When I’m in China, conversations with friends and colleagues often begin with their asking about the name of my university: Why is it called “The New School?” Most are not familiar with the university, but when I mention the name of John Dewey and the intellectual spirit associated with the university’s founding in 1919, there’s an immediate connection. Dewey traveled and lectured in China beginning in 1919, just as The New School was being established, and just as Chinese intellectuals were engaging in unprecedented forms of public engagement and education.
For Chinese intellectuals and students today, 1919 invokes the stirrings of the “New Culture Movement” and the foundations of the Chinese revolution more broadly. The New Culture Movement is closely associated with what became known as the “May Fourth Movement,” so named for the student protests in Beijing on that day in 1919 to reject the humiliating outcome of the Paris Peace Conference. The protest was over the terms that allowed Japan to retain territorial concessions that had been negotiated before the war by a discredited president of the fledgling Republic of China. (The Qing dynasty had fallen in 1911-12.) But the May Fourth Movement was less about geopolitics and much more about the vibrant intellectual pursuit and experimentation with new ideas–anarchism, Marxism, socialism, and much else.
John Dewey arrived in China just a few days after May 4, 1919, and would spend the next two years teaching and lecturing at Chinese universities. Dewey had been invited by his former student at Columbia, Hu Shih, by then a prominent leader in the New Culture Movement. Hu, like others in the movement, advocated the wholesale rejection of Confucian culture and practice–first and foremost the educational precepts that stressed the close engagement with Confucian and other classical texts. In its place, Hu and those who would become the presidents and chancellors of China’s leading universities adopted many of Dewey’s ideas about education and its roles in constituting citizenship, democratic practice, among much else.
Several scholars have examined closely Dewey’s China lectures and his writings . . .
Read more: John Dewey in China