Education Commentary

Confronting Dewey

By Janis L. Schachter — November 30, 1994 4 min read

If my brother’d had a gun, he might still be alive.

The words were spoken during a classroom discussion of gun control and the Brady bill. The aspiring teacher in me, high on the exhortations of John Dewey, came down to earth with a thud.

Draw from the experiences of your students, Dewey had counseled. With one image, this high school student from East New York was showing me why Dewey’s writings had left my fellow graduate-school classmates incredulous.

I was contemplating a career change and had no teaching experience, but many of them were already facing children in the classroom. John Dewey, my classmates were sure, could not have imagined today’s urban children: the ones from broken homes, the ones who had seen shootings in their neighborhoods, the ones who watched their older brothers and sisters going through life without hope.

Use those experiences to teach a lesson in history, or math? Good luck.

The East New York boy’s shouting brought me back to his classroom in the alternative high school I was visiting in Manhattan. He was trying to be heard over his fellow students; he wasn’t the only one in the room who had something important to say. Theories were offered on how to tell if the boy approaching you was carrying a gun (based mostly on his attitude and the way he carried himself), and on how to proceed if he was. A few of the girls, but none of the boys, seemed to think they could handle themselves in their neighborhoods without weapons.

None of them had anything to say about the Brady bill, and I wondered if the teacher would be able to use what they were saying to draw them toward whatever the curriculum called for that day. Would she find something to say, to a boy who’d lost his brother on the streets of New York City, about the Constitution, or about gun control, or about some endless Congressional debate? It was hard to imagine.

But not impossible.

As I listened, I began to see that there was something to Dewey’s advice after all.

I supposed that the lesson, that day at least, didn’t have to be about the pros and cons of a bill wending its way through the U.S Capitol. It could have gone in another direction; maybe it could have been about the pros and cons of a gun in every pocket on the streets of East New York.

You have to have a gun, because the other guy’s going to have one.

I was learning another lesson, à la Dewey, about really knowing and understanding one’s students. It would not do for a teacher to be reeling, as I was, from the impact of what her students were saying. In this case, I saw, it was important for the teacher to retain control of the discussion, and maybe even get her students to think of the issue in a new way.

The class might have begun to think about how people treat each other, and why, and about what carrying guns on the streets says about the way we see ourselves and the world.

Maybe then the lesson could have branched out to include the Second Amendment, or the legislative process.

But that first student’s conceptual journey from his personal experience to the halls of the Capitol would have been long and tortuous, and I couldn’t help thinking of him a few weeks later as I researched the debate that preceded the enactment of the federal Goals 2000: Educate America Act. I began to fantasize about the inhabitants of those Capitol hallways struggling to make the reverse trek.

Could national policymakers, in an attempt to codify what students should learn at any given grade level, take a lesson from John Dewey and consider what those students bring into the classroom?

If my brother’d had a gun...

The discussion in class that afternoon had seemed important, crucial even, but I couldn’t figure out how national or local standards-setters could have fit it into whatever curriculum they were envisioning. That boy’s tale would have made any lesson plan seem insignificant, at least for the moment, and it didn’t seem possible to set a national goal for what he should have taken from school that day.

It seemed equally unlikely that whatever rewards came from that class discussion could have been measured by any tests generated by the Goals 2000 act.

My fantasy expanded. Maybe, as the panels created by Goals 2000 figured out exactly what our children should know and what they should be able to do, a panel of students from the New York City high school I visited could set a few standards, too.

The boy who shouted to be heard in class that day could list what his governmental representatives should know about the problems of growing up black or Hispanic in the toughest neighborhoods of the city. Perhaps he’d like to impose a few deadlines for implementing solutions.

If he could do that, then he also could be satisfied that he hadn’t been disregarded while Goals 2000 standards were set with other students in mind--students who live beyond the streets that claimed his brother’s life. He could know that he and his classmates had been factored into the latest school-reform wave. He’d know, when he was handed the new test to measure his progress, that the test-makers had taken the time to understand him, his school, and his neighborhood.

I think Dewey would have liked that.

A version of this article appeared in the November 30, 1994 edition of Education Week as Confronting Dewey