DEWEY, JOHN (1859-1952)

Dewey, who was to become pre-eminent in three fields—philosophy,and education—was bom in Vermont, and graduated from the state university at the age of twenty. His interest in education was aroused when he taught school while studying for his Ph.D. in philosophy at the Johns Hopkins University. After serving as instructor in philosophy at the University of Michigan (1884-94), he took a position at the University of Chicago, where he organized the Laboratory School in 1896 and became director of its new School of Education in 1902. In 1904 he was appointed professor in philosophy at Columbia University, remaining there until his retirement in 1930. In these years he made many visits abroad, during which he taught at Cambridge and at the University of Peking, studied educational facilities in the U.S.S.R., Mexico, Turkey, and other countries, and made many suggestions for improvement in their academic procedures. He also helped to organize the American Association of University Professors, and served as president not only of that organization but of the American Philosophical Association and the American Psychological Association as well.Dewey’s earliest book, entitled Psychology (1886), was the first text on the subject written by an American. It was designed to introduce the new scientific findings on psychophysics, memory, thinking processes, and other topics, and it contained a strong plea that philosophical assumptions on such subjects as will, morality, and the nature of the mind be spelled out and understood—a plea that is as relevant today as it was at that time. As his position crystallized, he contributed heavily to the development of the functionalist point of view, along with such men as William James, James M. Cattell, George T. Ladd and James R. Angell. This movement defined psychology as the study of adjustment to the environment, and emphasized the co-ordinated activity of the total organism and the use of the mind as an instrument in meeting the practical problems of life.The functional approach became the theme of the so-called Chicago School, which “officially” dates from 1896, the year in which Dewey published a paper entitled “The Reflex Arc Concept of Psychology” in the Psychological Review. In it he argued against the current overemphasis on elementary aspects of behavior, such as the reflex arc, and proposed that psychologists view behavior in terms of integrated, purposeful adaptations. In taking this stand,he not only opposed the structuralist’s attempt to explain behavior in terms of elementary, isolated units, in imitation of the physical sciences, but also anticipated both the Gestalt position and that of dynamic psychology. See FUNCTIONALISM, WUNDT, INTROSPECTION, GESTALT PSYCHOLOGY, DYNAMIC PSYCHOLOGY.Dewey applied his functionalist, or “instrumentalist,” point of view at the Laboratory School of the University of Chicago, which was, in his words, devoted to “the problem of viewing the education of the child in the light of the principles of mental activity and processes of growth made known by modern psychology.” In his presidential address before the American Psychological Association in 1900, he called for the scientific study of education, and his own ideas on methodology have been heralded as the start of the progressive education movement. He insisted that (1) the curriculum should be brought into relation with the child’s interests, and therefore be student-centered instead of subject-centered; (2) the school atmosphere should be democratic; (3) tasks should be related to the child’s own experience and undertaken when he is ready for them; (4) learning occurs most effectively when the pupil sees a problem as a problem, when he wants to clear up his own perplexity and uneasiness, and when he actively participates in the process; and (5) the school experience should not be concerned only with academic performance, but should imbue the student with the spirit of inquiry and at the same time prepare him for active participation in the larger setting of the community itself.Dewey was keenly aware of the changes being wrought by the Industrial Revolution, and felt that education must be adapted to the new social aims and needs it was bound to introduce. He stressed especially the importance of the thinking process and the need for expanding the teaching of science, which he viewed as the best means of promoting social progress. In his book How We Think (1910) he linked these two together by showing that the most effective procedure for solving any kind of problem is to go through the same steps that are applied in scientific method—that is, defining and delimiting the problem, constructing and developing hypotheses, and testing them empirically. This pragmatic, or “experimentalist,” point of view was a protest against the a priori, deductive logic and the doctrine of immutable ideas which had dominated much of philosophy. Instead, he advocated the inductive method in which truth is viewed as relative and constantly modifiable as new discoveries are made.

Cite this page: N., Pam M.S., "DEWEY, JOHN (1859-1952)," in, November 28, 2018, (accessed January 16, 2021).