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John Dewey, Habituation and Platform Socialisation

In his account of socialisation in Democracy and Education, Dewey places a great stress on habit formation. There’s an inevitability to habit as “excessive stimulation and excessive and ill-adapted response” necessitate that “certain stimuli are selected because of their relevancy, and others are degraded” (loc 761). He criticises the tendency to regard habit in negative terms, divorced from mental attitudes and framed in terms of ‘bad habits’, instead distinguishing between routine habits that “possess us instead of our possessing them” and “which put an end to plasticity” (loc 803) and active habits which support skilled engagement with the world and expand our capacity for action. The latter entails an “understanding the situations in which the habit operates” (loc 789) and with this comes the capacity to act in that situation, transforming the situation and bringing about new possibilities for action. This creates a challenge for formal and informal education:

The instinctively mobile and eagerly varying action of childhood, the love of new stimuli and new developments, too easily passes into a “settling down,” which means aversion to change and a resting on past achievements. Only an environment which secures the full use of intelligence in the process of forming habits can counteract this tendency.

Loc 803, Democracy and Education

An educational process which secures this is concerned with living rather than preparing to live. This means we must reject what Dewey calls a ‘privative’ (loc 817) conception of immaturity in which children are seen as proto-adults with gaps waiting to be filled rather than living, growing, changing beings in the process of becoming who they are. This tendency to take the adult environment as the fixed point to which children must be raised up can exercise a terrible influence over the kinds of habits which are developed through education:

The educational counterparts of the three fallacious ideas are first, failure to take account of the instinctive or native powers of the young; secondly, failure to develop initiative in coping with novel situations; thirdly, an undue emphasis upon drill and other devices which secure automatic skill at the expense of personal perception. In all cases, the adult environment is accepted as a standard for the child. He is to be brought up to it.

Loc 830, Democracy and Education

Instead he offers a much more positive vision of what education means: “The inclination to learn from life itself and to make the conditions of life such that all will learn in the process of living is the finest product of schooling” (loc 830). In this sense education means supplying the conditions for growth:

When we abandon the attempt to define immaturity by means of fixed comparison with adult accomplishments, we are compelled to give up thinking of it as denoting lack of desired traits. Abandoning this notion, we are also forced to surrender our habit of thinking of instruction as a method of supplying this lack by pouring knowledge into a mental and moral hole which awaits filling. Since life means growth, a living creature lives as truly and positively at one stage as at another, with the same intrinsic fullness and the same absolute claims. Hence education means the enterprise of supplying the conditions which insure growth, or adequacy of life, irrespective of age. We first look with impatience upon immaturity, regarding it as something to be got over as rapidly as possible. Then the adult formed by such educative methods looks back with impatient regret upon childhood and youth as a scene of lost opportunities and wasted powers

Loc 830-844, Democracy and Education

An obvious question presents itself for the Deweyean account of platform socialisation I’ve been thinking about recently: does the role of social platforms in socialisation contribute or detract from “secur[ing] the full use of intelligence in the process of forming habits“? This looks like an interesting paper I’ll be engaging with in the next stage of exploring this question.

Categories: Becoming Who We Are

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