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Teacher of Teachers

Lectures in the Philosophy of Education, 1899

by John Dewey, edited and with an Introduction by Reginald D. Archambault
Random House, 366 pp., $7.95

Democracy and Education

by John Dewey
Free Press, 378 pp., $2.45 (paper)

The Dewey School

by Katherine Camp Mayhew, by Anna Camp Edwards
Atherton, 477 pp., $3.95 (paper)

John Dewey as Educator: His Work in Education 1894-1904

by Arthur G. Wirth
John G. Wiley, 322 pp., $6.95

John Dewey

by Richard J. Bernstein
Washington Square Press, 213 pp., $3.95

About the long-run importance of John Dewey’s philosophy there is not yet any consensus, though it is not too soon for advocacy. The appearance of these five books—two of them reprints—suggests at least that Dewey will be read again, and not be just a rumor.

The focus of renewed interest is clear enough: it is the philosophy of education. This is true of all the books under review, with the exception of Richard Bernstein’s book, a general review of Dewey’s philosophy. Arthur Wirth’s new work bridges the gap between that general philosophy and the older account (1936), by Mayhew and Edwards, of the Dewey school. Dewey’s own well-known Democracy and Education (1915) is now put in perspective by the publication of his Lectures (1899), which have been recently discovered and edited by Reginald Archambault.

It has always been clear to those who read him that Dewey was no mere inventor of systems or methods or panaceas in education. These works alone will reestablish Dewey’s transcendance of the movement that called itself Progressive Education. Dewey was a powerful figure, and the leaders of that movement were powerfully moved by him. It is not easy to sort, in that movement, the chaff from the good grain, nor to measure his philosophy by the one or the other. Nor is it any longer very relevant. In reviewing these works I would like to suggest a different and more current point of view from which to examine Dewey’s thought and his practical work. It is our own recent re-acknowledgement, thin and sporadic still, that our educational system is grossly deficient and that “educational theory” has dwindled to being a term with no significant meaning. If Dewey can help us, in theory or practice, then these books ought to be widely re-read.

LET ME BEGIN by supporting the presumption of Dewey’s enduring importance. Considered as a philosopher, if you wish as a philosopher’s philosopher, Dewey ranks among those two or three dozen who, since Plato, have seriously and systematically tested their basic insights against all the major areas of human experience. To those readers who are unfamiliar with Dewey’s aesthetics (Art as Experience), his Logic, or his philosophy of nature (Experience and Nature), Bernstein’s book will serve as a sympathetic introduction, if no more.

I do not place Dewey among the greatest of the systematists, but he belongs somewhere near, and the company is a select one. Since education is also—ought also to be—concerned with all the major areas of experience, Dewey counts here as he might not for other and more specialized interests. Indeed there is no major systematic philosopher who has looked so long and so carefully at education itself. Plato comes closest, and he is a more acute philosopher. But Plato suffers from the innocence of adulthood, ignoring the nature of the child when considering the nature of man. Dewey, with some success, sought to lose that innocence. If one is to take ideas seriously, as more than passing conveniences, the presumption of Dewey’s importance is very strong.

There are two independent tendencies in Dewey’s thought which Mr. Bernstein’s synopsis reveals well. Dewey’s own attempts at synthesizing them never quite succeeded, but this is no disparagement since no one else’s attempts have quite succeeded either. One tendency is that of modern Naturalism, oriented toward the physical and the evolutionary sciences. The other is that of phenomenology, the analysis of self-consciousness, of human praxis, stemming from Hegel. The orientation of phenomenology is inherently humanistic; nothing recurrently important in human experience is alien to it. Dewey’s aim is to look at science humanistically, from the point of view of the participant in its development; and to look at the human situation scientifically, from the point of view of evolution, biological and cultural. Thus Dewey’s philosophy of science is one that emphasizes the pre-eminence of the scientific method. This method had its spontaneous beginnings in attempts to solve practical problems. There is nothing a priori valid about this method. It has emerged out of competition with other ways of resolving uncertainty, casuistic or authoritarian. It has won out in some areas because of its proven effectiveness. In retrospect we can find justifications for this effectiveness, we can refine the practice of the method, and we can give persuasive reasons why it should spread to new areas. Dewey’s analysis and advocacy of science, however, do not set it apart from other human concerns. In his view, the search for knowledge is a phase of experience interwoven with doing, undergoing, enjoying. To conceive of knowledge as set apart from other phases of experience is to distort the nature of experience and of knowledge, including science. Thus knowledge can only be defined through practice, through “the intercourse of a living being with its physical and social environment” (quoted by Bernstein, p. 60), and that intercourse has many dimensions in experience, including the practical and the aesthetic; it is not just a “knowledge-affair.”

Dewey puts the evolution of science within the continuum of experience. That is what I refer to as his phenomenology of science or of inquiry. It is most fully developed in his Logic. But he also puts experience within the biological context of man’s emergence from his animal background. Man’s distinctive characteristics, his investigative capacity, his ability to organize his own behavior with respect to ends-in-view, and his capacity for articulate communication, are seen as emergent capacities which, though biologically evolved, give rise to a new and super-biological evolution, that of human culture. These qualities set man apart from the rest of the animal world, but not from the world of nature.

EDUCATION is the practical enterprise which most requires a synthesis of scientific knowledge about man with man’s own self-conscious analysis of his experience. That same synthesis is needed to guide our inquiry into the human capacity to learn. An educational practice which fails to nurture the practical and aesthetic capacities, or which treats knowledge as merely a matter of verbal structures to be “transmitted” to children, stands condemned by such a philosophy as Dewey’s. So does the conception of learning, still dominant in schools and among many academic psychologists, which divorces it from the child’s own self-conscious probing and exploration of the world around him.

Both works by Dewey here reviewed begin with an emphasis on the biological fact of prolonged infancy in the human species, during which the assimilation of culture is accompanied by physical development. Education is not something invented during human history, but something necessary to human history itself. The institutionalizing of education, the school, is a late, partial, and still problematic development. In his Lectures (1899), Dewey states a general thesis which recurs throughout his educational writings:

…in principle the school has no other educational resources than those which exist outside the school…. The sort of material that instructs children or adults outside of school is fundamentally the same sort that has power to instruct within the school…[p. 65].

Formal education should properly be an education in which the resources for learning are organized more consciously and carefully than is possible in the wider life of the community; but the term should not imply that the resources are inherently different.

BY THE TIME he wrote Education and Democracy this thesis had developed into a powerful critique of the schools: in isolating subject matter from active experience, they had lost sight of the underlying identity of education with “all human association that affects conscious life” (p. 9). Education had come to mean no more than “imparting information about remote matters and the conveying of learning through verbal signs: the acquisition of literacy.” Not only is such a conception inadequate to the necessities of life, but it is ineffective within its own limited domain. The more varied the range of connections in situations which are “educative,” the more available is that which is learned to later recovery for use in new situations; the more it is cut off from such connections, narrowed and formalized, the less it can be used: the paths of connection are not available when needed. Writing as a psychologist, Dewey attacked the doctrine of the “transfer” of learning: one way of learning is superior to the other not because it facilitates “transfer” to new situations, but because what is learned is more richly coordinated with the rest of experience, more intellectual in quality. If a child learns the invariant characteristics of number in his manipulative play, for example, then he can learn to prize the formalities of arithmetic because they summarize his experience and extend it. The formalities by themselves, learned in detachment from the child’s power of controlling his environment, are empty and dreary. There is a place for formalism in education, for abstraction and schematization; but it is a place within education, not its essence.

Dewey’s emphasis upon the developmental character of learning has many other consequences for his philosophy of education. In attacking the view that education is “preparation for life,” Dewey emphasizes the positive characteristics of childhood. Children are said to be dependent and plastic, but these are only the negative aspects of their extraordinary powers: their equipment for social intercourse, and their capacity to profit from experience as their dispositions, attitudes, and concepts develop. Put together, these capacities constitute the power to grow.

We do not have to draw out or educe positive activities from a child, as some educational doctrines would have it. Where there is life, there are already eager and impassioned activities. Growth is not something they do [p. 42].

Children are preoccupied with recreating the whole complex apparatus of conscious adult life, which we in the innocence of our adulthood take for granted as second nature. Indeed because of the intensity of their involvement with the present, we sometimes speak of them as self-centered. “To a grown-up person who is too absorbed in his own affairs to take an interest in children’s affairs, children doubtless seem unreasonably engrossed in their own affairs” (p. 44).

It is here that we must assess the validity of the Deweyan slogan that we “learn by doing.” If learning can be thought of, as it mostly is, as an assimilation of verbally transmitted instruction, the slogan sounds romantically reactionary, repudiating all the guidance of accrued culture. But if learning is thought of as the development and enjoyment of the tools which, among other uses, make possible the assimilation of verbally transmitted instruction, the Deweyan slogan has quite a different meaning. Let me use a mundane analogy, which is actually more than an analogy, that of a filing system. This is the analogy that philosophers have used in discussing the nature and origin of the categories, the essential “ideas,” according to which we organize our experience. A functioning apparatus of this kind is presupposed in inquiring and knowing, and in intelligently saying things or understanding what is said. But this apparatus is not simply in place and ready for use from the beginning of life, it is also learned, developed in the course of experience and as a result of experience.

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