Book Club: Democracy and Education part 1

Philosophy Matters Book Club

John Dewey: Democracy and Education

Now in many cases—too many cases—the activity of the immature human being is simply played upon to secure habits which are useful.

Dewey really draws out the problem with a great deal of the educational process here – not just in the actual school system, but also the education that takes place at home with parents. I’m thinking of instances where parents train habits in their children that will be useful without explaining the why or caring about the long term effects of such habits. The way we teach our children makes a huge difference, though.

The mistake is not in attaching importance to preparation for future need, but in making it the mainspring of present effort. Because the need of preparation for a continually developing life is great, it is imperative that every energy should be bent to making the present experience as rich and significant as possible. Then as the present merges insensibly into the future, the future is taken care of.

This argument of Dewey applies to a great deal to our education system today. School at all levels has become vocational over time, to the point that college degrees are often looked at as a path to a particular job, rather than the general liberal education that it has roots in. Dewey is suggesting that this emphasis on the future can become so focused that we forget how much the present matters – and I think this is often the case. We tell our students to just jump through the hurtles so they can get their degree and so they can get their job – and all the while the educational process is suffering and our students learn to hate learning. The educational process itself should be beneficial and enjoyable in the moment.

To talk about an educational aim when approximately each act of a pupil is dictated by the teacher, when the only order in the sequence of his acts is that which comes from the assignment of lessons and the giving of directions by another, is to talk nonsense.

Dewey argues for a much more active role of the student in his or her own learning process. This process should be guided by their own interests and mentored by a teacher, rather than dictated. This reminds me somewhat of how my gifted education courses were growing up. We had much more freedom to explore topics we were interested in and also in ways that we were interested in. Throughout elementary and middles school these were the only things I looked forward to in school. Most of my real learning took place at home – especially once I was able to access the internet regularly.

The vice of externally imposed ends has deep roots. Teachers receive them from superior authorities; these authorities accept them from what is current in the community. The teachers impose them upon children. As a first consequence, the intelligence of the teacher is not free; it is confined to receiving the aims laid down from above. Too rarely is the individual teacher so free from the dictation of authoritative supervisor, textbook on methods, prescribed course of study, etc., that he can let his mind come to close quarters with the pupil’s mind and the subject matter. This distrust of the teacher’s experience is then reflected in lack of confidence in the responses of pupils.

This passage in particular sounds like it could have been written about state testing procedures that have taken over in the past few years. Dewey argues that this stifles the educational process and doesn’t let the teacher truly work with the students. This sounds accurate based on what I’ve heard from my friends in the educational field.

And we do not emphasize things which do not require emphasis—that is, such things as are taking care of themselves fairly well. We tend rather to frame our statement on the basis of the defects and needs of the contemporary situation;

This harkens back to my thoughts on the emphasis of job preparation in current schooling. There certainly was historically a need to teach these skills, but I don’t believe this need is still as pressing as it once was. Today we see that because of how fast technology advances, students will be working at jobs that didn’t even exist while they were in school. How can we continue to train for specific jobs when we can’t even know what those jobs will be?

Dewey hasn’t addressed this thought – at least so far, but it seems to me that there are more general skills that can be taught to better help prepare students for the world they will face. Skills like critical thinking and philosophy that helps them prepare to understand the world around them.

Although vocational education may have once been useful, and may still be in limited circumstances, I’m suggesting that it is entirely over-used and over-emphasized in today’s fast paced world.

What do you think?

Next week we will continue with the same book.

Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education

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