John Dewey (1859-1952)

"Democracy and Education", 1916

John Dewey cph.3a51565

John Dewey


Glider of brothers Wright, 1900

While the previous thinkers we've examined 
correspond to the apex of bourgeois revolutions, John Dewey represents the United States at its best, at the time it was vibrant and developing rapidly, leading the rest of the world in progress. This period is the beginning of XX century. Among other things, in this time period we notice invention of the airplane by the Wright brothers and introduction of the assembly line by Henry Ford.

What is education?

1. Education means bringing up a person to a level where s/he can deal with problems of life on his own. In the words of an American poet, Robert Frost (as passed on to me by my friend, Alice Leung):

Reaching for that star
to guide me far 
and shine me home 
out here, on my own

Education is reaching for distant "star", first with the help of others, and in the process learning to rely on oneself.

Explorer educator people
2. Another definition of education is leading a person up to a point where s/he can become an explorer of the Universe. Here, we can present the picture (on the right) which illustrates relationship between an explorer (let's say a poet), the educators (let's say, those who spread his stanzas) and the people at large.

The explorer is leading in quest of knowledge. The educators are able to absorb that which the explorer has won for humanity, and pass it on to the people at large. The educators thus stand in the middle between the explorers and the people. They partake of both worlds. This unique position allows the educator to share new knowledge with people in general.

The scheme "explorer - educators - the people" reminds us of a nuclear reaction, whereby an element splits to form several others, or subatomic particles. The process of knowledge thus is a kind of a nuclear explosion, but proceding slowly, over a longer period of time.

3. Education is growth, in all aspects - as a man or as a woman, as an intellect, as a physical person, as a student, as a teacher, as an explorer. All that which promotes our growth is educational. All that which retards our growth is anti-educational.

4. "Education is development". That means: “(i) that the educational process has no end beyond itself; it is its own end; and that (ii) the educational process is one of continual reorganizing, reconstructing, transforming.” Education should be both development of the teacher and the students. If a subject is no longer educative for the teacher, s/he should change the subject (which, of course, is next to impossible in the industrial mode of production, emphasizing "specialists"). 

5. The purpose of education is to save up time and make our overall existence more pleasurable, more worth while living: “Time otherwise necessarily devoted to wresting a livelihood from a grudging environment and securing a precarious protection against its inclemencies is freed”.

To sum up: education is helping a person to stand on his/her own and reach for worthwhile goal. Education is leading a person to the position of becoming an explorer. Education is that which promotes our growth. It is a process of development both of the teacher and the students. Education leads us to the position of knowledge which makes us strong.

The process of obtaining education

1. Throughout its history, humanity has devised many ways for obtaining education. These have been: a) Observation of adults and learning from experience - in the society of hunters and gatherers; 
b) Schools of gymnastics, sophistry and philosophy - in societies which used the labor of slaves;
c) System of apprenticeship and journeymen - in a feudal society; 
e) Mandatory elementary schools for everyone + universities for the elite - in industrial societies.

Thus we suppose that future society will develop new forms of education.

2. One image of education which immediately arises in my mind is that of a sailing ship. Students must be taken out of the outdated and mole-eaten classrooms and brought 
into contact with real life, in the image of an ocean. Dewey writes: “The first approach to any subject in school, if thought is to be aroused and not words acquired, should be as unscholastic as possible. To realize what an experience, or empirical situation, means, we have to call to mind the sort of situation that presents itself outside of school; the sort of occupations that interest and engage activity in ordinary life”. The process of education has to resemble real life, in order for students to learn the skills necessary for the future. On the other hand, we have to learn to apply skills learned in "schools" to problems of everyday life. The goal is to erase the difference between experience of school and the experience of life. 

3. “All communication (and hence all genuine social life) is educative”. Education can be obtained through social interaction. On the other hand, not all social interaction is educative. The import and value of social interaction lies in the level of education which it is able to impart. Thus, the greater is the educative content of interaction, the more important it is for a person. Love, adoration and respect often surround the person who is able to lead the educational effort. For example, Buddha was loved by his desciples.

4. Education is that which only to a small degree relies on books. “That education is not an affair of “telling” and being told, but an active and constructive process, is a principle almost as generally violated in practice as conceded in theory.” Education basically must teach a student to be creative. A student must dare to think and improve upon a topic suggested in a group. S/he must dare to bring his own materials to share with others, rather than passively wait for what a teacher may bring. Teaching creativity is possible only when a teacher is able to exercise this creativity her/himself. We teach something only by doing that, by showing an example, not by "telling" to be so-and-so. Hence, education demands a totally different setting from the one which exists today.

5. “While books and conversation can do much, these agencies are usually relied upon too exclusively. Schools require for their full efficiency more opportunity for conjoint activities in which those instructed take part.” Real education is about a voluntary interaction between teachers and students outside the walls of the schools. It is about extending the concept of schooling to include life in all its variety of relationships. Hence, we may find out that the roles are reversed, i.e. students may become teachers, and teachers become students. Distinctions between teachers and students disappear.

To sum up: education will be obtained in the future in a different way from how it is obtained today. It will certainly be far away from "schools" and their empty lecturing. It will be an arrangement that is life itself, it will provide an element of a journey and discovery to students. It will develop an all-around person, rather than limiting him/her to special skills. It will be a social arrangement, for education is to be obtained together with others. 

Interest and self-discipline

1. Dewey writes: “The philosophy is eloquent about the duty of the teacher in instructing pupils; it is almost silent regarding his privilege of learning. It emphasizes the influence of intellectual environment upon the mind; it slurs over the fact that the environment involves a personal sharing in common experiences”. The first requirement for a teacher is to be engaged in the process of learning. The only one who can impart the sense of excitement, joy and flight that is typical for actual learning is the one who knows this sense for oneself. Teacher must be interested in the material of presentation in order for the students to become interested as well. In a way, a learning experience is a maiden voyage both for the teacher and the students.

2. All study and all activity must be done with an interest. When that is absent, it is useless to become engaged in that. As J. J. Rousseau writes: "if this book is to be well written, I must enjoy writing it". This feeling of interest, or enjoyment, which accompanies our activity is like a compass for a sailor at sea. By reference to this compass we must guide our life. Other criteria, such as practical convenience, tends to guide us in another direction.

3. Dewey defines interest in the following way: “Interest means that one is identified with the objects which define the activity”. For example, if you build a sailing ship, you become identified with the interests of the sailing ship, you express what is good for it, and strive to obtain that. If you are a teacher, you identify with the students, their concerns. Interest stems from a feeling that that other with which one is identified is not actually something different from oneself. Interest is a kind of love. If you don't have a kind of love for the object of your activity, then you are engaged in the wrong activity.

4. “To take an interest is to be on the alert, to care about, to be attentive. We say of an interested person both that he has lost himself in some affair and that he has found himself in it. Both terms express the engrossment of the self in an object”. In the words of Pink Floyd: "...and I am you, and what I see is me..." ("Echoes"). Interest calls us to go on a journey through that other, and hence lose  oneself in that other (as in a forest, or in the ocean, or in outer space), and yet to find oneself in that other as something complementary and necessary for ourselves.

5. Interest results in our desire to serve that other, to give ourselves away to that other, and yet we're in no way giving ourselves away, but rather anchoring our own existence and our own presence in that other. The more we give to that person or a process, we greater is our presence there, the harder it will be to expel ourselves from that other. Interest, as well as love, is ourselves intertwining with the other, making difference between ourselves and that other negligent.

6. Interest grips us to a subject/person, and hence we become attached. It is "the glue" of the mind and the body. Interest leads to a sense of loyalty to the subject, a sense of internal duty, and hence a sense of discipline. Usually, we perceive this discipline as something imposed on us from without. But internal discipline, or self-discipline, results from a feeling of interest in a subject. Goal of a teacher is to ignite, or at least not to smother, this sense of interest which is present from the beginning.

7. Dewey explains connection between an interest and discipline thus: “Any activity with an aim implies a distinction between an earlier incomplete phase and later completing phase; it implies also intermediate steps. To have an interest is to take things as entering into such a continuously developing situation, instead of taking them in isolation. The time difference between the given incomplete state of affairs and the desired fulfillment exacts effort in transformation, it demands continuity of attention and endurance. This attitude is what is practically meant by will. Discipline or development of power of continuous attention is its fruit.” A teacher should try to find the interest of a student, where it is at the present stage, and lead it higher, step by step. Teacher can be defined as "an interest finder". If a person is not that, s/he is not a teacher.

8. The very concept of "discipline" implies a subject, such as math, or wrestling, etc. Any subject imposes its own conditions on the person pursuing this subject. Homework must be done in preparation for a math lesson, push ups have to be in preparation for a wrestling session. A teacher is the one who expresses what must be done to the student, even though, with a little thought, a student can think for himself what must be done. The problem is that of will and knowledge. The goal of education is to develop in a student ability to think what must be done, what requirements the subject imposes. At this point, discipline passes into a self-discipline, a schedule for the day, made up by the student. A schedule of the day passes then into a weekly schedule, and finally into a life plan.

To sum up: both teacher and students must be learning in a true educational process. This learning proceeds from an interest. An interest means a person becomes identified with that which s/he is doing. Identification of oneself with the other leads one to impose upon oneself a sense of discipline, which is a sense of loyalty to the subject. This sense of loyalty allows one to bring to completion the process of construction, or creation of something new. In a way, it is this process itself which imposes itself on the person who becomes engaged in it. The person wills that which is the process.

The process of presentation 1. “Presentation of new subject matter is obviously the central thing, but since knowing consists in the way in which this interacts with the contents already submerged below consciousness, the first thing is the step of 'preparation', – that is, calling into special activity and getting above the floor of consciousness those older presentations which are to assimilate the new one. Then after the presentation, follow the processes of interaction of new and old; then comes the application of the newly formed content to the performance of some task”. Hence, a method of presentation consists of: (i) Get students ready by recalling on the old relevant material;
(ii) Present the new material as a sequel to the old; 
(iii) Dwell upon the interaction of the old and the new, establish connections;
(iv) Ask the students to apply the new material to some well-defined task (practice, exercises). 2. Going over the "old" material is essential both for the teacher and the student (for the teacher is learning how to teach all the time). “A well-trained mind is one that has a maximum of resources behind it, so to speak, and that is accustomed to go over its past experiences to see what they yield.” The teacher understands more clearly than the students that material has to be reviewed again and again. The goal is to make students understand that they have to review on their own. Such reviews lead to the process of thinking.

The process of thinking 1. Goal of educational process can be defined as teaching a person to think independently, to think on her/his own. From the process of thinking, as it is developed in the classroom, the student should proceed to thinking outside the classroom, about the matters not pertaining to school. The process of review and evaluation, on all subject matters, should be performed regularly. 2. Dewey explains the general steps of thinking: "They are (i) perplexity, confusion, doubt, due to the fact that one is implicated in an incomplete situation whose full character is not yet determined; (ii) a conjectural anticipation – a tentative interpretation of the given elements, attributing to them a tendency to effect certain consequences; (iii) a careful survey (examination, inspection, exploration, analysis) of all attainable consideration which will define and clarify the problem in hand; (iv) a consequent elaboration of the tentative hypothesis to make it more precise and more consistent, because squaring with a wider range of facts; (v) taking one stand upon the projected hypothesis as a plan of action which is applied to the existing state of affairs: doing something overtly to bring about the anticipated result, and thereby testing the hypothesis.” Hence, thinking, according to Dewey, consists of: (i) perplexity and confusion about something new
(ii) a conjecture, a guess 
(iii) a careful survey of the problem;
(iv) a new hypothesis, or conjecture
(v) a plan of action to test the hypothesis. 3. One important element is added to the sequence. Dewey states explicitly that thinking starts in crude experience. “The first stage of contact with any new material, at whatever age of maturity, must inevitably be of the trial and error sort. An individual must actually try, in play or work, to do something with material in carrying out his own impulsive activity, and then note the interaction of his energy and that of the material employed”. "Trial and error" period is absolutely necessary for an individual to learn. In fact, this "trial and error" period continues all our lives, as long as we're learning.

4. We should reflect that education is a process of transition from more elementary goals to more complex goals. "The aim, in short, is experimental, and hence constantly growing as it is tested in action”. The more complex goals require more theory.

In the picture (on the left), we see: 1) the peak of everyday life, 2) the peak of scientific endeavor, 3) the peak of Titans. The last may be defined as interaction of theoretical and practical activities.

5. Thinking, as given by Dewey, is both a practical and theoretical experience. Material of thinking is words and concepts only in rare cases, as for example in the process of analysis of a song. Much more often material of thinking is activities in our own lives.

Sequence of thinking can be illustrated in the picture (on the right).

Thinking starts in a crude experience. It then proceeds to a higher point of view, where we make observations upon this experience. Here, we collect data. Next is the process of reflection about the nature of the experience. Here we investigate the problem from a general point of view and form some conjectures. Next comes "an experiment": we test our conjecture, obtain more experience. And so the process continues infinitely. It improves upon itself, by improving upon the conjectures tested, and by becoming more self-concious.

The process of learning

1. Thinking and learning is virtually the same thing. 

2. Thinking starts from a crude experience. Common fallacy is that it is possible to think through a material without first having this direct experience. Dewey states that "no thought, no idea, can possibly be conveyed as an idea from one person to another. When it is told, it is, to the one to whom it is told, another given fact, not an idea. The communication may stimulate the other person to realize the question for himself and to think out a like idea, or it may smother his intellectual interest and suppress his dawning effort at thought. But what he directly gets cannot be an idea. Only by wrestling with the conditions of the problem at first hand, seeking and finding his own way out, does he think”. Maybe, that's why it is impossible to "teach" in a traditional way, by "telling" someone about something. A student needs a direct experience, interaction with the subject matter.

3. Going on a dangerous trip and thinking are similar: “all thinking involves a risk. Certainty cannot be guaranteed in advance. The invasion of the unknown is of the nature of an adventure; we cannot be sure in advance”. Hence, if you want to learn how to think independently, you should learn how to travel independently. You expose yourself to all the risks and fatigues of traveling. Hence, you have no choice but to perish or think actively about surviving and improving upon your next trip.

4. Learning is on the borderline between certain knowledge and certain ignorance. Learning is taking what is known and already acquired, and projecting this into the great unknown. It is like Columbus sailing out in search of a new world. On the familiar shores one formulates a conjecture, procures the ships and the daredevils ready to go with you. Then you slowly sail out into the great unknown. On the voyage there are rebellions, and some crew members have to be left out. But, you continue. After a month or so of sailing, you come up against New World, which turns out to be something which you've not expected in the first place. Your initial conjecture is both negated and confirmed.

5. Conditions for learning in school are “first that the pupil have a genuine situation of experience – that there be a continuous activity in which he is interested for its own sake; secondly, that a genuine problem develop within this situation as a stimulus to thought; third, that he possess the information and make the observations needed to deal with it; fourth, that suggested solutions occur to him which he shall be responsible for developing in an orderly way; fifth, that he have opportunity and occasion to test his ideas by application, to make their meaning clear and to discover for himself their validity”. Most important is the first condition - that students be interested in some process going on in the class, rather than being interested in an outside goal, such as getting a job. The problem of a teacher is to provide creative and interesting atmosphere which will stimulate students coming to class. Students come to classroom already having in mind a number of tasks which they would like to try out through the medium of the class. The task of a teacher is to provide students with those tools (e.g. vocabulary) and opportunities (e.g. practice sessions) which make it possible to accomplish the tasks which students have in mind. Conjectures of students start to be developed in class, as a group, but need to be refined and worked out on their own. They may, or may not, want to report to class the results of their activity.

6. Teaching and learning is a kind of indirect activity. One teaches not only the material which is actually presented, but also the method of one's own presentation. For example, if teacher attempts to use the classroom to present all sorts of materials which s/he thinks are important, students will attempt to do the same thing. They will volunteer to bring to classroom materials which are of interest to them.

7. One teaches not only through words, but also through gesticulation, expression of one's face and eyes, in short through everything which reveals the real import of the presentation. Real thinking or learning, has always a taste of something scandalous and seductive, that which is not tolerated by the conservative, ossified society. For example, notice the glance of a teenage girl talking to her friend about something private, as she looks around to make sure that no one can hear them, and at the same time celebrating some victory. This reveals that a real learning process is taking place. "Forbidden fruit is sweet".

To sum up: thinking and learning are similar activities. Thinking and learning start in crude experience. The task of a teacher is to provide this experience. From what is known the group "sails" into the unknown.

Democracy in education

1. The problem of interest is not so much the problem of the material to be presented, but of the manner in which it is presented. The problem is creating free conditions for teaching. The form of how something is presented and the content of what is being presented continuously act upon each other.

2. Real learning is only possible in a democratic setting: “where children are engaged in doing things and in discussing what arises in the course of their doing, it is found, even with comparatively indifferent modes of instruction, that children’s inquiries are spontaneous and numerous, and the proposals of solution advanced, varied, and ingenious.” Democracy thus arises when students are engaged in doing something, and then they are discussing what they do. I remember a class I used to teach in South Bronx, New York. We were a small group who would get a little room of our own under the stairs, next to the cafeteria. In our class, I would nominally be teaching mathematics and history to students around 10 years old, almost all of them blacks, and me being a white male with a foreign accent. First, what is interesting, is that these young students were less prejudiced against my accent than most other people, perhaps because they have experienced what prejudice means in their own lives. Second, I remember that we would have meetings during the lunch breaks to discuss this or that question which has arisen in the course of the class. They were not the meetings where students are forced to go. Rather, these meetings have arisen spontaneously because there were various problems we would encounter in the course of the class. These problems appeared to me trivial, but to the 10 year olds they were full of meaning. I vividly remember that they were fighting for which part of the room would belong to boys, and which to girls. Finally through a discussion in such a meeting we were able to resolve this issue, with a lot of yelling, accusations, etc. I would be playing the role of a mediator, with a badminton racket acting as a potential weapon. The girls and boys would hang up posters in their parts of the room, proclaiming their slogans and aspirations (of course, very crude but playful). I remember that girls would invite me to their hidden chamber (a space directly under the stairs) where they would show me how they have furnished it. And what have I taught them? I was trying to teach democracy, that it is possible to discuss problems as a group, propose solutions, and then act upon them, without killing anyone. And this way turned out to be exciting and fun.

3. It is not possible to teach in a new, democratic way in the old, rotten setting. In the school where I was teaching in South Bronx, the atmosphere was full of terror, gossip and intrigue. I had to leave because I didn't get along with the Christian priests who were running the school. I made fun of religion for example by asking the chief priest, while watching rain outside, if it was also raining in heaven. In order to teach in a new, democratic way, and to teach new, important things, it is necessary to start afresh. It is necessary to start one's own courses. Only thus one is able to develop one's own program, and teach in the way one wants.

4. “The only adequate training for occupations is training through occupations ... The dominant vocation of all human beings at all times is living -- intellectual and moral growth.” True teacher, in reality, teaches only one thing - how to grow.

5. I remember I had a student who would always break something, or do something wrong in the class. This student obtained a nickname "Master of disaster". He loved the nickname, and would come to the place where I was living, on the way to school, to pick me up, get the key to the class, and have some conversation on the way. Dewey writes: “What he gets and gives as a human being, a being with desires, emotions, and ideas, is not external possessions, but a widening and deepening of conscious life -- a more intense, disciplined, and expanding realization of meanings. What he materially receives and gives is at most opportunities and means for the evolution of conscious life. Otherwise, it is neither giving nor taking, but a shifting about of the position of things in space, like the stirring of water and sand with a stick ... And education is not a mere means to such a life. Education is such a life. To maintain capacity for such education is the essence of morals. For conscious life is a continual beginning afresh.” Life is continual process of learning. It is a process of trial and error, of failure, or even catastrophe, and then again gradual rising up and recovering. Learning is a catastrophe played back in a slow motion.

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