This is arguably one of the most referenced Dewey quotes about education on the Internet, as well as in various other places. It’s an interesting and thought provoking statement that seems relevant to contemporary discourse. Remarkable that Dewey would have had the prescience to put it in writing almost a century ago. But, to tell the truth, I don’t think he did.
I’ve read a lot of Dewey and I can tell you two things. First, it doesn’t sound like something that Dewey would say in his writings; neither the sentiment nor diction. Dewey’s writing is as pragmatic as his philosophy. Practically every sentence is carefully thought out to convey a thought as precisely and unambiguously as possible. The vagueness expressed in the quote is simply not characteristic of Dewey. Second, the quote is not to be found in any of his published works that I am familiar with. In particular, it’s certainly not on pg. 167 in Dewey’s Democracy and Education: an introduction to the philosophy of education, where the few people that provide a precise citation say it is. If I’m mistaken about this, please let me know and show me where Dewey says this. (Note: the pagination is different in the Kindle version of Dewey that I’ve linked to but I’ve checked a hardcopy with the original pagination too.)
What it sounds like to me, is that the quote originated as someone’s attempt to eloquently summarize their understanding of what Dewey said. At some point, someone mistook it for Dewey’s actual words and it stuck (this would be only one of many such examples that propagate through the Internet). While it might be argued that the quote gets close to some of Dewey’s thoughts, what Dewey actually said is much deeper and more nuanced. He gave a lot of thought to the purpose of education and the relevant role of the future, present and past. He shows us that these are not simple issues and there are a lot of tricky questions there that need to be addressed.
Ironically, Dewey does say something on pg. 156 in Democracy and Education: an introduction to the philosophy of education that I think is appropriate here:
“We get so thoroughly used to a kind of pseudo-idea, a half perception, that we are not aware how half-dead our mental action is, and how much keener and more extensive our observations and ideas would be if we formed them under conditions of a vital experience which required us to use judgement: to hunt for the connections of the thing dealt with.”
He makes a good point. No matter how adamantly the Internet claims that Dewey said something, it doesn’t mean that he did.