Schools, as relatively self-contained communities made up of people of diverse character and ability should, in the way that they are organised, seek to reflect the dynamics of the less structured natural communities into which young people will inevitably graduate as adults.
Schools will be at their most successful when they saturate children with a spirit of service and inter-dependence; give them an appreciation of their culture and technical knowledge, and empower them with the skills of learning and effective self-direction. Only then will their pupils become the best guarantors of a larger society that is worthy, lovely and harmonious. So wrote John Dewey1, a remarkable man whose long life (he died in 1952 at the age of ninety-three), and the longevity of his ancestors (his father had been born in 1811 and his grandfather before the War of Independence) meant that he bestrides much of the nineteenth and half of the twentieth centuries like an intellectual colossus. Professor at various times of philosophy, psychology and pedagogy in the newly established universities of Minnesota, Michigan and Chicago, and then at the prestigious Columbia University in New York State, his collected writings fill thirty-seven volumes.
Dewey’s interest to us English lies in the way his early origins in Vermont reflect the experiences that would have been common place to many an Englishman before the Industrial Revolution. Within his own life Dewey was to fast-forward and condense all the philosophic, social and educational issues that emerged either in America or England as agricultural economies gave place to the industrial world, which in its turn moved into the Atomic Age ─ issues of democracy, community, pedagogy and ultimate meaning2. He was the philosopher appropriate to his time, the ultimate inclusive thinker that English society at the time so sorely lacked.
While Frederic Winslow Taylor was primarily concerned with the efficient organisation of labour, John Dewey was determined to establish methods of learning that were congruent with human nature3. Dewey was three years older than Taylor. He had grown up in the small market town of Burlington some three hundred miles north of industrial Boston, surrounded by mountains and lakes of great beauty. A somewhat delicate and sensitive child, he had the freedom to grow up slowly, wandering widely through the countryside and keeping the company of traders, craftsmen, and the native Indians who still adhered to some of their traditional ways and customs. Burlington retained the air of a pioneer town, a place where town hall policy really did depend on public debate and argument, a community of only seven and a half thousand people closely resembling an English market town of pre-industrial times.
Dewey frequently clashed with Taylor, for scientific management demeaned what Dewey saw as the very essence of our humanity, namely, our ability to think things out for ourselves. Man lives his life in its entirety, Dewey argued, not in separate compartments called work and leisure, or school or the community4. He believed that democracy depends on a continuous stream of thoughtful people who are developing their intelligence through everything they do for democracy only works if people are educated enough to understand what is going on around them. If employers (under the influence of Taylorism) treat people as if they were automatons then human nature dries up and people lose all sense of being responsible for their own lives. Community itself becomes a nebulous concept, and democracy itself will inevitably be weakened5.
Dewey agreed whole heartedly with Aristotle when he said “Without a fully active role in community life one could not hope to become a healthy human being”6. He feared the waning influence of community as industrialisation tore the heart out of communities for, without the diversity of a multitude of people going about their daily tasks youngsters would never come to appreciate those intangibles that hold society together. Above all else, Dewey believed, the goal of education had to be the growth of the child in all its totality. You can’t bring children up to be intelligent, Dewey argued, in a world that is not intelligible to them. to which we might add in the early twenty-first century that streets which are unsafe for children to play in are as much as measure of failed educational policy as are burnt out teachers and decaying class rooms7.
Rather than leave children to their own devices, as the French philosopher Rousseau had recommended, or impose subject matter on pupils as the traditionalists advised, Dewey proposed constructing an environment in which the child, while engaged in familiar activity, would be confronted with a problem solvable only with the aid of the knowledge and skills learnt earlier within traditional subjects8. Such a task would require teachers of extraordinary skill and sound character. This was not so much a child-centred approach but what Dewey called a “teacher-centred pedagogy”9. Which is often what has made educational administrators unwilling to implement his ideas ─ they feared that there would be insufficient teachers good enough to do this, and instead played it safe by appointing teachers whom they could the more easily monitor.
Thesis 54: 24th August 2006