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1

The following text was originally published in Prospects: the quarterly review of comparative

education (Paris, UNESCO: International Bureau of Education), vol. XXIII, no. 1\2, 1993,p. 277-91.

©UNESCO :International Bureau of Education, 1999

This document may be reproduced free of charge as long as acknowledgement is made of the source.

JOHN DEWEY

(1859-1952)

Robert B. Westbrook

1John Dewey was the most significant American philosopher of the first half of the twentieth

century. His career spanned three generations, and his voice could be heard in the midst of

cultural controversies in the United States (and abroad) from the 1890s until his death, at the

age of 93, in 1952. During this long career, Dewey developed a philosophy that called for the

unity of theory and practice. He exemplified this unity in his own work as an intellectual and

political activist. His thinking was grounded in the moral conviction that ‘democracy is

freedom’, and he devoted his life to the construction of a persuasive philosophical argument

for this conviction and to the pursuit of an activism that would secure its practical realization

(Dewey, 1892, p. 8). Dewey’s commitment to democracy and to the integration of theory and

practice was most evident in his career as an educational reformer.

As he began his duties as a new member of the faculty of the University of Chicago in

the fall of 1894, Dewey wrote to his wife Alice that ‘I sometimes think I will drop teaching

philosophy directly, and teach it via

pedagogy’ (Dewey, 1894). Although he never actuallystopped teaching philosophy directly, Dewey’s philosophical views probably reached more

readers via books aimed at educators, such as

The school and society (1899), How we think(1910),

Democracy and education (1916) and Experience and education (1938), than throughthose directed principally to his fellow philosophers.

Democracy and education, Dewey oncesaid, was the closest thing he ever wrote to a summary of his ‘entire philosophical position’

(Dewey, 1916). It was no accident, he observed, that like himself many great philosophers

had taken a keen interest in the problems of education because there was ‘an intimate and

vital relation between the need for philosophy and the necessity for education.’ If philosophy

was wisdom, a vision of ‘the better kind of life to be led’, then consciously guided education

was the praxis of the philosopher. ‘If philosophy is to be other than an idle and unverifiable

speculation, it must be animated by the conviction that its theory of experience is a

hypothesis that is realized only as experience is actually shaped in accord with it. And this

realization demands that man’s dispositions be made such as to desire and strive for that kind

of experience.’ The shaping of dispositions might take place in various institutions, but in

modern societies the school was the most crucial, and as such it was an indispensable arena

for the shaping of a philosophy into a ‘living fact’ (Dewey, 1912-13, p. 298, 306-7).

Dewey’s efforts to shape his own philosophy into living fact in the schools were

surrounded by controversy, and to this day he remains a touchstone in debates over the

shortcomings of American education: a reputable villain for ‘back-to-basics’ conservatives

and an inspiring forefather for ‘child-centred’ reformers. Both sides of these debates tend to

misread Dewey’s work, to overestimate his influence, and to underplay the democratic ideals

that were at the heart of his pedagogy.

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The making of an educator

John Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont, in 1859, the son of a storekeeper. He

graduated from the University of Vermont in 1879, and after a brief career as a schoolteacher

in Pennsylvania and Vermont, he enrolled as a graduate student in the department of

philosophy at Johns Hopkins University, which had pioneered graduate education on the

German model in the United States. There he came under the influence of George S. Morris,

a neo-Hegelian idealist. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1884 with a dissertation on ‘Kant’s

Psychology’, Dewey followed Morris to the University of Michigan, and assumed leadership

of the philosophy department there in 1889.

While at Michigan, Dewey met his future wife, Alice Chipman, who was his student.

Alice had come to college after several years of teaching in Michigan schools. More than

anyone else, Alice was responsible for the practical turn that Dewey’s interests took in the

late 1880s. Dewey accredited her with putting the ‘guts and stuffing’ into his work, and she

had a significant influence in the shaping of his pedagogical ideas (Jane Dewey, 1951, p. 21).

Following his marriage, Dewey began to take an active interest in public education, and he

was a founding member and officer of the Michigan Schoolmasters’ Club, which fostered cooperation

between state high school and college teachers. When he was lured away from

Michigan to the newly-founded University of Chicago by its President William Rainey

Harper, he insisted that his appointment include the leadership of a new department of

pedagogy. He successfully pressed for the creation of a ‘laboratory school’ where his ideas

could be tested. It was during the decade he spent in Chicago, from 1894-1904, that Dewey

worked out the fundamental principles of his philosophy of education and began to envision

the sort of schools his principles required.

Pragmatism and pedagogy

Over the course of the 1890s Dewey steadily moved away from absolute idealism toward the

pragmatism and naturalism of his mature philosophy. Building on a functional psychology

that owed much to Darwinian evolutionary biology and to the thinking of his fellow

pragmatist, William James, he began to develop a theory of knowledge that contested the

dualisms of mind and world, thought and action, and which had marked Western philosophy

since the seventeenth century. Thought, he argued, was not a congeries of sense impressions

or an artifact of a thing called ‘consciousness’, nor a manifestation of an Absolute Mind, but

rather a mediating, instrumental function that had evolved in order to serve the interests of

human survival and welfare.

This theory of knowledge emphasized the ‘necessity of testing thought by action if

thought was to pass over into knowledge’, and Dewey acknowledged that this proviso

extended to the theory itself (Mayhew & Edwards, 1966, p. 464). His work in education was

intended, in part, to explore the implications of his functional pedagogy and to test it by

experiment.

Dewey was convinced that many of the problems with prevailing educational

practices grew out of their foundations in a faulty dualistic epistemology. He attacked this

dualistic epistemology in his writings on psychology and logic in the 1890s, and he set out to

design a pedagogy that was grounded in his own functional pedagogy. Having spent a good

deal of time observing the growth of his own children, Dewey was certain that there was no

difference in the dynamics of the experiences of children and adults. Both were active beings

who learned by confronting the problematic situations that arose in the course of their

activities. For both children and adults, thinking was an instrument for solving the problems

of experience, and knowledge was the accumulation of wisdom that such problem-solving

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generated. Unfortunately, the theoretical insights of this functionalism had had little impact

on pedagogy until that point, and therefore had been ignored in the schools.

Children, Dewey contended, did not arrive at school as blank slates upon which

teachers might write the lessons of civilization. By the time the child entered the classroom,

he was ‘already intensely active, and the question of education is the question of taking hold

of his activities, of giving them direction’ (Dewey, 1899, p. 25). When children began their

formal education they brought with them four basic ‘native impulses’ —the ‘impulse to

communicate, to construct, to inquire, and to express in finer form.’ These were the ‘natural

resources, the uninvested capital, upon the exercise of which depends the active growth of the

child’ (Dewey, 1899, p. 30). Children also brought their own interests and activities from

home, and it was the task of the teacher to make use of this ‘raw material’ by guiding their

activities at school toward ‘valuable results’ (Mayhew & Edwards, 1966, p. 41).

This argument placed Dewey at odds with both the proponents of a traditional,

‘curriculum-centred’ education, and romantic reformers who advocated a ‘child-centred’

pedagogy. The traditionalists, led by William Torrey Harris, the United States Commissioner

of Education, favoured disciplined, step-by-step instruction in the accumulated wisdom of

civilization. It was the subject-matter that furnished the end and determined the methods of

education. The child was expected simply ‘to receive, to accept. His part is fulfilled when he

is ductile and docile’ (Dewey, 1902, p. 276). However, the advocates of child-centred

education, like G. Stanley Hall, and prominent members of the National Herbart Society,

argued that instruction in subject-matter should be subordinated to the natural, uninhibited

growth of the child. For them the expression of the child’s native impulses were ‘the starting

point, the centre, the end’ (ibid.). These two schools of thought on education engaged in a

fierce philosophical battle in the 1890s. Traditionalists defended the knowledge of centuries

of intellectual struggle and viewed child-centred education as a chaotic, anarchistic surrender

of adult authority. Romantics, however, celebrated spontaneity and change, and charged their

opponents with suppressing the individuality of children by means of a boring, routinized,

despotic pedagogy.

To Dewey, this debate pointed to another pernicious dualism, against which he set

himself. The dispute could be resolved, he said, if both sides would ‘get rid of the prejudicial

notion that there is some gap in kind (as distinct from degree) between the child’s experience

and the various forms of subject-matter that make up the course of study. From the side of the

child, it is a question of seeing how his experience already contains within itself elements —

facts and truths — of just the same sort as those entering into the formulated study; and, what

is of more importance, of how it contains within itself the attitudes, the motives, and the

interests which have operated in developing and organizing the subject-matter to the plane

which it now occupies. From the side of the studies, it is a question of interpreting them as

outgrowths of forces operating in the child’s life, and of discovering the steps that intervene

between the child’s present experience and their richer maturity’ (ibid., p. 277-278).

Dewey’s critique of the traditionalists for their failure to connect the curriculum to the

interests and activities of the child is well-known. His attack on the advocates of childcentred

education for their failure to connect the interests and activities of the child to the

curriculum is, however, often overlooked. Some critics of Dewey’s educational theory have

confused his position with that of the romantics, but he clearly differentiated his pedagogy

from theirs. The danger of romanticism, he said, was that it regarded ‘the child’s present

powers and interests as something finally significant in themselves’ (ibid., p. 280). However,

it would be wrong, to cultivate the purposes and interests of children ‘just as they stand’.

Effective education required these purposes and interests to be used by the teacher in order to

guide the child toward his understanding of the sciences, history, and arts. ‘Interests in reality

are but attitudes toward possible experiences; they are not achievements; their worth is in the

4

leverage they afford, not in the accomplishment they represent’ (ibid.). The curriculum was

based on the experiences of the human race, and therefore it was designed to encourage the

immature experience of the child in their activities. ‘The facts and truths that enter into the

child’s present experience, and those contained in the subject-matter of studies, are the initial

and final terms of one reality’, Dewey concluded. ‘To oppose one to the other is to oppose

the infancy and maturity of the same growing life; it is to set the moving tendency and the

final result of the same process over against each other; it is to hold that the nature and the

destiny of the child war with each other’ (ibid., p. 278).

Deweyan pedagogy called upon teachers to perform the extremely difficult task of

‘reinstating into experience’ the subject-matter of the curriculum (ibid., p. 285). This subjectmatter,

like all human knowledge, was the product of man’s efforts to solve the problems that

confronted him in experience, but, as a formal body of knowledge, it had been abstracted

from the problematic situations where it had originally developed. Traditionalists argued that

this knowledge should simply be imposed on the child in a sequence of steps determined by

the logic of this abstracted body of truth. However, when presented in this fashion, the

material was of little interest to children. Moreover, it did not allow them to discover

knowledge on their own by doing activities in which it was necessary for them to have certain

types of knowledge. In this model, children were told how to do something rather that given

the freedom to discover, first-hand, how to do it themselves. As a consequence, teachers had

to appeal to interests unrelated to the subject-matter, such as the child’s fear of pain and

humiliation, in order to produce the appearance of learning. Rather than impose the subjectmatter

on children in this fashion (or simply leave them to their own devices as romantics

advised), Dewey called upon teachers to ‘psychologize’ the curriculum by constructing an

environment in which the activities of the child would include problematic situations. In

order to solve these problems, children would have to call on their knowledge and skills of

science, history and art. In effect, the curriculum told the teacher ‘such and such are the

capacities, the fulfilments, in truth and beauty and behaviour, open to these children. Now see

to it that day by day the conditions are such that

their own activities move inevitably in thisdirection, toward such culmination of themselves’ (ibid., p. 291).

If teachers were to teach in this fashion, to direct a child’s development by indirection,

they would, Dewey acknowledged, have to be highly skilled professionals, thoroughly

knowledgeable in the subject-matter they were teaching, trained in child psychology, and

skilled in the techniques of providing the necessary stimulus so that the subject-matter would

become part of a child’s growing experience. As two teachers who worked with Dewey

remarked, such a teacher had to be capable of seeing the world as both a child and an adult

saw it. ‘Like Alice, she must step with her children behind the looking-glass and in this

imaginative lens she must see all things with their eyes and limited by their experience; but,

in time of need, she must be able to recover her trained vision and from the realistic point of

view of an adult supply the guide posts of knowledge and the skills of method’ (Mayhew &

Edwards, 1966, p. 312). Dewey admitted that most teachers did not possess the knowledge

and skills necessary to teach in this fashion, but he contended that they could learn to do so.

Democracy and education

The way a child’s character is shaped, the moral and political agenda of schooling, is

sometimes termed the `hidden curriculum.’ In Dewey’s case, this aspect of his educational

theory and practice was no less explicit, though a good deal more radical, than his other

curricular aims. Dewey was not reluctant to assert that ‘the formation of a certain character’

was ‘the only genuine basis of right living’ nor to identify ‘right living’ with democratic

practices (Dewey, 1897

b).5

Individuals, Dewey argued, achieved self-realization by utilizing their peculiar talents to

contribute to the well-being of their community, and hence the critical task of education in a

democratic society was to help children develop the character, the habits and virtues, that

would enable them to achieve self-realization. On the whole, he believed, American schools

were failing to provide an environment in which self-realization could be attained. Most

schools employed highly ‘individualistic’ methods that called upon all the students in a

classroom to read the same books simultaneously and recite the same lessons. In these

conditions the social impulses of the child atrophied, and the teacher was unable to take

advantage of the child’s ‘natural desire to give out, to do, and that means to serve’ (Dewey,

1897

a, p. 64). Social spirit was replaced with ‘positively individualistic motives andstandards’ such as fear, emulation, rivalry, and judgements of superiority and inferiority, and,

as a consequence, ‘the weaker gradually lose their sense of capacity and accept a position of

continuous and persistent inferiority’, while ‘the stronger grow to glory, not in their strength,

but in the fact that they are stronger’ (ibid., p. 64-65). Dewey argued that in order for a school

to foster social spirit and develop democratic character in children, it had to be organized as a

co-operative community. In order to educate for democracy the school had to become ‘an

institution in which the child is, for the time, to live — to be a member of a community life in

which he feels that he participates, and to which he contributes’ (Dewey, 1895, p. 224).

Creating the conditions for the development of democratic character in the classroom

was not an easy task, especially since teachers could not impose such character on students

but rather had to create a social environment in which children took it upon themselves to

assume the responsibilities of a democratic moral life. Such a life, Dewey noted, ‘is lived

only as the individual appreciated for himself the ends for which he is working, and does his

work in a personal spirit of interest and devotion to these ends’ (Dewey, 1897

a, p. 77).Dewey realized he was placing heavy demands on teachers, and for this reason, when

describing their social role and significance in the late 1890s, he lapsed into the language of

the social gospel, which he had otherwise abandoned, calling the teacher ‘the usherer in of

the true kingdom of God’ (Dewey, 1897

b, p. 95).As this testament suggests, Dewey’s educational theory was far less child-centred and

more teacher-centred than is often supposed. His confidence that children would develop a

democratic character in the schools he envisioned was rooted less in a faith in the

‘spontaneous and crude capacities of the child’ than in the ability of teachers to create an

environment in the classroom in which they possessed the means to ‘mediate’ these

capacities ‘over into habits of social intelligence and responsiveness’ (ibid., p. 94-95).

Dewey’s faith in teachers also reflected his belief in the 1890s that ‘education is the

fundamental method of social progress and reform’ (ibid., p. 93). There was a certain logic to

this belief. Insofar as schools played an important part in the shaping of the character of a

society’s children, they could, if they were designed to do so, transform that society. The

school provided a relatively controlled environment in which the conditions of selfdevelopment

could effectively shape its course. Indeed, if teachers did their job well, there

would hardly be a need of any other sort of reform. A democratic, co-operative

commonwealth could emerge from the classroom.

The difficulty with this belief was that most schools were not designed to transform

societies but rather to

reproduce them. As Dewey acknowledged, ‘the school system hasalways been a function of the prevailing type of organization of social life’ (Dewey, 1896

b,p. 285). His beliefs about schools and teachers, outlined in his pedagogic creed, were thus not

as much beliefs about what was than about what might be. If schools were to be made

agencies of social reform rather than agencies of social reproduction, they would have to be

thoroughly reconstructed. This was Dewey’s most ambitious aim as an educational reformer:

6

to transform American schools into instruments for the radical democratization of American

society.

The Dewey school

‘The school’, Dewey declared in 1896, ‘is the one form of social life which is abstracted and

under control — which is directly experimental, and if philosophy is ever to be an

experimental science, the construction of a school is its starting point’ (Dewey, 1896

a,p. 244). Dewey arrived at Chicago with a pretty good idea of the sort of ‘laboratory school’

he wanted to start. He told his wife in 1894 that:

There is an image of a school growing up in my mind all the time; a school where some actual and literal

constructive activity shall be the centre and source of the whole thing, and from which the work should be

always growing out in two directions — one the social bearings of that constructive industry, the other the

contact with nature which supplies it with its materials. I can see, theoretically, how the carpentry, etc., in

building a model house shall be the centre of a social training on the one side and a scientific on the other, all

held within the grasp of a positive concrete physical habit of eye and hand (Dewey, 1894).

Dewey proposed a school to university officials that would keep ‘theoretical work in touch

with the demands of practice’ as the most essential component of a department of pedagogy

— ‘the nerve of the whole scheme’ — and he received the support of Harper, who was

himself an important activist in the campaign for educational reform in Chicago (Dewey,

1896

c, p. 434). In January 1896, the Laboratory School of the University of Chicago openedits doors. The school began with sixteen children and two teachers, but by 1903 it was

providing instruction to 140 students and was staffed by twenty-three teachers and ten

graduate assistants. Most of the students were from professional families, many of them the

children of Dewey’s colleagues. The institution soon became known as the ‘Dewey School’,

for the hypotheses that were tested in this laboratory were strictly those of Dewey’s

functional psychology and democratic ethics.

At the centre of the curriculum of the Dewey School was what Dewey termed the

‘occupation’, that is, ‘a mode of activity on the part of the child which reproduces, or runs

parallel to, some of work carried on in social life’ (Dewey, 1899, p. 92). Divided into eleven

age groups, the students pursued a variety of projects centred on particular historical or

contemporary occupations. The youngest children in the school, who were 4 and 5 years old,

engaged in activities familiar to them from their homes and neighbourhoods: cooking, sewing

and carpentry. The 6-year-olds built a farm out of blocks, planted wheat and cotton, and

processed and transported their crop to market. The 7-year-olds studied prehistoric life in

caves of their own devising while their 8-year-old neighbours focused their attention on the

work of the sea-faring Phoenicians, on Robinson Crusoe and adventurers, like Marco Polo,

Magellan and Columbus. Local history and geography occupied the attention of the 9-yearolds,

while those who were 10 years old studied colonial history, constructing a replica of a

room in an early American house. The work of the older groups of children was less strictly

focused on particular historical periods (though history remained an important part of their

studies) and centred more on scientific experiments in anatomy, electro-magnetism, political

economy, and photography. The 13-year-olds built a substantial clubhouse when they could

not find another suitable place for their debate club to meet. Building the clubhouse was a

group effort that enlisted children of all ages in a co-operative project that was, for many, the

emblematic moment in the school’s history.

The occupational activities pointed on the one hand toward the scientific study of the

materials and processes involved in their practice and on the other toward their role in society

and culture. Therefore, the thematic focus on occupations provided the occasion not only for

7

manual training and historical inquiry but also for work in mathematics, geology, physics,

biology, chemistry, reading, art, music and languages. In the Laboratory School, Dewey

reported, ‘the child comes to school to

do; to cook, to sew, to work with wood and tools insimple constructive acts; within and about these acts cluster the studies—writing, reading,

arithmetic, etc’ (Dewey, 1896

a, p. 245). Skills such as reading were developed when childrencame to recognize their usefulness in solving the problems that confronted them in their

occupational activities. ‘If a child realizes the motive for acquiring skill’, Dewey argued, ‘he

is helped in large measure to secure the skill. Books and the ability to read are, therefore,

regarded strictly as tools’ (Mayhew & Edwards, 1966, p. 26).

Katherine Camp Mayhew and Anna Camp Edwards, who taught in the Laboratory

School, later provided a full account of this remarkable educational experiment. They cited

evidence of the considerable success that Dewey and his colleagues achieved in translating

his theories into practice. Their accounts were supported by the testimony of less-interested

observers as well. For example, the 6-year-old students in the school, building on the

experiences with home activities they had had in kindergarten, concentrated their work on

‘occupations serving the home’. They built a model farm in the sandtable in their classroom

and in the schoolyard they planted a crop of winter wheat. As was the case with most

constructive activities in the school, the building of the model farm provided an occasion for

learning some mathematics:

When their sand-table farm had to be divided into several fields for wheat, corn, oats, and also for the house and

the barn, the children used a one-foot ruler as a unit of measurement and came to understand what was meant by

`fourths and halves’— the divisions made, though not accurate, were near enough to allow them to mark off

their farm. As they became more familiar with the ruler and learned the half-foot, and the quarter-foot and inch,

finer work was naturally expected of them and obtained. … When building the farm-house, four posts were

needed for the corners and six or seven slats, all of the same height. In measuring the latter, the children

frequently forgot to keep the left-hand edge of the ruler on the left-hand side of the slat, so the measurements

had to be repeated two or three times before they were correct. What they did to one side of the house, they also

did to the other and naturally worked more rapidly and more accurately as the work was repeated (Mayhew &

Edwards, 1966, p. 83-84).

In instances such as this, one can see how the child’s interest in a particular activity of his/her

own, such as building a model farm, served as the foundation for instruction in a body of

subject-matter, the skills in measurement and the mathematics of fractions. Moreover, this

method introduced children to the methods of experimental problem-solving in which

mistakes were an important part of learning. Providing children with ‘first-hand experience,’

the problematic situations largely of their own making, was the key to Dewey’s pedagogy. He

believed that ‘until the emphasis changes to the conditions which make it necessary for the

child to take an active share in the personal building up of his own problems and to

participate in methods of solving them (even at the expense of experimentation and error) the

mind is not really freed’ (Dewey, 1903, p. 237).

It is difficult to read through descriptions and accounts of the Laboratory School and

understand how Dewey has come to be seen by some critics as a proponent of ‘aimless’

progressive education. He explicitly stated his curricular goals, and they were readily

apparent in the classroom practice of the teachers with whom he worked. Dewey valued

mankind’s accumulated knowledge as much as the most hidebound traditionalist, and he

intended that the children in his elementary school would be introduced to the riches of

science, history and the arts. He also wanted them to learn to read, to write, to count, to think

scientifically, and to express themselves in a refined manner. As far as subject-matter was

concerned, Dewey’s goals for education were rather conventional, only his methods were

innovative and radical. His goals were conventional but they were also clearly expressed.

8

The Laboratory School was useful as a testing ground for Dewey’s functional

psychology and pragmatism, but it was even more important as an expression of his ethics

and democratic theory. ‘The social phase of education’, he said, ‘was put first’ (Mayhew &

Edwards, 1966, p. 467). The Dewey School was above all an experiment in education for

democracy.

By all available accounts, Dewey was fairly successful in creating a democratic

community in the Laboratory School. Children shared in the planning of their projects, and

the execution of these projects was marked by a co-operative division of labour, in which

leadership roles were frequently rotated. Moreover, the democratic community was fostered

not only among the students in the school but also among the adults who worked there.

Dewey was highly critical of the failure of schools to allow teachers to participate in the

decisions affecting the conduct of public education. He was particularly disturbed by

reformers who wrested control of the schools from corrupt politicians only to invest school

superintendents with enormous, autocratic power. This criticism reflected Dewey’s

commitment to extending democracy beyond the polity and into the workplace. ‘What does

democracy mean’, he asked, ‘save that the individual is to have a share in determining the

conditions and the aims of his own work; and that, upon the whole, through the free and

mutual harmonizing of different individuals, the work of the world is better done than when

planned, arranged, and directed by a few, no matter how wise or of how good intent that

few?’ (Dewey, 1903, p. 233). In the Laboratory School Dewey tried to implement this sort of

workplace democracy. The work of teachers was organized much like that of the children.

Teachers met weekly to discuss and plan their work and, though no doubt constrained in their

criticism by Dewey’s commanding presence, they played an active role in shaping the school

curriculum.

Dewey did not have a clear strategy for making American schools at large into

institutions working on behalf of radical democracy. Although he neither intended nor

expected that the methods of the Laboratory School would be strictly reproduced elsewhere,

he did hope that his school would serve as a source of inspiration for those seeking to

transform public education as well as a training ground and research centre for reformminded

teachers and specialists. He tended in this to underestimate the degree to which the

success of the Dewey School was attributable to its insulation from the conflicts, divisions

and inequities besetting the larger society, an insulation difficult to replicate. It was, after all,

a small school comprised of the children of middle-class professionals and staffed by welltrained,

dedicated teachers with access to the intellectuals of one of the nation’s great

universities.

If Dewey did not have a plan for establishing the schools as powerful adversarial

institutions in the heart of American culture, he did have a clear vision of what he thought the

schools in a thoroughly democratic society should look like. He attempted, with some

considerable success, to embody that vision in the Laboratory School. This school was

clearly not designed for social reproduction. Although Dewey sought to connect the school to

larger social life by putting occupations at the heart of his curriculum, he self-consciously

purified these occupations of one of their most essential features as they were conducted in

American society by removing them from the social relations of capitalist production and

putting them in a co-operative context in which they would have been virtually

unrecognizable to those who performed them in the larger society. In the school, he said, ‘the

typical occupations followed are freed from all economic stress. The aim is not the economic

value of the products, but the development of social power and insight’ (Dewey, 1899, p. 12).

Freed from ‘narrow utilities’, occupations in the school were organized so that ‘method,

purpose, understanding shall exist in the consciousness of the one who does the work, that his

activity shall have meaning to himself’ (ibid., p. 16). The children’s work was unalienated

9

labour in which the separation of hand and brain that was proceeding apace in the nation’s

factories and offices was not present. Dewey sometimes referred to the Laboratory School as

an ‘embryonic society’, but it was far from an embryo of the society that lay outside its walls

(ibid., p. 19). It did not promise the reproduction of industrial America but rather prefigured

its radical reconstruction.

The life of Dewey’s prefigurative community was very brief and, ironically, it was a

struggle over workers’ control of the Laboratory School that led to its demise. Dewey and his

teachers, after all, did not own their workshop; the University of Chicago did. And in 1904

President Harper sided with disgruntled teachers and administrators from the school founded

by Colonel Francis Parker (which had been merged with the Dewey School in 1903) who

resented incorporation into the ‘Mr. and Mrs. Dewey School’ and feared that Alice Dewey in

particular would see no need to retain their services. When Harper fired Alice, Dewey

resigned and almost immediately accepted a position at Columbia University, where he

remained for the rest of his extended career. The loss of the Laboratory School left it to others

to interpret, apply and often distort Dewey’s pedagogical ideas and deprived him of an

extraordinary, concrete manifestation of his democratic ideals.

Progressive reform

Although he never again had his own school, Dewey remained an active critic of American

education for the remainder of his career, and he also ventured abroad to lend his voice to

reform efforts in Japan, Mexico, Turkey, the USSR and China. It was in these places where

he had perhaps the greatest impact. Arriving in China in 1919 on the eve of the emergence of

the May Fourth Movement, Dewey was lionized by many Chinese intellectuals who, as one

historian has said, ‘closely associated his thought with the very definition of modernity’

(Keenan, 1977, p. 34).

Dewey’s democratic convictions led to his involvement in disputes with a wide range

of ‘progressive’ educators, including some who regarded themselves as faithful Deweyans.

He attacked ‘administrative progressives’ who favoured vocational education programs that,

in his opinion, were a form of class education that made the schools a more efficient agent for

the reproduction of an undemocratic society. ‘The kind of vocational education in which I am

interested’, he said, ‘is not one which will adapt workers to the existing industrial regime; I

am not sufficiently in love with the regime for that.’ Rather Americans should strive for ‘a

kind of vocational education which will first alter the existing industrial system, and

ultimately transform it’ (Dewey, 1915, p. 412). Dewey also continued to distance himself

from romantic, child-centred progressives, and in the 1920s he was moved, in an

uncharacteristic moment of public bluntness, to label their method of simply allowing

children to follow their untutored inclinations as ‘really stupid’ (Dewey, 1926, p. 59). Finally,

he even took issue in the 1930s with the radical ‘social reconstructionists’, whose thinking

was perhaps closest to his own, when they proposed programs of ‘counter-indoctrination’ to

contest a curriculum designed to legitimate an oppressive social order. For radicals to engage

in counter-propaganda, he argued, was to demonstrate a lack of confidence in the power of

the convictions they held and the means by which they themselves had presumably arrived at

these convictions. They had not been indoctrinated into the conclusions they had reached

about the shortcomings of capitalist society but had reached these conclusions by means of

‘an intelligent study of historical and existing forces and conditions’ (Dewey, 1935, p. 415).

Radical democrats had to credit their students with the capability to reach the same

conclusions by the same means, not only because this was more democratic but also because

these conclusions should be subjected to the continuous scrutiny that such education would

provide. ‘If the method of intelligence has worked in our own case’, he asked, `how can we

10

assume that the method will not work with our students, and that it will not with them

generate ardour and practical energy?’ (ibid.).

Dewey’s criticisms of other reformers were usually politely received, but changed few

minds. Few followed the ‘way out of educational confusion’ that he proposed. For most

educators, it posed too great a threat to traditional methods and subject-matter. At the same

time, its social implications were too radical for advocates of scientific efficiency, and not

radical enough for some proponents of social reconstruction. Furthermore, although it called

for a revolutionary curriculum that would build on the impulses and interests of children, it

was too respectful of tradition and subject-matter to satisfy romantics. Thus, as the historian

Herbert Kliebard has said, ‘his intellectual stature, his international reputation and his many

honours notwithstanding, Dewey did not have enough of a true following in the world of

educational practice to make his impact felt’ (Kliebard, 1986, p. 179).

Had Dewey continued to believe that the teacher was ‘the usherer in of the true

kingdom of God’, he might have been more distressed than he was that his pedagogical

arguments so often fell on deaf ears. However, after the First World War, the schools were no

longer the focus of his activism. This change reflected a less naive estimate of the place of the

school in social reconstruction, a substantial displacement of the classroom from the centre of

his reform vision. What had once been to his mind

the critical means for the democratizationof American life became one of a number of critical means, and one clearly secondary to

more overtly political institutions for public education. Dewey began to more openly

acknowledged that schools were inextricably tied to prevailing structures of power. Therefore

they were used as agencies for reproduction of the class society of industrial capitalism. Thus

it would be extremely difficult to transform schools into an agency of democratic reform.

Efforts to design them into more democratic institutions repeatedly ran afoul since their were

powerful forces that wished to preserve the existing social order. The defects of schools

mirrored and sustained the defects of the larger society and these defects could not be

remedied apart from a struggle for democracy throughout that larger society. Schools would

take part in the democratic social change only ‘as they ally themselves with this or that

movement of existing social forces’ (Dewey, 1934, p. 207). They could not be viewed, as

Dewey had once been prone to see them, as the vehicle for an evasion of politics.

Dewey’s legacy

Dewey’s philosophy of education came under heavy posthumous attack in the 1950s from the

opponents of progressive education, who blamed him for virtually everything that was wrong

with the American public school system. Although his actual impact upon American schools

was quite limited and conservative critics erred in confusing him with the progressives he had

himself attacked, Dewey proved to be a convenient symbol of opprobrium for

‘fundamentalists,’ worried about the decline of intellectual standards in schools and the threat

this posed to a nation involved in a Cold War with Communism. Following the launch of the

Russian space satellite ‘Sputnik’, as two historians of the period have said, ‘the already

swelling outcry against the educational system became a deafening roar. Everyone joined in

—the President, the Vice-President, admirals, generals, morticians, grocers, bootblacks,

bootleggers, realtors, racketeers—all lamenting the fact that

we didn’t have a hunk of metalorbiting the earth and blaming this tragedy on the sinister Deweyites who had plotted to keep

little Johnny from learning to read’ (Miller & Nowak, 1977, p. 254). Since the 1950s,

variations on this theme have become a regular, periodic feature of debate about the condition

of American public education, and each new call for a return to the ‘basics’ has brought with

it some predictable Dewey-bashing. This type of criticism (as in the case of recent best

11selling indictments by Allan Bloom and E.D. Hirsch) usually insists on misrepresenting

Dewey as a Rousseauean romantic (Bloom, 1987, p. 195; Hirsch, 1987, p. 118-27).

Although many American teachers who have most probably read Dewey and have

tried to teach as Dewey would have had them teach, critics have vastly overestimated his

influence. His legacy is less one of established practice than of adversarial vision. Most

schools are far from the ‘supremely interesting places’ and ‘dangerous outposts of a humane

civilization’ he would have had them be (Dewey, 1922, p. 334). Yet for those who would like

schools to reach Dewey’s vision, his work remains a valuable resource.

Note

1. Robert Westbrook (United States of America). A Graduate of Yale (B.A.) and Stanford (Ph.D.)

universities. He taught at Scipps College and Yale before taking up the post of associate professor of

history at the university of Rochester (New York). He is the author of numerous articles and essays on

American cultural and intellectual history, including

John Dewey and American democracy (1991) and

Pragmatism and politics

 

References

Bloom, Allan. 1987.

Closing of the American mind. New York, NY, Simon & Schuster.Dewey, Jane. 1951. Biography of John Dewey.

In: the philosophy of John Dewey. Ed. Paul A. Schilp. NewYork, NY, Tudor, p. 3-45.

Dewey, John. 1892. Christianity and democracy.

In: early works of John Dewey. Carbondale, IL, SouthernIllinois University Press, 1971, vol. 4, p. 3-10.

——.1894. John Dewey to Alice Dewey, 1 November 1894, Dewey papers, Morris Library, Southern Illinois

University, Carbondale.

——.1895. Plan of organization of the university primary school.

In: early works of John Dewey. Op. cit., 1972,vol. 5, p. 224-43.

——.1896

a. A pedagogical experiment. In: early works of John Dewey. Op. cit., vol. 5, p. 244-46.——.1896

b. Pedagogy as a university discipline. In: early works of John Dewey. Op. cit., vol. 5, p. 281-89.——.1896

c. The need for a laboratory school. In: early works of John Dewey. Op. cit., vol. 5, p. 433-35.——.1897

a. Ethical principles underlying education. In: Early Works of John Dewey. Op. cit., vol. 5, p. 54-83.——.1897

b. My pedagogic creed. In: early works of John Dewey. Op. cit., vol. 5, p. 84-95.——.1899. The school and society.

In: middle works of John Dewey. Carbondale, IL, Southern IllinoisUniversity Press, 1976. vol. 1, p. 1-109.

——.1902. The child and the curriculum.

In: middle works of John Dewey. Op. cit., 1976, vol. 2, p. 271-91.——.1903. Democracy in education.

In: middle works of John Dewey. Op. cit., 1977, vol. 3, p. 229-39.——.1912-13. Philosophy of education.

In: middle works of John Dewey. Op. cit., 1979, vol. 7, p. 297-312.——.1915. Education vs. trade-training.

In: middle works of John Dewey. Op. cit., 1979, vol. 8, p. 411-13.——.1916. John Dewey to Horace M. Kallen, 1 July 1916, Horace M. Kallen papers, American Jewish

Archives, Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati.

——.1922. Education as politics.

In: middle works of John Dewey. Op. cit., 1983, vol. 13, p. 334.——.1926. Individuality and experience.

In: later works of John Dewey. Carbondale, IL, Southern IllinoisUniversity Press, 1984, vol. 2, p. 55-61.

——.1934. Can education share in social reconstruction?’

In: later works of John Dewey. Op. cit., 1986, vol. 9,p. 205-9.

——.1935. The crucial role of intelligence.

In: later works of John Dewey. Op. cit., 1987, vol. 11, p. 342-44.Hirsch, E.D. 1987.

Cultural literacy: What every American needs to know. Boston, MA, Houghton, Mifflin.Keenan, Barry. 1977.

The Dewey experiment in China: educational reform and political power in the earlyrepublic

. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.Kliebard, Herbert M. 1986.

The struggle for the American curriculum, 1893-1958. Boston, MA, Routledge &Kegan Paul, 1986.

Mayhew, Katherine Camp; Edwards, Anna Camp. 1966.

The Dewey school. New York, NY, Atherton.Miller, Douglas T.; Nowak, Marion. 1977.

The fifties. Garden City, NY, Doubleday.

Bibliography

The entire corpus of John Dewey’s work has been published in the recently completed, thirty-seven volume

Collected works of John Dewey

 

The early works of John Dewey, 1882-1898; The middle works of John Dewey, 1899-1924; and Thelater works of John Dewey, 1925-1953

. Here I list Dewey’s major writings on education from this edition inchronological order. Most of his books on education are also available in other editions, many in paperback.

My pedagogic creed. 1897,

Early works, vol. 5, p. 84-95.The school and society. 1899.

Middle works, vol. 1, p. 1-109.The educational situation, 1901.

Middle works, vol. 1, p. 257-313.The child and the curriculum. 1902.

Middle works, vol. 2, p. 271-291.Moral principles in education. 1909.

Middle works, vol. 4, p. 265-291.How we think. 1910.

Middle works, vol. 6, p. 177-356.Interest and effort in education. 1913.

Middle works, vol. 7, p. 151-97.Schools of tomorrow, with Evelyn Dewey. 1915.

Middle works, vol. 8, p. 205-404.Democracy and education. 1916.

Middle works, vol. 9, p. 1-370.Education and politics. 1922.

Middle works, vol. 13, p. 329-34.The sources of a science of education. 1929.

Later works, vol. 5, p. 1-40.The way out of educational confusion. 1931.

Later works, vol. 6, p. 75-89.How we think. (Expanded and revised edition.) 1933.

Later works, vol. 8, p. 105-352.Experience and education. 1938.

Later works, vol. 13, p. 1-62.See also: Reginald D. Archambault. (ed.)

John Dewey, lectures in the philosophy of education, 1899. New York,NY, Random House, 1966; and

Two useful anthologies of Dewey’s educational writings: JosephRatner. (ed.)

Education today. New York, NY, Putnam, 1940; and Reginald D. Archambault. (ed.)

John Dewey on education

 

Guide to the works of John Dewey.

Carbondale, IL, Southern Illinois University Press, 1970.

Further reading

Archambault, Reginald., ed.

Dewey on education, appraisals. New York, NY, Random House, 1966.Baker, Melvin C.

Foundations of John Dewey’s educational theory. New York, NY, Atherton, 1966.Brickman, William M.; Lehrer, Stanley. (eds.)

John Dewey: master educator. Second ed. New York, NY,Atherton, 1966.

Childs, John L.

American pragmatism and education. New York, NY, Henry Holt, 1956.Coughlan, Neil.

Young John Dewey. Chicago, IL, University of Chicago Press, 1975.Cremin, Lawrence.

The transformation of the school: progressivism in American education, 1876-1957. NewYork, NY, Vintage Books, 1961.

Curti, Merle.

The social ideas of American educators. Totowa, NJ, Littlefield, Adams, 1959, p. 500-41.Dykhuizen, George.

The life and mind of John Dewey. Carbondale, IL, Southern Illinois University Press, 1975.Hendley, Brian.

Dewey, Russell, and Whitehead: philosophers as educators. Carbondale, IL, Southern IllinoisUniversity Press, 1986.

Keenan, Barry.

The Dewey experiment in China: educational reform and political power in the early republic.Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1977.

Kliebard, Herbert M.

The struggle for the American curriculum, 1893-1958. Boston, MA, Routledge & KeganPaul, 1986.

Mayhew, Katherine Camp; Edwards, Anna Camp.

The Dewey school. New York, NY, Atherton, 1966.Rockefeller, Steven.

John Dewey: religious faith and democratic humanism. New York, NY, ColumbiaUniversity Press, 1991.

Westbrook, Robert.

John Dewey and American democracy. Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1991.Wirth, Arthur G.

John Dewey as educator. New York, Wiley, 1966.For a guide to the extensive secondary literature on Dewey see:

Boydston, Jo Ann; Poulos, Kathleen. (eds.)

Checklist of writings about John Dewey. 2nd ed. Carbondale, IL,Southern Illinois University Press, 1978.

. Chicago, IL, University of Chicago Press, 1974. A helpful roadmap to thewhole of Dewey’s philosophy is: Jo Ann Boydston. (ed.)

(Carbondale, IL, Southern Illinois University Press, 1967-1992), comprised of12

three series:

.

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