43. Education and Discovery, Part 2

Anyone who studies the philosophy of education will quickly discover that there are two central models of how knowledge comes to be acquired: on one hand, we have an ignorant and passive pupil who receives information from an active and knowledgeable teacher; on the other hand, we have a interactive model whereby both the pupil and the teacher engage in shared inquiry which leads to new discoveries. The latter model has become famous through the writings and deeds of two famous philosophers: Socrates (470-399) and John Dewey (1859-1952).  In the last post we looked at the basics of Socratic pedagogy.  Now let’s briefly look at John Dewey’s vision. The next post will compare them and draw some conclusions for individual and political growth.

Dewey formulated a vision of education in light of the theory of evolution proposed by Charles Darwin in his Origin of Species (1859).  Dewey fully agreed with Darwin that we are changing beings in a changing world.  Although nature has regularities, it contains no natural purposes or fixed species.  This dynamic and constantly changing world requires us to constantly adapt to changing circumstances.  The goal of inquiry is not to discover eternal, unchanging forms since these do not exist.  Rather, it is to make coordinated and fruitful adjustments in the face of perilous situations.  One can see how this biologically based vision permeates Dewey’s pedagogy in the following passage:

“It is the very nature of life to strive to continue in being.  Since this continuance can be secured only by constant renewals, life is a self-renewing process.  What nutrition and reproduction are to physiological life, education is to social life.  This education consists primarily in transmission through communication.  Communication is a process of sharing experience till it becomes a common possession.  It modifies the disposition of both the parties who partake in it.” [1]

From this one passage we can see the core of Dewey’s pedagogy: education is a process of mutually informing communication through which students come to participate in a renewing process.  This process has two basic factors:  (1) knowledge must be passed on to students so that they are in possession of the fruits of human experience; and (2) since the world is changing and new problems will arise, students must learn to experiment with this knowledge and creatively apply it in problematic situations. Dewey’s vision thus steers between a traditional approach to education in which conformity to the past is central and a progressive approach which does away with the past in order to cultivate the novel individual.  For Dewey, we do need to pass along knowledge.  But this passing cannot be a matter of passive reception.  Rather, students must learn to renew the past in light of new and relevant problems.

But how?  Like Socrates, Dewey has a method to offer.  This method is the key to understanding how Dewey hopes to forge an integration of tradition and experimentation.  The method is essentially an abstraction derived from the steps we go through when we are involved in a reflective experience.  Dewey describes these steps as follows:

“(i) perplexity, confusion, doubt, due to the fact that one is implicated in an incomplete situation whose full character is not yet determined; (ii) a conjectural anticipation—a tentative interpretation of the given elements, attributing to them a tendency to effect certain consequences; (iii) a careful survey (examination, inspection, exploration, analysis) of all attainable consideration which will define and clarify the problem in hand; (iv) a consequent elaboration of the tentative hypothesis to make it more precise and more consistent, because squaring with a wider range of facts; (v) taking one stand upon the projected hypothesis as a plan of action which is applied to the existing state of affairs: doing something overtly to bring about the anticipated result, and thereby testing the hypothesis. It is the extent and accuracy of steps three and four which mark off a distinctive reflective experience from one on the trial and error plane. They make thinking itself into an experience.” (MW 9:157)

Dewey’s hope was that students would come to possess the virtues that allow them to freely apply this method.  And the role of educators is to set up the conditions for the method to be executed:

“The educator’s part in the enterprise of education is to furnish the environment which stimulates responses and directs the learner’s course. In the last analysis, all that the educator can do is modify stimuli so that response will as surely as is possible result in the formation of desirable intellectual and emotional dispositions.” (MW 9:188)

By doing so, educators will help students discover new connections between things that can be used in future inquiries:

“To “learn from experience” is to make a backward and forward connection between what we do to things and what we enjoy or suffer from things in consequence. Under such conditions, doing becomes a trying; an experiment with the world to find out what it is like; the undergoing becomes instruction—discovery of the connection of things.” (MW 9:147)

One can see that Dewey’s dynamic method has both an active and passive dimension: we are active insofar as we try something and alter conditions around us; we are passive insofar as we need to undergo the consequences of our actions and the discoveries we make. The more connections we make the more we learn; and the more we learn the more we can grow by intelligently adjusting to the challenges of a changing world.  Of course, such growth will only flourish in certain types of societies.  For Dewey, democratic societies are the most consistent with this vision of individual growth:

“While what we call intelligence be distributed in unequal amounts, it is the democratic faith that it is sufficiently general so that each individual has something to contribute whose value can be assessed only as it enters into the final pooled intelligence constituted by the contributions of all.” [2]

Education provides the content and method so that individuals can find a way to develop their unique potentials and in doing so contribute to the democratic order.  But this order is precisely what allows individuals to develop their skills and be afforded the rights to help insure their flourishing.   So we see that social and individual growth are inexorably intertwined. Go here for part three of this series.


[1] The Middle Works of John Dewey, Vol. 9. Edited by Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983). p. 12. Hereafter, MW 9/page number.

[2] Steven M. Cahn. Classic and Contemporary Readings in the Philosophy of Education. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997), p. 323.

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