What Does Progressive Education Look Like? Part II: A Deweyan Approach

Written by Kerry Ellard on March 2, 2022


Early in his career, John Dewey declared that Americans were increasingly realizing that society could no longer neglect “its constituent parts” without becoming “defective and distorted.” Speaking to fellow educators in 1902, Dewey said he did not expect the debate over “material socialism”—whether the inequalities of the industrial age necessitated redistributive policies—to be settled any time soon.[1]

“But there is a socialism regarding which there can be no such dispute—socialism of the intelligence and of the spirit. To extend the range and the fullness of sharing in the intellectual and spiritual resources of the community is the very meaning of the community. Because the older type of education is not fully adequate to this task under changed conditions, we feel its lack and demand that the school shall become a social center. The school as a social center means the active and organized promotion of this socialism of the intangible things of art, science, and other modes of social intercourse.”[2]

It's easy to turn this into a culture war-talking point, but to present the above as a confession of Dewey’s intent to use education to cultivate support for collectivism or statism misses the point. Dewey was a conscious combatant in his own era’s culture wars; its intellectual and political struggles. In the quote above, he was effectively hijacking the Progressive Era debates over socialism and social engineering to promote his own concerns and theories (and to evade explicit participation in those debates).[3] These concerns and theories centered on how to maintain what Dewey understood to be the best and defining contributions of American life thus far (democracy and debate), and the way they promoted creativity, tolerance, collaboration, intellectual development, and other drivers of human progress and fulfillment.

“Socialism of the intelligence and of the spirit” was a description of the same concept underlying puzzling Deweyisms like “A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.”

Before 1903 or 1904, Dewey seems to have communicated his ideas according to the terms of the education policy discourse. Subsequently, after his fallout with the University of Chicago and his departure from his Laboratory School, he framed them in terms of philosophical discourses. Now working in the Columbia philosophy department, Dewey’s main themes were democracy, childhood education and progressive schooling, collectivist political ideologies, the American identity, the nature of expertise and authority, social change and progress, navigating diversity, and the promises of scientific habits of mind.

Amid his diverse and opaque writings, however, Dewey’s central concern never wavered: ensuring that every individual could share in “the intellectual and spiritual resources of the community,” while also doing his or her part to extend “the range and the fullness” of the resources in that community. Therefore, to Dewey, a community of any kind that allows for unvetted participation (de jure or de facto) is democratic. Living democratically is learning how to assert a claim to a seat at the table and have that claim recognized by the community.[4]

Emersonian Philosophy

Emersonian philosophy is characterized by an emphasis on “interconnected thinking, self-definition, and creativity,” concepts associated with decentered processes and distributed agencies, such as interconnectivity and reciprocity. It is part of an American “epistemological tradition” based on “relational, transitional, and adaptive processes,” which was most evident in the late 19th and early 20th century, when Emersonian philosophies were modernized by people now classified under the Pragmatist tradition. Dewey is grouped with the Pragmatists because he used Emersonian logic, which can be recognized by his tendency to treat Nature, intelligence/genius, collaborative creativity, experimentation, education, democracy, and individualism as interchangeable concepts.[5]

"The foundation of democracy is faith in the capacities of human nature; faith in human intelligence and in the power of pooled and cooperative experience.”

John Dewey

The central point is that a society will ossify and become brittle if it doesn’t leave room for individual “genius” to pop up and re-design things to accommodate change. Dewey’s theory “presupposes...that people develop the habit of continually creating and readjusting their diverse perspectives and interests through the exchange with external groups,” as “only in this way can they respond to new challenges” in our interrelated modern world.[7] In other words, survival demands being unwilling to waste a single drop of the community’s “talent” by encouraging maximal participation, a belief that is evident in Dewey’s 1902 address.

He tells his fellow educators that the Hull House is “the working model upon which I am pretty continuously drawing,” noting that classes in music, art, and metal-working are given there. He then argues that “there is no reason why something in the way of scientific laboratories should not be provided for those who are particularly interested in problems of mechanics or electricity,” indicating that he thinks the community should invest in cultivating the various talents of its members—all of them, even if they are not professionals or able to self-fund their hobbies.[8]

“There is a vast amount of unutilized talent dormant all about us,” Dewey warns in a notably Emersonian register. “Many an individual has capacity within himself of which he is only dimly conscious, because he has never had an opportunity for expressing it.” This is not only a tragedy for such individuals, but for society, which “suffers from this wasted capital.” In fact, Dewey goes as far to say that “the evils of the unearned increment are as nothing beside those of the undiscovered resource.” He then expressed confidence that the community would eventually recognize that the obligation to educate children should be extended further. It was, said Dewey, "quite as natural and necessary...to provide such opportunities for adults as will enable them to discover and carry to some point of fulfilment the particular capacities that distinguish them.”[9]

Even though he was administering the Chicago Laboratory School at this time, Dewey did not present himself as an implementer of pedagogical methods for children. A 1933 report on progressive education aptly referred to him as a “philosopher and sociologist.”[10]

Every Man a Teacher and a Leader

“I suppose none of us would be willing to believe that the movement away from dogmatism and fixed authority is anything but a movement in the right direction,” Dewey said to the conference attendees. “But no one can view the loosening of the power of the older religious and social authorities without deep concern.” While there was confidence that, eventually, “independent judgment, with the individual freedom and responsibility that go with it, will more than make good the temporary losses,” they still had those losses to deal with in the meantime.[11] Dewey described these losses as follows:

“Parental authority has much less influence in controlling the conduct of children...The domestic ties between husband and wife themselves, as well as to their children, lose something of their permanence and sanctity. The church, with its supernatural sanctions, its means of shaping the daily life of its adherents, finds its grasp slowly slipping away. We might as well frankly recognize that many of the old agencies for moralizing mankind, that kept men living decent, respectable, and orderly lives, are losing in efficiency...”[12]

He argued that it was society’s obligation to “search for other agencies with which it may repair the loss, and which may produce the results the former methods are failing to secure,” again emphasizing the need to go beyond children and educate adults in a more useful and holistic way. He also ventured his opinion that the perceived deterioration in the quality of teachers was due to a remembrance of a time “when to know enough to be a teacher was something which of itself set off the individual in a special class by himself.” True or not, Dewey suggested that it only seemed this way because everyone else had now caught up with them. More knowledge was now “in common circulation,” and this, along with other changes, had “made it possible for every man to be a teacher in some respect unto his neighbor.”[13]

This sounds much more like Emerson than any Progressive-era socialist or technocrat. Particularly given the fact that he is speaking to a group of intellectuals and reformers who came of age in late 19th-century America, you practically expect him to start quoting “The American Scholar”[14]. These early writings were not directed at people who wanted to overthrow the power-structure in order to secure fair wages, or those who want to optimize the transformation of poor children into obedient factory workers. As Cornel West has put it, ”Dewey writes from the vantage point of and in leadership over that rising professional fraction of the working class and managerial class that is in sympathy with and has some influence among an exploited yet franchised industrial working class.”[15]

Educating for Leadership

Back in 1897, while running his famous Chicago Laboratory School, Dewey published his “pedagogic creed” in a journal for professional educators.[16]He uses his work with children as a jumping-off point to convey his usual concerns, remarking that as American schoolchildren are members of “a democratic and progressive society,” they must be “educated for leadership as well as for obedience.” The American child had to attain “power of self-direction and power of directing others,” as well as the ability to assume positions of responsibility. This meant training them to have “command of the fundamental methods of inquiry and the fundamental tools of intercourse and communication,” as well as “a trained and sound body, skillful eye and hand; habits of industry, perseverance, and, above all, habits of serviceableness.”[17]

"Educating for leadership” had to be done on “the industrial side” as well as the political one, Dewey insisted, as “the affairs of life are coming more and more under the control of insight and skill in perceiving and effecting combinations.” I am not sure what precisely he meant by that, but certainly the era of Big Business was dawning. Dewey went onto emphasize the continual social change, rapid industrial and commercial development, and proliferation of new inventions that characterized modern American life. As a result, Dewey insisted, “it is an absolute impossibility to educate the child for any fixed station in life,” and if this were to be “unconsciously or consciously done,” the future citizen so educated would end up nothing more but a drone, a hanger-on, or a drag on social progress.[18]

Dewey also warned against age-graded schools and other types of education that force a child to compare himself against a general standard of achievement rather than work at his own pace. “Almost the only measure for success is a competitive one, in the bad sense of that term,” Dewey remarked a few years later, referring to using graded exams “to see which child has succeeded in getting ahead of others in storing up, in accumulating the maximum of information.”[19]

In his early works, Dewey referred to this use of universal standards in the classroom as an individualistic method, apparently intending to provoke dissonance and deeper thought.[20] What he meant was that it puts individual students in direct competition with each other, and while this had benefits, it also “prematurely” introduces children to the demoralizing dynamics of “emulation and rivalry.”[21] His general argument against the ossification caused by “individualistic” methods of education is taken from the Emersonian ode to the integrity of the individual, “Self-Reliance”: “There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide...The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.”

Child-Centered Education

Self-Reliance” also captures an idea that influences many strains of child-centered education, though not one central to Dewey’s philosophy: the purity of insight resulting from the unbiased perceptions of children:

“What pretty oracles nature yields us…in the face and behavior of children…That divided and rebel mind, that distrust of a sentiment because our arithmetic has computed the strength and means opposed to our purpose, these have not. Their mind being whole, their eye is as yet unconquered…Infancy conforms to nobody: all conform to it, so that one babe commonly makes four or five out of the adults who prattle and play to it…Do not think the youth has no force, because he cannot speak to you and me. It seems he knows how to speak to his contemporaries. Bashful or bold, then, he will know how to make us seniors very unnecessary.”

However, the rest of the essay, as well as “The American Scholar” and “Intellect,” portray this general spirit as the essence of creative, influential, and self-reliant adulthood—it’s intended as an analogy, not a description of a capability unique to youth or psychological immaturity. Past scholars have been thrown off by the grouping of Dewey with “student-centered” educators,[22] but Dewey fits an Emersonian interpretation of “student-centered”—the student is ideally learning from the teacher how to be a responsible adult, capable of exercising judgment sufficient to face the impossible-to-predict challenges of the future.[23]

Modern scholars have increasingly caught on to this, but present it as inherently paradoxical, assuming their audience conflates authority with narrow expertise or dogma and see formal education as passive absorption of the latter.[24]

Therefore, Dewey is said to have an “anti-foundationalist epistemology,” because he “did not view the teacher's authority as based in a transcendent, foundational domain.” Rather, the teacher’s authority was based in understanding the current state of knowledge, and in the ability to guide students in reconstructing it. The teacher's demonstration that knowledge is socially produced and evolving makes the students aware of its “socially and politically situated nature.”[25] Such an approach is seen as “teacher-centric,” rather than “child-centric.”

The Role of the Teacher: Every Man is a Teacher Unto His Neighbor

This arguably false dichotomy, which I will not try to adjudicate here, is the same one that underlies the alleged “crisis of expertise,” which is essentially what Dewey (and all of Emerson’s Progressive-era emulators) struggled with, though they would have described it a crisis of authority, because expert authority was not dominant or treated as unique by most people at this time. (See Dewey's 1897 remarks, above).

I suspect that a passage in a recent book by Gil Eyal, The Crisis of Expertise, gets at the kind of dynamic that Dewey had in mind, one that does not require a clear distinction between student and teacher. Eyal, who mentions Dewey several times in the book, does not pretend to solve the crisis described in its title, admitting that he has no solution. But in going on to assume that no one has one, and that operating based on this assumption is the best bet, he offers what is itself a kind of “transcendent, foundational domain”:

“…When it comes to public, political debate, the main contribution of [scholarly] work cannot be to offer solutions, or to tell people what they ought to do, but…to force different sides ‘to recognize inconvenient facts – I mean, facts that are inconvenient for their party opinions’…the mission can succeed only if the teaching is applied to the teacher herself. You teach students (or fellow experts, or civil servants, or the lay public) how to recognize inconvenient facts by recognizing them yourself, recognizing and grappling with precisely those facts that are inconvenient for your party opinion. Yet, if one manages to make even a small contribution towards developing in others the faculty of recognizing, acknowledging, even seeking out the inconvenient facts, then it may be reckoned as nothing less than a ‘moral achievement.’”[26]

Here, there is no fundamental distinction between expert and layman, teacher and student, or adult and child—the basic learning process can occur as easily among peers of any age and kind. For this reason, Dewey lamented that the competitive atmosphere in schools had turned it into a “crime” for one student to help another with his task introducing the dynamics of “partisan” interests that Eyal refers to.[27]

“Where the school work consists in simply learning lessons, mutual assistance, instead of being the most natural form of coöperation and association, becomes a clandestine effort to relieve one’s neighbor of his proper duties. Where active work is going on all this is changed. Helping others, instead of being a form of charity which impoverishes the recipient, is simply an aid in setting free the powers and furthering the impulse of the one helped. A spirit of free communication, of interchange of ideas, suggestions, results, both successes and failures of previous experiences, becomes the dominating note of the recitation. So far as emulation enters in, it is in the comparison of individuals, not with regard to the quantity of information personally absorbed, but with reference to the quality of work done—the genuine community standard of value. In an informal but all the more pervasive way, the school life organizes itself on a social basis.”[28]

Nothing makes Dewey’s view of the teacher’s role clearer than these lines from his most famous work, 1916’s Democracy and Education. “How one person’s abilities compare in quantity with those of another is none of the teacher’s business. It is irrelevant to his work. What is required is that every individual shall have opportunities to employ his own powers in activities that have meaning.”[29]

“The American Scholar”: Democratic Faith and the Academy

This statement seems to encapsulate the approach Dewey took at his Chicago Laboratory School in the late 1890s and early 1900s: the teacher gave each student the opportunity to participate in “meaningful activities.”[30]

“Dewey wanted to harness the potential of education to provide citizens the skills, knowledge, and habits they needed to govern themselves: both to have control over their lives and to help revitalize their society. Students and workers should be taught how to work together creatively by participating democratically in their schools and workplaces, because, Dewey maintained, authoritarian methods will impede the growth of individuals and society.

Education for participation required acquainting individuals with both the history and the current state of the culture as it is studied from various disciplinary stances, as well as developing habits of active participation. Such education, Dewey argued, required the intelligent leadership of the teacher. The teacher's task is to create conditions in which students can work through problems cumulatively and see the results of their achievement. Dewey further cautioned that teachers cannot give students absolute freedom, because students need to be taught how to structure learning. From Dewey's stance, the teacher has a difficult job: to set up constraints to encourage students' intelligent freedom.”[31]

This reflects Dewey’s Emersonian idea of decentralized, collaborative, ongoing knowledge construction,[32] with which he publicly aligned himself and associated with democracy in 1903 in a lecture before his University of Chicago colleagues on the centennial of Emerson’s birth.[33] He had it published later that year in an international philosophical journal, shortly before a falling out with the University led to Dewey to depart his Laboratory School for Columbia University’s philosophy department.[34]

The lecture, published as “Emerson—The Philosopher of Democracy,” seems to be as much about Dewey’s vision for his own career as it was about Emerson’s.[35] He opens by talking about how Emerson stands for democratized knowledge:

“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 morality, has been embezzled from the common store and appropriated to sectarian and class use. Emerson has comprehended and declared how such malversation makes truth decline from its simplicity, and in becoming partial and owned, become a [tool of manipulation by the powerful.] For such reasons, the coming century may well make evident what is just now dawning, that Emerson is not only a philosopher, but that he is the Philosopher of Democracy.”[36]

Plato’s own generation would have struggled to classify him, said Dewey.[37] “Was he an inept visionary or a subtle dialectician?...Was he a theorist upon education, or the inventor of a method of knowledge?” But, after “centuries of exposition and interpretation,” people had no difficulty in “placing Plato as a philosopher and in attributing to him a system of thought,” even if they disputed the nature and content of his system and “technique.”[38] Dewey hoped the same would happen to Emerson in the twentieth century:

“Thinking of Emerson as the one citizen of the New World fit to have his name uttered in the same breath with that of Plato, 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.”[39]

As Dewey’s remarks indicate, Emerson’s approach to harmonizing contradictory elements does not translate into a universally recognized educational system or plan of practical action—it is designed to be adapted by any individual to meet whatever circumstances he or she may face. The precise balancing of the part and the whole, democratization and individual genius or calling, or the theory and the practice, differs with each individual and is elaborated on over time. Dewey’s attraction to the scientific method had to do with his belief that “any given state of knowledge was a product of consensus among a community of inquirers,” and that scientific or social/political consensus was the product of an ongoing interaction between different views, not standardization and agreement.[40]

“Growth in scientific understanding could come only from the experience, or experiments, of individual scientists. But individual scientists could engage in meaningful experiments only by drawing on the fund of previous experience represented by the scientific community. What impressed Dewey so much about scientific method, and made it for him an exemplar of democracy, was the assumption that people are expected to influence the society that influences them.”[41]

To make sense of Dewey’s approach at the theoretical level, what matters more than anything is understanding that he “conceived of a dialectical relationship in which individuals were both formed by their society and in turn gained the skills and abilities to interactively transform aspects of their culture,” and that this was “the central criterion by which he measured the worth of any educational innovation.”[42] As Dewey asked rhetorically about Plato, ”Is he a theorist upon education, or the inventor of a method of knowledge?” Dewey probably identified most with the role he ascribed to Emerson in 1903: “Philosopher of Democracy.”[43]

Foundationalism or Anti-Foundationalism?

In the 1910s, Dewey’s philosophy was not necessarily interpreted as intentionally anti-foundationalist,[44] though it was understood to have an unusually flexible and vague “foundation.”[45] Recent scholars have also disputed Dewey’s anti-foundationalism, at least in his later years, when, “confronted with the crisis of war and exception,” Dewey finally articulated a basic foundation for his educational philosophy. According to this argument, which I discussed in Part I, that foundation was “democratic faith,”[46] which Dewey repeatedly attempted to translate into rhetoric that would resonate with his contemporaries, especially in the 1930s and 1940s. I quoted part of this attempt above: "The foundation of democracy is faith in the capacities of human nature; faith in human intelligence and in the power of pooled and cooperative experience.”[47]

One recent scholar has attempted to translate this into something “jaded” post-moderns could understand, describing it as a commitment to “respect for one’s interlocutors and opponents based in shared recognition of humanity and the capacity for intelligence,” thus enabling the democratic deliberation necessary to the community’s survival. It's a good translation, though I would argue that Dewey’s vision would be better served if thought of as a conversation with ”fellow citizens,” not ”interlocutors and opponents.”[48] And perhaps a capacity for understanding or constructive action would convey the point better than a capacity for intelligence. Also, the scholar has emulated Dewey in choosing to define his theory of democratic faith primarily in the words of Thomas Jefferson, which is highly likely to interfere with its reception by today’s young people.[49]

The Art of Translation: Each Generation Must Write Its Own Books

The debate over whether Dewey is a “foundationalist” is best answered by what Dewey said about science in Part I: even if scientific inquiry could not itself establish a clear ethical framework ("science can't decide policy,” as we’ve put it recently), and even if perfect objectivity is impossible, we can surely still be expected to try and act wisely, rather than throw up our hands and plunge into a life of raw power struggles. It is hard to disagree with Dewey’s assertion that we only have three options for getting things done in life: using our intelligence, “drift and casual improvision,” and “the use of coercive force stimulated by unintelligent emotion and fanatical dogmatism.” And I think most of us would agree that seeing how far “our intelligence” can take us is the way to go.

"If one wishes to realize the distance which may lie between 'facts' and the meaning of facts, let one go to the field of social discussion. Many persons seem to suppose that facts carry their meanings along with themselves on their face. Accumulate enough of them, and their interpretation stares out at you.” [50]

John Dewey

Democracy for Dewey, then, was a process in which socially-created individuals consciously participated in the continual growth of group knowledge and social institutions. For Dewey, this kind of democracy was not an empirical fact, but…something to be worked toward. This implies that members of a society need to develop the skills and be provided the resources of participatory democracy on a continuing basis.”[51]

Could progressive education respond to the deconstructionist tendencies of the last few decades like Emerson did, as “reformers' increasing negativity led him to establish new humanistic and artistic receptacles for the reform impulse”?[52] On the same day Dewey gave his 1903 speech on Emerson as the Philosopher of Democracy, Harvard’s longtime president Charles W. Eliot gave his own memorial speech in Boston, focusing on "the prophetic teachings of Emerson in regard to education,” and how they could be used to constructively synthesize seemingly disparate Progressive-era reform efforts.

“Since the Civil War, a whole generation of educational administrators has been steadily at work developing what is called the elective system in the institutions of education which deal with the ages above twelve. It has been a slow, step-by-step, carried on against much active opposition and more sluggish obstruction. The system is a method of educational organization which recognizes the immense expansion of knowledge during the nineteenth century, and takes account of the needs and capacities of the individual child and youth. Now, Emerson laid down in plain terms the fundamental doctrines on which this elective system rests. He taught that the one prudence in life is concentration; the one evil, dissipation. He said: ‘You must elect your work: you shall take what your brain can, and drop all the rest.’ To this exhortation he added the educational reason for it,-only by concentration can the youth arrive at the stage of doing something with his knowledge, or get beyond the stage of absorbing, and arrive at the capacity for producing. As Emerson puts it, 'Only so can that amount of vital force accumulate which can make the step from knowing to doing.’ The educational institutions of to-day have not yet fully appreciated this all-important step from knowing to doing. They are only beginning to perceive that, all along the course of education, the child and the youth should be doing something as well as learning something; should be stimulated and trained by achievement; should be constantly encouraged to take the step beyond seeing and memorizing to doing...Emerson carried this doctrine right on into mature life. He taught that nature arms each man with some faculty, large or small, which enables him to do easily some feat impossible to any other, and thus makes him necessary to society; and that this faculty should determine the man's career. The advocates of the elective system have insisted that its results were advantageous for society as a whole, as well as for the individual Emerson put this argument in a nutshell at least fifty years ago: ‘Society can never prosper, but must always be bankrupt, until every man does that which he was created to do.’”

Could American progressive education become the ongoing, collaborative interpretive project envisioned by Dewey, and the source of creativity, individual purpose, and intellectual meaning envisioned by Eliot? In Part III, I will talk about how recent scholars have proposed a new understanding of the vision advanced by Dewey and other American progressive educators in this tradition, one that was lost in translation amid the changing political and intellectual paradigms of the 20th century.

Further reading:

  • John Dewey, “My Pedagogic Creed,” School Journal, vol. 54, January 1897, 77-80, at http://dewey.pragmatism.org/creed.htm.
  • John Dewey, “The School as a Social Center,” Address to the National Council of Education, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 1902, at https://progressingamerica.blogspot.com/2014/02/the-school-as-social-centre-by-john.html.
  • Regina Schober, “America as Network: Notions of Interconnectedness in American Transcendentalism and Pragmatism,” American Studies 60, no. 1, 2015, 97–119, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44071897.

1. John Dewey, “The School as a Social Center,” Address to the National Council of Education, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 1902, at https://progressingamerica.blogspot.com/2014/02/the-school-as-social-centre-by-john.html.

2. Ibid. (Emphases added.)

3. I have come to see Dewey’s vague and unclear writing as an intentional effort to cause cognitive dissonance or curiosity, thereby provoking new perceptions and independent research. Rather than modeling synthesis or intelligibility, Dewey is trying to provoke synthesis and demands for intelligibility in the minds of his readers. He attempts to transcend false dichotomies by using eccentric definitions of words and inverting popular symbols and arguments. It is a variation on Emerson’s strategy, “I unsettle all things,” adapted to the perceived needs of Dewey’s readers. See Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circles,” Essays: First Series, 1841, at https://emersoncentral.com/texts/essays-first-series/circles/ (“There is not a piece of science, but its flank may be turned to-morrow; there is not any literary reputation…that may not be revised and condemned…Valor consists in the power of self-recovery, so that a man cannot have his flank turned, cannot be out-generalled, but put him where you will, he stands. This can only be by his preferring truth to his past apprehension of truth; and his alert acceptance of it, from whatever quarter; the intrepid conviction that his laws, his relations to society…his world, may at any time be superseded and decease.”) (Emphases added.)

4. See Matthew Festenstein, “Dewey’s Political Philosophy,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Winter 2019 Edition, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2019/entries/dewey-political/. (“...in Dewey’s view: that ’men are not isolated non-social atoms, but are men only when in intrinsic relations‘ to one another, and the state in turn only represents them so far as they have become organically related to one another, or are possessed of unity of purpose and interest.‘ Democracy is a form of moral and spiritual association that recognizes the contribution that each member can make in his or her particular way to this ethical community...Democracy is not ’simply and solely a form of government‘ but a social and personal ideal; in other words, it is not only a property of political institutions but of a wide range of social relationships.”) (Internal citations omitted; emphases added).

5. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it: “Although much of Dewey’s political writing is prompted by specific issues, his overall orientation is deeply shaped by his pragmatism or (as he preferred) ‘experimentalism’. At the core of his political thinking are the beliefs that science and democracy are mutually supportive and interdependent enterprises, that they are egalitarian, progressive and rest on habits of open social communication, and that powerful interpretations of liberal individualism and democracy have become ossified and self-defeating.” Ibid. (Emphases added.) See also Ralph Waldo Emerson, ”Intellect,” in Essays: First Series, 1841, at https://archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/emerson/essays/intellect.html, and Neal Dolan, “Introduction,” in Emerson's Liberalism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009).

6. John Dewey, Democracy and Educational Administration, 1937.

7. K. Reich, ”Diverse Communities —Dewey’s Theory of Democracy as a Challenge for Foucault, Bourdieu, and Rorty,“ in J.M. Green, S. Neubert, and K. Reich (eds) Pragmatism and Diversity (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137010605_9.

8. Dewey, “The School as a Social Center.”

9. Ibid. (Emphases added.)

10. Andrew Anderson, “What is a progressive school?,” Thesis submitted for degree of Master of Science, Massachusetts State College, Amherst, Massachusetts, 1933, https://scholarworks.umass.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2420&context=theses. Anderson writes that, as a philosopher and sociologist, Dewey “thinks in terms of groups,” recognizing “the principles of individual differences…only in the sense that [such differences allow] each member to contribute to the growth of the group.” He quotes Dewey as saying, “A society based on custom will utilize individual variations only up to limit of conformity with usage…A progressive society counts individual variations as precious since it finds in them the means of its new growth. Hence a democratic society must allow for intellectual freedom and the play of diverse gifts and interests in its educational measures." This is a restatement of Emerson’s main ideas, now defined as the principles of a “progressive society.” (Emphasis added).

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid. (Emphases added.) Dewey then declared that intellectual life and knowledge was more connected with the rest of worldly affairs than ever before, and therefore a purely intellectual education no longer cut it—not when “the daily occupations and ordinary surroundings of life are much more in need of interpretation than ever they have been before.” The proper application of knowledge must take precedence over studying physics or German just to appear “cultured.”Telling, Dewey remarked that such aristocratic, esoteric notions of education were just the sort of idea “which the term ‘culture’ still conveys to many minds.”

14. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar,” in Essays: First Series, 1841, at https://emersoncentral.com/texts/nature-addresses-lectures/addresses/the-american-scholar/ (“As no air-pump can by any means make a perfect vacuum, so neither can any artist entirely exclude the conventional, the local, the perishable from his book, or write a book of pure thought, that shall be as efficient, in all respects, to a remote posterity, as to cotemporaries, or rather to the second age. Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit this.”)

15. Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 70. Bolded is my emphasis, italics in the original.

16. See John Dewey, “My Pedagogic Creed,” School Journal, vol. 54, January 1897, 77-80, at http://dewey.pragmatism.org/creed.htm.

17. See ibid. (Emphases added). Dewey also said they had to learn to be leaders with the ability “to assume positions of responsibility” in a changing world, in which we could not afford to educate anyone for a “fixed station in life.” Instead, we must educate so as to “give [each man] such possession of himself that he may take charge of himself; may not only adapt himself to the changes which are going on, but have power to shape and direct those changes.”

18. See ibid. (Emphases added.)

19. John Dewey, “The School and Social Progress,” The School and Society (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1900), at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/53910/53910-h/53910-h.htm. In this early piece, Dewey expressed his central idea as follows: ”A society is a number of people held together because they are working along common lines, in a common spirit, and with reference to common aims. The common needs and aims demand a growing interchange of thought and growing unity of sympathetic feeling.”) (Emphases added).

20. See Dewey, “My Pedagogic Creed,” and note iii, above.

21. See Dewey, “My Pedagogic Creed.”

22. See Mara Holt, “Dewey and the ‘Cult of Efficiency’: Competing Ideologies in Collaborative Pedagogies of the 1920s,” Journal of Advanced Composition 14, no. 1, 1994, 73–92, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20865948.

23. See, for example, Emerson, ”Intellect.” Dewey seems to allude to this essay in John Dewey, “Emerson-The Philosopher of Democracy,” International Journal of Ethics 13, no. 4, 1903, 405–13, https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2376270.pdf.

24. These false paradoxes and dichotomies also occur as a result of retroactively imposed ideological categories. For a brief discussion of this, see Holt, “Dewey and the ‘Cult of Efficiency.’” (“…we need to be aware of how our own cultural and institutional environments may lead us, perhaps unwittingly, into inconsistencies in our practices that may diminish the richness of social participation.”) A non-paywalled version can be found here. Holt describes a variety of tensions in some approaches used by early American progressives who identified themselves with Emersonian logic, mainly John Dewey and Helen Parkhurst. These approaches appear less contradictory in theory, if not more successful in practice, when the Emersonian influence on their philosophy is understood.

25. Ibid.

26. Gil Eyal, The Crisis of Expertise (United Kingdom: Polity Press, 2019), 142.

27. Dewey, “The School and Social Progress,”

28. Ibid. (Emphases added).

29. John Dewey, Democracy and Education, 1916. What Dewey objected to was the idea that children were born with the ability to ”develop naturally” into functional adults, and that ”raising” or guiding them was harmful interference with this process. He also feared the effects of individuals or factions within a community developing without a shared focus or point of reference to bind them together and ensure that their expectations did not diverge until they became sources of conflict. Dewey wrote that “the intermingling in the school” of American children from different backgrounds “creates for all a new and broader environment.” His key point: “Common subject matter accustoms all to a unity of outlook upon a broader horizon than is visible to the members of any group while it is isolated.” He indicated that American education should “cultivate” an appreciation for the fact that “the American nation is itself complex and compound,” and that it was dangerous to try and achieve any American identity that would deny this truth. Superficial coherence or homogeneity were not the true sources of unity or solidarity, but being rather cultivating awareness and appreciation of American diversity, and a sense of responsibility for learning how to navigate and stabilize relations in this contradictory and sometimes volatile environment, and encourage its potential for creative collaboration.

30. As I wrote in ”Emerson on Education,” ”[Emerson’s] faith in every person’s judgment made him open to trusting democracy, just as the Puritans’ faith in human conscience made them open to trusting universal education.” This is the connection between ”The American Scholar” and his later work.

31. Holt, “Dewey and the ‘Cult of Efficiency.’” See also the discussion of “agonism,” as described in Allen Mendenhall, “Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Is the Use of Calling Emerson a Pragmatist: A Brief and Belated Response to Stanley Cavell,” Faulkner Law Review, Volume 6, 2014, 197-230, https://ssrn.com/abstract=2603931. (Emphases added).

32. See, for example, Emerson, ”The American Scholar” and ”Intellect.”

33. See ibid., Dewey, “Emerson-The Philosopher of Democracy,” and Douglas R. Anderson, “American Loss in Cavell’s Emerson," in Philosophy Americana: Making Philosophy at Home in American Culture (Fordham University Press, 2006), 206–20, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvh4zgpf.18.

34. Dewey, “Emerson-The Philosopher of Democracy.”

35. See ibid., and Anderson, “American Loss in Cavell’s Emerson.”

36. Dewey, “Emerson-The Philosopher of Democracy.”

37. Dewey’s piece on Emerson is clearly meant to resemble Emerson’s piece on Plato. See ibid., and Ralph Waldo Emerson,” Plato; or, the Philosopher,” in Representative Men, at https://emersoncentral.com/texts/representative-men/plato-or-the-philosopher/, and Anderson, “American Loss in Cavell’s Emerson.”

38. Dewey, “Emerson-The Philosopher of Democracy.”

39. Ibid. (Emphases added).

40. Holt, “Dewey and the ‘Cult of Efficiency.’” (Emphasis added). See also West, The American Evasion of Philosophy, 75-76 (”Dewey strains to see his own ’creative democracy‘ in Emerson's refusal to privilege authority.”)

41. Holt, “Dewey and the ‘Cult of Efficiency.’” (Emphasis added).

42. Ibid. (Emphasis added).

43. Dewey, “Emerson-The Philosopher of Democracy.” Dewey’s opening remarks are important: “When the critic writes of lack of method, of the absence of continuity, of coherent logic, and…puts Emerson away as a writer of maxims and proverbs…the critic, to my mind, but writes down his own incapacity to follow a logic that is finely wrought. ‘We want in every man a long logic; we cannot pardon the absence of it, but it must not be spoken. Logic is the procession or proportionate unfolding of the intuition; but its virtue is as silent method; the moment it would appear as propositions and have a separate value, it is worthless.’ Emerson fulfills his own requisition. The critic needs the method separately propounded, and not finding his wonted leading-string is all lost. [As Emerson wrote], ‘There is no compliment like the addressing to the human being thoughts out of certain heights and presupposing his intelligence’--a compliment which Emerson's critics have mostly hastened to avert. I recently read a letter from...a distinguished writer of philosophy, in which he remarked that philosophers are a stupid class, since they want every reason carefully pointed out and labelled, and are incapable of taking anything for granted.” (Emphases added). I see this as an attempt by Dewey to explain his identification with both Emerson’s philosophical logic and his role as a Philosopher of Democracy.

44. See Randolph Bourne, “Twilight of the Idols,” The Seven Arts, 11, October 1917, 688-702, at http://www.expo98.msu.edu/people/bourne.htm (“To those of us who have taken Dewey's philosophy almost as our American religion, it never occurred that values could be subordinated to technique. We were instrumentalists, but we had our private utopias so clearly before our minds that the means fell always into its place as contributory. And Dewey, of course, always meant his philosophy, when taken as a philosophy of life, to start with values. But there was always that unhappy ambiguity in his doctrine as to just how values were created, and it became easier and easier to assume that just any growth was justified and almost any activity valuable so long as it achieved ends.")

45. See John Dewey, “German Philosophy and Politics,” 1915, in which he explains that America’s circumstances meant its philosophy was more experimental than that of Germany: “It is difficult to see how any a priori philosophy, or any systematic absolutism, is to get a footing among us, at least beyond narrow and professorial circles. Psychologists talk about learning by the method of trial and error or success. Our social organization commits us to this philosophy of life.” Subsequent remarks suggest that he was not being literal or technical here, but trying to poetically distinguish America’s general approach from that of Germany: “America is too new to afford a foundation for an a priori philosophy; we have not the requisite background of law, institutions and achieved social organization.”

46. Jeremy Engels, “Dewey on Jefferson: Reiterating Democratic Faith in Times of War,” in Trained Capacities: John Dewey, Rhetoric, and Democratic Culture, edited by Gregory Clark and Brian Jackson (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2014), 87-105, https://www.academia.edu/5278423/Dewey_on_Jefferson_Reiterating_Democratic_Faith_in_Times_of_War_forthcoming_in_Trained_Capacities_John_Dewey_Rhetoric_and_Democratic_Culture_.

47. Dewey, Democracy and Educational Administration.

48. See Engels, “Dewey on Jefferson.”

49. Dewey’s discussion of Jefferson, while I wouldn’t go so far as to call it clarifying, is worth reading. Interestingly, quotes from Jefferson’s private papers, as presented by Dewey, are effective in articulating Dewey’s Emersonian philosophy of democracy. At various times in his private correspondence, Jefferson expressed similar theories or understandings. It is likely that involvement in early American life and politics led to similar observations among the most impressive and well-read thinkers, whether or not they chose to develop or act on those ideas. See John Dewey, “Democracy in America,” in Freedom and Culture (New York: Capricorn Books: 1939).

50. John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems: An Essay in Political Inquiry (1927; repr., Athens, OH: Shallow Press, 1954), 3.

51. Holt, “Dewey and the ‘Cult of Efficiency.’” (Emphases added).

52. David S. Reynolds, Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (Oxford University Press, 2011). In Part I, I spoke of Leo Strauss’s comments, which sound similar to something that Emerson said something similar about reform movements in 1839: “A thousand negatives it utters clear & strong on all sides, but the sacred affirmative it hides in the deepest abysses." Ralph Waldo Emerson, Personal Correspondence, 1839, quoted in Reynolds, Beneath the American Renaissance.

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.