Tuesday, March 03, 2009

(AP) The Art of Dewey's Pedagogy

My pedagogical assumptions owe much to the pragmatic philosophy of John Dewey. In the aesthetic/artistic arena, Dewey parses "an experience" as a consequence of wresting from the relatively inchoate and undifferentiated flow of experience a finite temporal span (one with a clear beginning and ending) imbued with a certain degree of significance or meaning (so that the cessation -- the ending -- has the character of a consummation). In like fashion, a successful learning experience is one born of those deliberate efforts to cull an educational experience from conscious life generally.

Consider this summary from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The roots of aesthetic experience lie, Dewey argues, in commonplace experience, in the consummatory experiences that are ubiquitous in the course of human life. There is no legitimacy to the conceit cherished by some art enthusiasts that aesthetic enjoyment is the privileged endowment of the few. Whenever there is a coalesence into an immediately enjoyed qualitative unity of meanings and values drawn from previous experience and present circumstances, life then takes on an aesthetic quality--what Dewey called having "an experience." Nor is the creative work of the artist, in its broad parameters, unique. The process of intelligent use of materials and the imaginative development of possible solutions to problems issuing in a reconstruction of experience that affords immediate satisfaction, the process found in the creative work of artists, is also to be found in all intelligent and creative human activity. What distinguishes artistic creation is the relative stress laid upon the immediate enjoyment of unified qualitative complexity as the rationalizing aim of the activity itself, and the ability of the artist to achieve this aim by marshalling and refining the massive resources of human life, meanings, and values.

It seems to follow as well that "intelligent and creative human activity" in educational settings can and should include Dewey's aesthetic emphasis on immediate satisfaction. That is, along with its obvious utilitarian virtues, learning can and should be enjoyed for its own sake.


  1. This not only seems to follow, but does so explictly, as you well know, in Dewey's own educational experiments and theory.

    Philosophers are professional quibblers, however, so I wonder whether his conception of the "relatively inchoate and undifferentiated flow of experience," which echos William James's claim that a child's (uneducated, pre-aesthetic) experience of the world is a "blooming, buzzing confusion," properly describes the untutored experience. Considerable psychological experimentation with infants (going back to Merleau-Ponty in the 1920s) strongly suggests the contrary.

  2. As I understand it, Dewey employs that phrase only to distinguish conscious, (certainly organized to some degree) yet not-currently attended-to experiences (like driving while thinking of something else) from what he dubs "an experience" -- the more deliberately carved out temporal spans containing projects (with a clear beginning and end).

  3. I think you're right about Dewey's conception of an experience, though I wonder whether experiences can be quantized quite that simply. Tiny infants, for example, are extremely difficult to fool with optical illusions (unlike adults) -- they seem acutely perceptive of their surroundings and remarkably good judges of true and false, long before we expect them to have formed intentions or conceptual categories for framing experience.