John Dewey

(1859 - 1952)

Compiled by Peggy Hickman (May 2000)

Dewey Biography
Time Line

John Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont on October 20, 1859. His father was Archibald Sprague Dewey. Archibald was a Vermont Farm boy that owned a grocery store. Dewey's mother was Lucina Rich Dewey whom came from a well to do family. Her grandfather and father were politicians that each held government posts for several years. All of her brothers were college graduates, and because of her up bringing she was a firm believer that her sons must complete their schooling though to the college level. There were four children in the Dewey family, which were all boys. John was the third child and was named after his oldest brother John Archibald, who had enlisted and served throughout the Civil War and died from severe burns nine months before John was born. John only took the first name because the middle name Archibald was never given to him. John's mother Lucina was a very strict, religious woman. She was adamant about all of her sons being right with God and getting their education. John and his brothers attended public schools in Vermont. At the age of fifthteen he graduated from high school and went to the University of Vermont. He attended the university for four years along with his brothers. At the university Dewey read the works of Charles Darwin which had a great influence in Dewey's life works. He graduated in 1879 with a major in philosophy. The late summer after graduation went to work with a relative in Oil City, Pennsylvania as a high school teacher. He taught in Oil City for two years. In the spring of 1881 during his last year teaching in Oil City he wrote a paper entitled The Metaphysical Assumptions of Materialism. He sent this paper to the editor of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy and returned to Burlington, Vermont and to teach at a high school near his home. He also studied a year privately with his former instructor Henry A.P. Torrey. While in Burlington his paper was published.

In September 1882 Dewey enrolled at the Johns Hopkins University. He applied for a fellowship, but did not get accepted and had to borrow five hundred dollars from his aunt to pay his tuition. At the university he studied under George Sylvester Morris, who taught philosophy, and Granville Stanley Hall, who taught psychology. During his last year there, he published his fifth paper, The New Psychology. He received doctorate shortly after he delivered his paper in 1884 and took a position at the University of Michigan. There he taught psychology classes. Between teaching classes he wrote Applied Psychology in 1886. This book was to be used as a school textbook. These facts were taken from the book Young John Dewey. During this same year he married his first wife Alice Chipman shown with son Gordon in 1902. Alice Dewey The couple had six children with only four surviving into adulthood. They had been married forty-one years when she passed away in 1927.

In 1888, John went to the University of Minnesota to be a philosophy professor. He taught there for only a year when George Sylvester Morris died at the University of Michigan. Dewey was asked to come back to the University of Michigan to fill Morris's place. The fall of 1889 John went back to Michigan to be the head in the philosophy department. Dewey taught there until 1894 (Coughlan, 1975).

During his last years at the University of Michigan Dewey was making light of the way experimental science and learning goes hand and hand. John went to the University of Chicago in 1894. Dewey started his "Laboratory School" also known as the "Dewey School" in 1886. This developed the school of thought, called pragmatism. Pragmatism means that in school the curriculum should be based on everyday life and combined it with lessons. During this same year John wrote the "Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology". This paper illustrated how the environment effects learning based on natural selection. John's wife Alice was the principle in the Dewey School.

Dewey had a fight with William Rainy Harper, the president of the University of Chicago, about how the laboratory should be run. Dewey was forced to resign in 1904. At this point in time he was well known and a new offer for a position came fast. Columbia University hired him and this is where Dewey spent the rest of his teaching career. he retired in 1931.

He continued to work after retirement, attempting to analyze society and politics. He wrote The Theory of Inquiry in 1938, speculating how species learn and strive forward in the environment. John Dewey passed away in 1952.


John Dewey's philosophical view thoughout his career was that the "theory of inquiry" was how species survived in their environment. Dewey believed in Charles Darwin's theory of nature selection, adopting the naturalistic approach of Darwin. He thought that a living organism interacting with the environment responds by developing an understanding of how to adapt to that situation and excel.

One of Dewey's most outstanding essays was the "Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology" in 1869. In this paper he treated the stimulus separate from the response. This would be later known as social behaviorism. The reflex arc combines the sensory stimulus, central connection, and the motor response as working together as one. He claimed that a person had to experience a set of circumstances and the reflex arc works simultaneously. A person focus on something, then decides what to do, and the acts on the decision. Dewey argued that how we acted in the environment is how we learn (URL2).

Dewey put to use some of his ideas of learning in the Dewey School at the University of Chicago. The scientifically tested curriculum was centered on the student. Dewey wanted the students to learn from hands on experience. He designed the school to make a balance between philosophy and natural science. Today we call this approach pragmatism. Dewey believed that education was a life long process and that philosophy was everyday life. He believed that psychology was the basis for learning and the way to obtain a good education. In the Dewey school the teachers were to present real life problems to the children and then guide the students to solve the problem by providing them with a hands on activity to learn the solution. The child's decision was to be based on the experience the child had in school (Herbert, & McNergney, 1998 ). Below is a 1901 photograph of a play house being constructed by Dewey's students learning a trade for everyday life. Play House

The History of the University of Chicago Laboratory School's web site gives some of the curriculum that Dewey had for his students (URL1). The child's home environment should be centered in the school. Cooking and sewing was to be taught at school and be a routine. Reading, writing, and math was to be taught in the daily course of these routines. Building, cooking, and sewing had these schooling components in it and these activities also represented everyday life for the students. The students had to measure things and be able to read to do these things. For an example, if a student was not able to read it was here how they would taught to achieve the ability to read. The child would experience school as being in a community. This would help the child learn how to share and communicate with others. Problems would be presented to the child and by trail and error the child would be able to solve the problem. The teacher's responsibility was to be aware of where each child was intellectually and provide appropriate problems for the child to solve. Dewey wrote a book about his findings from the Dewey school called School and Society.

Dewey encountered a lot of questions on how well the children learned and if the teacher had any control over the students. He gave lectures overseas in China, Japan, and the Soviet Union on his schooling system. This way of teaching is still being used today. Dewey's theory of a schooling system opened the door for hands on learning though trail and error.

Time Line
1859 Dewey's date of birth
1874 graduated from a public high school
1875 entered the University of Vermont
1879 graduated from the University of Vermont with bachelors in philosophy
1880 started teaching high school in Oil City, Pennsylvania
1881 published The Metaphysical Assumptions of Materialism
1882 enrolled at the Johns Hopkins University
1884 wrote The New Psychology and got doctorate from Hopkins
1885 took a teaching position at the University of Michigan
1886 wrote text book called Applied Psychology and married Alice Chipman
1888 went to the University of Minnesota
1889 returned to the University of Michigan
1894 went to the University of Chicago, psychology department chairman
1896 opened the "Laboratory School"
1896 published the Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology
1899 published The School and Society
1904 resigned from the University of Chicago
1904 teaches at the Columbia University
1927 wife Alice passed away
1931 retired from teaching
1938 published The Theory of Inquiry
1946 married Roberta Louitz and adopted two Belgian orphans
1952 died

Coughlan, Neil. Young John Dewey. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1975.
Herbert, Joanne M., & McNergney, R. F. Foundations of Education. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 1998
URL1 The History of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. History Page:
URL2 The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, John Dewey pages:

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