Democracy and Education part 4

Philosophy Matters Book Club

The last section of Dewey’s Democracy and Education discussed the importance of the scientific method to the way we now learn. He argued that this method broke down the opposition that had existed between rationalism and empiricism in philosophy. Now, empiricism was called to check on that which reason and theory suggested in a way that it never had been before, and he believes this is a vast improvement in the way we acquire knowledge.  The theory, in turn, gives context to our sense experience.

The way to enable a student to apprehend the instrumental value of arithmetic is not to lecture him upon the benefit it will be to him in some remote and uncertain future, but to let him discover that success in something he is interested in doing depends upon ability to use number.

I feel like I’ve quoted this exact passage earlier in the book, but it drives home the same message: show the students why these skills matter now, don’t lecture on why they will matter some day.

But when we confine the education of those who work with their hands to a few years of schooling devoted for the most part to acquiring the use of rudimentary symbols at the expense of training in science, literature, and history, we fail to prepare the minds of workers to take advantage of this opportunity. More fundamental is the fact that the great majority of workers have no insight into the social aims of their pursuits and no direct personal interest in them.

Here, I take Dewey to be arguing for a liberal education, saying that vocational training alone is not enough. Good citizens need to understand the context of their jobs, why they are important, and also have a personal interest in them in order to truly do them well. A full education, for Dewey, would cover all aspects of this, and not just the vocational skills.

Sentimentally, it may seem harsh to say that the greatest evil of the present regime is not found in poverty and in the suffering which it entails, but in the fact that so many persons have callings which make no appeal to them, which are pursued simply for the money reward that accrues. For such callings constantly provoke one to aversion, ill will, and a desire to slight and evade. Neither men’s hearts nor their minds are in their work.

How many people pick their college major or career based on the amount of money that they expect to make? In context, Dewey argues that if we change our education system, we will see a change in this perspective. He also worries that this would lead to the tendency to only do vocational training, which is not what he wants.

Men still want the crutch of dogma, of beliefs fixed by authority, to relieve them of the trouble of thinking and the responsibility of directing their activity by thought. They tend to confine their own thinking to a consideration of which one among the rival systems of dogma they will accept. Hence the schools are better adapted, as John Stuart Mill said, to make disciples than inquirers.

I found this passage from Dewey particularly interesting. In my own observations, I find this to be spot on, in ever aspect of life. We as people find it much easier to put our belief, or faith, in something, rather than to do the hard work of thinking things through ourselves and coming to conclusions. And by extension, this would be the easiest thing for the schools to help us do. Critical thinking and rational inquiry are tough. They take practice. And the results can be disruptive to traditions. But for an educated and democratic society, this is ultimately necessary.

My previous conceptions of Dewey, made without ever having read any Dewey directly and based solely on references and second hand comments about Dewey, was that his pragmatic education theory very much suggested vocational training.

What I have taken away from this reading is that vocational training is important – we should have our students doing the hands on type of work for the careers they will be doing but with two important caveats:

  1. This should not be too specific. Jobs change, needed skills change, expectations change. They need general vocational training that can be applied widely.
  2. This vocational training should be in the context of a larger liberal education. This is never stated straightforwardly and explicitly, but I believe it is clearly supported.

In conclusion, much of what I’ve heard about Dewey seems to be a simplified and therefore inaccurate picture of Dewey.

What did you think about his theories of education?

Next week we’re going to discussing Richard Bach’s “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”:

Jonathan Livingston Seagull

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