The Intellectual Environment of John Dewey, Part III: Wealth Concentration

Written by Kerry Ellard on December 13, 2021

Recalling his own childhood in 1860s Vermont, particularly the time spent on his grandfather’s farm, Dewey remarked that “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.”[1]

In earlier pieces, I have addressed the “real contact with actual materials and important social occupations” element of Dewey’s approach to education reform. The purpose of this piece is to explore Dewey’s assumption that this related to the absence of “great accumulations of wealth,” a situation that clearly no longer held in America by the early 1890s, when he started his education work in Chicago with his Laboratory School. To truly understand Dewey’s unique views on wealth, and how they impacted his educational theories, it is necessary to first understand the historical context of 19th-century American economics.

Dewey biographer Jay Martin described the situation:

In the 1890s, America turned a corner. After a decade of peace, everything seemed to break loose...Progress had been so evident in the 1880s that even some social reformers could assume that it would solve poverty...In Chicago especially, hopes ran high...Caught in the euphoria of the time, the city fathers decided that for the coming celebration of Columbus’s discovery of America, Chicago should create the greatest world’s fair the universe had ever seen...The panic of 1893 ushered in an economic depression that lasted much longer than the fair did. The bankruptcy of overexpanded railroads, the collapse of several large companies, a stock market sell-off, and a tide of bank failures leading to the virtual disappearance of credit created massive bankruptcies and widespread unemployment. There was agrarian devastation, too, for farmers also had overextended themselves, seeking credit after the decline in European purchases. Then, when the loans were called in, foreclosures followed. In farming areas, several protest parties sprang up, increasing in numbers and stridency as the agricultural depression grew—the Grange, the Greenbacks, the Farmer’s Alliance, and the People’s Party, otherwise known as the Populists. Ignatius Donnelly’s famous preamble to the party’s first national platform was: “A vast conspiracy against mankind” is in progress, and “if not met and overthrown at once, it forebodes terrible social convulsions, the destructive of civilization, or the establishment of an absolute despotism.”In rural areas, the stage was being set for William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech and his campaign for the presidency...Things were bad enough, but when foreign investors withdrew their investments, the American economy almost totally collapsed. A million workers who had had jobs in 1892 now found themselves out of work...the depression did not ease until 1896 and was not officially ended until two years later.”[2]

As Martin emphasizes, Dewey’s worldview was heavily influenced by his relocation to Chicago in the early 1890s.

“A simple arithmetic formula was exhibited in the depression of the 1890s. Financial panic plus unemployment plus reductions in wages plus the decline of working conditions equaled the rise of unions and the onset of strikes...To protest the harassment of the McCormick strikers, union leaders called for a demonstration in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. When the police tried to disperse the crowds, the protesters rioted...Leaving Ann Arbor to move to Chicago at the beginning of the strike, Dewey got on one of the last trains to run for weeks to come. Because he read the papers, he knew about the panic, the depression, urban poverty, agrarian unrest, exploitation of workers, child labor, social disorder, clash of classes, and industrial strikes elsewhere...In the 1880s there was plenty of thought but no action, and in the 1890s, there was plenty of action but almost no thought. It would be up to men like Dewey to put thought and action together and thus create something solid from the chaos they encountered.”[3]

How did Dewey plan to do this? Let’s look at how one of Dewey's biographers describes how, between WWI and WWII, Dewey explained the general connection between his politics, philosophy, and views on education:

...Dewey worked toward reconstructing signs, symbols, and organized actions capable of unifying a public in America...he...said...that by means of evolving education, communication is central, since informed discussion, debate, and persuasion are made possible only by appropriate communicative means and methods, that is, by schooling. The problem of the public, then, is to free and enlarge “the processes of inquiry” and the “dissemination of . . . conclusions.” In this process it is not mere intelligence or “expertise” that counts but also the means and desire to investigate, the possession of a judgment free from prejudice, and an inclination to recognize common concerns. ‘Intelligence is not an original, innate endowment,’ Dewey explained, but a consequence of the education that social conditions effect, what he called ‘embodied intelligence.’ The implication of this position is clear, though dynamically circular: intelligent action is the product of social conditions, but social conditions form the context for the development of intelligence embodied in local communities. Dewey’s conception is a double helix model of knowledge in which mind and society, knowing and doing, individuals and their neighbors all are spun forward by social evolution, twisting around and lifting one another as they rise. Wrapped in this vision, Dewey’s prophetic spirit takes wing at the conclusion: ‘There is no limit to the liberal expansion and confirmation of limited personal intellectual endowment[s] which may proceed from the flow of social intelligence when that circulates . . . in the communications of the local community. That and that only gives reality to public opinion. We lie, as Emerson said, in the lap of an immense intelligence. But that intelligence is dormant and its communications are broken, inarticulate and faint until it possesses the local community as its medium.’”[4]

If this interpretation is correct, Dewey’s attraction to the thoughts of Emerson and Whitman makes sense, as he said they were the only American thinkers who had understood that “democracy is neither a form of government nor a social expediency, but a metaphysic of the relation of man and his experience in nature.”[5]

In other words, like Dewey, they had a concept of what has since been called a precursor to "networked thinking,” and applied it to try and navigate through a time of social upheaval in America.

“The network represents a prevalent figure of thought in U.S. American culture....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 [and] Walt Whitman...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.”[6]

But while he claimed to share their metaphysical understanding of democracy, he rejected their belief in intellectual independence and non-social intelligence, which may have rendered his theories circular and incoherent, and therefore incapable of being translated into practice.[7]

In Part IV of this series, we will begin exploring Dewey’s views on social organization in relation to other important thinkers of the time, particularly Emerson and Whitman.

[1] Jay Martin, The Education of John Dewey (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] John Dewey, “Maeterlinck’s Philosophy of Life,” The Hibbert Journal 9, no. 4 (1911), 778.

[6] Schober, Regina. “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.

[7] See, for example, ibid., and David S. Reynold, “Politics and Poetry: Whitman's Leaves of Grass and the Social Crisis of the 1850s,” https://www.thehamptons.com/words/reynolds/politics_and_poetry.html (“Among radical agitators of the day, it was the individualistic reformers of the fifties whose language and spirit most closely approximated [Whitman’s]. The early 1850s was the time of the great flowering of American anarchism...In a decade when government authority was proving to be corrupt, individual authority seemed paramount. All the individualistic reformers explicitly or implicitly paid homage in their writings to the great enunciator of self-reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson...Emerson's ideas flooded the reformist air in a decade when the individual seemed far more worthy than the state.... The poet was to be the balancer or equalizer of his land. "He is the arbiter of the diverse and he is the key," Whitman emphasizes in the 1855 preface. ‘He is the equalizer of his age and land....he supplies what wants supplying and checks what wants checking.’ With the possibility of resolution through normal political channels now dead, all the more reason, he saw, to forge a new resolution in his poetry... He espoused a dialectical mode of thinking that was new to him, one that lay behind the parties of the mid-fifties, involving fierce rejection of entrenched authority coupled with equally intense praise of simple artisan values. He espoused a dialectical mode of thinking that was new to him, one that lay behind the parties of the mid-fifties, involving fierce rejection of entrenched authority coupled with equally intense praise of simple artisan values... The final effect of the dramatic political changes of the 1850s was to drive him beyond parties altogether...He now reminded himself, ‘We want no reforms, no institutions, no parties--We want a living principle as nature has, under which nothing can go wrong--This must be vital through the United States.’ He had once believed the American system would perpetually purify itself through party debates and periodic elections. But with the party system having collapsed in a morass of bad principle and outright knavery, he had to look elsewhere for purification and ennoblement. He looked mainly to nature. Nature in Leaves of Grass becomes more than just a Wordsworthian or Emersonian source of spiritual inspiration (though it is that too)--it is a cleansing solvent into which Whitman cast all the disagreeable aspects of American experience, to be made pure and healthy...in the fifties, elections and laws [democracy] were of little help. Refreshing nature imagery was needed to show the unclean body politic how to renew itself. Politics must reorganize itself according to what he saw as the all-rectifying principle of nature.” Internal citations omitted. When he first moved to Chicago, Dewey mused about anarchism, but eventually came to believe that society had to constantly reorganize around a universal awareness of its collective dynamics. Otherwise, effective, intelligent individual action was impossible, due to each person’s ignorance of the overall “system."

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.