From Fallacy to Integrity: Dewey's Call for a Philosophy of Experience

By O'Neill, Linda | Journal of Thought, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

From Fallacy to Integrity: Dewey's Call for a Philosophy of Experience


O'Neill, Linda, Journal of Thought


Introduction

In his 1929 Kappa Delta Pi Lecture Series inaugural address, John Dewey clearly identified the need for a philosophical hypothesis capable of determining "the significance of scientific results for educational practice" (Seals, 2001, 256). (1) Concerned that practitioners would be tempted to yield to "either a recurring cycle of educational fads or a pseudo-scientific commitment to educational Essentialism" (ibid.), Dewey called on philosophers to do more than identify appropriate means for education; he called for a philosophy capable of formulating educational ends beyond the dominant discourses of the day. In 1938, he returned to give the tenth annual Kappa Delta Pi address. Once again Dewey issued a call, this time to address the need for a philosophy of experience capable of articulating "what education is and what conditions have to be satisfied in order that education may be a reality and not a name or a slogan" (Dewey, 1938, 91). Deeply concerned about major divides and "false choices" (Garrison, 1996) between "traditional" and "progressive" education, in this lecture (later published as Experience and Education) Dewey proposed an "anti-dualistic concept of experience" constituted by two "universal" features: continuity and interaction (Imai, 2003).

More than six decades later, this slim volume is still a source of insight, inspiration and intrigue. Selected quotes from Experience and Education serve as "fuel" for the ongoing "conversation" in Kappa Delta Pi's recent collection, Experiencing Dewey: Insights for Today's Classroom (Breault & Breault, 2005). Educators from a wide range of content areas reflecting on their emergent philosophies and practices continue to acknowledge the influence of Experience and Education on their own intellectual development. (2) And prominent critics including Diane Ravitch and E. D. Hirsch, Jr. continue to cite Dewey's philosophy of experience in their analyses of progressive education's historical and contemporary excesses. (3) Selected passages from Experience and Education, portraying Dewey as "overly obsessed by the concept of first-hand knowledge," even find their way into recommendations to the Texas Legislature (Koeltzow, 2000).

To what can we attribute the enduring influence of this small book? It may be, in part, Dewey's reassuring confidence in "education when it is treated as intelligently directed development of the possibilities inherent in ordinary experience" (Dewey, 1938, 89). It may be his principled refusal to combine a simplistic praise of all things progressive with a "wholesale condemnation of the old education" (27). It may be his contention that the dichotomy between "the old education and the new" is not irreconcilable, but a remnant, like other "ancient bifurcations and untenable dualisms" (Garrison, 1985, 552). It may be his conviction that philosophers must do more than identify defects in competing ideologies and associated practices.

While Dewey's use of language has been described as convoluted and obtusely theoretical, Experience and Education is replete with concrete connections. He portrays education as organic and evolving, employing expansive metaphors to capture the wisdom of the wise mother who mediates for the benefit of the dependent infant or the beauty of music that modulates from a human center to the harmonious organization of a "more objective intellectual scheme" (Dewey, 41-43, 83). Well aware of the capacity for metaphorical misdirection, Dewey also warns against the kinds of misleading comparisons between education and medicine or law so common in current reform rhetoric.

The remainder of this brief review of Experience and Education is organized, as is the book itself, around Dewey's analysis of various fallacies of bifurcation revealed in "warring" notions of traditional and progressive education. Examining dichotomies of theory, social control, freedom, subject matter, and purpose, he confronts "either/or" fallacies, not as simple logical errors, but as opportunities for expanding and deepening educators' understandings--not as attempts to deceive, but as unsound reasoning amenable to greater conceptual wholeness. …

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