Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dewey Speaks

On closer inspection, my thoughts about math concepts proved too inchoate to form the basis of the taxonomy promised repeatedly in my last few posts. It is, I suppose, the nature of a serial journal of this kind that one cannot always deliver on one’s promises without sacrificing intellectual integrity. Thus, the “cliff-hanger” at the end of my last post proves nothing more than a tease, and the hungry reader, after a long delay, is served an entirely unexpected dish: a bit of Dewey, fresh from the freezer. What follows is an excerpt from The School and Society, 1900.

Those of us who are here today need go back only one, two, or at most three generations, to find a time when the household was practically the center in which were carried on or about which were clustered, all the typical forms of the industrial occupation. The clothing worn was for the most part not only made in the house, but the members of the household were usually familiar with the sheering of the sheep, the carding and spinning of the wool, and the plying of the loom. Instead of pressing a button and flooding the house with electric light, the whole process of getting illumination was followed in its toilsome length, from the killing of the animal and the trying of the fat, to the making of the wicks and dripping of candles. The supply of flower, of lumber, of foods, of building materials, of household furniture, even of metal ware, of nails, hinges, hammers, etc., was in the immediate neighborhood, in shops which were constantly open to inspection and often centers of neighborhood congregation. The entire industrial process stood revealed, from the production on the farm of the raw materials, till the finished article was actually put to use. Not only this, but practically every member of the household had his own share in the work. The children, as they gained in strength and capacity, were gradually initiated into the mysteries of the several processes. It was a matter of immediate and personal concern, even to the point of actual participation.

We cannot overlook the factors of discipline and of character-building involved in this: training in the habits of order and of industry, and in the idea of responsibility, of obligation to do something, to produce something, in the world. There was always something which really needed to be done and a real necessity that each member of the household should do his own part faithfully and in cooperation with others. Personalities which became effective in action were bred and tested in the medium of action. Again, we cannot overlook the importance for educational purposes of the close and intimate acquaintance got with nature at first hand, with real things and materials, with the actual processes of their manipulation, and the knowledge of their social necessities and uses. In all this there was continual training of observation, of ingenuity, constructive imagination, of logical thought, and of the sense of reality acquired through first-hand contact with actualities. The educative forces of the domestic spinning and weaving, of the saw-mill, the grist-mill, the cooper shop, and the blacksmith forge, were continuously operative.

No number of object-lessons, got up as object-lessons for the sake of giving information, can afford even the shadow of a substitute for acquaintance with the plants and animals of the farm and garden, acquired through actual living among them and caring for them. No training of sense-organs in school, introduced for the sake of training, can begin to compete with the alertness and fullness of sense-life that comes through daily intimacy and interest in familiar occupations. Verbal memory can be trained in committing tasks, a certain discipline of the reasoning powers can be acquired through lessons in science and mathematics; but, after all, this is somewhat remote and shadowy compared with the training of attention and of judgment that is acquired in having to do things with a real motive behind and a real outcome ahead. At present, concentration of industry and division of labor have practically eliminated household and neighborhood occupations—at least for educational purposes. But it is useless to bemoan the departure of the good old days of children's modesty, reverence, and implicit obedience, if we expect merely by bemoaning and by exhortation to bring them back. It is radical conditions which have changed, and only an equally radical change in education suffices. We must recognize our compensations—the increase in toleration, in breadth of social judgment, the larger acquaintance with human nature, the sharpened alertness in reading signs of character and interpreting social situations, greater accuracy of adaptation to differing personalities, contact with greater commercial activities. These considerations mean much to the city-bred child of today. Yet there is a real problem: how shall we retain these advantages, and yet introduce into the school something representing the other side of life—occupations which exact personal responsibilities and which train the child with relation to the physical realities of life?

Dewey’s prescription, like that of so many incisive thinkers, is not as elegant nor as briefly stated as his diagnosis—but it’s interesting. Dewey envisioned a school that would contain a fully-equipped textile shop, wood- and metal-working shops, kitchens, and physical, biological and chemical laboratories. He wanted students to study academics and the arts by following and physically reenacting the development of human industry, from the spinning of thread to the making of garments, from the boiling of water to the cooking of meals, from the microlithic to the metallurgic. 

Note well the moral thread running through the above excerpt. Dewey’s idea was not merely that students have an immediate experience of history and science, but that they become bound into and conscious of their connection to the whole gestalt of human civilization—the triumphal, rising tide of human development. As he wrote three years earlier in My Pedagogy Creed, Dewey believed “that education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness; and that the adjustment of individual activity on the basis of this social consciousness is the only sure method of social reconstruction.” It is a truly progressive vision, expressive of a tremendous optimism regarding the future of mankind—an optimism that, after a century of world war, genocide, atom bobms, passive entertainment, and market forces, seems unrecoverable.

1 comment:

  1. What strikes me first in the Dewey passage is the vividness and specificity of his language. The "carding" of wool, the "trying" of fat, a whole world of natural processes and self-sufficiency for which we no longer have even the words. The passage helps explain, among many other things, the richness of Shakespeare's imagery. He lived the life Dewey is describing in which human beings actually made the things they used and understood, therefore, in a way we cannot, the material world around them and the properties of the objects in it, the weight of the cloth, sharpness of the tool, the density of this wood and the flexibility of that one. They saw and knew (knew and saw) the world they lived in, and their language for describing it was abundant, particular and precise.