October 01, 2008

Plans in the works to mark Dewey’s 150th birthday

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Southern Illinois University Carbondale has something both the Library of Congress and Columbia University wanted, and that something is an integral part of celebrations in preparation now for 2009.

The Center for Dewey Studies at SIUC will take a leadership role in worldwide observances of the 150th anniversary of philosopher John Dewey’s birth. The center, a diamond in the tiara of intellectual resources at Southern, holds the John Dewey papers, a treasure it wooed away from rival suitors the Library of Congress, University of Vermont and Columbia.

Larry Hickman, director, said the very existence of the Center for Dewey Studies testifies to the “enormous insight and vision on the part of the University.”

“This helped put SIUC on the map,” he said.

But first, who is John Dewey and why should there be worldwide observances of the anniversary of his birthday? Dewey is a founding voice of the American school of pragmatic philosophy -- a philosophical tradition that veers away from the purely academic to apply philosophy to real world scenarios. Dewey famously wrote about democracy, education and technology. While he was alive, his supporters hosted major birthday celebrations for him in New York City on the occasions of his 70th, 80th and 90th birthdays. On his 90th birthday celebration, an editorial in the New York Times hailed him as “America’s Philosopher.” That tag is just one way to express Dewey’s importance in the intellectual history of the United States.

Dewey was born on Oct. 20, 1859. He studied philosophy at the University of Vermont and Johns Hopkins University. He taught at the University of Michigan, and then at the University of Chicago. A disagreement led him to resign from Chicago and go to Columbia University, where he spent the bulk of his professional life.

Dewey’s philosophical writings weren’t the kind only a handful of professors read. Dewey addressed issues such as women’s suffrage, progressive education and humanism. He traveled the world advocating democratic ideals and making recommendations on educational policies. It is not an exaggeration to say he is one of America’s best known and widely read thinkers -- ever.

And SIUC holds his legacy. It is somehow both astonishing and appropriate that the Center for Dewey Studies headquarters in a small, white house on Oakland Avenue, a bit off the path of the central campus. Morris Library holds the John Dewey Papers and Library, which includes manuscripts, lecture notes, students’ lecture notes, poems, tapes and reams of correspondence.

The bulk of the papers were found in 84 large storage boxes after John Dewey’s widow, Roberta, died in 1970.

“There was a mad dash by lots of people to get those papers,” Hickman said. In the phrase “lots of people,” he includes the aforementioned Library of Congress, Columbia and Vermont. The Dewey Foundation considered auctioning the papers, Hickman said. Somehow, Jo Ann Boydston, first director of the center, convinced the Foundation not to do that. Together with Charles D. Tenney, vice president and provost of SIUC from 1952 to 1971, and at some cost, she succeeded in bringing the papers to SIUC.

The first step to publishing the correspondence in the papers, though, was to publish a standard volume of Collected Works -- which the center completed in 1990 as a 37-volume set. The electronic edition was completed in 1996. The most recent volume in the Correspondence is volume four, and it covers 1953 to 2007 -- which, Hickman said, “might seem odd, since Dewey died in 1952.”

The volume, published with the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities, includes correspondence about the disposition of Dewey’s literary estate. Hickman said the correspondence tells a “great story about SIUC and the administration, which had this vision of what needed to be done (with the papers) and left Columbia University in the dust.”

Hickman said Dewey celebrations are set at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, N.Y., the Boston Research Center and at sites in Dubrovnkik in Croatia and Opole in Poland. Other sites --including one in Beijing, China -- will add celebrations as well.

To learn more about John Dewey, the Center for Dewey Studies at SIUC, and the 150th Birthday observances, see www.siu.edu/~deweyctr.