Tuesday, October 20, 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. Nicely put. But whose responsibility is it to make learning fun? Is it up to teachers to make it entertaining and keep the students mesmerized with pedagogical pleasure, or is the active character of learning operative here as well, requiring of students a significant effort to find and cultivate the joy they take in the process? I hope this is not such a rhetorical question as it sounds, for I suspect at least some responsibility does indeed fall on both parties. Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death) insists a teacher can never compete with television and should not try, but that doesn't mean the teacher has no obligation to keep the lessons as lively and interesting as possible.

  2. My concern here was to underscore its intrinsically valuable character. I'm prepared to accept only the obligation to keep things interesting (though you can lead a horse to an interesting source of water...).

  3. As one who has only been a student, I think it is the student's responsibility to get the most out of their learning experience, for their education is what suffers if they do not. However, this is much more easily and enjoyably attained when the instructor is not a drag.

    Even if a student doesn't care for the subject matter, an interesting teacher can make learning it enjoyable. Hopefully teachers learn some from their students, too, and then everyone is experiencing the enjoyment in learning?

  4. I hesitate to say that a drag is largely in the mind of the observer, but I am inclined to think slightly more than simply keeping things interesting may fairly be demanded of us as teachers. Perhaps we must even embody at least a little bit of theatricality. This would surely be an imperfect duty -- whether we are tragic or comic actors, or a little of both probably matters less than that we understand the classroom situation as a special sort of (partly improvised and hence responsive) performance.

  5. Well, my acting surely is tragic. Teaching as a kind of performance art -- I like that.