Ask a Scholar: Pragmatism in Education

Lynda Stone

Dear Ask a Scholar,  

How relevant is pragmatism to the education system today?

-Nakitende Florence, Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi

Answered by Lynda Stone, Professor, Philosophy of Education, and Chair, Research area, Culture, Curriculum, and Change at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA. She is also President of the John Dewey Society (2009-2011). Her scholarly interests center in American and Continental social theory and are dedicated to societal and schooling reform. She has studied the writings of Dewey for thirty years. Stone can be contacted at [email protected].

Pragmatism is a general label given to a group of philosophical writings that originated in the United States around the turn of the 20th century. Its earliest and best known members were John Dewey, William James, and Charles Sanders Peirce. Each, as pragmatists who followed them, wrote his own version and both Dewey and Peirce even used a different label. Peirce, the earliest writer, adopted the name ‘pragmaticism,’ once pragmatism began to be recognized, and Dewey called his philosophy ‘instrumentalism.’ In the last decades of the past century, thanks largely to impetus from the late Richard Rorty, formulations of classical pragmatism as well as neo-pragmatism assumed a reinvigorated place in American thought.

Having asserted that there is no ‘ism’ that is pragmatism, in a very useful entry from 2008 in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Christopher Hookway presents a history of the idea based primarily in James and Peirce as both narrow and technical and broad and of a tradition. The technical version focuses largely on a logic of justification for knowledge and truth claims. In speaking about education, I will focus on a general sense of pragmatism as a tradition. Because of his centrality in educational thought, an example of philosophical concepts from Dewey include experience, inquiry, intelligence, experimentation, consequence, and from his day, science. The pragmatist logic he poses is individual, always social, and ideally democratic. The general idea is that people use their powers of inquiry to determine consequences and thus ‘working answers’ to problematic situations that they share. In these processes individual experience is aggregated for benefit of a social order. And inquiry begets further inquiry. One important idea to understand is that pragmatist conceptions and processes do differ from other modern philosophical traditions, both in Anglo-American analytical philosophy and Continental, critical and other traditions. Differences entail what amount to ‘searches for certainty’ that pragmatists deny. Students of pragmatism need to play out these differences.

Across the 20th century, a Deweyan tradition has been kept alive in education. His texts, including Democracy and Education and Experience and Education, are often read by each new generation of scholars and practitioners because of their general stance on educational reform. Further, since its founding in 1935, the John Dewey Society is alive today (check the society web site for the journal Education and Culture, an activist blog, and other resources). It is presently an affiliate organization with the American Educational Research Association and within that organization there is also a special interest group in Dewey Studies. At yearly meetings, which include presentations at a parent disciplinary group the American Association for Philosophy, and in education the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, there are lectures, invited symposia, papers and presentations on Dewey, and on pragmatist thought and spirit as they connect to education theory, research, and practice. This presence of pragmatism in America is significantly replicated internationally.

The interesting aspect of the question about pragmatism concerns its presence in education today. The all too quick answer is that its actual implementation is very limited but this misses major ideas and factors that determine what constitutes education. A significant clue is found in Dewey’s Experience and Education, penned in the thirties as a response both to ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ educational practices. His point was to reconstruct the old and the new into education that is based in a substantive philosophy. This philosophy says that students’ life experiences should help determine what is taught and learned. Dewey’s phrase for teachers is that they understand children’s interests as well as adults’ knowledge and in turn ‘psychologize’ the curriculum. Experience and Education is a valuable resource as an overview; three other resources that describe Dewey’s philosophy in practice are listed below.

A significant consideration is the place of pragmatist education in schools today and arguments for and against it. First, there is little presence of pragmatism—and of Dewey—in America’s schools today. The traditional curriculum married to a movement of standards and accountability currently trumps most efforts of pragmatist inquiry. All too briefly, international competition couched in a rhetoric of neo-liberal globalization has led to a twenty-year education ‘reform’ in which one course of study fits all students and such central ideas as present interests and experiences are considered superfluous. Second, standardization seems to run against the American grain and a pragmatist orientation to life, society, and politics seems to fit. In its best sense, a pragmatist stance functions in the moment as past and future are taken into account, individual and collective agency work to resolve current problems hopefully for benefit of many, this amid a continuing ethical hope for better lives for more persons.

A final comment: given present schooling conditions, in my work with veteran and new teachers, I propose that they join with colleagues to carve out a small space for an experiment in pragmatist—Deweyan—inquiry. For instance, take two weeks for a discovery unit, delineate an inter-session or a culminating event after year-end tests. I recommend that teachers use their imaginations about a problem that interests students, organize to investigate it; and then plan a vehicle for them to teach each other, and others. An important idea is to keep alternatives alive for schooling reform as most present practices do not portend the strong democracy that ought to be the American tradition. Pragmatist ideas, invigorated for today, are surely relevant.


Dewey, J. (1902, 1976). The Child and the Curriculum. The Middle Works of John Dewey, 1899-1924 (Vol. 2) (pp. 271-291). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Dewey, J. (1916, 1985). Democracy and Education. The Middle Works of John Dewey, 1899-1924 (Vol.9). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press

Dewey, J. (1938, 1991). Experience and Education. John Dewey, The Later Works, 1925-1953 (Vol. 13).

Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Hookway, C. (2008). Pragmatism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy., retrieved February 2011.

Kliebard, H. (2004). The curriculum of the Dewey School. In The Struggle for the American Curriculum (3rd. ed.). (pp. 51-73). New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

Rorty, R. (1999). Philosophy and Social Hope. New York: Penguin.

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