More Thoughts on John Dewey’s Philosophy of Education : Independent Thinking

Another excerpt from Steven Simpson’s Rediscovering Dewey:

Many experiential educators think it is enough to teach students to think for themselves. The direction and the topics of this independent thinking are of secondary importance to the actual thinking process itself. Dewey would have disagreed.

The role of education for Dewey was to produce students who grew up to be both independent thinkers and active participants in democracy. To accomplish only one half of this pairing was not enough. For the whole thing to work, there needed to be both education for independent thinking and education for participation in democracy.

For instance, until reading Democracy and Education I thought that education was commendable if it did no more than get students to think for themselves. If I had accomplished that in my programs, my job was done. Dewey would have called my approach a good start, but only a start. My approach recognized independent thinking as an educational end in itself, but perhaps did not realize that independent thinking was a means to an end as well. Left only as an end, it was an educational plan without clear direction or manageable boundaries. It gave in too quickly to the whims of students, and the result might be everyone doing their own thing – students wandering in the woods or writing love poems or getting lost in esoteric mathematical problems.

While there is nothing wrong with being a naturalist, a poet, or a math nerd (and there is much to be said for non-conformity), helping students toward these kinds of self-expression do not move students toward any common goal. They do nothing to convey community values. They do nothing to teach students about the issues facing their community. They do not prepare students to be active participants in democracy. If democracy is as much at risk as Dewey believed, education for independent thinking needed to be aimed in that particular direction.

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