Book Club: Democracy and Education part 2

Philosophy Matters Book Club

To make it interesting by leading one to realize the connection that exists is simply good sense; to make it interesting by extraneous and artificial inducements deserves all the bad names which have been applied to the doctrine of interest in education.

This next section of the book does begin to emphasize – though in very broad strokes – better ways to go about teaching. For Dewey, everything seems to rest on connecting the material to be learned back to how it actually affects our lives. This is extremely important to me, and something that has been missing from much of my education. It also appears to be severely lacking in much of the work in contemporary philosophy.

Dewey gives the example that babies don’t study walking and talking because it is a subject that must be done, rather, it relies on natural impulses for things they want to do, and so they practice it through experience and eventually learn it. He is suggesting most, if not all learning should be much more similar to this. We should go with a child’s natural instincts and show them how the material connects to things they are already interested in.

One who recognizes the importance of interest will not assume that all minds work in the same way because they happen to have the same teacher and textbook.

In many ways, this makes teaching all the more challenging. The very same material may be applicable to the lives of 10 different students in 10 different ways. The job of the teacher is to help each student see that connection. For me, this speaks to the ridiculousness of having a 500 student seminar course at college. There is no way a student can get the kind of interaction and customization needed to really learn material.

Last week I emphasized how state testing was a symptom of our broken education system, but I think these massive courses at the college level, as well as the way that many (most?) online courses are structured, are also a symptom of how broken the college model of education has also become.

Dewey compares teaching to art. There are standard things that need to be learned – a painter must know about canvases and paints and pigments, but the way these are combined is where the art shines through. Similarly, a teacher must know basic pedagogy strategies, but the way they are combined to help a particular student is where the art of teaching shines through.

One wholly indifferent to the outcome does not follow or think about what is happening at all. From this dependence of the act of thinking upon a sense of sharing in the consequences of what goes on, flows one of the chief paradoxes of thought. Born in partiality, in order to accomplish its tasks it must achieve a certain detached impartiality. The general who allows his hopes and desires to affect his observations and interpretations of the existing situation will surely make a mistake in calculation.

This passage stood out to me because L and I were recently discussing the significance of everyone feeling (unrealistically) the need to have an opinion on every topic, and in addition, be right about their opinion. Dewey points out that it is natural to have this type of impulse to have an opinion – that’s the very definition of interest. The key is not letting our desire to be “right” and our own personal preferences or desires affect our thinking. This is the advanced step that many are missing.

Only gradually and with a widening of the area of vision through a growth of social sympathies does thinking develop to include what lies beyond our direct interests: a fact of great significance for education.

And the next step after learning to keep our hopes and desires out of interpretations is expanding our interests. This is the type of thinking that I believe is important for students to learn, and it encompasses much of the mission of Philosophy Matters. Learning how to think critically is an important skill that is not emphasized in school.

The occasions and material of thought are not found in the arithmetic or the history or geography itself, but in skillfully adapting that material to the teacher’s requirements. The pupil studies, but unconsciously to himself the objects of his study are the conventions and standards of the school system and school authority, not the nominal “studies.”

Dewey once again focuses on problems with the education system, that depressingly still ring true today. Even among many of the  best and brightest students I encounter, there is more concern with learning how to get an “A” in a course than there is in learning the material in the course. Dewey suggests this is but another symptom of divorcing subject matter from its connection to our actual real lives outside of the school.

The accumulation and acquisition of information for purposes of reproduction in recitation and examination is made too much of. “Knowledge,” in the sense of information, means the working capital, the indispensable resources, of further inquiry; of finding out, or learning, more things. Frequently it is treated as an end itself, and then the goal becomes to heap it up and display it when called for.

This in particular is an issue I noticed as early as high school, and was the focus of much of my work in the study of knowledge (epistemology). I have tried to make a distinction between knowing and understanding. This is a subtle point that requires a lot of explanation, but as briefly as possible, I believe that the memorizing of facts and knowledge of certain proposition is different from “seeing” the “why” of these things and understanding the reason behind them.

I didn’t encounter  a class that truly emphasized understanding until I was in college, and I believe that’s a huge problem with our education system.

Next week we continue with the next 25% of Dewey’s Democracy and Education.

Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education

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