Old Ideas Made New Again, pp. 3 of 10

And it was precisely the drastic social, economic and cultural changes that Dewey saw throughout his life that moved him to think about education. He wasn’t so much concerned about preparing young people for the workplace, although that was a concern.  Primarily, he was concerned about preparing young people as citizens in a democracy. Dewey had grown up in New England, where democracy had been practiced through town meetings. People of the town would gather and debate and deliberate and make decisions. I may have a somewhat romanticized view of the rational, reasoned discussions that took place in these New England towns. But reasoned decision-making by people concerned for the common good is an ideal embedded in the very idea of democracy.

But Dewey’s world, at the turn of the 20th century, was changing rapidly. People were flocking to cities for jobs and opportunities. Cities were places where you might not even know your neighbor and you might have little in common with those who lived on your street. How could democracy thrive under such conditions of anonymity? And immigrants were spilling in.  Between 1880 and 1924 millions of immigrants arrived, mostly from Southern and Eastern Europe, countries which did not then have a tradition of democracy. How could democracy thrive when so many people didn’t know what it meant?  And industrialization meant that many people, especially the new immigrants and the migrants from the country-side, were working long hours, often at mind-numbing, and sometimes body destroying labor. How could democracy thrive when people were struggling to earn enough to stay alive? John Dewey believed that democracy was threatened by the increasing concentration of wealth and by the undermining of a sense of community as a result of urbanization, immigration and industrialization. 

Of course, these are complex questions and the burden of meeting the demands and challenges of the new century could not simply be put on schools. But, Dewey believed that what went on in schools did matter. And Dewey believed that schools could be important agents of reform. By the early 20th century, most young people in the U.S. were in school at least through 8th grade. Indeed, some schooling in all states was, by then, compulsory.  Increasingly, more youth were continuing beyond 8th grade. (Although not until the Great Depression did 50% of high school age youth actually graduate from high school.) John Dewey wasn’t the only one thinking about education in this new world. School people in quickly growing cities were working to figure out how to accommodate increasing numbers of children. At the same time, the study of education, or at least educational psychology, was beginning to establish itself at universities. It was during the early years of the 20th century in the United States that sorting children by age began to emerge. While the one room school house could still be found in small towns, big cities were “rationalizing” schools; that is, trying to organize them more efficiently.  In the rationally organized, age-graded school, what you were expected to learn depended on how old you were. Rote learning continued to be the most common form of pedagogy.  Classrooms, whether in the one room, multi-age, school house, or the new-fangled modern graded schools, were dominated by teacher talk and recitation. Students were expected to give back memorized information.

Dewey, and others, believed that rote learning, dominated by memorizing what the teacher or the textbook said, would not prepare young people as citizens in the 20th century.  There’s a story that Wiggins and McTighe (1998, p. 39), in their Understanding by Design handbook, tell about Dewey:

John Dewey is said to have asked a class, “What would you find if you dug a hole in the earth?” Getting no response, he repeated the question; again he obtained nothing but silence.

The teacher chided Dr. Dewey, “You’re asking the wrong question.”  Turning to the class she asked, “What is the state of the center of the earth?”

The class replied in unison, “Igneous fusion.”

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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