Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Reading John Dewey

A few weeks ago, I happened on a slim book called Dewey on Education, edited by Martin S. Dworkin. Never having read any of John Dewey's work, I thought it worth reading. Having now read it, I'll say it is. Dewey served for me as a name for a school of pedagogy spoken badly of by many of the teachers and writers I respected: Santayana, Jarrell, and Flannery O'Connor come to mind. Jacques Barzun in his mentions of Dewey distinguished the man and his writings from the work of those who thought of themselves as Dewey's followers. It was in part Barzun's remarks that made me curious to read Dewey.

Dewey raises a question that may never have occurred to some who speak poorly of him: Shall these bones live? Less poetically, how shall we take the dead matter on the textbook page and make it into live learning? The question only intermittently occurred to me for a good deal of my life, and I think that many persons, particularly many of the well educated, haven't bothered to ask it much. I arrived in elementary school from a household that had books and parents that read them. My parents were comfortable with numbers. When I encountered history and geography in the classroom, I knew something of them. It really didn't matter that much for me, and for the students from similar families, that there were fifty or more students in the first-grade classroom. It did not occur to me, and probably didn't occur to my friends, to wonder what impression the school made on children from different backgrounds.

Dewey did not anticipate the excesses of those who thought of themselves as his followers. He writes in "The Child and the Curriculum"
Just as, upon the whole, it was the weakness of the "old education" that it made invidious comparisons between the immaturity of the child and the maturity of the adult, regarding the former as something to be got away from as soon as possible and much as possible; so it is the danger of the "new education" that it regard the child's present powers and interests as something finally significant in themselves.... It will do harm if child-study leave an impression in the popular mind that a child of a given age has a positive equipment of purposes and interests to be cultivated, just as they stand.
Yet Dewey's influence was not on the whole positive, I think. He became regarded as the leader, respected, maybe read, probably not quite understood, for the progressive schools movement. He inspired with enthusiasm those who did not correctly understand him. He did not overlook this efffect. After years avoiding association with it, he eventually accepted an honorary presidency from the Progressive Education Association, which he then addressed with a lukewarm speech.

Partly the problem arose from Dewey's writing. Dworkin writes that
Dewey wrote badly. His style was often opaque, his terminology ambiguous.... in a way, Dewey may be said to deserve whatever confusions came to be associated with his name. It may be no compliment to professional educators that they so easily understood Dewey while professional philosophers shook their heads.
Diane Ravitch writes of Dewey's prose as "dense and difficult", which is charitable, for the density is not that of semantic content: Dewey multiplies expressions without making his point clearer. He is apt to reach for a phrase that sounds good, as
Just as two points define a line, so the present situation of the child and the facts and truths of studies define instruction.
which recalls Euclid only to confuse: several pages later is a more sensible passage distinguishing the logical and psychological approaches:
We may compare the difference between the logical and the psychological approaches to the difference between the notes which an explorer makes in a new country, blazing a trail and finding his way along as best he may, and the finished map that is constructed after the country has been thoroughly explored.
And there are judgments that are just odd, as in this sentence from "School and Society":
Literature would contribute its part in its idealized representation of the world-industries, as the Penelope of the Odyssey--a classic in literature only because the character is the embodiment of a certain industrial phase of social life.
Dewey's description of the Laboratory School of the University of Chicago, a large portion of the book, may be mostly accurate, but I think misleads.  First, to the extent that teachers and students thought of it as experimental, it would have suffered from the Hawthorne Effect. Second, to the extent that the students were recruited from faculty families and from others interested in the experiment, the school had a considerable advantage: all that weaving, cooking, and drawing would not distract them from learning what they would have learned elsewhere.

There is a sentence in Santayana's The Last Puritan that I remember as "Learning, traced to its sources, was as fresh as sensation." On this, Santayana and Dewey are in agreement. The point lost, not by Dewey, was that learning was necessary. Teaching in the manner Dewey had in mind must be harder, not easier, than following a textbook, and the teachers must have mastered the subject well enough to set the textbook aside. This was not the message that those who claimed to be his followers understood.


  1. I suppose I should reread Dewey. My early encounter in the 60s left no impression upon me. In recent years, I have accepted the second-hand anti-Dewey propaganda that is popular. Perhaps I need to be more critically astute by returning to the primary source. In any case, thank you for providing a provocative posting.

  2. The volume I read is still in print, and not expensive. I found it hard to concentrate on the reading, for I found Dewey's prose overstuffed: almost anything could distract me. The book by Diane Ravitch that I linked to, The Troubled Crusade, has a most interesting essay on the rise and decline of progressive education.