Thursday, February 24, 2011

On Vividness of Language and Experience

The Carding of Wool

The Trying of Fat
A reader—alright, let’s be honest here: my dad—left a comment on this blog regarding Dewey’s language in the passage that I excerpted last week. His point seems to me so interesting and so consonant with Dewey’s own beliefs, that I want to address a brief post to the subject. The comment itself is excellently written, and I reproduce it here in full:
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.
In the second chapter of the same book that I quoted from last week, The School and Society, Dewey makes nearly the same argument regarding the relationship between language and experience. Dewey refers not to his own language but to that of the students at the Chicago Lab School, of which he was then headmaster, and which served as a laboratory for his pedagogical ideas, and he provides excerpts from student writing to illustrate the point. (In addition to those points relevant to the discussion at hand, note Dewey's wonderful sensitivity to the details and style of the students' writing.)
The sentences that I am going to read seem to me poetic as well as "scientific." "A long time ago when the earth was new, when it was lava, there was no water on the earth, and there was steam all round the earth up in the air, as there were many gases in the air. One of them was carbon dioxide. The steam became clouds, because the earth began to cool off, and after awhile it began to rain, and the water came down and dissolved the carbon dioxide from the air." There is a good deal more science in that than probably would be apparent at the outset. It represents some three months of work on the part of the child. The children kept daily and weekly records, but this is part of the summing up of the quarter's work. I call this language poetic, because the child has a clear image and has a personal feeling for the realities imaged. I extract sentences from two other records to illustrate further the vivid use of language when there is a vivid experience back of it. "When the earth was cold enough to condense, the water, with the help of carbon dioxide, pulls the calcium out of the rocks into a large body of water where the little animals could get it." The other reads as follows: ``When the earth cooled, calcium was in the rocks. Then the carbon dioxide and water united and formed a solution, and, as it ran, it tore out the calcium and carried it on to the sea, where there were little animals who took it out of solution." The use of such words as "pulled " and "tore" in connection with the process of chemical combination evidences a personal realization which compels its own appropriate expression.
Dewey provides several examples of the kind of active, hands-on, and imaginatively rich activities that lead to such personal experience and vivid language. (Sadly, I don’t have a copy of the image referred to in the following passage.)
The children made a primitive loom in the shop; here the constructive instinct was appealed to. Then they wished to do something with this loom, to make something. It was the type of the Indian loom, and they were shown blankets woven by the Indians. Each child made a design kindred in idea to those of the Navajo blankets, and the one which seemed best adapted to the work in hand was selected. The technical resources were limited, but the coloring and form were worked out by the children. The example shown was made by the twelve-year-old children. Examination shows that it took patience, thoroughness, and perseverance to do the work. It involved not merely discipline and information of both a historical sort and the elements of technical design, but also something of the spirit of art in adequately conveying an idea.
In another passage, he describes how lessons in science and technology arose out of an imaginative exploration of the development of primitive society.
…the children had some idea of primitive weapons, of the stone arrowhead, etc. That provided occasion for the testing of materials as regards their friability, their shape, texture, etc., resulting in a lesson in mineralogy, as they examined the different stones to find which was best suited to the purpose. The discussion of the iron age supplied a demand for the construction of a smelting oven made out of clay, and of considerable size. As the children did not get their drafts right at first, the mouth of the furnace not being in proper relation to the vent, as to size and position, instruction in the principles of combustion, the nature of drafts and of fuel, was required. Yet the instruction was not given ready-made; it was first needed, and then arrived at experimentally.
This question of need—whether lessons arise naturally from a narrative that begins with human interest—is of great importance to Dewey. For him, that question is tied inextricably to the discussion of language that my dad raised in his comment. What matters is not what we see and touch but what we are led, by curiosity and practical necessity, to examine closelynot the richness of the materials before us but the vividness of our personal experience. Of the students at the Lab School, he writes:
As to discipline, they get more training of attention, more power of interpretation, of drawing inferences, of acute observation and continuous reflection, than if they were put to working out arbitrary problems simply for the sake of discipline.
Dewey sees motivation as a crucial element not only of observation but of writing. Vivid language and clear speech, he believes, arise from a desire to communicate. As he puts it, in a rare moment of linguistic agility, “There is all the difference in the world between having something to say and having to say something.” As a sometime teacher of expository writing, I can attest, that’s dead on.

These excerpts also show what an important role self-expression plays in Dewey's educational philosophy. He has a fine eye and ear for the ways in which artistic expression reveals how students are engaging with the objects of study. For him, social discourse is the heart of education, and the child's drawing and writing, when they arise naturally as focused efforts at communicating what she knows, understands, and values, constitute her most refined contribution to that discourse.
One more instance of the connection of the art side with the constructive side. The children had been studying primitive spinning and carding, when one of them, twelve years of age, made a picture of one of the older children spinning.… It is an illustration of two hands and the drawing out of the wool to get it ready for spinning. This was done by a child eleven years of age. But, upon the whole, with the younger children especially, the art impulse is connected mainly with the social instinct—the desire to tell, to represent. Now, keeping in mind these fourfold interests—the interest in conversation or communication; in inquiry, or finding out things; in making things, or construction; and in artistic expression—we may say they are the natural resources, the uninvested capital, upon the exercise of which depends the active growth of the child.

1 comment:

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