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Dewey

03/21/07 12:00AM By Jay Parini
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(HOST) In this era of No Child Left Behind, with its emphasis on largely mechanical "standards", commentator Jay Parini is reminded of the spirit and legacy of the great Vermonter, philosopher John Dewey.

(PARINI) Cities often have presiding spirits, and Burlington certainly has one. I'm thinking of John Dewey, the great American philosopher, who was born in 1859, at 186 South Willard. He was raised in Burlington and attended local schools. In 1879, he graduated from the University of Vermont. He taught high school for three years, first in Pennsylvania, then in Charlotte, before pursuing graduate work in philosophy. Eventually, he taught at the University of Chicago and Columbia continuing to write and teach until he died, in 1952. To say he had a splendid academic career is to put it mildly.

Dewey was, for half a century, America's premier intellectual. Not just an intellectual: he was a public intellectual, who weighed in on important issues before the nation in the major newspapers and journals. As the historian Henry Steele Commager has said, Dewey was - quote - "the guide, the mentor, and the conscience of the American people: it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that for a generation, no major issue was clarified until Dewey had spoken." End quote.

Dewey's collected works, in a recent reprint, come to thirty-six volumes, and these form a body of work of that has few rivals in American intellectual history. Not only are his essays and books thoughtful and original; they span a wide range of disciplines. Mainly, Dewey was a philosopher, although he used that term in the broadest sense. He was a founder of the school that is called American Pragmatism, to which he added his own crucial twists. As he wrote in Philosophy and Civilization, any philosophy worthy of its name must include - quote - "a working program of action." End quote. This is the pragmatic note in Dewey, the idea that an intellectual must not sit back, removed from society.

For Dewey, education was a lifelong project. Its goal, as he saw it, was continual revision of knowledge in the interest of greater understanding. It was an active thing, and very demanding. He became a pioneer in the field of education.

In fact, progressive schools have their origin in Dewey, whose voluminous writings on education have been massively influential. He believed that it was pointless simply to teach dead facts to students. These facts must become relevant in the life of each student. It wasn't so much what you knew, he suggested, but how you knew it, and what you could do with what you knew.

In Liberalism and Social Action, published in 1935, he argued that intelligence itself is a social asset, and that social cooperation is more important than what he jokingly called "ragged individualism," which he saw as a distinct drag on progress.

The next time you drive down South Willard, in Burlington, pause at number 186, and think about the spirit of that place. This lively, benevolent ghost has a name: John Dewey. He was among the rarest, finest minds ever to grace this continent, and his ideas demand our attention, today, as much as ever.

Jay Parini, a poet, novelist and biographer, teaches at Middlebury College. He spoke from studios at Middlebury College.

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