Chapter 1. Education as a Necessity of Life

Before I go on about Chapter One of Dewey‘s Democracy and Education, I should say a few things. First, I’m reading this book because I’m under the impression that it’s a founding text for “progressive education.” I say “under the impression,” because I haven’t actually read it yet. I finished a program in education and reading Dewey wasn’t necessary. Very little “source” reading, actually no source reading was necessary. Perhaps my Faculty of Education subscribed too strictly to Dewey’s doctrine of learn by doing and feared that including source readings would render its program “remote and dead — abstract and bookish.” And secondly after reading the first chapter I see a need for a rewrite of this book. Maybe someone has already done it, if so let me know, but if not, now’s the time.

Calling for the remake of a classic is dangerous ground. There are unsuccessful remakes for sure, and choosing a classic in any form is a risky move, But a chapter for chapter, subsection for subsection rewrite, would change the course of progressive education.

Dewey sees in evolutionary ideas a metaphor for life and education . He writes “As some species die out, forms better adapted to utilize the obstacles against which they struggled in vain come into being.” But the idea of progressive improvement isn’t with us today. Today when a polar bear loses her struggle to survive, no more adapted creature is waiting in the DNA of her offspring to survive in the new environment. The concepts Dewey uses to base his philosophy are false. That’s not to say his philosophy, in this sense and ideal education for creating an improved society, is without merit, but that as an articulation it fails.

The other major problem in this chapter, other than the debatability of the title, is the confusion of socialization as a broad educational process and schooling as a more formal kind of education. Education in these terms, or with this definition becomes unworkable. The meaning of “education” is culturally broad. In the title “The Education of Little Tree“, education refers to much more than the bits of formal schooling in the book. Education is synonymous with “experience” in this sense. When Dewey writes “What nutrition and reproduction are to physiological life, education is to social life.” He may be over-emphasizing the importance of education in the formal sense by leaving the distinction between social rearing and formal tuition unclear. We can live without formal tuition, it isn’t necessary for life.

“The young of human beings compare so poorly in original efficiency with the young of many of the lower animals, that even the powers needed for physical sustentation have to be acquired under tuition. How much more, then, is the case with respect to all the technological, artistic, scientific, and moral achievements of humanity!”

Here again Dewey confuses child rearing and socialization, with more formal tuition. The lower animals who seem to live just fine, and as an example, the raccoon, which could be here long after our animal form has been extinguished, does just fine without technological, artistic, scientific, and moral achievements. Formal tuition is superfluous to life. Not that it’s superfluidity reduces its cultural importance, but Dewey seems to be basing the urgency and importance of education on a claim of necessity.

“As formal teaching and training grow in extent, there is a danger of creating an undesirable split between the experience gained in more direct associations and what is acquired in school. This danger was never greater than at the present time, on account of the rapid growth in the last few centuries of knowledge and technical modes of skill.”

Dewey ends Chapter One with a warning. This split is “one of the weightiest problems with which the philosophy of education has to cope.” Am I wrong to think Dewey is equating conscious learning with direct associations and unconscious learning with what is acquired in school? This too is a problem.


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