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Dewey: Older, Wiser, Maybe a Little Less Sure of Himself
on April 24, 2010
This book was written about 20 years after Dewey's best-known education book, Democracy in Education. By the time he wrote this, he was celebrated by many (progressive educators) and scorned by others (traditionalists). Dewey wrote this book as a way to tell both sides that they have it wrong: in frustration with traditional methods of education, progressives were rebelling too far in the opposite direction. Tight external discipline was replaced by no discipline. Inflexible curricula were replaced by thin curricula. Strict drill was replaced by lax 'learn what you want' attitudes. In brief, Dewey wrote against the "either/or" approach he saw prevalent in education.
IF you look at the lesser-starred reviews below, you will see that one main criticism about this book is that it seems to state the obvious. I was not around then, but I am betting that this is a testament to Dewey's influence that what needed to be said then now seems so commonplace. Curriculum is necessary, Dewey wrote, but that doesn't mean that it can't be made relevant to students' lives. Explicit teaching and discipline are necessary but that doesn't mean that the student must be 'put upon' as much as 'worked with.' Education should not be simply the passive receipt of information from instructor to student via memorization, but that doesn't mean that schools should be squeamish about instilling things into students (or that everything has to be student-initiated).
If I have one complaint about this book, though, it is not that its contents are commonplace, but they are sometimes a bit contradictory. A big contradiction in this book, and in much of Dewey's educational work, is the simultaneous idea that planning curricula and teaching should be purposeful (with an end-goal) and that there should be no specific end-goal in education. It is a given that teaching is done with an end in mind (if only that certain information should be learned, if not that the student will become a certain type of person), and it is difficult to see how education can be education without a fixed end goal.
I also think that this book, like many critical of 'traditional' methods of education, may be unfair in depicting those 'traditional' methods. Dewey calls 'traditional' education a "military regimen" using "straght-jackets and chain-gang procedures." I have read several books discussing education in this time period and none (except for those advocating progressive education) seem to share in this view. I suspect that Dewey's description of these schools is clouded by ideology or (possibly) limited observational experience.
Be that as it may, the book is still a good one to read for anyone wanting to understand the history of educational thought. Dewey, as always, tries to find a middle ground between two extremes of traditional and progressive education. And unlike most of Dewey's work, this book's prose is quite easy to get through and straightforward. Even if Dewey's arguments don't always convince or sometimes seem commonplace, it is interesting to read what was going on in education when Dewey wrote.