No one individual has influenced the course of public education in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century more than John Dewey. The founder of what has become known as "progressive education," Dewey has been widely acclaimed as coming from one of the greatest educators of modern times. To be sure, his ideas have never been universally accepted, and there have been critics who were bitterly opposed to his position. Nevertheless, his influence has been tremendous. For many years two of the best known institutions for teacher training in this country were dominated by his philosophy. His high standing as an educator has been recognized throughout the world, and many countries have sought his counsel and advice. His views were illustrated in the Experimental School at Chicago, which was under his direction, and they have been stated in his book Democracy and Education, one of his most popular publications.
Philosophy and education have been so closely related in Dewey's thought that it is scarcely possible to consider one apart from the other. The spirit of instrumentalism is the guiding factor in both, and the goal for each of them is the betterment of human society. Both repudiate the idea of authoritarian control and provide encouragement for creative thinking on the part of each individual. Both are democratic in the sense that they advocate equal opportunity for all people to develop the talents and capacities which are peculiar to them. Dewey was critical of many of the ideas and practices that were recurrent in the schools of his day. One of these in particular was the "transmissive" concept of education. It conceived of education as a process of transmitting to the new generation of students the ideas and customs of the older generation. It employed the use of textbooks, the contents of which were to be memorized at least to the extent that the substance of the materials could be reproduced in an examination. This kind of procedure was, in Dewey's opinion, more of a hindrance than a help to the real purpose of an education, which was to enable students to think creatively for themselves.
Recognizing that intellectual interests were not the predominant ones that usually prevail among typical American students, Dewey believed that the schools should begin with the interests that they do have. People learn primarily by doing things and therefore, students should be given projects on which to work. This will stimulate a desire to find out more about the objects with which they have been working, and the more they find out the greater will be their desire to extend their knowledge still further. It will lead them into new fields that are related to their original subject, and because of the organic relationship of different fields of knowledge to one another, the scope of their inquiries will be practically boundless. The information which they have gained in this manner will be in response to their own sense of inquiry rather than something that has been forced upon them by pressures from without.
The relationship between facts and their uses will be brought to light through this kind of an educational process. Students will be anxious to discover the uses that can be made of the objects about which they have studied for the satisfaction of human needs. They will observe, too, that information on any topic is never complete in the sense that the last or final word has been spoken concerning it. This should encourage them to keep an open mind, ever ready to change their views whenever it is necessary to do so in order to bring those views into harmony with newly discovered facts.