A Posthumous Interview with John Dewey

Last week John Dewey returned from his postmortem travels to grant me a special interview for the educational philosophy class I am currently taking. We met over coffee on Tuesday afternoon at Weaver Street Market in Carrboro, and the weather was nice enough for us to sit outside in the common space. The meeting was arranged by William James, with whom I spoke two weeks prior, during a séance. Having previously only spoken to the dead, but never actually seen the dead, I was nervous Professor Dewey would show up as a zombie-like corpse and thereby attract attention. To my relief, however, he arrived as an apparition, and in the outdoor lighting that day, one had to look very closely to notice he was not a living being. The stares, therefore, were minimal, and we were able to conduct our interview uninterrupted. Our conversation, which follows, was mostly about his classic work Democracy and Education.

John DeweyMe (BB): Thank you, Professor Dewey, for agreeing to meet with me. Since I started reading your work, in graduate school, your ideas have been very influential on my intellectual and professional development. I consider you and William James my favorite philosophers.

John Dewey (JD): Thank you for your kind words. I am happy my work continues to inspire young philosophers like you. James’s ideas are interesting, too, aren’t they? However, I suggest you read him with a healthy dose of skepticism. His notion of radical empiricism led him to believe in all sorts of strange phenomena—like talking with the dead.

BB: (puzzled) Right, uh, well, shall we talk about Democracy and Education?

JD: Yes, of course, I have been looking forward to it!

BB: Great. Thanks. One of the most important principles of the book—and of your educational philosophy as a whole—is that education is not a means to an end, but an end in and of itself. Will you explain that?

JD: That is indeed an important principle, and one I wish current policymakers understood.

BB: Wait, you follow current educational policy?

JD: Of course! What else do I have to do while lounging around the netherworld?

BB: Okay, I apologize, please continue.

JD: Education must be understood as growth, or the facilitation of growth. The need for growth—what we might call immaturity—is not a negative state of being.[1] On the contrary, the need for growth, for development, for change, is fundamental to life. Every living being needs continually renewed, and education is simply the chief process by which renewal occurs.[2] Education, in other words, supplies “the conditions which insure growth.”[3] If, as I believe, growth is the primary occupation of living beings, then society should be content to educate only for the sake of educating. As you suggested, education is not a means to an end: it is the end itself.

BB: Yet parents and policymakers alike are insistent education must prepare children for future employment. Why do you think so many people seem not to agree with you?

JD: First, so many seem not to agree with me because much of educational policy and rhetoric today is shaped by corporate interests, and corporations are interested primarily in consumers and workers rather than citizens. Nonetheless, parents and policymakers were insisting on an extrinsic purpose for education even before I wrote my book. Americans are uncomfortable trusting present processes to insure their desires for the future. Consequently, Americans misunderstand progress as control, ignoring the fact that the future is largely uncontrollable. Progress, properly understood, is measured by a society’s ability to adapt to the continuously unfolding and unpredictable future. Growth is measured by an individual’s ability to do the same. Accordingly, a progressive education is one that awakens students to present possibilities and enables students to transform those possibilities into future realities. By educating the child for his present needs, “the future which grows out of the present is surely taken care of.”[4] Again, the challenge is persuading parents and policymakers to trust the process.

BB: In your chapter “The Democratic Conception in Education,” you asked the question, “Is it possible for an educational system to be conducted by a national state and yet the full social ends of the educative process not be restricted, constrained, and corrupted?”[5] That question seems so relevant today that if I hadn’t read it myself, I wouldn’t have believed it was written by you, a century ago. So, of course, I have to ask whether you have an answer.

JD: You like to ask difficult questions, don’t you?

BB: Yes.

JD: Can I decline to answer?

BB: You’re a ghost: you can do whatever you want.

JD: (laughs) Well, not quite whatever I want, but I could indeed disappear at any moment if I chose to. Nonetheless, I will stay and answer your question—err, my question. As I stated in my book, “modern society is many societies more or less loosely connected.”[6] In other words, the U.S. is not one monolithic culture. It is a diverse nation, consisting of social groups and social environments all having their own needs. For education to be effective—that is, for education to facilitate growth—it must orient the educated to their social environment. In other words, effective education must involve the young in the shared activities and experiences of the community, of their social environment, and every community is unique.[7] Therefore, a democratic educational system is possible, but only insofar as it supports the autonomy of each community. A national educational system must support, not dictate.

BB: You must be dismayed by the Common Core initiative.

JD: Indeed I am! Under the Common Core initiative, the federal government is dictating the aims of education, precluding communities from establishing their own aims in accordance with the needs arising from their respective experiences.[8] What a community in New Mexico experiences and needs is certainly different from what a community in New York experiences and needs. However, because the federal government—again, influenced by corporations more than teachers—believes the purpose of education is to prepare children for the workplace, the unique needs of individual communities are dismissed. Educational standards, per se, are quite beneficial to educational process, but every community should be empowered to develop its own standards in accordance with its experience and needs. An educational system based on a set of standards dictated by the federal government to the states is not a democratic educational system.

BB: Let’s say our system were more democratic, and states were given more autonomy, would you expect some overlap in the aims, or standards, of education among the states?

JD: Certainly. America’s diverse communities have much in common with each other, and in a democratic society they would participate in the free exchange of ideas. Many of those ideas would undoubtedly relate to education. In fact, I explained in my book that one of the two characteristics of a democratic group is its free interplay with other groups (the other characteristic, by the way, being the presence of varied interests consciously shared among members of the group).[9]

BB: What are some changes you would propose to the educational standards shared among states?

JD: The chief problem now, as it was a century ago, is the “isolation of subject matter from a social context.”[10] Education must orient students to the social environments of their communities. Much of the curriculum throughout the history of schooling has substituted a “bookish, pseudo-intellectual spirit for a social spirit.”[11] Although that happens across all subject areas, the most egregious examples are in mathematics education. Much of mathematics education is removed from the experiences students have outside the mathematics classroom. I would completely eliminate mathematics education and replace it with economics and engineering education. Through the study of economics and engineering, students would learn to apply sophisticated mathematical concepts to problems within their social environments. Mathematics, so learned, would not be the isolated activity it often is now.

BB: Some of your critics over the decades have suggested your emphasis on practical studies ignores the development of critical thinking. How do you respond to them?

JD: By telling them they should read more carefully! Such criticism overlooks another of the most important points of the book, which is a critique of dualisms. As I explain in my chapter “Intellectual and Practical Studies,” experience and knowledge are not opposed to each other, but rather are integrated in action.[12] Thus, practical activity, when intelligently conducted, involves critical thinking. Conversely, critical thinking, when intelligently conducted, involves practical activity. Experience and knowledge are only meaningful when integrated and directed toward future experience within one’s social environment. Consider, for example, my favorite radio show currently on the air, Car Talk.

BB: Wait, you listen to the radio?

JD: I told you I have the time.

BB: Right, sorry. Please continue.

JD: Car Talk is brilliant because, first of all, those guys are hilarious. Yet more important for our discussion, they demonstrate the highest levels of critical thinking, but their critical thinking, unlike much of what passes for critical thinking in the schools, is directed toward solving the very practical problems associated with driving automobiles. In directing their critical thinking toward such practical matters, they demonstrate my point that the oft purported dichotomy between intellectual and practical studies is false.

BB: Professor Dewey, this conversation has been enlightening, just as reading your work always is. Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

JD: Remember this: “The work of education is constructive, not critical. It assumes not old beliefs to be eliminated and revised, but the need of building up new experience into intellectual habitudes as correct as possible from the start.”[13] Many philosophers today seem to me beset by the ideas of the past, rather than set on advancing new ideas for the future. As you develop your own philosophical program, establish yourself as a constructive theorist more so than a critical theorist. That is how you will make a difference.

With those final words, Professor Dewey vanished, and I returned home to write up this interview.

John Dewey Education Quote


[1] John Dewey, Democracy and Education (Radford, VA: Wilder Publications, [1916] 2008), 41.

[2] Ibid., 7.

[3] Ibid., 48.

[4] Ibid., 53.

[5] Ibid., 89.

[6] Ibid., 24.

[7] Ibid., 16.

[8] Ibid., 91.

[9] Ibid., 76.

[10] Ibid., 63.

[11] Ibid., 39.

[12] Ibid., 236.

[13] Ibid., 233.

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Author: Bradley Bethel

Educator, writer, & filmmaker. Proud Ohio native, happy to live in North Carolina.

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