Biography of John Dewey

Philosopher and Educator

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John Dewey (October 20, 1859 - June 1, 1952) was an American philosopher and educator. He was an early originator of pragmatism, a popular philosophical school of thought at the beginning of the 20th century that emphasized a practical approach to problem solving through experience. Instrumental in the progressive movement in education, Dewey's belief that the best education involves learning through doing is still a practice studied and used by modern educators.

"I believe that education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living." John Dewey, "My Pedagogic Creed" (1897)

Education and Career

Growing up, Dewey attended public schools in Burlington, Vermont. At the age of 15, Dewey enrolled at the University of Vermont, where he studied philosophy for four years.

After graduating second in his class, Dewey spent three years as a teacher at a seminary in Oil City, Pennsylvania. He then spent a year studying under the guidance of G. Stanley Hall at Johns Hopkins University in America's first psychology lab. After earning his PhD from Johns Hopkins, Dewey went on to teach in an assistant professor role at the University of Michigan for nearly a decade.

In 1894, Dewey accepted a position as the chairman of the department of philosophy, psychology, and pedagogy at the University of Chicago. Although his prior studies of philosophy and psychology would also influence his later work, it was at the University of Chicago where Dewey began to formalize his views that would contribute so heavily to the school of thought known as pragmatism.

The central tenet of pragmatism is that the value, truth, or meaning of an idea lies in its practical consequences. 

Dewey also helped establish the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. There, he was able to directly apply his pedagogical theories in practice to study their impact on students. Dewey eventually left the University of Chicago and became a professor of philosophy at Columbia University from 1904 until his retirement in 1930.

In 1899, Dewey was elected president of the American Psychological Association, serving a one year term. He also served for one year as the president of the American Philosophical Association in 1905.

Contributions to Psychology

Often considered one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, Dewey had a vital influence on psychology, education, and philosophy. His emphasis on progressive education contributed greatly to the use of experimentation rather than an authoritarian approach to knowledge.

Dewey's influence as a pioneer in the field of pragmatism allowed future thinkers and researchers to delve deeper into how a person's experience is connected to their ability to gain knowledge. Over time, this has allowed others to make strides in modern clinical education and functional psychological study.

Dewey was also a prolific writer. Over his 65-year writing career, he published more than 1,000 books, essays, and articles on a wide range of subjects including education, art, nature, philosophy, religion, culture, ethics, and democracy.

Selected Works

  • Dewey J. "The School and Society." The University of Chicago Press; 1900.
  • Dewey J. "The Child and the Curriculum." The University of Chicago Press; 1902.
  • Dewey J. "How We Think." D.C. Health & Co., Publishers; 1910.
  • Dewey J. "Experience and Nature." Kessinger Publishing, LLC; 1925.
  • Dewey J. "Philosophy and Civilization." Kessinger Publishing, LLC; 1931.
  • Dewey J. "Knowing and the Known." Beacon Press; 1949.

Educational Philosophy

Through his writings, it is known that Dewey firmly believed that education should be more than teaching students mindless facts that they would soon forget. Instead of relying on rote memorization to learn, he thought that education should consist of a journey of experiences, building upon each other to create and understand new ideas.

Dewey saw that traditional schools tried to create a world separate from students' everyday lives. He believed that school activities and the life experiences of students should be connected, otherwise real learning would be impossible.

Cutting students off from their psychological ties (i.e., society and family) would make their learning journey less meaningful and thereby make learning less memorable. Likewise, he believed that schools also needed to prepare students for life in society by socializing them. 

Although Dewey's educational philosophy has been challenged by the rigorous academic standards of modern day, educators still lean on his ideals and principles to shape their teachings as well as the minds of future generations.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Gordon M, English AR. John Dewey’s democracy and education in an era of globalization. Educational Philosophy and Theory. 2016;48(10):977-980. doi:10.1080/00131857.2016.1204742

  2. Inguaggiato G, Metselaar S, Porz R, Widdershoven G. A pragmatist approach to clinical ethics support: overcoming the perils of ethical pluralism. Med Health Care Philos. 2019;22(3):427-438. doi:10.1007/s11019-018-09882-3

  3. English AR. John Dewey and the role of the teacher in a globalized world: imagination, empathy, and ‘third voice.’ Educational Philosophy and Theory. 2016;48(10):1046-1064. doi:10.1080/00131857.2016.1202806

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."