Dewey Applies Pragmatism to Education

In Democracy and Education, John Dewey expounded a philosophy of education that represented an extension of his “instrumentalist” version of pragmatism, one centered on individual students’ perceptions of their needs and their active agency in framing perceived problems and devising means for their solutions.

Summary of Event

John Dewey was unarguably the premier public intellectual of his time and arguably the greatest of all American philosophers. Along with Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, Dewey was a leading figure in the only purely indigenous American philosophical school of thought to date, known as pragmatism. Dewey’s own variant of the pragmatist theme, instrumentalism, treated ideas and concepts as tools that would be evaluated according to their usefulness in solving practical problems. Influenced by the spread of scientific methods of investigation into fields of inquiry (including anthropology, biology, and psychology) that had traditionally been dealt with in a descriptive, literary manner, Dewey set out to harness the power of these methods in the service of participatory democracy and the solution of social problems. His 1916 work Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education was the mature expression of Dewey’s instrumentalist approach as it applied to the study of educational institutions and practices. Democracy and Education (Dewey)
Philosophy of education
Education;philosophy of
[kw]Dewey Applies Pragmatism to Education (1916)
[kw]Pragmatism to Education, Dewey Applies (1916)
[kw]Education, Dewey Applies Pragmatism to (1916)
Democracy and Education (Dewey)
Philosophy of education
Education;philosophy of
[g]United States;1916: Dewey Applies Pragmatism to Education[03920]
[c]Education;1916: Dewey Applies Pragmatism to Education[03920]
[c]Philosophy;1916: Dewey Applies Pragmatism to Education[03920]
[c]Publishing and journalism;1916: Dewey Applies Pragmatism to Education[03920]
Dewey, John
Peirce, Charles Sanders
James, William

John Dewey.

(Library of Congress)

Dewey believed that the most important criteria for educational success were the expansion of students’ capacities for observation, foresight, and judgment, and in their abilities to integrate new experiences in light of their own unique gifts and interests. This continuous reconstruction of experience was what Dewey referred to as “growth,” and he defined education as a process of growth. His major thesis in Democracy and Education is that, of all of the conceivable arrangements by which people could organize their collective affairs, democracy is the one type of social structure that provides the maximal opportunities for growth for all of its members. In addition, Dewey saw that democracy could not flourish except under conditions that allowed for the widest possible participation and therefore maximized the potential for learning through social interaction. In order to establish and nurture the democratic form of life, Dewey believed that the habits of social cooperation and open-ended inquiry must be developed in the earliest years of the child’s educational experience.

In chapter 1, “Education as a Necessity of Life,” Dewey makes the connection between the type of society and the educational institutions by which the society reproduced itself. Primitive societies might rely on informal modes of enculturation (which Dewey termed “incidental”), while modern industrial systems required extensive formal structures for the transmission of cultural traits from one generation to the next. Of paramount importance in this regard is the preparation of the young, not simply to rehearse the patterns of life as they have been in the past, but rather to adjust to the rapid changes that modern technologically oriented societies must inevitably undergo. This requires the greatest possible development of the means of social communications, so that all such communication becomes inherently educative.

In the remaining chapters, Dewey draws on his earlier works in educational theory, including The School and Society (1899), School and Society, The (Dewey) interpreting his previous conclusions in light of both his overall philosophical development and his forty years’ experience as an educator. He describes the ideal school as a special environment, one that is structured to provide a matrix for the child’s participation and interactions with others on multiple levels. At the same time, such a structured environment must be as open as possible to the child’s potential for growth. This implies that the school was not to be separate from the community, but rather was to be a reflection of it, a microcosm within which students could develop the “habits of intelligence” on which democracy depends.

Dewey contrasts other popular theories on education with his theory of the educative process, which is open to the potential for development of the individual student, directed toward growth in skills of problem solving and critical thinking, and treats the school as an integral part of the present community. These other theories include both traditional approaches that focus on fixed subject matters that are externally imposed and memorized, as well as “child-centered” theories that allow the child’s preferences and interests to dictate the subject matter, the nature of the learning activities undertaken, and the criteria for successful conclusion. Dewey’s critique of the traditional approach highlights the authoritarian and repressive nature of such top-down procedures and points out the fundamental flaw in the notion that knowledge is passively received by students rather than being a result of active absorption based on the student’s felt needs.

At the same time, the child-centered view idealizes the child and fails to account for the crude and inchoate nature of preferences in the young. It omits any consideration of the need for interaction and social feedback in the maturation of interests. Dewey’s definition of education assumes that knowledge comes from active engagement with real objects and that interests are expanded and refined as the student partakes in the process of communication and reconstruction of experience. The mark of a democratic society is the absence of externally imposed aims and limits and the consequent freedom of all members to participate in existing relationships as well as to shape new forms of interaction as need arises.

Dewey concludes with a chapter, “Theories of Morals,” in which he develops the moral significance of education as it relates to the child as well as to the society at large. For the child, the greatest good is found in continuous growth; society owes to every member the greatest possible freedom to actualize their individual gifts. This implies both the autonomy to choose and access to the means of pursuing the options entailed by that choice. In order for the society to prosper, all members must be able to utilize all of their talents and capabilities in pursuit of common aims. By linking the concepts of growth, communication, and participation in this way, Dewey created a model of democracy as a moral order in which education serves as the common thread binding the various aspects of social life.


John Dewey believed that contemporary educational practices had failed to take account of three revolutionary changes in the modern world: the intellectual revolution caused by the discoveries of modern science, the Industrial Revolution and its supplanting of traditional modes of living, and the social revolution that was reflected in the growth of democratic forms of governance. His attempts to remedy these deficiencies drove all of his work in the field of education; he even went so far as to identify all philosophy with the philosophy of education, since every area of philosophical investigation is an attempt to clarify thought and clear the way of inquiry.

The importance of Democracy and Education as a systematic statement of the intellectual justification for progressive educational reform is impossible to overstate. In this work, Dewey succeeded in explicating the social purpose of education in a democracy and in synthesizing the competing approaches to educational philosophy that had formerly set the terms of national debate (“subject-centered” versus “child-oriented”). In the process, he corrected the excesses of both extremes and put forth a challenge to educators to incorporate the idea of “learning to learn” into their own activities as an integral part of professional development. The subsequent trends toward professionalization of teaching and toward the evaluation of schools through measurement of student performance were epochal and irreversible. Democracy and Education (Dewey)
Philosophy of education
Education;philosophy of

Further Reading

  • Bernstein, Richard. John Dewey. New York: Washington Square Press, 1967. Excellent overview of Dewey’s work, with interesting insights into the evolution of Dewey’s thought over a very long career.
  • Boisvert, Raymond. John Dewey: Rethinking Our Time. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1998. Comprehensive survey of Dewey’s philosophy, written to be accessible to curious nonspecialists. Places Dewey’s educational theory in context of his entire body of work.
  • Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. 1916. Reprint. New York: Free Press, 1997. Faithfully reprinted from the original. Indexed.
  • Dewey Society. Founded in 1935, the society’s mission is to continue and expand Dewey’s work in the areas of educational theory and reform. It also publishes a journal, Education and Culture.
  • Shook, John. Dewey’s Empirical Theory of Knowledge and Reality. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2000. Places Dewey firmly in the pragmatic tradition and explains the fundamental differences between the traditional theories of learning based on fixed objects and categories and the pragmatic view of knowledge as a product of action.

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