Dewey and Me
Not Dewey of the TV show “Malcolm in the Middle”. Not Melvil Dewey, the originator of the Dewey Decimal Classification System. Not even Thomas E. Dewey, who ran unsuccessfully against Harry Truman in the close presidential election of 1948, and who is now best remembered for the photograph of Truman gleefully holding up a newspaper with the premature headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
No, I’m talking about Professor John Dewey, hardly a household name for most people – but a continual presence in my life.
When I was growing up John Dewey was a common topic of conversation in my home.
Dewey was an influential educator who had an enormous influence on public school curricula during the first part of the 20th century. My parents were very concerned about the state of American education – in part because of what they saw of the public schools I was attending in Washington, D.C. “Deweyism” was a shorthand phrase they used to cover all the perceived evils of “progressive education” of the sort they blamed on Dewey.
The Soviet Union was the feared enemy and my parents were very concerned that American children were not being educated in a way that would enable us to win the technology war with Russia. For them, “Deweyism” included a general lowering of academic standards, lax discipline and too much time devoted to non-academic subjects like hygiene, crafts, “life skills” and the like.
They felt that European countries were doing a much better job of educating their children and they particularly admired the high academic standards found in countries like Switzerland, France and Germany.
When I arrived at university, I signed up for an introductory philosophy course and was surprised to encounter John Dewey again – this time not as a misguided educator who helped wreck the public school system, but as America’s most famous philosopher and a prominent member of the school of philosophy known as Pragmatism.
Twenty years later, John Dewey entered my life once again, this time as as an articulate supporter of F. Matthias Alexander, the developer of the Alexander Technique, a method of learning how to move with ease. I had been drawn to the Technique somewhat by chance and was so impressed by the way it helped me improve my posture, coordination and balance that I decided to abandon my career as a research economist and move to England to train to become a teacher of the Technique.
It turned out that the same Dewey I’d been “living with” for most of my life had authored the introductions to three of Alexander’s books. The two men met during World War I in New York City where Dewey, who was then in his late 50’s, had a series of lessons with Alexander. Those lessons so transformed him – physically and mentally – that he continued taking lessons from Alexander, and later Alexander’s brother A.R. Alexander, for the rest of his life.
In his book Freedom to Change, Professor Frank Pierce Jones of Tufts University writes of an interview he had with Dewey towards the end of his life:
“The greatest benefit he got from lessons” Dewey said, “was the ability to stop and think before acting. Physically, he noted an improvement first in his vision and then in breathing. Before he had lessons, his ribs had been very rigid. Now they had a marked elasticity which doctors still commented on, though he was close to eighty-eight.
“Intellectually.., he found it much easier, after had had studied the technique, to hold a philosophical position calmly once he had taken it or to change it if new evidence came up warranting a change. He contrasted his own attitude with the rigidity of other academic thinkers who adopt a position early in their careers and then use their intellects to defend it indefinitely.”
Apart from my parents’ dislike of what they believed Dewey stood for, I can’t say I have any real knowledge of what he did or did not do in the field of education. And the significance of Pragmatism – which apparently is today undergoing a revival of sorts – has always eluded me.
But I do know something about F. Matthias Alexander and the Alexander Technique, and while Dewey’s writings are not always easygoing for the modern reader, over time I’ve come to realize that he had a profound understanding of the significance of Alexander’s work. And he was very articulate in expressing that understanding.
I’d like to close with one of Dewey’s many quotes about Alexander:
It is one thing to teach the need of a return to the individual man as the ultimate agency in whatever mankind and society collectively can accomplish. It is another thing to discover the concrete procedure by which this greatest of all tasks can be executed. And this indispensable thing is exactly what Mr. Alexander has accomplished.
I’d be interested to hear your take on the Dewey-Alexander connection. You can read more about it at the John Dewey and F. Matthias Alexander Homepage
Here’s an interview I did for the Alexander Technique Podcast with Dr. Terry Fitzgerald, an educator and teacher of the Alexander Technique in Sydney, Australia about the relationship between John Dewey and F. Matthias Alexander: