John Dewey Biography

John Dewey c1885

John Dewey began graduate study in philosophy at Johns Hopkins University, where he studied with George Morris, a religious-minded Hegelian philosopher, and with G. Stanley Hall, an advocate of William James's empiricism. In 1884, Dewey followed Morris to Michigan, where he became an Instructor in Philosophy. During the next five years, as he remained under Morris's influence, he taught courses in philosophy and psychology and published Psychology, a book that gave him a fledgling national reputation.

Already, however, there were forces leading Dewey toward the more experimental, practical, reform-minded ideas and projects for which he would become famous under the general rubric of "pragmatism." His commitment to education led him to develop connections to local high school teachers. He became interested in the developing social sciences and in the use of scientific method for social reform, and he published a study that showed that higher education does not harm women's health. Equally important was his marriage to Alice Chipman, a fiercely independent woman who encouraged Dewey's growing pragmatist and socially conscious bent.

In 1888, Dewey left Michigan to teach at the University of Minnesota, but he returned to Michigan to head its philosophy department after Morris's untimely death in 1889. The next five years marked the flowering of the experimental, pragmatist approach to philosophy, and social and political issues that we associate with Dewey. Dewey replaced the religious-based ethics curriculum at Michigan with one that prized more secular, empirical methods and critical thinking. He publicized this approach in Outlines of a Critical Theory of Ethics (1891) The Study of Ethics: a Syllabus (1894).
During this period, Dewey also developed an understanding of the importance of democracy and free access to knowledge and of the centrality of fine egalitarian public institutions of higher learning (such as the University of Michigan) in this process.

Dewey left Michigan for the University of Chicago in 1894, where he and Chipman founded the Laboratory School. There he developed and practiced the experimental educational theories for which he would become famous. In 1904 Dewey left Chicago for Columbia University, where he spent the rest of his academic career until his retirement in 1930. Dewey's many books include Democracy and Education (1916).

Dewey was a giant of American intellectual and social life. He was a public intellectual who worked hard to make his ideas count for ordinary Americans. He fiercely opposed Communist and other totalitarian regimes and spoke out strongly against them at a time when such independence was quite unfashionable. Throughout his life, he was a committed progressive and social democrat.