John Dewey is undoubtedly one of the most important American philosophers and educators. The consistency of his worldview and wide-ranging theories are the key characteristics of his work that make him so appealing to new generations of educators. Dewey’s naturalism and pragmatism led him to develop a doctrine that promised to add much more freedom to the educational process; however, his understanding of culture and was not as profound as his educational theories.
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Dewey emerges as a thinker out of two broad currents of philosophical tradition: naturalism and pragmatism. As a naturalist, Dewey rejects the idea that one might appeal to immaterial, unobservable and undetectable entities in pursuit of an explanation of phenomena in the objective world (Noddings 1995, p. 24). Pragmatist view, which he, for the most part, embraced even though he disliked the label, holds that the truth is simply a claim about reality for which we have evidence and which we can attach our belief to (Noddings 1995, p. 24).
His naturalist persuasion led him to view education as growth. On Dewey’s view, education represents a set of activities that are directed towards the enlargement of the student’s knowledge. Therefore, in an educational setting, there is no goal or purpose that drives the learning process outside the process itself. This view is parallel to the evolutionary account of life, in which the struggle for survival has no purpose other than the proliferation of life (Noddings 1995, p. 26).
With this set of principles, Dewey builds his account of how education should look like. In order to achieve knowledge, students need to accumulate sets of truth claims to which they can attach belief. This is done through problem-solving and hypothesis-testing. Solutions to problems have to be carried out through proper formulation of the problem and the ability to devise a way to test a possible solution or hypothesis. Only after this process has been carried out, Dewey claims, the student can have any meaningful knowledge about the external world. Moreover, he believed that all activities in the educational process have to be related to prior experience in order to make the learning process purposeful and engaging (Noddings 1995, pp. 25-27).
Next, it is important to mention Dewey’s account of the significance of culture. Culture is the centerpiece of human life and consequently of the educational process. It determines the experience to which the subject matter has to be related. Also, he held that people are born with the instinct to socialize, but under his view, there was no predetermined set of moral and aesthetic values that connect people. Instead, the social nature of human beings gives rise to particular common values under specific circumstances in order to facilitate social functioning.
From this point, it seems that Dewey’s relativism has to be abandoned as the structure of human brain puts stringent constraints on the kinds of values that can be developed in human communities, and the discovery of mirror neurons and hormones like oxytocin, that are responsible for empathy, clearly speak in favor of such a conclusion.
In conclusion, it has to be stated that the emancipatory potential of Dewey’s ideas about education represents true value. However, his relativistic leanings seem to be refuted by evidence coming from modern science.
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Noddings, N. (1995). Philosophy of education. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.