Tracing John Dewey’s Influence on Progressive Education, 1903–1951: Toward a Received Dewey

Mar. 10, 2011

Source: Teachers College Record, Volume 113 Number 3, 2011, p. 463-492.


This historical study traces the influence of John Dewey on the discourse of civic and social education during the formative years of the progressive education movement by focusing on the received Dewey.
By examining the specific ways in which Dewey’s ideas were used by his contemporaries and peers, the author demonstrates that Dewey’s words were often employed in various and conflicting ways to support a number of different curricular agendas.
Specifically, the author argues that divisions between proponents of social justice and social efficiency, which play such a central role in the historical literature on progressive education, were not necessarily apparent to Dewey’s contemporaries who cited him.
In fact, Dewey’s philosophy was often used specifically to assuage the gaps between these seemingly conflicting educational goals and objectives.

Research Design
The author focuses his inquiry specifically on the curriculum materials and discourse of secondary social and civic education.
The author focuses qualitatively on the various ways in which Dewey was cited and used by leading and lesser-known civic and social educators during the formative years of the American curriculum, with particular focus on uses of Dewey to support social efficiency and social justice. In the tradition of historiography, the findings are reported in a chronological narrative.

Findings and Conclusions

The author concludes by arguing that a few summative assertions regarding Dewey’s influence on educators during the first half of the 20th century can be made.
First, Dewey was often used by contemporaries to reconcile positivistic social science with pragmatic philosophy.
Second, although Graham (1995) identified Democracy and Education as “the Bible of the educational reform movement then emerging,” there were in fact numerous Dewey texts cited, often without any reference to others.
Third, Dewey’s philosophy was used to support reform agendas aimed at social control and social adjustment as well as social reconstruction and social justice. To say that Dewey was used primarily in support of just one (or none) of these goals is a misrepresentation.

Updated: Oct. 23, 2011