewey did not speak out as strongly as we might wish he had about some of the excesses of progressivism," Lagemann continues. Nonetheless, "I don't think you can blame the excesses of progressivism on Dewey."

Dewey's interest in the present moment was both a strength and a weakness. It gave his ideas tremendous vitality, but also made them hard to interpret in a later age.

"There were many John Deweys," says Patricia Albjerg Graham, the president of the Spencer Foundation. "The needs of American education from the time he started writing in the 1880s until the 1950s changed dramatically."

Today, she argues, much of what Dewey said that retains its value has been forgotten.

"What's been lost in the current discussions about education," Graham says, "is Dewey's powerful idea ... that if you're going to have a democratic society, you have to have an educated populace. And that an educated populace not only needs to know how to read, write, add, and subtract, but they have to know how to live together and to recognize that as a value."

Vol. 18, Issue 32, Page 29

Published in Print: April 21, 1999, as Dewey: The Progressive Era's Misunderstood Giant
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