Today is the birthday (1859) of John Dewey, a US philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer whose ideas have been influential in education and social reform. Dewey is one of the primary figures associated with the philosophy of pragmatism and is considered one of the fathers of functional psychology. Dewey was a well-known public intellectual in his day, he was also a major voice of progressive education and liberalism. Although Dewey is known best for his publications about education, he also wrote about many other topics, including epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics, art, logic, social theory, and ethics. To try to keep this post under control I’ll speak to his philosophy of education only. Even so, things may get lengthy.
Dewey’s educational theories were presented in My Pedagogic Creed (1897), The School and Society (1900), The Child and the Curriculum (1902), Democracy and Education (1916), Schools of To-morrow (c.1915) with Evelyn Dewey, and Experience and Education (1938). Several themes recur throughout these writings. Dewey continually argues that education and learning are social and interactive processes, and thus the school itself is a social institution through which social reform can and should take place. In addition, he believed that students thrive in an environment where they are allowed to experience and interact with the curriculum, and all students should have the opportunity to take part in their own learning.
The ideas of democracy and social reform are continually discussed in Dewey’s writings on education. Dewey makes a strong case for the importance of education not only as a place to gain content knowledge, but also as a place to learn how to live. In his eyes, education should not revolve around the acquisition of a pre-determined set of skills, but rather the realization of one’s full potential and the ability to use those skills for the greater good. In addition to helping students realize their full potential, Dewey goes on to suggest that education and schooling are instrumental in creating social change and reform.
In addition to his ideas regarding what education is and what effect it should have on society, Dewey also had specific notions regarding how education should take place within the classroom. In The Child and the Curriculum (1902), Dewey discusses two major conflicting schools of thought regarding educational pedagogy. The first is centered on the curriculum and focuses almost solely on the subject matter to be taught. Dewey argues that the major flaw in this methodology is the inactivity of the student; within this particular framework, “the child is simply the immature being who is to be matured; he is the superficial being who is to be deepened.” He argues that in order for education to be most effective, content must be presented in a way that allows the student to relate the information to prior experiences, thus deepening the connection with this new knowledge.
At the same time, Dewey was alarmed by many of the “child-centered” excesses of educational-school pedagogues who claimed to be his followers, and he argued that too much reliance on the child could be equally detrimental to the learning process. According to Dewey, the potential flaw in this line of thinking is that it minimizes the importance of the content as well as the role of the teacher. Dewey advocated for an educational structure that strikes a balance between delivering knowledge while also taking into account the interests and experiences of the student. Dewey became one of the most famous proponents of hands-on learning or experiential education, which is related to, but not synonymous with experiential learning. He argued that “if knowledge comes from the impressions made upon us by natural objects, it is impossible to procure knowledge without the use of objects which impress the mind”
In The School and Society and Democracy of Education, Dewey claims that rather than preparing citizens for ethical participation in society, schools cultivate passive pupils via insistence upon mastery of facts and disciplining of bodies. Rather than preparing students to be reflective, autonomous and ethical beings capable of arriving at social truths through critical and intersubjective discourse, schools prepare students for docile compliance with authoritarian work and political structures, discourage the pursuit of individual and communal inquiry, and perceive higher learning as a monopoly of the institution of education. For Dewey and his philosophical followers, education stifles individual autonomy when learners are taught that knowledge is transmitted in one direction, from the expert to the learner. Dewey not only re-imagined the way that the learning process should take place, but also the role that the teacher should play within that process. Dewey’s qualifications for being a teacher were, a natural love for working with young children, a natural propensity to inquire about the subjects, methods and other social issues related to the profession, and a desire to share this acquired knowledge with others, and not a set of outwardly displayed mechanical skills.
For many, education’s purpose is to train students for work by providing the student with a limited set of skills and information to do a particular job. As Dewey notes, this limited vocational view is also applied to teacher training schools who attempt to quickly produce proficient and practical teachers with a limited set of instructional and discipline skills needed to meet the needs of the employer and demands of the workforce. For Dewey, the school and the classroom teacher, as a workforce and provider of a social service, have a unique responsibility to produce psychological and social goods that will lead to both present and future social progress.
The best indicator of teacher quality, according to Dewey, is the ability to watch and respond to the movement of the mind with keen awareness of the signs and quality of the responses he or her students exhibit with regard to the subject-matter presented. As Dewey notes, “I have often been asked how it was that some teachers who have never studied the art of teaching are still extraordinarily good teachers. The explanation is simple. They have a quick, sure and unflagging sympathy with the operations and process of the minds they are in contact with. Their own minds move in harmony with those of others, appreciating their difficulties, entering into their problems, sharing their intellectual victories.” Such a teacher is genuinely aware of the complexities of this mind to mind transfer, and has the intellectual fortitude to identify the successes and failures of this process, as well as how to appropriately reproduce or correct it in the future.
As well as his very active and direct involvement in setting up educational institutions such as the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (1896) and The New School for Social Research (1919), many of Dewey’s ideas influenced the founding of Bennington College and Goddard College in Vermont, where he served on the Board of Trustees.
Dewey’s works and philosophy also held great influence in the creation of the short-lived Black Mountain College in North Carolina, an experimental college focused on interdisciplinary study, and whose faculty included Buckminster Fuller, Willem de Kooning, Charles Olson, Franz Kline, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, and Paul Goodman, among others. Black Mountain College was the locus of the “Black Mountain Poets” a group of avant-garde poets closely linked with the Beat Generation and the San Francisco Renaissance.
This site https://learn.uvm.edu/program/john-dewey-kitchen-institute/ focuses on the John Dewey Kitchen Institute at the University of Vermont, Dewey’s alma mater, and also where he is buried. Dewey thought that cooking was a useful arena for his educational principals, less because it engaged students in practical activities, and more because cooking can spark curiosity, inquiry, and creativity if approached in the right way. At this point you might want to glance at the Chameleon Cook tab here if you have not already. My chameleon cooking is somewhat like Dewey’s idea of education. If you just take a recipe, learn it, and then repeat it mechanically you have learned nothing. If you take a recipe and begin to ask questions, you are more in line with Dewey: practice leads to inquiry via curiosity. “What would happen if I do it this way?” “Is this ingredient essential?” etc. etc. So . . . let’s take eggs Benedict. Classic eggs Benedict has four layers: toasted muffin, ham, poached egg, and Hollandaise sauce. What would happen if you replaced the muffin with toast, or the ham with bacon, or the poached egg with a fried egg, or the Hollandaise with Béchamel? Those are all very straightforward changes, but they get the process started. Get more radical, replace the ham with poached spinach. Those of you who know your cooking will know that all of these substitutions have been done before and are classic dishes in their own right. How are you going to be original? How about scrambled egg instead of poached? Really funky might involve switching out everything, such as, scrambled egg on fried zucchini, over a crumpet, with cheese sauce. Perhaps not. You figure out what works for you.