The intimate link between education and philosophy (Dewey)

“Education is the laboratory in which philosophic distinctions become concrete and are tested”

Dewey, Democracy and Education (1966), p.329.

Dewey argues for an intimate and essential link between philosophy and education. Is this argument both plausible and relevant today?Dewey defines philosophy as “the general theory of education”. This seems rather broad – we understand education as being theorised on a psychological level (eg. Piaget and others), with reference to the natural development (a latent philosophy of nature) of human beings.

On the other hand, education is also clearly social and political. It concerns people groupings, power dynamics, and the distribution of goods. Education is an ingredient in social theory and political philosophy. The Philosophical tradition is clearly in line with this, eg. Plato’s Republic, Rousseau, etc. But these don’t seem to amount to a definition of philosophy. We need to understand what Dewey means by his terms.

Dewey has a broader definition of education than is commonly held: with it, he embraces all of experience. Education is “the process of forming fundamental dispositions”, and insofar as we truly experience anything, then we are both learning through such formation. Indeed, such formation is a transformation of ourselves. This is not limited to schools and universities, on the one hand, and on the other, when schooling falls into routine tedium, then it is not truly educative.

Dewey first takes philosophy’s critical role in society, and notes that an implicit premise of this role is that it must be able to lean on “educational equivalents as to what to do and what not to do”. So, insofar as philosophy helps teach us how to live, then it must involve education – that is, the process of transforming our disposition from one state to another.

Second, a genetic and historical argument: European philosophy originated in educational questions  (he is referring to the sophists p.330). Philosophical thought arose in Europe as a practically oriented theory of educational procedure.

“Philosophy of education is not an external application of ready-made ideas to a system of practice having a radically different origin and purpose: it is only an explicit formulation of the problems of the formation of the right mental and moral habitudes in respect to the difficulties of contemporary social life”

Here we see the two lines of argument converge. Philosophy’s orientation to social problems, and the addressing of processes involved in forming the citizen who is to tackle those problems.

Dewey therefore concludes that defining philosophy in terms of the theory of education is the most “penetrating” of definitions. This is because it highlights Dewey’s own particular conceptions: theories and ideas are not conceived in the abstract. They are retraced from their genesis in a social setting. Philosophy is practical. An educational context is a philosophy being realised.

Dewey’s view then poses education as the bridge between a past inheritance, where we must sift and choose among what we have, and what we might continue to do, and what must be retried, changed, or tackled anew. This is a historically-minded and hermeneutic kind of philosophy. Oriented to contempoary social norms (but with an eye to the history of other societies) and the practical consequences of ideas (again illustrated in history). Ideas are not abstractions from life, but are the implicit frameworks that can be discovered in individual and social action, and brought to the foreground through reflection and language. Education both teaches us about the frameworks, but also, more fundamentally, is the process of forming them in the individual.


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