Posts Tagged ‘Dewey’

Chapter 3: Education as Direction

September 12, 2007

Writing about a book chapter for chapter is a constant reminder that you don’t know all that you’re writing about. Sure I’ve mentioned this before, but like I’m saying, the reminder is constant. Not that a critique of the entire book would encircle a knowledge of it all, it’s just that this partial critique and my partial experience are amplifying. That said, I’m going to spend a lot of time with chapter three.

Dewey got it wrong. Getting it wrong is a problem for any advancement of a theory of change. What I mean is it’s hard enough to change one person’s mind, even when the change is to the complete and obvious advantage of everyone involved. Changing the many minds involved in the protection and perpetuation of institutionalized education, is an overwhelming task. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but the combination of perfect theory and a multiplicity of small scale advances, is a possibility of hope and desire, that at this point can only motivate the work of perfecting theory. The idea of a perfect theory, might be objectionable, I’d probably object to the idea if someone else was putting it forward, but as a motivational idea Perfect Theory works. The problem with using a small scale mind change as an example, say one person changing the mind of one other, is the difficulty even on that small scale of reaching an understanding and course of action that both minds now agree to be in their best interest. At the institutional level, there are many interests, and contradictory interests. In a situation where interests contradict, the perfect theory would harmonize the contradiction. No matter how well intentioned a theory is, with an error it can only go so far. Dewey attempts to connect growth of democracy with the development of the experimental scientific method and evolutionary ideas, but limits the application of the method and ideas in his theory of education to the point where he completely contradicts the concepts behind the method and ideas.

I have a few friends in education who I am in conversation with, and one of the things I usually come around to is the problem of thinking about education while teaching in a classroom. It’s like the classroom structure and organization are binding and make any free thinking impossible. I mention this because Dewey is limited by pragmatism. Sure eventually teachers should think about how to do the work of teaching, but a philosophy of education, or a theory of education needs complete freedom to conceptualize education.

Evolution theory and the Experimental Scientific Method are fertile grounds for education, but how do we follow? I’m not quoting any sources, so if there are any readers who feel like correcting the Folk Theory and Method I’m about to use I’d appreciate it. The theory as I understand it is based on a concept of infinite variation. It’s through infinite variation that survival and diversification are possible. And the Method is a form of documenting a process so that results can be repeated or tested. But in the experimental stage the result can not be known, it’s a process of discovery.

But if, as Dewey suggests in Chapter 3, the general function of education is direction, control or guidance or assisting through cooperation the natural capacities of individuals. then where is the discovery? Dewey falls into the same trap he sets for students by insisting on direction as opposed to aimlessness.

Of course a proposal of aimlessness in education isn’t pragmatic. And there are ends, like reading that need direction. Specific skills and tools, like decoding, encoding and codes themselves are acts and knowledge teachers can aim to teach students. Education as a concept is different than training. Training has a direction, an end, and as such is a more accurate description for what takes place in schools.

Dewey says that when an immature human being is subject to some stimuli, “There is always a great deal of superfluous energy aroused. This energy may be wasted, going aside from the point; it may go against the successful performance of an act. “(p.24) To call this extra energy a waste, to see diversion as “going against” is to completely ignore or misunderstand evolutionary theory. Life tends toward variation, infinite variation, and it is precisely through this open attempt that organisms learn and change.

Is Dewey connecting his philosophy with accepted theories and methods of his contemporary society, as a means of gaining acceptance? He is well aware of social pressure and control. He writes of control, “Still more effective is the fact that unless an individual acts in the way current in his group, he is literally out of it.” (p.34) Is Dewey expressing his desire through current ideas?

Scientific discovery and evolution are nondirectable, uncontrollable processes. The method is a system of reproducing and testing discoveries. Discovery cannot be systematized, what happens next is always unknown. The system is the application of what is known, conservative, anti-evolutionary, closed and controlling. “Control, in truth, means only an emphatic form of direction of powers, and covers the regulation gained by an individual through his own efforts quite as much as that brought about when others take the lead. “(P.23) In Dewey’s definition control is the regulation of power or what is known. But if education is a system of control, how does the result deal with real discovery. Dewey is proposing controlled discovery as an educational method. The educator knows and directs that discovery, the point of any act. But what about the pointlessness of real discovery? How are children educated in the known, in the system, the controlled constructed environment of schools prepared to be free creative beings in an ever changing world?

Dewey Quotes on Mind, Language and Intentional Education

“When children go to school, they already have “minds” — they have knowledge and dispositions of judgment which may be appealed to through the use of language. But these “minds” are the organized habits of intelligent response which they have previously required by putting things to use in connection with the way other persons use things. The control is inescapable; it saturates disposition.” p.32

“Mind as a concrete thing is precisely the power to understand things in terms of the use made of them; a socialized mind is the power to understand them in terms of the use to which they are turned in joint or shared situations. And mind in this sense is the method of social control.” p.32

“Interaction with things may form habits of external adjustment. But it leads to activity having meaning and conscious intent only when things are used to produce results. And the only way one person can modify the mind of another is by using physical conditions, crude or artificial, so as to evoke some answering activity from him. Such are our two main conclusions.” p.33

“Intentional education signifies, as we have already seen, a specially selected environment, the selection being made on the basis of materials and method specifically promoting growth in the desired direction.” p.37

“Schools require for their full efficiency more opportunity for conjoint activities in which those instructed take part, so that they may acquire a social sense of their powers and of the materials and appliances used.” p.39

Chapter 2: Education as a Social Function

August 13, 2007

Given the impossibility of direct contagion or literal inculcation, our problem is to discover the method by which the young assimilate the point of view of the old, or the older bring the young into likemindedness with themselves.

another enquiry concerning human understanding

What interests me is a series of questions about the body of knowledge in which our education is situated. I need to first define education, or at least differentiate between chance socialization and formal schooling. Writing the distinctions can in no way separate these learning environments. Dewey says as much when he writes, “The main texture of disposition is formed independently of schooling by [the demands set up by current social occupations.]” (p.17) He goes on to say:

What conscious, deliberate teaching can do is at most to free the capacities thus formed for fuller exercise, to purge them of their grossness, and to furnish objects which make their activity more productive of meaning.


For Dewey, school is a social organ which simplifies and purifies an educational environment in an attempt to make for a better future society. And yet, by Dewey’s own understanding, the environment is forever contaminated. The immature disposition is already independently formed and school becomes a form of exercise in modification.

It might help to view social environments as one views eco-zones, social geography mapping the vast differences in social climates. This way common understanding becomes a goal and the form of exercise varies with zones of social disposition. Dewey writes “Whether we permit chance environments to do the work, or whether we design environments for the purpose makes a great difference.” The great difference in the chance environments goes unwritten.

Two Things:

Thing One: I will be returning to this chapter. The concepts of the social as educative, the social function of education and education as a social function will ground any study of literacy.

Thing Two: Should a literacy based pedagogy be concerned with the metaphysical problem of a “better future society” or with reading society as it is in its full complexity?

Chapter 1. Education as a Necessity of Life

July 29, 2007

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.

Preface to Democracy and Education

July 10, 2007

The Preface is incredibly brief and straightforward, but the problems in it can only grow throughout the book. I question Dewey’s “endeavour to detect and state the ideas implied in a democratic society and to apply these ideas to the problems and enterprises of education.” What ideas does a democratic society imply? Would those implications have changes since 1915? (Not that this matters.) The idea that an actual democratic society has ideas implicit in it and that one can go about detecting and stating those ideas is not an idea at all but misconception based on an idealization of democratic society. This misconception can only lead to a polemical argument. What ideas are actually in play in our specific democratic society? To be of any practical use to the problems and enterprises of education any ideas applied should not be implied but in play.

Dewey clearly explains that “the philosophy stated in this book connects the growth of democracy with the development of the experimental method in the sciences, evolutionary ideas in the biological sciences, and the industrial reorganization, and is concerned to point out the changes in subject matter and method of education indicated by these developments.” I wonder if his philosophy and purposes are a problem? I am not an expert on Dewey, but wouldn’t be stretching it to say he launched the progressive education movement in the States. The progressive movement is today stalled. Could it be that the simplistic philosophical foundation of the movement is it’s problem? Dewey confuses possibility with progression. He sees implicit in growth, development, evolution and reorganization a progressive improvement. We now know (and Dewey could have known then) that the possibility of improvement will not necessarily actualize. What does this mean for the philosophy stated in this book?