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Centenary of John Dewey


by R. Freeman Butts - 1959

Today is a time for "kind remembrance" of John Dewey as we mark the occasion of his one-hundredth birthday. It is a time not for mawkish sentimentalism or flattering compliments, but for quiet, hard-headed, fair-minded, scholarly assessment.

TEN years ago today many of us met in this room to honor John Dewey on his ninetieth birthday1. Although he could not be with us in person on that Thursday morning, I received from him a handwritten note saying simply, "To My Friends of the Division of Foundations of Education—In Appreciation and with thanks for your kind remembrance of me—John Dewey." This note signed in his bold nonagenarian hand was in response to our meeting and our part in the mammoth Ninetieth Birthday Dinner given in his honor at the Hotel Commodore that same evening. A remarkable galaxy of persons took turns in describing and eulogizing the influence of Dewey upon philosophy, art, law, labor, and education. Messages poured in from political and intellectual leaders all over the world, beginning with the President of the United States. The expected highlight of the evening was John Dewey's own response to this outpouring of appreciation. The unexpected highlight was the dramatic entrance of Prime Minister Nehru, who strode across the platform to express his regards in person. None who took part that evening is likely to forget it.


The glow of good feeling extended to an editorial in The New York Times which said among other things:


... Mr. Dewey throughout his career has followed the basic method of free inquiry and creative thinking. His faith that human nature can be changed for the better, that we can modify our environment to the general benefit, is fundamentally what we like to think of as American. We are obviously at a point in history where we have to prepare ourselves to deal with great changes, present and to come. We need a faith and a technique for doing this. We could turn to no better adviser in this emergency than John Dewey.... We do know that his influence will color other men's thinking for good during countless years to come.


What on earth became of the John Dewey of 1949? He was a good American and a good influence on the youth of the land. What have we allowed to happen to him? Since that time a campaign of distortion, innuendo, and misrepresentation has attempted to create a sinister or muddle-headed public image of John Dewey. I shall resist the temptation to talk about this and leave the task to other times and places. For today is again a time for "kind remembrance" of John Dewey as we mark the occasion of his one-hundredth birthday. It is a time not for mawkish sentimentalism or flattering compliments, but for quiet, hard-headed, fair-minded, scholarly assessment.


I would simply like to make one point. Ten years ago our celebration honoring Dewey was principally for the staff and students of Teachers College. At that time all of the talks were given by members of the Teachers College faculty, including one of our present speakers.


Today we meet here under the auspices of the entire University. This is one of three meetings planned by an all-University committee with President Gray-son Kirk as honorary chairman. I am personally greatly pleased by this fact and what it symbolizes. Today the entire University honors John Dewey. Today we set the record straight. For twenty-five years John Dewey belonged to all of Columbia.


Those who find Dewey's thought and influence detrimental to American education seem to like to identify him solely with Teachers College. They either don't know or don't care to acknowledge that much of Dewey's formative thinking and writing took place while he was at the University of Chicago. And somehow the anti-Deweyites seem to overlook the fact that Dewey was first of all a professor in the Department of Philosophy here at Columbia, and that his courses in education were only a part of his teaching. When James McKeen Cattell undertook to help Dewey get a job in the Columbia philosophy department it was with the added professional and financial inducement that he could teach an extra course at Teachers College.


The anti-Deweyites who argue that the grubby educationists have ruined the schools and that the schools should be given back to the "pure" academic professors find it convenient to overlook the fact that Dewey was par excellence the academic professor dealing fundamentally with educational theory and practice. The trouble was, of course, that Dewey's philosophy did not turn out to be the academic philosophy admired by his opponents.


But we at Teachers College are proud not only of our connection with John Dewey but also of the fact that for more than sixty years many other professors and students from the graduate faculties have been involved in courses at Teachers College and that the traffic has been both ways. I hope that we shall always hold to the principle that the joint enterprise of the academic disciplines and of professional education is fruitful for both.


The first record I find of a course in education given by John Dewey at Columbia is contained in an addendum inserted in the Teachers College Announcement for the year 1904-05. The course, listed for the spring session of 1905, was Education 11, entitled "Logic as Applied to Education" and offered on Tuesday and Thursday at 4:30 P.M.


Although I am not one to believe implicitly that catalog statements about courses describe accurately the actual content of the courses, I would like to read to you the write-up of that first course. Its carefully chiseled academic phrases obviously were intended to cover up a most insidious plot to subvert the morals of youth and capture American education for the educationists. Just listen to this:


The course will discuss the method of logical thinking as the basis for the method of the recitation; and from this standpoint will consider the nature and function of observation, induction, reasoning, deduction and experiment in teaching.


See? At the very outset he wanted to experiment on our children!


The really insidious note, however, comes in the last sentence: "Open to students who have had elementary logic." Obviously, this requirement covers up his intention to destroy all educational standards of excellence and precision. The dark forces of irrationality banished to Morningside Heights from the University of Chicago were about to undermine the foundations of the house of intellect at Columbia. And who were the villains in this conspiracy with Dewey against the schools of America? As one might expect, they included James Earl Russell, dean of Teachers College, and James McKeen Cattell, professor of psychology in Columbia University, ably abetted, as one might not suspect, by President Nicholas Murray Butler, professor of philosophy and education, and Frederick J. E. Woodbridge, professor of philosophy and later dean of the graduate faculties in the University. This was the original "gang" or "crowd" surrounding John Dewey, anti-intellectualists all.


And once the foot was in the door, look what happened. In 1905-06 a second course in education was offered in alternate years by John Dewey. This one was entitled, ominously, "Social Life and the School Curriculum." Its purpose? Even more diabolical than that of logic:


The course will consider the modern social movements—humanism, development of science, industrialism, democracy, etc.—which have shaped the curriculum; and the social demands at present tending to further developments.


Obviously, if the forces of precise reasoning had only been alert enough to the "etc.," this second radical importation from the University of Chicago might have been detected.


And, finally, in this same year of 1905-06 a third course appeared—a practicum in philosophy for graduate students only. This course came to be called "Historic Relations of Philosophy and Education." Its first write-up was as innocent-seeming as the others:


The influence of types of philosophic thought upon the formation and direction of educational theory and practice. Aristotle will receive some attention; writers since the Renaissance will be considered. Prerequisites: Philosophy 61-62 and Education B.


You can see by now the enormity of the plot. Even the history of philosophy was to be used as an instrument in the nefarious plans to capture control of the American educational system. But the clues were there if his opponents had only realized it. Imagine, "Aristotle will receive some attention"! As if this were not bad enough, was there to be no Plato? Dewey apparently covered his tracks well, for the new write-up of 1910-11 revealed that his historical discussions would begin with Plato. But within a few years Dewey apparently felt sure enough of his power that he boldly announced in the catalog that his course in the history of philosophy as applied to education would begin with Bacon! The new progressive education movements of the nineteen-twenties could truly rally round this leader.


So there you have the three education courses that revolutionized American education—logic, ethics, and history of philosophy applied to education.


Meanwhile Professor Dewey each year taught his regular courses in philosophy to graduate and occasionally to undergraduate students—"Psychological Ethics," "The Logic of Experience," "Ethics," "Advanced Logic," "Moral and Political Philosophy," "Types of Logical Theory," and variations on these themes.


You will, I hope, forgive this excursion into history, both plain and fanciful, but the academic setting for John Dewey seldom finds a place in the public press or journals. The twenty-five years of quiet teaching and rigorous scholarly work on this campus are apparently not newsworthy or Life-Time worthy. What we may say here "in kind remembrance" of John Dewey will not hit the headlines. But his voice will not be stilled. We have heard about John Dewey from the sardonic young men in the slick magazines, both low brow and highbrow; and we have heard about Dewey from the sour old men in their bromidic speeches and books on what is wrong with the schools.


Today we hear from the philosophers: Dr. Blau, Dr. Childs, and Dr. Kennedy2—men from John Dewey's own guild. They are careful students of Dewey. They come from different backgrounds. They have been touched by him in different ways. But they are competent to speak about Dewey's remarkably complex and sturdy web of thought.



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1 Introductory remarks on the occasion of the John Dewey Centenary meeting in Horace Mann Auditorium, Teachers College, October 20, 1959.

2 The contribution of Dr. Gail Kennedy of Amherst College was in the form of commentary on the papers presented at the meeting by Dr. Blau and Dr. Childs.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 61 Number 3, 1959, p. 117-120
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 3387, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 3:30:30 AM

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