John Dewey Predicts the Rise of Pop Music

Dewey didn’t get everything wrong:

Only persons who have been spoiled in early life like things always soft; persons of vigor who prefer to live and who are not contented with subsisting find the too easy repulsive. The difficult becomes objectionable only when instead of challenging energy it overwhelms and blocks it. Some esthetic products have an immediate vogue; they are the “best sellers” of their day. They are “easy” and thus make a quick appeal; their popularity calls out imitators, and they set the fashion in plays or novels or songs for a time. But their very ready assimilation into experience exhausts them quickly; no new stimulus is derived from them. They have their day–and only a day.

John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934), 173-174


Why Study History? Part IV: The Displacement of History in Education

Note: This is the eighth post in the series: “Why Study History?”

In the previous four posts (see end of this post for links), I argued that History plays a central role in education. In spite of this, since the late nineteenth century, American education has seen a steady decline in the teaching of certain academic fields, primarily the arts and humanities (including history). No doubt the cause of this change goes well beyond what can be covered here, but a few general observations concerning this shift in curriculum may be observed.

First, the changes in emphasis of curriculum are due to an overall change in the view of the ends of education. As mentioned above, both humane and utilitarian views of education go back thousands of years, with the dominant view being the humane education which seeks to make students good. Recently, however, utilitarian views of education have become dominant, at least in the United States. For example, the United States Department of Education’s stated purpose is “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” No doubt, the competition to which this statement refers is “jobs” or “careers.” The consistent message from politicians with regard to education is that students need to be prepared to enter the “workforce,” and that we must be more “competitive” in math and sciences so that Americans will not be displaced by foreign competition in the job market.

In order to achieve these goals, a shift in curricula is necessary. For example, in 2007 the United States passed the America COMPETES Act (P.L. 110-69) which specific purpose is “to invest in innovation through research and development, and to improve the competitiveness of the United States.” Again, “competitiveness” is the driving force. To do this, the act shifts funding for educational programs into S.T.E.M. disciplines. S.T.E.M. refers to any discipline which correlates to Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics. Accordingly the act authorizes funding for the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy Office of Science. As educational programs receive increased funding in S.T.E.M. disciplines, they must necessarily de-emphasize non-S.T.E.M. fields like history and the humanities.

Frans_Hals_-_Portret_van_René_DescartesSecond, these shifts, though not a direct result of, are certainly influenced by an overall Cartesian view of knowledge which emphasizes certainty above all else. The “pure” sciences, like mathematics, lead to absolute certainty in matters of truth. Without certainty there is no knowledge, only speculation, or so we must reduce all disciplines to mathematical postulates and explanations, and if not, they are viewed as suspect. Says Descartes, “In the subjects we propose to investigate, our inquiries should be directed, not to what others have thought, nor to what we ourselves conjecture, but to what we can clearly and perspicuously behold and with certainty deduce; for knowledge is not won in any other way.”( Rene Descartes, Rules for the Direction of the Mind, 225) That is, unlike Pascal, Descartes emphasized the throwing-off of tradition and previous generations as a way of knowing, leaving the philosopher alone with reason only to discover truth. Where then is a place for history, literature, or the arts in an educational program? Since these cannot lead to any kind of certain knowledge, they are at best seen as interesting trivialities. That is, a philosophical shift in the general view of truth and knowledge may also be driving these educational changes.

Third, while the current driving force of these changes may be an utilitarian view of education, the underlying assumptions of American Pragmatism must certainly be explored as an influence. Though many would trace these changes in American education back to John Dewey, Dewey himself was heavily influenced by the English philosopher Herbert Spencer. According to Spencer the purpose of education is to prepare children for “self-preservation, securing the necessaries of life, bringing up children well, [and] producing good citizens.” (Egan, Getting It Wrong, 116) The means to achieve this would be the sciences. Accordingly, a new curriculum would be necessary to meet this aim. The criteria for selecting fields of study then would be their utility in preparing the student for these goals. “So the prevailing curriculum based on Greek, Latin, and history was to be swept away.” (Ibid.) What use would a child have for declining Greek nouns, conjugating Latin verbs, or knowing when the Battle of Hastings occurred in getting a job or raising a family?

From this educational shift, history was replaced with general social studies, the arts with more practical arts of the home and everyday life, and literature with science and technology studies. We have today, incorporated Spencer’s view of education wholesale so that his views of education are now mainstream. The more traditional curriculum is left for those who can afford private schools, while middle and poorer-class students are relegated to a crass utilitarian education:

An implication of Spencer’s writing was that the classics should disappear from the experience of middle-class student and should have no role for the increasing numbers of children from the lower classes who were filling the expanding state schools…Today, of course, the educational establishment—almost entirely without any knowledge of what once was the backbone or staple of education and almost invariably ignorant of classical languages—takes it for granted that the classics should be treated as an occasional and exotic option for only a few students. (Ibid., 120-121)

As noted, the champion of this kind of education in the United States was John Dewey. Dewey emphasized education as a kind of vocational activity. In order to function best in society, Dewey focuses his curriculum on “thinking skills” while de-emphasizing “information.” That is, it is more important that the student think than what the student thinks about. After all, the educator cannot predict what vocation their students will pursue, and so cannot predict what kinds of information will be useful to them. So, once again there is a replacing of history and culture with pragmatic skills. Though Dewey himself found utility in the studying and teaching of history, those who came after him found it of little use.

What then of those uses of history covered previously? How might a student come to think without something to think about? How might a student come to understand the society in which they live? How might a student learn to plan for the future? How might a student be formed morally? All these questions are treated as relatively unimportant on an utilitarian view of education. Yet, as I will examine in my final posted, it is precisely the lack of these functions provided by history that prevents utilitarian education from meeting its goals.

Previous Posts in the Series:
Part I: Introduction
Part IIa: The Definition of “Education”
Part IIb: The Definition of “History”
Part IIIa: History Provides the Content of Basic Knowledge
Part IIIb: History Is the Key to Current Affairs and Disciplines
Part IIIc: History Teaches Universal Principles
Part IIId: History Helps in Moral Formation


Why Study History? Part IIIb: History Is the Key to Current Affairs & Disciplines

Note: This is the fifth post in the series: “Why Study History?”

In my previous post I argued that history provides the foundations for knowledge.

Beyond the foundations of knowledge, history also functions as possibly the only way students can understand the current world in which they live. For no one lives in a vacuum. A society’s current state of affairs is the result of a long process of changes and influences. Not to know the history of a society, is not to know the society. To understand ourselves, our cultures, our political structures, our way of acting, our way of thinking, etc. depends on the history of those things. As Aristotle pointed out, “we do not know a truth without its cause” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, 993b23). “Cause” here includes, but is certainly not limited to, past persons and events. Even the great champion of progressive education, John Dewey, noted that without a study of history, we cannot understand ourselves or our present condition:

But the achievements of the past provide the only means at command for understanding the present. Just as the individual has to draw in memory upon his own past to understand the conditions in which he individually finds himself, so the issues and problems of present social life are in such intimate and direct connection with the past that students cannot be prepared to understand either these problems or the best way of dealing with them without delving into their roots in the past.(John Dewey, Experience and Education)

fatherofhistory03bFor example, Herodotus seems quite conscious of the goal of using history to explain the current state of affairs in Greece and elsewhere. “The ancient feud between the Eginetans and Athenians arose out of the following circumstances…” (Herodotus, The History of Herodotus) These and numerous other such statements are found throughout Herodotus as he attempts to narrate the events which result in current political affairs. Similarly, Augustine’s City of God may be seen as an attempt to place the current decline of Rome into the cosmic history of mankind. Augustine’s defense against the charge that Christianity was responsible for the miseries of his own day, was to recount the historical processes and causes that led to Rome’s decline. That is, to understand the way things were at that time, it was necessary to understand how they arrived at those state of affairs.

Furthermore, the principle that “history enables one to understand the present” can be seen throughout the Old Testament. Again and again, the Israelites are called “to remember” what God has done in order to live correctly in the present. (Cf. Deut. 6:20-25; 7:6-19; 16:1-12; Joshua 24:1-27; I Samuel 12; Nehemiah 9; Jeremiah 2; Ezekiel 20) That is, apart from a “memory” or a “history” of God’s activities in the past, their present actions are meaningless: “When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand…’” (Deut. 6:20-22 ESV). In the Old Testament, moral imperatives are always connected with historical indicatives. Without first understanding God’s role and relationship to the history of Israel, His commands might be seen as arbitrary or capricious.

Beyond an understanding of culture and current states of affairs, history, as pointed about above, can enable one to better understand specific disciplines. Blaise Pascal pointed out that the scientific research of his own day had shown too much deference to historical scientists, particularly Aristotle, and that this deference had slowed scientific progress. However, unlike other philosophers of his time (like Descartes), Pascal did not advocate ignoring the ancients in conducting new fields of research. Instead, says Pascal, “Since their [the ancient scientists] perfection depends upon time and effort, it is evident that even if our effort and time had gained us less than the labors of the ancients, separated from ours, the two together nevertheless must have more effect than either alone” (Blaise Pascal, Scientific Treatises). That is, if the scientist is going to advance any field of science, he must know the history of how the current understanding of his field developed. This was precisely what Pascal himself did in developing his theories and proving the existence of vacuums. The kind of “chronological snobbery” that has become prevalent today, arguing that because such-and-such a philosopher / scientist worked prior to a certain time they may therefore be ignored, is flatly rejected by Pascal. “The ancients should be admired for the consequences they drew correctly from the little stock of principles they had, and they should be excused for those in which they lacked the advantage of experiment rather than force of reason” (Ibid.)

As Pascal argues for a history of science, so too does Kant argue for a history of philosophy. In his Preface to the second edition of The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant traces the relative progress of science versus philosophy going all the way back to the earliest Greeks. The purpose of this historical narrative is to discover why science had been able to make certain advances, but philosophy had not. That is, Kant conducts an historical analysis of philosophy in order to learn the nature of, current understanding of, and the way of progress in philosophy. As Kant saw things, without such knowledge of the history of philosophy, no philosophical progress would be possible.

So we see the educative value of knowing history in order to know the current state of affairs of a society, and of advancing knowledge in various disciplines. Without such historical knowledge the student is attempting to live in a vacuum of time and space that is disconnected from the reality in which he lives.


Previous Posts in the Series:
Part I: Introduction
Part IIa: The Definition of “Education”
Part IIb: The Definition of “History”
Part IIIa: History Provides the Content of Basic Knowledge


Demonizing Dewey

deweyIf you work in education or the philosophy of education, no single philosopher is more debated than John Dewey. For years I’ve heard people rail against Dewey blaming him for all the evils of Progressive Education. Through all those tirades, I’ve nodded my head approvingly. Yet, aside from a smattering of short essays, I’ve never read much of him. Thus far I’ve been happy to hate him.  Then I came an essay in the introductory volume to Mortimer Adler’s Great Books of the Western World which states that Dewey is the “most misunderstood of all philosophers of education.”

Adler (or whoever wrote this particular essay, there’s no way to tell) continues,

It is one of the ironies of fate that his followers who have misunderstood him have carried all before them in American education; whereas the plans he proposed have never been tried. The notion that is perhaps most popular in the United States, that the object of education is to adjust the young to their environment, and in particular to teach them to make a living, John Dewey roundly condemned; yet it is usually advanced in his name.

I guess I need to read Democracy and Education now before I jump on any more bandwagons.