Book Review: John Dewey’s Philosophy of Education

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John Dewey’s Philosophy of Education: An Introduction and Recontextualization for our Times. Jim Garrison, Stefan Neubert and Kersten Reich. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012. Pp. 224. Hb. $86.00.

Reviewed by Leonard J. Waks

This book is divided in to two sections. One provides a fresh introduction to Dewey’s philosophy of education. The other provides a recontextualization.  Why is a new introduction to Dewey’s familiar ideas needed? The authors explain that it is necessary due to a hermeneutical problem. Dewey’s educational ideas are facets of his complex philosophical system: exhibiting holism - the system is more than the sum of its parts; and downward interpretation - the parts mean something different as facets of the system than in isolation. Educators taking up the parts - ‘learning by doing’ or ‘school as a community’ - without grasping their systemic meanings misrepresent and often trivialize Dewey’s ideas. In Experience and Education Dewey critiqued progressive educators for making just such errors and even experiential educators building directly upon Experience and Education have repeated them.

In addressing this persistent problem we might start with Dewey’s familiar educational ideas and work back from them to system ideas needed to explain them. We would in this way get an enriched account of the educational ideas in their systemic context. The authors, experts on the entire Dewey corpus, take a different approach, building up the system not by interpreting the parts, but by envisioning the system as emerging whole from cultural, constructive, and communicative ‘turns’. By following these turns, readers can grasp the system intuitively before contending with any of its parts. The Introduction addresses these turns, preparing readers for key ‘target’ works - the system’s building block texts - so that when they finally get to the educational works, they can read - and use - them effectively.

We try to help the reader by expositing certain crucial texts using other, more difficult or misunderstood texts that appear deceptively simple. In this way we develop the structure and content of Dewey’s thought with far more scope than most educators usually encounter, thereby alleviating the hermeneutical problem. Finally we provide references to specific target texts exposited, which we urge the reader to examine and interpret on their own (Garrison et al., 2012, p. xi).

In this way Dewey’s educational ideas are ‘introduced’. But one must ask: to whom? Will the practical educators who apply Dewey’s ideas in mistaken or trivial ways be likely to follow the authors into the heart of Dewey’s system? Perhaps it is best to think of this section as a re-introduction to Dewey’s ideas for serious scholars.

My main concern with the Introduction is that the notion of a ‘turn’ is not adequately explained. My initial thought was that Dewey’s ‘turns’ could be explained in terms of operations performed on prior systems of ideas - as in the ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy that lead to analytic philosophy, or in Dewey’s own Darwinian turn, which consisted in placing Aristotle’s notion of fixed essences into an evolutionary context. We are told that Dewey ‘already took a cultural turn in education long before this move became widespread . . . in new contexts of cultural diversity, multiculturalism, and questions of cultural identity’ (p. 1). This led me to think that the cultural turn involved the shift from conceiving education in national terms to reconceiving it in multi-ethnic terms. That is a clear turn, and Dewey certainly took it. But Reich, the author of this part, surprisingly, addresses a different cultural turn, that represented by Hegel’s dialectic of nature and culture. In contemplating this and the other turns, we are left to ask: what was the situation Dewey encountered, and how did he, by making his turns, transform it into something new? The authors barely address these questions.   

Turning to the recontextualization, the first question is how the context for philosophy of education has changed, and how that change bears on the continuing relevance of Dewey’s formulations?  It is worth marking a distinction between (1) fundamental changes in material conditions of living that render old habits ineffective, and (2) changes in the conceptual surround of philosophical formulations. Both are changes in ‘context’ but they enter into recontextualization in quite different ways.

Philosophical formulations, for Dewey, arise in changing material conditions; they address persistent tensions and frustrations and liberate energies for new forms of social action. Whether these formulations are worthwhile or not depends upon whether they do or do not assist in freeing action. A change in intellectual climate is also a change of ‘context’, but it is unlikely that merely verbal interventions without corresponding changes in material conditions will undermine ideas that have been useful in clarifying and resolving real-world problems over generations.

Philosophy for Dewey mediates fundamental civilizational change, establishing continuities, and preserving older values by re-interpreting them for new times. But even quite fundamental changes take place in different time scales. Dewey’s evolutionary theory of knowledge recontextualized pre-Darwinian notions of category and essence formulated some 2,200 years prior to The Origin of Species.  Dewey’s works on education, by contrast, respond to equally profound - but more recent - changes, measured in generations not millennia.

While Dewey’s ideas will require reconstruction as new contexts emerge, the time scales for reconstructive efforts will differ. Wittgenstein’s image of different rates of change in the river and river bank is suggestive. Changes in culture, politics and technology - in the river of social life - constantly raise issues prompting philosophical commentary. The recent revolution in information and communication technologies - a shift in the riverbed of learning - arguably will by contrast demand a thorough-going reconstruction in philosophy of education itself. But does the post-modernization of knowledge in the information era challenge Dewey’s evolutionary theory of knowledge in a comparable way? Is the riverside itself in need of re-construction?   

Any claim that a philosophical reconstruction is necessary requires succinct and convincing grounds. Dewey had quite a knack for summing up such grounds in a few paragraphs. In The School and Society, for example, he refers to changes ‘writ so large that he who runs may read’ - for example, applications of science re-sultingresulting in inventions utilizing forces of nature on a vast and inexpensive scale: the growth of a world-wide market, vast manu-facturingmanufacturing centers, cheap and rapid means of communication and distribution. Through these changes:

the face of the earth is making over, even as to its physical forms; political boundaries are wiped out and moved about . . . population is hurriedly gathered into cities from the ends of the earth; habits of living are altered with startling abruptness and thorough-nessthoroughness; the search for the truths of nature is infinitely stimu-latedstimulated and facilitated . . . . (Dewey, 2008/1902, p. 9).

It did not require philosophers to make such changes known: even ‘he who runs may read.’ And Dewey adds, ‘That this revolution should not affect education in some other than a formal and superficial fashion is incon-ceivableinconceivable.’  Are contemporary changes theorized by postmodern intellectuals so clear - in themselves and in their implications - that ‘he who runs may read?’    

The authors do not offer a similar snapshot of the postmodern condition. Instead, after introducing their interpretive framework of ‘interpretive constructivism’, they place Dewey in ‘constructive and critical dialogues’ with six influential thinkers: Zygmunt Bauman, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, and Richard Rorty. I restrict myself to two of these.


Bauman presents a description of the postmodern social life. His ‘liquid modernity’ metaphor is already presaged in Dewey. What’s new is Bauman’s claim for an ever-growing gap between necessary tasks of individualization (individuality de jure) and capabilities and resources individuals possess for handling them (individuality de facto) (Garrison et al., p.131). Young people today face demands in forming identities and building capabilities for adult living they no longer can satisfy - the situation has become simply too liquid and our educational arrangements too outdated and largely irrelevant. For Kersten Reich, principal author of this section, ‘Dewey’s focus on experience in education indicates a necessary way for overcoming the gap’ (p. 132). Bauman’s formulations, however, do suggest that Dewey’s concrete educational ideas will be inadequate for filling that gap - that fundamentally new educational projects are required.


By contrast, Derrida presents a philosophical response to postmodernity. As Garrison, author of this sub-chapter, puts it, ‘Always on the move, Derrida allows no word, no concept, no non-concept to master him or inhibit the play of language’ (pp. 151-2). Dewey also presents a world without fixity, but exhibiting some stability insofar as older habits continue to meet evolving situations. For Dewey concepts evolve to meet changing needs. Do Derrida’s formulations work better in this postmodern context? As Garrison reminds us, for Dewey ‘Philosophy (also) forswears inquiry after absolute origins and absolute finalities,’ but only ‘in order to explore specific values and the specific conditions that generate them’ (Dewey in Hickman and Alexander, 1998, p. 43, my emphasis). For Garrison, while ‘Dewey’s naturalistic Darwinian world is as bereft of cosmic beginnings or endings as Derrida’s deconstructive one,’ in Dewey we can nonetheless ‘comprehend essences, original foundations, and teleology within the context of purposeful inquiry’ (Garrison et al., pp. 153-4). Does Derrida’s new context provide grounds for rejecting this? Does the play of language compel us to stop ‘exploring specific values and the conditions that generate them?’. Garrison gives no reason to think so; on the contrary, he appears to accept Dewey’s formulations as preferable.

What new philosophy of education results from this recontextualization? For Reich and Neubert (though not, it appears, for Garrison) the answer is ‘Interactive Constructivism’ which ‘regards pragmatism as its most important predecessor’ (p. 110). The second part of the book can be read as their notebook as they worked their way from Dewey into postmodern philosophy. Readers seeking new philosophical formulations or educational projects will have to repeat these thought-experiments, perhaps throwing other contemporary thinkers into the mix. We should be grateful to the authors for initiating this comprehensive re-thinking of Dewey’s philosophy of education for our times.      


Dewey, J. (2008/1902) The Child and the Curriculum, Including The School and Society, New York: Cosimo.

Hickman, L. and Alexander, T. M. (1998) The Essential Dewey, Vol. 1: Pragmatism, Education, Democracy, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Correspondence: Leonard J. Waks, 2341 S. Lambert Street, Philadelphia PA 19145 USA.



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