I spent some time today reading Democracy and Education by John Dewey, an American philosopher who has had a major influence on education in the United States. A proponent of progressive education theories, Dewey did most of his thinking and writing in the first half of the twentieth century.
Working my way through Dewey's fairly opaque prose, I discovered why this writer is still worth reading almost a century later. Dewey takes us back to first principles to describe the purpose of education as the means by which a society preserves itself. Consider this selection from section one of Democracy and Education:
The primary ineluctable facts of the birth and death of each one of the constituent members in a social group determine the necessity of education. On one hand, there is the contrast between the immaturity of the new-born members of the group — its future sole representatives — and the maturity of the adult members who possess the knowledge and customs of the group. On the other hand, there is the necessity that these immature members be not merely physically preserved in adequate numbers, but that they be initiated into the interests, purposes, information, skill, and practices of the mature members: otherwise the group will cease its characteristic life. Even in a savage tribe, the achievements of adults are far beyond what the immature members would be capable of if left to themselves. With the growth of civilization, the gap between the original capacities of the immature and the standards and customs of the elders increases. Mere physical growing up, mere mastery of the bare necessities of subsistence will not suffice to reproduce the life of the group. Deliberate effort and the taking of thoughtful pains are required. Beings who are born not only unaware of, but quite indifferent to, the aims and habits of the social group have to be rendered cognizant of them and actively interested. Education, and education alone, spans the gap.
He goes on to champion what we consider today to be a core tenet of progressive education: The purpose of learning is to prepare young people to think critically for themselves and to participate in and enrich democracy. (Beware: it takes a fair amount of effort to parse Dewey, who never uses one word when he could use two.)
Dewey reminds us parents that formal education is important not only because it is the means by which our children acquire skills important to their future. It is important also because it is the means by which we collectively pass along our "aims and habits." It offers us the opportunity to consider which collective habits we might like to break — or which aims we might like to encourage the next generation to pay more attention to.
Education is "social engineering" whether we like to admit it or not. We are passing down our habits, hopes and fears. After reading Dewey, I think I'll ask some different kinds of questions at the next "Coffee and Questions" meeting with the principal at my children's school: "What societal habits are we trying to reinforce here? And what habits are we trying to break?