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Dewey, Russell and Whitehead

John Dewey and Bertrand Russell | Alfred Whitehead

John Dewey and Bertrand Russell

John Dewey (1859-1952), according to Bertrand Russell, was "the leading living philosopher in America." Russell described Dewey as having "had a profound influence, not only among philosophers, but on students of education, aesthetics, and political theory."

Dewey believed in democracy, and he focused on the connection between democracy and people learning to think for themselves. He was against the old belief that common people were too dumb to know what was good for themselves and should remain dependent on authority in questions as to what was to be done. Dewey viewed schools, particularly elementary and secondary schools, as often repressive and often failing to promote exploration and growth. He advocated reforms designed to develop students' abilities at problem solving. He rejected the old method that limited children to learning by rote memory – which was to continue to exist in the authoritarian Islamic Madrasah schools in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Dewey wrote of education as something apart from propaganda:

Apart from the thought of participation in social life the school has no end nor aim. As long as we confine ourselves to the school as an isolated institution we have no final directing ethical principles, because we have no object or ideal. (Morris & Shapiro, 1993, p. 97)

Dewey's ideas on education were put into practice in 1896 at the University of Chicago Laboratory School, working on education theory for nursery schools through the 12th grade. It was labeled progressive education. It was described as learning by doing and involved becoming aware of a problem, defining the problem, proposing an hypothesis to solve it and evaluating the consequences of the hypotheses.

Dewey's move away from authoritarians included a belief that there should be at least a little student participation in decisions that affect their learning. He also had concern for the rights and academic autonomy of teachers. He was a member of the first teacher's union in New York City, and he was a founder of the American Association of University Professors.

Dewey was influenced by the publication of William James' Principles of Psychology, published in 1890. James was trained as a medical doctor and developed a philosophy of psychology that connected mental life and behavior with adaptation to one's environment, and James favored the development of psychological theories not readily testable by controlled experiments. Dewey participated in the study of psychology connected to his interest in theory of education.

In epistemology, Dewey was a pragmatist, like James. What Dewey called "instrumentalism" held that the truth or falsity of an idea was to be evaluated by how effectively it explains and predicts as opposed to how accurately it describes reality outside of our heads. This was more of the subjectivity detested by Lenin. And Bertrand Russell also objected. Russell wrote that he agreed with Dewey on many matters but that he regretted that he was "compelled to dissent" regarding Dewey's theory of knowledge.

Russell believed that people should consider their ability to ascertain truth with a degree of modesty. The perfect model of truth, wrote Russell, is the multiplication table, "which is precise and certain and free from all temporal dross." Russell was concerned with maintaining an awareness of "truth" as something independent of human control. This, he believed, would help limit an "intoxication of power" that had invaded philosophy and was "the greatest danger of our time."

Indeed, Mussolini considered himself a philosophical pragmatist. And in the 1920s some liberals in the United States praised him with enthusiasm for his having made capitalism work, including making trains run on time. And, still on the subject of pragmatism, there was praise in the US for Mussolini having turned back the tide of materialism and anti-clericalism and for having stimulated the virtue of patriotism. Before Mussolini was appointed prime minister, his Fascist squads had learned that violence applied against their opponents – socialists and liberals – worked. It was a truth about violence limited to circumstances in Italy at the time. But Russell was interested in truth beyond some immediate pragmatism.

Dewey and the World Wars

In his book, Icarius Syndrome, Peter Beinart describes Dewey and his colleague, Charles Beard, as two of the "loudest academic cheerleaders" for US entry into World War I. Beinart writes that Dewey predicted that wartime mobilization "would shift power from private to public hands, from selfish tribes to unbiased experts." (p. 40) The war turned Dewey and Beard into opponents of involvement in another war. In the early 1920s Dewey urged the US Congress to draft legislation to abolish war. (p. 59.)

According to Beinart, "in their opposition to American entry into World War II... Dewey and Beard were moral perfectionists, men who would allow the greatest of evils to triumph for fear of implicating themselves in the lesser evil of war." (p. 82)


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