thought, good action
The legacy of James Marsh and John Dewey
by Bob Pepperman
One a president, the other an alumnus, the differences in James Marsh
and John Deweys personal and political philosophies were profound,
yet united by a core ethos that still endures at the University of Vermont.
Bob Pepperman Taylor, dean of the Honors College and a scholar of political
philosophy, explores the great mens intriguing contradictions and
their common ground.
Class of 1879 alumnus John Dewey looked back on his education at the University
of Vermont, he referred to James Marshs edition of Samuel Taylor
Coleridges Aids to Reflection as his spiritual emancipation,
his first Bible. Marsh, the UVM president from 1826-1833,
published the American edition of Coleridges work in 1829 with a
long philosophical Introduction by himself. The book and Marshs
introduction became a standard text for UVM students in the 19th century.
John Dewey was among them, and he would go on to speak and write respectfully
about Marsh and his introduction throughout his career.
It is not surprising that Dewey had nice things to say about Marshs
educational legacy. Deweys mature educational philosophy shared
with Marsh a hostility toward all mechanical teaching and testing methods.
Marsh was the first university leader in the United States to promote
an elective system of course work for undergraduates. He established programs
for part-time college students. And, not insignificantly, he saved the
University of Vermont from almost certain dissolution during his presidency.
Deweys own education at UVM in the second half of the 19th century
was made possible through Marshs leadership in the first half, and
Dewey would become an educational philosopher friendly to many of Marshs
reforms and policies.
Nonetheless, it is quite surprising to find Dewey praising Marshs
introduction, as the intellectual gulf between the two men was miles wide.
Marsh was a deeply conservative man, neo-Federalist in his politics and
orthodox Congregationalist in his religion. His philosophical work aimed
to defend traditional Christianity from what he viewed as the corrupting
influence of John Locke and all those who followed Locke in developing
a theory of knowledge based upon sensation and experience.
Absolutely persuaded of the sinfulness of men and women, Marsh had little
faith in the prospects of political reform and democratization; we are
obliged, he believed, to strive toward the Christian virtues, but he harbored
little faith in our ability to fully achieve them. His politics were based
upon his unshakable belief in rule by the elite for the good of the many,
and fully committed to the conservation of this hierarchy.
Democratic reforms looked foolishly idealistic. Ironically, given the
web of influence uniting his Coleridge introduction and the Concord crowd,
Marsh once called the whole of Boston Transcendentalism
a superficial affair. Clearly, Emerson and his circle were much
too optimistic about political and social reforms and about this worldly
Dewey, in contrast, was a democrat, a liberal humanist, a cosmopolitan.
He criticized any political order (including our own) that failed to respect
democratic equality among citizens. He argued that religious emotions
are not creative but conservative, that they attach themselves
readily to the current view of the world and consecrate it, and
that this conservatism cripples us in our true mission of developing our
intelligence and cooperative social institutions in building an ever more
humane and free social and political environment.
Although Dewey rarely spoke in autobiographical terms, and almost never
complained, he did once speak of his own religious upbringing in Vermont
as the source of a deep wound, a painful oppression or inward
laceration, that was caused by the division in the Christian cosmos
of the natural and the supernatural, the separation of the body from the
soul, and of nature from God. His entire philosophical project, over the
course of his long and productive life, was aimed at overcoming this hurtful
dualism caused, as he saw it, by Christianity. Dewey wanted
to understand human experience as a unified whole and as completely embedded
within the natural world. He was profoundly optimistic in thinking that
if we could overcome our superstitions and traditional habit of thought,
we would be able to build a much happier, free, and satisfying human world.
While Marsh maintained his focus on Vermont and UVM and was never involved
with any of the national or international political movements of his day,
Dewey became a social activist on both the national and international
stages. Indeed, if we think of Dewey as representing much that is best
in the character of UVM today our strong commitment to liberal
education, to toleration, to social reform and the improvement of the
human lot Marsh seems a distant and contrary figure.
In light of these profound disagreements, the question is, why did Dewey
speak so respectfully of Marsh? It is true that he believed that Marsh
was somewhat crippled in his philosophical views by his religious beliefs;
he said Marsh never developed the independence in thought which
matched his philosophic powers. But he also called Marsh one
of the most original and deeply spiritual thinkers whom America has yet
produced. Was Dewey just being polite about the most powerful and
influential member of the UVM community in the 19th century?
Not really. For all their disagreements, there was one disposition or
quality of character that Marsh and Dewey shared: the firm belief that
good thought must be informed by action, and good action by thought. Dewey
learned from Marsh a hostility toward philosophical system building, a
hostility, that is, toward all abstractions that are divorced from the
very practical and recognized problems faced in everyday life, toward
what we might think of as intellectualism. Marsh, in fact,
attacked what he saw as the Lockean orthodoxy of his own day on the grounds
that it was profoundly divorced from our own experiences, that it was
so smitten by its own intellectual system building that it lost touch
with the actual concerns and troubles and truths that grow from lived
When Dewey considered Marshs contribution to American philosophy,
in an essay first delivered as a talk at UVM, he put it this way: It
is characteristic of him that he holds that knowledge of spiritual truth
is always more than theoretical and intellectual. It was the product of
activity as well as its cause. Philosophical reflection, that is,
must grow out of real problems and not be the mere inventions of professional
philosophers. And this reflection, in turn, must aim to inform our active
response to these problems. This pragmatic commitment, so fundamental
to Deweys understanding of intellectual life, actually had roots
deep in the Puritan perspective of a man who would have disagreed with
Dewey on almost every substantive issue of philosophy, politics, and religion.
But this pragmatic commitment is not only what gives life to Deweys
work more than half a century after his death; it is also the commitment
that gives life to the meaningful work in all the arts and sciences and
professions studied, taught, and represented at UVM today. And this practical
concern for speaking to what Dewey called the problems of men,
and what we today would call the problems of people, continues
to animate our own academic community more than 170 years after Marsh
stepped down as president of our University.