Board of Ancestors| John Dewey on Experience and Philosophy

Reflections on American Education Philosophy

Board of Ancestors is a blog series, where I reflect on my role models, my philosophical influences and inspiring peers. It’s part of our Meet the Founder Series.

American philosopher and educator who was a cofounder of the philosophical movement known as pragmatism, a pioneer in functional psychology, an innovative theorist of democracy, and a leader of the progressive movement in education in the United States.

Dewey places himself in the middle of the debate regarding the American education system during the 20thcentury. Dewey urges readers to step away from their philosophical dogmatic tendencies and start to think more critically about an education that emphasizes the collective experiences of the student and the teacher and leaving particular “ism”s behind.

Dewey does not suggest that discussing the role of experience in education necessarily devalues the strengths of traditional education, but allows us to begin to identifyits weaknesses. In Dewey’s discussion of the purpose of experience in education he suggests that the exchange of experiences between immature students and adults acts as a medium to support the youths’ understanding of subject matter. Dewey also believes that experience, or knowledge of the past, helps the youth contextualize the present. The same filtration of thought is used when assessing the practices of “progressive” education. He articulates how experience impacts empirical thought. According to Dewey, empiricism doesn’t work without the context that experience brings.

“Young people in traditional schools do have experiences; and, secondly, that the trouble is not the absence of experiences, but their defective and wrong character– wrong and defective from the standpoint of connection with further experience.”

John Dewey

Dewey offers a concession to the audience, explaining that not all experiences are universally good for educating young people. He considers certain experiences to be miseducational, meaning those experiences deter from the growth gained by having new experiences. In Dewey’s opinion, too many misexperiences lead to one losing their self-control.

How does Dewey conceive teacher authority, and the teacher’s right and duty to teach?

When discussing Dewey’s conception of teacher authority we have to first discuss Dewey’s concept of adulthood vs. childhood. while Dewey uses terms like adult, child, and student, those terms do not define the power dynamics as distinctly in Dewey’s eyes as they do in today’s society. From my understanding of Dewey’s work he sees young learners as fully actualized in their rights even if they are mature. Quote, “That children are individuals whose freedom should be respected while the more mature person should have no freedom as an individual is an idea too absurd to require refutation.” If we accept this as Dewey’s perspective on the relationship between children and adults, then we must also incorporate that dynamic to how teacher authority functions with respect to their classroom.

Deconstructing Authority

The second point of consideration is how Dewey deconstructs the term authority, splitting between personal will and contributing towards group achievement. In Dewey’s opinion, the teacher (all adults/ mature individuals) must exercise authority with the least amount of personal will. He states that children are willing to be led but not dictated to.

These two ideas frame Dewey’s conception of teacher authority. According to Dewey, teacher’s authority with respect to the “social enterprise” of public education must be responsible to the individual knowledge of students. In addition, the authority of teachers must be rooted in the subject-matter knowledge they bring that will enable activity that lends itself to the social enterprise of public education. In theory when working within these goals an educator doesn’t have to pull from their own “personal authority”. Instead the collective interest of the group will allow individuals to contribute, in which all individualshave an opportunity to contribute something, and in which the activities in which all participate are the chief carrier of control.

Acknowledging Youth Experience

Dewey sees the use of personal authority as counter intuitive to the goal of education and socialization. He also understands that individuals will arrive at school carrying their traumas and life experiences with them. Due to this reality he acknowledges that some individuals will require more individual attention to help them become contributors, rather than disrupters of educative activities. In his opinion, isolation is not a viable option or is dictation. The planning must be flexible enough to permit free play for individuality of experience and yet firm enough to give direction towards continuous development of power. Ultimately this plan must incorporate communication, and have the group/ community goal in mind, not the individual goal of the student or the teacher.

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