Rediscovering Dewey: A Reflection on Independent Thinking
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“Dewey inspired me with a grand fresh idea about teaching, and it has been a while since I’ve been inspired with a fresh idea about my teaching. I have no interest in running for political office. I take care of my family, I serve on the boards of a couple of community environmental groups, I write, AND I teach. That’s what I do, and it’s what I want to do. If a critical mass of teachers valued democracy and communication and cooperation and believed that their jobs were to create a society where friendship, beauty, and knowledge were the bywords and individual student success was the goal, I would want to be of part of that.”
John Dewey believed in education, and he believed in American participatory democracy. Simpson uses personal anecdotes, Dewey’s extensive writings, and even Chinese legends to discuss Dewey’s ideas about teaching democracy, independent thinking, and a sense of community. They are as relevant today as when they were written.
“This is a very well written, insightful study of John Dewey’s educational philosophy that adds to the literature on John Dewey. I am particularly impressed with Professor Simpson’s use of other major thinkers like Henry David Thoreau, Chuang Tzu, Richard Rorty, Aldo Leopold, Hilary Putnam, Richard Bernstein, Reinhold Niebuhr to help critique and make fuller an understanding of Dewey. This is a truly synthetic piece of work and is academically serious, while at the same time being very accessible to the non specialist. I recommend it without hesitation.”
—Dr. Jasper S. Hunt, Professor of Experiential Education and Leadership Studies, Department of Educational Leadership, Minnesota State University, Mankato
“Steve Simpson’s work here is both insightful and refreshing. With an impressive combination of primary source material and personal reflection, Rediscovering Dewey should be required reading for students and practitioners alike. It is the rare work that so seamlessly integrates rigorous academic scholarship with practical examples and illustrations and Simpson models this form of public pedagogy extraordinarily well. Rediscovering Dewey will be an important contribution to our understanding of both John Dewey and the field of experiential education.”
—Jay Roberts, Associate Professor, Education/Environmental Studies, Earlham College, author of Beyond Learning By Doing: Theoretical Currents in Experiential Education
“Professor Simpson has written a well researched and highly personal book that will be very useful for a wide audience, and of course, very useful for teachers and researchers working in the areas of recreation studies. It is a very honest and searching book. It is a book that I and others can use in its entirety, or easily excerpt and adopt by chapter. I especially applaud that Professor Simpson concludes his book with questions and loose ends, which easily lend themselves to further creative work by students on this very broad area of John Dewey and the field of education. Certainly this is a book that I would want for my library and will recommend to others.”
—David Miller, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, formerly Research Assistant for the John Dewey Publication Project at
Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Illinois
“An excellent book exploring the philosophy and practical applications of the writings of John Dewey. Essential reading for all education students and as professional development for all educators. Clear and well written without oversimplifying. I will be recommending this book to many people and using it in my own teaching.”
—Pete Allison, PhD, FRGS Senior Lecturer, Moray House School of Education, The University of Edinburgh, Coauthor of Kurt Hahn: Inspirational, Visionary, Outdoor and Experiential Educator
“Simpson covers both the breadth and depth of John Dewey and repackages his most essential and relevant ideas into a readable and approachable book. His text has much to offer the experiential practitioner, as well as opening the door for a budding facilitator. Simpson is able to weave his reflections on his career and personal experience with Dewey’s philosophy of reflection and experience. The result is an exceptional book. Rediscovering Dewey is not only a good read, but is demands multiple reads and much reflection.”
—Paul J. Hutchinson, Boston University Experiential Education
“If one is serious about education then one needs to be serious about understanding John Dewey. Unfortunately, Dewey’s books, although short in length, are dense and often hard to fully understand. Steve Simpson has done us all a great service by carefully explaining Dewey’s major points and how best to interpret his writing. Steve’s style is scholarly yet casual and the reader will be able to use Steve’s examples to gain a deeper appreciation of Dewey’s remarkable work. I enjoyed Simpson’s earlier book The Leader Who is Hardly Known: Self-less Teaching from the Chinese Tradition and this new work on Dewey is another great contribution from a deeply committed educator. I’m going to include this book as an assigned reading for future classes.”
—Dan Garvey, Ph.D., Faculty, Prescott College, Former President of Prescott College 2000-2010
“John Dewey is alive and well in Steven Simpson’s thought provoking and heartfelt account of Dewey’s philosophical approach to learning and teaching. Simpson’s creative style of intertwining Dewey’s work over a century ago with today’s latest research leads the reader to the conclusion that John Dewey’s legacy remains.”
—Dr. Jack Rizzo, Superintendent of Schools, Windham Southwest Supervisory Union, Wilmington, Vermont
Excerpt from the Book
Whenever there is genuine learning . . . even young pupils react in unexpected ways. There is something fresh, something not capable of being fully anticipated by even the most experienced teacher.
-John Dewey, “Democracy and Education”
Genuine freedom . . . rests in the trained power of thought, in ability to “turn things over,” to look at matters deliberately to judge whether the amount and kind of evidence requisite for decision is at hand, and if not, to tell where and how to seek such evidence.
-John Dewey, “How We Think”
How much Dewey do we need? Even though the obvious play on words annoyed me, this was the question I asked myself before I started writing Rediscovering Dewey. By Dewey, I meant the educational philosophy of John Dewey. By we, I meant all educators whose own philosophical foundations are based upon Deweyan thinking.
John Dewey himself wrote that educators who do things the way that things have always been done do not need to understand, nor articulate an educational philosophy. So long as they follow the tried and true, they are seldom asked to give a reason for their actions. As soon as educators step out of the mainstream, however, they need to justify what they are doing, and that justification should include a defensible philosophy. Teaching experientially, although not as out of the ordinary as it was only thirty or forty years ago, still is not the norm—so practitioners of experiential education have to have a handle on their own philosophy of education. And since John Dewey generally is considered the father of experiential education, it made sense to ask, “How much Dewey do we need?”
I have an answer to this question, although I’ll be the first to admit that it is a bit wishy-washy. Still it explains why this book is organized the way that it is. Also this answer is wrapped around an ancient Chinese tale—so what it lacks in decisiveness, it makes up for in . . . uhh, in stylish presentation. The tale is called The Legend of the Golden Carp.
The Legend of the Golden Carp comes from Chuang Tzu, one of the two great classics of Chinese Tao philosophy. In the story, a traveler comes across a carp trapped in a small puddle of water that has collected in a rut in the road. The carp asks for help, and the traveler says that he’ll go to the great river and dredge a small canal from the bank of the river right up to the place where the fish is now confined. The fish will not only have more water than it needs to survive, but it also will be able to swim the channel and get back to the river. The carp goes into a fit of anger and yells, “Are you crazy? I’m a fish stuck in a mud puddle. If I wait until you build a canal, you’ll find me in a dried fish shop.”
The moral of the story, of course, is that when someone is in dire straits, enough to get by is what is needed. Anything less is not enough. Anything more, if it doesn’t arrive quickly, is irrelevant. Maybe I’m somewhat of an oddball when it comes to this fable, but my reaction always has been that the traveler isn’t given his due. First of all, the guy meant well. He was willing to undertake a significant project for a fish he didn’t even know. Secondly, his solution to the problem wasn’t that far off. Obviously he underestimated badly the immediacy of the carp’s predicament, but he was not wrong in thinking that the fish would eventually want to find its way to the river. A more rational person might have put the fish in a bucket of water, but then what? The fish would be stuck in a bucket of water and not significantly better off than when it was stuck in the rut in the road.
So it is with both the golden carp and the well-intentioned traveler in mind that I suggest that there are at least two levels of Dewey that experiential educators may wish to pursue. The first level is the survival dose that is just enough to get by. If educators teach experientially, they should at least appreciate Dewey’s contribution to the essentials of teaching. This level of understanding is the bucket of water that gets the carp out of the road. More importantly it is part of being a professional and knowing how to do one’s job on a day-to-day basis.
Then there is level two. For most educators, there comes a time in their careers when they are ready for, even hungry for, greater depth in their educational philosophy. It occurs after many years on the job, after most of the practical questions about teaching have worked themselves out. It is when the pace of the work no longer feels like constant crisis mode. It is when the seasoned educator is able to take a deep breath and say, “Imagine that! I actually have time to think about why I am doing what I am doing.” This is time to put in the canal.
Therefore Rediscovering Dewey looks at Dewey in two different ways. It contains both a bare-bones summary of Dewey and a more in-depth investigation of the man’s educational philosophy.
Chapter one is the bare-bones Dewey. In 1938, Dewey compiled a series of lectures to summarize his philosophy of education. The result was a small book titled Experience and Education. Often Experience and Education is an educator’s introduction to the writings of John Dewey. It was the first thing of Dewey’s that I ever read, and for several years it was the full extent of my reading. Chapter one of Rediscovering Dewey is a collection of tenets taken from Experience and Education, so it is a summary of Dewey’s summary. It also is, as far as my writing style allows, an uncomplicated introduction to a few of Dewey’s main ideas on education.
Chapters two and three are a little more difficult to describe—probably because these were the most personal. This book, all things be told, is the story of my transition from the mindset of the carp to that of the traveler. These chapters describe the personal reflections that I had about Dewey that nudged me from being satisfied with a very basic understanding of his philosophy to wanting to know more. Specifically, as I started to trust my own instincts about educational philosophy, I found myself drifting away from Dewey—and I wanted to find out how much of that distance was an honest difference of opinion and how much was an incomplete understanding of Dewey’s philosophy. Books typically get written either because authors know something or because they want to know something; this book got written for the second reason.
Chapters four, five and six are the more extensive look at Dewey’s educational philosophy. They are the canal. They are not the river—the river would be the writings of Dewey—but like an actual canal, they flow directly from the source. I have been told by several people that limiting my reading of Dewey to Experience and Education means I’ve only scratched the surface. These chapters go deeper, looking at Dewey’s philosophy of education as described in Democracy and Education, How We Think, and dozens of other writings by Dewey and about Dewey. They are not a rehash or elaboration of chapter one, but a discussion of topics that did not make it into chapter one (because they had not been major themes in Experience and Education).
Finally chapters seven and eight take a look at experiential education pedagogy after a more complete understanding of John Dewey has been achieved. One aspect of these chapters is to look seriously at critics of Dewey to see how much of their criticism is about Dewey directly and how much is about the ways that contemporary progressive educators have applied Dewey.
So Rediscovering Dewey is the chronology of my exploration into the broader educational philosophy of John Dewey. I don’t want to give away any of the conclusions here in the beginning. That would spoil the fun, and a book about philosophy needs to keep all the fun that it can. But let me give you a clue. The two Dewey quotes at the front of this prologue were placed there intentionally. One is about “genuine learning” and the other about “genuine freedom.” Dewey, as far as I understand his philosophy of education, comes down to those two concepts.
Table of Contents
Chapter One: Dewey 101
Chapter Two: Dewey on Student Freedom and
Chapter Three: A Comparison of Dewey and Thoreau
Chapter Four: Mr. Democracy
Dewey on Democratic Education
Chapter Five: Mr. Science
Dewey on Science Education, Cooperative Learning, and Service
Chapter Six: The Common People’s Educator
Dewey on Work and Play, the Liberal Arts and Vocational Education
Chapter Seven: Why Some Educators Think Dewey is Wrong
Chapter Eight: Why Some Educators Think Dewey is Needed
Now More Than Ever
About the Author