Dewey's Thought on Education and Social Change.

Author:Perez-Ibanez, Ignacio
Position:John Dewey - Essay
  1. The Shortcomings of the Traditional Education System

    Dewey was convinced of the power of education to change society. This conviction made him state that "the chief means of continuous, graded, economical improvement and social rectification lies in utilizing the opportunities of educating the young to modify prevailing types of thought and desire" (Dewey, 2002, p. 127). Youth are by nature curious, flexible, and experimenting, but their lifelong habits are still under development. It is in their character to question the established social system. In Dewey's opinion, here lies the main flaw and perversion of the traditional school system: students do not have the opportunity to reflect on and criticize the content and belief system that they are being taught. As Williams (2017) points out, unfortunately, the fundamental flaw of this traditional approach to education persists in the United States more than one hundred years later: "Education in most classrooms today is what Dewey would have described as a traditional classroom setting" (p. 91), one that is not appropriate for the development of the young.

    To illustrate, Dewey (1958) uses the metaphor of teachers trying to pour knowledge into the "empty heads" of students. He asserts, "that education is not an affair of 'telling' and being told, but an active and constructive process, is a principle almost as generally violated in practice as conceded in theory" (p. 46). In the traditional school system, students do not become critical thinkers, but rather receive content and are expected to accept it as true. They typically do not question the curriculum, which raises a major concern: Adults (and more specifically, the dominant classes) are the ones responsible for the belief system taught in schools through their curriculum. Without critical reflection, our school system would consequently perpetuate the current situation. "Education becomes the art of taking advantage of the helplessness of the young; the forming of habits becomes a guarantee for the maintenance of hedges of custom" (Dewey, 2002, p. 64). Schools have become centers of social reproduction, maintaining the status quo, and places where students are "trained to enrich the system, not themselves" (DeFalco, 2016, p. 58). A point that Dewey repeatedly criticized, arguing that it is through education, as a means of becoming part of a democratic society, that individuals improve and become the best possible human beings. He points out that this is where the great difficulty lies, as each generation is going to try maintain the existing conditions and situation as it is: "Parents educate their children so that they may get on; princes educate their subjects as instruments of their own purposes" (Dewey, 1958, p. 111).

    Effective schooling does not need to teach different beliefs or shape different morals in our youth, but rather should form habits that are "more intelligent, more sensitively percipient, more informed with foresight, more aware of what they are about, more direct and sincere, more flexibly responsive than those current" (Dewey, 2002, p. 128). This kind of educational system would equip young people with the skills to shape their own morals and propose their social improvements when they face their own problems. Dewey believed that education should be grounded in the open honest discussion of current events, or it becomes irrelevant, a mere archeological look to the past or a way to acquire special skills and knowledge, but disconnected from society. Education has to serve as a way to understand the present and provide individuals with the means to improve society (Fallace, 2016, pp. 182-185).

  2. The Role of Experience

    Dewey (1963) believes that there is a close relationship between experience and education, but they are not the same. He states that "[t]he belief that all genuine education comes from experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative. Experience and education cannot be directly equated to each other" (p. 25). The quality of the education will depend on the quality, nature and frequency of the experiences. Being exposed to ineffective, defective, or deficient experiences can arrest or impede education; Dewey (1963) refers to these as "mis-educative" experiences, those that suppress growth and result in routine action (p. 37). In fact, the traditional school "is so isolated from the ordinary conditions and motives of life that ... [it] is the one place in the world where it is most difficult to get experience" (Dewey 1899, p. 31). To sum-up, experience is not equivalent to education, but positive educational experiences are a necessary condition for education.

    According to Deweyan theory, we learn from positive experiences by reflecting on them. Conscious reflection enables us to attach meaning to such experiences; it is through the process of consciously reflecting on them that those experiences become meaningful. If teachers do not require such focus-on-meaning reflection from students, they do not educate, but only train.

    When things have a meaning for us, we mean (intend, propose) what we do: when they do not, we act blindly, unconsciously, unintelligently. In both kinds of responsive adjustment, our activities are directed or controlled. But in the merely blind response, direction is also blind. There may be training, but there is no education. (Dewey, 1958, p. 35)

    Students need to think reflectively about the beliefs that teachers present to them, as such beliefs inform the way that they interpret the world and relate with it (behavior). Paraphrasing his own example (Dewey 1910, p. 5), when one believes that the world is flat, it affects the way she thinks about antipodes, navigation, and the position of planets in the universe. If the reflection piece is not present in learning, students will not develop conscious understandings of connections, they will simply develop "habits" (Schutz 2011, p. 269). Through such habits, individuals develop control over the environment, and they learn how to react to similar situations--although no two situations are ever going to be exactly the same. Dewey believed that reflective thought is a conscious inquiry, an "active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends" (1910, p. 6). He raises the concern that this key reflection piece often is missing in the traditional education system.

    Parallelisms between Dewey's and Freire's description of the traditional schooling system are easy to find. For example, Freire (2005) depicts a very similar situation when he uses the banking model metaphor, and his explanation resembles Dewey's very closely.

    Narration (with the teacher as narrator) leads the students to memorize mechanically the narrated content. Worse yet, it turns...

To continue reading