Philosophy of John Dewey - Pragmatism

John Dewey (1819-1952) was a famous American philosopher, psychologist and educator. Being brought up in rural environments, he realized from the very beginning that traditional methods of instruction were not at all effective and that social contacts of everyday life provided effective, dynamic and unlimited learning situations.

These very ideas formed the foundation of the educational theory, formulated later by him. His outlook on education reflected the Industrial Revolution and the Development of Democracy. He believed in the dynamic nature of things and values. So he changed with the change in ideas, as a result of experience and experimentation, and finally emerged out as a Pragmatist.

Today, he stands in the front rank of the world educators. His works on education are a great source of inspiration and hope and help in developing our experimental and scientific attitude of mind. Perhaps no other educator has written so much on educational problems as John Dewey.

1. Dewey's Philosophy-Pragmatism

Dewey's Philosophy represents a happy blend of naturalism and idealism because it is based on the evolutionary concept soft Darwin and Pragmatism of William James.

Like Darwin he believes that world is still in the process of making and that life in this world is an every-changing and self-renewing process. Like William James, he believes that whatever useful is good and whatever good, is useful. Truth is also that which works, which fulfils our purposes and satisfies our desires.

For John Dewey there are no eternal and absolute values. All values change with time and space. Man is the creator of his own values. What is true today may cease to be true tomorrow. Man's life is a series of experiments and purposeful action.

"Everything is provisional, nothing ultimate. Knowledge is always a means, never an end itself." It is purely instrumental. Hence the title of Dewey's philosophy is "Instrumentalism".

Then Dewey believes that knowledge and thinking are closely associated with action. They are tentative plans of action. They have to be tested by action and by knowing the result of their being acted upon. He affirms, "The essence of pragmatic instrumentalism is to conceive of both knowledge and practice as means of making good.

It does not imply that action is higher and better than knowledge and practice inherently superior to thought. Constant and effective interaction of knowledge and practice is something quite different from an exaltation of activity, for its own sake.

Action, when directed by knowledge, is method and means, not an end. The aim and end is the securer, freezer end more widely shared embodiment of values in experience, by means of that active control of objects which knowledge alone makes possible."

Further-more, he is convinced of the organic relationship between the individual and the society, to which he belongs. He is conscious of both the physical and the social environment. Self can neither grow in solitude nor in natural surroundings.

For his proper growth an individual must live both in natural (or physical) environment and (human or social) environment. Man is not a solitary self but an individual, who lives with the rest of mankind. "He is a citizen, growing and thinking in a vast complex of interactions and relationships."

Lastly, Dewey holds that barriers of creed, religion, language, nationality and color have divided humanity and separated man from man. These barriers must be broken to establish harmony between individuals and groups, and ensure the process of human growth.

To him, growth stands for the "being process" and not for the "done product". Not perfection as a final goal, but the ever enduring process of perfecting, maturing and refining, is the aim of living.

He further declares, "The bad man is one, who is beginning to deteriorate, to grow less good. And the good man is one, who is moving to become better." This is the function of education to break the barriers of separation and bring men and nations together for establishing a happier and nobler world.

2. Dewey's Educational Theory and Aims

About the importance of education, John Dewey writes, "What nutrition and reproduction are to physiological life, education is to social life. Education is a social necessity. It is a means of social continuity of life.

It is a means by which a person is helped to have useful and helpful experience." All this he said in the light of the rapid changes in social and economic life of his own time.

Defining education, Dewey says, "Education is development of all those capacities in the individual which will enable him to control his environment and fulfill his responsibilities." It means that education extends the limits of human possibilities.

It is progressive both for the individual and the society. Thus education, to John Dewey, is a bipolar process. It has two sides, the psychological and the sociological; neither of the two can be subordinated or neglected.

The psychological side is the study of the child, with all his inclinations, instincts, endowments and interests. It forms the very basis of education. The sociological side is the social environment in which the child is born, lives and grows for society. On a further analysis of his educational theory, we find the following four fundamentals:

(i) Education as Growth

Growth is the real function of education. It, therefore, must lead to growth. But growth is not directed towards any pre-determined goal or end. The end of growth is more growth and so the end of education, more education.

An individual is a changing and growing personality and education is to facilitate that growth. It is, therefore, the duty of the teacher to provide opportunities for proper growth by arousing the instincts and capacities of children and by providing to them the solution of those problems which make the children think.

(ii) Education as Life

Dewey believes that education is not a preparation for life. It is life itself. "Life is a by-product of activities and education is born out of these activities."

School is now taken as a miniature society which faces problems, similar to those faced in life outside.

For education, pupils should be made active participants in the social and community life of the school and thus trained in co-operative and mutually helpful living.

They should be encouraged to face actual life problems in the school and gain varied experiences as our children are required to live in a democratic society when adults, they must experience same life in the school.

(iii) Education as Social Efficiency

Man is a social animal who continuously draws energy, strength, knowledge, experience and attitudes in a social medium. As a social being, he is a citizen, growing and thinking in a vast complex of interactions and relations.

He owns character and mind, habits and manners, language and vocabulary, good taste and aesthetic appreciation, to his interaction with the social consciousness of his community.

When as an individual he shares such rich resources of a good society, he should also be ready to give back to that society and thus help other members to develop. It is the function of education to teach him this give-and-take process and make him aware of his social obligations.

Education must transform the immature child into a social human being. It is in this sense that education becomes a social process and social efficiency becomes the aim of all education.

(iv) Education as Reconstruction of Experiences

According to John Dewey, experience is the only source of true knowledge. One experience leads to further experiences and each new experience calls for the revision, modification or rejection of the previous experiences. In this way the old pattern yields place to a new pattern. Dewey says, "We should so regulate the learning and experiencing activities of the young that a newer and better society will arise in the end."

Therefore, there is a need of continuity of experiences, helping man to grow physically, mentally, socially and morally. Education must create environments for the promotion of continuity of experiences. Dewey, therefore, conceived of education as a process, involving continuous reconstruction and reorganization of experience. He says that education is by experience, for experience and of experience.

(v) No Fixed Aims of Education

However, being a pragmatic education, John Dewey has no fixed aims of education. He believes that since physical and social environments are always changing, aims of education must also change.

They cannot be fixed for all times to come. Thus, he revolted against the traditional aims of education-namely: the moral aim, the disciplinary aim and the knowledge aim etc. of the nineteenth century.

He rejected the very idea of education as preparation for future life and said that education must cater to the present needs of the child rather than the future because the child is not interested in the unknown future. He therefore, said that educational aims must be restated and re-formulated in the light of the rapid social and economic changes in present day life.

3. Dewey's Ideal School

Dewey was dissatisfied with the existing system of education. In his opinion, the Industrial Revolution, the development means of communication and transport, various discoveries and inventions of science and idols of democracy had brought about extra-ordinary changes in social life. As such, an ordinary school had not been able to keep pace with these changes.

It could not give the present day child an exact idea of the social, political and economic life of the community around him. It is, therefore, that social education is not connected with his daily life. John Dewey wanted to bridge this gulf between school life and home or social life, outside the school.

4. His Concept of an Ideal School

Dewey considered ideal school as an enlarged ideal home. In this home, the child learns to subordinate his interests to the general interest of the household. Here he learns the habits of obedience, regularity, hard work, cooperation, sacrifice, fellow-feeling, patience, and discipline.

In the ideal school, teachers play the same part as parents at home. Being better equipped than home, the school must provide ideals, high and noble, and worthy of being pursued and lived upon. These ideals are quite in conformity with the ideals of society which the school is required to serve.

Then the ideal school of Dewey's concept is a society in miniature in which real life experiences of the community are provided on smaller scale. It is an activity school, wherein ample opportunities are provided to the child to construct his experiences, under the scientific guidance of teachers.

In this ideal school, the child learns by doing and by actual participation in purposeful and intelligent activities. These activities include cooking, sewing, wood-work, weaving as well as other occupations and violations. Thus the schools provide various types of social, economic and moral experiences of practical utility.

5. Scheme of Education

Dewey outlined a definite scheme of education, according to the stages of mental development of the child. These stages were:

(a) Play period from 4 to 8 years of age

(b) Period of spontaneous attention from 8 to 12

(c) Period of reflective attention from 12 onwards.

In the Play Period, the child studies the life and occupations of the home. Then he studies larger social and community activities on which his home-life depends. Finally, he learns about the development and significance of other occupations and inventions. In the last year of this period, he also learns reading, writing and geography.

In the period of spontaneous attention, the child understands the difference between means and ends. He is able to act for the solution of practical problems of life. At this stage he is also taught social studies with a view to make him understand how man achieved his. Purposes under various conditions in different periods of history.

In the period of reflective attention, the child is grown-up enough to raise new problems and find out their solutions. At this stage he acquires definite skills and arts so that after leaving the school, he should adjust himself as a useful and efficient member of society.

6. Curriculum

Dewey's curriculum is not a mere scheme of studies. Nor is it a list of subjects. It is an entire range of activities and experiences, because to him subjects are only summaries and recapitulation of human activities.

Dewey does not recommend any ready-made curriculum. He rather wants the curriculum to grow out of the pupils own impulses, interest and experiences. It consists of activities and projects, leading to reconstruction and reorganization of experience.

Thus he makes occupational activities or crafts, the core of school curriculum. H£ also includes moral, aesthetic and religious education in the curriculum. But this education is also imparted through practical experiences and not through "chalk and talk lessons," in the classroom.

In his opinion, "Purposeful activity and a curriculum comprising standard factors of social life, would give the children more interest and insight, through the functioning of intelligence and will, in the achievement of self-control and the appreciation of social values."

7. Dewey's Contributions and Influence

John Dewey is, by far the most original thinker in the field of educational philosophy. He stands in the front rank of the educators of the world. It is under his influence that today we find freedom, happiness and friendliness in American schools.

Dewey is a philosopher of the present dynamic age, which is dominated by the forces of science, technology, industrialism and democracy. He has made an original approach to the problems, confronting man to-day and has offered sound solutions for them.

To educators, he has given a new progressive outlook and called it life itself. He has also given new aim -of education, new curricula, new methods of teaching, new role of the teacher and new concept of discipline. In fact, he glorified every aspect of education that he touched. His watch-word, "Progress more and more progress; growth, unlimited and illimitable," has given a new impetus of education.

Rousseau glorified the individual at the cost of society. This was not a balanced approach. Dewey fused both the psychological and the psychological aspects of education. He said that education is impossible without social medium.

Education must proceed by the participation of the individual in social relationship, with other persons. Children should, therefore, be acquainted with social institutions and industrial processes by creating the same environment in the school and by actual living and working.

Another great contribution of John Dewey is democracy in education. Democracy stands for providing equal educational opportunities to all. It thus, stands for free universal education. It emphasizes education through cooperative and shared efforts, in a social medium, to secure the best for the individual and the society.

It also emphasizes the breaking down of social, national, religious and economic barriers between man and man, group and group, and nation and nation. So John Dewey says that it is the school which can contribute a lot in this direction by training young children in experimental thinking and democratic cooperation.

Then, his Project Method is the practical outcome of his philosophy. It is based on "learning by doing and experiencing". This method encourages pupils to learn through self-effort and creative activity in real life situations. It is based on the fact that different branches of knowledge are not separate.

They are studied separately for the sake of convenience alone. It incorporates integration and correlation of activities and subjects. It upholds the dignity of labor favors social discipline and stresses problem solving, in place of cramming and memorization.

"In education we cannot but be grateful to John Dewey for his great services in challenging the old static cold-storage ideal of knowledge and in bringing education more into accord with the actualities of present day life the general principle, underlying the developments in his philosophy and his application of these in education.