Knowing ways

25th October 1996 at 01:00

Scott Bradfield pays tribute to the philosophy of one of America's great educators.

John Dewey considered philosophy to be more than something you thought; it was supposed to be something you did. And during his long and productive life, Dewey did a lot of it.

He taught for more than 50 years; established one of America's most influential experimental schools for young children at the University of Chicago; travelled the world as a sort of intellectual emissary; and eventually helped found the New School for Social Research, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the League for Independent Political Action. And while never much of a phrase-spinner, Dewey wrote many dense, thickly-argued books that were widely-read in his lifetime. Bertrand Russell once said of him: "He has a large, slow-moving mind, very empirical and candid, with something of the impassivity and impartiality of a natural force."

Born in Burlington, Vermont on October 20 1859, Dewey lived for more than 90 years and never stopped writing until he died. Descended from several generations of New England farmers, his father broke from tradition by opening a grocery store, and Dewey himself broke from tradition again by going to college. After graduating from the University of Vermont in 1879, Dewey borrowed $500 from his aunt in order to attend graduate school at John Hopkins, where he completed his doctoral dissertation on Kant.

He then spent the rest of his life as an academic, eventually chairing departments of both philosophy and education at the University of Michigan,the University of Chicago, and Columbia. Known as a terrible administrator and an archetypal "absent-minded professor" who didn't always recognize the faces of his own children, he nevertheless always seemed to get things done.

Dewey didn't believe ethics were a set of eternal rules and regulations; instead, he considered them ideas which individuals and their communities learned through personal experience. Though Dewey's philosophy was often referred to as Pragmatism, Dewey himself preferred the term "Experimentalism, " since he considered knowledge something that had to be continually tested by trial and error.

Like Emerson and Thoreau, Dewey didn't believe that philosophers established permanent truths; they only helped establish those methods by which individuals could figure out truth for themselves. Dewey argued his case for this always-active, eternally shifting nature of knowledge in his early books, Experience and Nature and How We Think. In his later books, such as Experience and Education and The Quest for Certainty, Dewey applied these abstract ideas to practical use in the classroom.

When Dewey established the Laboratory School (also known as the Dewey School) at the University of Chicago in the early nineteen-hundreds, two theories of education were then prevalent. On the one hand, conservative educators considered children to be vessels waiting to be filled; on the other hand, the more "free-thinking" schools believed in something called "child-centered" education, which expected children to dictate the terms of their own learning. On the one hand, teachers were considered indisputable; on the other hand, students were. Confronted by radically opposed schools of thought, Dewey (as he often did in his life) took the middle road.

At the Dewey School, teachers established the curriculum, by means of which students were expected to learn things for themselves. Geometry lessons required students to assemble pencil boxes; chemistry lessons required them to cook lunch over a hot stove; and issues of agriculture, biology and economics were worked out over a long-running series of projects with students to sow and harvest vegetables then sell them in the market. At the Dewey School, knowledge wasn't a block of information; it was a process of doing.

Alan Ryan's lucid, comprehensive and well-argued book on Dewey isn't a biography so much as an exposition of his thought. Ryan concludes, quite rightly, that while Dewey's philosophy has suffered much neglect in the latter half of this century, what he has to say is still worth listening to (especially in our age of "standardised" testing). Like Dewey's own work, Ryan's book is heavy on argument, and light on human interest, but it provides an excellent introduction to the ideas Dewey espoused, and the ways in which he pursued them.

Scott Bradfield was formerly assistant professor of English and American literature at the University of Connecticut.

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