Prophets of the true God

24th January 1997 at 00:00
One hundred years on, the pedagogic creed of American philosopher and educationist John Dewey is still controversial. Frank Coffield explores why what Dewey said about teaching and society is relevant today for teachers.

In January 1897 John Dewey, the American philosopher and educationalist, published - at the age of 38 - an article in The School Journal under the title My Pedagogic Creed. A hundred years later, and despite the fact that he died as long ago as 1952 at the age of 92, his ideas continue to polarise debates in education both in the UK and in the United States.

Melanie Phillips, for example, in her recent book argues that Dewey's influence on education "was malign, revolutionary and destructive" and that he institutionalised "at root a savage doctrine of individualism which would effectively abandon children to a world without culture". Mary Warnock is also of the opinion that Dewey's impact, although undeniable, has been "on the whole, disastrous".

For others Dewey remains the inspirational father of the progressive movement in education; Frank Garforth, for instance, considered that Dewey exercised an "immense and civilising influence on the practice of education both in his own country and throughout the world".

How are we to explain these diametrically opposed reactions to his work? Dewey's writing is often difficult to understand, there is a lot of it (the list of his books and articles runs for 153 pages), and throughout his long life he continually developed and modified his ideas. So, as with Piaget, very few people can claim to have read much of his work. Instead, particular passages are used to support a wide range of ideological positions.

To my mind, what makes his Pedagogic Creed worthy of this 100th anniversary celebration is that it is wonderfully unlike so much of his other writing in being uncharacteristically clear. Clarity of prose on its own would not be sufficient, but this relatively unknown article of 1415 pages deserves our continued attention because Dewey was concerned to make schools more democratic and he wanted those in education to consider what all this education is for. The education system will remain undemocratic, he argued, until "every teacher has some regular and representative way in which he or she can register judgment upon matters of educational importance, with the assurance that this judgment will somehow affect the school system". Could those with a passion for education please note.

The article strikes me as the work of a personally confident and politically committed man at the start of a successful career; indeed, at the time of composition, Dewey had only recently founded, in Chicago, the University Elementary School for four- to 13-year-olds, where, for example, the curriculum for all six-year-olds was centred on "present industrial occupations".

But, despite Melanie Phillips' claim, Dewey's ideas (he objected to "progressivism" and all other "-isms") failed to revolutionise the practice of teachers; rather, psychologists like Edward L Thorndike with their IQ tests proved far more influential: "one cannot understand the history of education in the United States during the 20th century unless one realises that Edward L Thorndike won and John Dewey lost" (Ellen Lagemann). Nor can Dewey be blamed for the "planless improvisation" carried out in his name, which he condemned. His ideas have not been tried and found wanting. They have been found difficult, left untried and, as a result, teaching methods have remained largely unchanged.

Dewey's Credo also gave me the idea that, in the run-up to the general election in the UK, a number of commentators could be invited to offer their educational beliefs in order to stimulate a public debate. My pedagogic creed appears next week in The TES.

This article is not a retrospective evaluation of Dewey's contribution to education but introduces briefly some of the main themes from his Pedagogic Creed. Instead of a comprehensive summary, a selection has been made of those topics thought most relevant to contemporary debates. It would, however, be a mean spirit who did not recognise in Dewey, as in Durkheim, a lively enthusiasm for education's potential as a liberating force and as a creator of social solidarity and renewal.

Dewey's article is divided into five main sub-sections on: what education is; schools as social institutions; curriculum; methods; and education as the fundamental method of social progress. Within this framework, he comments on a wide variety of topics, from making children the centre of the educational process, to the moral education of individuals through the community life of the school.

For Dewey, education is "a continuing reconstruction of experience", which is in essence a social process. He begins as follows: "I believe that all education proceeds by the participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the race . . . the individual gradually comes to share in the intellectual and moral resources which humanity has succeeded in getting together. He becomes an inheritor of the funded capital of civilisation". It could have been written by Vygotsky. Elsewhere, he argued that "the individual in his (sic) isolation is nothing; only in and through an absorption of the aims and meaning of organised institutions does he attain true personality". These two quotations alone suggest to me that Melanie Phillips' interpretation of Dewey is perverse.

The starting point for all education, according to Dewey, is "the child's own instincts and powers; education, therefore, must begin with a psychological insight into the child's capacities, interests, and habits". This advice is close to the conclusion of the American psychologist, David Ausubel, who wrote, 80 years after Dewey, that "the most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this, and teach accordingly".

Dewey also discussed the knowledge and skills young people needed to face the contemporary changes in democracy and in industry: "I believe that education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living". He argued that, as "it is impossible to foretell definitely just what civilisation will be 20 years from now, it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions". What was true then is even more so now, so that any concept of competence which is based on what is currently known is seriously inappropriate in a period like our own when certain forms of knowledge have the same shelf-life as fish.

Recently I dreamed that Dewey visited today's schools and that he catalogued the same faults as in 1897: passive students, who through the second-handedness, "the deadness and dullness, formalism and routine" of so much that passes for education are "rendered callous to ideas".

"I believe that the community's duty to education is . . . its paramount moral duty." Dewey argued that society can progress only haphazardly through passing laws or threatening punishments, but that through education it can shape the direction in which it wishes to move. Public discussion of the social and moral purposes of education needs to take place to decide on that direction.

Dewey deserves the last word without comment from me. He ended his Credo as follows: "I believe, finally, that the teacher is engaged, not simply in the training of individuals, but in the formation of the proper social life. I believe that every teacher should realise the dignity of his calling; that he is a social servant set apart for the maintenance of proper social order and the securing of the right social growth. I believe that in this way the teacher always is the prophet of the true God and the usherer in of the true kingdom of God".

Frank Coffield is professor of education at the University of Newcastle and director of The Learning Society Programme.

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