Kirkus Reviews QR Code
JOHN DEWEY by Alan Ryan

JOHN DEWEY

And the High Tide of American Liberalism

By Alan Ryan

Pub Date: June 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-393-03773-8
Publisher: Norton

 Dewey's eclipse as the county's preeminent public philosopher sparks this dense and earnest effort to restore his place in the American philosophic debate. Treating Dewey's pedagogic reforms as a holistic part of his philosophy of ``experientialism''--including politics, religion, art, and ethics--Ryan (Politics/Princeton Univ.; Bertrand Russell: A Political Life, not reviewed) tries to rescue Dewey the philosopher from distorting issues of turn-of-the-century social science and preWW II political punditry. To bridge this gap between the 1890s and the 1990s, he first reexplores Dewey's intellectual origins, taking into account the Congregationalism and Hegelianism Dewey replaced with a democratic pragmatism touched with quasi-religious, progressive faith in human reason as an instrument to experience meaningfulness in the ordinary world. The development of this version of pragmatism led to Dewey's now-institutionalized educational reforms, pioneered at Chicago's Lab School and Columbia University's Teachers College; they replaced schoolhouse rote learning with a more dynamic approach that stressed teaching children to think for themselves in order to prepare them to work in a democratic society. Although Ryan is always quick to point out the philosopher's contradictions and ambiguities, such as the question of what happens to the individualist in Dewey's progressive democracy or what importance should be accorded to tradition in an unstructured ``instrumentalist'' curriculum, he does not sort out this unfinished intellectual business much more than Dewey did. The author convincingly interprets Dewey as a 19th-century philosopher- sage, both pragmatist and progressive, and distinguishes his ``advanced liberalism'' from competing radical political philosophies, however, this academic project does not translate him effectively into the terms of the present debate over American education and society. It will take more than this to make Dewey a sage for the '90s. (Photos, not seen)