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Throughout his academic and political life, Sidney Hook (1902–1989) was a philosopher who committed himself to issues of education and scholarship, as well as to political activism and social awareness. Hook always considered himself to be a “democratic Socialist,” striving to find the best politics that would enable personal freedom and individual quality of life. In 1985, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan.

Hook’s early life was marked by poverty. His experiences with hardship and prejudice greatly influenced his life, including his political beliefs and academic interests. As an adolescent, the staleness of his education led him toward teaching, hoping to inspire students to think, unlike his own teachers who simply told him what to learn. He felt that his early education had a regimented quality perpetuated by teachers that prevented students from truly engaging with the material that they were to learn. During his high school years, Hook became familiar with the writings of Karl Marx, which later became a focal point of his academic work.

Following high school, Hook began his pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy at City College of New York. He became inspired by Dostoyevsky and familiar with a group of Communists students. Hook’s political beliefs took shape during these years, as he became involved with the Communist party and various forms of political activism. In fact, he noted in his autobiography, Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the 20th Century (1987), that he often struggled to balance activism and academics, and that his studies suffered as he became active in political circles. During this time, he was moved deeply by the teaching methods of one of his professors, Morris Cohen. Hook appreciated Cohen’s employment of the Socratic method and his unyielding candor with his students. Hook claims that he fell in love with philosophy as a result of working with Cohen. He employed the Socratic method himself, as both an educator and a public inquirer. His commitment to gaining the attention of his students made this the appropriate approach for him. Hook felt that the Socratic method was an immensely effective teaching tool.

After his undergraduate work, Hook earned a master’s degree and doctorate from Columbia University. At Columbia, he worked with John Dewey, who continued to influence him throughout his life. Hook and Dewey shared views about philosophy and education, and the combination of the two. They both contended that there is no absolute truth, and that life must be approached with a fusion of scientific method and creative thought. Hook wrote his dissertation under Dewey’s supervision, calling it The Metaphysics of Pragmatism (1927). It would later become his first publication.

After his undergraduate work at City College, Hook taught elementary, high school, and adult education classes. Hook also lectured at universities throughout the United States during his teaching career and, in 1927, began work as a professor at New York University (NYU), where he would remain until his retirement. At NYU, he taught and was head of the Department of Philosophy from 1948 until 1969. He also founded the New York University Institute of Philosophy. Drawing on his willingness to tackle difficult and often controversial topics, Hook was the first professor to teach a course on Karl Marx in the United States. He served as President of the American Philosophical Association, East Division, was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, was a Fellow of the National Academy of Education, and was a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. Hook began the American Committee for Cultural Freedom and the International Congress for Cultural Freedom.

Hook did a notable amount of traveling in Europe—particularly in Germany and the Soviet Union. He committed himself to learning about those countries’ economic and political circumstances, and made many friends who later influenced his political, philosophical, and educational beliefs. He saw firsthand Hitler’s influence in Europe and how varying political systems altered the lives of a country’s people. These experiences provided him with a foundation upon which he built many debates with fellow academics and political activists, both American and European.

In general, Hook resisted aligning himself with one political party. “My exposition of Marx and criticism of Eastman,” he (1987, 138) wrote in his autobiography, “was motivated by a sincere belief in the importance of ideas in the struggle for a more equitable life in a better ordered society.” Though many saw him as a member of the Communist party and, indeed, he certainly was associated with Communists, he intended to influence that party from without, not within: “What we sought to do was reformulate the revolutionary position to avoid Communist Party jargon and make it continuous with the authentic American revolutionary tradition,” he (1987, 176) insisted. Hook distanced himself, quite intentionally, from radical inclinations due to his feelings on terrorism. He felt that he could have political influence through his academic and intellectual pursuits, rather than through the implementation of extreme measures. For example, he took issue with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the 1960s because of their sometimes violent methods. However, he also was critical of academic resistance to studying these revolts.

Hook felt that philosophy offered no answers to life’s great questions. However, he felt that he could apply philosophy to life outside of academia to improve the world. He believed in and practiced pragmatic naturalism and experimentalism, as influenced by Charles Sanders Pierce and Dewey. Like William James, he believed that humans live in an “open” universe; the world is unfinished, and people are obligated to transform it through their lives and interactions. Hook challenged Marxist historical materialism, religious predestination, and quietism. However, ultimately he sought to find a common ground between Dewey and Karl Marx.

In the late 1930s, Hook became particularly concerned with Robert M. Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler, and issues related to ethics, religion (specifically Catholicism), philosophy, and education. He (1987, 335) wrote that he found himself “defending public education . . . against concerted attacks by religious fundamentalists.” The application of religion to education on the part of Hutchins and Adler concerned Hook greatly, and he spoke openly about educational ethics to counteract their attempts. Furthermore, Hook felt very strongly that one cannot remove his or her personal beliefs and politics from teaching. He devoted a chapter in his autobiography to the myth of the Communist “Witch Hunt,” arguing that teachers were instructed unnecessarily not to expose themselves as Communists. He is critical of those educators who hid their political identities, feeling that personal beliefs are essential to a teacher’s effectiveness. He (1987, 53) also argued that a good teacher must possess “the ability to inspire in students a dedication to the subject of instruction”—a reflection of his resistance to the teaching methods implemented in his own education. As a professor at NYU, he placed an emphasis on teaching, but noted that most professors are not well-trained as educators. He argued that teaching requires not only the ability to inspire and instruct, but also a critical, inquiring mind and a commitment to research. Furthermore, he lamented the internal politics and infighting in higher education.

In his later years, Hook toned down his political activism and settled into a quieter life. “I no longer believe that the central program of our time is the choice between capitalism and socialism,” he (1987, 600) wrote, “but the defense and enrichment of a free and open society against totalitarianism.” When he retired from NYU in 1973, he was asked to remain on as a lecturer, but declined the offer due to his disenchantment with fellow faculty members.

Contributed by Colleen Schmitt, The University of Texas at Austin

Cotter, M. J., ed. 2004. Sidney Hook reconsidered. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

Hook, S. 1987. Out of step: An unquiet life in the 20th century. New York: HarperCollins.

Hook, S. 1927. The metaphysics of pragmatism. Chicago: Open Court Publishing.

Postel, D. 2002. Sidney Hook: An intellectual street fighter, reconsidered. The Chronicle of Higher Education 49(11), November 8.

Book Rags. 2005. Sidney Hook biography.

Talisse, R. B., R. Tempio, and M. J. Cotter. 2003. The relevance of Sidney Hook today: Reflections from the centennial conference. Free Inquiry Magazine 23(1).

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