SOE News

Scholars celebrate John Dewey’s 150th birthday

Photo of Nel Noddings, Larry Hickman, Jim Garrison and Lynda Stone


Four Dewey Society presidents participated in the conference: (l to r) Nel Noddings, Larry Hickman, Jim Garrison and Lynda Stone.


Photo of Meg Holton, former Dean Madeleine Grumet and Grace Holton


Grace Holton accepted a clock honoring her father, Samuel Holton. (l to r) Meg Holton and former Dean Madeleine Grumet joined the celebration. 


Photo of Kathy Kytten and George Noblit


Kathy Hytten and George Noblit engaged in a lively dialogue.

Sixty educators from around the United States gathered on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Sept. 24-25, 2009, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of noted American philosopher of the last century, John Dewey. The national conference, hosted by the UNC School of Education, had the theme, “Democratic Education in the Spirit of John Dewey.”

Immediately following the conference, the South Atlantic Philosophy of Education Society (SAPES) held its annual meeting, also in Chapel Hill, Sept. 25-26.

Four educators who have served as presidents of the John Dewey Society participated as keynote speakers, commentators and hosts of the Dewey conference.

“We are honored to have scholars who have made such important contributions to the field with us today,” said Bill McDiarmid, dean of the UNC School of Education, as he opened the conference.  

The four Dewey presidents and their roles in the conference were:

Lynda Stone, professor, UNC School of Education, and current president of the Dewey Society, hosted the conference. She and doctoral students Aaron Cooley, Scott Morrison and Deborah Randolph provided leadership in planning and organizing the event.

Nel Noddings, professor emerita, Stanford University, presented the opening keynote address titled “Happiness and Education: Can Schools Prepare Students for Happiness in Both Occupational and Personal Life?” She spoke about the enormous range of talents and abilities that children possess. She urged schools to make all programs strong and intellectually challenging so that students can choose what fits them best and prepares them best for life beyond school.

Larry Hickman, professor and director of the Center for Dewey Studies, Southern Illinois University, gave a keynote address titled “Genuine Concepts in Dewey’s Pedagogy.” He talked about how people can make their lives and the lives of others more meaningful and happy by being open to new ideas and continuing to learn and grow. He expressed Dewey’s view that concepts are instruments that anchor our understanding in a constantly changing world and added that our concepts are supplemented and developed as we gain experience in life.  

Jim Garrison, professor, Virginia Tech University, served as a discussant for both keynote addresses. In response to Noddings’ address, he pointed out that everyone has an equal right to develop his or her own unique abilities, recognize his or her own functional place and make a unique contribution to society. In response to Hickman’s address, he gave two examples of concepts that are constantly evolving and developing in an ever-changing world ─ the concepts of democracy and race.   

A special recognition for lifetime service was made to Samuel M. Holton, professor emeritus of the UNC School of Education and longtime supporter of the South Atlantic Philosophy of Education Society.

“We’re honored to recognize a distinguished Dewey scholar, a stalwart member of the South Atlantic Philosophy of Education Society and definitely a great educator,” said Dean McDiarmid in presenting the award. McDiarmid noted that Holton’s successful career at the School of Education from 1948-1987 included award-winning teaching, extensive supervision of doctoral students and scholarship that made an impact on education and is still highly regarded.

“Sam had a reputation as a voice both of reasoned discourse and justice. When others argued for practicality, he would argue for what he believed was right,” said McDiarmid. “Sam was among the first professors at Carolina to admit, advise and graduate students of color.

“Across his career, Sam gave very generously of his time for his students, his colleagues, the University, his field and his community. His thoughtful body of work has made a very significant contribution to education reform.”

McDiarmid presented a clock to Holton’s daughters, Grace and Meg, who accepted the award on behalf of their father, who was unable to attend due to illness. The clock was inscribed as follows: “In recognition of an extraordinary career in the spirit of John Dewey.”

A highlight of the SAPES meeting was a lively dialogue between George Noblit, Joseph R. Neikirk Distinguished Professor, UNC School of Education, and Kathy Hytten, professor, Southern Illinois University and School of Education Ph.D. graduate, on the topic “Critical Education in a Post-Dewey Era.” They commented on the large scope of John Dewey’s writings, Dewey’s place in history and the continued relevance of his writings.

Among the many topics discussed, Hytten pointed out that Dewey’s writings on critical education convey that education is synonymous with growth. “They suggest how we can live well in the present and actively engage with learning,” she said. Hytten noted that Dewey’s writings urge us to be open-minded, think critically, show intellectual responsibility, listen to more sides than one and recognize our own fallibility and the possibility of being wrong.

Noblit noted that Dewey’s writings celebrate diversity. “Dewey was being reached for, longed for at the turn of the 20th century when the country was experiencing massive integration,” Noblit said. “Today Dewey continues to assure us that there is an engagement on the ground that counts.”    

In reflecting on the conference, Stone commented, “Participants from around the country appeared to thoroughly enjoy all the proceedings. Thanks to SOE staff and students for invaluable assistance.

“Such a conference should be a model for future events that bring together ideas and practices for educational reform.”