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As an American psychologist, philosopher, educator, social critic and political activist influenced the world of education in ways that even he couldn’t have dreamed of. His ideas about education and the value of philosophical thinking and writing were set Dewey apart from his fellow educators and led to his connections to the term progressive education. He believed that school should represent society, in its’ goals for making critical thinking members of society, as well as be run in a democratic manner; to mock the inner workings of the outer world. Dewey voiced these views in his work, School and Society, published in 1889, “Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife” (John Dewey & Education). He denoted his dissatisfaction for schools and their lack of promoting personal exploration and growth in their students; repressive in nature, elementary and secondary schools were denying students of essential opportunities for their personal progress. Modern day schools like Centennial High School, vocational schools, online schools, and other alternative schools encourage the types of essential opportunities that Dewey felt students need to succeed. The traditional environment was not conducive to the education of every child; Dewey acknowledged the need for change. So he wrote, as well as aided in implementation, of various reforms that he hoped would support schools as a “major agencies for the development of free personalities” (Sidorsky, p. xxx). Much like our modern art and performing art classes do for students in modern day school settings. Dewey’s dreams initially became a reality when they opened the University of Chicago’s experimental school in 1896.
The experimental school was only one way Dewey’s beliefs gained physical presence in the educational system. His beliefs that “school should teach students how to be problem-solvers by helping students learn how to think rather than simply learning rote lessons about large amounts of information” (John Dewey & Education). These types of practices have come to the surface in current educational practices-like the need for vocational schools when regular school isn’t a realistic option for some students. The idea that schools needed to refocus their attention on the students’ ability to use judgment rather than rote-memorization to accumulate knowledge was his way to encourage children to develop into adults who can “pass judgments pertinently and discriminateingly on the problems of human living” (Campbell, 1995, p. 215-216). Among his other beliefs about the role of school, Dewey felt that school should encourage students to learn to live and work cooperatively with other people. Students need to know how to live and work with the community around them-this is another one of Dewey’s ideas that we still see in modern day sports, clubs, and classroom activities-everyone has a sense of belonging and responsibility to maintain a safe and respectful environment for themselves and the people around them. In School and Society Dewey wrote, “In a complex society, ability to understand and sympathize with the operations and lot of others is a condition of common purpose which only education can procure.”
Dewey’s views of schools as a democratic setting meant that he encouraged students to contribute to decisions that affect them and their education. Students needed to be advocates for their own education, but still be respectful of the community around them, including adults. In addition to these concerns for student rights, Dewey was determined to insure that the rights and academically based autonomy of teachers needed to remain intact as well. It comes to no surprise that “Dewey was a member of the first teacher’s union in New York City, and his interest in and concern with academic freedom in universities led to his role as a founder of the American Association of University Professors” (John Dewey & Education). His membership in the union reaffirmed his ideas of protecting the teachers and their rights. Even though Dewey passed away, his ideas live on through a current educational journal, Educational Theory, which continues to serve as a haven for dialogue about ideas around education that Dewey and his colleagues first dissected.
Pragmatism: Pragmatism is defined as “the first indigenous movement of philosophical thought to develop in the United States” (Sidorsky, 1977, p. xii). Along with other intellectuals, Dewey aided in the exploitation of pragmatism and its’ role in education-bringing philosophy into the classroom.
Cultural critic George Santayana identifies American pragmatism as a form of connection of “the American experimental and inventive attitude” with previous philosophical ideas. Dewey’s educational beliefs were clearly innovative and challenging, it is no wonder that his pragmatic beliefs ensued. The ideas make sense-children, like adults, do things to benefit themselves-at school kids may do well on an assignment to get good grades and so on. Pragmatism plays many roles, but one essentially aspect that it ties into is American religious traditions and ideals through its central point of “human purposes . . . derived from their wants and needs” (Sidorsky, pp. xv-xvi). Dewey felt that school should serve a larger purpose than rote memorization. According to historian Morton White, Dewey’s pragmatic philosophy “lays the foundation for a more effective structure for American social ideals” by narrowing the space between types of knowledge-scientific and others. School is supposed to teach children to be effective members of society. Pragmatic and democratic educational views led to a list of endless possibilities for Dewey and his students; it was their chance to become innovative leaders in their society. In Dewey’s mind, “knowledge was an interaction of organism with environment in which the agent actively intervened to predict future experience and to control it” (Sidorsky, pp. xxxv-xxxvi).
According to Sidorski, Dewey’s pragmatic beliefs were, “a monument to that period in American culture which made possible a confident, optimistic vision of the potential application of the methods of the sciences to the dominant traditions of philosophy and the major institutions of society” (p. lv). The connections between science and the rest of the world can still be seen in modern day classroom, and a lot of this sustainability can be linked back to Dewey. He not only encouraged students to be critical thinkers, but he showed them the reality of the relationships between scientific knowledge and the other forms of knowledge and how they can work together to encourage student success inside and outside of the classroom. He taught students to pull the trigger on their own educational goals and needs.
Despite the off-and-on trends in education of the twentieth century, Dewey maintains the interests of psychologists, philosophers, educators, social critics and political activists alike and continues to see occasional revival.
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