Pictured is Matthew J. Brown, the new director of the Center for Dewey Studies at SIU Carbondale.

Matthew J. Brown is the new director of the Center for Dewey Studies at SIU Carbondale. The center is hosting a conference on Dewey, Oct. 12-14. (Photo by Russell Bailey)

October 05, 2023

SIU’s Dewey Center celebrates reopening with international symposium on John Dewey

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. — An interdisciplinary, international conference next week at Southern Illinois University Carbondale will focus on the work of American philosopher and educator John Dewey and highlight the resurgence of the university’s Center for Dewey Studies.

“John Dewey and His Legacy for Education” will feature 85 presentations — both virtual and on campus — with Dewey scholars from around the world, including Estonia, Canada, Japan, China, India, Germany and The Netherlands. On Oct. 12-14, they will examine the impact of Dewey’s progressive educational philosophy. The Center for Dewey Studies, the School of Education, the School of History and Philosophy, and Morris Library are sponsoring the symposium. More than 110 people have already registered.

The Center for Dewey Studies, located in the basement in Morris Library, is the main repository in the world for Dewey material, and his scholarship is just as relevant today as it was during his lifetime (1859-1952), said Matthew Brown, a professor of philosophy and Center for Dewey Studies director.

“This is going to be a great opportunity to show off the resources that we have here at SIU and the community of Dewey scholars connected with SIU in some way or another,” Brown said. “We have a lot of former students who are coming to present who now are professors all over the world and people who have come here in the past to do research with the archives that we have here.”

Media Advisory

Reporters, photographers and news crews are welcome to cover the “John Dewey and His Legacy for Education” conference, Oct. 12-14. For more information, call 618-453-4347 or email deweycenter@siu.edu. For more information during the conference, contact Rebecca Dycus, program director, University Events and Outreach, at 618-453-1141.

Resurgent Dewey Center

Initially established as the Cooperative Research on Dewey Publications in 1961, the center has published the definitive critical edition of Dewey's writings as “The Collected Works of John Dewey,” “The Correspondence of John Dewey,” and “The Class Lectures of John Dewey.” Through the work of the center, SIU is the home of Dewey’s archival papers, manuscripts, and correspondence, which are housed in the Morris Library’s Special Collections Research Center, along with Dewey’s personal and professional library.The center was without a director or staff from 2017 to 2022 as a result of the state’s budget impasse, although Brown noted work relating to Dewey was able to continue and many researchers used SIU’s resources through the Special Collections Research Center. Brown said he came to SIU Carbondale last fall from the University of Texas with the announcement of the center’s renewal.

“I have known about the Dewey Center since I was a graduate student and relied heavily on the items the center produced in my work,” said Brown, who earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in philosophy in 2006 and 2009, respectively, from the University of California, San Diego.

Shifting focus

Brown explained that historically the center’s focus has been on the publication of Dewey’s own writings and materials and supporting researchers, but the “vein of Dewey’s own writings has kind of been mined.” While the center will still support those short- and long-term research efforts and digitizing material to make it more accessible, Brown sees adding outreach and scholarly activities into the mix. That includes organizing lectures and related events related to Dewey’s legacy of work in philosophy, democracy and education.

“We plan to host annually different kinds of events for researchers to exchange ideas and information,” he said. “We also are running a reading group now in its second semester, where we gather interested students and scholars from around the world and from the local community for a hybrid in-person and online reading group. This semester, we are reading Dewey’s book ‘Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology’ from 1922, one of his most important works on psychology and ethics.”

Dewey’s educational, democracy theories ‘still very relevant’

Brown noted Dewey wrote on a wide variety of topics during his long career, including psychology, art, religion, logic and naturalism.

“What holds it all together is a focus on human growth and social nature of human life,” he said.

Dewey’s theory on education that emphasized “learning by doing and the school as a social center” is still relevant, with experiential learning, inquiry-based learning and project-based learning going back to Dewey’s ideas more than 100 years ago.

“He was fighting against the model of education where it’s all about the individual student downloading information from the teacher at the front of the room, to students working together and developing their problem-solving skills by actually doing things — teaching chemistry through cooking or teaching archaeology through projects rather than written learning,” Brown said.

As for democracy, Dewey was “particularly interested in how democracy, community life and modes of communication interacted,” Brown said.

“Although he was working on this 100 years ago, a lot of what he says about how we communicate and how to interact with our ability to have a functioning democracy is really relevant in the context of social media and misinformation,” Brown said. “He was very much worried about analogous problems about what we call the old media, and there are things he wrote about that you would think he’s talking about X, or Twitter, rather than newspapers.”

Going forward

Brown’s goals for the center are that it continues to support and encourage research that “that both attempts to understand Dewey and his historical context and gives a wider understanding of Dewey’s thought and activity, and also continues the intellectual and practical activities that he started.”

He also wants the center to return to its status as a “hub of activity” for Dewey studies globally. In addition to conferences, the reading group and workshops, Brown said he’s working on developing a “robust visiting fellows program” to support scholars coming to SIU Carbondale who want to work with the Dewey archives and who are interested “in being part of this intellectual community working on Dewey and his ideas and projects for extended periods of time.”

Brown said the center is grateful for the “vital support provided by Jun Zhou and the Maitreya International Community. Their generosity helps us strengthen the legacy of John Dewey.”

Conference information

Conference registration information is available on the Dewey Center website. It is suggested to register before Friday, Oct. 6.