The Intellectual Environment of John Dewey, Part I

Written by Kerry Ellard on November 22, 2021

This series will explore the intellectual environment of John Dewey, and show that there have been many more than two “warring factions” at play in the history of American education.[1] In this first installment, I explain that Dewey played a similar role in the early 20th century to what Emerson played in the mid-19th century: a philosopher of American democracy.

As a historian of 19th century America, I’m inclined to interpret Dewey’s work in light of the fact that the formative years of his long life took place in the late 1800s. Born in Vermont in 1859, Dewey would have spent his childhood and early manhood surrounded by citizens of the American republic, only to watch that way of life collapse during the Progressive Era (~1880-1920), during which most of his research and writing on education took place. A commitment to preserving “eternal truths” was rapidly replaced by a faith in the possibilities of science, the necessity of more complex forms of social organization, and the inherent goodness of progress.

I believe that understanding Dewey’s interest in education as an attempt to find stability in the midst of this enormous cultural shift does much to clarify Dewey’s career. Although he is remembered as a 20th century phenomenon, he was a man who “at the same time personified and transcended what was to become American education in the twentieth century.”[2]

Dewey played the role of synthesizer, intellectual and moral leader, and perhaps of prophet, when it came to education reform in the early 1900s. By the 1890s, he had become known to professors as a man “utterly devoid of any affectation or self-consciousness" who made “many friends and no enemies.” He was credible, visibly brilliant, and charmingly passionate about his work. However, his personal and theoretical influence was greater than that of his pedagogy.

“[Dewey] found himself using the same language as his contemporaries, but he generally meant something quite different and, while competing interest groups eagerly looked to him for support and leadership, [his] own position in critical matters of theory and doctrine actually represented a considerable departure from the main line of any of the established movements...[He was] someone who reinterpreted and reconstructed certain of their ideas, and, consequently, became identified in a way with all of them.”[3]

In this sense, Dewey was similar to Ralph Waldo Emerson, integrating the many trends of his day, which were responses to rapid social upheaval. In fact, Dewey himself hailed Emerson as the “Philosopher of Democracy,” a title later applied to Dewey. They shared a dazzling intellect and personal credibility that seemed to make them authorities on the American way of life. But the two men faced different kinds of rapid social upheaval, and had to reconcile a correspondingly different set of responses to it; Dewey’s collectivist conception of democracy was based on very different assumptions than those underlying Emerson’s democratic republicanism.[4]

I am not the first to note the similarity. In recent decades, students of the history of education have pointed out that Dewey’s work is better understood as a struggle to transcend the binary of “progressive education” v. “traditional education,” or “the child versus the curriculum,” rather than a promotion of the former. “There is an entire tradition of mediating this self-destructive conflict in schools,” wrote one, noting that it began with Emerson’s “American Scholar.”[5]

Dewey does seem to have been trying to promote the “vocational” ideal expressed in “American Scholar,” as well as the concern with being weighed down by traditional literary influences to the point where spontaneous, creative responses are impossible.[6] But while Emerson warned that “I had better never see a book, than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system,”[7] Dewey seems to have believed that individuals were always satellites rather than a system unto themselves and that the problem was being pulled into a system of special interests, rather than orbiting the collective.[8] He seems to have believed that creative expression is always social or relational, rather than a product of what Emerson called “genius,” which resulted from individual understanding of the divinely inspired laws of Nature.[9]

In this series, I will argue that Dewey’s vagueness, and the resulting misappropriation of his ideas, result from his ultimate failure to find a replacement for the Emersonian command "trust thyself.”[10] 

[1] Martin Bickman, “Won’t You Come Home, John Dewey?,” Los Angeles Times, July 20, 2004, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2004-jul-20-oe-bickman20-story.html “...students, parents and teachers are constantly caught in this crossfire, or, to switch the metaphor, knocked about by the pendulum swings between the two extremes. The most frustrating part of this situation is that it is all so unnecessary. Each side has seized on only part of the cycle that generates real learning and urged it upon us as the entire solution. Instead, there should be a dialogue between individual experience and cultural symbols, between self-expression and teaching the basics. One of the reasons this continuing conflict is so heartbreaking is that, around the turn of the last century, John Dewey was able to create resolutions both in a philosophic and practical sense. He looked out on an educational landscape torn between similar apparently competing philosophies. One group centered on the notion of “child-study” and the person of G. Stanley Hall. This group had a Rousseau-like sentimentality about nature and children, and it was more concerned with what it saw as health and wholeness than with intellectual growth. On the other side was a group that stressed high academic achievement as defined and organized by curricula and textbooks, led by William Torrey Harris...”)

[2] Herbert M. Kliebard, The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893-1958.

[3] Herbert M. Kliebard, The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893-1958.

[4] See John Dewey, “Emerson-The Philosopher of Democracy,” International Journal of Ethics 13, no. 4 (1903): 405–13, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2376270 (“... one may without presumption believe that even if Emerson has no system, none the less he is the prophet and herald of any system which democracy may henceforth construct and hold by, and that when democracy has articulated itself, it will have no difficulty in finding itself already proposed in Emerson.”); John Dewey, “Maeterlinck's Philosophy of Life,” in John Dewey, Characters and Events (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1929) (“Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Maeterlinck are thus far, perhaps, the only men who have been habitually, and, as it were, instinctively, aware that democracy is neither a form of government nor a social expediency, but a metaphysic of the relation of man and his experience to nature...”); Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance, 1841, https://archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/emerson/essays/selfreliance.html (“Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.”)

[5] Martin Bickman, “Won’t You Come Home, John Dewey?,” Los Angeles Times, July 20, 2004, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2004-jul-20-oe-bickman20-story.html.

[6] See Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar,” an oration delivered before Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa Society, Cambridge, MA, August 31, 1837, https://emersoncentral.com/texts/nature-addresses-lectures/addresses/the-american-scholar/; R. W. Hildreth, What Good Is Growth? Reconsidering Dewey on the Ends of Education, E&C/Education & Culture 27 (2) (2011): 28-47, https://docs.lib.purdue.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1275&context=eandc.

[7] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar,” an oration delivered before Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa Society, Cambridge, MA, August 31, 1837, https://emersoncentral.com/texts/nature-addresses-lectures/addresses/the-american-scholar/.

[8] See John Dewey, “Emerson-The Philosopher of Democracy,” International Journal of Ethics 13, no. 4 (1903): 405–13, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2376270 (“Against creed and system, convention and institution, Emerson stands for restoring to the common man that. which in the name of religion, of philosophy, of art and of morality, has been embezzled from the common store and appropriated to sectarian and class use.”) It may be more accurate to say Dewey envisioned individuals as nodes in a network, and that he understood Emerson to have shared this understanding, but whichever model is used, Dewey seems to rate the individual contribution much lower than Emerson does. See Regina Schober, “America as Network: Notions of Interconnectedness in American Transcendentalism and Pragmatism,” Amerikastudien / American Studies 60, no. 1 (2015): 97–119, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44071897 (“This essay argues that American Transcendentalism and Pragmatism, as precursors to current network theories, share a particular mode of "networked thinking" that relies on concepts commonly associated with "America" or "Americanness" such as decentralization, informal associations, mobility, adaptation, and distributed power relations. The reading of some exemplary texts by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, William James, and Gertrude Stein examines the various ways in which they propose and negotiate visions of interconnection in relation to notions of the self, creativity, and geographical/cultural space. As a more or less explicit conceptual model, the network allows these texts to explore epistemological, aesthetic, and political questions in relation to conceptions of the U.S. as a constantly shifting, yet integrative configuration.”)

[9] See John Dewey, “Emerson-The Philosopher of Democracy,” International Journal of Ethics 13, no. 4 (1903): 405–13, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2376270 (“And for Emerson of all others, there is a one-sidedness and exaggeration, which he would have been the first to scorn, in exalting overmuch his creative substance at the expense of his reflective procedure. He says in effect somewhere that the individual man is only a method, a plan of arrangement. The saying is amply descriptive of Emerson...There are times, indeed, when one is inclined to regard Emerson's whole, work as a hymn to intelligence, a paean to the all-creating, all-disturbing power of thought.”); Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” 1841, https://archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/emerson/essays/selfreliance.html (“A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.”)

[10] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” 1841, https://archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/emerson/essays/selfreliance.html.

Kerry Ellard

Kerry Ellard earned a B.S. in Communication and a B.A. in Political Science from Boston University, and a J.D. from Boston College Law School. During school and after graduation, she worked in law, education, and government. Most recently, she has worked as a tutor, independent historian, and sociological analyst. Kerry lives in Boston, where she enjoys playing with her dog and attending concerts.