U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Teaching U.S. Intellectual History: Reflections On John Dewey

I am teaching a post-Civil War survey this fall at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The students are reading Out of Many (Vol. II, Prentice Hall), authored by John Mack Faragher, Mari Jo Buhle, Susan H. Armitage, and Daniel Czitrom. Since it’s a 120-person lecture hall setting, I lecture. I prefer more interactive settings, but I’m not teaching this fall to find a venue for my deepest beliefs about authentic instruction—if you take my meaning.

For lecture fodder I chose to focus on expanding textbook connections to Chicago and Illinois history. This is no difficult task since Chicago figures prominently in most narratives on post-Civil War history, including sub topics like Gilded Age business endeavors, railroad expansion, labor unrest, Progressivism, urban politics, urban reform, the war efforts, etc. But, to connect my fall work with the recent intellectual history forum in Historically Speaking, and Daniel Wickberg’s opening essay therein, I’ve made a concerted effort to meld intellectual history with my local history themes. Again, many Chicago historical topics aid this effort. Subjects such as the Gospel of Wealth and the Social Gospel, as well as others related to the history of education (higher, etc.), make this easy. Today I decided to devote 50 minutes to one person: John Dewey.

My method was to begin by discussing all textbook citations and mentions of Dewey (4-5 total), and then build on what was discussed. The most in-depth treatment in Out of Many consisted of a paragraph on his philosophy of education, as well as his suggested reforms, in the chapter on the Progressive Era—our current progress point in the term. I expanded by discussing five prominent themes and topics: Dewey’s biography, his philosophy of education (with a minor relation to the kindergarten movement), his significance to philosophy (so, Pragmatism and Instrumentalism), his relation to politics, and Dewey’s legacy.

For additional sources I consulted the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (available online), the Encyclopedia of Chicago (also available online), Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, and some online information available through the Center for Dewey Studies at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. And of course a number of Dewey’s central beliefs and philosophical contributions were simply in my memory from studying Mortimer J. Adler, Robert Hutchins, and criticisms of progressive education. One of our own, Andrew Hartman, covers these topics in his book, Education and the Cold War. For my part, as someone who has never explicitly studied Dewey’s biography, and only explored Dewey’s own writing in a limited way, I was amazed at how much I knew and remembered. This is due solely to Dewey’s influence.

The lecture went okay. I hit all of my points, even if less thoroughly than I wanted. I should’ve cut out the Kindergarten movement digression. My hope on that topic was to give another on-the-ground connection between Dewey and real reform. Unfortunately it only ended up distracting me from my last two topics: his connection to politics and Dewey’s legacy. Even so, the material I had pass over in relation to both amounted to less than a page. My total lecture was twelve double-spaced pages. I should’ve gone with eleven.

The students seemed mostly interested. I spent some unplanned time on a straw poll at the beginning of class. I asked for a show of hands on education, science, and philosophy majors. I should have asked about psychology. Between education and science majors, two-thirds of the 80 or so students present were accounted for. At every possible point in my lecture I emphasized Dewey’s significance to the place and role of science in American culture. The education material spoke for itself. The first thirty minutes of lecture seemed to hold my students’ attention more than the last twenty. That’s natural, I suppose. But the material on politics (“democracy as a way of life”), which helps bind together Dewey’s educational and philosophical concerns, received a short shrift from my ill-fated kindergarten digression and their to-be-expected lull in attention. I’ll take care of that next time.

What are your experiences teaching Dewey? What has worked, or not, for you? – TL

One Thought on this Post

  1. this has nothing to do with dewey, but it does have to do with chicago. it may be too late or otherwise useless for you anyway. but: i think that one part of du bois’ 1927 *Dark Princess* takes place in chicago. as i recall, the main character enters local politics for various reasons and discovers, among other things, that machine politics is bad (this happens, actually, in more than one of du bois’ novels). it might be an interesting text, even with undergraduates, to think about the US and the world in this period.

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