Read Chapter 13

Jeremiah Dyehouse on John Dewey

CITE AS: Dyehouse, J. (2016). Jeremiah Dyehouse on John Dewey. In R. Hobbs (Ed.) Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy through Personal Narrative (pp. 170 - 179). Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 
Chapter 13

Jeremiah Dyehouse on John Dewey

“Of all affairs, communication is the most wonderful,” wrote the American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey (1859–1952) in 1925. “That things should be able to pass from the plane of external pushing and pulling to that of revealing themselves to man, and thereby to themselves; and that the fruit of communication should be participation, sharing, is a wonder by the side of which transubstantiation pales” (1981, 132). Notwithstanding statements such as these, Dewey’s searching inquiries into communication and communications technology are not well-known today. Instead, Dewey is best known for his work in education: his Laboratory School at the University of Chicago was a prominent site for early twentieth-century educational experimentation, for instance, and Dewey wrote widely on schooling and school communities. However, for Dewey, education was only one part of his inquiry into democratic life. Dewey made influential contributions in academic fields including psychology, logic, politics, ethics, and aesthetics. He was also a frequent contributor to public discussions of public affairs.

In general, Dewey’s ideas are not unfamiliar to academics in digital and media literacy. However, conversations with colleagues make me believe that few know the extent of Dewey’s thinking about literacy and mediated communication. Unlike the philosophy of technology (Hickman 1990, 2001, 2007), literacy is not an explicit focus of Dewey’s writings. Yet Dewey’s life experiences impelled him to think about this topic in a deep, sustained, and enriching kind of way.

In recent decades, a new and more international generation of academic readers has brought Dewey’s writings to renewed prominence, and scholars from Europe and Asia especially are now reading Dewey’s pragmatism. Although I live and work in Dewey’s own northeastern United States, I consider myself part of this new global generation. I am proud to claim Dewey as an intellectual grandparent, and I have come to believe that his work holds special importance for students of digital and media literacy. In this essay, I seek to illustrate what I take to be one of Dewey’s most pertinent insights for the field’s contemporary inquirers: that shared understanding is not the cause of but rather a result of successful cooperations in action.

My own life experience has colored my views on Dewey’s media thinking. Intellectually, I came of age in the mid-1990s. I remember sitting down to use the world’s first popular web browser, NCSA Mosaic, in the basement of my college’s library building, a few paces from the couch where I read Walter Benjamin’s (1969) “The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Mosaic was a revelation. After having contended with DOS and VAX command lines, this program seemed a qualitatively better way to access computer networks. Like the hypertext softwares on which it built, Mosaic allowed its users to follow links between page-like “documents” stored on different computers. (Mosaic also added support for inline images, which was an important feature for many users.) As a child who grew up with console-based video games, I remember my fascination with the open-ended, exploratory, and emergent qualities of the early World Wide Web. Not only did my screen connect with others around the globe, but I could add to the collection of documents that others could browse. To me, Mosaic manifested how media literacy could be more than the watching, reading, and playing I had previously known.

Just over a century before, Dewey was coming to his own fin de siècle enthusiasm for communications technology. As a young professor at the University of Michigan, Dewey’s interests ranged widely across psychology, ethics, and politics, and they also included attention to developments in mass writing and communication. In 1891, Dewey wrote his colleague William James about a scheme he was hatching with former journalist and newspaper editor Franklin Ford and a group of Ann Arbor academics. In an explanation of what conversations with Ford had meant to him, Dewey (1999) shared the following prediction: “I believe that a tremendous movement is impending when the intellectual forces which have been gathering since the Renascence & Reformation shall demand complete free movement, and, by getting their physical leverage in the telegraph & printing press shall through free inquiry in a centralized way, demand the authority of all other so-called authorities.” Building on ideas about what writing technologies like the telegraph and the printing press could accomplish, Dewey, Ford, and the others proposed to publish a new, philosophical kind of newspaper. This newspaper, to be called Thought News, was meant to stimulate individuals’ awareness of our interconnectedness in what the group called the “social organism.” The group also hoped that it would stimulate a reorganization of the existing global news industry. As Dewey and Ford believed, this broad change in news gathering and news publication would begin a worldwide democratic transformation of economic, political, and social activity.

Like the 1890s, the 1990s saw more than its share of visionary technology projects. When I was a graduate student, the project that particularly caught my attention was one that built on the successes of programs like Mosaic. Proponents of the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) argued that although the establishment of web pages gave computer networks a user interface drawn in two dimensions, what humans really needed was an interface built in three dimensions. Through the Web3D Consortium, work continues today on standards for sharing three-dimensional graphics on the World Wide Web. VRML, first specified in 1994, was the first major attempt to network these data types. For their part, VRML’s proponents proposed that we should experience the web not on pages but in virtual worlds. VRML’s main public advocate, Mark Pesce, suggested potentially far-reaching benefits for a “world”-based web interface, including fundamental changes to the Internet and improvements to democratic participation (Dyehouse 2009). As it happened, however, this virtual world-building technology came to little. The project suffered from problems related to the slow data-transfer rates characteristic of dial-up connections. In addition, VRML users struggled to know what to do with the technology. I remember feeling genuinely disappointed to realize that VRML would not catalyze the broad technical, social, and political changes for which I had hoped. In retrospect, of course, I see that my expectations for a virtual reality-based World Wide Web were not just unrealistic but impossible. At the time, however, the world seemed precisely this one technology short of radical transformation.

Like the rest of us, great thinkers can be captivated by bad thinking. In the early 1890s, Dewey did not realize that a new kind of newspaper could never inaugurate the “tremendous movement” he described in his letter to James. He and the other members of the Thought News group energetically promoted their periodical, and they promised students and members of the public that great things would follow from its specially promising kind of writing (Dyehouse 2014). Even after the group failed to produce even one issue of Thought News, Dewey continued to idealize writing. In lectures delivered to undergraduates in 1893 and1894, for instance, Dewey predicted great changes to follow from the “Systematic Distribution of truth through the circulation of books and papers and use of mail, telegraph and telephone” (2010, 133). At this early point in his career, Dewey believed change in writing technologies would be central in unleashing broadly democratic social transformations.

Around 1894, Dewey began to think differently about communication and communications technologies. In the context of what he later called his drift “away from Hegelianism,” Dewey ceased to privilege writing technology as a critical lever for social change (1984, 154). Instead, Dewey began to focus his attention on education, which he conceived as an enrichment of individuals’ and their communities’ practical life activities. In widely read works like The School and Society, Dewey (1976) proposed embodied, multisensory, and collaborative ways of educating as particularly promising means for enriching community life. By means of community-oriented schooling, Dewey proposed at the turn of the century, “we shall have the deepest and best guarantee of a larger society which is worthy, lovely, and harmonious” (1976, 20). In Dewey’s view, schools offered a particularly important opportunity to “foster the social spirit in children and develop democratic character” (quoted in{AU: Correct that Westbrook is quoting Dewey here?} Westbrook 1991, 105). Notwithstanding caricatures of Dewey’s ideas offered by conservatives, Dewey did not wish to eliminate school curricula or to prevent students from learning self-discipline in schools. Rather, Dewey advocated for the reconstruction of curricula and forms of school acculturation that he saw as badly mismatched with contemporary values. In this educational project, Dewey anticipated a key focus of work in media literacy, which positions schools as intermediaries between home and mass-media cultures.

In second and third decades of the twentieth century, Dewey’s practical and philosophical inquiries brought him to a changed perspective on formal schooling. Contrary to Dewey’s progressive {AU: Not conservative critics, as in the preceding para.?}critics’ persistent misreadings, Dewey’s writings combine a broadened emphasis on education with attention to political activity in democratic community formation (Eldridge 1998). In this time, Dewey also articulated his mature philosophy of pragmatism, in which communication figures prominently as the practice in which “language hooks onto the world” (Sleeper 1986, 120). In Dewey’s view, it is inquiry that makes possible the enrichment of our transactions with the various environments in and by which we live, and it is communication that makes productive inquiry possible at all (Dewey 1981). More generally, as Larry Hickman observes, “Dewey regarded communication as one of the most wonderful of human activities, and he thought that wherever enhanced communication is held honestly as a goal and an ideal, then new areas of agreement can be constructed and community life rendered more satisfactory for all concerned” (2001,53).

Even in his earliest works, Dewey wanted to develop an alternative to theories of meaning as the representation of individuals’ perceptions or ideas. Later in his career, Dewey particularly scorned the “pipeline” theory of communication, in which language transfers meanings, as self-subsistent thoughts, from consciousness to consciousness (1979, 88–89). Instead, Dewey understood meaning as a property of shared behavior. Through practical forms of cooperation in which not just language but also our bodies, tools, objects, and other living creatures play important roles, we learn about the potential consequences of our shared actions. In such learning—which may take place on the street, in a studio, or in a scientific laboratory—we pay special attention to when and how such consequences repeat themselves. Over time, we take such consequences for granted as the meaning of things we are using (Dewey 1981, 143; Pratt 1997). As Dewey argues, “A meaning is a method of action, a way of using things as means to a shared consummation” (1981, 147).

As part of his pragmatism, Dewey invented a media-focused theory of expression, which he developed most obviously in his 1934 book on art, Art as Experience (Dewey 1987). Put quickly, for Dewey, the artist’s main task is to transform ordinary, everyday materials so that they clarify meanings found in experience. Beyond art narrowly conceived, Dewey was also interested in the many other ways that groups share meanings. Dewey conceived language in “its widest sense, a sense wider than oral and written speech,” including “not only gestures but rites, ceremonies, monuments and the products of the industrial and fine arts” (1986, 51–52). Thus, while Dewey paid careful attention to literacy as writing and reading activity, he explicitly included in his focus on language a broad and evolving range of sign-making practices.

Over the course of his long career, Dewey attended consistently to the complex forms of sign-making practice we have learned to call “mass media.” Arguably, however, he did not make his greatest contributions to digital and media literacy in his observations on and suggestions for historical practice. Rather, it is Dewey’s more basic ideas about communication and media that most distinguish him today. Particularly notable in this regard is an idea Dewey rejected: that symbolic practices enable cooperative action because they generate shared understandings. Dewey’s own view was more or less the opposite: he believed that shared understandings are the consequence, not the cause, of cooperative action. This point comes through strongly in Dewey’s writings on education, in which he repeatedly rejects schools’ traditional emphasis on memorization and observation. For Dewey, education is more basically a matter of “those situations in which one really shares or participates in a common activity, in which one really has an interest in its accomplishment just as others have” (Biesta 2006, 30). In such situations, successful cooperation in common activity produces learning or understanding. In schools, teachers must guide learning experiences, but it is the fact of cooperative activity that makes learning possible. Correspondingly, in Dewey’s view, sign-making practices like gesture, speech, and writing are important adjuncts to the management of cooperative activity and to the enrichment of the lessons learned thereby. Nevertheless, for Dewey, the real key to understanding is in doing things together.

With this last point in mind, Dewey’s life transition from newspaperman to educator is an especially suggestive one. As we have seen, not long after the failure of his philosophical publishing project, Dewey proceeded to immerse himself in the messy and practical activity of elementary education. One of Dewey’s biographers has suggested that in William Rainey Harper, the University of Chicago administrator who started Dewey on{AU: Please clarify meaning here.} the Laboratory School, Dewey found another Franklin Ford (Martin 2002, 177). In light of Dewey’s changing views on literacy and communication, however, we can also see why Dewey found the school a promising site for his continued investigations into action and understanding. Dewey’s proposed periodical had had little chance of leading readers to awareness of the social organism or to the consequences that his group assumed would follow. In contrast, with the Laboratory School, Dewey could directly observe how shared social occupations—including cooking, sewing, and woodworking—led to shared social learning. It oversimplifies Dewey’s life and work to say that, in the school, Dewey found action that led to understanding. Nevertheless, it was much more Dewey’s vision for the school thanhis vision for the newspaper that inspired his later philosophy.

Today, of course, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish precisely between educational institutions and media products. In other words, the objects and experiences that people of Dewey’s generation clearly understood as belonging to schools on one hand and to newspapers on the other are not so separate anymore. In all schools, students regularly engage contemporary media products, and many schools support students as evaluators and producers of media, including news. This blurring of boundaries has occasioned pathbreaking work in the field of digital and media literacy, whose specialists have settled down to work on problems that Dewey could not have imagined. Yet Dewey’s works can still challenge us to think carefully about contemporary literacy and its relationship to social cooperation. In Dewey’s view, we make meaning when we cooperate successfully, enriching the life activities that we share. In such cooperations, sign-making practices play many critical roles, but they are never exclusively important. “Where written literature and literacy abound,” Dewey explained in 1938, “the conception of language is likely to be framed upon their model. The intrinsic connection of language with community of action is then forgotten” (1986, 54). As experts in literacy, we are tasked with reconnecting contemporary literacy with the community of action. In fact, this is one of the ways that we help make contemporary literacy more effective for those who practice it.

It was not so long ago that I mourned VRML’s failure to make great changes in the web and society. Since then, however, countless other communication-technology projects have also failed to deliver on their promises. This is the world in which we live. Yet as Dewey’s writings and his example suggest, there is plenty of work to do—and enjoy—once we realize that understanding and action are never easily achieved. In my discipline, writing and rhetoric, we focus on the composition of media products and especially on writing activity. By engaging with students as they produce communications, we are learning about the labor and play involved in making media and meanings. Rhetoric highlights the interplay between producers, purposes, and audiences, while writing study emphasizes the inevitably material and embodied qualities of all language activity. On screens, in classrooms, in writing centers, and with community members, my colleagues and I promulgate effective composing practices. Moreover, because we know that theory exists to make practice more intelligent, we also think about literacy. Based on my researches into Dewey’s philosophy, my own work has recently come to focus on thinking about literacy as critical for the way we behave in symbol-rich environments. Yet, these varied emphases notwithstanding, my own and my colleagues’ work can attest to the widely felt significance of those problems in action and understanding with which Dewey wrestled. Like specialists in digital and media literacy, we also wish to reconnect meanings with community of action.

“Of all affairs, communication is the most wonderful,” Dewey wrote in Experience and Nature, his most widely ranging philosophical work (1981, 132). In this disarming pronouncement, Dewey strikes that balance between hard-won wisdom and homey commonplace that we expect from good grandparents. Yet, as in many such pronouncements, Dewey’s meaning here cannot simply be comprehended. Dewey has encouraged us to discover for ourselves and with others what is genuinely wonderful in communication today. This is perhaps the most general challenge of Dewey’s thinking for students of digital media and literacy, and it is one that strikes me as entirely appropriate for us to inherit.


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Biesta, G. 2006. “‘Of All Affairs, Communication Is the Most Wonderful’: The Communicative Turn in John Dewey’s Democracy and Education.” In John Dewey and Our Educational Prospect, edited by D. T. Hansen, 23–37. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Dewey, J. 1976. The School and Society. In John Dewey: The Middle Works, 1899–1924, vol. 1, edited by J. A. Boydston, 1–109. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

———. 1979. “The Existence of the World as a Logical Problem.” In John Dewey: The Middle Works, 1899–1924, vol. 8, edited by J. A. Boydston, 83–97. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

———. 1981. “Experience and Nature.” In John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925–1953, vol. 1, edited by J. A. Boydston , 3–326. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

———. 1984. “From Absolutism to Experimentalism.” In John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925–1953, vol. 5, edited by J. A. Boydston, 147–160. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

———. 1986. Logic: The Theory of Inquiry. In John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925–1953, vol. 12, edited by J. A. Boydston, 1–527. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

———. 1987. Art as Experience. In John Dewey: the Later Works, 1925–1953, vol. 10, edited by J. A. Boydston, 1–352. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

———. 1999. “Letter to William James.” In The Correspondence of John Dewey, 1871–1952{AU: Which volume?}, edited by L. Hickman. InteLex Past Masters. Available at

———. 2010. The Class Lectures of John Dewey, vol. 1, Political Philosophy, Logic, Ethics, edited by D. F. Koch and the Center for Dewey Studies. InteLex Past Masters. Available at{AU: Original URL doesn’t work, but this one goes to info page. Is there a URL that goes directly to the book content?}

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———. 2014. “Theory in the Archives: Fred Newton Scott and John Dewey on Writing the Social Organism.” College English 76 (3): 252–272.

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———. 2007. Pragmatism as Post-postmodernism: Lessons from John Dewey. New York: Fordham University Press.

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