Philosophy Matters Book Club: John Dewey

Philosophy Matters Book Club

Today, I’m happy to introduce yet another recurring post, the Philosophy Matters Book Club. Each week we will be looking at a short work or a portion of a book. I would love it if you could read along with us, but even if you’re not able to, my plan is to write about the work in such a way that you can still join in on the discussion and get something out of it. My co-authors will also be chiming in from time to time for these discussion as well.

To kick things off, I have selected a short piece by John Dewey. One of my philosophy professors told me that I reminded him a great deal of Dewey both in the way I wrote and what I had to say. However, I recently realized that I actually covered very little of Dewey’s material during any of my formal work for a degree. I thought this would be a good opportunity to take a closer look at some of his important ideas.

One of the reasons that I’m interested in learning more about Dewey is because it seems like his ideas for education align with some of the ideas I have for how Philosophy Matters can impact other people and the way we learn. For me, philosophy is at the root of every subject, and by its very nature interdisciplinary. Trying to figure out how to best express this and make it work with education is an important goal.

My Pedagogic Creed by John Dewey (1897)

“I believe that when science and art thus join hands the most commanding motive for human action will be reached; the most genuine springs of human conduct aroused and the best service that human nature is capable of guaranteed.”

School curriculum has been so divided that we struggle to collaborate. Math teachers teach math. Art teachers teach art. Science teachers teach science. They have separate rooms. Separate tests, texts, discussions, requirements and goals. While pedagogical trends work in cycles, it’s the cycle of segregating the subjects that has affected the way students think and learn. In real life we encounter almost all of the subjects at once. We are not exclusively reading, exclusively writing or thinking critically – we are incorporating all of these in the same situation.

In my classroom I integrate art with science – I was lucky enough to be a part of the Art-Science Fusion program at UC Davis and have taken the philosophy and applied it to the educational outreach that I do for Mississippi State and much more importantly, for the Mississippi Governor’s School course entitled, “The Art and Science of Entomology”. I learned insect anatomy by creating insects out of clay. Now the majority of my gestalt for insect identification includes the thought, “How would I make this out of clay?” – incorporating creative, spatial reasoning skills and insect taxonomy. That is my personal example of Art-Science fusion, but if you check out the program at the University of California, Davis you’ll see that they have applied this concept to more than just insects. They have courses in botany (+art), water + song, ecology, evolution and dancing the line between art and science. While this approach is novel to some, it has become completely intuitive to me. I hope to be involved in and see more programs like this in the future. I have seen this work and advocate for the incorporation of art in the science classroom.

 “It should be introduced, not as so much new subject-matter, but as showing the factors already involved in previous experience and as furnishing tools by which that experience can be more easily and effectively regulated.”

Prior knowledge must be incorporated into the classroom and in life. Each new topic must be approached like a story, give some background, progress through the information, provide a moral or conclusion. Learners respond to context. The worst thing that a teacher can deal with in regards to curriculum development is push-back; students don’t see the practical application of pure math, pure science, pure grammar – because one does not exist.

This was a huge issue for me in high school, especially in math. I frequently demanded information on how I could use this, what types of situations it applied to, why it mattered. And I usually got very little response.

An interdisciplinary approach would have helped you as a student, psychologically. Even if it only applied to one other course (and not even a practical application like you in the workforce), you would see it as required, necessary, and important. Context is important.

Even a history of it would have helped me. After hating my calculus class, I bought a book about it in college that explained how it was invented, what problems were being worked on, etc. This made it so much more relevant to me.

That is important to remember as a teacher, parent and storyteller that relevance, background, history, and context are important things to remember. It helps in application and recollection (which are indications that a specific topic or concept has been learned!).

 “With the advent of democracy and modern industrial conditions, it is impossible to foretell definitely just what civilization will be twenty years from now. Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions. To prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities.”

This has only become more evident in today’s world. The increasingly rapid advances of technology make it harder than ever to prepare students for future jobs. Consider: “The top 10 in-demand jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004.” “For students with a 4 year technical degree, this means that half of what they learn in their first year, will be outdated by their third year of study.”

Perhaps some technical skills might still make sense, but education has to encompass more. It needs to be, as Dewey says, a process of living. We have access to so much data now that we can pull up on our cell phones at a whim. Memorizing facts doesn’t matter. Learning how to learn and how to tell which data is important or relevant is what education needs to focus on. Critical thinking skills are of the utmost importance because they help us filter and organize and interpret all of the information we encounter on a daily basis. Once we learn these skills, education can focus on helping us apply them to specific situations.

This isn’t an arcane debate that doesn’t matter. This is an issue that’s being debated in public now. The Texas GOP recently stated that they oppose the teaching of critical thinking skills.

How we prepare our students today will affect the way they direct the world tomorrow.

This is precisely why I encourage my students to become educated voters.

It’s easy to forget that we have the power to change the way things are. We look at the way education is now, and it can seem like a massive issue that is beyond our ability to deal with. We complain about things like State Testing, but forget that we can take action to get it changed. Just recently I had a reminder that when we’re passionate and persistent about something, we can use our democratic power to get it changed. Education is a major issue, but there are plenty of passionate people who care about improving it. And it can be done.


  • Art/Science fusion programs take strong cues from Dewey
  • New information should build on prior knowledge, and have some sort of context.
  • Students must have the confidence that they know how to learn and think critically about what they are learning, in order to continue their life-long learning.


Next week: We will be looking at Dewey in more depth, by beginning his “Democracy and Education.” There is a free online edition, or you can buy it through the Amazon link below and support this site.

Democracy and Education

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