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Biography of John Dewey and Impact of Theories

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 2244 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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The Intellectual of the 20th Century

The Industrial Revolution

John Dewey was an American educator, social reformer, and philosopher that lived from the years 1859 to 1953 (Gouinlock, 2018). He was greatly influenced by the scientific, cultural and socioeconomic changes that were occurring during the Industrial Revolution. Essentially, during the industrial revolution there was a major change from an agrarian/handicraft economy to a more modern society that was dominated by machine manufacturing and industry. (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britanica, 2018). For example, science was being utilized to enhance industry by creating innovative machines such as airplanes, trains, telegraphs, automobiles, and radios. These advances led to the development of factories, mass production and larger cities with more people. In general people became confident in their abilities to effectively utilize natural resources and to control nature. However, John Dewey felt that the Industrial Revolution had quickly led to generating wealth for a small percentage of the population and had not benefited society as a whole (Gouinlock, 2018). Furthermore, he felt that major political parties were no longer working for the people but instead were puppets for large businesses (Gouinlock, 2018). John Dewey believed that in order to have a successful democratic government that met the needs of people it needed to have citizens that were active participants and well educated. Therefore, the purpose of this paper will be to understand how John Dewey utilized philosophy to reform education and social aspects of society.

Philosophy of Pragmatism

In order to understand how Dewey began to reform education it is important to understand his philosophy of pragmatism. At the time western philosophers believed in dualism which meant that people’s consciousness or thoughts exist outside of the world and that people were born with perfect ideas that were eternal and could not change (Paul, 2017). Dewey rejected the philosophy of dualism and instead was a proponent of pragmatism. This theory held that all accepted knowledge was temporary and that reality can be changed as humans engage in activities that are focused on fulfilling their needs (Paul, 2017). Many American pragmatists were influenced by the developing scientific method of the 19th century, specifically the idea that hypothesis could be repeatedly tested and revised because ideas were not thought of as flawless (Gouinlock, 2018). Dewey further explained that the process of learning knowledge is through finding relationships between events and the development of change (Paul, 2017). Essentially, anything in life can change and people should learn to accept change as a normal aspect of life and not try to reject it. Dewey utilized pragmatism to educate students by teaching them practical things that they could utilize to grow and become better people in life (Paul, 2017). For example, students should not be taught to memorize knowledge but rather are encouraged to be active participants in the learning process. In conclusion, he was reforming education in order to meet the needs of a developing Democratic society.

Democracy and Education

According to Pavlic & Gkiosos (2017), John Dewey felt that combining the philosophy of pragmatism and education could strengthen democracy in our society. He attempted to demonstrate to students the value there is in them actively participating in their society. The school is not merely preparing students to be part of civil life but is actually an extension of it. Students are encouraged to actively pursue social issues that they are interested in with the collaboration of others. Furthermore, Dewey advocated for a democratic education that was provided to everyone regardless of class, gender, or race. Overall, Dewey worked very hard on making his personal passions become a reality. In the following paragraphs I will briefly explain some of his main professional accomplishments.


 Fallace, Thomas, Fantozzi & Victoria, (2017) state that John Dewey is considered one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century and what makes him even more unique among the rest of the scholars is that he established and oversaw his very own elementary school. Dewey had originally presented some lectures on his philosophy of education for teachers to apply in their classrooms. However, he was frustrated when he discovered that the teachers were not effectively implementing the psychological principles that he had specified. Therefore, he took it upon himself to organize a primary schools’ curriculum in order to test whether his methods were effective and could be used as a model for other schools to implement. In 1986 he opened the doors to the Laboratory School of Chicago, which was under supervision of the department of pedagogy at the University of Chicago. Dewey’ school curriculum was very innovative and demonstrated many aspects that aligned with the progressive educational movement. Apart from being an educator and philosopher he was also a social activist.

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 Dewey was a national figure that supported many issues that were often seen as controversial and radical (Festenstein, 2018). For example, he was a supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. Furthermore, he was a chairperson for the Hull House movement in Chicago and his philosophy of pragmatism influenced Jane Addams (Hamington, 2018). Dewey often visited the Hull House and even lectured in the Plato Club which was one of the philosophy groups offered there (Hamington, 2018). Many believe that Addams took on a more radical approach of pragmatism and applied the concepts for activism. John Dewey was also a member of various political organizations. For example, he was the president of the Teachers Union; he sponsored The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; he supported the Outlawry of War Movement; was chair of the People’s Lobby; and in 1938 in Mexico he participated in the trail against Leon Trosky (Festenstein, 2018). Lastly, in 1964 he helped labor leaders establish a new political party called the People’s Party (Festenstein, 2018). He wanted to elect candidates that were in favor of people’s social interests and were not affiliated with big corporations. In conclusion, Dewey actively participated in the civic life and supported many issues that attempted to improve the lives of people.

 During his entire life Dewey published over one thousand works that covered several topics from art, to philosophy, to democracy and social issues (Field, n.d.). Even when he retired he continued to work and he developed other theories up until his death at the age of ninety two years old (Field, n.d.).  Overall, John Dewey’s main contributions were developing pragmatism and developing a relationship between democracy and education (Gouinlock, 2018). Despite the major impact he had during his lifetime and continues to have in present day, there are many people who critic some of his theories. I will further present some of the arguments on the effectiveness of Dewey’s theories and applications.


John Dewey has undoubtedly had a major influence in the educational system of the United States (Fallace & Fantozzi, 2017). Although, the Laboratory School of Chicago that Dewey founded closed after only seven and a half years, this school has been thoroughly researched by many scholars (Fallace & Fantozzi, 2017). The main critique of this school was that it was a controlled experiment that did not incorporate the communities or real world issues that the students lived in (Puckett, Harkavy, & Benson, 2007). For example, many of the youth at the time were working in preindustrial occupations and in the school they were told to practice skills from make believe jobs. Also, the solutions they were given to work on were not relevant to the issues they were facing in society. Therefore, it is evident that the school was not a success. However, his experimental school did launch the educational progressive movement, because he advocated for child centered practices that encouraged interactive learning (Puckett, J., Harkavy, I., & Benson, L. (2007). Essentially, his ideas were very innovative but he was unable to effectively apply them in practice.

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Puckett, Harkavy & Benson (2007) explain that democracy was a very important issue for John Dewey. For example, he made many suggestions as to how to produce a government that was responsive to the needs of citizens. Dewey believed that citizens needed to participate in social issues that were important to them through collective action. Towards the latter part of his life he become disillusioned with the American schooling system and decided to provide another solution to improve our democratic society. His new solution involved creating radical new types of communities that were democratic and held universal human beliefs. Although, his solution to create a participatory Democracy was excellent he did not propose a strategic plan to accomplish his goal.

 In conclusion, Guerra (2013) that the philosophy of Pragmatism has had a large influence in the United States. For example, this theory became a way of life for many Americans because it radically changed how people viewed that there were no universal truths. Furthermore, one could not think of knowledge without the contextual situation. This philosophy greatly influenced social work as well because this profession applies key aspects of pragmatism. For instance, the importance of testing through observational experiences and focusing on the relationship between the theory and the experiences of the participants is highlighted. Pragmatism essentially states that ideas can be used as instruments to solve problems. Dewey’s influence in social work through his philosophy of pragmatism is very evident. For instance, social work strives for evidenced based interventions that can prove their effectiveness in social settings. Overall, I think his theory led to positive change in the social work profession because it encouraged practitioners to scientifically test whether their methods were effective or not. Furthermore, I believe Dewey inspired people to be innovative and not get stuck in the old ways of doing things and challenging long held beliefs.

 John Dewey was a very intelligent person that presented many innovative ideas for his time. Although, many of his dreams such as a true democracy and a reformed educational system, he was able to establish the foundation of key solutions to these issues. Many scholars can continue to learn from him and I hope that someone will develop a concrete plan to make his ideas come true because they are very admirable. 



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  • Hamington, M. (2018) Jane Addams. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2018/entries/addams-jane/
  • Paul, C. A. (2017). Dewey, John (1859 – 1952):Educator, social reformer, philosopher. In Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/programs/education/dewey-john-1859-…rmer-philosopher/
  • Pavlis, D. & Gkiosos, J. (2017). John Dewey, from philosophy of pragmatism to progressive education. Journal of Arts and Humanities, 6(9), 23-30.
  • Puckett, J., Harkavy, I., & Benson, L. (2007). Dewey’s Dream: Universities and Democracies in an Age of Education Reform. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.


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