Dewey, Pragmatism and Education

Pragmatism and Education ---- John Dewey
Definition and Background of Pragmatism
Pragmatism originated in the United States during the latter quarter of the nineteenth century. Pragmatism in education came into prominence to fulfill an obvious need in the educational thought of America. With education becoming available to all men rather than to a select few, the country was searching for a way of viewing the educational process other than through the framework provided by the older elitist philosophies of education. As an outgrowth of the changes brought about by the Civil War, America was rapidly becoming an urban, multi-group society in which the ongoing dialogue of democracy was bogging down. Whole new languages were emerging as the nation became more industrialized and special interest group arose. One of the most important schools of philosophy of education is pragmatism. It is also as old as idealism, naturalism and realism since it is more an attitude, than a philosophy. In the fifth century B.C. Heraclitus said, one cannot step twice into the same river.  Thus, Reality is a flux, things are ever changing. This maxim is the basis of modern humanism. A famous sophist Gorgias used to say, Nothing exists and if thing exists we can never know it. This agnosticism has led to relativism in pragmatic epistemology.
The term “pragmatism” was first used in print to designate a philosophical outlook by William James (1842-1910).  James scrupulously swore, however, that the term had been coined almost three decades earlier by his compatriot and friend C. S. Peirce (1839-1914). The third major figure in the classical pragmatist pantheon is John Dewey (1859-1952), whose wide-ranging writings had considerable impact on American intellectual life for a half-century. Peirce and James traveled different paths, philosophically as well as professionally. The final member of the classical pragmatist triumvirate is John Dewey (1859-1952), who had been a graduate student at Johns Hopkins during Peirce’s brief tenure there. In an illustrious career spanning seven decades, Dewey did much to make pragmatism (or “instrumentalism,” as he called it) respectable among professional philosophers. According to Dewey, once philosophers give up these time-honoured distinctions, between appearance and reality, theory and practice, knowledge and action, fact and value, they will see through the ill-posed problems of traditional epistemology and metaphysics. Instead of trying to survey the world, Deweyan philosophers are content to keep their feet planted on and address “the problems of men.”
John Dewey’s Pragmatism (Instrumentalism) & Education
In his earliest philosophical phase, John Dewey, who has been described as the greatest as American philosophy, was a Hegelian idealist. While at the Johns Hopkins University he had fallen under the influence of George Sylvester Morris. During the first ten year of his college teaching (1884-1894), Dewey move from the idealist’s camp to the beginnings of a pragmatic philosophy which he was to characterize with the name of instrumentalism. During the twenty years immediately prior to the First World War, Dewey worked at refining his philosophy it into play in the arena of human discourse. Philosophy was, as far as he was concerned, a part of culture and the way we philosophized, as well as the things about which we philosophized, was determined in large part by this culture. While Dewey was certain not the first educational philosopher, he saw the relationship between philosophy and education in a new and wholly different manner that did his predecessors. In Democracy and Education, first published in1916, he tried to clarify the relationship. John Dewey’s philosophy and its educational implications are inextricably interwoven. As Dewey pointed out, he regarded philosophy as a general theory of education and for this reason placed a great deal of emphasis on epistemological and axiological considerations. His philosophy emphasizes the social function of intelligence that ideas are instruments of living rather than ends in themselves. Education is seen as basically a social process rooted in problem-solving and the exploration of the meaning of experience. Focus of research is to make an impact on the child’s life with regards to their individuality. Throughout the history of this philosophy, Dewey conducted experiments that fostered his thoughts and ideas. Each experiment reflected individual growth. There are several philosophers that were advocates of pragmatism. Francis Bacon had a significant influence on pragmatism. He suggested an inductive approach, which became the basis for the scientific method. John Locke was a philosopher that believed that the mind at birth is blank. He disagreed with Plato in that a person learns from experiences. Another philosopher was Jean Jacques Rousseau. He was interested in the relationship between politics and education. He believed that people are affected by the outside world, but are basically good at heart. Auguste Comte, who was not pragmatist, influenced pragmatism to use science when problem solving. Charles Sanders Peirce was an American pragmatist that never received the recognition he deserved. He believed that ideas were nothing until they have been tested in actual experiences. Another important philosopher was William James, who made pragmatism a wider public view. He believed that an idea must be tried before it can be considered good. The final philosopher, which is considered to be the greatest asset to pragmatism, was John Dewey. According to Dewey, no changeable absolutes or universals exist.
Dewey continually argues that education and learning are social and interactive processes, and thus the school itself is a social institution through which social reform can and should take place. In addition, he believed that students thrive in an environment where they are allowed to experience and interact with the curriculum, and all students should have the opportunity to take part in their own learning. Dewey makes a strong case for the importance of education not only as a place to gain content knowledge, but also as a place to learn how to live. In his eyes, the purpose of education should not revolve around the acquisition of a pre-determined set of skills, but rather the realization of one's full potential and the ability to use those skills for the greater good. He notes that "to prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities". In addition to helping students realize their full potential, Dewey goes on to acknowledge that education and schooling are instrumental in creating social change and reform. He notes that "education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness; and that the adjustment of individual activity on the basis of this social consciousness is the only sure method of social reconstruction". In addition to his ideas regarding what education is and what effect it should have on society, Dewey also had specific notions regarding how education should take place within the classroom. Dewey discusses two major conflicting schools of thought regarding educational pedagogy. The first is centered on the curriculum and focuses almost solely on the subject matter to be taught. Dewey argues that the major flaw in this methodology is the inactivity of the student; within this particular framework, "the child is simply the immature being who is to be matured; he is the superficial being who is to be deepened". He argues that in order for education to be most effective, content must be presented in a way that allows the student to relate the information to prior experiences, thus deepening the connection with this new knowledge. Dewey not only re-imagined the way that the learning process should take place, but also the role that the teacher should play within that process. According to Dewey, the teacher should not be one to stand at the front of the room doling out bits of information to be absorbed by passive students. Instead, the teacher's role should be that of facilitator and guide. The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences. Thus the teacher becomes a partner in the learning process, guiding students to independently discover meaning within the subject area. This philosophy has become an increasingly popular idea within present-day teacher preparatory programs.
Many schools have used certain parts of the philosophy, but not many use it consciously. Most people were interested in using the practical parts than focusing on the philosophy. Pragmatism as an educational belief does not have everyone agreeing. Some believe that it is too vague and others believe it is too watered down.
After analyzing pragmatism, we feel that this philosophy best describes our teaching style. This philosophy was easier to understand and make connections. Pragmatism reminds teachers to individualize their instruction to meet the needs of each learner. One must remember to keep old traditions, but incorporate new idea.

Khalid, T. (1974). Education: An Introduction to Educational Philosophy and History.
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Bansal, S. Maheshwari V.K. & Agarwal S. Pragmatism and education:
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McDermid, D. (2006). Pragmatism: Available from:


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