Columbians Ahead of Their Time
 John Dewey
John Dewey

“The future of our civilization depends upon the widening spread and deepening hold of the scientific cast of mind.”

John Dewey (1859–1952)
Faculty 1904–1930; Emeritus 1939

Dewey is best known for developing the theory of instrumentalism, which posits the value of an idea in relation to its practical consequences rather than as a transcendent truth. He put the pragmatism of earlier American philosophers, Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, to socially purposeful uses. He is also viewed by both its advocates and critics as the father of progressive education, with its emphasis upon child-centered learning through experimentation. Active in many social causes, he championed women's suffrage and academic freedom. His support for American intervention in World War I, along with his philosophical opposition to conscientious objectors, disappointed many of his liberal admirers, not least the young journalist Randolph Bourne (Columbia College 1912), who felt betrayed by his favorite teacher's utilitarian defense of  the resort to violence. Dewey later questioned the correctness of his position, but not the belief that philosophers ought to be politically engaged.

Dewey came to Columbia in 1905 after a decade at the University of Chicago, a year before he was elected president of the American Philosophical Association. His arrival made Columbia's philosophy department arguably the strongest in the country.  He taught at Columbia for 25 years, retiring in 1930. His teaching style was characterized by long pauses and lots of backtracking, as if he was putting his ideas together as he spoke, the effect of which could either be inspiring or soporific. He also taught the philosophy of education at Teachers College, where his impact on educational theory and practice was both profound and controversial. With his wife, Alice, he helped establish laboratory schools, first at Chicago and later at Columbia.  He received the Butler Medal at the 1935 commencement for "the distinguished character and continued vitality of his contributions to philosophy and education."

Read more about Dewey in the Columbia Encyclopedia.

Casey Nelson Blake, professor of history and director of the American Studies program at Columbia University, explores the philosophy of pragmatism and one of its most widely known advocates, John Dewey.

Write Columbia's History
Columbia's history, as seen by those who have studied, taught, and worked here.
A fall forum at Columbia tackled the pressing question of how to strike the right balance between liberties and security.

Bhimrao Ambedkar
A founder of modern India who considered Dewey one of favorite professors.
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