Re-reading Dewey

2016 is the centenary of the publication of Dewey’s Democracy and Education. The book, published during a period of rapid economic growth in the US, places education at the heart of social progress. Dewey’s philosophy is one of hope for a better future in which people are educated to adapt to changing economic conditions. In educating children to think critically and reflectively, schools can help to challenge the inequities that exist in society: “It is the aim of progressive education to take part in correcting unfair privilege and unfair deprivation” (p. 140).

At the heart of education is the child – not for some liberal ideal, but because “a progressive society counts individual variations as precious since it finds in them the means of its own growth” (p. 357). For schools that would have all children act in exactly the same way, Dewey warns that quashing individual traits in favour of conformity and uniformity induces “lack of interest in the novel, aversion to progress, and dread of the uncertain and the unknown” (p. 60).

The progressive message seems unfashionable at the moment. For ideologues who promote ‘content-centred’ direct instruction, teachers who profess a child-centred approach risk destroying their students’ futures. Dewey characterises teachers who emphasise the transmission of knowledge as social conservatives who block progress: “The development within the young of the attitudes and dispositions necessary to the continuous and progressive life of a society cannot take place by direct conveyance of beliefs, emotions, and knowledge” (p. 26).

That is not to say Dewey disregards knowledge wholly in favour of experiential inquiry. Indeed, he says that it is a nonsense to talk of developing a mental or physical skill separate from the subject matter involved in exercising the skill. However, knowledge is viewed progressively, which is to say knowledge is not an inert residue of the past, but finds value “in the solidity, security, and fertility it affords our dealings with the future” (p. 178).

Re-reading Democracy and Education is a tonic in times of economic recession and cuts to education budgets. Today social conservatism prevails. Either education is viewed as a process of filling up long-term memory or it looks to evidence of ‘what works’ to achieve narrow externally-imposed targets. Against such impoverished views, it is exciting and refreshing to be reminded of the transformative power of education when teachers adopt the progressive mission.

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