John Dewey’s work in the early 20th century regarding philosophy and education is an intertwined history; his ideas frame and build upon one another so that, not only does he justify his own work and thought, but his work and thought come to recursively justify themselves. One culmination of Dewey’s thought can be seen in his approach to education. At the time he established the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School, he was just beginning to think through what education means and its aims. Just prior but alongside this, he was formalizing his thoughts with William James and George Mead on pragmatism. This interplay between pragmatism and education, experience and pedagogy, shaped not only his approach to education, but also the role of the person in society at large; importantly, all of these arenas are related, each affects the other, which is part of the foundational thought of Deweyan pragmatism. Experience and thought about experience influence one another, but so, too, does the context, means and end(s). First, Dewey’s framework for experience in the world grounds his thinking on matters around education. For Dewey, experience’s relation to thought and thought’s relationship with experience are fundamental for living (and more so for not only living, but flourishing).

Dewey and his cohort were interrogating conceptions of reality—how someone interacts with it and what, in fact, makes something true; objective in both thought and the world against what is subjective in mind only and, therefore, untrue—established by earlier philosophers such as Kant or Locke and unsatisfied the field’s approach to reconciling the interiority of thought, what someone merely thinks something is like, and the real, inalienable fact of anything in the world outside of the mind. While either a rationalist or empiricist approach could answer wholesale the question of “where is thought,” Dewey finds that neither do. This is the work of pragmatism, to offer a third path—perhaps in between both rationality and empiricism—to suit thought to life, in and around action as the language of experience.

…Thought either shapes its own material or else just accepts. In the first case…its activity can only alter this stuff and thus lead the mind farther away from reality. But if thought just accepts its material, how can there be any distinctive aim or activity of thought at all (Dewey 1916, 120)?

Here is the emblematic question for Dewey: thought must be involved in reality-making for, if it is not, there is nothing to think about. There is just a a bare world and our movement through it, thought as a vapid catalogue of what-has-happened and what-is-there. In resistance to this idea, Dewey teases apart the moment of thought; as Dewey begins to frame it, reflection as engrossing action. He is careful as he breaks apart thought to constituents that he does not relegate thought to moments of reflection, however; he (1916) is aware of over intellectualizing thought. “The world of uncritical experience also is a world of social aims and means,…” so the moment of thought is not the only capital-T Thought, as it were (128). Thoughts are present and the mechanism of thought can be activated, but it is not necessarily a special mechanic meant only to reinforce the objective reality. After all,

[objective validity, over against experience as a mere antecedent happening, or occurrence] arises because of the attempt to consider thought as an independent somewhat in general which nevertheless…is dependent upon a raw material of mere impressions given to it” (Dewey 1916, 127).

This quest for a division between experience, experienced thought and the objective world is totally foreign to Dewey. For him, experience of the objective world happens in the objective world, so thought must also happen as informed by not only the experience of the world, but by the truths that inform that experience. That is, experience informs thought and thought informs experience; it becomes part of that very truth of the objective that is ascertained by experiencing it.

This stands in contrast to prior thinking around experience and thought by giving thought, in a way, agency. It does not operate independent of the person having the experience and doing the thinking, but promotes thought away from a simple receptacle or the purely imaginative. It becomes a part of the experience, informing and informed by it, which has ramifications for the person doing the thinking and experiencing of the objective world. Context becomes even more important, as well as an expansion of the purely sensorial experience of the world. For Dewey’s experience, it is not enough that every person regardless of circumstances has the same experiences; it is plain to see that that is not the case, yet there is objectivity in the world. Every experience—truth as it were—is not subjective, merely the moment of experience. This is more reasonable with Dewey’s reflective thought, the point at which thinking is activated and called in to the experience. Here the context changes, the subjectivity of experience is the personal and certainly in remembering the experience does it become more subjective. This is part of the interaction with experience and it is the outstanding difference of pragmatism with rationalism or empiricism, both of which fail to account for thought’s presence regardless of experience:

The rock against which every such logic splits is that either existence already has the statement which thought is endeavoring to give it, or else it has not. In the former case, thought is futilely reiterative; in the latter, it is falsificatory” (Dewey 1916, 135).

Deweyan experience, then, can be expressed as a conflict or situation, when thought is “activated” and integrated into the experience. This activation is the reflective mode of thought for Dewey, when thought is integrated into the context of the experience. Experience becomes a moment—though time is relative and someone can be in a reflective mode for longer than a moment—of interaction between the person and their thoughts and the world outside of the person; the situation at hand with its facts built up of the objectively real (objects around and, perhaps, other people), to include the sensorial (what the person sees, feels, and others), that then thought comes to bear on. An experience is all of this together, which creates the truth of the world and the person’s in it or their relation to it, passing from unreflective to reflective and back again. These phases of thinking, however, deserve some scrutiny.

As quoted earlier, Dewey (1916) recognizes that a world of uncritical experience exists (128). The world is not a crisis of reflective experience in which we must constantly juggle our attention. Dewey accepts and indeed supports modes of unreflective thought; when we are not “solving” a problem or seeking some sense in the world outside of ourselves. Much of this is relegated to habit, when we can move through the world knowing, as it were, what we are moving through. Thought becomes reflective when that is interrupted, either by our own volition (consciously seeking resolution to a situation) or unexpectedly as the world intrudes. Here is why Dewey rejects that experience must precede thought or thought must precede experience; we are a part of the world objectively as everything else is, so it can act upon us just as readily as we can act upon it. Stemming from this, Dewey’s framing of pragmatism as a way to act consciously, readily in the world—both with and against it—reveals a politic of experience that supports his philosophy as action-oriented and, as Dewey developed both this philosophy and his philosophy of education, it becomes apparent that it isn’t enough for pragmatism to be just a philosophical end, but instead a means through which someone becomes proactive agent in the world, moving through it in a way to flourish.

It is with this foundation that Dewey conceives of an education that is first child centered and second democratic. What is a pragmatic education? In contrast to the format of schooling in the 19th century, this type of education requires activity in contrast to the passive lecturing of schooling past. The goal of a Deweyan education is learning the critical skill of entering reflection; recognizing it when it happens and, more often than, choosing to turn it on. How could a stagnant lecture induce reflectivity? If ever there were proof of of a futilely iterative form of thought, it is continued education through lecture and recitation only. This is a type of habituation that encourages and empowers the unreflective state and, while the unreflective state of mind is not worthless, it also precludes experience and being-in-the-world. The difficulty, then, of an education is how exactly to get a child to induce in themselves the state of reflection. With this goal in mind, the centering of the child begins to make more sense. If a teacher were telling the child how to reflect or when, it would be no better than a lecture and a recitation…perhaps instead training and performance. How does an adult become reflective? Somehow, without this education previously, people still managed this (Dewey himself, of course). “In critical moments we all realize that the only discipline that stands by us, the only training that becomes intuition, is that got through life itself” (Dewey 1915, 17). Then, how to make school like life, an imitation of life? But then again, an imitation requires no reflection. Failure or not, whatever that may look like in the imitation, is practice, a habituation. Unreflective. The goal, then, is to bring life—that is, experience—into the classroom. To make a classroom that can hold experience, which is opposed to the lecture hall where students sit still in desks facing a teacher.

The period of history in which Dewey is establishing this new philosophy of education cannot be ignored, either. The United States was rapidly industrializing around its citizens, more people were moving into cities and education, it seemed, was needed at a wider scale and for more people than ever before. The question of what, precisely, to educate children to was contested from teachers to policymakers. What better environment to have education amount to something, though Dewey wasn’t concerned with the specificities of the industrialization; his goal, instead, was focused on democracy, a life lived engaged with the community. That engagement requires the kind of attention to the world with practiced, engaged experience; democracy cannot be unreflective. This is community is the link between pragmatism, labor and democracy. “Here individualism and socialism are at one” (Dewey 1915, 7). By engaging children in life-work, experiences to immerse them in the life of community, children can learn the why, the reasoning, for the work. Unreflective habituation does not include reasoning or wondering why a situation is the way it is, but this also becomes a skill in itself to be able to interrogate future situations. Still, however, the question remains of how to teach this.

The child centeredness of Dewey’s philosophy is integral to creating a classroom environment that induces the kind of reflective action that Dewey sees as key to a flourishing life. The artificiality of the classroom can’t be avoided. While the world can press in on someone and trigger that reflective thought, that is a hard situation to create (and, possibly, unethical) in school. The school, then, must become a site of inquiry where curiosity can become the vector through which children ask questions and trigger their reflection. Instead of a teacher planning a lesson to somehow cause a child to be reflective, the teacher is instead there to guide the child and help them use their reflection.

A bit more vaguely, this is why Dewey (1915) expresses “personalities which became effective in action were bred and tested in the medium of action” (11). Although somewhat intense, Dewey continues from here to discuss the importance of the natural world—not just an artificial classroom—in the education of children. Experience and reflection must be met with the sensorial details of the world, otherwise education remains notional, theoretical. The work of reflection itself becomes a performance if it is not applied to some situation. The actual practice within the school paired with the attention of the teacher in facilitating the educative work leads to Dewey’s claims such as this:

Now, what is true of this one instance of fibers used in fabrics…is true in its measure of every material used in every occupation, and the processes employed. The occupation supplies the child with a genuine motive; it gives him experience at first hand; it brings him into contact with realities. It does all this but in addition it is liberalized throughout by translation into its historic and social values and scientific equivalencies. With the growth of the child’s mind in power and knowledge it ceases to be a pleasant occupation merely and becomes more and more a medium, an instrument, an organ of understanding—and is thereby transformed (Dewey 1915, 22).

Dewey connects the learning of an industry to a model of understanding any other career, a model through which to learn any subject. He uses the classroom as a laboratory to capture the student’s interest, which drives itself, and is reinforced through the educative material made up of the “historic and social values and scientific equivalencies.” The transformative goal, when the occupation used as an example in the classroom becomes something more than a practice, mirrors this movement between reflective and unreflective. This is the work Dewey’s approach to education does: it externalizes the process of reflection in action so that a child may inhabit it and then keep that in their mind as a way to activate their mind. This is the way a practice becomes “a medium, an instrument, an organ of understanding,” somehow agency given to thought so that a child may activate it; that is, enter the reflective state and use, quite literally, their intelligence when encountering anything outside of the classroom, like the occupational example given in the classroom.

There is a way, too, in how Dewey conceives of a classroom—modular, spacious, accessible to the outdoors—that holds this priority of experience. The classroom facilitates the students’ education, but, more than a space for transmitting knowledge from the teacher to the student, it also becomes a laboratory to facilitate the students’ curiosity. The laboratory-classroom can be outfitted and changed, its own reality shifted to accommodate whatever occupation—from some manual training to a course on literature—the students are engaged in. Education itself becomes work or, more to the terminology of Dewey’s pragmatism, a conflict in itself. Given the realities of the classroom—the antecedents, immediate material and, stemming from those, the proper objective (Dewey 1916, 104)—it becomes a controlled space to provoke the students’ reflective thought and, more importantly, to provide genuine motive.

Genuine motive, too, is uniquely Deweyan at this time. What does it matter if a student is engaged? Still even now there is a tension with banking models of education (see Freire 1970; hooks 1994), which continue past traditions of education requiring students to sit and receive knowledge from a lecturer. This is incompatible with a pragmatic education. A lecture style of education produces the same kind of secondhand knowledge, unmoored from the world outside of the classroom, in every student. An interactive classroom that requires genuine motive—drive on the part of the student, work toward some sort of completion—creates a unique experience for every student despite the classroom and practice being nominally the same; after all, pragmatism necessarily includes the interiority of the person, the thoughts and specific reactions and feelings to stimuli, that create experiences, which can be shared and related, but not duplicated. In tension with the industrialization of the time, carbon-copied adults coming from mass education was precisely what Dewey did not want. After all, despite the technological advances and heightening commercialization of the nation, these students were still in a democracy and enmeshed in the democratic being of the United States. More important than holding knowledge, Dewey saw education as the means through which these students would learn how to be members of the democracy, actively using their knowledge to shape their communities and care for themselves and others.

This is Dewey’s use case for pragmatism. Given its presence in the world, its reliance on both the person and their environment, and the movement from unreflective to reflective, pragmatism can do something that, perhaps, empiricism and rationalism could not. Certainly all three can be vectors through which to consider life, but pragmatism also offers a means by which to engage in life. What if someone could be taught that? Why should be they be taught that?

When the school introduces and trains each child of society into membership within such a little community, saturating him with the spirit of service, and providing him with the instruments of effective self-direction, we shall have the deepest and best guaranty of a larger society which is worthy, lovely, and harmonious (Dewey).

An intelligent person, a person who can utilize their intelligence, also belongs to a community. For the child, it is the school, and for the adult, the city, state and nation. It is through pragmatism—education filtered through pragmatism, democracy filtered through pragmatism— that a school can actually teach a student and a democracy can truly function. The counterpoints to these claims are education and democracy as we see them (as Dewey saw them); students graduating with worthless knowledge working aimless jobs—“how many of the employed are today mere appendages to the machines which they operate” (Dewey 1915, 24)!—and a stagnant democracy, serving the few who have the leisure to influence it. Both ends of education, the highly mechanistic meant to fulfill job requirements and the highly intellectualized for those who do not have to perform a job, fail at the terminus of adulthood and entrance into society. For Dewey, engagement in your work and an awakening, a transformation, to the purpose of that work in society is paramount. It is interesting that Dewey, in the end, still sees this as an individualistic experience and not a call for communism; is there room for a pragmatic communism?

In some ways, Dewey’s pragmatism seems unconcerned with politics. It is, after all, not a political theory. But why the focus on democracy? Perhaps, unlike representation and legislature, the means of governance, democracy should be viewed simply as the intellectual relationship between people in a society. Pragmatism could certainly educate a society to the subjectivity of persons and the uniqueness of personal experience. Understanding, too, the means by which to utilize reflective thought to bridge those differences in order to communicate can be taught. Democracy is the means by which people coexist, perhaps requiring an individualism. There is no polity, no possible representation, that allows both the flourishing of the self and society. Perhaps pragmatism calls for direct democracy and, importantly, empowers that society to meaningfully engage.

Regardless, Dewey has carefully crafted an educational system that places children in the small community of the school first in order to take their practice into society at large. For Dewey, there is no separation between pragmatism, education and democracy; for education to be effective, it must be pragmatic—schooling to operationalize reflective thought and intelligence itself—and what that education is good for? Flourishing in a community. Against the calls for manual education by the industrialists, Dewey understood education as a transformative, liberating experience that binds the individual to the community as a pragmatic act itself. After all, the uniqueness of experience includes the individual experiences we have with one another, by way of conflicts and situations that bring us to reflective thought. Often, it is another person who instigates that reflection.


  • Dewey, John. "The Antecedents and Stimuli of Thinking." In Essays in Experimental Logic, 103-135. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1916.
  • Dewey, John. "The School and Social Progress." In The School and Society, 6-29. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1915.