The John Dewey Society began in 1934 when a group of professors, Henry Harap, Paul Hanna, and Jesse Newlon, called a conference of educational liberals together to respond to the crises in education. The group met in conjunction with the National Education Association annual conference to respond to the conditions in schools resulting from the Great Depression. Originally called the Conference on Education and Economic Reconstruction, the group was later renamed the John Dewey Society because members valued thoughtful work in and for schools that involved practitioners as well as scholars—one reflected in Dewey’s pragmatic philosophy.
The original intention of the society has remained through the years: using reflection and critical thought to search for solutions to problems in education and culture. In addition, the group reexamines Dewey’s ideas about education, democracy, and philosophy. To this end, the society espouses open debate among individuals with diverse views, both within their meetings and in their publications. Topics that have been addressed in past meetings include issues of accountability, the relationship between business and schools, the value of arts in education, curricular issues, the impact of technology, cultural politics, social justice, and philosophical explorations of imagination, theory, cognition, ethics, inquiry, and belief.
Initially the membership of the society included professors, school superintendents, representatives from educational publications, and the U.S. Commissioner of Education. Over the years, however, the society has shifted to involve mostly professors. Throughout its history, the society has met in conjunction with larger educational meetings. In the early years, it met at the annual conferences of the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Association of School Administrators. Members also met during the meetings of the Progressive Education Association, as well as those of the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. Currently, the society meets in conjunction with the American Educational Research Association.
Historically, the John Dewey Society has had a number of ties with other progressive initiatives. For example, the editors of The Social Frontier magazine were original members of the society. When the magazine was struggling in 1937, the John Dewey Society funded the publication of its last ten issues. There were also a number of ties between the society and the Progressive Education Association (PEA). By the 1940s, members of the society attempted, unsuccessfully, to merge with the PEA.
John Dewey was never a member of the society. He did, however, have some ties with the group. He served on the first yearbook committee and contributed to the yearbook. In later years he also wrote letters to the society requesting financial support for the writing project of one of his assistants. In response, the society provided a $600 grant to Elsie Ripley Clapp to write about work she had done in rural schools in Kentucky and West Virginia.
- Johnson, H. C. (1977). Reflective thought and practical action: The origins of the John Dewey Society. Educational Theory, 27(1), 65–75.
- Tanner, D. (1991). Crusade for democracy. Albany: State University of New York Press.
- John Dewey Society: http://www.johndeweysociety.org
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