A Companion to John Dewey's

A Companion to John Dewey's "Democracy and Education"

by D. C. Phillips

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This year marks the centenary publication of John Dewey’s magnum opus, Democracy and Education. Despite its profound importance as a foundational text in education, it is notoriously difficult and—dare we say it—a little dry. In this charming and often funny companion, noted philosopher of education D. C. Phillips goes chapter by chapter to bring Dewey to a twenty-first-century audience. Drawing on over fifty years of thinking about this book—and on his own experiences as an educator—he lends it renewed clarity and a personal touch that proves its lasting importance.
Phillips bridges several critical pitfalls of Democracy and Education that often prevent contemporary readers from fully understanding it. Where Dewey sorely needs a detailed example to illustrate a point—and the times are many—Phillips steps in, presenting cases from his own classroom experiences. Where Dewey casually refers to the works of people like Hegel, Herbart, and Locke—common knowledge, apparently, in 1916—Phillips fills in the necessary background. And where Dewey gets convoluted or is even flat-out wrong, Phillips does what few other scholars would do: he takes Dewey to task. The result is a lively accompaniment that helps us celebrate and be enriched by some of the most important ideas ever offered in education.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226408408
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/19/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 184
File size: 306 KB

About the Author

D. C. Phillips is professor emeritus of education and philosophy at Stanford University, where he has also served as associate dean and of the Graduate School of Education. He is the author or editor of many books including, most recently, the Encyclopedia of Educational Theory and Philosophy.

Read an Excerpt

A Companion to John Dewey's Democracy and Education

By D. C. Phillips

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-40840-8


Education as a Necessity of Life

From the dawn of recorded history down to the present age, human communities have been educating their youngsters, and gradually social roles and institutions and structures evolved to carry out this function. Indeed, for about the last 150 years the resources allocated to the task of education have been massive — think of the investments that have been made in establishing school and preschool systems, colleges and universities, libraries, teacher-training institutions, research units, policy development units, and even programs in philosophy of education. All of this is pretty much taken for granted, and many of us do not problematize the general phenomenon and ask why this is so. But if pressed for an answer, we give replies that usually reflect our social positions: if we are successful capitalists, we may be prone to see educational processes and institutions as providing a skilled workforce; if we are government bureaucrats, we see them as contributing to economic growth or international competitiveness; if we are elderly or infirm, we may regard education as a weapon against violence and lawlessness in society; if we are philosophers, we are as likely as not to see education as contributing to the development of the personal autonomy of students; and if we are political theorists, we might focus on educating students to undertake the responsibilities of citizenship.

In these opening pages of D&E, Dewey does not adopt any of these familiar perspectives. It has seemed to me, from my early days as a high school teacher of biology and then as a philosopher of social science, always with an interest in the theory of evolution, that Dewey is adopting in these pages the stance of an evolutionary biologist (a perspective he alerted us to in that fecund third sentence of the preface). For if in the course of doing fieldwork, the biologist comes across a specimen of interest, a specimen with several distinctive characteristics, he or she will seek to discover the function of these features — the contribution they make to increasing the probability of survival in the struggle for existence of that specimen's species. Without survival value, those features would have been highly unlikely to have evolved and certainly would not have persisted in the species for very long. Thus Dewey, in adopting this approach, regards communities, or social groups, as being in some sense units of evolution, and institutions and social practices as being the equivalent — in these social units — of the adaptive features that biological organisms acquire in the course of their evolution. Thus, to put it in a nutshell, when he looked at societies from a "biological perspective," he noticed that — among other things — they all had systems or schemes for educating their young, and he asked the question, What is the function, that has survival value, of educational institutions and practices? (In the interest of full disclosure, I should note here that this is a perspective that might, in some quarters, be received with skepticism, although personally I think it is not unreasonable and certainly can be very fruitful.)

Dewey's answer to this question is simple, and strangely moving, and it serves as a starting point for his discussions in D&E: there is a constant flow of individuals through a society, as members are born into it and others die out of it, yet the society survives and maintains its identity — and it is education that is responsible for this. In almost poetic prose, he puts the point this way near the end of the first section:

The death of each of its constituent members is as certain as if an epidemic took them all at once. But the graded difference in age, the fact that some are born as some die, makes possible through transmission of ideas and practices the constant reweaving of the social fabric.

Isn't this an obvious point? Yes, he admits a few lines further on,

so obvious, indeed, is the necessity of teaching and learning for the continued existence of a society that we may seem to be dwelling unduly on a truism. But justification is found in the fact that such emphasis is a means of getting us away from an unduly scholastic and formal notion of education.

Here Dewey also is making a point that has been followed up by many philosophers of education — namely, that "education" and "schooling" are not synonymous. Not everything that takes place in the formal institutions such as schools is educational, and everything educational does not take place in schools. And before societies became complex and developed formal educational roles and institutions, of course, informal education was the "only act in town."

In essence, then, armed with his evolutionary theoretical lens, Dewey offers us in chapter 1 a type of "foundation or creation myth." (He offers another one of these accounts, about the rise of the discipline of philosophy, in the early portions of Reconstruction in Philosophy, published a few years after D&E). In broad terms it goes as follows: Early human groups passed on such things as skills and local knowledge to their young members; this was done informally — primarily by the youngsters engaging in activities such as hunting or food gathering alongside the senior members of the group. The more of these kinds of things that were shared between the members of the group (skills, knowledge, group traditions, and so on), the more it became a community rather than just a group or collection of individuals. Processes of communication therefore were central in the formation of communities. As Dewey puts it, communities did not exist by communication; they existed in communication. "There is more than a verbal tie between the words common, community, and communication," Dewey wrote early in section 2. "Men live in a community in virtue of the things which they have in common; and communication is the way in which they come to possess things in common." (It may be giving too much of the future story away, but I cannot suppress the impulse to point out that later Dewey objects to teaching youngsters communication skills in settings that do not allow them to communicate! The now infamous classroom to which I keep referring is a case in point, for as Dewey put it, it was "made 'for listening.'")

Dewey continues his account by arguing that eventually the material that needs to be transmitted becomes so complex that it is not viable to rely on informal means to impart it. Thus formal institutions and social roles "of direct tuition or schooling" evolve to serve this end, this function. As he puts it in section 3, "as civilization advances, the gap between the capacities of the young and the concerns of adults widens," and as a result, "ability to share effectively in adult activities thus depends upon a prior training given with this end in view." However, there is a danger here; a few paragraphs before the end of the chapter, Dewey issues a warning:

But there are conspicuous dangers attendant upon the transition from indirect to formal education. Sharing in actual pursuit(s), whether directly or vicariously in play, is at least personal and vital. ... Formal instruction, on the contrary, easily becomes remote and dead — abstract and bookish, to use the ordinary words of depreciation.

Once again the educational program suited for the horrendous classroom in which I did my practice teaching, all those years ago, comes to mind.

A final point needs to be made: Dewey nowhere denies that institutions or structures, ones that developed in order to fulfill a specific function that has survival value, can later acquire or can be given additional functions as well. Indeed he acknowledges this at the start of section 3, where he makes the point that social institutions first arise to serve some practical purpose but then can gradually acquire other functions — such as educational ones. And of course, educational institutions can acquire noneducational functions (such as becoming sites for delivery of free-meals programs, or places where students are "sorted" into different social classes). This phenomenon — a characteristic or structure that has one function coming to acquire additional functions or uses — is fairly common in biological evolution, so it was to be expected that something similar would be found to occur in social evolution. It is relevant to note that one of the important offshoots of the theory of evolution in the early decades of the twentieth century was the development of functionalism in psychology, sociology, and especially anthropology — an intellectual movement in which Dewey played an important role.


Education as a Social Function

The overall structure of this chapter is captured well enough in Dewey's summary at the end, where all seems straightforward — the theme, which leads on nicely from that of the first chapter, is the importance of the environment in developing within the young the "attitudes and dispositions necessary to the continuous and progressive life of a society." However, a journey can often be described as having been nonproblematic when it is over, when the difficulties and travails have faded from view (or have been suppressed deliberately); nevertheless the plain fact of life is that voyages are only rarely "plain sailing." And this, alas, is true of the journey Dewey takes us on in this early chapter.

The problems do not arise from the main theme, although why Dewey goes to such pains to stress the importance of the environment may not be clear to the reader and is a matter that needs to be addressed in due course. Rather, the problems come from the form of Dewey's arguments, which too often have a bewildering quality. For example, at several places he makes the point that knowledge cannot be imparted directly to students, but he does not define or illustrate with examples precisely what he means by this; perhaps he means "direct instruction" is not possible? But late in the chapter, he acknowledges that as societies develop complexity, the special environment of formal schooling evolves to serve a vital set of functions — and it seems clear that in courses in chemistry, physics, calculus, and so forth, direct instruction does occur and seems at least to be moderately efficacious. Furthermore, in chapter 12 Dewey acknowledges that ideas can be transferred from one person to another, but if not done properly (I discuss this later), they become — as he put it brilliantly — a "static, cold-storage ideal of knowledge." So it is not clear to the reader what Dewey is arguing in chapter 2, and one wishes that he could have been a tad more "user friendly" here! But perhaps I am introducing a difficulty into Dewey's work that does not really exist — perhaps, for some unknown reason, he is making the rather trivial point that we cannot (for example) extract a serum from Einstein's brain and inject it into students who thereby will suddenly (and "directly") know that E = MC. Once again, however, Dewey could have given us some help!

Another example, illustrative of a common foible in Dewey's style of argumentation, is to be found early in the chapter, in the middle of the very first paragraph. His argument opens with a sentence of some charm: "By various agencies, unintentional and designed, a society transforms uninitiated and seemingly alien beings into robust trustees of its own resources and ideals." So far, so good. But the following sentence introduces the mystery: "Education is thus a fostering, a nurturing, a cultivating process." It is the word "thus" that is highly problematic here; it indicates that the claim that follows this word is a consequence — a logical consequence — of the facts alluded to in the previous sentence. In other words, Dewey is claiming that it logically follows that education must be a fostering, nurturing, and cultivating process. But this simply is wrong; it does not follow at all. Indeed, the premise (that a society uses various agencies to transform the young into robust trustees of its resources and ideals) is quite compatible with the radically different conclusion that "therefore" education is a molding, shaping, and inculcating process. One cannot help entertaining the thought that it would have been more straightforward for Dewey to replace "thus" with a term that really captures the hidden structure of his argument — "abracadabra!"

The point is a logical one, and it is not being argued that Dewey is wrong in claiming that education should be considered a fostering, nurturing, cultivating process. This claim of Dewey's is a normative one — education should be thought of this way; and as such it is a claim that requires a substantial warranting case to be presented in its support. And this is precisely what Dewey offers in many of the later chapters of D&E, and in many of his other educational writings. So, at the end of D&E, but not at the outset, Dewey would (perhaps) have been justified in writing, "Thus it follows, from the case presented in this book, that education is a ..." And so we must venture onward to determine whether Dewey indeed was justified!

Venturing onward brings us face-to-face with the importance Dewey assigns to the roles the environment plays in education (the environment being whatever enters into an organism's activity as a "sustaining or frustrating condition"). In this chapter of D&E, Dewey gives the reader little or no inkling of the evolutionary thought or the developments in psychology that helped frame his thinking on this matter. (It is worth mentioning, as an aside, that Dewey was not only a philosopher but also a psychologist — and enough of one to be elected president of the young American Psychological Association in 1899.)

The theory of evolution holds that all living organisms inhabit an environment and survive by making use of some of the resources it provides. But, of course, the environment sometimes (or always) has hostile elements, thus producing a struggle for existence. Organisms within a species have natural variation, and individuals with variations that are advantageous in this struggle have a greater chance of surviving and passing on their favorable variations to their offspring. It is this process of struggle, variation, selection, and differential survival that drives evolution. All of this occurs at the biological level, but the environment also plays an important role in shaping the behavioral repertoire of organisms — a matter addressed by several schools of psychology that emerged post–Origin of Species. For example, the behaviorism of E. L. Thorndike, Dewey's colleague at Teachers College, held that if the environment in which an animal performed an action yielded a rewarding consequence (such as the obtaining of food), then that action would more likely be repeated when the stimulating circumstances were similar. (Later this was called "operant conditioning" by B. F. Skinner, who held that the process was responsible for shaping much of animal — including human — behavior.)

When it is the behavior of the human organism that is the focus, particularly the behavior of the youngsters of our species, the social environment becomes especially important. "The particular medium in which an individual exists," Dewey writes in the third paragraph of chapter 2, "leads him to see and feel one thing rather than another; it leads him to have certain plans in order that he may act successfully with others." In a social environment, an individual cannot "perform his own activities without taking the activities of others into account." But more than this — the developing individual must become a partner, and the activity must be what Dewey calls a conjoint or genuinely shared one. In short, the individual must come to care about the activity and its outcome the way others care about it, and then indeed it is social. Language is a vital tool here, but more than this — learning a language and using it are themselves conjoint social activities. (And, importantly, learning and using signs — the precursors of language — were related to the very acquisition of the human mind, as argued by Dewey's close friend and one-time colleague George Herbert Mead.)


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Table of Contents

Introduction: John Dewey and Me
The Companion
Preface, 1915

1          Education as a Necessity of Life
2          Education as a Social Function
3          Education as Direction
4          Education as Growth
5          Preparation, Unfolding, and Formal Discipline
6          Education as Conservative and Progressive
7          The Democratic Conception in Education
8          Aims in Education
9          Natural Development and Social Efficiency as Aims
10        Interest and Discipline
11        Experience and Thinking
12        Thinking in Education
13        The Nature of Method
14        The Nature of Subject Matter
15        Play and Work in the Curriculum
16        The Significance of Geography and History
17        Science in the Course of Study
18        Educational Values
19        Labor and Leisure
20        Intellectual and Practical Studies
21        Physical and Social Studies: Naturalism and Humanism
22        The Individual and the World
23        Vocational Aspects of Education
24        Philosophy of Education
25        Theories of Knowledge
26        Theories of Morals

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