1973 - when I started asking questions, like, "Why are we all dressed so funny?"

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Dewey VI

Authority the Unavoidable

Such was the title of a chapter in Chesterton's What's Wrong with the World. In the fourth chapter (Social Control) Dewey deals with the role of the teacher in the classroom and gives us the image of children at play as a point of contrast and comparison. With children at play we find an example of "social control of individuals without the violation of freedom" (54).

Dewey rightly indicates that the teacher often has an "undue role" that is forced upon him because of school design. I agree. He goes on to claim that in the "new schools, the primary source of social control resides in the very nature of the work done as a social enterprise in which all individuals have an opportunity to contribute and to which all feel a responsibility" (56). These seems a little fuzzy and seems to ignore the obvious: in both traditional and new (now old) schools, authority is imposed from without. The freedom of the students is conditioned upon the willingness of the adults to give it to them (I'm not suggesting it should be otherwise, only that it is true in both cases).

I have seen numerous times when group projects quickly devolve into one or two students taking responsibility for what gets done and feeling (rightly) resentful at the slouching mass of students who have nothing to contribute.

Put me in, Coach!

Dewey claims that when schooling is more of a social process, "The teacher loses the position of external boss or dictator [no, I assure you, he wrote that] but takes on that of leader of group activities" (59). Sounds good; sounds democratic. But wait a minute. This transition is based on Dewey's earlier comparison of schooling with games. This image seems inapt on several points.

First, games have a natural attraction to kids that need no external mandate (at least before XBox and associated lethargy-makers); schooling is required.

Second, games cannot be sustained for prolonged periods of time. When you're done, you're done (Dewey might go so far as to urge the modification of the school day to fit the "needs" of the students, I don't know - I wouldn't mind a two-hour teaching day!)

A third thing that bugs me about the game image is that it implies that fun and "engagement" (now there's a thorougly misused term) are coextensive with education. I think this is patently false. Perhaps a more realistic metaphor for education is exercise. It requires self-discipline and endurance, but it possesses moments of fun and engagement. If I approach exercise with a gamish mentality, I shall soon slouch back into my couch potato self.

Next time: the role of the teacher and the myth of the teacher as the Great Architect.

No comments: