Education & Philosophy

Larry Hickman Outlines the Lasting Legacy of John Dewey

Dr. Larry Hickman was Director, Center for Dewey Studies, Southern Illinois University. He is the author of many books, including Pragmatism as Post-Modernism (2007). He is co-editor, with Thomas Alexander, of The Essential Dewey, Volumes I and II. This brief essay serves as an introduction to Dewey’s ideas on education as well as the relationship of science and religion.

This year, 2002, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of John Dewey. A native of Burlington, Vermont, Dewey was born on October 20, 1859. He died at his home in New York City on June 1, 1952. His long life spanned the years from America’s first oil well to the first test of the hydrogen bomb, from the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species to the first mass marketing of the birth control pill, and from President James Buchanan to President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

On the occasion of his 90th birthday, the New York Times hailed Dewey as “America’s philosopher.” But it was, perhaps, historian Henry Steel Commager who expressed Dewey’s relationship to American life most trenchantly: “Dewey,” he wrote, “was the guide, the mentor, and the conscience of the American people; it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that for a generation no issue was clarified until Dewey had spoken.”

On the academic stage, Dewey excelled in three professional fields: philosophy, psychology, and education. In the public arena, he was among the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He was an active member of the New York Teachers Union and an ardent supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. His publications, now available in a critical edition of 37 volumes, ranged from highly technical books on logic to essays in popular magazines.

Dewey thought that the goal of life was the growth of “intelligence,” which he understood as the primary means by which organisms adapt to changing environmental conditions. He thought that the exercise of intelligence, or what he called “mind,” is what allows all of us — children, adolescents, and adults alike — to establish a firm footing between the pushes of habit and tradition and the pulls of future possibilities. He thought it essential that everyone be involved in a lifelong curriculum whose goal is the development of mind. Because environing conditions are in constant change, he argued, growth can only be achieved by continual readjustment. In other words, he urged that each of us be “value creators,” to borrow a phrase from one of Dewey’s contemporaries, the Japanese educator and philosopher Tsunesaburo Makiguchi.

In his 1897 essay “My Pedagogic Creed” Dewey summed up his ideas about education. “I believe,” he wrote, “that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the [learner’s] powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself. Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs.” In Dewey’s view, then, learning is much more than simply a preparation for living. It is a process of living whose goal is the growth of individuals and institutions in ways that will allow them to participate fully in a life that is free and democratic.

Ultimately, religious experience is, in Dewey’s view, a necessary part of such a life. The goods of life are not given to us fully formed, but depend upon our active effort for their growth and development. If our effort is to be intelligent, it must negotiate a creative compromise between the actual and the ideal. Where there is enthusiasm for such activities, where there is a “unity of all ideal ends arousing us to desire and actions,” said Dewey, there is religious experience.

Dewey thus recast the traditional relationship between science and religion, which he viewed not as adversarial but as complementary. Working together, he argued, science and religion can establish platforms on which we can build a common faith, a faith for all humankind. If our culture accepts his challenge, the rewards may prove incalculable. But if our culture turns away from Dewey’s vision to embrace authority, superstition, or unexamined custom, the results may prove a disaster. This was the kernel of Dewey’s message and it is his lasting legacy.