Teaching as Attitude: The Staying Power of John Dewey

My thoughts on the relevance and power of John Dewey, just in time for Labo(u)r Day.

Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.

"Example is notoriously more potent than precept." —John Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916)by Daniel Richards

We have all heard of John Dewey.

The native of Burlington, Vermont, (1859-1952) has been on U.S. stamps; he protected academic freedom by co-founding the American Association of University Professors (AAUP); his articulation of inquiry undergirds most student-centered and service learning teaching approaches; he was one of the foremost contributors to the development of (despite his disdain for the term) Pragmatism, perhaps America’s greatest contribution to philosophy; and he most likely occupies a full shelf in your university library, having written copiously for over sixty years on pretty much everything, from education to politics to anthropology to social psychology to aesthetics to ethics to communication. There is perhaps no one more prominent within the American educational consciousness than Dewey.

But do we really know John Dewey?

Writing from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, Dewey is usually—and rightfully—associated with thinkers from a wide variety of…

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Dewey and Cross-Nationalism

The deep purpose of Dewey’s philosophy of education may be said to be the infusion of social meaning and relevance into the learning activity that places in school and the replacement of the individualistic and intellectualistic organization of these activities by the style of cooperative inquiry which he held to be at the heart of democratic social practice. (Olafson 185)

It is beyond ironic – it is unfortunate – that John Dewey is cast as one of the forefathers of modern American higher education and yet the practices of students in higher education today are so divorced from his original intentions. Well, for the most part.

Dewey’s idealized version of the American educational system is one that viewed higher education as a tool of transmission of knowledge from generation to generation, a tool that transmits the accumulated knowledge and skills that would allow students to actively participate in “social” life as engaging members of society. Education was about transmission of social, real-world competence.  This is why the findings of David Foster’s study comparing the roles of student writers from a cross-national perspective are so disappointing (albeit not all that surprising). Foster’s qualitative methodology (interviews, institutional analysis, discourse analysis) of comparing the roles of American and German student writers is appropriate given his goal, which is to identify the degree of agency, control, and preparation of student writers across cultures. If Dewey’s goal was to model educative practices after “real-life” social situations, and this entailed preparing students with the necessary skills that would make them capable of engaging in civic life, then Foster’s findings that the institutional (“deadline-based”) constraints of American higher-educational systems limits this degree of agency and control is indicative of how America is failing in living out Dewey’s mission (utopia?). Our institutional constraints are impeding upon the students’ ability to “unfold from within.”

That being said, Dewey did write at a time when capitalizing “Great Society” was not really that bad of a thing. His educational models, political philosophy, and system of ethics all depended upon a heightened sense of nationalism – fervent, fervent nationalism – that assumed common morals, beliefs, and goals in a unified society. Developing the aims of education is much simpler when there are more cohesive relations among citizens. Now, teachers are not teaching just Americans with goals of bettering the localized community; teachers are teaching students from South Korea, India, Egypt, and most complicated of all, Canada! These students, as shown in Erin Krampetz’s thesis “Writing Across Cultures and Contexts,” draw on different expectations of audience; Krampetz ultimately shows, also through qualitative research methods (transcripts, writing samples, interviews), that cultural factors such as background impact student writing processes the most. How can we teach writing in the Deweyan model of education when the conceptions of writing, and thus rhetoric, and thus action, is so diverse in any given classroom?

Perhaps it is the presence of multiple senses of nationalism that education functions well (?) as merely the transmission of practical skills that are oftentimes divorced from “real-world” life systems. Dewey did not think education was just the transmission of social bodies of knowledge, but that education was so interconnected to social life that they really were not separate at all – education was not preparation for life, but life itself. However, this mission becomes unlikely when the experiences and expectations of students are so diverse so as to render betterment of social communities non sequitur. Perhaps a study like this would allow international students break free from the iron cage.

Works Cited

Olafson, Frederick A. “The School and Society: Reflections on John Dewey’s Philosophy of Education.” New Studies in the Philosophy of John Dewey. Ed. Steven M. Cahn. Hanover, NH: The University Press of New England, 1977. Print.