John Dewey

An Atlantic Portrait



JOHN DEWEY has just had his eightysecond birthday, but there is not a quaver in his voice or a quiver in his handwriting. He is five feet, eight and a half inches tall, and weighs just what the height-weight chart demands, one hundred and sixty pounds. Up in Nova Scotia, where he goes in summer, he keeps the local people in a dither by swimming in all weathers in the deeps of Solar Lake. Besides surviving this himself, he surprised them three years ago by going out an extra two hundred feet and rescuing, in a deferential way, a drowning woman. At his occasional cocktail parties on Central Park West, which are attended by a motley aggregation of all ages, faiths, colors, and social conditions, from grandmothers of Ethical Culture to prophets of the latest split in the Youth Movement or the ultimate wrinkle in modern painting, he always seems the most agile person present — agile in pretending to remember who they all are, agile in sliding around among them with the drinks.

John Dewey, let me remind you, is the man who saved our children from dying of boredom as we almost did in school. The Encyclopœdia Britannica in its article on Education puts it less succinctly: ‘By 1900 the centre of gravity had shifted from the subject-matter of instruction to the child to be taught. The school, in consequence, had begun to change from a place where children prepare for life ... to a place where children live. . . . These changes, largely due to the teachings of John Dewey, have become dominant purposes of the American elementary school of the twentieth century.’ That is half of who John Dewey is, and the other half is a philosopher in the technical sense — a man who makes his living arguing about such questions as ‘How We Think’ and ‘What Does Thought Do to Being?’ The University of Paris, in conferring a degree upon him in 1930, described him as ‘ the most profound and complete expression of American genius.’

Two things make this grade-A brand of fame surprising. One is Dewey’s perverse and obdurate neglect of it. He never blows his own horn, and never listens when kind friends undertake to blow it for him. He did not attend the banquet given in his honor on his eightieth birthday, although some of the world’s most distinguished citizens were there. He found he had a previous engagement at his daughter Evelyn’s cattle ranch in the northwest corner of Missouri. The whole thing had been done once before when he was seventy. ‘I just can’t stand it again,’ he told Evelyn.

The other thing that makes Dewey’s fame surprising is the total lack of fireworks in his nature. He has published 36 books and 815 articles and pamphlets, but if he ever wrote one quotable sentence it has got permanently lost in the pile. Not only is his own style dull, but this dullness infects everybody who has anything to say about his theories of education. A reform which might be described as a grown-up formulation of the necessity, long known to all livelyminded children, of raising hell in school has been put over in the language of the prosiest of disciplinary pedagogues. No flash of wit or poetry illumines it.

Perhaps Dewey’s origin has something to do with this. He was born, like Calvin Coolidge, in Vermont, and he was born with the same trick of concealing whatever is, or is not, going on in his head under a noncommittal exterior. Vermonters have a dry humor of understatement — an understatement so remote that you can’t quite guess whether they are joking or just failing to warm up. His father was famous in a small way as a joker. He ‘kept store’ in Burlington, a town of ten or twelve thousand, and sold more goods than anybody else in town because of the whimsical way he went at it. A sign outside reading ‘ Hams and Cigars — Smoked and Unsmoked’ apprised his customers that they would not be taken too seriously. On a frequently borrowed wheelbarrow he painted in big red letters: ‘Stolen from A. S. Dewey.’ Notwithstanding his popularity, A. S. Dewey never got along very well because it hurt his feelings to ask people to pay their bills. He stuttered, too, and that made it seem an especially good one when he asked for money.

Mrs. A. S. Dewey — Archibald Sprague is the name — was the daughter of ‘Squire Rich’ of Richville, and her grandfather had been in Congress. But the Riches hadn’t got along very well in a property sense, either, and John’s boyhood home was run on lines of watchful thrift. If he wanted any spending money he had to earn it — which he did, as befitted a complete expression of American genius, by delivering papers after school. That netted him a dollar a week, and in the summer when he reached fourteen he got a real job ‘ tallying’ in a lumber yard, which netted him six dollars. He had to do ‘chores’ around the house besides, and got punished when he chiseled by an appeal to conscience which he found more painful than a licking.

His parents belonged to the White Street Congregational Church, the father being religious mostly for the reason that it wouldn’t occur to him not to be, the mother putting a little more feeling into it. She was not austere, and not given to religious tantrums, but in selected ways was strongly moralistic. There is something painfully or, if you will, divinely average in John Dewey’s early life and circumstances. He swam and skated on Lake Champlain, but not any too well. He liked to play, but was no good at ‘set games’ — not competitive enough, I think. He was a great reader, but did not care for ‘set lessons,’ either. He worked fairly hard during school hours, but only because he didn’t want to carry his textbooks home. There were books in the village library that he liked better. He went through grammar and high school fast, but without getting high marks. People were more impressed with his sweet temper and selflessness than with his brains, and they still are unless they have rather exceptional brains themselves.

He slid into Vermont University at the early age of fifteen — an unusual accomplishment, but one which caused no particular comment, least of all from him. He slid through his first three college years also without throwing off any sparks, or giving grounds to predict anything about his future. He joined the church during his sophomore year, and did so with sincere religious feeling but no profound experience of conversion. He was a good boy, and wanted to be better, and thought God would help him — that was all.

He wanted to be better, however, with the inward glow of a boy whose sexual life is almost entirely sublimated. He was shy too far inside himself even to think of making love to a girl. ‘I tried to work up a little affair with my cousin when I was nineteen,’ he says. ‘I thought something ought to be done. But I couldn’t do it. I was too bashful. I was abnormally bashful. I was abnormal.’ This fact, combined with the moralistic inculcations of his mother, enabled John Dewey to make his start in life as an impeccable Sunday School teacher.

Toward the end of his junior year this placid process of development was crashed into by an event that unsettled the whole scheme. The crisis was a short course in physiology with a textbook written by Thomas Henry Huxley. That accidental contact with Darwin’s brilliant disciple, then waging his fierce war for evolution against the ‘impregnable rock’ of Holy Scripture, woke John Dewey up to the spectacular excitement of the effort to understand the world. He was swept off his feet by the rapture of scientific knowledge. And yet the old moralistic attitude had too much momentum to give way. He could not abandon thinking about human life as a thing to be shaped by moral will and meditation; he could not deny the validity of Huxley’s account of how material forces shaped it.

As a result, his senior year at college was an ardent effort and adventure. He plunged heart and soul into his studies. He read and labored far into the night. He led his class, and got the highest marks on record in philosophy. At times he seemed to his classmates, when answering a question, to be somewhat diffidently explaining the lesson to the professor. By the time that year was over, there was very little hope left in the Dewey family that John would turn out to be anything more useful than a philosopher. The question was, what are you going to do with a nineteenyear-old philosopher?

As a temporary solution John went down to Oil City, Pennsylvania, and taught in a high school run by a female cousin. He earned forty dollars a month. Two brokers living in the same boardinghouse urged him to borrow some more money and invest it in the town’s excitement, Standard Oil. He would be sitting pretty today if he had. Instead he borrowed books and used the oil in a lamp.

One evening while he sat reading he had what he calls a ‘mystic experience.’ It was an answer to that question which still worried him: whether he really meant business when he prayed. It was not a very dramatic mystic experience. There was no vision, not even a definable emotion — just a supremely blissful feeling that his worries were over. Mystic experiences in general, Dewey explains, are purely emotional and cannot be conveyed in words. But when he tries to convey his in words, it comes out like this: —

‘ What the hell are you worrying about, anyway? Everything that’s here is here, and you can just lie back on it.’

‘I’ve never had any doubts since then,’ he adds, ‘nor any beliefs. To me faith means not worrying.’

Although his religion has so little affirmative content, — and has nothing to do, he is sure, with his philosophy, — Dewey likens it to the poetic pantheism of Wordsworth, whom he was reading at that time, and to Walt Whitman’s sense of oneness with the universe. To forestall your own remark, he reminds you that it is very likely a sublimation of sex, and points out that this doesn’t make it any less normal or important.

‘I claim I’ve got religion,’ he concludes, ‘and that I got it that night in Oil City.’


In 1879, when John Dewey set out on his life task of reconciling ethics with physiology, there was hardly such a thing as a career in philosophy in America. The whole country was little better in that respect than Burlington, Vermont. Professors of philosophy were ministers of the gospel who for some reason, located as often in their vocal organs as in their brains, had found it easier to teach than preach. They were a sort of plain-clothes chaplain employed by the colleges to see that science did not run away with the pupils’ minds. One of the few exceptions was W. T. Harris, who published a Journal of Speculative Philosophy in St. Louis, Missouri. Harris was what they called a ‘lay philosopher,’ and Dewey, although still a churchgoer, was ‘lay’ enough to send his first original work to Harris. It was a little piece he tossed off after hours while teaching district school in Charlotte, Vermont, on ‘The Metaphysical Assumptions of Materialism.’ When it was accepted for publication, he decided that he would become a lay philosopher too.

An imaginative merchant named Johns Hopkins had just founded a new kind of research university in Baltimore, and Dewey’s annunciation angel, Professor Huxley, had delivered the inaugural address. The new university was offering twenty $500 fellowships to be competed for by college graduates. Dewey tried for one and failed. (Thorstein Veblen also tried for one and failed.) But Dewey had an aunt with $500, and he borrowed that and went to Johns Hopkins anyway. After studying a year, he tried for the fellowship again and got it. He also got a job teaching the history of philosophy to undergraduates. So who said there wasn’t a career in philosophy in America? To be sure there was no pay attached to this job, but then, on the other hand, he did not have to pay for the privilege of doing it. He was happy. He had found a wonderful teacher, a Hegelian named George Sylvester Morris.

Unless you understand how exciting it is to fall in love with Hegel — and what hard work — there is very little Dewey can tell you about those three years at Johns Hopkins. It was a fulltime romance, and the event was quite as blissfully tranquillizing to John Dewey’s mind as his Oil City experience had been to his heart. Even now, when as a whole the thing seems to him a sentimental German self-deception, he still feels a pious love towards Hegel. He had been in painful tension. Hegel’s metaphysics gave him back the sense of unity, of things flowing together.

‘I was unduly bashful and self-conscious,’ he says, ‘always putting myself over against other people. Perhaps that was it. Or perhaps an overemphasis on evangelical morals had given me a feeling of alienation from the world. I can’t recover it. If I could, I would write something about adolescence that really would be interesting.’

It was in 1881, his first year at Johns Hopkins, that Dewey was rapt away by Hegel, and he remained pretty Hegelian for ten or twelve years, coming back to earth, appropriately enough, in the vicinity of Chicago in the early nineties. It is unusual for a Hegelian to recover at thirty-five. If they stay up that long, they generally get lost in the stratosphere. And it is safe to say that one of the main factors in bringing Dewey down was a flesh-and-blood romance — a romance with a girl who had her feet very firmly planted on the earth.

When Dewey took his Ph. D. at Johns Hopkins, President Gilman offered him a loan to continue his studies in Germany. Dewey was deeply gratified, but said that he would rather not borrow money, and felt perfectly at home in America. President Gilman also offered him some advice: ‘Don’t be so bookish; don’t live such a secluded life; get out and see people.’ That offer Dewey was more inclined to accept, although he did not know exactly how to act upon it. What he needed first was a job, and he spent another rather wistful summer in Burlington before he got one. It was a $900 job as instructor in philosophy at the University of Michigan, where his friend Morris was teaching.

In Michigan, Dewey began to ‘see people,’ and among the first he saw was a ‘co-ed’ named Alice Chipman who lived in the same boardinghouse with him. She was a strong-minded girl, descended from a family of radicals and freethinkers, an ardent woman suffragist, deeply religious but of no church, and brilliantly intolerant of ‘bunk.’ She was shorter than Dewey and thicker, not beautiful and not well dressed. By a purely physiological accident her eyelids hung so low over her eyes that to a timid judgment she looked dangerous. But her features were handsome in a strong way, and her mouth was gentle. Her pioneer grandfather had joined the Chippewa tribe of Indians and fought for their rights; he had also opposed Lincoln and the Civil War. She inherited his crusading spirit and his moral courage. And she had a passionate interest in the life of ideas. It was good luck — or was it good sense? — that John Dewey fell in love with such a woman. Dewey also is strong-minded. In his mild way, with neither inward conflict nor outward fuss, he sticks to his own course of action, barring rational arguments to the contrary, with the momentum of a mule. Besides that, he had the advantage of superior knowledge; Alice was a pupil in his classes. There was, in short, a full-sized moral and intellectual admiration between them. ‘No two people,’ Dewey once remarked, ‘were ever more in love.’

They were married at the home of the Chippewa Copperhead in 1886. In the same year Dewey was made assistant professor and his salary was raised to $1600. The next year their first child, Fred, was born, and Dewey published his first book — significantly not a philosophy book at all, but a textbook in psychology. Dewey was willing to see psychology break loose from philosophy and become a natural science, and this book places him among the pioneers of that process. But still it winds up with a piously Hegelian reminder, quaint in a scientific textbook now, that the ultimate reality is God.

The next year, without any wangling on his part, Dewey was given a professorship at the University of Minnesota, and a salary of $2500. The year after that, his friend Professor Morris having died, he returned to Michigan to succeed him as professor and head of the department of philosophy, with a salary of $3000. Dewey had guessed right about careers for ‘lay philosophers.’

One of Dewey’s tasks as a member of Michigan’s faculty was to visit high schools throughout the state and investigate their qualifications to send up students to the university. This first set his mind to work on that general problem of ‘Democracy and Education’ which was to be the title of his major work in this field. It also took his mind off the Hegelian cosmos. But he was getting more interested in what he called the ‘instrumental logic’ by which people think out ways of getting what they want. This tendency was vastly reenforced by the appearance in 1890 of William James’s famous Psychology, which foreshadowed the philosophy of ‘pragmatism’ formulated by its author seventeen years later. The Hegelian cosmos, as Dewey puts it, ‘just dropped away.’

Before that happened, however, Dewey’s own personal place in the cosmos had taken a large upward leap. The University of Chicago had been founded with a plentiful endowment by John D. Rockefeller, and its president, William R. Harper, had conceived the novel idea of combining the departments of philosophy, psychology, and education into one. In 1894 Dewey was invited to come to Chicago at a salary of $5000 and be the head of the whole thing. It was a piece of rare good luck, for Dewey’s philosophy was taking more and more the aspect of a psychology of the thought process, and his interest in education was running neck and neck with his interest in philosophy. Moreover the Dewey family was growing, and was destined to grow far beyond the limits set by the income of any ordinary lay philosopher. Mrs. Dewey did not believe in birth control. Notwithstanding her freethinking grandparents, she held some streak of prudish puritanism that made her think it wicked to decide when and under what conditions you are going to bear children. The second child, Evelyn, had been born in 1890, and the third, Morris, — named after Dewey’s revered teacher, — early in 1893. The difference between three and five thousand dollars was beginning to look important, and the letter from Chicago was in all ways a joyful piece of news.

Mrs. Dewey, they decided, would spend the summer in Europe with the children, and Dewey would go ahead to Chicago and earn some extra money teaching in the Summer School. Dewey hated to say good-bye to his two-yearold baby, Morris, for he had already made up his mind, by what signs it would be hard to say, that the child was a kind of saintly genius. This was not all a parent’s fondness, either. A stranger on the boat going over made the peculiar remark: ‘If that child lives long enough there will be a new religion.’ Morris died of diphtheria in Milan, and even now, fifty years after, Dewey cannot mention the event without a catch in his throat.

Three other children were born in Chicago, — Lucy, Gordon, and Jane, — and thus there were still five of them rioting around the house during the best years of this philosopher’s life. They did not disturb his meditations in the least. As a logician Dewey is at his best with one child climbing up his pants leg and another fishing in his inkwell. He has not only mental concentration but a way of doing two things at once that is at times almost alarming. Friends have been known to follow him several blocks down the street to make sure he would negotiate the crossings, he seemed so unaware of where his body was going. He has a way of pulling his hat down over his eyes, too, and swaying along a little bit sideways with quick vague steps like a slightly drunken bum, which heightens the suggestion of risk. But there is really no danger. His body is used to taking care of him.

Dewey never bothers about physical exercise; brainwork, he thinks, is just as good, if there’s enough of it. So for recreation he goes on long automobile rides and sits in the front seat solving a crossword puzzle and conversing with his companions — a slightly irritating habit that is not made any more agreeable when at the end of the journey he turns out to have a more accurate memory of the landscape than they have.

To such a mind a half dozen or so children would obviously be a help philosophically. But Dewey’s children, besides clambering on his philosophy in a helpful way while he was writing it, made another contribution more important to the course of history. They kept the problems of philosophy thoroughly mixed up in his mind with the problems of education.


It is customary to regard Dewey’s educational theories as an inference from his instrumental philosophy, but more accurately they are an inference from his children. Dewey was interested in reforming education, and wrote a book about it long before he became an instrumental philosopher. The book was called Applied Psychology, and that indicates what his doctrine about education is. Education is life itself, so long as the living thing continues to grow. Education is growth under favorable conditions; the school is a place where those conditions should be regulated scientifically. That is about all there is to it.

The household also needed a little renovation along this line, and Dewey’s influence on the relations between parents and their children has been as great as his influence on the schools. It was a reform that in the nature of the case began at home.

In his house at Ann Arbor, Dewey’s study was directly under the bathroom, and he was sitting there one day, absorbed in a new theory of arithmetic, when suddenly he felt a stream of water trickling down his back. He jumped out of his chair and rushed upstairs to find the bathtub occupied by a fleet of sailboats, the water brimming over, and his small boy Fred busy with both hands shutting it off. The child turned as he opened the door, and said severely, ‘Don’t argue, John — get the mop!

You might think that a family of five children, brought up along these lines, would be something of a riot, and they did have a rare good time. But they were, as children go, a remarkably wellmannered bunch of rioters. They were at times, indeed, a little too wellmannered. Jane used at the age of twelve to discuss the causes of prostitution in a disturbingly judicious manner. And Evelyn developed so early the poised and sagely humorous good sense which surrounds her now with loving friends that you wished sometimes she would be foolish for a minute.

Each of the two John Deweys, the philosopher and the educator, reached his high point in Chicago. In a book called Studies in Logical Theory, published in 1903, he formulated that practical American philosophy which was left in his head after Hegel’s German cosmos ‘dropped away.’ All thinking, it declares, — even Hegel’s about his cosmos, — is instrumental, and its truth is nothing more than its success in bringing human beings to their ends. Dewey finds rest in this idea because it closes, in a way that does less violence to commonsense reality than Hegel did, that chasm which he had felt yawning between the material and moral sciences. The material world is real, but our very knowledge of it is moral in the largest sense. It is practical. It is a solving of problems in the posing of which, and thus inevitably in their solution, human needs and aspirations play a vital part.

When William James came to Chicago a short time after Dewey’s Studies were published, he spoke of the book — with a little too much modesty — as ‘ the foundation of the philosophy of pragmatism.’ Dewey, equally modest, did not know that he had been founding Pragmatism, and was greatly surprised when James greeted him in this way. A case of ‘After you, Gaston!’ not at all common among philosophers — or any other people.

The other half of John Dewey reached its high point in the founding of an elementary school, two years after he came to Chicago. This school was regarded by him literally as the laboratory of the department of philosophy, and was called the Experimental or Laboratory School. But it has survived in history as the Dewey School, a name which might well be written ‘Do-y School,’ for ‘to learn by doing’ was one of its chief slogans. Its founder had the rather naïve notion that in its operation he was putting his instrumental philosophy to an experimental test.

In these days when Dewey’s ideas on education have become a part of our national culture, it is hard to imagine the clamor raised in 1896 by the idea of a laboratory school. ‘A school where they experiment with the children — imagine!’ He could hardly have shocked the parents of the nineties more if he had proposed vivisection in a kindergarten. Even when closely examined, his idea seemed to be to let children do just what they wanted to, which was then generally regarded as equivalent to letting them go to hell. Dewey is, perhaps, — or was, — slightly utopian in his rebellion against the old puritanical pumping-in system of education, summed up by his contemporary, Mr. Dooley, in the remark that ‘it don’t make much difference what you study, so long as you don’t like it.’ But he does not believe, and never did, in consecrating children’s whims, much less in forcing them to have more whims than are natural to them. He has more horse sense than some of those who now run ‘modern schools’ in his name. His idea was that life in school ought to be enough like life outside so that an interest in knowledge will arise in the child’s mind as it did in the mind of the race — spontaneously. If you provide a sufficient variety of activities, and there’s enough knowledge lying around, and the teacher understands the natural relation between knowledge and interested action, children can have fun getting educated and will love to go to school. That is the kind of thing Dewey was saying. And the little book, School and Society, in which he first said it, was translated into dozens of languages, including those as far away from home as Chinese and Japanese.

Dewey would never have started a Dewey School, however, if it hadn’t been for Alice Chipman. Dewey never does anything except think — at least it often looked that way to Alice — unless he gets kicked into it. Nothing seems important to him but thinking. He is as complete an extrovert as ever lived, but the extroversion all takes place inside his head. Ideas are real objects to him, and they are the only objects that engage his passionate interest. If he gets hold of a new idea, he will sneak around the house with it like a dog with a bone, glancing up with half an eye at the unavoidable human beings and their chatter, hoping they won’t bother him, and that’s all. Only a man of this temperament who nevertheless took human lives and problems for his subject matter could have made the contribution Dewey has.

Mrs. Dewey would grab Dewey’s ideas — and grab him — and insist that something be done. She had herself a brilliant mind and a far better gift of expression than his. And she was a zealot. She was on fire to reform people as well as ideas. She had an adoring admiration of his genius, but she had also a female impatience of the cumbersome load of ideological considerations he had to carry along when arriving at a decision. Her own decisions were swift, direct, and harshly realistic — not always aware of their grounds. ‘You always come at things back-handed,’ she would say. Dewey’s view of his wife’s influence is that she put ‘guts and stuffing’ into what had been with him mere intellectual conclusions. He also recalls that she taught him not to be such an easy mark. He does not use that phrase. ‘She liberated me,’ he says, ‘from certain sentimental moralisms of the “Judge not” variety, and taught me to respect my adverse as well as my favorable intuitions.’ In short, she kept pulling him down into the real world. And, as his own philosophy insisted that that is where a man ought to be, he was, theoretically at least, always willing to be pulled.

Mrs. Dewey, then, as might be guessed, was the principal of the Dewey School. To her — and to Ella Flagg Young, Chicago’s famous Superintendent of Schools — belongs most of the credit for its concrete operation. Dewey calls Ella Flagg Young ‘the wisest person about actual schools I ever saw.’ ‘I would come over to her with these abstract ideas of mine,’ he says, ‘and she would tell me what they meant.’ Another woman memorable in this connection is Mrs. Charles R. Crane, who put up a large part of the money for the school and helped the Deweys raise the rest. Still another is Mrs. Emmons Blaine, who, besides sharing the enthusiasms of this little group of glowing reformers, shared in the McCormick dollars. Those dollars aided very considerably in the birth of the Dewey School, and it was from being forced to swallow a million of them at one gulp that the school rather suddenly died.

That sad story, which altered the direction and to some extent the tone of Dewey’s whole life, has never been told. Mrs. Dewey wanted him to make a public statement at the time, but Dewey decided to swallow his chagrin, and so everybody else, for thirty-five years now, has been sitting decorously on the lid. The story is this: —

Mrs. Blaine gave that million-dollar endowment originally to another educational reformer, and something of a genius too, named Colonel Parker, who founded a school with it called the Chicago Institute. Parker had more genius for handling children than for handling dollars by the million; and moreover he soon began to lose his health. With his consent, Mrs. Blaine finally proposed to President Harper that his school and Dewey’s school unite, and the endowment be turned over to the university. At that time the Dewey School was a flourishing institution with 23 teachers and 140 children; it had none of the defects of the Chicago Institute; its theoretical principles, while similar, were not the same; and it had no need of a million dollars. The change was therefore vigorously resisted, and for one year staved off, by the parents of the children in the Dewey School. But Harper wanted that million dollars for the university, and the following year, while Dewey was conveniently absent in the East, he reopened the negotiations with Mrs. Blaine. When Dewey returned, the merger was all but accomplished. The president called him to his office and spoke with unction about ‘their dream at last realized.’ As Dewey had never dreamed this dream, but quite the opposite, and as Harper had never put up any money for the Laboratory School, Dewey felt that he might have been consulted before the realizing got quite so far along. The interview was a tense one, and when President Harper asked him to come in on the final negotiations Dewey abruptly refused.

‘Since you’ve chosen to start this in my absence, I suggest that you finish it,’ he said. ‘After you get the terms arranged, I will decide whether I can coöperate or not.’

‘I should hate to go to the trustees,’ Harper said, ‘and tell them that your obstinacy had cost the university a million dollars.’

Dewey explained that he was interested in an experiment in education, not in providing an endowment for the University of Chicago. He also told President Harper — although not in these crisp terms, I am sure — that if he did find it possible to come in he would expect a raise in salary from five to seven thousand dollars. President Harper expressed a fear that a salary of that size might embarrass him with his colleagues, but Dewey thought he could survive the pain. ‘That demand for more pay,’ Dewey says, ‘did more to make a man of me than any other act of my life!’

Another stipulation Dewey made was that his teaching staff, including Mrs. Dewey as principal, should continue to serve in the new setup. Harper agreed to this when talking to Dewey, but when talking to Mrs. Blaine, whose main interest was in Colonel Parker’s staff, he explained that the arrangement was only for the first year. Mrs. Dewey in particular, he said, intended to resign as soon as the school got going. This put him in rather a tight place, but left him a year in which to wriggle out of it. His way out was to wait until Dewey was again absent in the East and then send for Mrs. Dewey and inform her that Professor Dewey had told him she was going to resign!

As Dewey had never told her that, and moreover was not in the habit of telling her what she was going to do, she received this communication with a silence that President Harper found vastly impressive.

‘Mrs. Dewey,’ he told her husband when he returned, ‘is a woman of extraordinary dignity!’

But Dewey had his back up now. He was aware that Mrs. Dewey had, as an administrator, the faults of her virtues. She was not a good mixer. She had an uncanny gift of seeing through people who were faking, and made such witty game of them that she alarmed even those who were not faking — or at least not very much. And she had a kind of inside-out timidity, a fear of being presumptuous, that because of her obvious superiority looked sometimes like snooty coldness. She was, however, the sole channel through which Dewey’s ideas could naturally get down into action. She was too deeply bound up with bringing them down to be eased out as incidental to a ‘Dewey School.’ Dewey knew, besides, that his other trained teachers would be eased out in the same sly fashion. Nominally he would be head of the school, but he would be one man against a million dollars. He ended that interview with President Harper, which was a hot one, by presenting his resignation as professor of education. As soon as he got outside the door he realized that Harper’s expression on hearing this had been one of relief. He went home and wrote out his resignation as professor of philosophy, psychology, and education.

That was the end of the Dewey School, and it was the end of a wholly joyful and very affluent epoch in Dewey’s life.

Dewey, of course, was not many days out of a job. Aside from his rising fame in philosophy and education, he had recently filled a term as president of the American Psychological Association. He could have had a chair in philosophy, psychology, or education in almost any university in the country. It was in fact a psychologist, J. McKeen Cattell, who took the initiative in getting him invited to Columbia as professor of philosophy, and it was stipulated in his contract that he continue to expound his views on education at Teachers College.

Both he and Mrs. Dewey might have recovered with more buoyance from the blow to their lifework had not Fate chosen this moment to repeat, so exactly as to suggest deliberate malice, the tragedy of their previous personal loss. On a trip to Europe in the interval between jobs, their most gifted son, Gordon, died — in Ireland, and of typhoid fever. We have only Dewey’s word for the rich endowments of his baby, Morris, but Gordon had so impressed those around him that a service in his memory was held at Hull House in Chicago and Jane Addams gave a talk which is preserved in one of her books. As we note what she said about this ‘tiny protagonist of his time,’ an ‘indefatigable reader of the newspapers,’ a ‘fine and gallant spirit,’ possessed of ‘wide and tolerant wisdom’ and ‘a sense of the humor of life,’ it is hard to believe that the child was only eight years old.

In Italy they adopted the orphan boy, Sabino, attempting in this commonsense way to fill the void in their hearts. But Dewey never quite escaped the pain of that double loss of his chosen lifework and his best-loved child. President Harper’s action rankled in him so deeply that, thirty-five years afterward, he expressed surprise on finding that he could laugh at the man’s crude way of being astute.

A deeper wound, although perhaps he did not realize it, was the change in Mrs. Dewey. Stricken thus as a mother at the same time that she was deprived of any outlet for her violent zeal and genuine gift of leadership, she fell gradually into a habit of resentment. She grew caustic where she had been keen, captious where she had been critical. Her health began to decline. She had already done more work and borne more children than her physique, unless sustained by joy, was equal to. The less she could do herself, the more her perfectionism, her insistence upon everybody’s doing his best and doing it just exactly right, turned into a vice of ironical nagging. Her husband’s bland way of going around with nothing on his mind but thoughts, when she herself so longed for action, got on her nerves. Increasingly, until her death in 1927, these habits of perpetual objection became fixed in her, and at the end, with arteriosclerosis and a high blood pressure that drove her literally crazy, she became, although still full of witty charm, impossible except for saints to live with. She was persuaded once to go away to a sanitarium, but in a day or two the doctor telephoned to say that she had left ‘without permission.’ After some anxious hours had passed, she herself telephoned from a friend’s house to say that she was coming home. The road from there to her death was more than a tragic one. Dewey has had his full measure of sorrow.


Notwithstanding the mood in which the change was made, Dewey’s eastward migration at forty was a good thing for him intellectually. He found a new group of stimulating minds at Columbia. His philosophic friendship with George H. Mead, a teammate in developing the philosophic implications of biology, was replaced by a more argumentative friendship with Frederick J. E. Woodbridge, a philosopher of the classic mould. Dewey says that he ‘learned a lot from Professor Woodbridge, but not what he was teaching.’ He learned a lot also from James Harvey Robinson, who used to begin his course in the Intellectual History of Western Europe by remarking, ‘Now when I mention God, I want the class to relax’; from Charles Beard, who was teaching American history with a similar irreverence toward the founding fathers; and from Wesley Mitchell, who was leading a like revolt against the ‘Economic Man.’

In general, ideas were sprouting up through the bricks at Columbia in those days, and Dewey’s mind was happy there. Also he found it easier, while living in New York, to play a part in civic movements of national scope, to be a factor in the nation’s political life, as is appropriate to a philosopher who believes that the truth of an idea lies in its practical effect. By taking an apartment at the corner of Broadway and 56th Street, a fourth-floor apartment fronting on both streets, he managed to surround himself with enough noise so that he could get some thinking done. He wanted to avoid academic abstraction, I suppose. He wanted to think about real things, and Broadway streetcars seemed as real as anything else. To one with sensitive eardrums, the place was hell itself.

Later he moved out on Long Island, and preserved his contact with reality by raising eggs and vegetables and selling them to the neighbors. With characteristic vigor he learned all about farming, and actually earned money enough during one year to ‘pay for his keep.’ His farm was but a short walk from Walt Whitman’s birthplace — where still the lilacs in the dooryard bloomed — and, like Walt Whitman, he loved the companionship of the humble earth. He loved to identify himself with lowly people. He was pleased when one day a hurry call came from a wealthy neighbor for a dozen eggs, and, the children being in school, he himself took the eggs over in a basket. Going by force of habit to the front door, he was told brusquely that deliveries were made at the rear. He trotted obediently around to the back door, feeling both amused and happy. Some time later he was giving a talk to the women’s club of the neighborhood, and his wealthy customer, when he got up to speak, exclaimed in a loud whisper, ‘Why, that looks exactly like our eggman!’

Dewey looked like a young man then, a man just starting his career. He looked like the portraits of Robert Louis Stevenson, having the same flat hair and dark moustache and the same luminous eyes. Dewey’s eyes are wells of dark, almost black, tenderly intelligent light such as would shine more appropriately out of a Saint Francis than a professor of logic. The rest of him is pleasant, but not quite so impressive.

He used frequently to come into the class in logical theory with his necktie out of contact with his collar, a sock down around his ankle, or a pants leg caught up into his garter. Once he came for a whole week with a large rent in his coat sleeve which caused a flap of cloth to stick out near the shoulder like a little cherub’s wing. His hair always looked as though he had combed it with a towel, and being parted, if at all, in the middle, gave his face a rather ewe-like contour which emphasized the gentleness more than the penetration in those wondrous eyes. He would come in through a side door — very promptly and with a brisk step. The briskness would last until he reached his chair, and then he would sag. With an elbow on the desk he would rub his hand over his face, push back some strands of his hair, and begin to purse his mouth and look vaguely off over the heads of the class and above the windows, as though he thought he might find an idea up there along the crack between the wall and the ceiling. He always would find one. And then he would begin to talk, very slowly and with little emphasis and long pauses, and frequent glances up there to see if he was getting it right.

He was thinking rather than lecturing, evolving a system of philosophy ex tempore, and taking his time about it. The process was impersonal and rather unrelated to his pupils — until one of them would ask a question. Then those glowing eyes would come down from the ceiling and shine into that pupil, and draw out of him and his innocent question intellectual wonders such as he never imagined had their seeds in his brain or bosom.

Education does not, according to the Dewey system, mean ‘drawing out.’ But drawing out was never better done than it was in John Dewey’s classrooms. His instinctive and active deference, the unqualified giving of attention to whatever anybody, no matter how dumb and humble, may have to say, is one of the rarest gifts or accomplishments of genius. He embodies in his social attitude, as Walt Whitman did in a book, the essence of democracy.

Another trait of John Dewey’s, very impressive in the classroom, — and very little conveyed in the above paragraphs, — is his personal dignity. Careless as his dress used to be, he never seemed, as so many eccentric professors do, inwardly sloppy. You felt his moral force. You felt the rigorous self-discipline beneath his sagging manners. You felt also, or soon found out, that with all his taste for heresies John Dewey knows his trade. He is an expert philosopher. He writes a great many things that drive his colleagues of the academic tradition wild, but he never writes anything that is amateurish, as did both James and Schiller, his co-leaders in Pragmatism. He has a prodigious memory, and is a learned scholar as well as an unforgetful friend.

There is one act of learning, however, which Dewey never performed and whose neglect, I fear, will stand against him in history. He never studied, at least until too recent years, the philosophy of Karl Marx. While occupying for two generations of young people the position of a leader in radical democracy, and that in a period when Marxism was sweeping the militant majority of them into the anti-democratic, or supposedly superdemocratic, camp, he was content always to say when the subject came up, ‘ I have never read Marx. . . . I cannot speak with authority on the subject.’ He ought to have read Marx, and he ought to have spoken on the subject not only with authority but with vim. Marx was his chief enemy, the only other man on the left who backed a political program with a system of philosophy.

This delinquency made all the more harsh the parting between John Dewey and his more intransigent pupils on the subject of America’s entrance into the First World War. It was mainly Marx who backed them in their opposition to the war, and Dewey supported the war without refuting Marx. Those issues seem pale today when history has refuted Marx, and when Dewey’s central theme, ‘Democracy and Education,’ has become the issue in a new world war. But in those days there was bitter derision of John Dewey in the heart of some of his most devoted disciples — eminent among them the gifted cripple, Randolph Bourne. The crisis was momentous in Dewey’s history as well as theirs. He was not only alienated from them, but somewhat from himself, I think, by his support of the war against Germany.

It was not that he felt, or feels now, that he made a flatly wrong choice. But his philosophy had not contemplated such a choice. Facts, in forcing it upon him, proved more ‘brute’ than he had anticipated. He wrote a book on German Philosophy and Politics which seemed — to us then at least — a contribution to the war propaganda more than the history of thought. And he got into a state of tension that in most people would have been an illness.

In this emergency he had recourse to a very unconventional physician named Matthias Alexander, who opened a new chapter in his life. Dr. Alexander was an Australian of original but uncultivated mind, attacked by the medical profession, but possessed in Dewey’s opinion of a valid theory about posture and muscular control and a technique of ‘reëducation’ by which human beings are supposed to recover that integration of the organism which is natural to animals. Dewey has been smiled at in certain circles for his adherence to this amateur art of healing, but it undoubtedly worked in this case. ‘I used to shuffle and sag,’ he says. ‘Now, I hold myself up.’ Every one of his friends will endorse that assertion.

And when he adds that ‘a person gets old because he bends over,’ it is difficult to argue with him, for he is obviously an expert on not getting old. It is simply impossible to believe when you see him that he has been around since 1859. Dewey gives 90 per cent of the credit for this to Dr. Alexander, 10 per cent to a regular physician who taught him to keep things moving through the alimentary canal.


The post-war period gave Dewey a chance to prove to his radical critics that he had not turned into a bourgeois reactionary, and he proved it. When the smoke cleared, he was found, unlike most of the pro-war liberals, to the left of where he had been before. More accurately, he was found adhering to the most radical of his previously expressed opinions. For as long ago as 1887 — when on the lips of a college professor it was a prodigy, if not a crime — John Dewey had said that ‘democracy is not in reality what it is in name until it is industrial as well as civil and political.’

Accordingly, Dewey was among the first of the American liberals who made the pilgrimage to Soviet Russia — not then quite throttled by the totalitarian tyranny of Stalin — and he came back speaking bold words of praise for the accomplishments, especially in education, of the régime of Lenin and Trotsky. This act placed him, if not among the ‘ radicals,’ at least at the extreme left of the liberals in America, and again in a position of international leadership. He was invited by the new revolutionary government of Turkey to go to Ankara and draw up a plan for the reorganization of the schools, which he did. And he was invited by the Chinese followers of Sun Yat-sen to give a course of lectures at Peking University, which he also did — and further distinguished himself by declining, for democratic reasons, the decoration of the Order of the Rising Sun offered him by the Imperial Government of Japan.

In these post-war years, Dewey also turned his thoughts toward the understanding of art. He has no ear for music, but he has a connoisseur’s appreciation of painting. His dwellings are decorated with taste, and you will always find a rare picture or two on the walls. In 1926 he made a tour of the European studios in the company of Albert C. Barnes, the Philadelphia Argyrol king, and helped him acquire his famous collection of modern paintings.

Soon after Dewey came to Columbia as professor of philosophy, New York City was turned upside down by a scandal attending the visit of the great Russian writer, Maxim Gorky. Gorky had come to solicit help for the Russian Revolution, and had brought with him his life companion, or common-law wife, the actress Madame Andreeva. It required but a hint from the Czar’s officials to rouse the town against him. He was denounced in screaming headlines as a free-lover; hotels and private homes were closed in his face; he was virtually thrown into the streets. Even Mark Twain, although appealed to in the name of the republic of letters, refused to stand against the public hysteria. He turned his back with the rest. John Dewey offered his home, and the shelter of his prestige, to the bewildered Russian. Dewey in turn was violently attacked for this act of magnanimity, so violently that he seemed for a time in danger of losing his job. Mrs. Dewey stood behind him like a rock. ‘I would rather starve and see my children starve,’ she said between clenched teeth, ‘than see John sacrifice his principles.’

In his more recent championship of a fair trial for Leon Trotsky on the treason charges made against him in Moscow, Dewey found no such support at home. The son and daughter-in-law who made their home with him after the marriage of his daughter Evelyn did all they could to dissuade him from taking the chairmanship of the Commission of Inquiry. He was too old for the journey to Mexico: he could not stand the discomfort and the change of food — he would probably be shot — he would contract some fatal disease. Dewey smiled at these anxious warnings.

‘I’ll enjoy the trip,’ he said.

When Trotsky was asked afterwards for his impressions of John Dewey, he said, ‘Wonderful! He was the only man on the commission who didn’t get sick!’

Dewey was no figurehead on that commission. He was, apart from the secretary, the one who did the work, and he was the one who made the decisions. He made them after an intense study of the Russian political situation in its historic development. He even went into its theoretical background to the extent of being able to deliver — at last — an authoritative judgment on the philosophy of Marxism.

The Daily Worker, of course, described his behavior as senile. The New Masses regretted that a great philosopher had made such a fool of himself in the sunset of his life — a remark on which Dewey’s comment was, ‘Twilight is the usual expression.’ In the opinion of his colleagues on the commission Dewey conducted himself with the dignity of a judge and the shrewdness of a Vermont horse trader. He had answered his adverse critics in an essay written forty years before: ‘Better it is for philosophy to err in active participation in the living struggles and issues of its own age and times, than to maintain an immune monastic impeccability.’ He did not answer them again.

The charge of senility looked a little foolish when he published, almost simultaneously with the 800-page report of the Dewey Commission, what may perhaps appear in history as his magnum opus: Logic, the Theory of Inquiry, a book of 546 pages. He is now writing on the social motivations of philosophy, and he is writing in hot sunshine in the back yard of his winter home in Key West, stripped to the waist and brown as an acorn. If you go out there and ask him how his eyes can stand the white glare on the paper, he will say, ‘Well, my eyes have always been weak — it’s just a matter of getting them accustomed to it.’

Besides good health, this lay philosopher has had good luck in his declining years. He still buys his socks at the Five and Ten, but not because he has to. His salary at Columbia was raised to $7000 soon after he came there, and in the booming twenties it was raised to $12,000. When he retired in the early thirties President Butler called him ‘professor emeritus in residence’ and kept right on paying him that $12,000. Three years ago, however, Columbia decided to retrench, and Dewey had to fall back on his Carnegie pension. He was accommodating himself to this with his usual composure when he received a letter from the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia stating that, if he didn’t mind, they would pay him $5000 a year for the rest of his life. The news stunned him so that he ‘acted funny’ for two days, and wouldn’t tell the family why. But after a while he got adjusted to it.

Key West is a kind of winter-season Provincetown, a mingling place of staid citizens of a seafaring complexion with transitory artists painting their pictures — enlivened now by a nightly rain of sailors from the naval station and a springing up of painted ladies in the highways and byways. John Dewey, dressed in brown sandals, white socks, a pair of blue shorts, and a blue shirt open at the neck, fits into this picture as though he had always been there. He hasn’t been knocked down by Hemingway yet, but otherwise nothing in Key West is too good for him.