Dewey and Illich

There is no shortage of literature on education.  Particularly at a school that espouses “learn by doing” we would be at a loss to not address American philosopher John Dewey.  “Learn by doing” means far more than habitual activity, but in the development of novel solutions, repositions our inherited mythologies that falsely emphasize thinking over doing.  As noted in Larry Hickman’s John Dewey’s Pragmatic Technology (1990), whereas Aristotle created a hierarchy of ways of knowing with theory at the top, practice in the middle, and production at the bottom,

“Dewey inverted this hierarchy, suggesting that the interpenetration of theory (or ideas about things to be done) with practice (or the doing of things) is made meaningful only when novel tools and solutions are produced.”

This same thinking applies to his thinking on education as expressed in Democracy and Education (1916):

“Diversity of stimulation means novelty, and novelty means challenge to thought.”

Dewey made a direct connection between embodied experience and the structure of thinking.  For example, in his book How We Think (1909), he makes this connection as an analogy:

 “A bungler can make a box, but the joints will not fit exactly, the edges will not be even. A skilled person will do the work in a way that does not waste time or material, and the result is firm and neat. So it is with thinking.”

And so it is, I hope, with your blog posts.

While Dewey was known as a “pragmatist” philosopher, Ivan Illich was a radical.  Dewey’s educational philosophy can be seen as a critique of schooling as a result of the industrial revolution, while Illich’s vision of “learning webs” in 1970 seems to anticipate the open-source information network as a result of the internet.

The intent of these readings is to challenge your thinking on the role of education in society – its cultural value.  As Dewey notes,

“The conception of education as a social process and function has no definite meaning until we define the kind of society we have in mind.”

From the groups assigned today, each group is to read the following readings, and then write a brief summary highlighting the essential points for the benefit of the rest of the studio.  The intent is to be short and concise, making connections between different passages, as I have tried to exemplify above.  Can you identify with this, or does it sit uneasy with you?  How might it effect the institution of schools including their spatial arrangement?

For Wednesday, everyone to read:

Third Teacher excerpts including: Foreword by David Orr, and Interviews with Sir Ken Robinson and James Dyson.

Readings are provided as a PDF, or can be accessed on-line through links provided below.


Group 1: John Dewey, Democracy and Education,  Ch 1: Education as a Necessity of Life (SKIM) with focus on Ch 7: The Democratic Conception in Education.

Group 2: John Dewey, Democracy and Education, Ch 1: Education as a Necessity of Life (SKIM) with focus on Ch 11: Experience and Thinking.

Group 3: John Dewey, Democracy and Education, Ch 1: Education as a Necessity of Life (SKIM) with focus on Ch 12: Thinking in Education.

Group 4: Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society, Ch1 : Why we must disestablish school (SKIM) with focus on Ch 6: Learning Webs.

Your summary Post should focus on your group reading, but you are free to incorporate other references.

Dewey : Democracy and Education – Chapter 12, Group 2

In chapter eleven of Democracy and Education entitled Experience and Thinking by John Dewey, the main concept revolves around the idea that experience contains two elements: active and passive. Without each respective element, you cannot expect any activity to be an experience. In order for something to be an experience, you must both complete said activity and undergo a series of conscious processing in order to gain a consequence with that action. Essentially, it becomes a “discovery in the connection of things.” However, as Dewey notes, experience in school is incredibly lacking. We have now taken our education system and essentially boiled it down to the student coming to school, sitting still, listening, and taking notes. Students become spectators with absolutely no physical activity, which in turn becomes a problem for the students. However, Dewey contradicts himself when he says that “physically active children become restless and unruly.” This statement is contradictory to his previous ideas, and an inaccurate fact as well. Children who are provided with a creative and physical outlet are usually more able to learn and digest information efficiently; it is the children who are unable to exert their energy are the ones who are unruly. From a young age, children are taught things through experience; the analogy Dewey uses is a child learning to fly a kite. The child watches, feels the pressure from the kite, and is able to learn through his experiences. In school, children are robbed of their ability to experience anything. They do “not [have] faithful experiences but [are expected to] absorb knowledge directly.” Another point he touches on in this chapter is that “physical equipment and arrangements of the average schoolroom are hostile to the existence of real situation of experience.” The idea of conceptually isolating school and educational institutions from what one might call “real life” is particularly ridiculous. The fact of the matter is that school is real life, and for a human being’s arguably most important developmental years. Thinking about it as this fundamentally separate world is not correct. The last point he stresses deals with theory, ideas, and solutions. He says that just an ounce of experience is extremely more useful than a ton of theory, because it requires testing that brings about consequences. These consequences then lead to changes in the world; theory doesn’t have the same affect. And he states that while theory does involve thinking, the ultimate value comes from experience.

Dewey: Democracy and Education | Chapter 7, Group 1

In the opening to Democracy and Education, John Dewey introduces to us the idea of education in its most primal sense. In this understanding, education is seen merely as a means of preservation—a means of perpetuating the existence of not only the individual, but the entire species. By Chapter 7: The Democratic Conception in Education, he has begun a discourse on education in his time. Education, he explains, has largely become a what he calls a “social process” and, as such, the values and goals of education within a society are entirely dependent upon the social ideals of the society at hand. As we begin to move into the design of our own educational institutions, we must evaluate these irreducible ideals. To design a school of our times, we must ask ourselves what the values and goals of education in our society—a democratic one—are to better understand who we are designing for and to what end.    

The first of these social ideals discussed, and perhaps the most relevant to our discussion thus far, is what Dewey refers to as the “Democratic Ideal.” In essence, it is a social process—an educational model—heavily based on “shared common [interests]” and a great degree of freedom as it relates to the interaction and exchange of information between social groups with those shared interests. In one word, this educational approach can be described as one of “interdependence.” As it so happens, interdependence is one of three principles key to the idea of open source learning. In order to promote such learning in our own designs, we must seek to create an environment that collects those with common interests. Furthermore, we must seek to design in a way that promotes not only the interaction and exchange of ideas between these social groups, but also the intensity with which that interaction and exchange take place.

The second social ideal is the “Platonic Ideal.” In its most concise nature, the platonic ideal is meant to organize society to an individual level. This is meant to create human organization where each individual is attributed an occupation based on their specific strengths. Plato stated that society would be “stably organized when each individual member of society is doing that for which he has aptitude by nature in such a way as to be useful to others.” To contribute to the whole of society to which the member belongs to. To contribute in the best possible manner means to find the best line of opportunity catered for the individual. At the time of Plato’s philosophy, there was a hopeless cycle created by policy makers, institutions, laws. Within a just state of society, the right minds would generate the right education, thus maintaining the just status of society. Plato searched for a way out of this cycle. His method was to identify the patterns present within society and its members and sift through the individuals during their time of education. The sifting process is meant to filter out and identify the strengths and assign work to their natural fit. Inherently, this would prescribe the individual with their own set of “values”. Rather than a stratification of social classes, the individual values of each member would work together as strengths to interdependently run society. Each member would do their own part while order and unity maintains itself.

Dewey links these various democratic, social, and political processes through characterizing education and institution as national phenomena – an imperative of the state. For each government or state to function with fluidity and efficiency, it requires a measure of subordination from each individual, who submit themselves to defined roles of hierarchy within their organized society. As a result, state education initiatives take on a level of standardization that reflects its systematic organization, one of ‘personal training rather than of personal development’, thus becoming the institution. However, educational philosophy has to also reconcile each individual’s internal development of culture and personality through learning, resulting in a synthesis that emphasizes the state and government as a coherent being composed of creative individuals and their thoughtful functions rather than simply a ‘machine’ of efficient yet standardized gears and cogs. Despite these philosophies, however, the aforementioned principles of education are still heavily rooted in the micro perspective of the state, and the state now. It considers only how pedagogy concerns the benefit of the state and individual in its current society, but fails to recognize the imperative role in the creating of a future for humanity. Thus, it is a social process that ‘has no definite meaning until we define the kind of society we have in mind’. Education must then operate tangentially to larger human relations, such as the fields of science, commerce, and art, transcending national boundaries, while at the same time maintain its patriotic discourse in service to its state.

This reconciliation gives rise to the modern paradigm shift in responsibility of education from a state imperative to the hands of the private sector. Similarly, the ‘democratic criterion of education’ must not be instilled into individuals, but presented for the individual to find through his/her own personal pursuit of knowledge.

Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich: Chapters 1 & 6

Unequal Opportunity/Access to Education

One of the issues with the current education system is the inequality of access to education.  There is primarily a focus on the connection between socioeconomic status and education, stating that the wealthy are given an advantage through their ability to travel, ability to afford a private education, and the simple ability to purchase more books.  Thus, the educational disparity between the wealthy and poor increase.

Although this reading is from another decade, today this is especially true, as one is often limited financially in receiving a higher education.  University tuition and competition have increased significantly as education and degrees become status symbols.  Consequently, demands for higher test scores, like the notorious SATs become critical for acceptance, and an entire industry is created based around commercializing education.  Textbooks and tutors become important and expensive commodities and gain value.

The reading makes an interesting point when looking at the original role of education being a route of escaping the social hierarchies in any society.  It was supposed to be equal opportunity, yet it has created a new caste system, making the number of years of schooling, the currency of value.  Due to this desire of degrees, it has manipulated the “American Dream” and manifested itself as a major goal amongst many high school students in the US.

Due to the inequality, the poor believe that they are powerless without education, thus they rely on institutional care. Their helplessness leads to a psychological impotence and social polarization – a modernized poverty that does not provide essential and equal opportunities to everyone, such as with equal schooling.

The American education system favors the rich, as the students tend to have longevity in the schooling system, which therefore brings in revenue.  “Most learning happens casually, and even most intentional learning is not the result of programmed instruction, (12)” however our society has equated the act of learning with school, just as we use hospitals synonymously with our well being. Our society has become so dependent on the educational system, while other outlets of institution have been discouraged. Illich recognizes the “antischooling” effect that the system has which in part, impairs the poor, furthering the gap between the rich. As for the rich or even middle class, educational advantages are readily available.

Society controls learning. It creates a parasitical relationship with disadvantaged people relying on institutions for knowledge or basic skills. Based on Illich’s essay, this reliance needs to be abolished. Just like people detached from the monopoly of church, there should be a disestablishment of schools in order to liberate them from societal control.


Political relationship w/ Education

There have been methods to try to fix education in America, such as Title One. This program provided three billion dollars to help benefit six million children, but ultimately failed to do so, because of three reasons: 1) the money provided was not sufficient, 2) the money was not divided properly, and 3) education in schools is not the sole way to restore the problem of “educational disadvantage”. Even with more funds, the government needs to provide money for both inside and outside the school. An environment that supports self-motivated learning after class can benefit students greatly and teach them more than just a day at school can.


Idealized Learning Environment (acc. to author)

It is suggested that the opposite of a “school” environment, argued to be a better method of education would be an instance in which people seek out their own education, instead of being forcibly mandated with curriculum.  People can actively learn when given the ability to choose their interest and organize a group of people who have similar interests.


Monetary Spending on Education

In the reading, it is argued that contrary to popular belief, there is a nonlinear relationship between monetary spending and education.  Many people believe that by increasing spending on particular groups with an unequal opportunity, this will improve their chances and abilities.  However this is not necessarily the case, as it was found that there are several problems, including insufficient funds and misspending.


“The Educational Web”

Illich describes deschooling as the act of abolishing the system from discriminating an individual based on sex, education, socioeconomic level, and age. An implementation of other alternatives of learning is difficult in our current state, but third world countries could benefit off a different type of education. Much like temples, schools have the risk of becoming outdated, and as Illich claims, and there needs to be a solution to garner more pupils through a new system.  He uses an example about how a few decades ago a lot of men over the age of 20 knew how to fix cars, but in our increasingly specialized society, only some mechanics will know how to approach such a task. However we must keep in mind that self interest will keep skills from being shared, and at the same time this is affecting society negatively because less “experts” are appearing in each sector. Nurses are a good example where they are now under represented in their field thanks to the amount of money and education process.

Our society is increasingly becoming specialized and that could be a problem. The author offers a solution: unlike having to expect an outcome of skill teaching (from certified “experts), this alternative will offer the exchange of information and nothing more, essentially institutionalizing a communication network. One shouldn’t be withheld to a certain kind of curriculum, nor should face discrimination due to a lack of diplomacy. Because of our current institution, inventive, creative minds are discouraged. We may know how a radio works but we can’t see for ourselves without being told that we could in fact ruin it. With the implementation of a skill exchange, the relationship changes into master and practitioner. Not only will one have the opportunity to not only know how a radio works, but how to disassemble it and put it back together.


Certificate versus skill

When schools look to hire teachers, they really only look for people who are certified, but what about all the people who may not be certified but still have the skills to teach about what they are passionate about? Illich mentions in his book, “What makes skills scarce on the present educational market is the institutional requirement that those who can demonstrate them may not do so unless they are given public trust, through a certificate.” This dependance on a certificate limits the potential of schools to provide their students with professionals who are willing to share their knowledge with children who want to learn. This also limits those people who want to learn and practice in the areas that they are passionate about, but do not have the funds to pay for certified teaching. It is so discouraging for people who want to learn more and gain more experience in areas that interest them, but can’t. They find no reason to keep going and stop trying to improve their skills all together, all because they can’t afford it.

However, what if learning through apprenticeship was more accepted in society? Through apprenticeships more people can learn what they want through skilled professionals (even if they do not have certificates) without the burden of not being able to afford it. What if their sheer passion for learning is the only thing that they need to achieve their goals? In this instance Illich proposes “free skill centers open to the public.” He suggests that there be a place where skilled people can help others improve their own skills so that they can then go on to be a part of apprenticeships. I agree that there should be a place where people can go and get the opportunity to gain skills that they thought were impossible to learn before. This kind of place could give hope to so many people who lost the hope of learning in the first place because they couldn’t afford professional, certified teaching.


Casual Learning

While some believe that learning is a direct result from teaching, Illich states that students tend to acquire most of their information outside of school. Drilling in a subject may be an effective learning technique, to a certain extent, but to truly learn something, you have to do it on your own. Schools should be centers of learning that encourage students with similar interests to have an opportunity to understand something together. What schools lack now is an atmosphere that creates a self-motivated environment.

What shatters a common teacher and student educational approach is the fact that what is taught is determined by the competency of the teacher. If the teacher is “skilled” or “certified” in a subject, they may serve with a programmed structure, teaching only what they believe and molding the students in a certain manner. Students should not be forced to learn an obligatory curriculum if it does not interest them. Because of this, students may not have the willpower or motivation to learn, thus causing students to harness what they really would want to learn. However, a teacher can morph into a number of roles, all that can guide a student to learn.

In his essay, Illich proposes a pragmatic program that is based on a self-directed approach. This allows students to explore different subjects that interest them casually. To learn casually, or to delve into a subject that intrigues oneself, is the best method of learning, according to Illich. He stresses how anyone who is self-motivated should not be denied the access to learn and that people who are interested in communicating with others about a given subject, they should do so. Illich suggests to match people according to interest and empower or share with each other about what excites them.

Something interesting that Illich advocates is to include “educational artifacts” within a school environment to encourage more casual learning. These could range from tool shops, libraries, laboratories, to even game rooms, the ideas are endless. These less-restrictive, less-controlling, and less-manipulative spaces would allow learners to gain benefits by exploring. The self-motivation is crucial for this program to function though. With curiosity and excitement as their companions, students under Illich’s proposed program would be skilled for life-long learning.



Dewey: Democracy and Education | Chapter 12, Group 3


The main point of Chapter 12 is that schools aren’t – but need to – teach students how to think. Currently they teach them how to acquire information, or how to read and recite, but not to apply it to their personal lives, the real world, and to think for themselves. The current educational system is detached from their personal lives in a type of unreality, which is partially caused by the spatial environment of the classroom, the abstract nature of the lessons, and the fact that instructors do not help students make relevant cross-connections between their lessons and their everyday life. This is the problem; Dewey proposes the solution – or the way to develop students’ ability to think. He proposes a 4-part lesson plan: 1, students must have a direct experience with something personally relevant and engaging, 2, they must deal with personally relevant and challenging problems that are partially solved through the use of experience, 3, they must generate ideas/solutions that utilize and correlate, facts, data, knowledge, and experience in new and inferred ways, and 4, they must act upon and test these ideas and “organize further observations, recollections, and experiments.”

Dewey talks a lot about intelligent thinking, and regarding this, a common theme that he brings up is novelty. In Democracy and Education (1916), Dewey says that “Diversity of stimulation means novelty, and novelty means challenge to thought.” In Chapter 12, he defines this diversity of stimulation as activity and direct experience of “actual material, more stuff” in addition to guided lessons. Similarly, he looks at diversity of stimulation in terms of the receiving of ideas – that students should learn to develop ideas for themselves instead of teachers giving them rehashed and received ideas: “only by wrestling with the conditions of the problem at first hand, seeking and finding his own way out, does he think” (160). All this is to provide students with new challenges, which serves to provoke more intelligent thought. As Dewey says in Chapter One of the same book, “any social arrangement that remains vitally social, or vitally shared, is educative to those who participate in it. Only when it becomes cast in a mold and runs in a routine way does it lose its educative power.” Similarly, as Plato says in Republic, the best way to educate a populace and reach greater levels of thought is through the debate of diverse and opposing people.

In general, we agree with Dewey’s philosophy:
“My dad has always hated that we learn stuff that we don’t need. He said that we need a class in practical application – if the toilet would break. We don’t learn that in school. I always liked chemistry because we always did experiments. We’d learn the equations then test them out in labs and see what would go wrong.”
“In many classes – like structures – professors often briefly address applicability, when and how its applied, but they never show you how it’s applied and let you apply it in reality.”
The consensus is that the methodology of education and spatial arrangement needs to change. We need to experience and see more of what we learn, and apply it more. In many American high schools, all of the classrooms look the same, regardless of the subject. This must change.