John Dewey over 100 years ago, while at the University of Chicago, wrote what he called his Pedagogic Creed. He begins with Article One, What Education is, begins as follows:
All education proceeds by the participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the race. This process begins unconsciously almost at birth, and is continually shaping the individual’s powers, saturating his consciousness, forming his habits, training his ideas, and arousing his feelings and emotions. Through this unconscious education the individual gradually comes to share in the intellectual and moral resources which humanity has succeeded in getting together. He becomes an inheritor of the funded capital of civilization.
Pretty powerful words. Who would not recognize “the participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the race” as being what school, or better education, or even better, growing up, demand of the child. And the meaning to give to that “participation” is what educators have been ardently pursuing and writing about during the past 100 years or more. And we still have what is a very imperfect approximation of what participation means. And need I say it we still disagree profoundly.
If there is something we do agree about it may be the deplorable plight of so many of our children, in particular those impoverished and otherwise disadvantaged mostly minority children living in our inner cities. Recent Federal intrusions into education, which began in the country as a local responsibility, have sought to address this problem, although so far without making things much better.
The problem of our inner city education is probably much greater than anyone so far has recognized or admitted. Look, for example, at the people closest to the inner-city child, at their “social consciousness,” look at the total environment of (and of not just) the inner city child, at all that surrounds him on a daily basis and is continually and ineluctably, saturating his consciousness, forming his habits, training his ideas, arousing his feelings and emotions, shaping his developing powers?
What makes up the “social consciousness? Idleness, vulgarity, junk food, television, at best maybe some humor and kindness, at worst, lying, deception, drugs, tobacco, and alcohol addiction, and much else of equal ill repute. How often does the child encounter the values of hard work, discipline, good food, exercise, courage, and all the other things as well as important personal qualities that give real value to life?
The child becomes an inheritor, not as John Dewey would have it of the funded capital of civilization, of which there is little evidence in his inner-city dwelling, but of the very least elevated forms of existence that abound in nearly God or truth/beauty/goodness forsaken inner-city neighborhoods.
Later in the Pedagogic Creed Dewey goes on to say, “The only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself.…”
What are these demands? That he stay out of the way, not be heard, that he act as unthinkingly as the adults about him, that the best things, that for him are most often food and uninterrupted television, video games and electronic communications with his friends, that these things come from doing what he is told, not from hard work and accomplishment, that obedience and pretence are what the grown-ups want from him, not originality and imagination.
Which of the child’s powers are stimulated in the situation at present, probably not the best that is within him. It may be true, as Dewey does go on to say, that the child’s own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting-point for all education. But who in this child’s environment is able to recognize the child’s own instincts and powers, and help to draw them out? Maybe a teacher in school, but by then it’s usually too late, and whatever is done there is not enough.
“Save as the efforts of the educator connect with some activity which the child is carrying on of his own initiative independent of the educator, education becomes reduced to a pressure from without. It may, indeed, give certain external results, but cannot truly be called educative.” In the lives of most children such “connections” are totally absent. Is it any wonder that the “family” and school environments so often produce not healthy growth but “friction, disintegration, or arrest of the child-nature.”
Knowledge of social conditions, of the present state of civilization, is necessary in order properly to interpret the child’s powers. The inner city child does learn to speak, because meaningless bablings are rejected even in this environment. But what higher skills does the child learn in this fashion? The present deplorable state of inner-city education is probably only a reflection of the deplorable state of the lives of those people that the child encounters.
It is impossible to foretell definitely just what civilization will be twenty years from now. Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions. To prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities;…
It’s probably true that as Dewey says, the individual who is to educated is a social individual, and that society is an organic union of individuals.… Education must begin with a psychological insight into the child’s capacities, interests, and habits.… They must be translated [in turn] into terms of their social equivalents.…
But the problem here, and one that Dewey never seemed concerned with, is the dearth of fully developed “social individuals” i.e. productive and responsible citizens in the child’s environment. We don’t know at all how to make sure that the environment in which the child grows up is rich in examples of what we want the child to become.
The emphasis ought no longer to be on schools and school programs, but rather on environmental changes. For the environment, even more so than the genes, given the actual pace of cultural evolution that has left biological evolution in its wake, is still the “teacher” to whom the child listens to the most. Dewey understood this but didn’t properly address the inadequacy of that environment.