All-overishness (intro for the TERC Dewey Group)

When I taught at the University of Illinois we often had meetings for new projects, committees, welcoming new colleagues, and so on. These would start with introductions around the table. People would laugh when it came to my turn.

Who am I?1

I was reasonably sure of my name and job title, but things deteriorated rapidly as I got to my background and interests, or how I might fit into the new project. I became a running joke. Who would Chip be this time?

The problem arose because I did much of my work across departments and scholarly fields. For example, I served on dissertation committees in Urban & Regional Planning, Information Science, Computer Science, Leisure Studies, Social Work, Writing Studies, Art & Design, Communications, Mathematics, and many departments within Education.

On the plus side I can say that I was sincerely interested in these many fields. I never made the separation that some do between science and humanities or between qualitative and quantitative. Interdisciplinarity was a starting point, not an end goal. I like to think that from time to time I could bring some insight from one field to another.

But on the minus, I was often stretched thin, and risked not having what academics call a programmatic line of research. I had to admit to what people at Hull-House called all-overishness. More deeply, I began to ask Who am I? What is my core? Am I relying on false fronts?

Over time I relaxed a bit and tried to accept this as the way I was. Perhaps my true self resides in some intersection of these multiple presentations, these fronts.

I took my guidance from the great writer and director, Preston Sturges. His screwball comedies showed both the value and the catastrophe of false fronts. How someone presented themself—their actions, their appearance, their name on a given day—was as revelatory as any “true self” within.2, 3


This implies that what matters are not the nodes of our being, but the connections among those nodes and those of others. What follows are a few of my connections, and especially to Dewey and TERC.

It all started with Frisky & Blossom when I was three years old. They were descented skunks at the school of the Fort Worth children’s museum, held in an old house. I was among a group of five in a class there, the first class of what was to become the largest museum school in the world.

Through Frisky & Blossom I learned about the power of embodied learning, interdisciplinary thinking, the beauty of both numbers and letters, and especially the joys of nature. That’s led to a lifelong love of museums and libraries, and no doubt contributed to my marrying Susan, who worked for many years in the Boston Children’s Museum. Many connections spread from that, including meeting George Hein who advised and evaluated Children’s Museum projects.

Staying true to my lack of focus, I really didn’t know who I was or what I wanted to do. While I was in high school my parents sent me to the Psychology Department at TCU to be evaluated for this problem. There appeared to be no cause, nor any cure. At Rice, I changed majors several times, eventually landing on biology.4, 5

Professional work

In 1968 I chose graduate school in Computer Science at the University of Texas. I thought that computers would be useful anywhere, so. choosing that path meant that I could postpone making any decision about my true core.

In graduate school, I read deeply in philosophical logic—Wittgenstein, Russell, Tarksi, Carnap, and others. My work moved to artificial intelligence, which many people described as “applied philosophy.”

While teaching computer science at Rutgers, I explored more deeply in philosophy, including in realms such as structuralism, existentialism, and phenomenology. I then went to BBN, an R&D lab similar in many ways to TERC. It was a great learning experience for me. The environment was closer to my idealization of university life than actual universities are.

It was there that I worked on Quill, a program to teach reading and writing, Statistics Workbench, and other education projects. Each of these led me more deeply into Dewey. For example, Democracy and Education, a favorite of the TERC Dewey group, was very useful for Quill, with its emphasis on communicative environments for learning and connections between school and society.

In the late 1980s, BBN began to decline as an open research environment. Many of my colleagues (Andee Rubin, Ann Rosebery, Beth Warren, etc.) moved to TERC. I decided to return to academia, and became a professor of education at the University of Illinois. I maintained connections with TERC, notably with Brian Drayton, Joni Falk, Susan Jo Russell, Dennis Bartels, and others), as my connections with Dewey only deepened.

After about ten years, I switched to the Information Sciences school at Illinois. A major reason was that it conceived learning, not as an institutional practice, with scope and sequence charts, certificates, accreditation, and student assessment, but rather as a process of living that occurs in work and play, online, in nature, in museums, libraries, and art centers.

I began to focus on the “community as curriculum.” I worked with youth to employ new media as a way to explore their communities and selves. Our notion of community inquiry drew directly from Dewey.

Going forward

After retiring in 2011, I focused more on writing. For example, the Handbook of Progressive Education, which I co-edited with a former student from Turkey, includes contributions from Wally Feinberg, Brian, and George.

I also began work on progressive education in Nepal. This has occurred through multiple, multi-month trips there, through collaborative writing, and ample use of video conferences. A current project there, called Re-Storying Community, connects indigenous people in Canada with communities in Nepal and Bhutan.

Most recently, I’m editing a symposium on Democratic Education in the 21st century. This is leading to a series of special issues of a journal, the first out in May, 2023.

I’m still seeking “my true self.”


  1. TERC is a not-for-profit lab focused on research, curriculum development, and professional development, especially in STEM education. Around 2005 it started a reading group on John Dewey. I wasn’t a full participant, but did attend an occasional meeting when I was in Cambridge. Later, I met regularly through video conference. Recently, the TERC Dewey group decided to do personal introductions, telling who we are, how we became interested in Dewey and how we’re each connected to TERC.
  2. Posing the same question, Nietzsche says that to find ourselves we should look outward not only within. We should ask:”What have you truly loved thus far? What has ever uplifted your soul, what has dominated and delighted it at the same time? …. your true self does not lie buried deep within you, but rather rises immeasurably high above you.” ––Friedrich Nietzsche, Schopenhauer as educator
  3. Or, as the poet says, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.) ––Walt Whitman, Song of myself
  4. Skipping ahead, I have to mention the gift of Rice University. I considered majoring in literature, history, geology, mathematics, and more, but settled on biology. The discovery in 1953 of the twisted-ladder structure of DNA was a milestone for science, but it also impacted my life directly…. Biochemistry was amazing, but I was also drawn to the philosophical questions posed by the new discoveries about life, and the power of evolution as both fact and metaphor. I learned later how significant evolution was in Dewey’s thinking…. I didn’t appreciate it fully at the time, but Radoslav’s Tsanoff year-long course in Humanities was a big influence as well. This was not just from his book, or lectures, or discussions, but from his life.
  5. A long-time colleague said about Radoslav and his wife Corinne: “their wisdom consists in their constantly drawing on the great wealth contained in the achievements of the human spirit––in science, letters, and art, in the beauty of nature, and in the deep satisfaction that comes with working with other people toward common goals….” ––Konnie Kolenda, at an event honoring the Tsanoffs, 1973. Through his discussions of Socrates, Epicurus, Spinoza, and yes, Dewey, Tsanoff gave me a way to think about my life as a whole, and not to force it into a Procrustean bed.