Recalling John Dewey: Has He Left the Building?

Article excerpt

Fifty years ago John Dewey died unceremoniously in his Manhattan apartment with his wife, Roberta, at his side. It was not an unexpected or tragic death, as he was ninety-two, suffering from pneumonia, and had led a full life. Previously, there were academic celebrations of his seventieth, eightieth, and nenetieth birthdays. Time magazine's "Philosopher of the First Half of the Twentieth Century"'s key ideas had been duly noted, applauded, and thought, by some in the academy, finally put to rest. With the advent of positivism and analytic philosphy, many professional philosophers thought Dewey's time had come and gone many years earlier. For these specialized philosophers. Dewey was a prolific but undisciplined voice for a time when writing was more verbose and philosophy less rigorous. It was not that Dewey had left the building as much as it was that the building had left Dewey. The Dewey an philosophical edifice, perceived by the specialists at the time of his death to be a large, rambling building, had be en dismantled and the quaint furnishings had been sent, thank you very much, to Goodwill. In its place was constructed a sterile, sparse, but efficient time-sharing condominium, something that would yield a bigger bang for one's philosophical buck.

In addition to the demise of Dewey's philosophical project, there was also the diminishing of his progressive educational efforts, which were not as much being put to rest as they were being burned at the stake. Caricatures of his educational philosophy, proffered by fundamentalists and Cold War warriors, were being ignited, stomped on, and covered with dirt, never, it was hoped, to rise again. Dewey was falsely presented to be the leader of a life-adjustment approach to child-rearing that stressed, depending on who you were talking to, either unconstrained freedom or mindless sociability. That these two portrayals of Dewey's thought were at odds with one another made no difference. For his educational foes, Dewey was now dead and needed to be made deader if communism was going to be defeated and Americanism was to triumph.

That was then, in the "Pre--Leave It to Beaver" era. This is now, in the "Leave It to Bush" era. Much has changed, although there are some similarities. What is similar is that, then and now, the United States is in a strong militaristic and authoritarian mood. What has changed in American philosophy departments is that positivism and language analysis have run their course. Academics telling other academics more and more about less and less was bound to implode. Philosophers are once again finding themselves sentenced to life, having to deal with more than the analysis of the technical meaning of sentences.

Dewey, born the year Darwin wrote Origin of the Species (1859), was a philosopher who took evolution and life seriously. He has come alive again on a larger and more refined scale because his approach deals with life issues, trying to get people to get more out of life by intelligently dealing with the inevitable tensions encountered. His philosophical project, combining probing, self-correcting inquiry, and imaginative hope, deals with the real-life problems people face in an ever-more complex natural and social world. This hopeful and practical approach is viewed as an alternative to fundamentalistic absolutism or postmodern relativism.

Dewey's philosophical and educational projects were kept alive by educators in the John Dewey Society since 1935, and were aided by the publication of the thirty-seven volumes of Dewey's work by the Center for Dewey Studies at the University of Southern Illinois in Carbondale. …