Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Correcting John Dewey's Errors

Here are some of John Dewey's basic beliefs and how they wrought a failed education philosophy. We respond with a corrective view on education and its purpose:

“I believe that the social life of the child is the basis of concentration, or correlation, in all his training or growth. The social life gives the unconscious unity and the background of all his efforts and of all his attainments." - John Dewey

It is the mental life of the child that is he basis of concentration, or correlation, in all his training or growth. The mental life of any person is what gives unity to their efforts and attainments, tying to to their personal motivations, world-view, sense of self, and level of understand of a particular subject. Learning of all types is a mental process. This may encompass a social component, since part of skills are social skills, for example, communication, persuasion and empathy with others. However, all we know - both facts, opinions, and skills - is integrated with our sum of mental understanding and capability. The "social life" is merely one aspect of one's life. Dewey's premise has deprecated not only individualism, but deprecated the inner life of the mind, robbing education of its key component.

"I believe that the subject-matter of the school curriculum should mark a gradual differentiation out of the primitive unconscious unity of social life." - John Dewey

Since learning is a mental process, the subject-matter of the school curriculum should mark a gradual differentiation out of the natural mental processes of a child, to condition and develop those mental faculties for progressively greater and greater tasks and accomplishments. Thus a natural rule of pedagogy is to start with simpler tasks, be directive early on, then build up from simpler tasks to more complex ones, freeing the student along the way to experiment and try things in their own way as they are capable. Those tasks and that progression do not happen naturally or on its own. If left to their own devices, children would learn only some of the habits for future success and would fail to adopt many other. Thus education, the guiding of the child in learning, has a purpose, and a purpose that benefits the child's later life. This learning progression has as its end to develop the child fully as a citizen, self-learner (scholar), and productive member of society (able to utilize mental faculties productively, for example, as a professional). Should the child understand this process and its benefit and utility to them, they will become willingly engaged in their own development.

"I believe that we violate the child's nature and render difficult the best ethical results, by introducing the child too abruptly to a number of special studies, of reading, writing, geography, etc., out of relation to this social life." - John Dewey

We obtain the best learning results by pacing our delivery at the level of readiness of the child, fast enough to challenge yet moderate enough to avoid failure. All children (and adults) can learn, they all learn at different paces and levels and prefer, based on individual capacities and innate abilities, different learning modes.

Dewey compounds his previous error by forcing all of the curriculum to be tied to the anchor (and it is an anchor) of social life and local experience. The only error in the 'abruptness' of any training is to subject a student to a level of skill they might not be ready for; for example, a beginning skier does not belong on a 'black diamond' slope. However, that is a matter for pacing, not content. Too fast, and the child gets discouraged, too slow and the child gets bored or de-motivated. Reading, writing, and geography are fit subjects for a 5-year-old and for a College student, the difference will be the pacing and level.

"I believe, therefore, that the true center of correlation on the school subjects is not science, nor literature, nor history, nor geography, but the child's own social activities." - John Dewey

The true center of correlation on the school subjects is the mental skills, mental conditioning and store of knowledge that is developed when each subject is encountered.

Of course, science, literature, history and geography are the windows from a child's local social experience to the continuity of the experience and knowledge of mankind. With these subjects, the child learns beyond his local and immediate sphere. This liberates the child from a narrow experience to a wider one. Relating subjects to a child's own social activities imprisons them in their own context, whereas the life of the mind can think outside such contexts. An example of this trend is the push for 'relevance' in schooling, a trend that is at root anti-intellectual. To an intellectual, Plato's cave is relevant, the pure analogy of the life of the mind and lives of those ('in the cave') who have not yet expanded themselves beyond the immediate social experience. Never mind that such social experience does not require education at all, since it is available at all times to all members of society in all cultures.

Bruce Price calls it "the Most Revealing Dewey Quote Of All Time":
“The mere absorption of facts and truths is so exclusively an individual affair that it tends very naturally to pass into selfishness. There is no obvious social motive for the acquirement of mere learning, there is no clear social gain in success thereat.” (John Dewey, The School and Society, 1899)
If 'education' is to ignore the 'selfish' aspect of 'mere learning', yet aspire to change society itself, for the sake of 'social gain', however that is defined, it will indeed stray far from a system that helps children learn.

Dewey's viewpoint at root is collectivist. We have witnessed in the 20th century the failed collectivist ideologies of Hitler, Stalin and Mao, Nazism and Communism, rise and fall. The lone survivor seems to have been American education. The result of this was a form of Industrial Education that was wrong then and is even more wrong now, crippling children in mediocrity rather than equipping children with knowledge and skills for their own success.

Price ends with a plea to take to heart: "The way we save our schools is to bury Dewey’s ghost. It has caused enough mischief."

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