Academic journal article Educational Foundations

Social Foundations in Exile: How Dare the School Build a New Social Order

Academic journal article Educational Foundations

Social Foundations in Exile: How Dare the School Build a New Social Order

Article excerpt

Education is society in process of becoming. Education is humanity on its knees, confessing the inadequacy of what has been. Education is humanity's effective aspiration for a world nearer every heart's desire. Education is the germ of transformation within the shell of the old, the unfolding and growth of the new, its flowering and its decline.

--Goodwin Watson, The Social Frontier

The ideals of education, whether men are taught to teach or to plow, to weave or to write must not be allowed to sink to sordid utilitarianism. Education must keep broad ideals before it, and never forget that it is dealing with Souls and not with Dollars.

--W. E. B. Du Bois, The Negro Artisan

What is Education? The Problem of Turning Answers into Questions

In the first paragraphs of Democracy and Education, John Dewey differentiates "between living and inanimate things." The latter, such as a stone, he argues, may be acted upon in such a way as to fragment its shape from without or, if the stone's "resistance is greater than the force" exerted upon it, the stone "remains outwardly unchanged." On the other hand, "while living things may easily be crushed by superior force, it none the less tries to turn the energies which act upon it into means of its own further existence." Dewey utilized this metaphor to distinguish between two types of learning: "conservative," that which reproduces the status quo through cultural transmission and socialization (the stone that is acted upon), and "progressive," wherein living things grow out of the conditions that gave them life by consciously directing "the energies which act upon [them] into means of [their] own existence," for the purposes of experiencing "growth" and broadening "potentialities" (1944, p. 1, p. 41). These two purposes of education, often perceived as dichotomous, have existed since the Sophists' appeared in ancient Greece. (1) At bottom, they represent two diametrically opposed purposes of education: to control or to liberate.

Dewey recognized this primordial schism during his own time. In 1934, he quoted Roger Baldwin, a founder and executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, who pointed out that teachers and students were being manipulated and objectified by external forces in order to maintain categorical support for existing social arrangements: "The public schools have been handed over to" reactionary groups, according to Baldwin, that were "militant defenders of the status quo," including the "the Daughters of the American Revolution, the American Legion, the Fundamentalists, the Ku Klux Klan, and the War Department" (Dewey, 2011, p. 27). Dewey also criticized the implementation of "compulsory patriotic rites," required Bible reading in schools, and teaching a doctrinaire knowledge of the Constitution. "Three [American] states," he disparaged, made it "a crime" to teach "evolution," and several more required "loyalty oaths" among "students as a condition of graduation." He was appalled by the fact that teachers unions and tenure were under attack, all of which represented an atmosphere that he described as "militant" and formulaic. Unlike the inanimate rock that is objectified and acted upon in Dewey's Democracy and Education, teachers and students he believed must act within their given milieu "to translate the desired ideal over into the conduct [and] detail of the school in administration ... and subject matter," so that schools could "consciously" reconstruct "society" (Dewey, 2011, p. 27, p. 29). Dewey and other social reconstructionists were attempting to penetrate America's long cultural resistance to intellectualism. They were defending and trying to validate what they believed was the essence of authentic education, inquiry stripped from, but not aloof to, its cultural, social, political, and economic veneers. Their attempts to critique existing institutions were characteristically met with contempt because critique threatened to fracture the existing socio-political system and rupture a deeply woven social fabric fashioned by and deeply laced with a conservative exceptionalism. …

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