For people with any sort of formal education, the name John Dewey is a familiar one: They would likely be able to attribute something to him, be it an educational thought, a political movement, or perhaps more likely, a system for categorizing library books. What most would not be able to tell you, however, is that he was, above all else, an advocate for using the scientific process – and the knowledge produced by it – to improve the lives of humans worldwide. In the middle of his career, this led him to seek a naturalized version of psychology that would serve as a scientifically grounded alternative to the work of Freud. He did this both individually (in How We Think) and socially (with Human Nature and Conduct), but as his career moved along, Dewey’s disenchantment with prevailing academic thought led him to produce Experience and Nature. With this work, Dewey attempted to lay waste to philosophy not grounded in science. He was comfortable doing this because, unlike his contemporaries and most of his successors, Dewey embraced evolutionary thought.

As is apparent from the label he was assigned as Evolution’s First Philosopher (courtesy Jerome Popp, a scholar of John Dewey), Dewey was among the first philosophers to openly state that Darwin’s theory would change philosophy forever. He earned this title in part by concluding:

No one who has realized the full force of the facts of the connection of knowing with the nervous system, and of the nervous system with the readjusting of activity continuously to meet new conditions, will doubt that knowing has something to do with reorganizing activity instead of being isolated from all activity, complete on its own account. … The development of biology clinches this lesson, with its discovery of evolution. For the philosophic significance of the doctrine of evolution lies precisely in its emphasis upon continuity of simpler and more complex organisms until we reach man (Dewey, 1953, p. 337).

From such a statement, it is clear that the tenets of evolutionary thought had come to permeate every fiber of Dewey’s being and would come to inform both his diagnoses and his prescriptions. Yet, though this passage is taken from Democracy and Education, there is a single field – a field to which Dewey had devoted much of his career, where Dewey never overtly advocated for evolution to be applied in its advancement: education.

This sad bit of irony was not lost on Popp (1999), who wrote, “… after more than thirty years in philosophy of education … I cannot remember one discussion of Darwin’s influence” (pp. 90-91). For Dewey to restrain himself from using the powerful lens he had used to scrutinize – and criticize – his contemporaries’ writings on philosophy, psychology, and even art was either an egregious oversight on his part, or Dewey discovered that there was a powerful counter-argument to evolution’s inclusion in education. Given his frustration with the misconstrued misapplication of his educational theories and the general aversion to evolutionary thought by those interested in maintaining the cultural status quo, it is likely this was a conscious decision. He alludes to this fact in his small volume The Sources of a Science of Education, where he explains the need for not only psychology and sociology to be used to inform educational practices, but he also mentions biology. Biology’s inclusion in the document, though small – probably to provide some cover against those who would reject it out of hand – is critical to recognizing that evolution was, in fact, a part of Dewey’s thinking on education. This claim is substantiated when one discovers that evolutionary-backed educational practices are advocated throughout Dewey’s works.

Dewey’s recognition of the continuity of species made him realize that there must be a continuum between the mind and the body, though it was standard practice for academics in his day to believe in the dichotomy developed by Descartes (a practice that is still true for many today). He observed, with the help of his mentee Myrtle McGraw’s research into the neurological development of children, that the actions of the body would inevitably shape the mind, and that the machinations of the mind could change the use of the body (Dalton, 2002). Brain scans of humans that regularly use physical tools (i.e. musicians) and cognitive tools (maps of the city of London by local cab drivers) have illustrated expansion in regions that are regularly activated by the tool’s use. It has even been demonstrated that the use of tools by monkeys changes the way the brain functions, leading authors Iriki and Sakura (2008) to conclude, “… either the rake was being assimilated into the image of the hand, or alternatively, the image of the hand was extending to incorporate the tool” (p. 2232).

With the actions of the body leading to changes in the brain, it should come as no surprise that some think it is our dexterous hands, and our ability to use tools with those hands, that began the road to modern humanity (Wilson, 1999). This conclusion lends evolutionary credence to Dewey’s instinct early in his career that students should use and make tools to solve the problems presented in a classroom. Dewey thought that this process would bring about meaningful learning, an idea echoed by Lambros Malafouris, a cognitive archaeologist who has concluded that thinking and learning happens in the midst of using an object – or even a symbol – as a tool. The experience that is produced becomes a cognitive tool used for evaluating future opportunities and experiences, which provides a contemporary explanation for why Dewey spent his entire career emphasizing the importance of both experience and experiencing to education.

Malafouris (2013) argues that the use of tools both physically and cognitively activates and utilizes the metaphoricity of the human mind. This produces natural intuition pumps, to borrow Daniel Dennett’s phrase. Dewey instinctively identified the power of metaphors with regard to thought, and he deployed them widely to analogize the processes of learning and education. It is noteworthy that the analogies Dewey often uses involve the development of cultural practices (e.g. the production of fiber for clothing) or ecological interactions (e.g. requirements for plant growth). That both are affected by (and produce) evolution illustrates Dewey’s awareness of the need for evolutionary theory to guide educational philosophy and even pedagogical practice.

Though Dewey seemingly did everything he could not to draw attention to the evolutionary nature of the teaching methods he advocated, others who have posted articles to this site have extolled the virtues of techniques Dewey championed. David Lancy suggested in his essay that children naturally learn by attending to and assisting in the activities of adults, a practice Dewey thought was critical to education. He wrote:

The presence of adult activities plays an enormous role in the intellectual growth of the child because they add to the natural stimuli of the world new stimuli which are more exactly adapted to the needs of a human being, which are richer, better organized, more complex in range, permitting more flexible adaptations, and calling out novel reactions. (Dewey, 1997, p. 161)

This determination explains why Dewey provided students in his experimental school with challenges that required adults to work alongside students. While doing so, they would provide support and serve as a model as students sought to work toward the achievement of aims that they saw as purposeful. At other times, as Peter Gray alluded to in his post, Dewey expected (and encouraged) students to develop their own aims through play, allowing for the sort of dramatic rehearsals of the dilemmas sure to come as their lives progressed.

Given the depth and comprehensive nature of his educational theories and his awareness of evolution as the lens necessary to naturalize philosophy, it may be that Dewey’s writing can serve as a gathering place for experts of previously disparate fields. While there, educational professionals can investigate the veracity of evolution as a pedagogical guide, and evolutionists can evaluate the prescriptions of particular educational philosophies.

One thing is certain: As one of history’s great interdisciplinary thinkers, Dewey would not have it any other way.

Published On: July 10, 2014


  • Linden Higgins says:

    A nice essay about John Dewey, but I would point out a factual error: John Dewey had nothing to do with the development of the Dewey Decimal system. That was developed by Melvil Dewey, a contemporary.

  • David P. Craig says:

    Very compelling considering Darwin’s legacy and Dewey’s together.  Niedermeyer’s ‘cross pollination’ and analysis merits further consideration in longer form – maybe even a book?

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