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The two competing models of education

From John Dewey’s Experience and Education pg 17:

The history of educational theory is marked by opposition between the idea that education is development from within and that it is formation from without; that it is based upon natural endowments and that education is a process of overcoming natural inclination and substituting in its place habits acquired under external pressure.

The former sees it as a matter of transmitting information, skills and norms which have been established in the past to new generations. It seeks to prepare children for what is assumed to be a predictable life and demands obedience from them in order to ensure the efficacy of that preparation. Teachers act as the agents through which the past can live on in the future.

He summaries the dissatisfaction which has built in his time with this traditional education. From pg 18-19:

The traditional scheme is, in essence, one of imposition from above and from outside. It imposes adult standards, subject-matter, and methods upon those who are only growing slowly toward maturity. The gap is so great that the required subject-matter, the methods of learning and of behaving are foreign to the existing capacities of the young. They are beyond the reach of the experience the young learners already possess. Consequently, they must be imposed; even though good teachers will use devices of art to cover up the imposition so as to relieve it of obviously brutal features.

Teaching in this way imputes a fixity to knowledge. It obscures how knowledge was discovered, the changes it has undergone and the changes it will undergo in the future. As he puts it on pg 19, “It is to a large extent the cultural product of societies that assumed the future would be much like the past, and yet it is used as educational food in a society where change is the rule, not the exception.” He contrasts this on pg 19 to the progressive educational practice and the principles implicit within it:

To imposition from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality; to external discipline is opposed free activity; to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience; to acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill, is opposed acquisition of them as means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal; to preparation for a more or less remote future is opposed making the most of the opportunities of present life; to static aims and materials is opposed acquaintance with a changing world.

I really appreciate how he sees the practice as emerging first, with principles implicit within it, rather than sees explicit ideas as driving changes in practice. This casts the role of philosophy of education as one of reconstruction and comparison rather than a sovereign leading practitioners. As he puts it on pg 33, “this analysis is not an end in itself but is engaged in for the sake of obtaining criteria to be applied later in discussion of a number of concrete and, to most persons, more interesting issues.” He shares his concern on pg 20 about the constructive development of these approaches:

The general philosophy of the new education may be sound, and yet the difference in abstract principles will not decide the way in which the moral and intellectual preference involved shall be worked out in practice. There is always the danger in a new movement that in rejecting the aims and methods of that which it would supplant, it may develop its principles negatively rather than positively and constructively. Then it takes its clew in practice from that which is rejected instead of from the constructive development of its own philosophy.

Categories: Archive philosophy of education

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