Saturday, July 01, 2017

Review: "Experience & Education" by John Dewey

John Dewey (1859-1952) wrote Experience and Education in 1938, twenty-two years after his most famous work, Democracy and Education. In Experience and Education, he assumes that the reader has accepted the "new" education model and rejected the "traditional" education model and thus proceeds to warn against mistakes in the implementation of the new education model.

This is my first read of a John Dewey book, and I'm neither a philosopher nor an educator. So this is less a review than a presentation of some thoughts based on the discussion we had at our book club and of a few quotations. The full text of the book is available online.

What is traditional education?

The subject matter of education consists of bodies of information and of skills that have been worked out in the past; therefore, the chief business of the school is to transmit them to the new generation. In the past, there have also been developed standards and rules of conduct; moral training consists in forming habits of action in conformity with these rules and standards. ... The main purpose or objective is to prepare the young for future responsibilities and for success in life, by means of acquisition of the organized bodies of information and prepared forms of skill, which comprehend the material of instruction. Since the subject matter as well as standards of proper conduct are handed down from the past, the attitude of pupils must, upon the whole, be one of docility, receptivity and obedience. Books, especially textbooks, are the chief representatives of the lore and wisdom of the past, while teachers are the organs through which pupils are brought into effective connection with the material. Teachers are the agents through which knowledge and skills are communicated and rules of conduct enforced.
What is the new education?
If one attempts to formulate the philosophy of education implicit in the practices of the new education, we may, I think, discover certain common principles amid the variety of progressive schools now existing. To imposition from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality; to external discipline is opposed free activity; to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience; to acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill, is opposed acquisition of them as means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal; to preparation for a more or less remote future is opposed making the most of the opportunities of present life; to static aims and materials is opposed acquaintance with a changing world.
After explaining many pitfalls in the implementation of the new education, Dewey reveals how he hopes the new education will transform students:
The methods of science also point the way to the measures and policies by means of which a better social order can be brought into existence. The applications of science which have produced in large measure the social conditions which now exist do not exhaust the possible field of their application. For so far science has been applied more or less casually and under the influence of ends, such as private advantage and power, which are a heritage from the institutions of a pre-scientific age. We are told almost daily and from many sources that it is impossible for human beings to direct their common life intelligently. We are told, on one hand, that the complexity of human relations, domestic and international, and on the other hand, the fact that human beings are so largely creatures of emotion and habit, make impossible large-scale social planning and direction by intelligence. This view would be more credible if any systematic effort, beginning with early education and carried on through the continuous study and learning of the young, had ever been undertaken with a view to making the method of intelligence, exemplified in science, supreme in education. There is nothing in the inherent nature of habit that prevents intelligent method from becoming itself habitual; and there is nothing in the nature of emotion to prevent the development of intense emotional allegiance to the method.
I had assumed, based solely on Dewey's reputation as one of the United States's most preeminent philosophers, that his beliefs on education would today be dominant. When I spoke with a former high school teacher, however, this teacher told me that, while training at the University of Georgia School of Education in the 1980s, Dewey was persona non grata, a "communist." Moreover, this teacher believed that contemporary Augusta, Georgia-area public school teachers don't think about a "philosophy of education," much less follow one, and neither do local school boards.

And, if you're not consciously thinking about education, then you're unconsciously following traditional education.
I think that only slight acquaintance with the history of education is needed to prove that educational reformers and innovators alone have felt the need for a philosophy of education. Those who adhered to the established system needed merely a few fine-sounding words to justify existing practices. The real work was done by habits, which were so fixed as to be institutional.
If the 2016 United States elections are an indicator, public schools are not producing John Dewey's homo democratus, who, through experiential education, has habituated himself or herself to cooperative and rational thought. How will humans navigate through global environmental crises and nuclear weapons stockpiles without developing these habits?

Most striking to me was the demands John Dewey's proposals would make on educators. The educator was responsible for knowing the students and then tailoring their environment to produce productive experiences whose consequences would be additional productive experiences, all the while inculcating desirable habits. In the United States, we would need to raise teachers' salaries and give them autonomy so that, years (decades?) later, the majority of teachers would be able to meet the demands of the new education.

Finally, do Muslims who consistently call for development of private Islamic schools have a philosophy of education? The most committed activists in this seem to seek segregation (i.e. protection) of their children from the corrupting society and its public schools and have little concern for what their children would actually be doing in the private Islamic school.