7 Chapter 7: John Dewey

This chapter introduces students to the political and educational philosophy of John Dewey (1859-1952). Often referred to as America’s great philosopher, John Dewey earned his Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins University followed by a number of faculty positions at the University of Vermont, University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, and Columbia University. Initially interested in Hegelian philosophy and German Idealism, Dewey shifted from an emphasis on metaphysical thought to the more down-to-earth philosophy of pragmatism, an influence from William James’s works. Dewey developed his Laboratory School at the University of Chicago in 1896. His writings expand numerous subject areas, but focus primarily on education and learning, epistemological theories, and social order.


Learning Objectives

Upon completing this module, students will be able to:

  • Understand what Dewey was writing against (a sole focus on metaphysics and Idealism) in the philosophical realm and why.
  • Understand what Dewey was responding to in his criticism of traditional (static) schooling.
  • Understand the framework within which Dewey wrote: The rise of Nazism and the Great Depression, and his emphasis on change.
  • Articulate Dewey’s epistemological theory and how it relates to Darwinian influences.
  • Articulate Dewey’s naturalist philosophy.
  • Explain how Dewey constructed his idea related to educational means and ends.
  • Elaborate on Dewey’s emphasis on democracy and his democratic ideal.
  • Explore how communication and democracy are related in Dewey’s educational philosophy.
  • Explain what Dewey’s ideal classroom and teaching methods were.
  • Articulate problems that you may see in Dewey’s educational philosophy or teaching methodologies.
  • Articulate the purpose for and criticisms of his focus on social reconstructionism.


Part 1, Chapter 7 Preface to Readings

Dewey was fascinated with education, both formal and informal learning. He often writes about education as both a cultural and adaptive experience and as a formal structured classroom process. Indeed, he knew that it is necessary for each generation to transmit knowledge to the next generation. However, he did not believe that this knowledge be received passively. Rather, he believed that a fundamental (and often underutilized) characteristic of human nature was the ability to create change from the culture within which one is born. Here, Dewey’s thought is very similar to Thomas Jefferson’s in that the latter advocated generational sovereignty, meaning that each generation should have the freedom to restructure its society, its constitution, and its institutions in ways that improve social life and individual happiness. The reader may view this proposition as common sense, but change (social reconstruction), as Dewey knew too well, is often resisted and criticized, particularly by individuals and groups who benefit from the status quo. Societies tend to develop ideologies, a set of values (often inconsistent and detached from reality), including national myths, stories, and cultural knowledge that resist critique. Knowing this, Dewey rejected philosophical dualisms (good v. bad or knowledge v. opinion), and advocated a naturalistic pragmatism –doing whatever works and always leaving it open for modification or change. The acceptance of change releases society from the potentially damaging effects of anachronistic ideologies and dualisms. Ideologies and dogmas must bend to new experience and knowledge, he believed. Truth should always be open to modification, and it should always transcend ideology. Democracy (paradoxically an ideology itself) is viewed by Dewey as a bedrock foundation of human existence and social cooperation. Unlike many of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosophers who prioritized the individual and the seeking of self-interest, Dewey criticizes their omitting the importance of the social in their theories. In other words, writers like Hobbes, Locke, and Hume focus excessively on individual rights and interests when they established their social contract theories. Dewey understood this as a reaction against centuries of monarchy and hereditary rule, but nevertheless, he criticizes their approaches as hyper-individualistic. Dewey also believed the individual and individuals were important, but he argues that individuality is never created from within. It is also a social creation. Human beings are social creatures and when they come together to rule, they do not do so simply to protect their individual interests in isolation. Rather, they live as social animals and should take part in self-governance. Since Dewey viewed democracy as the archetype, all social (as opposed to private) institutions should be democratically oriented to the extent possible. This included not only government, but also the economy and schooling.

Finally, the reason that Dewey places such importance on democracy is that it is democracy that facilitates an individual’s actualization or becoming (similar to Aristotle’s view), and that a democratic government (or other institution) will be more likely to generate a broad-based, and therefore, normatively legitimate, consensus within a community. Because this consensus is achieved democratically (or despite its being so), and since its agreement may fragment in the future as a result of changes, it must always be open to change and modification by the community, as long as this change takes place democratically.

Dewey’s Means and Ends Continuum

Darwin’s influence in Dewey’s thinking is further identified in the latter’s adoption of the means-end continuum, which represents continuous adaptation and change. Not all experiences were considered to be educative, according to Dewey, but those that were formed from experiences that readjusted students’ knowledge or growth. The means in Dewey’s theory is as important as the means. Doing and experiencing are educative in themselves. Once the end is reached, it is simply a matter of time before it confronts the inevitable change, which results in a new means for reaching a new end. This cycle repeats itself throughout life. It is part of an individual and society’s adaptation to the environment and changing conditions. New knowledge begets change, and it is part of natural development to experience this change throughout one’s life.


Democracy and schooling were considered by Dewey to be two sides of the same coin. Alternatively, one might say that democracy and schooling served as the framework within which the means-ends continuum could best be personified. Schools were to serve as community centers, and they were expected to educate children to work together in order to solve problems. Literacy and learning were to be practically oriented in order to provide relevance to children. It was through experience that children learned best, and solving problems collaboratively prepared them to work together as adults in a democracy.

In the classroom, as images form Dewey’s Laboratory School illustrated during the early twentieth century, children were involved in purposive projects and activities. Chemistry, for example, was learning through cooking. Mathematics could be learned by building a playhouse or a miniature city. Children were taught a number of vocational and agricultural skills, but also learning about history and the humanities was accomplished by a number of activities and experiences, such as taking part in a play or reenacting what it was like to live in the Middle Ages. Students were to experience learning in every subject. Cooperation, respect, experience, and solving problems were key components of a Dewean classroom. The teacher had the responsibility of structuring lessons in ways that would facilitate these experiences, to make learning experiential.

Social Reconstruction: Why Viewed as Radical?

Social reconstructionism, which is the purpose behind Dewey’s theories, is often viewed as too radical. However, it is far from radical when one understands human nature. Change is constantly occurring and society adjusts to change all the time. It should seem out of place, perhaps, to view this idea as radical. Some individuals are threatened by change, either because they have an interest in maintaining the status quo, or because they see change as potentially rupturing long-standing social norms, values, and ideologies. Accepting or advocating change may be viewed as unpatriotic, particularly for individuals who are nostalgic about the past. Change is often viewed by these critics as decadence rather than merely as adjustment or transformation based on changes in the environment and the development of new knowledge. In fact, patriotic groups and groups that had an interest in perpetuating capitalism as it existed during the Great Depression were often outraged by the social reconstructionist idea. The very notion of social reconstruction suggests that there are problems inherent in the status quo. The social reconstructionists during Dewey’s time, however, believed it to be obvious that as a result of the rise of Nazism and consequences of the Great Depression revealed problems with modernity. The social reconstructionists simply hoped to improve society for a greater number of people. During the Great Depression, approximately 25 percent of the working-age population were unemployed, poverty and hunger rose dramatically, and it took the federal government (often encouraged by states) to remedy many of these problems. However, while the state could be used to improve economic downturns, the social reconstructionists also knew that an all-powerful state (in the Fascist sense) could be just as destructive, if not more, than homelessness and hunger. This realization caused the social reconstructionists to conclude that interest groups were able to unfairly infiltrate government institutions and therefore obtain a large portion of government largess, clearly reflected that government was not representative. Money and power were circumventing the meaning of America’s representative institutions and making them unrepresentative. The social reconstructionists, therefore, advocated more meaningful and democratic ways of government and social life. This realization also caused them to support the development of what they referred to as a “social intelligence” in teachers and students and to give them the tools to critically evaluate and analyze problems with the point consisting of improving society. Changing society for the better –to be determined democratically –seemed to be a logical position to take, not only under conditions that existed during the 1930s and 1940s, but during any generation.

Change, Democracy, and Communication

According to Brian Dotts, Dewey’s “Change or reconstruction [theory] serves as a necessary expectation of any critical theory intended to progress or emancipate individuals from systems of power. Democratic experience contributes to growth or actualization through communication, the latter of which is a fundamentally natural means of experiencing the other elements” (2016, forthcoming).

Change Social reconstruction for progressive adaptation
Democracy Mode of associated living through communication
Communication Interdependent learning experiences that contribute to growth

Questions to Consider

  • Why does Dewey connect experience with education and growth (naturalism)? Can a student not learn through rational thought alone?
  • In what ways do you believe Dewey was influenced by Darwin’s work on evolution?
  • What is it about pragmatism do you think attracted Dewey, resulting in his shifting from a focus on metaphysics and German Idealism to pragmatic thought?
  • Why did Dewey focus on democracy, a political form of rule, in social, economic, and educational institutions? Why does he apply democracy to education and everyday social experiences?
  • How are democracy, action, communication, and education related?
  • What kind of experiences are not educative, according to Dewey?
  • Why does Dewey reject the mere transmission of culture as the only responsibility of schools?
  • Does Dewey place too much responsibility on students and teachers in his social reconstructionist theory?
  • Why does Dewey claim that teachers should develop a social intelligence, a frame of mind that goes well beyond simply teaching content areas to students?
  • Why does he criticize teacher and student oaths?
  • It is easy to make the conclusion that Dewey’s social reconstructionist approach in education is ideological and that it thereby politicizes the curriculum. How would you respond to this?
  • The American Founders viewed democracy as dangerous and often referred to it pejoratively as “mob rule.” Why does Dewey view democracy as the single most important aspect of social life and education?


Dewey, John. (1997). Experience and Education. New York: Free Press.

Dewey, John. (1988). The Public and Its Problems. Athens, OH: Swallow Press.

Dewey, John. (1944). Democracy and education. New York: The Free Press.

Dotts, Brian W. (forthcoming). Dewey Anticipates Habermas’s Paradigm of Communication: The Critique of Individualism and the Basis for Moral Authority. Education & Culture: The Journal of the John Dewey Society.


After reading the assignments, have students discuss connections between Dewey’s work and scientific activity generally and Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory specifically.

Discuss how Dewey’s philosophy of education can be connected to a social reconstructionist curriculum.

Have students discuss the advantages and disadvantages of connecting education to the idea of democracy. What are their views of democratic education? How would this kind of education benefit society, if at all? Should democracy be applied to all aspects of life, i.e. the economy, politics, schooling, the family?

External Readings & Resources

John Dewey, Democracy and Education (selections from Gutenberg) [Chapters 1, 4, 6, 11, 22, 24, and 26]

Supplemental Materials

John Dewey (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

What Would Dewey Say Today? (Roosevelt University)

The John Dewey Society for the Study of Education and Culture

The Center for Dewey Studies (Southern Illinois University)

Pragmatism Cybrary

John Dewey Discussion List

Dewey, John. (1988). The Public & its Problems. Athens, OH: Swallow Press.

Dewey, John. (1980). Art as Experience. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam.

Dewey, John. (1957). Reconstruction in Philosophy. Enlarged edition. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Dewey, John. (1943). The School and Society. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Menand, Louis. (2001). The Metaphysical Club. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Morris, Debra and Shapiro, Ian. (Eds.). (1993). John Dewey: The Political Writings. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.

Provenzo, Eugene F., Jr. (Ed.). (2011). The Social Frontier: A Critical Reader. New York: Peter Lang.


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