October 20, 2012
“Man is not logical and his intellectual history is a record of mental reserves and compromises. He hangs on to what he can in his old beliefs even when he is compelled to surrender their logical basis.” -- John Dewey, 1859 – 1952.
As the 20th century dawned, few philosophers had such influence as John Dewey, whose research in psychology and behavior led him to write extensively about education, particularly on the role teachers and education in shaping children’s social adaptation.
Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont, on Oct. 20, 1859. After he graduated from the University of Vermont (Phi Beta Kappa), he worked as a schoolteacher for three years; he concluded that he was unsuited as a teacher.
At Johns Hopkins he studied with some of America’s seminal thinkers in philosophy and psychology, receiving his doctorate in 1884. He taught at the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago, and developed his theories of functional psychology, a school of thought that defined mental life and external behavior as adaptations to the environment, versus expressions of the conscious and unconscious mind.
From his view that our minds are shaped continually by the environment we are exposed to, Dewey saw education as central to his idealist goal of establishing an enlightened civil society.
He saw education as a social experience, where interaction between teacher, student and curriculum established the best chance for learning to occur. He also viewed schools as places where social reform, or perhaps social norm, should occur.
“Were all instructors to realize that the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth something hardly less than a revolution in teaching would be worked,” Dewey wrote in “Democracy and Education.”
In his first writings on education, “My Pedagogic Creed,” in 1897, he wrote, “… the adjustment of individual activity on the basis of social consciousness is the only sure method of social reconstruction.”
Dewey’s philosophies derived from his, other late 19th century philosophers’, belief that classical liberal philosophies focused on individualism were antithetical to the sustenance of a liberal democracy and civil society.
He did not believe that the traditional philosophical pursuit of knowledge and truth was incompatible with the way people lived their lives. He thought that the people seek knowledge not to know truth, but to solve problems and make their lives better.
Dewey wrote over 700 journal articles and 40 books on psychology, philosophy, education, democracy and journalism. He was co-founder of the New School in New York; he was elected in 1899 as president of the American Psychological Association; and elected president of the American Philosophical Association in 1905. For all the power and persuasion Dewey exercised, after his death (June 1, 1952) his philosophy and influence waned rapidly when the “realists,” who ascended in the Cold War era, saw his idealism and optimism as emblematic of anti-Americanism.
Dewey was resurrected by philosophers in the late 1960s as they began examining the tension between individualism and social responsibility.
“Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks, learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.”