The Intellectual Environment of John Dewey, Part II: Changing American Life

Written by Kerry Ellard on November 29, 2021

Most discussions of John Dewey’s worldview focus on the rapid changes America underwent during his lifetime, and his struggle to prepare students for both the changed present and a radically different future.

But, Dewey’s interpretations of the United States’ present and future needs, and the necessity of using radical measures to meet them, was influenced by a distorted understanding of American history. Whether this was real or feigned to suit his objectives is difficult to judge.

The main issues Dewey perceived around him during the Progressive Era were certainly real: massive urban expansion, large numbers of uneducated or not intellectually-uninclined native-born and immigrant Americans, an increasing conflict between capital and labor, and the threat of concentrated power wielded in favor of special interests, and the alienation and disruption caused by industrialization.[1]

One biographer has written that, in many ways, Dewey was trying to recreate the conditions of his own childhood by means of education reform:

“John Dewey idealized his mother’s skills and had them in mind years later when in The School and Society (1899) he celebrated the “discipline and . . . character building involved in . . . training in habits of order and of industry, and in the idea of . . . obligation to do something, to produce something in the world” cultivated by farm families until the mid-nineteenth century. He told Joseph Ratner that in stressing these skills in his own writings on educational theory and practice, he had been influenced “by the Vermont environment, especially of my [maternal] grandfather’s farm . . . where all these occupations were still common.” In a late essay, he described what he had experienced that children of the 1920s and 1930s were denied: ‘There in the village was the old-fashioned sawmill, the old-fashioned gristmill, the old-fashioned tannery; and in my grandfather’s house there were still the candles and the soap which had been made in the home itself. At certain times the cobbler would come around to spend a few days in the neighborhood, making and repairing the shoes of the people. Through the very conditions of living, everybody had a pretty direct contact with nature and with the simpler forms of industry. As there were no great accumulations of wealth, the great majority of young people got a very genuine education . . . through real contact with actual materials and important social occupations.’...In his writings Dewey tried to give children raised in cities or working in factories a sense of the creative, productive, independent life of a farming family like his mother’s.”[2]

But the picture seemed more desperate due to false impressions Dewey had about the American past, which also caused him to misjudge the fundamental nature of certain problems.

As one scholar has put it, “Dewey opposed the academic curriculum revolving around classical languages and high culture, which he believed suited an aristocracy, not a democracy,” and which was therefore unsuited to a society moving toward universal education.[3] “The simple facts of the case are that in the great majority of human beings,” Dewey wrote, “the distinctively intellectual interest is not dominant.” School had to be made more practical to have any hope of reaching the many children with “the so-called practical impulse and disposition.”[4]

But American education had always been a strange mix of classical and democratic. The American experience directly refuted the idea that this was an education suitable only to aristocrats, and more Americans were being educated than ever before. Indeed, by the 1840s, America was recognized as an unprecedented success when it came to primary and secondary education.

Although by the late 19th-century, mass immigration caused overall literacy rates to drop, African Americans and women had more educational opportunities than ever, and universities and public schools were proliferating. The American education situation was far from perfect, but it certainly outperformed other countries in reaching the masses Dewey was so concerned about, just as it did in permitting upward mobility and individual opportunity amid changing conditions.[5]

Yet Dewey was correct to sense that the social dynamics of the country had changed significantly between his childhood and the time he became actively involved in theorizing about education. As one biographer wrote:

“As John Dewey was going through school, the country was changing quickly. By the time he graduated from college at the end of the decade, the world in which his mother and father had grown up had been radically reconstructed, and with the nation, he faced unprecedented new conditions. The increase in wealth was remarkable—and rapid. It started during the war itself. Needs in meatpacking, transportation, clothing, and weapons created several new millionaires before the conflict ended. Before the war, only a handful of millionaires existed in America, but by the early 1890s, there were four thousand.”[6]

Dewey’s concerns over the growing concentration of power and wealth, and their effect on his intellectual environment, will be covered in Part III.

[1] In the 1850s, shortly before Dewey was born, an economic recession “soon turned into a prolonged depression, and American agriculture was hit particularly hard. American farmers had prospered by selling produce to Europe, but the Europeans’ own production now met their needs, and American farmers were left with debt and overproduction. In the Northeast and the Midwest, the depression was severe. The economic distress in Vermont, where John Dewey was born, was followed by social problems, as many farmers began to move to the cities, especially Burlington, where the infrastructure was unprepared for such a rapid influx of people.” Jay Martin, The Education of John Dewey (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.)

[2] Quoted in ibid. Emphases added.

[3] The text of this article is available for unedited republication, free of charge, using the following credit: “Originally published as “John Dewey: Portrait of a Progressive Thinker” in the Spring 2019 issue of Humanities magazine, a publication of the National Endowment for the Humanities.” Please notify us at [email protected] if you are republishing it or have any questions.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. (“Immigrants in New York City violently protested against manual training in 1915. They wanted a classical education so that their children could go to college and become professionals.”)

[6] Ibid.

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.