Introducing John Dewey

On July 4th at the Shelburne Farms Inn, I was talking with Peter Gilbert, Executive Director of the Vermont Humanities Council, and we were talking about notable Vermonters. Somewhat ironically, earlier that day—July 4th—I was at a brunch after running in a 5 K where the same topic arose. The 5 K was the Clarence Demar 5 K in South Hero. Demar, a native of South Hero, won 7 Boston marathons! The brunch-time conversation eventually turned to and addressed other famous Vermonters such as Calvin Coolidge, Admiral Dewey, Pearl Buck, Norman Rockwell, Royall Tyler, Justin Merrill, George Marsh, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Frost, E Annie Proulx, John Irving and the many Vermonters, native and later arrivals, who have informed and enriched Vermont’s life of the mind. This led to thinking about Vermont and its unique breed of people and its beautiful places, and, naturally, I was drawn to Vermont’s most influential native, John Dewey. A couple of years ao, and much to my surprise, the sesquicentennial of his birth came and went in Vermont with little recognition, no fanfare. Imagine a state that could boast that one of its citizens was the founder of the NAACP, The ACLU, and a major University (The New School for Social Research). Would not that state have proudly erected statues, built monuments or, at least, held foot races in honor of their native son?
Perhaps the silence is because we are still, at the core, a hard-scrabble people not given to adulation or easy praise; after all, and by any measure, Vermont has had a larger than normal number of gifted and historically significant citizens. As proof, just reflect on the likes of Revolutionary war hero and philosopher, Ethan Allen; playwright Royall Tyler; Biologist George Perkins Marsh, Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Chester Arthur and Presidential hopeful Howard Dean. Or think of all those flatlanders—past and present– who came to know the beauty of place and settle here in our beloved Green Mountains. Accomplished writers such as Pearl Buck; Hayden Carruth; John Irving; Rudyard Kipling; Jamaica Kincaid; Galway Kinnell; Sinclair Lewis; David Mamet; Bill McKibben; Grace Paley; George Seldes; Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Richard Wright. A Vermont phone book could look like the reading list from a college literature class. But of all those talented Vermonters, native or foreign born, I submit, none compares with John Dewey.
John who? John Dewey? I would wager the average Vermont high school student would not know who John Dewey was although he shaped the way that they are being taught. We might hear them ask if he was the founder of the Dewey decimal system. No, that was Melvil Dewey, who did come from nearby upstate NY. Or, was he Admiral Dewey? No, again, but he was a fellow Vermonter hailing from Montpelier. What, to me, is odd about this gap in knowledge about Dewey and the silence surrounding Dewey’s birth is that you would be hard pressed to find another Vermonter let alone any American who has wielded a wider and deeper influence on the world.
The author of nearly 40 books and hundreds of articles (700), John Dewey is one of the world’s most influential philosophers whom along with Charles Sanders Peirce and William James founded the only uniquely American contribution to philosophy: pragmatism. A philosophy that has revolutionized everything we do today. But although I teach philosophy, I don’t fault people for not knowing this bit about Dewey. What is peculiar is that in such a liberal leaning state so few know him as the great champion for civil rights and democracy that he was. Dewey was one of the founding members of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and helped establish the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the 2nd largest educational union in the U.S. Dewey along with the historian Charles Beard and sociologist, Thorsten Veblen, started the New School for Social Research in New York City. The New School would go on to establish the famous University in Exile in 1933 attracting many European intellectuals fleeing from fascism including Hannah Arendt, Erich Fromm and Leo Strauss. Three figures that in turn would help mold much of the latter half of the 20th century’s political debates. Many of the neo-cons around George W. Bush are direct intellectual heirs of Strauss. Even Marlon Brando and Jack Kerouac would later become students at the New School. It is fair to say that without Dewey many of these figures might not have become who they were.
Dewey’s long life—he lived to the august age of 92– and political engagement would see him form friendships with Albert Einstein with whom he founded the International League for Academic Freedom. In 1937, he formed the Dewey Commission to investigate the charges that Stalin had trumped up against Trotsky and, in doing, found Trotsky innocent. In 1950, he would serve as honorary Chairman with Bertrand Russell on the anti-communist Congress for Cultural Freedom. This organization included such 20th century heavyweights as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Hugh Trevor-Roper, Karl Jaspers, and A. J. Ayer. His correspondences, some of which are archived at UVM’s Bailey-Howe library, include letters to Henri Bergson, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell.
Dewey’s long and prolific career as an academic witnessed his contributions to nearly every field in philosophy and psychology. While Dewey’s greatest contributions are in education where his ideas revolutionized how we teach, how we understand the role between teacher and student, his influence is felt in nearly every field of human inquiry. It was once written that no other public intellectual had written on such a diverse range of subjects from epistemology to art hanging in U.S. post offices.
John Dewey was born in Burlington to Archibald Dewey, a grocer, and Lucina (nee Rich) Dewey on October 20th 1859. His childhood home is still standing and you can see it at 186 South Willard Street. A recently erected Vermont Historical marker now stands nearby. Dewey would do moderately well in the local schools and, at 15, attend UVM eventually graduating 2nd in his class (1879). After graduating and like so many native-born Vermonters, he traveled out of state in search of employment. In Dewey’s case he went to Oil City, Pennsylvania to teach. He returned back to Vermont, taught in Ferrisburgh and resumed philosophical studies with his former UVM mentor, Henry Torrey. Anecdotally, I was told that he had unsuccessfully applied to graduate school at UVM. In 1904, UVM made amends by naming the College of Medicine on Colchester Avenue after him. It now houses the UVM department of psychology.
Undeterred by his rejection, Dewey would enter the new doctoral program at Johns Hopkins. At Johns Hopkins, he studied with G. Stanley Hall, the innovative psychologist, and completed a dissertation on Kant’s psychology.
Dewey would take a teaching position at the University of Michigan and, later, the University of Minnesota before matriculating to the University of Chicago where he and his wife, Alice Chipman, would set up the experimental school in 1886 that would come to be known as the “Dewey School. “ From there they would spear-head experiential and progressive learning. It is without exaggeration to say that Dewey’s work in education changed how we teach in America.
After the University of Chicago he would move to positions at both Columbia University and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College. Dewey would travel to Japan, China, Turkey, the former USSR and points farther abroad to speak on and consult in educational practices. John Dewey would marry twice, father six children and die in New York City on June 1, 1952 aged 92. His ashes were interred in an alcove of Ira Allen Chapel on the UVM main campus. There amid lilac trees the cenotaph reads:
“The things in civilization most prized are not of ourselves. They exist by grace of the doings and sufferings of others in the continuous human community in which we are a link. Ours is the responsibility of conserving, transmitting, rectifying and expanding the heritage of values we have received that those who come after us may receive it more solid and secure, more widely accessible and more generously shared than we have received it.”
(from Dewey, “A Common Faith”)
The United States Postal Service honored him with a stamp in 1968 as part of the Prominent American Series and according the Times Higher Education Magazine Dewey is one of the most cited scholars by books in the humanities, ranking 30th. All this and yet the 150th anniversary of his birth passed with little fanfare here in his home state.
Although his studies with the greatest minds of the 19th century and his work with many of the greatest thinkers of the 20th can hardly be downplayed, I like to think that it was the simple lessons his parents instilled in him growing up in Burlington or the hours he whiled away his childhood in, in the now long gone fields and farms of Burlington, or perhaps, the conversations of French-Canadian sailors he must have overheard on the docks of Burlington, that imbued him with his lifelong interest in democracy and learning. The lesson I draw is that part of the special nature of Vermont is its truly egalitarian nature, where a farmer and a poet can walk a fence line together or a student and a philosopher can sit side by side at a café in true community. So perhaps it is fitting that we do not raise too much rumpus about one of our own no matter how accomplished. It wouldn’t be the Vermont way.

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