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John Dewey, 1859-1952: Educator and 'America's Philosopher'

His ideas are still taught, and scholars in several countries held events last year to celebrate his 150th birthday. Transcript of radio broadcast:

This is the VOA Special English Education Report.

We have a question from China. Feng Tianqiang says "I want to know something about John Dewey."

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John Dewey was an influential thinker and educator. The New York Times once called him "America's philosopher."

Larry Hickman is director of the Center for Dewey Studies at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. He was not surprised that the question came from China.

LARRY HICKMAN: "I just returned from two weeks of meetings in Beijing in December. And among the conversations I had with my Chinese colleagues was the very close relationship between Dewey's ideas and those of Confucius. I also worked with a group of lay Buddhists who like Dewey's work very much because it is very comfortable with some of the ideas of Mahayana Buddhism."

Dewey described his ideas in books including "Democracy and Education," "The School and Society" and "How We Think."

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LARRY HICKMAN: "Dewey was perhaps the best known philosopher, educator and public intellectual of the twentieth century. He was active in many fields, including education, philosophy, psychology and also humanistic and humanitarian affairs. He was an important influence in the founding of the American Association of University Professors and the American Civil Liberties Union."

He was also influential in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, though he himself was white.

John Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont, in eighteen fifty-nine. He was influenced by the scientific work of Charles Darwin. He was also influenced by the work done with immigrant English learners in Chicago by Jane Addams. She was a social worker and the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. And Dewey was influenced by observing his own children.

At the University of Chicago, he founded the Laboratory School. Chemistry courses have labs. Why not a place to experiment with education? But Dewey would likely have disagreed with many current practices in American education, like the wide use of standardized testing.

LARRY HICKMAN: "He thought that testing had its place, but that testing should be more like medical tests. That is, they should be testing for individual needs, interests, abilities, and not to compare one student to another. As Dewey put it, the relation of the abilities of one student to another is none of the teacher's business."

John Dewey died in nineteen fifty-two. But Dewey scholar Larry Hickman says his ideas are still being taught in education schools.

In fact, last year was his one hundred fiftieth birthday, so it was a busy year for Dewey studies. Celebrations took place not only in the United States, but also at two universities in Beijing and in Croatia, Italy and Poland.

And that's the VOA Special English Education Report, written by Nancy Steinbach. For a link to more on John Dewey, go to I'm Steve Ember.