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Experience and Education by John Dewey
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Feb 07, 2010

it was ok
bookshelves: education

Many of the world's greatest authors have weighed in on the subject of how children should be taught. The Greeks' main educational theorist was none other than Plato, who wrote with great clarity and precision (although some of his ideas, like getting rid of the poets, were preposterous). The Romans had Quintilian, whose massive treatise, "The Orator's Education," is elegantly written and chock full of sensible educational principles. Two thousand years later in the United States of America, we have John Dewey, whose clumsy, opaque writing is so bad that it actually hurts to read it. He simply lacks the requisite skills as a writer to make his subject comprehensible.

Even conceding that Dewey's ideas were distorted and corrupted by those who misunderstood his message, he nevertheless endures to this day as the high priest of progressive education. This book will give you a pretty good idea of its central tenets. In Dewey's view, traditional education consisted of:

imposition from above;
external discipline;
acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill;
preparation for a more or less remote future;
static aims and materials (pp. 19-20).

Note his obvious dislike of such distasteful things as "discipline," "skills," and "drill." As for "static aims and materials," Dewey doesn't bother to elaborate on what exactly that means, but we can be sure that it is an evil that must be rooted out and banished from his brave new schoolroom.

Dewey wrote a lot, and I am familiar only with this work. Here, he comes across less as a philosopher than a polemicist, perhaps even a propagandist. He constantly sets up, then knocks down the (false) straw man of traditional education. This, we are reminded, is the rigid, authoritarian schoolmaster who insists upon the memorization of facts with no regard for their context, who expects children to begin to master the details of such alien subjects as mathematics, history, and the English language. The desks are lined up, the rote lesson begins, the switch is ready to come down on the backside of the errant pupil.

Enter John Dewey, romantic theorist, disciple of Rousseau and savior of American education. In Dewey's view, schools were all wrong: they were prisons where students were forced to learn things that were impossible to learn because they were unconnected with their "experience." The people who ran these schools simply marched blindly in lockstep with a "received tradition" (read: traditional body of academic knowledge) which they neither understood nor felt any need to question. Because of teachers' inability to connect "isolated" subjects with the "experience" of their students, the results were foreordained: boredom, distraction, failure.

In educational circles, Dewey's ideas are worshipped with all of the dogmatic adherence of religious fundamentalists. I was required to read this book as part of an educational certification program I enrolled in. (I have reread it since.) Not surprisingly, no book having anything to do with the virtues of traditional education was on the list, because according to Dewey and his ardent disciples, traditional education simply has no virtues. And if, within the schools of education, you dare to question the premises of Dewey's educational philosophy, you are an instant pariah. This is perhaps the most dismaying feature of the education schools today: in the very place where robust, critical debate should be occurring about the aims and methods of education, debate is not welcomed at all. You either accept the correctness of Dewey's views, or you are wrong. In this respect the ed schools are more like Soviet gulags or communist re-education camps than anything resembling a university.

One wonders what kind of teachers Dewey had as a youngster. They must have been mediocre, uninspired drudges who lacked any imagination, creativity, or sympathetic understanding of their young charges. How else could he set out to attack "traditional" education as vehemently as he did? For centuries it was called simply "education," and only came to be vilified as "traditional" when the progressive educators sought to dismantle it.

I would suggest a very different view of traditional education. In place of the dull pedant repeatedly conjured up by Dewey, imagine a teacher who has acquired an education without ever having stepped inside an Education School. Imagine someone who has read and studied seriously, knows and understands a subject with great depth, and has graduated with honors. Imagine, too, that this educator possesses the ability -- along with patience, intelligence, and warmth -- to draw students into a love of science or mathematics or language or history by virtue of superior training, communication skills, and knowledge of how children think and develop. Imagine as well a teacher who insists on students' acquisition of essential skills such as mathematical proficiency and a knowledge of proper English grammar -- regardless of whether these are perceived by the student to be connected with his "experience." Alas, this is the traditional teacher whose existence Dewey does not acknowledge, because if he did his arguments would crumble like a sand castle.

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message 1: by Travelin (last edited Dec 02, 2014 12:42PM) (new)

Travelin You know you're writing from Dewey land, don't you? I'm watching a video by Robert Brandom and thought I'd look up the writings of Dewey, who has somehow developed the reputation as a traditionalist by comparison to some student-centred goals today. At a superficial level, I have experience as a teacher of English to foreign students. It couldn't have been easier, because local teachers in the foreign country had done all the hard work of teaching vocabulary, grammar mechanics, etc. Being the conversational half of a teaching team might still seem difficult, since your skill depends on being charismatic rather than dogmatic. But where Dewey seems right, I've never seen a teacher who doesn't become dictatorial with a little power and more than 2 students. The only difference with allegedly student-centred approaches is that the dictators have less and less to say.


Joey I found the same things as you wrote, (reading your review after I had completed the book). Spot on.


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