This Place in History: John Dewey

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BURLINGTON, Vt.

At ‘This Place in History’ Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society, Steve Perkins, takes us to Burlington, Vermont to learn about one of the city’s favorite sons, John Dewey. 

Dewey was a Vermonter born in Burlington in 1859, Perkins says. He went to University of Vermont, and is best known for his theories on education. Many people associate him with education, curriculum development and teacher training, but he also wrote on many other various philosophical thoughts. He was also very well-traveled, and taught all over the United States, Perkins said. 

One of Dewey’s big focuses was the idea of democracy. 

“He believed that everybody should participate in democracy, and to get a true democracy you have to have to be very educated and you have to have a civil society,” Perkins said. 

In the early 20th Century, when the suffrage movement was taking off, the NAACP was created to fight for minorities in the U.S. Dewey was a leading voice in advocating for these minorities.  

Dewey received his PhD at Johns Hopkins University before going on to teach at the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago. He also helped establish the New School in New York City. 

“Dewey was very influential in creating what were called laboratory schools. This is a place where teachers could learn how to teach but they could also work with students. Rather than students sitting in rows and reading books, or getting instruction directly from the teacher, they would have all sorts of equipment and things to work with so that they could investigate these topics on their own. The teacher then really facilitated the exploration of that topic,” Perkins explained. 

“I think what’s really interesting about his legacy today, is that we’ve heard the term ‘democratic socialism’ passed around, John Dewey actually coined that term,” Perkins said. 

Dewey was often labeled as an arch liberal with his great belief in community and that the community was the best. But he was not a communist, Perkins said. 

“He was really against Stalinism, often speaking out against it,” Perkins said. 

Dewey is said to use the distinction of ‘democratic socialism’ to differentiate himself from the rise of communism in the Soviet Union. 

“He’s a very well read philosopher, we’ve just scratched the surface of his legacy,” Perkins said. 

For more from our ‘This Place in History’ series, click here.

To view a map of Vermont’s roadside historic markers, click here.
 

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