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Teacher of Teachers

At every stage we must describe the infant or child as having some such apparatus, however primitive, and as willy-nilly engaged in its further evolution, through probing and testing his environment. He not only stores information in the files, but he continually modifies and reconstitutes the filing system by using it. The filing system is evolved through use, through “doing”—his doing and no one else’s. The young child learns to hear and speak by hearing and speaking, and not, except very little and late, by being told how to speak. He learns to think arithmetically, or causally, by coping in many ways with things that embody arithmetical or causal patterns. It is only after the child has begun to think arithmetically, or causally, that he can begin a further stage, which is to think about arithmetic or causality. It is an error, and a widely pervasive one, to suppose that we instill the apparatus of thought in children by talking about it to them or at them.

IT IS ALSO A MISTAKE, which Dewey never tired of pointing out, to think that active learning, learning by doing, is opposed to the process of acquiring the transmitted culture of society. Rather, it is the basic mechanism by which that transmission is accomplished. The environment in which a child learns is a natural environment transformed and enriched by human habitation: by tools transferable to his hands, by other artifacts, and by the human inhabitants themselves, not only the objects of his inquiry but also his associates in it. The doing is never sheer animal behavior except in cases of the grossest neglect.

It is simply a product of abstraction, of adult reflection when we try to separate experiences into two parts, and distinguish between what the child learns from things and from people…. There is no contact with things except through the medium of people. The things themselves are saturated with the particular values which are put into them, not only by what people say about them, but more by what they do about them, and the way they show they feel about them and with them [Lectures, p. 47]

In this connection one must note the importance Dewey attached to the social nature of thought and knowledge, a subject discussed in all these books. For Dewey the philosopher, thought and knowledge are inherently social, inherently related to the social evolution of culture. As a philosopher he was not advocating that thought be more social, but attempting to show that it is so, even in its most asocial expressions. The ascription of priority to the social nature of man was a consequence, in Dewey’s thinking, of his rejection of the metaphor, so long dominant in modern thought, that the mind is a prisoner inside the body and thus inherently in a state of solitary confinement. With this metaphor Dewey also rejected any meta-physical distinction between thought and action. For him the one, as the other, gains its characteristic expression in and through the working human community and its culture. But Dewey was an advocate as well as a philosopher, and in his thinking about the practical operation of a school he put great emphasis upon the importance of the school as a human community, through which children would learn, by participation, the discipline of social life and purpose. This social discipline will affect all their learning. It will provide a framework for their accumulation of particular knowledge. The curriculum was conceived, in Dewey’s language, “as a movement of life and thought, dramatically and imaginatively re-enacted through the major basic accomplishments of civilization.”

Thus in the Chicago Laboratory School a major portion of time was devoted, in the early years, to the recreation of various modes of life. Since much of this has ostensibly made its way since into the standard curriculum, one must look to the intent and the characteristic form of the work to see how little of it was in fact retained. Such activities as spinning, weaving, cooking, shop-work, modeling, dramatic plays, story-telling, and discussion were the order of the day at the Laboratory School. Arithmetic, reading, writing, and other special “disciplines” flowed from and back into these activities without formal distinction or programing, as the need and opportunity to use them arose. A group of seven-year-old children, after three years of such work, reenacted a series of stages in the history of an imaginary people emerging from a savage state to the achievement of an agricultural settlement, raising, discussing, and in their own way settling problems ranging from technology to social and political organization. In much of this work a tangible product was produced after considerable experimentation; the children worked out, for example, successful techniques for shaping, drying, coloring, and firing clay vessels. Later they did similar research in spinning, dyeing, weaving, and, still later, in the working of metals. Along the way there were many representations of life in map-making, painting, and story-telling.

It is not easy to judge the educational work at the Laboratory School from the reports of its participants and proponents. Mayhew and Edwards were among the latter, and one sometimes senses in their book that what was hoped for has colored their account of what did in fact take place. On the other hand, there is overwhelming evidence that children lived and worked in an absorbing environment, with teachers whose morale was high and whose talent was considerable. Classes were small, and several teachers with specialized skills were available as consultants. If I knew of such a school today, I would want to study its operation.

THE CURRICULUM was not at all “permissive”; the school operated under a carefully planned year-to-year sequence, with every major component and transition discussed at length. Within the curriculum, there was freedom for teachers to work out their strategy of teaching, and within the class the children were given much freedom in their choice not only of topics, but of their roles. But most conspicuous, both in the treatment of subject matter and in the organization of work, was the emphasis on social life.

With this emphasis Dewey consciously parted company with many of the progressive schools, which tried to give priority to the development of individual talents without the discipline of social goals expressed in Dewey’s curriculum. Nothing would have been more alien to Dewey’s educational philosophy, or to its embodiment in the Laboratory School, than the currently fashionable American image of progressivism. Dewey was much too good a philosopher and moralist to accept the slogans either of “self-expression” or of “social adjustment.”

The experiment of the Chicago School is past, but there is much to be learned from its history. Although it was the work of many people, the design and spirit was acknowledged, by all, as Dewey’s. As a model to be followed, it has essential drawbacks: most obviously, its doctrinaire insistence that the human occupations should be emphasized in everything studied. Such models have never been influential except in passing. They are the creations of special people under special and favorable circumstances, and it would seem that they lack the power of self-reproduction. The good schools of the future will have to be evolved out of the mainstream of public education. Nor would Dewey have thought otherwise. The Chicago School was for him what he called it, an experiment, a test of an educational philosophy. It was a good school, but not a prototype. Had we been carrying on, in many school systems, in the same spirit, that one small school would now seem, I am sure, a crude though memorable beginning.

Of such promise, and such non-fulfillment, what should be said? Mr. Wirth faces the issue, but does not resolve it. One may belittle the promise, but I for one think the puzzle remains. Dewey was born before his times, but I am not sure when his times will come. I see two avenues of critical analysis. The Experimental School and the later schools patterned after it were out of the mainstream. They, together with some of the private Progressive Schools, had great periods, but the art and insight thus gained were not effectively transmitted into the public schools and seem in the end mainly to have died on the vine. That is one avenue. The other is Dewey’s writing. Although it is nowadays treated indulgently as a youthful enthusiasm, Dewey’s literary influence on the professional educators was large for a time. It had an effect, though often an attenuated one, on public schools here and there. At least one large school system “adopted” Progressive Education, in the Thirties, by vote of its Board!

So long as Dewey and the Laboratory School—Theory and Practice—were working together, optimism about new possibilities in education seemed justified. Here and there in the following decades similar conditions were recreated, strong enough to establish a minority tradition whose remnants are still with us. But theory and practice got separated to a large degree, and schools of education grew away from any genuine innovation; they were swamped by the problems of training teachers and the struggles for status in an academic milieu of indifference or hostility. The schools themselves, the vast and growing American public school systems, went their way with little change in any of the fundamentals, looking beyond for a guidance that never came, until they mostly forgot what they were looking for. In speaking in this way I do not wish to bury the valiant teachers who have struggled against such tendencies. The faults have been faults of the social system.

I SAID at the beginning that Dewey’s philosophical synthesis was not wholly successful. I have not expanded upon that remark, but have thought it proper instead to emphasize his many strengths. But in acknowledging the superficiality of Dewey’s influence on American education I am tempted to ascribe some small part of the lack to Dewey himself and to his philosophical position. Mr. Wirth and Mr. Bernstein have a similar concern. They take note of the fact, acknowledged by Dewey, that he never developed his many psychological insights, often acute and powerful, into a coherent general theory. Lacking such a framework, he is not incisive in his discussion of intelligence, or the scientific method, or in defining the very creativity which he sought to foster. The result is easily taken or mistaken for a serene and dogmatic liberalism that evades the hard problems.

Wirth and Bernstein both take note of the blandness of Dewey’s moral tone, the persistence with which he simply asserts his confidence in the power of intelligence to guide man’s evolution toward a life of greater power, knowledge, and happiness. A later generation likes more piss in its milk than Dewey will summon for them. It will be a sad day, however, when a philosopher is measured in so obvious a fashion. Dewey knew about “alienation,” but regarded it as a phase of something he preferred to celebrate, which is the courage to grow. Dewey knew the tensions and conflicts of industrial society, but he preferred to seek out its potentialities rather than to dwell upon its dangers. Thus, although he was an activist and not an armchair philosopher, and although he knew many of the miseries and frustrations endemic in our society, he was in a certain sense utopian. That is not a bad word, except to the disillusioned. It simply implies a limitation, although the limitation in Dewey’s basic philosophy is very difficult to place in a precise way. Let me only suggest by an illustration. The suggestion is, to echo Bernstein’s remark, that Dewey is committed to a principle of continuity which justifies a minimizing of all stark contrasts—“dualisms”—and all discontinuous changes. This is a requirement, even a definition, of Dewey’s Naturalism: no miracles, no theophanies, and also no evils beyond the reach of intelligent remedy. Such a Naturalism is, I think, too easy. Nature is more complex than that. Similarly, in his educational philosophy as elsewhere, Dewey tends to eulogize the spontaneous reactions of children and to minimize the need of intervention in the learning process. He sees well the autonomy implicit in learning, but grants the significance of intervention, of systematic instruction, only in passing. I think his view happens to be far closer to the truth than is the didactic teaching which is so nearly universal in our schools. But it is not the whole truth, and it is not the hardest part of the truth.

Dewey’s eulogistic vision of children’s capacities for communication and immersion in subject matter is not an exaggerated one. But to realize those capacities within the institution of the school requires a far greater marshaling of resources and a far greater cultivation of professional skill than we have so far acknowledged. And when children are already damaged they do not verify Dewey’s vision merely by being liberated from the routine and boredom that we criticize. On the contrary. The freedom to learn must itself be taught, and to teach it requires all the arts of instruction. I know that Dewey would acknowledge, did acknowledge, all these statements, but he did not relish them, or insist upon them.

America has simply not been ready, after the first great wave of support for universal education, to explore the deeper problems which that wave laid bare. Perhaps now the readiness is growing. If it is, we have much to learn by becoming reacquainted with our own lively past—one dominated, for a time, by a good philosopher, perhaps a great one, who, almost uniquely among his kind, really looked at children.


Revivng Dewey May 23, 1968

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