EDUCATION AS EXPERIENCE
Although he is no longer widely known, John Dewey was a writer, lecturer and philosopher whose theories had a profound influence on public education in the first half of the 20th century, especially in the United States. In his career he also worked at the University of Minnesota, the University of Chicago and Columbia University, and lectured all over the world, including in China, Japan and Scotland. His works include Democracy and Education (1916), Art as Experience (1934) and a series of lectures collected as Experience and Nature (1925). John Dewey (1859-1952) lived from the Civil War to the Cold War, a period of extraordinary social, economic, demographic, political and technological change. During his lifetime the United States changed from a rural to an urban society, from an agricultural to an industrial economy, from a regional to a world power.
EUCATION AS EXPERIENCE:
For John Dewey, education and democracy are intimately connected. According to Dewey good education should have both a societal purpose and purpose for the individual student. For Dewey, the long-term matters, but so does the short-term quality of an educational experience. Educators are responsible, therefore, for providing students with experiences that are immediately valuable and which better enable the students to contribute to society. Dewey polarizes two extremes in education -- traditional and progressive education. The paradigm war still goes on -- on the one hand, relatively structured, disciplined, ordered, didactic tradition education vs. relatively unstructured, free, student-directed progressive education. Dewey criticizes traditional education for lacking in holistic understanding of students and designing curricula overly focused on content rather than content and process which is judged by its contribution to the well-being of individuals and society. On the other hand, progressive education, he argues, is too reactionary and takes a free approach without really knowing how or why freedom can be most useful in education. Freedom for the sake of freedom is a weak philosophy of education. Dewey argues that we must move beyond this paradigm war, and to do that we need a theory of experience. Thus, Dewey argues that educators must first understand the nature of human experience. Dewey's theory is that experience arises from the interaction of two principles -- continuity and interaction. Continuity is that each experience a person has will influence his/her future, for better or for worse. Interaction refers to the situational influence on one's experience. In other words, one's present experience is a function of the interaction between one's past experiences and the present situation. For example, my experience of a lesson will depend on how the teacher arranges and facilitates the lesson, as well my past experience of similar lessons and teachers. It is important to understand that, for Dewey, no experience has pre-ordained value. Thus, what may be a rewarding experience for one person could be a detrimental experience for another? The value of the experience is to be judged by the effect that experience has on the individual's present, their future, and the extent to which the individual is able to contribute to society. Dewey says that once we have a theory of experience, then as educators can set about progressively organizing our subject matter in a way that it takes accounts of students' past experiences, and then provides them with experiences which will help to open up, rather than shut down, a person's access to future growth experiences, thereby expanding the person's likely contribution to society. Dewey examines his theory of experience in light of practical educational problems, such as the debate between how much freedom vs. discipline to use. Dewey shows that his theory of experience (continuity and interaction) can be useful guides to help solving such issues. Throughout, there is a strong emphasis on the subjective quality of a student's experience and the necessity for the teacher of understanding the students' past experiences in order to effectively design a sequence of liberating educational experiences to allow the person to fulfill their potential as a member of society.
(Maria and Sarah Farah)
During his distinguished academic career, which began in 1884 at the University of Michigan, Dewey was a strong promoter of what was called instrumentalism (related to the pragmatism of Charles Pierce and William James) and the radical reform of the public education system. His view held no room for eternal truth outside human experience, and he advocated an educational system with continued experimentation and vocational training to equip students to solve practical problems. The philosophical teaching of Dewey is known as instrumentalism in its theoretical aspect, and as meliorism in its ethical aspect. According to him, nature is a continuously flowing stream. It uses thought as an instrument or tool to pass from a given situation, full of ambiguities and disharmonies, to a new and better situation. Although this new situation contains elements implied in the former, it is richer and better because of its new meaning and greater complexity. In addition to the experimental method of verification stressed by Charles Sanders Peirce, and the popular version of Pragmatism given by William James, Dewey contributes two additional factors to Pragmatism: the psychological, and the logical. Psychology with its biological drift greatly influenced Pragmatism; and logic was turned into the assumption that positive science is true. Dewey's "instrumentalism" affirms that cognition consists in forging ideal tools or instruments with which to cope with a given situation. Like James, Dewey maintains that the mind is an instrument for realizing purposes. Ideas are teleological weapons of mind. Ideas are plastic and adaptable. They owe their stability to the vital functions which they serve. A philosophy advanced by the American philosopher John Dewey holding that what is most important in a thing or idea is its value as an instrument of action and that the truth of an idea lies in its usefulness. Dewey favored these terms over the term pragmatism to label the philosophy on which his views of education rested. His school claimed that cognition has evolved not for speculative or metaphysical purposes but for the practical purpose of successful adjustment. Ideas are conceived as instruments for transforming the uneasiness arising from facing a problem into the satisfaction of solving it.
Summary of Dewey's Philosophy of Instrumentalism
Dewey's philosophy was called instrumentalism (related to pragmatism).
Instrumentalism believes that truth is an instrument used by human beings to solve their problems.
Since problems change, then so must truth.
Since problems change, truth changes, and therefore there can be no eternal reality.
Habits are socially shaped to particular forms of activity or modes of response to the environment. They urge in specified directions, toward certain outcomes, by establishing particular uses of means, prescribing certain conduct in particular circumstances. While individuals may have particular habits, the most important habits are customs, shared habits of a group that are passed on to children through socialization. Customs originate in purposive activity. Every society must devise means for the satisfaction of basic human needs for food, shelter, clothing, and affiliation, for coping with interpersonal conflict within the group and treatment of outsiders, for dealing with critical events such as birth, coming of age, and death. Yet customs need not have been consciously invented to serve these needs. Language consists in a body of habits and norms, but few languages were clearly invented to serve needs for communication. Normal ways of satisfying needs shape the direction of desire in the socialized individual. A young child just starting on solid food may be open to eating nearly anything. But every society limits what it counts as edible. Certain foods become freighted with social meaning — as suitable for celebrating birthdays, good for serving to guests, reserved for sacrifice to the gods, or fit only for animals. The child's hunger becomes refined into a taste for certain foods on particular occasions. She may withdraw in hatred or horror from certain edibles deemed taboo or unclean. There may have been a basis for the original selection of foods. Perhaps some food was deemed taboo when its consumption was followed by a natural disaster, and people concluded that the gods were angry at them for consuming it. But the habit of avoiding it may persist long after its original basis is forgotten.
Dewey believed that neither traditional moral norms nor traditional philosophical ethics were up to the task of coping with the problems raised by these dramatic transformations. Traditional morality was adapted to conditions that no longer existed. Hidebound and unreflective, it was incapable of changing so as to effectively address the problems raised by new circumstances. Traditional philosophical ethics sought to discover and justify fixed moral goals and principles by dogmatic methods. Its preoccupation with reducing the diverse sources of moral insight to a single fixed principle subordinated practical service to ordinary people to the futile search for certainty, stability, and simplicity. In practice, both traditional morality and philosophical ethics served the interests of elites at the expense of most people. To address the problems raised by social change, moral practice needed to be thoroughly reconstructed, so that it contained within itself the disposition to respond intelligently to new circumstances. Dewey saw his reconstruction of philosophical ethics as a means to effect this practical reconstruction.
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