John Dewey (1858-1952): Philosophy and Education

More eyes are now fixed upon the University Elementary School at Chicago than upon any other elementary school in the country and probably in the world

Dr. A. B. Hinsdale, 1900
National Council of Education

By the turn of the century, John Dewey's experiment in education had captured the attention of teachers at every level of the teaching system. Its radically new teaching practices represented a turning point, not only for formal education but also for larger views of childhood learning.

Dewey came to the University of Chicago at the urging of James Hayden Tufts, a colleague at the University of Michigan who joined the Chicago faculty in 1892. Appointed to head the Department of Philosophy, Dewey's experimentalism blended well with the views of George Herbert Mead and Tufts. In addition to fulfilling his departmental obligations and administering the School of Education, Dewey published several books and articles on education and philosophy. The School and Society (1899) became a classic among progressive educators.

Trained as a philosopher at Johns Hopkins, Dewey was intrigued by the relationship between the individual and society. Firmly committed to a democratic outlook, he considered the school a laboratory to test his notion that education could integrate learning with experience. The University Elementary School or Laboratory School established by Dewey grew quickly. Parents were attracted by a curriculum that emphasized the child instead of the subject matter, where the learning process was at least as important as what was learned, and where curiosity was encouraged.

Dewey's success could not overcome his disagreements with administrators and other educators. His relationship with William Rainey Harper deteriorated as Harper's plans to consolidate the Elementary School with Colonel Francis Parker's Chicago Institute under the control of the University infringed on Dewey's freedom of action. Dewey assumed that he would be given control of the curriculum and the merged school administration, leaving the funding problems in the hands of the University. This was clearly not Harper's view, and when controversy arose over the appointment of Alice Dewey as principal of the University Elementary School, John and Alice Dewey resigned and left for Columbia University.

Dewey's interest in education shifted after leaving Chicago and he never again organized a school. For the next half century he concentrated upon philosophical issues, publishing extensively and with great influence upon political, aesthetic, ethical, and epistemological questions. He clung to his liberal humanism, eloquently defending democratic ideals during periods when world and national events seemed to undermine the basis for his beliefs.

John Dewey, by Eva Watson Schütze
John Dewey, by Eva Watson Schütze

In Hyde Park, John Dewey was part of a closely knit group of friends and colleagues that included George Herbert Mead, James H. Tufts, and Eva Watson Schütze, the PhotoSeccessionist who produced this imposing portrait.

Elementary geography class. Laboratory School
Elementary geography class. Laboratory School

Education through experience formed the foundation of the Laboratory School curriculum. Students learned practical skills from weaving to woodworking to sculpting. Science was mastered in the garden as well in the classroom, where sandboxes offered opportunities for individual experiments in landforms and erosion.