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Published in Print: December 8, 1999, as Sorry, John. I’m Not Who You Thought I Was


Sorry, John. I’m Not Who You Thought I Was

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Dewey knew the structures of the school would not yield easily. And they haven't.

Oh, Dewey, you asked too much! The passionate bridegroom fell in love with a creature of his own imagination. The bride, the American teacher, try as she would, could not become the dream. It wasn’t the wrong dream—like Willy Loman’s. It was the right dream, a marvelously systematic and visionary one, drenched in the daylight of John Dewey’s own rationality. Compelling. But, the bride was not compelled. What a charge to bring against the great pragmatist: that his dream could not bear fruit in the everyday world. He wrote his philosophy of education, after all, not as a theoretical exercise, but as a plan for teachers to carry out their work.

Many who have criticized Dewey, from Robert M. Hutchins to E.D. Hirsch Jr., read him uncharitably, when they read him at all. They accused him of focusing on the present and denigrating history, of celebrating the interests of the child to the detriment of time-honored subject matter, of emphasizing the process of inquiry and ignoring the importance of content. He did none of these. They said he undermined absolute values and absolute claims to truth which, indeed, was the case; but they failed to attend to the sophisticated philosophical arguments he offered toward an understanding of the power of human knowing and valuing.

Of course, there are legitimate criticisms to be made of various emphases in Dewey’s philosophy of education, but the fulminations of the educational right for most of this century have grotesquely distorted Dewey’s positions. There is only one antidote: Read the man. Read The School and Society (1899); read The Child and the Curriculum (1902); read, if you have a summer free, Democracy and Education (1916); and read especially his Experience and Education (1938). This last is a short (91 pages) formulation of Dewey’s educational thinking, abstract in the best sense of the word and readable. No one free of ideological blindness and in possession of basic reading skills would recognize the Dewey of the critics in the pages of these books. Attention must finally be paid to such a thinker.

As early as The Child and the Curriculum, Dewey sought to overcome educational dichotomies. He castigated those who saw the need to choose between one slogan and another; one oversimplification and its opposite number. He saw clearly that to ask, "Which is more important: the interests of the child or the knowledge of subject-matter?" was to ask a very dumb question indeed. The teacher’s task, for Dewey, was to create an interaction between the child’s interests and the funded knowledge of the adult world, a tall order, as we shall see. In 1938, in Experience and Education, he continued this crusade against either/or thinking, and expressed the belief that policymakers and teachers within the progressive tradition were themselves guilty of it.

Dewey had long been aware of the difficulty of changing school cultures, but now a new fear gnawed at his spirit: The progressive teachers themselves did not have the intellectual grit to sustain a transition from traditional educational practices to progressive ones. The traditionalist army waited outside in the open field, girded for battle; but a new set of enemies struck their tents and lounged within his own camp, chanting slogans and forging emblems of their loyalty to the progressive cause. The heartsick general did not go among them with a flail; exhortation, not castigation was his natural bent. Always he believed the world could be made better through inquiry and reflection.

The teacher's task, for Dewey, was to create an interaction between the child's interests and the funded knowledge of the adult world, a tall order.

The exhortation took public form in Experience and Education: The progressives, his people, he said, too often worked from a negative perspective, criticized traditionalist beliefs and practices, but failed to do the hard intellectual work of constructing alternatives. They complained that the older schools had organized subject matter in a manner alien to the interests and abilities of young children, but they made no sustained effort to develop or understand new ways of organizing knowledge so that it would be accessible. They recognized the shortcomings of assigning the learner to a passive, receptive role, but too often substituted for it a set of educationally purposeless activities. They abhorred the arbitrary use of the teacher’s authority, the external imposition of her power in the older classrooms, but devised no new ways of sustaining necessary order in the newer ones. They wanted the children free, but defined freedom as only the absence of restraint, failing to see that a positive freedom required the habit of reflection intervening between children’s desires and ends attained. They called for a curriculum of experience, but failed to distinguish between educative and mis-educative experiences.

The Deweyan solution: Let us all think these matters through in a more sustained fashion. Let us clarify our concepts and cash out their value in classroom practice. And over and over again, he said, as he had said for decades: This will be much harder work for the teachers than was called for under the old regime. Indeed. The exhortation made sense and was not an impossible demand. Many, if not most, teachers were up to the task. There remained among both the teachers and the teacher-educators, who march under the progressive banner, an anti-intellectual sector who ignored Dewey’s exhortations, who perhaps never read them.

Dewey’s criticism was on the mark. What he called for—sustained intellectual inquiry into the concepts we use when we talk about teaching and learning—was doable, at least by some. In turn, the teachers might have, with good reason, urged Dewey to write more clearly and succinctly, and to offer extended illustrations of his main concepts drawn from classroom practice. In the marriage between theorist and practitioner, adjustments might have been made. The dream had not been lost, only delayed. But something else was amiss.

Dewey, I think, like many political and educational reformers before him, had acted as if we could begin ab ovo. Here was, in badly oversimplified form, his vision: Let us not begin talking about how children learn in classrooms. Let us begin in evolutionary mode by examining how organisms go about living in their environment. Organisms learn what they need to know in order to solve problems they encounter. The knowledge allows them to survive and prosper in their world. It is not separate from their living and surviving.

Civilized societies store up this knowledge, systematize it, and offer it as curriculum to the young in schools. In doing so, they tear the knowledge away from the life experience of the children. The children in school do not see the connection of the formalized knowledge to their present interests, needs, desires; some do not have the knowledge or skills to process the formal curriculum.

So let’s, Dewey tells us, make the classroom more like the lives the children have lived before they entered school. Let the teacher structure experiences that link up with the previous experiences of the child. Now here’s the rub. In order to choose genuine learning experiences for the child, the teacher must be aware of the needs, interests, and capacities of each child in her class. This so she will not construct experiences so simple they do not challenge, nor so complex they will overwhelm. As if that is not enough, here’s rub number two. The teacher will also have mastery over the funded knowledge of the society, so she will be able to choose experiences that lead toward it.

Had Dewey rooted his thinking in classrooms as well as in the life of organisms and their ways of going about surviving and prospering, the marriage might have worked.

Ab ovo, I said. From the egg. As if by the time Dewey wrote, the institution of the school was not fully grown. Give him his due. Dewey knew the structures of the school would not yield easily. And they haven’t. There may be quite sound reasons for that. But where does that leave the classroom teacher? Perhaps those in the lower grades might approach Dewey’s dream. But what of the 5th grade teacher, the 10th grade English teacher, the physics teacher? How is each of them to build life experiences from a base of the interests, needs, and capacities of each child in her class? Had Dewey rooted his thinking in classrooms as well as in the life of organisms and their ways of going about surviving and prospering, the marriage might have worked.

The dream should be tempered. It was partly a product of Dewey’s need for bringing the issue of how children learn into a wider, systemic net of understandings about human activity, and of his infinite optimism about making the world a better place through rational interventions. Finally, however, the bridegroom must be told. This dream of yours is not me. There is much in it I find useful. Much indeed. I’ll pick and choose from what you have to offer. Get used to it!

William A. Proefriedt is a professor emeritus of education at Queens College, City University of New York, where he continues to teach on an adjunct basis. He is the author of How Teachers Learn: Toward a More Liberal Teacher Education (Teachers College Press).

Vol. 19, Issue 15, Pages 28,30

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