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Dewey and the Dilemma of Race: An Intellectual History, 1895-1922

reviewed by Ronald K. Porter - June 13, 2011

coverTitle: Dewey and the Dilemma of Race: An Intellectual History, 1895-1922
Author(s): Thomas D. Fallace
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807751642, Pages: 224, Year: 2011
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In a political climate that currently understands race either as interpersonal phenomena or a dilemma of the past, Thomas D. Fallace’s Dewey and the Dilemma of Race: An Intellectual History, 1895-1922 is a significant contribution to the study of race and education. Through an analysis of the evolution of John Dewey’s educational thought as connected to changes impacting the academy, the United States, and the world, Fallace seeks to make two interventions to the traditional study and application of Dewey’s educational program. First, rather than bringing Dewey into the present to explore current educational reform efforts, he situates Dewey’s thoughts on education and race within his own historical moment, thereby questioning “whether educators of the present can or should rip Dewey’s early and middle ideas from the context that engendered them and apply them to current educational problems, issues, and agendas without explicitly recognizing that they are doing so” (p. 9). Second, he seeks to invoke a necessary discomfort and appreciation for the contradictions inherent in Dewey’s engagements with historicism, evolution, and psychology as they relate to race. However, what is most critical about Fallace’s work is that his overview of Dewey exposes how American racism has not simply involved Jim Crow segregation, legality, and/or interpersonal relationships, but rather how its backbone, its raison d'être, has been purely epistemological.

Fallace analyzes the relationship between Dewey’s educational thought and race by conducting an intellectual history. Rather than exploring the progression of thought as detached from both the individual and historical circumstances, this approach regards ideas as being conditioned by historical forces. As Robert Westbrook remarks,

One of the perennial tasks of the intellectual historian, one that sometimes we undertake with a certain glee, is to remind our readers that their philosophical heroes were not Olympian gods but historical human beings. Their work bears the marks of their moments. (as cited in Fallace, 2011, p. vii)

By firmly situating Dewey within a particular historical context marked by debates regarding historicism and evolution, rapid industrialization, the First World War, and migration both within and to the United States, Fallace invites his readers to understand Dewey’s educational program in relation to broader historical themes. Through this approach, Fallace argues that while Dewey’s initial thoughts on race and education were Eurocentric, he shifted away from this Eurocentrism to a more interactionist and pluralist approach, especially as American schools became more populated with persons said to be from “savage” and/or “barbarian” races (p. 76).  

The text begins by exploring the historical and intellectual circumstances that influenced Dewey at the moment of his arrival at the University of Chicago’s Department of Pedagogy in 1894. While Fallace claims that Dewey did not subscribe to the idea that persons from different races and cultures were biologically deficient, he does note that Dewey had intellectual roots in linear historicism and genetic psychology. Linear historicism posited that non-western cultures represented earlier steps towards western civilization, while genetic psychology asserted that human evolution occurs through linear psychological growth occurring over time. As Fallace notes, both of these epistemological standpoints came with a built-in ethnocentrism; however, they became the foundation for pedagogical experiments at the Dewey School (p. 4). Dewey’s pedagogical approach was to repeat the “race experience” in the child (pp. 35-36). The child’s mind is thus connected with the savage mind, and both are on a linear path towards the civilized person and the civilized society. Contradictions arose in Dewey’s Eurocentric pedagogical approach as questions of race, immigration, and culture began to emerge as migrations from the south and Europe took hold at the turn of the 20th century. Fallace captures the tension Dewey faced during his years at the University of Chicago between asserting that “any student regardless of his cultural and biological background could potentially engage in reflective thinking about any emerging ‘real-world’ issue,” and his attachment to a linear historicism and genetic psychology that posited Europe as the apex of all civilization (pp. 75-76).  

Fallace continues by chronicling Dewey’s move from the University of Chicago to Columbia University in 1904, and his subsequent approach to the issue of race. Upon his arrival at Columbia, Dewey still held the view that public schools should “assimilate different races to our own institutions” (as cited in Fallace, 2011, p. 81). Fallace points out that while Dewey’s progressivism strove to “break down social stratification,” it also relegated persons of different races and cultures to the status of savages existing along the continuum of human history (p. 96). While the children of these savages could perhaps reap the benefits of America’s public education system, adults were trapped in a cul-de-sac of historical hopelessness. “For Dewey, the adult savage, having missed his opportunity for a civilized education, was forever relegated to the premodern consciousness of savagery; he was hopelessly stuck in an earlier stage of social and individual development” writes Fallace. He continues, “Again, this was the argument used by many to deny African Americans equal rights” (p. 95).

According to Fallace, Dewey did not specifically address the issue of race until 1909, and while Dewey was silent on the topic prior to 1909, “his views on race can be reconstructed by fleshing out the implications of his linear historicism and comparing and contrasting it with the views of his colleagues and peers” (p. 106). After 1909, however, the influence of colleagues and critics such as Frantz Boas and W.E.B. Du Bois, World War I, immigration, and trips to Japan and China moved Dewey to reconsider his views. By 1920 Dewey had revised his historicism from that which posited a unilateral narrative of progress to a more pluralist view that accounted for the importance of “interaction among diverse, but equivalent, ways of living” (p. 128). By the 1920s Dewey came to recognize the important role public schools had to play in integrating persons of different racial and cultural backgrounds into the whole of the American polity. This does not mean that Dewey completely replaced his former historical linearity, genetic psychology, and/or ethnocentrism with pluralism and interaction. “Rather,” as Fallace notes, “they coexisted, each appearing in slightly different forms depending on its interaction with the particular problems and particular contexts that brought them forth” (p. 164).          

Fallace concludes the text by reflecting on the implications of disturbing the present day conceptualization of Dewey as a champion of educational reform. While Fallace analyzes race via an exploration of the ways in which Dewey utilized the terms “savage” and “primitive,” I would suggest that a more robust engagement with the concept of race in early 20th century America and the ways in which race has been deployed within modernity as a psycho-historical phenomenon is warranted. However, Fallace makes a significant contribution to scholarly literature in multiple disciplines by suggesting, via his exploration of Dewey’s thoughts on race, that a polymorphous and regulatory epistemological racism existed at the turn of the 20th century that imbued research in all the disciplines of the American academy. Readers must have the courage to not only ask what impact this had on educational efforts during Dewey’s time, but also how a racialized ethos still saturates discourses that focus on the education of immigrants, religious minorities, and/or persons of color today (see Gordon, 1995; Leonardo, 2004; Mills, 1997; Wynter, 1995). Thus, exposing Dewey as a historical being of his time should not be cause for embarrassment, but rather should promote critical reflection on how we are all caught in the fabric of a racialized modernity and, after developing such an awareness, how to navigate the terrain. Because it is not through the active avoidance of the issue of race that we come to new understanding, but it is rather through the direct analysis of our place within this racialized history that its hold on our society can finally be undone.


Gordon, L. (1995). Fanon and the crisis of European man: An essay on philosophy and the human sciences. New York: Routledge.  

Leonardo, Z. (2004). The color of supremacy: Beyond the discourse of ‘white privilege.’ Educational Philosophy and Theory, 36(2), 137-152.

Mills, C.W. (1997). The racial contract. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Wynter, S. (1995). 1492: A new world view. In V.L. Hyatt & R. Nettleford (Eds.). Race, discourse, and the origin of the Americas: A new worldview (pp. 5-57). Washington, DC: Smithsonian.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 13, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16444, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 3:55:20 AM

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About the Author
  • Ronald Porter
    University of California, Berkeley
    E-mail Author
    RONALD K. PORTER is a doctoral candidate in the Social and Cultural Studies in Education program, with a Designated Emphasis in Critical Theory, at the University of California, Berkeley. He earned his B.A. in Political Science from Eckerd College and his M.A. in Education at the University of California, Berkeley. His research interests include African-American educational thought and critical theories of race, gender and sexuality. His dissertation research traces the intellectual history of African-American educational thought looking specifically at the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, and James Baldwin. His publications include "Pedagogy of fear: toward a Fanonian theory of 'safety' in race dialogue," co-authored with Zeus Leonardo, and "A rainbow in black: The gay politics of the Black Panther Party" (Forthcoming in Sexualities in Education: A Reader).
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