Durant 1926: Education (John Dewey)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter XI Section 3.1 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

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III. JOHN DEWEY

1. Education

After all, pragmatism was “not quite” an American philosophy; it did not catch the spirit of the greater America that lay south and west of the New England states. It was a highly moralistic philosophy, and betrayed the Puritanic origins of its author. It talked in one breath of practical results and matters of fact, and in the next it leaped, with the speed of hope, from earth to heaven. It began with a healthy reaction against metaphysics and epistemology, and one expected from it a philosophy of nature and of society; but it ended as an almost apologetic plea for the intellectual respectability of every dear belief. When would philosophy learn to leave to religion these perplexing problems of another life, and to psychology these subtle difficulties of the knowledge-process, and give itself with all its strength to the illumination of human purposes and the coordination and elevation of human life?

Pragmatism was “not quite” an American philosophy. It betrayed the Puritanic origins of its author. It did not give itself with all its strength to the illumination of human purposes and the coordination and elevation of human life.

Circumstances left nothing undone to prepare John Dewey to satisfy, this need, and to outline a philosophy that should express the spirit of an informed and conscious America. He was born in the “effete East” (in Burlington, Vermont, 1859), and had his schooling there, as if to absorb the old culture before adventuring into the new. But soon he took Greeley’s counsel and went west, teaching philosophy at the universities of Minnesota (1888-9), Michigan (1889-94), and Chicago (1894-1904). Only then did he return east, to join-and later to head-the department of philosophy at Columbia University. In his first twenty years the Vermont environment gave him that almost rustic simplicity which characterizes him even now that all the world acclaims him. And then, in his twenty years in the Middle West, he saw that vast America of which the Eastern mind is so proudly ignorant; he learned its limitations and its powers; and when he came to write his own philosophy he gave to his students and his readers an interpretation of the sound and simple naturalism which underlies the superficial superstitions of the “provinces” of America. He wrote the philosophy, as Whitman wrote the poetry, not of one New-English state, but of the continent. *

* The most important of Dewey’s books are: The School and Society (1900); Studies in Logical Theory (1903); Ethics (with Tufts, 1908); How We Think (1909); The influence of Darwin on Philosophy (1910); Democracy and Education (1913); Schools of Tomorrow (with his daughter Evelyn, 1915); Essays in Experimental Logic (1916); Creative Intelligence (1917); Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920); Human Nature and Conduct (1922). The last two are the easiest approaches to his thought.

Dewey’ philosophy expresses the spirit of an informed and conscious America. It gives an interpretation of the sound and simple naturalism which underlies the superficial superstitions of the “provinces” of America. 

Dewey first caught the eyes of the world by his work in the School of Education at Chicago. It was in those years that he revealed the resolute experimental bent of his thought; and now, thirty years later, his mind is still open to every new move in education, and his interest in the “schools of tomorrow” never flags. Perhaps his greatest book is Democracy and Education; here he draws the varied lines of his philosophy to a point, and centres them all on the task of developing a better generation. All progressive teachers acknowledge his leadership; and there is hardly a school in America that has not felt his influence. We find him active everywhere in the task of remaking the schools of the world; he spent two years in China lecturing to teachers on the reform of education, and made a report to the Turkish Government on the reorganization of their national schools.

Dewey first caught the eyes of the world by his work in the School of Education at Chicago. His philosophy centers on the task of developing a better generation. There is hardly a school in America that has not felt his influence. 

Following up Spencer’s demand for more science, and less literature, in education, Dewey adds that even the science should not be book-learning, but should come to the pupil from the actual practice of useful occupations. He has no great regard for a “liberal” education; the term was used, originally, to denote the culture of a “free man,”—i. e., a man who never worked; and it was natural that such an education should be fitted rather to a leisure class in an aristocracy than to an industrial and democratic life. Now that we are nearly all of us caught up in the industrialization of Europe and America, the lessons we must learn are those that come through occupation rather than through books. Scholastic culture makes for snobbishness, but fellowship in occupations makes for democracy. In an industrial society the school should be a miniature workshop and a miniature community; it should teach through practice, and through trial and error, the arts and discipline necessary for economic and social order. And finally, education must be re-conceived, not as merely a preparation for maturity (whence our absurd idea that it should stop after adolescence), but as a continuous growth of the mind and a continuous illumination of life. In a sense, the schools can give us only the instrumentalities of mental growth; the rest depends upon our absorption and interpretation of experience. Real education comes after we leave school; and there is no reason why it should stop before our death.

In an industrial society the school should be a miniature workshop and a miniature community; it should teach through practice, and through trial and error, the arts and discipline necessary for economic and social order. Education must be re-conceived as a continuous growth of the mind and a continuous illumination of life.

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