Dewey’s pedagogy was one with three distinctive traits: it was democratic in that it called for pluralism. It was a follower of the scientific method in that it was a systemic approach at solving problems and forming judgments, both practical and moral. It prized directed experience as an ongoing process of means as ends and ends as means. These three traits of Dewey’s philosophy are tied to all that he wrote and thought.
Dewey felt that democracy was the ideal social structure, the one best suited to the needs and aims of all people; under no other political scheme was it possible for general citizens to have allowance and responsibility to grow individually and culturally. All other systems hindered personal and social growth in Dewey’s scheme. Any form of despotic state used fear to such an extent that it became one of the only factors that kept the state in union, and the other factors that would naturally cause people to work together in their social environments were perverted and wasted. “Instead of operating on their own account they are reduced to mere servants of attaining pleasure and avoiding pain” (DE, 84).
The cultural paralysis was seen in the fact that “there is no free play back and forth among the members of the social group. Stimulation and response are exceedingly one-sided.” Both the rich and poor suffer: the poor in that they have little involvement in the courses taken in their lives; the rich in that their “culture becomes sterile” (DE, 84).
Dewey asserted that “democracy has always been allied with humanism, with faith in the potentials of human nature” and that “democracy means the belief that humanistic culture should prevail.” He advised that democracy is not something that will necessarily happen if “human nature is left to itself, when freed from external arbitrary restriction” (FC, 97). Democracy, for Dewey, was a moral issue that required efforts born in democratic vision. Democracy was Dewey’s tool of progress. But Dewey also saw that democracy did not guarantee progress.
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...nt. Otherwise facts gained only have the potential to gain meaning, and many facts will turn out to be disconnected, never finding their place in a person’s experience. Facts grow naturally out of meaningful experience, but meaningful experience which leads to more facts do not necessarily flow from facts.
Dewey wrote that “the tragic weakness of the present school is that it endeavors to prepare future members of the social order in a medium in which the conditions of the social spirit are eminently wanting” (SSCC, 15). The conditions wanting were democracy, rational judgment conducive of the scientific method, and a conception of experience that recognizes the continuous nature of ends as means of further action.
What Dewey wanted was ideal, but it was not utopian. He knew that we should do better, that we could do better. The question was more whether there was a will to do better.
Dewey, John. 1944. Democracy and Education (DE). New York: The Free Press.
Dewey, John. 1989. Freedom and Culture (FC). Buffalo: Prometheus Books.
Dewey, John. 1964. The School and Society and The Child and the Curriculum (SSCC). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
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