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A Critique of Dewey

rcrittendon's picture

Every year the students in Ms. Shomphe’s tenth grade English class read Night by Elie Wiesel.  And every year, this reading is prefaced with a lesson about how everyone has been affected by bullying at some point in their lives.  The point of this lesson is to relate the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust to something within the realm of the students’ experiences.  However, rather than opening the door to a new, more thorough understanding of the text, this lesson has the effect of unintentionally belittling and minimalizing the suffering of the victims of the Holocaust.

The summer following tenth grade I had the opportunity to visit the Stutthof concentration camp in Poland.  It was only there that I was able to begin to grasp the gravity of this tragedy.  Walking through the desolate camp, seeing the crematories, and the “beds” where the prisoners slept illustrated this in a way that a lesson on bullying never could.  Witnessing this first hand allowed me to understand the severity of the situation that Ms. Shomphe had attempted to convey.  However, not every student will have the opportunity to visit a concentration camp or even walk through a Holocaust museum.  How, then, should teachers wishing to incorporate students’ experiences into the classroom approach the teaching of human tragedies well outside the scope of their students’ experiences or even imaginations?

Reading John Dewey’s Experience and Education has given me a new lens through which to view this lesson.  In this piece, Dewey argues the importance of using students’ experiences to guide their educational journeys and the role of continuity of experience.  According to Dewey, experiences are “educative” when they promote in the student a desire to continue learning and searching, while a “miseducative” experience “has the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience.”  In other words, each experience, whether good or bad, prepares the student for future experiences and shapes the way in which the student will view these future experiences.  It is the role of the teacher to shape the educative experiences of their students to guide them through the learning process.

Although Ms. Shomphe attempted to incorporate students’ experiences into her classroom, her simplistic approach is not consistent with the Dewey school of thought.  However, this leads me to wonder to what extent can the Dewey idea of education through experience be effectively achieved in a traditional classroom setting.  Is the traditional classroom environment just not conducive to providing and analyzing the educative experiences necessary for this progressive way of teaching to reach its full potential?

Here is where I would have to disagree with another point Dewey makes.  In Experience and Education, Dewey claims “There is no such thing as educative value in the abstract.  The notion that some subjects and methods and that acquaintance with certain facts and truths possess educational value in and of themselves is the reason why traditional education reduced the material of education so largely to a diet of predigested materials.”  I believe that had Ms. Shomphe let Elie Wiesel’s words speak for themselves the lesson would have had a far more impressive impact that would have resonated with her students.  Openly admitting that this subject was not something that we could possibly relate to would have increased our curiosity and desire to explore the subject, transforming this experience from “miseducative” to “educative”.  I do not agree that allowing a material to stand on its own always decreases its educational value.

I also wonder how Dewey would modify this extremely individualistic approach to education to work in a school of one thousand students, or even a classroom of twenty.  Would students benefit from the increased peer interactions, or be hindered by the reduced one-on-one interactions with their teachers?  How could a teacher successfully shape the collective experiences of several students, especially when these students come from diverse backgrounds?