Dewey, John (1859–1952)

America's foremost philosopher of education, John Dewey grew up in rural Vermont, earned his doctorate at The Johns Hopkins University, and taught at Michigan, Chicago, and Columbia universities. Dewey was one of the founders and the leading philosopher of PROGRESSIVE EDUCATION, an important late-nineteenth-century and twentieth-century movement for school reform that emphasized meeting the needs of the whole child–physical, social, emotional, and intellectual. In addition to his work in developing a new philosophy of education, Dewey, along with Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, created a uniquely American approach to philosophy–Pragmatism.

Dewey developed his educational philosophy when he joined the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1894 and added a department of pedagogy to his responsibilities. Aided by his wife, Alice, he founded the university's Laboratory School to test scientifically his ideas for improving schooling.

As a philosopher who was profoundly affected by the English naturalist Charles Darwin's thinking, Dewey believed that in a post-Darwinian world it was no longer possible to envision life as a progress toward fixed ends. His reading of Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) convinced him that the only constant in life was change or growth (the term Dewey preferred). Therefore, Dewey held that the purpose of formal education was not to prepare children for any fixed goal, but rather that schools should be devoted to encouraging children to grow and to prepare them to continue to grow and develop as adults in the uncertain future that they would face. Childhood was not merely a prelude to adulthood; it was a stage of development that was important and valuable in its own right. Accordingly, schooling should be based on meeting the needs of children, as children, rather than only striving to prepare them for adulthood.

Dewey faulted contemporary schools for regarding children as empty vessels to be filled with intellectual content. Schools treated pupils as passive learners. Dewey argued that children were naturally curious and that outside of school they learned through activities. They came to school with many interests, which he classified in his 1899 publication The School and Society as "the interest in conversation, or communication; in inquiry, or finding out things; in making things, or construction; and in artistic expression." These, he maintained were "the natural resources, the uninvested capital, upon which depends the active growth of the child" (1956, pp. 47–48). The role of the teacher, Dewey argued, was not merely to give pupils the freedom to express these impulses, but rather to guide them toward the learning they needed. As he noted in his 1902 work The Child and the Curriculum, this would not ignore traditional learning. "It must be restored to the experience from which it has been abstracted. It needs to be psychologized; … translated into the immediate and individual experiencing within which it has its origin and significance" (1956, p. 22). Progressive teachers, therefore, should construct a curriculum based on both the interests of the pupils and knowledge of the subject matter that children should master.


Dewey was the most significant educational thinker of his time and he influenced educational discussion for a century. His followers took his ideas in many directions. Dewey's disciples, most notably William Heard Kilpatrick, emphasized one part of Dewey's philosophy–the need to appeal to the natural interests of the child–at the expense of consideration of the importance of the traditional fields of study. For Kilpatrick, subject matter was not important. Moreover, some of Dewey's followers extended the idea of relying on the natural curiosity and interests of children to define the curriculum in the upper grades and in secondary schools. This conflicted with Dewey's philosophy: "The new education is in danger of taking the idea of development in altogether too formal and empty a way…. Development doesnot mean just getting something out of the mind. It is a development of experience … into experience that is really wanted…. What new experiences are needed, it is impossible to tell unless there is some comprehension of the development which is aimed at … adult knowledge" (1956a, p.19). Dewey maintained that the study of traditional subjects was important because "they represent the keys which will unlock … the social capital which lies beyond the possible role of … limited personal experience" (1956b, p. 111).

Dewey did agree with Kilpatrick that one of the ultimate goals of education must be social reform. For Dewey the ideal society was thoroughly democratic and the school should be organized as an "embryonic community…. When the school introduces" children "into membership within such a little community, saturating … [them] with the spirit of service, and providing … [them] with the instruments of effective self-direction, we shall have the deepest and best guaranty of a larger society which is worthy, lovely, and harmonious" (1956b, p. 29).

During the GREAT DEPRESSION Progressivism's social reform impulse turned increasingly into a critique of the capitalist system that was blamed for the economic disaster. This, in turn, helped fuel a strong reaction against Progressive education during the anticommunism of the post—World War II period. In addition, in the 1950s Progressive education was increasingly blamed for the academic shortcomings of American students. In this setting, Dewey's reputation waned. The movement toward establishing rigid standards that began with the Reagan administration's 1983 report, A Nation At Risk, regarded Dewey's ideas as not only wrong but harmful. The states joined in a movement to establish knowledge standards and a schedule of rigid testing to see if the children met those standards. Teachers increasingly taught to the test–an educational program that neglected Dewey's ideas of relying on children's natural curiosity and interests.

While a distorted version of Dewey's educational philosophy had weakened the curriculum, especially in secondary schools, a proper understanding of the kinds of schools that Dewey wanted to establish is still regarded as relevant by a dissenting minority who believe that schools need to meet the broader needs and interests of children.

See also: Child Development, History of the Concept of; Education, United States.


Cremin, Lawrence A. 1962. The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876–1957. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Cremin, Lawrence A. 1988. American Education: The Metropolitan Experience, 1876–1890. New York: Harper and Row.

Dewey, John. 1938. Experience and Education. New York: Macmillan.

Dewey, John. 1954 [1910]. "The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy." In American Thought: Civil War to World War I, ed. Perry Miller. New York: Rinehart.

Dewey, John. 1956a [1902]. The Child and the Curriculum. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Dewey, John. 1956b [1899]. The School and Society. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Dewey, John. 1966 [1916]. Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: The Free Press.

Dewey, John. 1967–1972. The Early Works, 1882–1898, 5 vols. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Dewey, John. 1976–1983. The Middle Works, 1899–1924, 15 vols., ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Dewey, John. 1981–1990. The Later Works, 1925–1953, 17 vols., ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Ravitch, Diane. 2000. Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Westbrook, Robert B. 1991. John Dewey and American Democracy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Zilversmit, Arthur. 1993. Changing Schools: Progressive Education Theory and Practice, 1930–1960. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.