University of Utah Audrey Thompson
off. 308C MBH voicemail: (801) 587-7803
fax: (801) 587-7801 mailbox in 307 MBH
home email: office email:
Class meets MW 2:00-5:00 in BuC 211 Office hours: MW 12:00-2:00
and by appt.
Summer 2007
ECS 6621 (001) and 7621 (001)
Pragmatism and the Philosophy of John Dewey
Special Topic: Problem Solving and Cultural Authority


Deweyan pragmatism asks us to rethink our educational pieties in light of the actual consequences of our actions. If, ideally, a pedagogy or curriculum or policy is supposed to work a certain way, yet it rarely does, then we need to ask whether the intellectual tools we have for thinking about the situation are drawn from outdated or otherwise misleading contexts. Rather than ask whether, in the abstract, something appears to be right or good, pragmatists ask what happens when we act on that basis. Who is hurt, who is helped, what changes? In effect, pragmatists ask the famous Dr. Phil question, “So, how is that working for you?” From pragmatism’s perspective, ideas are verbs, not nouns (tools, not descriptions), and instrumental value is a more useful standard than freestanding “truth.” Yet the difficulty with relying on instrumental values is that doing so may lead us to ignore or overlook certain kinds of consequences, rely on culturally specific approaches to problem solving, and take for granted certain cultural values (such as colorblindness, efficiency, or the importance of disseminating knowledge). Because the purpose of this course is to examine the contributions of John Dewey’s pragmatic philosophy to current understandings of democratic education, we will be performing close readings of several of Dewey’s books, while also calling into question some of the forms of cultural authority assumed in Deweyan pragmatism.

In asking how Dewey has contributed to our working ideas and practices in education, we will be focusing less on Dewey the historical figure than on how the concepts and tools he sets forth — as well as the assumptions, values, and commitments caught up with those tools — inform prevailing progressive practices in education. In other words, we will be addressing Dewey pragmatically, asking about the workings of his concepts in our own institutions and habits. Among the questions we will be asking: What is powerful in Dewey’s position? What is seductive, and why? How are his identifications of the natural, the desirable, and the civilized tied to particular cultural and class-based assumptions? Which national, gender, and race projects seem to be at work in his (and our) embrace of growth and flourishing, of reflective thinking, and of authentic learning? Rather than focus on whether we agree or disagree with the particular positions that Dewey takes, we will be asking how understanding his positions helps us better evaluate the projects and limitations of student-centered education, democratic dialogue, critical reflection, and democratic processes more generally.


John Dewey, How We Think
John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems
John Dewey, Democracy and Education (portions)
John Dewey, Art as Experience (portions)
Additional Readings on e-reserve

The above texts are available at the University Bookstore and on reserve at the University Library. Several additional articles and chapters will also be assigned and will be placed on electronic reserve at the University Library.


There are four required texts for the course; portions of Mis-Education of the Negro and Quest for Certainty, as well as a few articles, will be assigned as well. Written requirements will include four mini (one-to-two page) summary assignments focusing on central concepts in Dewey’s work; and a final paper (approximately 12-15 pages) focusing on a particular issue or set of issues in Dewey’s work. The final paper should draw on at least two of the books used in the course, along with any other applicable readings. In addition, the course requirements include regular attendance, participation in class discussion, and careful reading of the assigned texts.


The course has two main purposes — clarifying and synthesizing Dewey’s analyses and arguments, on the one hand, and interrogating and assessing them, on the other. The four summary mini-papers (one for each of the books) will focus on exposition, while the final paper will bring to bear critical analysis as well as appreciative assessment of particular concepts.

Each mini-paper should focus on a key concept in the assigned book. Explain how Dewey is using the concept you have chosen and how it seems to be pragmatist. Where helpful, you may want to tie that concept in with another key concept. For the purposes of the mini-paper, you will be focusing on exposition. However, you may well have critiques, concerns, and questions about his use of the concept, which it would be valuable to raise in class discussion.

The final paper is expected to provide both synthesis and critique. How does a particular Deweyan approach seem helpful, in your view, or how has it been influential, and what are both the strengths and the limitations of that approach? The final paper should draw on at least two of the books you have read for the class, as well as at least three other readings from the course.

Class participation and discussion will be graded on the basis of well-informed contributions closely tied to the readings. In addition to making thoughtful spoken contributions, students will be expected to listen carefully and engage others’ ideas and analyses respectfully. Sustaining a successful classroom conversation depends on regular and prompt attendance.

First mini-paper summary: 10%
Second mini-paper summary : 10%
Third mini-paper summary: 15%
Fourth mini-paper summary: 15%
Final paper: 35%
Class participation/discussion: 15%


Mon. 14 May                                                     I. Framing Pragmatism

In-class reading: Emerson, “Circles”

Handouts: Characteristics of Pragmatism
                   Classical and Modern Liberalism

Wed. 16 May                                                     II. Problem-Solving

Dewey, How We Think, Ch. 1-6

Mon. 21 May                                                     III. Natural Learning

Dewey, How We Think, Ch. 7-16

First mini-paper due either on day of class or the following day

Wed. 23 May                                                     IV. Inquiry, Race, and Culture

Shor, “Problem-Posing: Situated and Multicultural Learning”
Thompson, “Political Pragmatism and Educational Inquiry”
Black-Rogers, “Ojibwa Power Interactions: Creating Contexts for ‘Respectful Talk’”

Mon. 28 May                                                     Holiday: Memorial Day. No Class Meeting.

Wed. 30 May                                                     V. “The New Age of Human Relationships”

Dewey, Public and Its Problems, Ch. 1, 2, 3
Tedesco, “Progressive Era Girl Scouts and the Immigrant: Scouting for Girls (1920) as a Handbook for American Girlhood”

Mon. 4 June                                                     VI. “The Search for the Great Community”

Dewey, Public and Its Problems, Ch. 4, 5, 6
Loeb, “The Cynical Smirk,” in Soul of a Citizen

Second mini-paper due either on day of class or the following day

Wed. 6 June                                                     VII. Decentering Whiteness and Heteronormativity

Guest speaker: Dr. Harvey Kantor

Mayo, “A Queer Sense of Place”
Brewer, “Black Women in Poverty: Some Comments on Female-Headed Families”
Margonis, “Dewey and the Arrogance of Reason”

Mon. 11 June                                                     VIII. Democracy and Education

Dewey, Democracy and Education, Ch. 1, 2, 6. 8
Sanchez, “‘Go after the Women’: Americanization and the Mexican Immigrant Woman, 1915-1929”

Wed. 13 June                                                     IX. Education and Mis-Education

Dewey, Democracy and Education, Ch. 11, 21, 23
Woodson, Mis-Education of the Negro, Preface and Chapters 1 & 3

Third mini-paper due either on day of class or the following day

Recommended activity before next week: Visit the Utah Museum of Fine Arts exhibit, “The Art of Robert Sabuda: Travels in Time and Space”

Mon. 18 June                                                     X. Quantities and Qualities

Dewey, Quest for Certainty, Ch. 1, 4
Dewey, Art as Experience, Ch. 1, 3

Wed. 20 June                                                     XI. Art as Cultural Expression

Dewey, Art as Experience, Ch. 4, 5, 14
Stewart, “How Can This Be Cinderella if There Is No Glass Slipper? Native American ‘Fairy Tales’”

Fourth mini-paper due either on the day of class or the following day

Th. 28 June                                                        Final Papers Due by 4:30 p.m.

Count by Muhammad Muquit

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