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Revivng Dewey

In response to:

Teacher of Teachers from the February 29, 1968 issue

To the Editors:

In the February 29 NYR, David Hawkins presents a noteworthy and well-intentioned review of John Dewey’s educational philosophy. In that review, Hawkins writes that “‘educational theory’ has dwindled to being a term with no significant meaning. If Dewey can help us, in theory or in practice, then these books ought to be widely re-read.” It is true enough that we have no significant meaning for “educational theory.” However, believing that Dewey can help us solve our problems in this area only compounds our difficulties. Whatever use (or abuse) Dewey’s educational writings might have had in the past, they are of regrettably small help today.

Dewey proposed a method that had justified itself in promoting remarkable industrial progress. Dewey assumed that if the method used in dealing with industrial problems was used for social problems, that social progress would certainly result. Therein resided his basic mistake. It was a mistake he made early as well as late in his career. Dewey’s educational program was based on a false assumption, and this assumption was never corrected—which means that it was never adequately tested, which means that Dewey did not apply the method he espoused to his own investigations. In a fundamental and damning way, Dewey was guilty of the very sin he continually argued against, as evidenced by his statement at the end of Experience and Education (1938). “The only ground I can see for even a temporary reaction against the standards, aims, and methods of the newer education is the failure of educators who professedly adopt them to be faithful to them in practice.” (p. 90)

Dewey was in error here on two critical counts. First, he seemed totally unaware that he had violated his own methodological principles. Secondly, he failed to countenance the questionable nature of the standards, aims, and methods that he was advocating. Encompassing both of these errors is Dewey’s fundamental error, not of being too far ahead of his time as Hawkins states, but of being too naïvely smug about the problems for which he was providing solutions. Hawkins stated that “Dewey was born before his times, but I am not sure when his times will come.” Nonsense—Dewey was a foremost product of his times and, for all of his educational concerns, he can be characterized by a naïveté that could be said to be characteristic of the progressive forces of his times. If he was at all relevant to the happenings around him, it was precisely because he was in touch with his times: he was willing to get involved. Fundamentally, as a philosopher, Dewey was a moral man. If Dewey failed as an educational philosopher, it was not a moral failure per se—not a failure to be involved with educational problems, but his failure was that of harboring a fundamental misconception about the solutions to the educational and social problems with which he was engaged.

Go back to Dewey’s three lectures (published as The School and Society) delivered in April 1899 before parents and others interested in the University Elementary School, and one sees the way Dewey was in touch with his times, was touched by the problems of his times and whose solutions were products of his times. Allow me to quote at some length:

I make no apology for not dwelling at length upon the social changes in question. Those I shall mention are writ so large that he who runs may read. The change that comes first to mind, the one that overshadows and even controls all others, is the industrial one—the application of science resulting in the great inventions that have utilized the forces of nature on a vast and inexpensive scale…. That this revolution should not affect education in other than formal and superficial fashion is inconceivable.

Back of the factory system lies the household and neighborhood systems. Those of us who are here today need go back only one, two, or at most three generations, to find a time when the household was practically the center in which were carried on, or about which were clustered, all the typical forms of industrial occupation…. Not only this, but practically every member of the household had his own share of the work…. It was a matter of immediate and personal concern, even to the point of actual participation.

We cannot overlook the factors of discipline and of character-building involved in this: training in habits of order and of industry, and in the idea of responsibility, of obligation to do something, to produce something, in the world…. But it is useless to bemoan the departure of the good old days of children’s modesty, reverence, and implicit obedience, if we expect merely by bemoaning and by exhortation to bring them back. It is radical conditions which have changed, and only an equally radical change in education suffices. [p. 21, pp 23-24, p. 25]

Dewey then talks about shop-courses, and courses in sewing and weaving. Why such courses? “It keeps them alert and active, instead of passive and receptive; it makes them more useful, more capable, and hence more inclined to be helpful at home; it prepares them to some extent for the practical duties of later life.” (pp. 26-27)

What a delight to walk into a class and see boys as well as girls sewing!—says Dewey. Working with real materials! Through this work “the child can trace and follow the progress of mankind in history, getting an insight also into the materials used and the mechanical principles involved.” (p. 34) Naïveté—with gilded edges.

Almost forty years later, Dewey retained his naïveté and his dogmatic optimism, but by this time his position had become more abstract and generalized, as epitomized by the following statement he made in his Kappa Delta Ki lectures:

I take it that the fundamental unity of the new philosophy [of progressive education] is found in the idea that there is an intimate and necessary relation between the processes of actual experience and education. If this be true, then a positive and constructive development of its own basic idea depends upon having a correct idea of experience. [p. 20]

Education [is] of, by, and for experience. No one of these words, of, by, and for, names anything which is self-evident. Each of them is a challenge to discover and put into operation a principle of order and organization which follows from understanding what educative experience signifies. [p. 29—Experience and Education, 1938]

But “educative experience” is something which we, as citizens, philosophers, educators, psychologists, sociologists, policemen, and politicians, are trying to learn something about. In terms of this endeavor, re-reading Dewey (as per Hawkins’s request), might accomplish three things:

  1. Direct us to become morally and professionally involved in problems of education. But it is highly unlikely that we need a moral imperative from Dewey to persuade us to engage in educational problems if we were not already so inclined.

  2. Provide us with insights concerning child development and growth instincts. But with the amount of substantial work that has been done in developmental psychology, there is no excuse for anyone to rely on Dewey’s sparse insights concerning child development.

  3. Provide us with a method for grappling with educational problems. But Dewey’s method was one derived from industrial problems as applied to social problems, a dubious method operating today in behavioristic psychology and which, like Dewey, promises much and provides little of sustained worth. (Cf. Noam Chomsky’s well-known review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior for a devastating analysis of behavioristic method; this review is reprinted in Readings in the Psychology of Language, edited by Jakobovits and Miron. In relation to Skinner himself, Dewey and Arthur Bentley showed a real appreciation for Skinner’s “devastating criticism” of “definition in operational analysis.” Cf. John Dewey and Arthur F. Bentley; A Philosophical Correspondence. 1932-1951. p. 490, p. 565.)

Dewey, as we all know, was hung up on method. Indeed, as R. B. Perry wrote (in The Thought and Character of William James), “Dewey’s preoccupation with method amounts in effect to a naturalistic panlogism, in which content is method.” (p. 515, Volume II). What makes this indictment particularly damning is that Dewey did not see himself as a specialist in method. He was “practical” in his interests—he was concerned with method primarily in so far as it would help him and others to solve real problems. In spite of this practical intent, he did not practice what he preached, that is, he did not see that his espoused methods were not self-justifying and needed to be tested against the problems they were designd to solve. If he had, he might have overcome his easy dogmatism and naïveté concerning those problems, his solutions, and his methods. The last thing we need today in dealing with educational problems is some more dogmatism and naïveté.

Dick Rohrberg

Charlestown, Massachusetts

David Hawkins replies:

I think Mr. Rohrberg is right in supposing that he does not have much to learn from Dewey. In warning us of Dewey’s besetting sins of naïveté, dogmatism, preoccupation with method (and approval of Skinner about anything at all), he does us a service. Indeed this almost implies some agreement, after all, with my recommendation that Dewey be widely reread. For surely neither of us, as well-meaning critics, would wish to spend much time telling people why they should continue to ignore a once-influential philosopher. Suitably advised by the two of us, may many readers go forth to library and bookshop! As I indicated my list starts with Art and Experience and Experience and Nature. They don’t talk about schools. But they do talk about human nature and human experience, and such talk may just have something to do with education. Finally the readers who think they have learned from Dewey might go on to Experience and Education. It is thin in comparison with the other two, but they would provide some context to put it in.

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