Looking For John Dewey

By David Ruenzel — February 01, 1995 31 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In 1896, John Dewey, the famous American philosopher of democracy and education, founded the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School--an experimental school of “intelligent inquiry’’ for faculty sons and daughters.

Some 75 years later, in 1970, when Philip Jackson became director of the school, there was nary a sign that Dewey had ever been there--no plaque at the entrance, no portrait in an office, no classroom bearing his name. To rectify the situation, Jackson rescued a bust of Dewey from a wrecker’s ball and placed it in the director’s office. A few years later, Jackson left the Laboratory School to take a post at the University of Chicago. When he returned to the Lab School in 1982 for a conference memorializing the

30th anniversary of Dewey’s death, the bust was gone from his old office and was nowhere to be found. After a two-day search, Jackson located it in the office of a secretary who, unable to stand Dewey’s “stare,’' had turned the face toward the wall.

“The idea of Dewey standing in the corner of his own school was such poetic injustice that I vowed I would never let the bust out of my sight again,’' Jackson says. “So I ‘borrowed’ it and will never again return it.’'

The story has symbolic appeal, for Dewey, like the peripatetic bust that now sits on a stand outside of Jackson’s office in a building near the Lab School, has never been accorded great respect on any wide scale. Like the secretary turned off by the bust’s bronze stare, many people looking at Dewey’s legacy have tended to form a quick dislike or to simply turn away altogether. The Lab School itself is today a rigorous independent school, highly respected but no longer suffused with Dewey’s experimental vision.

This is not to say that Dewey does not have his devotees among those who have examined his career. Jackson, a professor of education and psychology who has written extensively about Dewey’s long life and considerable body of work (38 collected volumes), told me that Dewey has meant more to him than anyone other than his own family. And a new generation of educators increasingly shares Jackson’s conviction that Dewey had it exactly right when he insisted that school must be a more or less demo-cratic community as opposed to a hierarchical institution.

Nevertheless, for most teachers, Dewey is little more than a name they once came across in a dusty “foundations’’ textbook, indelibly associated in their minds with the now tiresome phrase “learning by doing.’' And, for his many critics, Dewey typically represents everything that has gone wrong with American education. Dewey and his progressive followers, these critics assert, sanctified the self-expression of unruly children, encouraged a creeping disrespect for authority, and promoted a life-adjustment movement that taught children how to “get along’’ instead of the math and reading they really needed. Had his influence been greater, they conclude, our school culture would be even more permissive than it now is.

Once, while futilely shopping in school-supply stores for desks appropriate for active elementary school children, an exasperated Dewey was told by a dealer, “You want something at which the child may work; these are all for listening.’' That, Dewey wrote afterward, “is the story of traditional education.’' But if Dewey shunned bolted-down desks, he did not want, as his critics sometimes think, table tops for children to dance upon, either. In fact, Dewey took great pains to separate himself from educators who glorified the child’s raw experience. Sheer experience, he noted time and time again, was never enough: Teachers had an obligation to encourage and shape meaningful experiences. In 1938, as some progressive educators preached for children’s absolute freedom, an incredulous Dewey wrote about classrooms, “Sometimes teachers seem to be afraid to even make suggestions to the members of the group as to what they should do.’'

So just who is the real John Dewey? And why should teachers care? The second question is easy. Any educator who has been so alternately praised and attacked, studied and ignored, is worth a careful look. Besides, behind Dewey’s locomotive is a lot of educational freight: Critical thinking, learning across the curriculum, authentic assessment, and proj-ect-based learning all began on a Deweyan track.

But the first question--just who is Dewey?--is a lot harder. Or at least I thought so until I traveled to the remote hills of West Virginia, where I met Charlotte Landvoight, director of the tiny Highland School--the only school I know of that is modeled, if loosely so, on Dewey’s ideas.

Landvoight’s “lab school’’ is a dilapidated farmhouse with water-stained ceilings, battered couches, and floors slanted enough to make you feel slightly tipsy. There are no desks but plenty of table tops lined with computers, giving the school a somewhat incongruous air of both deprivation and abundance. A pair of burr-studded dogs laze about the yard, rousing themselves to bark at the occasional car bouncing up the dirt road.

Applying Dewey’s theories in an ordinary school would in itself be a daunting challenge. But Highland is no ordinary school. Its small, mostly poor, somewhat troubled student body would put Dewey’s--or anybody’s--educational theories to an acid test. More than two-thirds of the 16 students, ages 8 to 17, live at or just below the poverty line; one-third of the students’ families draw welfare. Five come from nearby Auburn, a remote town almost buried in the hills. But there are children from reasonably affluent families at the school, too. Most of these students are from out of state and hence board with the Landvoights. A girl from Long Island found her way here after dropping out of a number of public and private schools. Other middle-class kids hail from such distant places as Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts. Some students’ parents are unemployed grade school dropouts; others are professionals with advanced degrees.

At some schools, such a diverse student body might cause panic, or the quick creation of programs designed to “affirm’’ the differences. But for Landvoight--whom everyone, including the students, calls Candy--and the other two teachers at the school, there is nothing problematic about the diversity; encouraging interaction between students--all students--is simply an educator’s obligation. Landvoight cites what she considers one of Dewey’s most powerful if “admittedly simple’’ ideas: Interaction, be it between child and child or the child and the environment, is the key to all learning. Dewey’s two classic short works on education are titled The School and Society and The Child and the Curriculum, implying that the school and the child cannot prosper in isolation. “We spend so much time agonizing over dichotomies like nature versus nurture and that kind of stuff,’' Landvoight said, “but for Dewey, there’s no issue. There’s nature and nurture; in any case, it’s a silly issue to be worrying about. The real question is, where do we go with so many different kids who come from so many different kinds of environments? Well, you deal with democracy because then you’re dealing with different people and different perspectives, and you’re having that crucial interaction.’'

Jackson, too, had spoken of the need to vanquish dichotomies. “It’s almost a Dewey credo--all isolation is wasteful,’' he said. “Anytime anything is set off from anything else, something’s been wasted, and when children and schools are cut off from the world, that’s a tremendous waste. Dewey understood that isolation is often used for nefarious social ends, to establish a hierarchy of the powerful and weak, subjugation of one kind or another, a slavery of sorts. If you can eliminate isolation--which means to instill community and democracy--you can get closer to the kinds of schools and society Dewey hoped for.’'

While there may be little talk at Highland about diversity, there is plenty of talk about ordinary personal differences, which students and staff must resolve through a sort of roving democracy that is apparently effective in spite of--or because of--its offhanded quirkiness. One moment, students are lounging in the living room or cooking lunch in the kitchen; the next, they are disputing an interpretation of a school rule. After a debate that might vacillate from churlishness to thoughtfulness, they take a decisive vote and then go back to the business at hand. While I was there, the issues, for the most part, were mundane: Someone had left measuring cups out on the counter; someone else had not swept out the computer room. A boy, sniffing at a simmering pot on the stove, decided on the spur of the moment that he wanted to help cook so that he could partake of the meal being prepared by the cooking guild. He hadn’t, though, attended a required guild meeting and was hence voted down by a show of hands. The boy sighed, shrugged, and that was that.

The school’s mode of instruction is also characterized by informality. There is little in the way of structured lessons with set objectives, though they do occur on an individual basis. Some students “take’’ French and math, replete with drill-oriented assignments. Landvoight gives piano lessons. But much of what goes on at Highland is what Dewey sometimes calls “collateral’’ or “residual’’ learning: It happens in the wings if not on center stage. Students might “stumble’’ across physics as they build rockets or upon biology as they reflect upon their various hunting experiences. During my visit, students spent hours huddled around the kitchen table, jointly composing a play they were to perform for Halloween. This sent one boy to the typewriter for a script revision; soon his table, like that of the celluloid mystery writer, was covered with balled-up paper.

This incidental approach to learning is in keeping with Dewey’s belief that it is impossible to make children learn: About the most a teacher can do is respond to a student’s interest, “meeting’’ the student in the pursuit of that interest. The underlying assumption is that everyone will become interested in something; patience then, and not forcefulness, becomes the teacher’s chief virtue. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel impatient as I watched children using their time unconstructively and even destructively. Three brothers, for instance, spent a couple of hours gazing at videos in the basement each day, and I wondered how their parents would have responded. One sunny day, I watched in frustration as a boy beat on several younger boys with what appeared to be a foam-rubber club. Physically, the beatings were harmless; the boys were laughing. But it struck me as inappropriate at best and somewhat spooky at worst--especially as it did not even occur in the context of a game such as cops and robbers. I found myself wishing that the two staff members, Dave Nelson and Dave Huber, who saw all, would intervene.

Later, at a staff meeting, Huber, who is from nearby Parkersburg, did comment on the boy’s behavior. “He started the year off great, but now he’s going downhill, beating the shit out of people,’' Huber said. “He’s torn between being the way he is and the image of masculinity that is typical around here.’' I asked what that image might be. “Misogyny, getting drunk, and getting girls pregnant,’' he said. Landvoight said that she also was worried about the boy and had hoped that he would take part in the school play, in which he had initially expressed interest. “But there’s nothing we can do,’' she said. “He has the right to choose.’'

Earlier, Landvoight had told me that young teachers she worked with at a local college were always impressed by Dewey’s ideas yet typically went on to apply nothing of what they had learned of them. The case of the boy perhaps illustrates the reason: Dewey’s philosophy of noncoercion--"he has the right to choose,’' as Landvoight put it--suggests that teachers must sometimes acquiesce in the face of behavior they find objectionable and want to redress. Perhaps, I suggested to Landvoight, Dewey was wrong and learning and behavior could in fact sometimes be coerced. Perhaps the desire to learn didn’t always have to come from within.

“What you’re saying doesn’t make any sense because learning is always intrinsic,’' the almost preternaturally calm Landvoight said with a rare edge of annoyance. “Can you [try to make students learn]? Yes. Does it matter? Only if there’s real interaction between the students and what you’re trying to teach them. Otherwise, you can sing and dance all you want, but the kids will have no interest. You’ll be singing to yourself.’'

But what about preparing students for the wider world? Don’t teachers have an obligation to insist that students learn certain skills that they are likely to learn only in school? “If they want to go out into the wider world, I want to provide them with those skills; if they don’t want to, I don’t want to waste their time,’' Landvoight said. “Furthermore, if they want to learn those things, it’s so easy to teach them--they don’t have to be drilled from the time they’re 2nd graders.’'

All of this is vintage Dewey--the Dewey who wrote: “All educational aims must be founded upon intrinsic activities,’' and “The source of whatever is dead, mechanical, and formal in schools is found precisely in the subordination of the life and experience of the child to the curriculum.’' This did not mean that Dewey was opposed to a presentation of subject matter but rather that subject matter could be but “spiritual food, possible nutritive material [italics mine].’' Simply stated, the teacher cannot make the child learn what the child does not want to learn.

The teacher who does attempt to “make the child digest the material’’ is dysfunctional, Landvoight argues in a paper titled “Breaking Away: Overcoming Dysfunctional Atti-tudes in Democratic Education.’' Essentially, the essay is a Deweyan plea for educational unobtrusiveness, except that here Landvoight gives Dewey’s ideas a contemporary psychoanalytical twist: Dewey would have spoken of an “authoritarian’’ teacher instead of a “dysfunctional’’ one.

In any case, the essay suggests that the intrusive goal-setting teacher--the dysfunctional teacher--is in essence concerned about meeting his or her needs rather than those of his or her students. These kinds of teachers are characterized, Landvoight writes, by a belief that “the locus of learning is external’’ (the teacher, and only the teacher, creates learning); a “fear of the unknown’’ (it’s risky to leave the beaten track); and the expectation that the teacher must make an immediate difference (students must make constant, measurable progress). It seems clear that these attributes, carried to the extreme, are indicative of both narcissism and paranoia. The bad teacher, like the bad parent, is a “control freak,’' always aiming to be the center of the child’s world. To achieve this, the teacher encourages dependency and becomes jittery when he or she doesn’t attain it. The teacher wants to be the prime mover, driving into orbit all the planets in the classroom cosmos.

But Landvoight’s essay sets forth no doctrine of noninterference, either. In fact, she regards the disengaged teacher as just as dysfunctional as the one who is all too engaged. Both types misunderstand the interac-tional nature of learning. One sees the teacher as the omnipotent educator; the other as a shadowy figure, hovering at the edges of play areas. Landvoight is aiming for the Deweyan middle ground.

Whatever the merits of Landvoight’s argument, it’s evident that many Highland students see their former schools and their teachers there as “dysfunctional.’' At these schools, they were perceived as outsiders, even misfits. Listening to their stories, I got the sense that they see themselves as public school refugees, seeking sanctuary in a saner, more civilized place. One powerfully built 17-year-old told me that he always got into fights at his old school and that he could not stand the teachers’ “superior attitudes.’' Describing the school as a prison, he said that students had to walk on the left side of the corridor until the floor wore out; then they were simply switched over to the other side. Perhaps, I suggested, the school was merely trying to teach the students discipline. “Discipline?’' he asked incredulously. “There was vandalism and graffiti all over the walls. The only thing I learned was to hate math and English.’' Now, as Highland’s “judge,’' he is responsible for overseeing the school’s democratic disciplinary process.

Another student, a pleasant teenager who, in a peasant dress, had a winsome bohemian air, told me that nothing could drive her back to her old high school. “They categorize you right away,’' she said, “what kind of person you are, how much money you have. And once you’re categorized, you stay in that category forever.’' She, like the boy, spoke almost venomously about discipline at her old school. “You’re forced to do things, which only makes you hate them,’' she said. “It doesn’t work to punish with pain.’' She was clearly one of those students who wanted to venture out into the wider world. College, she said, was a certainty; she had a half-dozen career plans. She was working with Landvoight on French and with another teacher on math. “Here, with the help of Candy and Steve’'--Landvoight’s husband--"I’ve discovered who I am,’' she said. “I’ve changed a lot. I was so self-conscious and felt poorly about myself. But now I know what I want, and I’m going after it.’'

Elementary school-age children had had similar experiences. One boy was haunted by his former school. Although he now attends Highland, the boy rides to school on a bus operated by his former district. During the ride one day, he’d gotten into trouble, and the district ordered him to write 300 times, “I will not misbehave on the bus.’' Landvoight is worried about what the experience did to him; it might be a long time, she said, before he’s interested in writing.

A s a 20-year-old activist and psychology student, Char-lotte Landvoight was already thinking of starting a school. But back then, John Dewey had not yet entered her life. In fact, during the heady 1960s--when Landvoight attended the College of William and Mary and then the University of Maryland--Dewey was on the verge of becoming what some people today call a “dead white male.’' He was rarely taught with enthusiasm. Compared with the intoxicating high-wire acts of such educator-writers as John Holt, Ivan Illich, and Jonathon Kozol, whose attacks on the school system dazzled with their rancor, intensity, and conviction, Dewey was moderate in tone, if not in substance. He did not, as Jackson put it, “wear his heart on his sleeve.’' His own lifelong social activism and condemnation of the “machine teacher’’ not withstanding, Dewey is, in his writing, measured, pragmatic, and full of the old Yankee work ethic; it takes long, exasperating work, he explained, to accomplish anything. He was not a writer for the passionate young.

It was A.S. Neill’s anecdotal Summerhill, then, and not Dewey’s weighty Democracy and Education, that first sparked Landvoight’s interest in education. She had happened across Neill’s best seller in the university library and then, a year later, in 1969, visited the Summerhill School in England with her new husband, Steve. They were immediately taken with the school’s air of freedom, which contrasted so favorably with the stifling narrowness of the public school educations they both had received in the middle-class suburbs of Washington, D.C. Furthermore, Neill had a pronounced therapeutic bent--students visited him in his office for “private sessions’'--which meshed with Landvoight’s own immersion in psychology. And, like Neill, Landvoight believed that children needed freedom if they were to achieve intellectual and emotional health. Later, working as a counselor of emotionally disturbed children, Landvoight was, she said, “struck by the fact that kids were suddenly talented when emotionally healthy.’'

In the mid-1970s, when the Landvoights made preliminary plans to start their own school, it was not, Landvoight explained, “because we thought schools were important but because we wanted a space for kids they didn’t have in society.’' They moved from Maryland to West Virginia, where they purchased land and built their own house, felling trees and sledding them through the woods. Charlotte raised her newborn son and helped her husband manage a timber company. Steve, an engineer, also developed a successful natural gas business, which still subsidizes the school’s operation, as many of the students are unable to pay even the modest $60-a-month tuition.

By 1981, the school was up and running, but not on the Summerhill model she had been so taken with. The problem with Summerhill, she had decided, was the relegation of academics to a separate, walled-off world. It was one thing for a school to emphasize freedom; it was quite another thing for a school to almost insist that freedom be “uncontaminated’’ by academics. Landvoight believed, as Dewey did, that, “We need freedom in and among actual events, not apart from them.’' Academics should infuse daily life, and daily life should infuse academics so that no clear line can be drawn between them. Children should be able to bring their worldly affairs into the classroom and have them edified in some way.

This emphasis on education as productive interaction was extremely Deweyan, which made perfect sense since Landvoight, tired of numbering logs for Steve’s timbering business, had in 1979 returned to graduate school at the University of Maryland, where she studied Dewey in real depth for the first time. It shocked her; so much of what she had thought and felt was here in Dewey’s works. “I found, for all of the many things I was struggling with, rhythms and sense in Dewey,’' Landvoight said. “I read everything he wrote, and as I read I saw that he didn’t have the blinders on that so many people do. He, like no one else, was open to looking at what was actually going on.’'

What impressed Landvoight most were Dewey’s ideas about children. To her astonishment, she discovered that no one had written on this topic in any depth, and so she decided to do so herself for her dissertation. Traveling to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where much of Dewey’s correspondence is kept, she came across a revelatory find: the letters Dewey had written to his wife, Alice, while she was in Europe in 1894. “Dewey was a single parent taking care of his infant son Morris during these months, and his letters to Alice--he wrote her almost daily--describe what it was like for him to raise a child,’' Landvoight told me. “His ideas of what children were like when he just had Evelyn, his oldest daughter, were bizarre--he thought they were some kind of ethereal beings. But when he had to raise a child in a practical day-to-day fashion, he started to recognize what children were. Reading that correspondence was fantastic, it just blew me away, especially when I realized that this child was dead just a year later.’'

Morris, just four years old, died of diphtheria on a family trip to Europe in 1895; a decade later, under eerily similar circumstances, his son Gordon died in Ireland of typhoid fever. The Deweys were devastated, and Alice never really recovered from her grief. But John Dewey, Landvoight believes, learned something of lasting value from his experience caring for Morris.

“Dewey recognized that children were born with outgoing tendencies and interests,’' she said. “I realize that sounds simplistic, but it’s true--and of critical importance. You see, so much of what we’re doing in education is based on the idea of the child as a blank slate or an ethereal being, as in Rousseau’s Emile. No one is talking about what Dewey is talking about--namely that children are overflowing with impulses and that they want to interact with the environment and people around them because these interactions create experience, and experience is what creates people. I found this incredibly exciting, and Dewey did too, but he was wrapped up in so many things that he didn’t do all he could have done. But the one thing Dewey did do was actually look at a child. He was an incredible observer, and he watched Morris and said ‘Look at him, look!’ And that kind of careful, open-minded observation is something almost no one ever does.’'

The “no one’’ Landvoight was referring to includes teachers--teachers of virtually all eras and places. It isn’t, Dewey would perhaps say, that teachers don’t observe but that they observe with a jaundiced eye. Most teachers have been taught theories of the child, while Dewey, at least by Landvoight’s account, is all about anti-theory. In a very real sense, Dewey’s idea of the child is not to have an idea of the child. Under close observation, theories implode. Models of child behavior fall like dominoes.

In a recent book titled The Philosophy of Childhood, author and University of Massachusetts philosophy professor Gareth Matthews tells of a visit he made to an elementary school. A 4th grade teacher, assuming that a professor of philosophy must surely be an expert, asked Matthews what the thinking of 4th graders was really like. The teacher had taught 4th grade for many years, yet he didn’t know what they were like. Or rather, he didn’t think he knew what children were like because he didn’t have a coherent theory, which he supposed he ought to have. The teacher had most likely been taught that students learn in distinct stages, each stage characterized by certain cognitive strengths and deficits. (Matthews’ book is, in part, a multi-pronged attack on Piagetian cognitive theory.)

Perhaps most adults are like the 4th grade teacher, wanting Dewey the philosophy professor to tell us what children are really like. After all, numerous child-rearing books that cater to this very wish are published each year. But Dewey, like Matthews, has no choice but to decline. Observation demonstrates that children are like everyone and that children are like no one. Each is different. The theorist is climbing a greased pole.

The “observation first’’ principle was evident at a weekly staff meeting I sat in on at Highland. The faculty discussed each child in the most empirical terms: what he or she had done during the week and what it might mean. Sometimes a student’s observed behavior was disturbing or anomalous enough that it virtually demanded commentary. This was the case with the boy who had been beating up on younger children and a girl who had become so self-critical of her efforts at math that she was “destroying herself.’' But subtleties were noted too, and these in their own way could be as important as more dramatic behavioral shifts. A heretofore sullen new student, for instance, had begun to come out of his shell, making sand tunnels and asking Landvoight about learning to play the piano. “There’s an opportunity here with this kid,’' Landvoight told the other staff members. “Keep your eyes open.’'

This admittedly simple emphasis upon observation (“Look at him, look!’') can provide teachers with enormous opportunities. They no longer have to tie children to a conceptual bed, seeing them as lax creatures needing to be whipped into shape or as the proverbial empty vessels into which information must be poured. On the other hand, teachers do not have to romanticize children either, projecting upon them an innocence that needs only breathing room. Teachers can respond to the child as the child is.

Under Dewey’s gaze, the divisions and separations that have so marked the school world begin to dissolve. Do children need the freedom to pursue interests? Should schools emphasize the process of learning or the end result? Does the desire to learn always come from within, or does it demand external motivations? Dewey tells us the questions are wrong because they’re framed in false either-or terms. Let go of such questions, he urges, and schools can become places of real learning instead of trend depositories, in which a celebration of the child’s creative powers yields to yet another round of no-nonsense back-to-basics instruction.

But here a question arises: If Dewey has given teachers an opportunity to liberate themselves from narrow conceptions of the child and the school, then why have so few taken advantage of it? Scholars have cited many reasons for educators’ resistance to Dewey, including the practical limitation that many have had to work in huge schools, requiring a systematic approach to managing large numbers of students. (Dewey wanted schools of no more than 200 pupils.) They have also noted that teachers historically have been trained to adapt to an efficiency model of schooling, in which the student is essentially portrayed as a production worker who has to work at prescribed tasks at prescribed times. Even the words used to describe certain student behaviors have a utilitarian bias: students “chitchat’’ during class and “loiter’’ in the halls. Under this model, learning is almost fated to become a series of assigned chores.

Compelling as these reasons may be, they are insufficient. For as Matthews illustrates in his book, most teachers have good reason for not wanting to surrender their preconceived notions of “the child.’' Dewey’s principle of “observation first’’ demands that the teacher, regardless of how experienced, must more or less start over and over from scratch. Unable to talk of the child generically, the teacher is stuck with the perplexing work of getting to know each child. Talk of the typical “middle school child’’ or the typical “hyperactive child’’ will not suffice.

What does it mean to start from scratch--to start anew with each child? For Dewey, it means having the will to turn a school into a laboratory where experimentation is the order of the day, every day. The absence of hard and fast answers means that teachers and students have little choice but to try this and that, knowing all the while that they may fail. This, Landvoight pointed out, makes teaching a humbling experience. “As teachers,’' she said, “we’re best off simply being what we are, unafraid to say, ‘I don’t know’ as we then go about trying to find the answers.’' In 1926, Dewey wrote this of poor teachers: “As a matter of course, they know that as bare individuals they are not ‘authorities’ and will not be accepted by others as such. So they clothe themselves with some tradition as a mantle, and henceforth it is not just ‘I’ who speaks. . . .’'

I had doubts about a few aspects of the Highland School that I could not quite shake. For one thing, the broken-down condition of the school seemed to replicate the poor living conditions of at least some of the students. Schools, Dewey said, should strive to transform and not merely imitate the surrounding society, and the school’s ruinous condition smacked for my tastes too much of unhealthy duplication. (The Landvoights, I might add, have plans and a site for a new school.) Furthermore, it seemed to me that staff members could sometimes take a more active, even intrusive role. Whether they like it or not, teachers are authorities, and all exercise of authority needs not be confused with unjust imposition.

But some things about the school made a lasting and powerful impression--particularly the almost complete absence of stereotyping. Dewey’s belief that we do best by discarding our a priori conceptions of the child (and of the teacher, too, for that matter) was here deeply embedded in practice. After a day or two, I found it increasingly hard to think of these young people as “students.’' “Student’’ was a category that could acquire definition only when placed alongside the categories of “teacher’’ and “administrator.’' In a relatively hierarchy-less society, this seemed almost impossible to do.

Other categories were equally hard to sustain. On my first day at Highland, I walked into the computer room and tried to strike up a conversation with a dark-haired teenage girl who was intense to the point of agitation. She was gliding in and out of databases, about which I asked her a couple of questions. At first, she said nothing, and then she responded with such speed and digressive fervor that I could understand almost nothing she said. Somehow, she launched into a monologue about the difficulties she had had at prior schools; she said something I could not quite follow about getting in trouble for visiting a library. Then, out of the blue, she said, “I’m on Prozac; it keeps me from jumping off a bridge.’' I let her be, thinking, “This is a disturbed child.’'

But, as it turned out, this was my own pre-emptive attempt to place the girl in a familiar category, and it did not hold up. In the following days, as we talked over the kitchen table and at a cookout, I felt a creeping sense of shame. She was carrying around A Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, whose themes she brought to bear on a discussion of schooling and current movies. She was restive but absolutely lucid; it was impossible not to see that she was breathtakingly intelligent. I liked her. She was a teenager with troubles to be sure, but to see her as “a disturbed child’’ was wrong.

Highland, it became clear, had a number of students with troubles. Of course, Highland is not unique in this respect; students from all schools suffer the effects of divorce, abuse, and so on. But it made me think about Dewey’s insistence that teachers draw upon the experiences their students bring to school. Writing in the first decades of this century, Dewey could very well imagine children standing by their mother’s side as she cooked or sewed or following their fathers out into the fields. The teacher could then build upon those experiences. But in the age of television and modern conveniences, many children’s experiences have thinned out to a considerable degree. And, in extreme cases, the experience a child brings to school is not only thin but damaged, as well. What do you do, I asked Charlotte and Steve Landvoight one evening, when a child’s experience is essentially negative, as in the case of an abused child?

“First of all, you stop the brutalization,’' Steve said. He went on to tell a story about teaching at a girls’ reform school, where his job was to do two things: to make the girls feel better about themselves and to make sure that they learned something. He threw aside almost everything he had ever been told about “correct’’ teaching. “I sat on the desk and said, ‘I’m Steve, who are you?’ They said, ‘Well, who are you?’ I talked to them, and they talked to me. And when they were ready, I handed out a few work sheets, which we worked through. We did eight months of work in two months. They were society’s misfits, but as far as I was concerned, they were the cream of the crop.’'

Coming from someone else, the story might sound like a politician’s sound bite. But coming from the Landvoights, I believed it without reservation. Whatever their faults, the Landvoights practice what they preach. Their relationships with children are, to a remarkable extent, free of deceit and presumption.

Charlotte Landvoight likes to say, as Dewey did, that there can be no blueprints for schools. She would perhaps find it too obvious to say that there are no blueprints for children either. But the point is worth making, for children have too often been seen as coming with a circuit that the adult is free to rewire.

Take almost any issue--sex education, multiculturalism, outcome-based education--and it all too often looks like something imposed on children by those who believe they have figured out just how children’s minds work. It is here that Dewey is truly indispensable, warning us of the dangers of adult presumption, prodding us time and time again to begin with the child’s actual experience of the world.

Dewey is sometimes accused of being too concerned with experience--the world of making, doing, creating--and not concerned enough with the more solitary, contemplative aspects of the human soul. When I visited Jackson at the University of Chicago, I asked him if he thought this criticism fair.

“Well, Dewey is an American,’' Jackson said, “and his philosophy is of the culture, the culture of hope and action. He believed that the world could be better than it is now but that it would take action to make it better. Dreaming couldn’t make it better. Now, Dewey himself was a man of the mind, and his favorite thing to do was to sit down and think. But he realized that he could not do that, that he had to kick himself to get out into the world. And he did. He was an activist par excellence right up to the end.’'

Dewey, Jackson insisted, understood better than anyone that virtue is much more than nurturing good feelings toward others. It’s a matter not of temperament but activity. “Virtue is something you have to do,’' the professor explained. “You can’t be virtuous just by thinking virtuous.’'

Charlotte Landvoight once told me that the biggest problem people have is just going about everyday living. The Landvoights and the other teachers at the Highland School have dedicated themselves to helping kids confront and build on the challenges of everyday life. If we are to believe Dewey, this day-to-day work of theirs is virtue--the ordinary but invaluable virtue that is the schools’ rightful calling.

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1995 edition of Teacher Magazine as Looking For John Dewey


Special Education Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table - Special Education: Proven Interventions for Academic Success
Special education should be a launchpad, not a label. Join the conversation on how schools can better support ALL students.
Special Education K-12 Essentials Forum Innovative Approaches to Special Education
Join this free virtual event to explore innovations in the evolving landscape of special education.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
STEM Fusion: Empowering K-12 Education through Interdisciplinary Integration
Join our webinar to learn how integrating STEM with other subjects can revolutionize K-12 education & prepare students for the future.
Content provided by Project Lead The Way

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated: May 29, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Briefly Stated: May 8, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: April 17, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: March 20, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read