3 minute read

John Dewey

American philosopher, educator, and psychologist who made significant contributions to the establishment of the school of functional psychology.

John Dewey was born near Burlington, Vermont. After receiving his B.A. from the University of Vermont, he taught high school and studied philosophy independently before entering the graduate program in philosophy at Johns Hopkins University. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1884, Dewey served on the faculties of the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota, the University of Chicago, and Columbia University. Dewey was a founder

John Dewey (The Library of Congress. Reproduced with permission.)

of the philosophical movement called pragmatism, and his writings on educational theory and practice were widely read and accepted. He held that the disciplines of philosophy, pedagogy, and psychology should be understood as closely interrelated. Dewey came to believe in an "instrumentalist" theory of knowledge, in which ideas are seen to exist primarily as instruments for the solution of problems encountered in the environment.

Dewey's work at the University of Chicago between 1894 and 1904—together with that of his colleague, Rowland Angell (1869-1949)—made that institution a world-renowned center of the functionalist movement in psychology. Dewey's functionalism was influenced by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, as well as by the ideas of William James and by Dewey's own instrumentalist philosophy. His 1896 paper, "The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology," is generally considered the first major statement establishing the functionalist school. In this work, Dewey attacked the prevailing reductionist methods of such figures as Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) and Edward Titchener (1867-1927), who used stimulus-response analysis as the basis for psychological theories that reduced human experience to the simplest and most basic units possible. Dewey considered their approach flawed because it ignored both the continuity of human behavior and its significance in terms of adaptation. In contrast, functionalism sought to consider the total organism as it functioned in the environment—an active perceiver rather than a passive receiver of stimuli.

Dewey was also an educational reformer and a pioneer in the field of educational psychology. Paralleling his philosophical and psychological theories, his concept of instrumentalism in education stressed learning by doing, as opposed to authoritarian teaching methods and rote learning. Dewey's ideas have remained at the center of much educational philosophy in the United States. While at the University of Chicago, Dewey founded an experimental school to develop and study new educational methods, a project that won him both fame and controversy. He experimented with educational curricula and methods, successfully combining theory and practice, and also pioneered in advocating parental participation in the educational process. His first influential book on education, The School and Society (1899), was adapted from a series of lectures to parents of the pupils in his school at the University of Chicago. During his time at Columbia, he continued working on the applications of psychology to problems in education, and his work influenced educational ideas and practices throughout the world.

Dewey wrote the first American psychology textbook, titled Psychology (1886), which was followed by William James's The Principles of Psychology four years later. Dewey served as president of the American Psychological Association from 1899 to 1900 and was the first president of the American Association of University Professors in 1915. In 1920 he helped organize the American Civil Liberties Union. In the following years, Dewey surveyed educational practices in several foreign countries, including Turkey, Mexico, and the Soviet Union. After his retirement in 1930, Dewey continued his writing and his advocacy of political and educational causes, including the advancement of adult education. Among Dewey's large body of writings are: Applied Psychology: An Introduction to the Principles and Practice of Education (1889), Interest as Related to Will (1896), Studies in Logical Theory (1903), How We Think (1910), Democracy and Education (1916), Experience and Nature (1925), Philosophy and Civilization (1931), Experience and Education (1938), and Freedom and Culture (1939).

Further Reading

Boydston, Jo Ann. Guide to the Works of John Dewey. Edwardsville, IL:Southern Illinois University Press, 1972.

Hook, Sidney. John Dewey: An Intellectual Portrait. New York: John Day Co., 1939.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists