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Some Popular Appraisals of John Dewey


by Clyde R. Miller - 1929

These accounts were compiled by Clyde R. Miller, Director, Bureau of Educational Service, Teachers College.

John Dewey was seventy years old October 20. A birthday celebration committee, comprised of one hundred men and women prominent in public life, with William H. Kilpatrick as chairman and Henry R. LinviIle as secretary of the executive committee, sponsored three meetings, in the nature of an institute, to set forth Professor Dewey's contributions to education, to philosophy, and to social progress. The first of these meetings was held October 18 at Teachers College. Dr. Frank P. Graves, commissioner of education of the State of New York presided. Professor Ernest C. Moore, director of the University of California at Los Angeles, spoke of Professor Dewey's contribution to educational theory; Professor Jesse H. Newlon, director of Lincoln School, Teachers College, told of Professor Dewey's influence in education in America; Professor I. U. Kandel, of the International Institute of Teachers College, discussed his influence in education in foreign lands.

At the second program, held on the morning of October 19 at Philosophy Hall, Columbia University, Professor Ralph Barton Perry, of Harvard University, presided and addresses on aspects of the Dewey philosophy were delivered by Professor George H. Mead, of the University of Chicago, and by Professor Herbert W. Schneider, of Columbia University.

Dewey and social progress was the theme of the final program given in connection with a Dewey luncheon at Hotel Astor October 19. Speakers were Jane Addams and James Harvey Robinson, with President James R. Angell, of Yale, presiding.

It is doubtful if members of the birthday committee anticipated the popular interest that was to mark the celebration. By the editorials and special articles which appeared on this occasion in the weekly journals of news and opinion and in the newspapers of New York City and elsewhere, it was made clear that many American editors not only regarded Professor Dewey as a source of significant and important news but were happy to acknowledge editorially his contributions to education, to philosophy, and to social welfare. Various educational journals no doubt are printing or will print the formal addresses delivered at the birthday celebration meetings. It is likely that those addresses will be gathered together and issued in book form by the committee. But the appeal of John Dewey to the general public is best indicated in the news and feature articles and editorials which appeared in connection with the birthday celebration. Some of these, in full or in part, comprise the following symposium.

From the Springfield (Mass.) Union and Republican:

John Dewey, 70 To-day,
Honored as America's Foremost Thinker

This country might yesterday, if it had been so inclined, have witnessed the spectacle of honor being done a man who had neither amassed millions, invented an electric light bulb, nor made cheaper and more motor cars. Instead of studying this anomaly in absorbed wonder, probably the national consciousness was concentrated on football, the talkies, and similar weighty matters. Nevertheless, yesterday, while millions of his countrymen (whose lives and thought presumably have been molded by his life and thought) were going about their everyday concerns, John Dewey was being reminded that there is at least a nucleus in America which cares about the mind and its makers.

For yesterday and the day before, an unusual party was held in New York City for the veteran philosopher and teacher whose seventieth birthday is today. Perhaps there was a large birthday cake with seventy pink candles at the luncheon yesterday afternoon at the Astor; it does not matter especially. The important thing is that this country is learning to honor its men of ideas. To celebrate the anniversary an institute had been arranged to discuss the various phases of Dewey's career, his philosophy, his educational theories and influence, his work for social progress. It was an extraordinary event in American history.

And an extraordinary character in American history, too, is this man, who, from his professor's chair at Columbia has reached out to re-mold the educational system of the world, whose social thinking seeks to revitalize our concepts of social control and intelligence, who betrays an amazing prolificity in writing on all subjects, who in odd moments, carries on an egg business and delivers his wares in person, who is equally successful in becoming embroiled with the American Federation of Labor and such younger members of the intelligentsia as Waldo Frank and Lewis Mumford.

"America's foremost thinker," "the great man of the age," "the American 'farthest north' in modernistic philosophical latitude and altitude," are a few of the descriptions his admirers have coined. To-day at Teachers College, Columbia, there is a special reading room for students in the philosophy of education, over which presides Epstein's bust of John Dewey. When this was being commissioned many letters were received from friends, with such advice the as: "Tell Dewey, when he sits, not to look so damn benign, gentle and easy….Tell Dewey to think of _______, or university administration, or Governor Fuller," or "My advice to Epstein is not to fall for that benign expression. Tell him to aetheticise the intellectual-barroom strain in Dewey's ensemble."

When this bust was unveiled, it was a great day for Columbia. Professor W. H. Kilpatrick of Teachers College delivered the chief address, in which he summed up as follows Dewey's services to education, saying that he has made "the greatest contribution to thought yet made by an American and that he must be included among the great men of all time now. Certainly these things are true of his contribution to education. No school child in the country but feels the effect of his teaching, and no teacher or school official. And his influence grows, not only here but elsewhere; many foreign countries feel it. He is the best-known American educator.

"I see in Professor Dewey the modest sincerity of Socrates, the radical constructive thinking of Plato, the balanced outlook of Aristotle. Like Socrates he, too, has brought philosophy down from the clouds to dwell among men. Like Plato he has married philosophy and education with like fertile results. Like Aristotle he had mediated conflicts, but less often by finding a 'mean' between contending elements than by showing the unreality of conflict and shifting the problem to more fruitful lines. He has the same common-sense approach to experience which characterized John Locke, but with a penetration more like Hume's. Unlike Hume, however, he leaves us with a positive program."

According to this admiring view of Dewey he has the "most thorough-going grasp yet achieved of how civilization is to be placed on a functional and dynamic basis." On the other hand, Waldo Frank in his Re-discovery of America, would dispose of him by saying: "He is himself a child of chaos and his works are chaos…. John Dewey, for all his intricate mental power, is an American primitive. Mr. Dewey is first, a very young American. For this is what America must mean: A beginning that contains all the old human ends and re-directs them into a fresh, live body. . . . He is not a leader of maturity, but he is a token of the life of our promise."

The reason for this clash of opinion is obvious. Dewey's "instrumentalism" is in a sense a glorification of the American will to succeed, to do, to applaud whatever comes off successfully. William James summed up Dewey's position by saying of it: "Any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak, any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor, is true for just so much, true in so far forth, true instrumentally. This is the instrumental view of truth, the view that truth in our ideas means their power to 'work.'" It is philosophy applied to the external world with a vengeance in the sense that it preaches that "all our ideas are, and ought to be, practical, that is, instruments for reforming the world and making it a better place to live." Those who admire this pragmatic acquiescence will naturally admire Dewey; those who seek other values than immediate ones will wonder how far and how safely such guidance can be followed. Hence the chasm and clash.

In this connotation John Dewey is assuredly the "philosopher of the New World," as one of his colleagues has called him. At first inspired by William James, he sought to emancipate American thinking from the German epistemological burden. The starting point of his system of thought is biological; man is an organism in an environment, remaking as well as made. Thought is an instrument of behavior (and in this he anticipated behaviorism) and should not only "understand" the world but refashion it. Since the individual lives in a society, he must be considered not as a solitary "self," but as a citizen in the midst of a vast complex of interactions and relations.

If to-day we seem to wander in darkness, it is because our powers have outrun our wisdom. "Physical science," Dewey writes, "has for the time being far outrun psychical. We have mastered the physical mechanism sufficiently to turn out possible goods; we have not gained a knowledge of the conditions through which possible values become actual in life, and so are still at the mercy of habit, of haphazard, and hence of force…With tremendous increase in our control of Nature, in our ability to utilize Nature for human use and satisfaction, we find the actual realization of ends, the enjoyment of values, growing unassured and precarious. At times it seems as though we were caught in a contradiction; the more we multiply means the less certain and general is the use we are able to make of them."

To attain wisdom intelligence is chiefly needed, not abstract formulae or programs, but a flexible mind willing to progress bit by bit. There is no absolute good, no summum bonum, and the ethical aim must vary with time and person and place. One thing alone seems universally good, and that is growth. "Not perfection as a final goal, but the ever-enduring process of perfecting, refining, is the aim in living….The bad man is the man who, no matter how good he has been, is beginning to deteriorate, to grow less good. The good man is the man who, no matter how morally unworthy he has been, is moving to become better. Such a conception makes one severe in judging himself and humane in judging others."

Editorial in the New York World:

John Dewey and Our Time

It would have been too much to expect the tribute to John Dewey on his seventieth birthday to-day to assume a popular character. Nevertheless, its extent and spirit are both striking. It is a tribute not merely to a philosopher and teacher but to a great influence, and the recognition of this influence is wider than most observers would have supposed. It shows that a good part of the thinking people of the United States at least guess at their debt to a type of force that is often ignored. Society is quick to recognize the shaping influence of its statesmen, the Roosevelts, Wilsons, and Hoovers who apply political ideas. It recognizes the contribution made by its industrialists, the Fords and Carnegies who apply technical and economic ideas; by artists and writers, the Whistlers, Whitmans, and Howellses who apply aesthetic and moral ideas. But society too readily overlooks the part played by the philosophers, the pioneers of pure truth, who alter the basic concepts on which political ideas, economic and aesthetic ideas, and moral ideas all rest.

No student of American life in this generation would deny that our best national thought has grown more realistic, self-critical, and experimental. The rise of this tendency will probably hereafter be regarded as one of the main facts of our recent history. It distinguishes our age as different tempers distinguished other ages. There was the period of transcendental idealism, when Emersonian thought flowed out in broad waves and shaped schools, churches, universities, books, magazines, and community patterns in a hundred half-realized ways. It was followed by an era of scientific rationalism and evolutionary thought, when Darwinian and Spencerian ideas, interpreted by men like John Fiske, again changed education, religion, literature, the professions and even the view taken of politics. Young Woodrow Wilson wrote "Congressional Government" under the sway of Spencerian ideas which in part clung to him in the White House and at Versailles. Later came the period of pragmatism, itself largely a result of the growth of biological and psychological science, which since the eighties has been subtly transforming first our ideas and then our institutions. It is one school of pragmatism, the most influential of all, that John Dewey heads; and when we analyze the forces that produce our present-day realism, our experimental temper, our other "modern" qualities, John Dewey is among the most potent.

For a young, hurried, wealth-eager people, Americans can trace in their history a very marked responsiveness to philosophic ideas. We can also note that our philosophers and philosophies have been of a signally practical kind, ready to come down into the market place. We need only think of Emerson on self-reliance, the Fiske-Youmans group on science, and William James on religion. No one has better illustrated this dual usefulness, this ability to wring practical innovations from pure thought, than John Dewey. We have perhaps not had a better illustration of what a democracy can learn by sitting at the feet of philosophy than in his work. From his doctrine that thinking is not abstract, but begins with difficulties and leads to an hypothesis which is to be tested by application, flows our modern experimentalism. From his concept of education-not the Spencerian concept of training in adaption to environment, but the concept of highly practical training to enable us to control and remake our environment-have sprung enormous changes in our schools. He has stimulated our self-criticism by his emphasis on the adolescent character of society and the alarming disparity between mankind's physical equipment and his psychical equipment; by showing how science has placed in our hands a thousand forces and possessions which we do not yet know how to use because we are bound by old habits, old haphazard ways, old evils and ignorances. He has preached the need for greater democratization-democratization not so much in politics as in social opportunity, in education, in industry, in international affairs; and in a thousand little corners of society men affected by this doctrine have labored experimentally, in schools, factories, associations, for more democracy.

It is what Dr. Dewey represents in the American line of thinkers from Jonathan Edwards and Emerson down to our time that makes his seventieth birthday notable. Yet one personal aspect should not be overlooked. It is refreshing sometimes for a country to turn from its more popular heroes, its Lindberghs, Edisons, and Hoovers, to a man like this. We should not forget the mere example he has given us of a quiet, steadfast, and exceedingly simple man intent on just one thing-truth. He has sought truth in the library, the classroom, the experimental shop, in China and Russia; when he saw her assailed he has not shrunk from battle, be it with conservative educators or the Civic Federation or Matthew Woll. But he has never sought mere rêclame for a minute, and has been content to let his ideas seep out through books devoid of ornament, lectures devoid of rhetoric, and experiments devoid of sensation. It is encouraging to think we have a society in which such a man has gained such an influence.

By Harry Elmer Barnes, in the New York Telegram:

John Dewey-Plato's King

In his Republic Plato pictured an ideal society in which the kings would be philosophers. This aspiration has been rarely realized in all of history, unmistakably only in the case of Marcus Aurelius.

As head of the Party for Progressive Political Action, John Dewey falls far short of any formal regal estate. Yet he wields an influence to-day in both national and international circles far surpassing that of any reigning monarch. His seventieth birthday, now being celebrated, is veritably a national event.

Each period of modern history has produced its characteristic philosopher. The breakdown of the medieval order, the rise of capitalism, the origin of the national state, and the formulation of the doctrine of natural rights brought forth a spokesman in John Locke, whose influence lasted to permeate our Declaration of Independence.

Early industrialism, rationalism, and hedonism were represented by Jeremy Bentham, the greatest social inventor mankind has produced and the only philosopher to rival Dewey in his influence upon the practical affairs of his day.

Capitalism, the machines era, world society, evolutionary perspective and social experimentation have combined to create the cultural background from which John Dewey has formulated his revolutionary body of thought.

His philosophy differs from that of his predecessors. It is based on experiment and experience rather than upon received or assumed dogma.

To the great mass of Americans the most attractive thing about Dewey's thought is its eminent practicality. He repudiates that venerable body of metaphysical myth, which ran from Socrates to Royce, Eucken and Hocking. He will have none of a doctrine which maintains that philosophy can exist independent of life and experience. His pragmatism finds the test of truth to be its workability. The only valid function of philosophy is to guide individual life.

Following his teacher, G. Stanley Hall, he holds that mind as well as body is subject to evolutionary growth. The mind does not function in a vacuum, but is profoundly modified by the materials with which it works.

Dewey, the progressive, inevitably produces Dewey, the democrat. Of the defects of democracy, he is keenly aware. Yet he regards democracy as something more than a form of political life. It is a scheme of freedom-in which every one may develop to the highest possible degree his latent capacities.

Education is the preparation for life here, and now, and not machinery for the transmission of pedantry. It is to be acquired as much through practice and experience as through books, and education is not something for youth alone. It should go on as long as life persists. It is the indispensable technique of orderly progress.

In politics he has been one of the most stalwart defenders of the democratic experiment. He has been a militant defender of labor unionism. He has done much to take morals out of metaphysics and supernatural religion. Religion he divests of superstition, and he redefines it as dynamic social idealism.

Dewey has not remained a sage of the closet. He has travelled widely, observing new social and educational experiments. Warnings of "Red," "Yellow," "Black," and other perils have never been able to divert him from interest in any novel departure from the commonplace.

No major abuse or scandal has arisen in our country without the voice of Dewey being raised in protest. The hysteria concerning Bolshevik Russia, the partition and suppression of China, the bulldozing of Latin America, the injustice to Mooney and Sacco and Vanzetti, the raid on Brookwood College by the A. F. of L. and the like, have received his powerful condemnation.

Nor has he lacked courage to defy smug convention-mongers. In an age when "moral turpitude" was taken more seriously by the populace than it is to-day, he welcomed Maxim Gorky in spite of the latter's indifference to American marriage customs.

It is a striking tribute to the power of a man's ideas to be able to point out that, though probably less than a hundred persons have read and digested his entire published work, a nation of a hundred millions finds in him its most useful intellectual leader.

By Irwin Edman, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University, in the New York Times Magazine for October 13:

Our Foremost Philosopher at Seventy

It is neither by accident nor misapprehension that John Dewey, born seventy years ago on a Vermont farm, should be recognized in Europe as the foremost and most characteristic living American philosopher. Nor is it quite the paradox it seems that a man never read by vast numbers-as vast numbers are construed these days-should none the less be increasingly recognized at home as one of the deepest and most pervasive influences in American life. It may very well turn out that when the industrial and technical achievements of this generation will have ceased to be novelties, the most striking permanent contribution of our times will be the work of a man whose early fame came through a theory of education, destined to have immense practical influence, and whose later metaphysical work has inaugurated a revolution in the whole enterprise of philosophy.

John Dewey once remarked to an interviewer that he came from a family that for seven generations had been farmers. It is perhaps not too fanciful to insist that something of the sense of reality that permeates all his thinking is a family inheritance. Certainly a long career among the words and formalisms of universities has not destroyed in Professor Dewey that sense of directness and immediacy and simplicity which one commonly associates with a life close to the soil. It is apparent in his manner. There is probably not a man in American university life freer than he from the formality, the complacency, and the routine which are likely to stain the academic temper. It is evident in his philosophy. For though in his later volumes he has developed a metaphysics that is concerned with the most profound and general issues of time and existence, his emphasis on life and on thought as a growth, a prospect, and an adventure, his rebellion against mere traditionalism in thinking, his idealism, which expresses itself in the enunciation of a technique by which ideals may be realized-all this stamps him not only as the philosopher of a new world, but of the New World. He is the philosopher of America come of age…The reason that liberals have found in Dewey so central a prophet is because of his profound and insistent refusal to look upon any human institution or idol as anything more than an experimental device to be used (and measured) in terms of its consequences in the liberation and development of personality….Dewey is the prophet of intelligence and freedom in a world of science and machines. He has already affected seriously politics and education. He is beginning to affect religion and poetry as well. And though he has disciples by thousands in China, Russia, Mexico, and Western Europe, his philosophy is as American as it is prophetic and universal.

By Herbert W. Schneider, Professor of Religion, Columbia University, in the New York Herald Tribune:

He Modernized Our Schools

Seventy years ago a farmer's boy was born in Vermont who, if he had followed his ancestral precedents, would have become a typical frontier Yankee farmer, but who became one of America's greatest minds. His birthday is now being celebrated nationally, and his reputation is world-wide. No doubt there are many Americans who have never heard of him, and many more who have read none of his writings, but even these intellectually well-insulated citizens are scarcely safe from the indirect consequences of John Dewey's ideas, and they must live unwittingly in the light or shadow which his mind has cast on practically all phases of American life. Athens could not hear a Socrates and remain innocent; and America cannot produce John Dewey without feeling the consequences.

There are, for example, thousands of school children to-day whose occupations at school are quite baffling to their parents. The books they use, the methods of teaching, the subjects taught, the very desks (or absence of desks), are all so different from those of a generation or two ago that many parents suspect their children of playing truant continually. And few realize that much of this "new education" goes back directly to that experimental school which Dewey founded at Chicago. He had laid the intellectual foundations for this experiment much earlier, in his books on psychology and ethics. But in those days both psychology and ethics were still harmless academic sciences, unsuspected of practical application and unrelated to practical problems. Consequently, there was no revolution in 1893 when the young professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan wrote these words:

"If I were asked to name the most needed of all reforms in the spirit of education I should say: 'Cease conceiving of education as mere preparation for later life, and make of it the full meaning of the present life.' And to add that only in this case does it become truly a preparation for after life, is not the paradox it seems. An activity which does not have worth enough to be carried on for its own sake cannot be very effective as a preparation for something else…. It (the new spirit in education) forms the habit of requiring that every act be an outlet of the whole self, and it provides the instruments of such complete functioning." (Philosophical Review, Vol. 2, page 660)

Few educators realized at the time the practical implications of such a theory. It was not until 1902, when Dewey put these ideas into practice at the experimental school in Chicago, that their revolutionary implications were suspected. One after another the traditional elements of the school system were discarded. The neat rows of writing desks gave way to work benches of various descriptions, the orderly, quiet schoolroom began to hum with "activity," machines, tools, banks, stores, gardens, and whatnot supplanted the old textbooks. In short, Dewey constructed a school which was not the socially isolated institution of tradition, but which was literally society itself in laboratory form.

Dewey's own work at Chicago was epoch-making in that it revealed the tremendous possibilities and the revolutionary character of the theory, but it was a mere beginning of the practical application of his philosophy. For it is evident in the above citation that Dewey was rebelling not only against the notion of childhood as merely a preparation for adulthood, but in general against the theory that any activity whatsoever is a mere means to some external end. He was committed to metaphysical democracy, and metaphysics is the last realm to expect or welcome a democratic régime.

The vigorous experimental application which Dewey gave to his ideas in the field of education will probably remain his most famous contribution to American life, but this is only one aspect of his influence. After leaving Chicago in 1904 and becoming professor of philosophy at Columbia University, Dewey became leader of liberal reform in other fields as well. By his teaching, by his numerous articles, and by his direct personal influence he has urged the social and economic reconstruction demanded by his philosophy of democracy....

During the war he helped to counteract hysterical intolerance and narrow nationalism. At first he supported Wilson's war policy and the League of Nations as a means of realizing genuine internationalism, but after the disclosures of Versailles he supported Senator Borah's plan of outlawing war, which led up to the Kellogg treaties.

In recent years he has traveled extensively-to China, Mexico, Turkey, and Russia-and everywhere he has contributed notably to the mutual understanding between the leaders of the new national movements in these countries and American liberals. He made friends with the Chinese Nationalists, with Bolshevist educational reformers, and with similar radical leaders elsewhere, lending them a sympathetic ear and then presenting their aims and ideas to America not as new gospels to be followed slavishly, but as experiments to be studied with interest and tolerance. Wherever he went he was in the habit of seeking the causes which make these movements intelligible instead of passing judgment upon them because their philosophies are at fault.

The same willingness to listen and understand characterizes Dewey's approach to our political and economic problems. He has never identified himself with a conventional party or "ism" or with any radical sect, but prefers to deal with issues as particular problems in view of particular circumstances.

For a philosopher he has very few principles, and what principles he has are of understanding rather than of judgment. There is only one policy to which he always adheres-he supports whatever efforts are made to break down those barriers of occupation, wealth, and culture which segregate social classes or confine individuals within artificial limits. Accordingly, he has encouraged the minor groups which from time to time have attempted to disrupt the artificial distinctions among our conventional political parties and to focus attention on specific issues.

Together with Mrs. Dewey he was active in the cause of woman suffrage. He has also supported various organizations which aim to humanize industry, to educate laborers and in general to widen the mental horizon and social opportunities of the people. Above all he has encouraged agencies of publicity (such as the independent press, the people's lobby, etc.), for ultimately his faith in democracy rests on the educative and reconstructive value of genuinely public opinion.

It is misleading, however, to regard John Dewey as simply one more crusader for liberal democracy, or even to dismiss him as one more noble but naïve devotee of equality. What is significant about Dewey's form of democracy is that it has little to do with the traditional principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity considered as ends in themselves. His democracy is based on hard-boiled, sophisticated social psychology. Reduced to common parlance, this psychology amounts to the following propositions: that no one is really happy until lie is allowed to "mind his own business"; that no one can be intelligent about his own affairs unless he knows the consequences of his actions; and that no one can know these consequences when his experience is restricted on all sides by artificial barriers.

In other words, practical freedom requires intelligence and intelligence requires experience. Such a gospel has usually been preached by philosophers as a justification of the superiority of the philosopher, or by scientists as a claim to exclusive authority and expertness. To regard it as a way of life for each human being and as a principle of reconstruction for every society, is the essence of what John Dewey represents in American liberalism.

By R. M. Lovett, in The New Republic for October 23:

John Dewey at Seventy

When John Dewey was proposed for the headship of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago, William James said: "He is big enough to carry off his eccentricities." By eccentricities he meant the various unorthodox opinions and attitudes which already characterized the young professor; and as to the latter's ability to carry them in the face of the public, James was right. Dewey has challenged dominant opinion on its most cherished beliefs-on supernatural religion and morality, on the sacredness of private property, on methods of education and standards of culture, and on the superstition of art. No other man of our day has dealt with so wide a range of interests and so many social problems. He has given himself generously to a dozen causes anathema to powerful sections of the ruling class-to racial equality, to labor, to democratic control of institutions, to free speech, to oppressed nationalities, to self-determination in Mexico, China and Russia. And he has done so not as a rebel, not as a guerilla in partisan, warfare, but as a leader, with authority and prestige. He has been big enough to work with the social forces of his time without yielding himself up to them. And in his many fields of effort he has kept a singleness of purpose and consistency of approach and rectitude of direction, which give to his career of varied enterprises a unity and integrity which make him, at seventy, the most impressive and altogether significant figure in American life:....

Doctor Dewey is a humanist in the modern sense. His pragmatism is an expression of the realistic attitude which limits the consideration of mankind to the elements and functions of human nature itself, and finds its field of investigation in human experience. Constantly in his writings we find reference to these terms of final authority-human nature and human experience. In departure from the traditional procedure of philosophy, he treats reason and the moral and aesthetic senses as functions, not as independent entities….He tells us, "We need a word like experience to remind us that the world which is lived, suffered, and enjoyed as well as thought of, has the last word in all human inquiries and surmises."....

Dewey's early reputation was made as an educator in the Elementary School the University of Chicago. There the characterizing features of his method were to give the child the utmost possible freedom of initiative, to make the child's experience in dealing with the world about him the basis of his learning, and to encourage him to work easily and happily with others. Dewey's influence in higher education has been in the same direction-to set the individual free by training his capacities. He has realized that the public schools, instead of ministering to this result, are made vehicles of propaganda for vested interests, and instruments of standardization. No one has spoken out more boldly on this theme than Dewey: "Our schooling does not educate, if by education be meant a trained habit of discriminating inquiry and discriminating belief....

We dupe ourselves and others because we have not that inward protection against sensation, excitement, credulity, and conventionally stereotyped opinion which is found only in a trained mind. This fact determines the fundamental criticism to be levelled against current schooling, against what passes as an educational system. It not only does little to make discriminating intelligence safeguard against surrender to the invasion of bunk, especially in its most dangerous form-social and political bunk-but it does much to favor susceptibility to a welcoming reception of it."

Furthermore, Dewey has realized that freedom on the part of pupils can be inculcated only by teachers who are themselves free from political and class control, and that this freedom of teaching can be secured only by organization. Accordingly, he has been for years an active member of the New York local of the Federation of Teachers...

In the human instincts of freedom and cooperation Dewey finds the basis of democracy; and here as elsewhere his faith in human nature is a lively faith, though he admits that it is on trial. After being accepted in the nineteenth century as almost axiomatic, democracy has experienced a serious check in the twentieth. Not only is its present failure to meet the necessities of the industrial world a matter of criticism, but it is subject to the competition of other forms of organization, Fascism in Italy, Communism in Russia, which have certain immediate advantages in the way of efficiency. In the face of the anti-democratic tendencies of political thought since the War, Doctor Dewey has stood firmly for the primitive faith. In his little book, The Public and Its Problems, he exposes the reasons why the principle of democracy has been so little effective in spheres in which the public interest clearly outweighs the private. He points out that the revolution which changed the face of society took place as the result of the application of science and technology in a world where there were no forms of public control fitted to cope with the new conditions. Peoples gained the right to select their representatives, but the precedents of government were still those of privilege and private interest, and to elected, as to dynastic, rulers, the immediate consideration was their own continuance in power. To this end they sought alliance with the strongest economic force, and the protection of private property remained the chief function of government. In this welter of inherited habits and new thought, democracy was forced to create its institutions. It is little wonder that "the new age of social relationships has no political agencies worthy of it," and that "the democratic public is still largely inchoate and unorganized." Applying the known principles of human nature, it appears that "this inchoate public is capable of organization only when indirect consequences are perceived, and when it is possible to project agencies which order their occurrence." Such perception and projection are the functions of social science. Dewey points out that the hope of discovering the means by which a "scattered, mobile, and manifold public may so recognize itself as to define and express its interests" gains plausibility from the analogy of the development of natural science. This progressed only after the a priori method was abandoned in favor of observation and experiment-"the analysis of what is going on and why it goes on." Such a proceeding is only beginning with respect to social phenomena.

As social philosopher as well as educator, Dewey relies on the two principles of freedom and cooperation. There must be freedom both of social inquiry and of distribution of its results, for "there can be no public without full publicity with respect to all consequences which concern it." To say that we have such freedom at present is absurd. Even where legal restrictions have been diminished "there is a social pathology which works powerfully against effective inquiry into social institutions and conditions." The initiation of a scientific plan of social inquiry and its persistent exercise in contemporary matters, the extension of the experimental method under its guidance to human affairs, and the correlation of all social studies in its support-these are the means available for the organization of the public...

Dewey constitutes still another exception to the conventional idea of the philosopher, in that he lives his philosophy. In deducing his conclusions from the facts of human nature, he has had a peculiarly favorable example of that material to draw upon. No one can be long in his company, can observe the rugged, earnest features, gaze into the deep-set eyes with their look of furtive trust (as someone said of Emerson's), hear that even voice with its calm, neutral tones, without feeling that we have here a man of extraordinary simplicity and sincerity. He is his own best argument for trusting human nature. Dewey is not enthusiastic. He is quiet, candid, patient. When you talk to him he gives complete attention, and when he speaks it is with the assurance of understanding. His writing has the quality of his behavior-it is, above all, honest.

Editorial in the New York Herald Tribune:

John Dewey

It is a pleasure to take part in the celebration today of the seventieth birthday of John Dewey, America's distinguished philosopher. Why he is distinguished, many who recognize the fact would none the less be unable to explain. His philosophical books puzzle at times even philosophers. His educational theory, widely influential as it is, has many to question it and many to whom it remains inspiring but ambiguous. His influence is far greater than the number of his readers, and his style is not memorable or quotable as was that of William James. What is the secret of his prestige and power?

That answer is almost a banality. It is the sincerity and simplicity of the man that make his philosophy so conquering and so provocative. These qualities stamp the man's manner as well as his philosophy. And in philosophy they are very great and very rare virtues. It is his honesty that led Dewey to abandon the technical concerns of philosophy-in which by the way he is most adroit- and turn to the treatment of philosophy as a human enterprise, originating in human perplexity and helpful in the solution of human problems. It is his simplicity that taught him to look at the human mind not as an abstract entity but as a deliberate method of action of a human animal living harassed in a changing world. His whole conception of education is simply that of the inculcation of the habit of disciplined intelligence and responsible freedom in the young. His theory of democracy is that of a society of intelligently communicating and freely related human beings. His philosophy of nature is that of a growing and changing universe in which human intelligence can turn confusion into order, and nature into art. Professor Dewey has done more than any other man to transform education from the learning of things by rote at a desk to the learning by doing of the modern school. There is no question that his doctrine of free cooperative intelligence has been the basis of any number of progressive political movements and that he has turned philosophy from the pursuit of metaphysical chimeras to the treatment of genuine human issues.

His philosophy has been influenced not a little by his own persistent, sometimes uncritical faith in democracy. He has been admired in many quarters for his political opinions rather than for his philosophical conclusions. It is clear that the "modern school," if it is Dewey's child, is not everybody's ideal. It is true that certain philosophers resent the turning of philosophy from the consideration of eternity to the problems of time and society. But even where he is disagreed with, John Dewey is admired. For he is an illustration of a mind still at seventy what it always has been-a superb example of freshness, candor, and simplicity brought to bear on the central concerns of modern life. And wherever he has been personally known, by teachers, colleagues, and a multitude of friends, he has been not simply a force to be reckoned with, but a person to be loved.

By Scott Buchanan in The Nation for October 23:

John Dewey

John Dewey will be seventy years old on October 20. He is both by right of seniority and also by right of esteem the dean of living American philosophers. In extent and depth of influence he has no rival among past American philosophers. Still it has always seemed impossible to make a just estimate and criticism of his work. It has been so varied, so easily misrepresented, above all so quickly accepted and made a part of the homely and familiar affairs of everyday life that criticism has usually achieved only a temporary plausibility and ended in the rattling of technical symbols or the show of epigrammatic wit. A hundred disciples have essayed lucid versions of what they thought was the high doctrine only to find themselves dabbling in literary water colors or making mud-pies out of decayed science. . . . Mr. Dewey has always been occupied with the invention and diffusion of cultures in schools, our laboratories of applied anthropology. He has watched with both a fatherly and a scientific interest over democracy and education in many parts of the world. His books have talked education, anthropology, and philosophy together, sometimes to the confusion of the reader. He was achieving a synthesis step by step, and, one suspects, unconsciously, at the same time that the anthropological temper was steadily coloring thought and opinion for all of us. One might say that the United States as a whole is one vast laboratory of applied anthropology where all professions and institutions are engaged in inventing and propagating cultures. Here was rich material for the philosophical critic with a taste for novelty, and a training in tile history of philosophy afforded material for the anthropological critic who would reconstruct philosophy.

By Harry Hansen in his book review column, "The First Reader," in the New York World:

Seventieth Birthday of John Dewey

For the last week scholars in New York City and elsewhere have bceii hymning the fine, common-sense philosophy of John Dewey in recognition of the seventieth anniversary of his birth, which comes to-day. But John Dewey has been so free from oracular pronouncements, so unspectacular, that few readers are aware how thoroughly his views on education and democracy have seeped through American intellectual opinion, and have been given out again by teachers and liberal leaders in every state of the Union.

'The reason for this general recognition is the fact that Professor Dewey has always been close to American life and has always been a great liberal. His philosophy has not taken him into an ivory tower or upon a mountain top. He has made thinking and reasoning practical by its application to the problems of (democracy and of democratic education. In the latter field particularly he has been a shining light to teachers who were apt to lose sight of a guiding principle under a mass of routine.

His courage has always been basically fine-there has been no advertising about it, no desire to flaunt opinions or fight in public for a principle merely for personal aggrandizement. John Dewey has been the mild, quiet scholar, but when he spoke his mind about social abuses his words carried and helped bolster up the faith of liberals who felt not quite sure of themselves. His earliest pronouncement for tolerance occurred when Maxim Gorky was refused admission to the best hotels because he came from Russia with a woman whom all Russia recognized as his wife but whom he had been unable to marry because of legal complications. At that time Dewey was one of the leaders who, with Mark Twain, tried to mitigate the offensively bad manners of the United States. The most recent of his important acts was his protest against the trial and fate of Sacco and Vanzetti. For seventy years John Dewey has been a consistent liberal, with faith in the here and now in spite of the shortcomings of our age. He has never hammered hard abuses with the forcefulness of H. L. Mencken, but there are indications that his more subdued words were heard afar like a whisper on a dark and silent night, and that they reached their audience.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 31 Number 3, 1929, p. 207-223
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10675, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 4:38:40 PM

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