Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Dewey on History and Geography in Education

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_43


In this 1897 pamphlet, Ethical Principles of Education, the subject areas of geography and history are introduced as examples of how the aims of education intersect with the division of the “facts” to be taught. In contrast with the received conception of geography as “a description of the Earth’s surface,” Dewey proposed that geography had “to do with all those aspects of social life which are concerned with the interaction of the life of man and nature.” History, he declared, was valuable to the extent that it affords “insight into what makes up the structure and working of society.” By 1916, in Democracy and Education, Dewey’s account of the value of geography and history appears to have transformed from a school-based study of social interactions relevant to local concerns to an instrument in service of education’s progressive “civilizing” mission. In the years following, geography disappeared as a topic in Dewey’s discussions of education. History, however, continued to be an important theoretical concern and became an essential part of Dewey’s theory of inquiry.

Maps, Narratives and the Importance of Boundaries

Geography and history were of central importance in Dewey’s vision of school curricula. Geography, in his view, was the study of human environments, the material connections that sustain human life and culture, while history was the study of human connections. Despite their differences, however, “these are only emphases in a common topic, namely, the associated life of men” (MW 9, p. 218) (Citations of Dewey’s works are to his 38-volume collected works: The Early Works (EW), The Middle Works (MW), and The Later Works (LW), published as Dewey 1969–1990). Together the subjects served as the link between individual experience in the context of local, experienced problems and the abstract, problem-solving resources of the sciences.

In Ethical Principles Underlying Education (1897), Dewey identifies four subfields of geography: commercial, political, physical, and mathematical. The first marks the study of daily life and the ways in which human beings concretely flourish, how they support themselves, and by what means. Commercial geography, he claimed, is “the beginning” because it attends to “the consciousness of two persons, or two groups of persons, who are at once separated and connected by the physical environment” and “includes whatever relates to human intercourse and intercommunication as affected by natural forms and properties” (EW 5, p. 69). Political geography, by contrast, is the study of connections between people in their places as they have developed, “as temporarily crystalized and fixed in certain forms” (EW 5, 69). Later, in The Public and Its Problems (1926), “publics” can be seen as a term of political geography in that it marks the formation of groups with shared concerns in order to solve problems in common. Physical geography is the study of “conditions which determine human action,” that is, of what is taken as common among the publics. Shared climates, soil types, water resources, and so on all affect what is required in order to carry out conjoint action across diverse locales. Finally, mathematical geography (detailed measurements of topographical features, generalizations about climate and ecosystems, standardized systems of measurement, and so on) are both abstract and useful as tools in understanding physical geography, planning and assessing conjoint actions, and solving local problems. Mathematical geography shows “that the physical conditions themselves are not ultimate, but depend upon the place which the world occupies in a larger system” (EW 5, pp. 69–70).

In the context of schools, as Dewey points out in Democracy and Education, geography begins with the study of the students’ hometowns, “the familiar fences that mark the limits of the village proprietors” (MW 9, p. 220), the boundaries of their communities, the topographical features of the neighborhood, and the stories of local people. However, if such local “facts” are presented as all that is necessary to know in geography, or that the facts in each subfield are presented as disconnected facts to be memorized, then geography becomes an obstacle to student learning. When, however, such “facts” are presented as part of an integrated system of relations – relating local places and people to larger events, events in the past, and to events in the present – geography becomes a transitional subject matter alongside history. Rather than reifying the boundaries that mark students’ local communities, the subject matters (properly taught) become openings to larger connections. In this sense, geography and the complementary study of history become essential to what is good in education – the promotion of growth, that is, the widening of human experience (LW 13, pp. 11, 28). Geography and the other school subjects are, for Dewey, tools for framing educative experience that begins with the students’ own. As he explains in Experience and Education, his conception of education is, “to paraphrase the saying of Lincoln about democracy, one of education of, by, and for experience” (LW 13, p. 14).

Dewey presented significant discussions of geography and history on two occasions: Ethical Principles Underlying Education and Chapter 16 in Democracy and Education (MW 9, p. 1916). (There is also a third discussion in “Educational Lectures at Brigham Young Academy” in 1901 (LW 17) that follows the same lines as his 1897 discussion.) Ethical Principles, in many ways lays the foundation for Dewey’s more fully developed theories of education, ethics, and politics in Democracy and Education. The general claim of the essay was that contemporary education was framed by divisions between ethical principles (those for inside and those for outside the school), between form and content, and between intellect and emotion. As a result of these divisions, schools failed in the central function of teaching: bringing about “conclusive moral content” in the lives of its students, that is, of serving as a “character-making agency” (EW 5, p. 75). The division of ethical principles marked the failure of educators to understand that continuity between schools and the communities of which they are a part. “Society is a society of individuals and the individual is always a social individual. He has no existence by himself. He lives in, for, and by society, just as society has no existence excepting in and through the individuals who constitute it” (EW 5, p. 55).

Dewey offers geography, history, and science to illustrate the “abstract” point that information, discipline, and culture are continuous: information is “educative only in so far as it effects definite images and conceptions of material places in social life;” while “discipline” is “educative only as it represents a reaction of the information into the individual’s own powers;” and culture is educative only as it “represents the vital union of information and discipline” (EW 5, p. 68). Geography, history, and science “have all to do with the same ultimate reality, namely, the conscious experience of man” (EW 5, p. 68).

While geography “has to do with all those aspects of social life which are concerned with the interaction of the life of man and nature,” history “reveals” “the main instruments in the way of discoveries, inventions, new modes of life, etc., which have initiated the great epochs of social advance,” that is, “the methods of social progress” (EW 5, p. 71). Together, the subject matters support the “formation of habits of social imagination and conception,” and make it possible for students to form “the habit of interpreting the special incidents that occur and the particular situations that present themselves in terms of the whole social life” (EW 5, p. 72). On this account, what constitutes good in a community is first the process of understanding complex social situations, identifying problems, and seeking solutions. In this sense, “history rightly taught is the chief instrumentality for accomplishing this, it has an ultimate ethical value” (EW 5, p. 73).

Moral content beyond the value of moral imagination, however, is not found outside the situation present in the schools, but rather in the students’ own experiences: “the subject matter of the curriculum, however important, however judiciously selected, is empty of conclusive moral content until it is made over into terms of the individual’s own activities, habits, and desires” (EW 5, pp. 77–78). Although this aspect of Dewey’s ethical theory is often cited as a weakness (by making moral deliberation an instrument by which to realize the moral prejudices of a community), it is central to Dewey’s wider notion of social intelligence (LW 13, p. 47): “Ultimate moral motives and forces are nothing more nor less than social intelligence – the power of observing and comprehending social situations – and social power – trained capacities of control – at work in the service of social interests and aims” (EW 5, p. 75). Schools, then, are charged with fostering the social intelligence that identifies the values that organize the community through the subject matters of geography and history. But schools also necessarily challenge and undermine those values when they are found to block the potential for wider experience that is central to the process of growth.

Geography was a relatively new school subject when Dewey presented it in 1897. The divisions of geography he presented owed much to the new scholarship of the day. Kant had introduced six divisions of geography in his work: commercial, political, physical, mathematical, moral, and theological. These had been reduced in the mid nineteenth-century to three: political, physical, and mathematical, though commercial geography was also recognized as a distinct field of study that was then recombined with the other subfields to form the four divisions described by Dewey and others (see Maury 1907). Dewey’s citations of geography texts in 1897 includes some standard textbooks and several critical accounts of the field including one by J. C. Redway (1894), who argued that although the field was becoming a standard school subject, it was rarely taught by teachers with knowledge of the field. In at least some cases, Redway observed, geography was used to reinforce views that were actively dismissed by geographers (including simple mistakes in defining geological features and the use of geography to validate theological claims).

Dewey’s discussion of geography in Democracy and Education expands the function of geography as presented in Ethical Principles. Properly taught, geography begins in the local community but aims to connect such local knowledge to wider contexts. “When the familiar fences” are taken as “signs that introduce an understanding of boundaries of great nations, even fences are lighted with meaning” (MW 9, p. 220). This process of meaning-making “measures just the difference of civilization from savagery” (p. 215). “To ‘learn geography,’” he argues, “is to gain in power to perceive the spatial, the natural, connections of an ordinary act; to ‘learn history’ is essentially to gain in power to recognize its human connections” (p. 217). Nature, in this sense, “is the medium of social occurrences” and civilization is “the progression of its varied energies” (p. 219). Geography is no longer a subject matter just dedicated to fostering social intelligence, but an engine of human evolution, a means of fostering progress. Limits – boundaries – are only potentially productive obstacles to be overcome in the quest for an expanded, unified future. “Geography and history are the two great school resources for bringing about the enlargement of the significance of a direct personal experience,” they are the “most direct and interesting roads out into the larger world” (p. 226).

The treatment of history in Dewey extended past his discussions of history as a school subject. It also marked a theoretical contribution to the development of his general conceptions of metaphysics and epistemology. In The School and Society (1900), Dewey reemphasized the purpose of history as a study “to enable the child to appreciate the values of social life, to see in imagination the forces which favor and let men’s effective cooperation with one another, to understand the sorts of character that help on and that hold back … History must be presented not as an accumulation of results or effects, a mere statement of what happened, but as a forceful and acting thing” (MW 1, p. 104). This notion of history as “a forceful and acting thing” reemerges indirectly in several discussions in the 1900s. In 1902, in the essay “The Evolutionary Method as Applied to Morality,” Dewey proposes that “History, as viewed from the evolutionary standpoint, is not a mere collection of incidents or external changes, which something fixed (whether spiritual or physical) has passed through, but is a process that reveals to us the conditions under which moral practices and ideas have originated. This enables us to place, to relate them. In seeing where they came from, in what situations they arose, we see their significance” (MW 2, p. 9). History, in this case, is not a recounting of “facts,” but the practical construction of future significance and the “truth” of history that warrants its teaching is found in how it leads students to new experience.

In 1909, Dewey presented a pragmatist “catechism” at a meeting of the Philosophy Club at Smith College in the form of a dialogue between a student and a teacher (later published in The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy in 1910). After a preliminary presentation of pragmatism, the student worries that since the truth of historical claims relies on what happens in the future, “you commit yourself to the most fantastic of philosophies” (MW 6, p. 6). The teacher responds that such things as “the Carboniferous age, the discovery of America by Columbus are not truths; they are events.” Some judgment about them is needed before there is a question of truth or falsity, and once that question is raised it is something to be resolved, that is, it becomes matter of some next or future event and not of the event long past (p. 6).

Arthur Lovejoy responded to this conception of historical knowledge in a 1920 essay attacking pragmatism (and Dewey in particular). Referring to an example in Dewey’s catechism, Lovejoy objects that when we talk about “yesterday’s rain,” “It is yesterday that I ‘mean,’ not to-morrow, and no logical hocus-pocus can transubstantiate the meaning of ‘yesterday’ into the meaning ‘to-morrow’” (1920, p. 67). A correct understanding of historical knowledge, Lovejoy argued, requires a distinction between the event or object in the past and the claim that is made about it. The claim is true just in case it relates properly to the real past event. Dewey rejects the distinction: “The past by itself and the present by itself are both arbitrary selections which mutilate the complete object of judgment” (MW 13, p. 46). Dewey instead asserted that “mere presence in experience is quite a different matter from knowledge or judgment, which always involves a connection, and, where time enters in, a connection between the past and future” (MW 13, p. 47). History, as a subject matter, is not the acquisition of facts about the past but rather the development of the ability to interpret a selected past in order to “go forward,” to seek a future that affords “more” and richer experience than would otherwise occur by chance or by focusing on a disconnected past.

Dewey’ conception of geography can be read in a similar way. Learning the facts of the physical and human environments in isolation undermines the aims of education. It risks collecting isolated and arbitrary facts as though they provide some objective or accurate picture of the world in which students live. Following Dewey’s theory of historical knowledge, geographical knowledge will likewise be arbitrary and isolated unless they too are connected to a larger context that will afford wider experience. Geography and history are at the center of Dewey’s conception of the school because they together provide the transformative method that allows students to come to understand their own experience in order to change and widen it. Knowledge, to the extent it is part of what is taught in school, is not merely an epistemic project bound to the acquisition of facts; it is also an ontological project that, at its best, will transform the world. This is both the promise and the danger of education.

The danger is especially apparent in the tension that emerges in Dewey’s treatment of geography and history in Democracy and Education. On one hand, geography and history are essential to a civilizing project understood primarily as the transformation of inquiry from one framed by local concerns to a process that encounters no boundaries that cannot be crossed. On the other, they are part of a conception of inquiry that is constrained by the situation at hand. The former seems problematically connected to the practices of what has come to be called settler colonialism which may be defined (in at least one sense) as practices that recognize all boundaries (geographic, political, cultural, and epistemic) as regions that can be crossed. The latter notion of inquiry, by contrast, recognizes the necessity of at least some boundaries. In order to make sense of knowledge claims, problems to be solved, values, and so on – that is, ends in view in the context of problems to be addressed – some boundaries must be recognized and respected. One cannot, for example, address the problems of racism without recognizing the lived boundaries of race. One cannot recognize the problems of climate change without recognizing the boundaries of diverse ecosystems. It is this latter notion of inquiry that provides the framework for Dewey’s 1938 Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (LW 12) and sets the stage for Dewey’s importance in twenty-first-century education. Where geography and history are part of a civilizing project in Democracy and Education, the theory of inquiry as it develops in Dewey’s work has the potential to make them part of a critical practice that begins with the recognition of the value and necessity of diversity among students, subject matters, communities, and educational ends in view.


  1. Dewey, J. (1969–1990). The collected works of John Dewey: Early works, middle works, and later works. J. Boydston (Ed.). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UniversityPress.Google Scholar
  2. Lovejoy, A. O. (1920). Pragmatism versus the pragmatist. In Essays in critical realism. London: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  3. Maury, M. F. (1907). New complete geography, Revised. New York: University Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  4. Redway, J. W. (1894). The status of geography teaching. Educational Review, 7, 33–41.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of OregonEugeneUSA