Monday, December 27, 2010
December 27, 2010: Is Our Children Learning?
As Mark Twain knew, statistics can be twisted into just about any pretzel of logic and argument we would like them to occupy, and I’m doubly suspicious of them when it comes to political debates over budgets and deficits and the like. But with that caveat, one of the most depressing things I’ve read in a long time was an article on what could be done with the roughly $60 billion a year (inflation-adjusted) that it cost to extend the Bush tax cuts on those families making more than 250K a year; and the most depressing single item noted that those billions would pay for universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year old American children, with relatively small class sizes. I have a filial obligation to support preschool for every kid who’s lucky enough to have the opportunity, but even if I didn’t, my own experiences—first as a preschooler, now and more cognizantly as the parent of two—, not to mention the many, many studies I’ve seen on the difference it makes for a kid to have at least some preschool experience before starting kindergarten, would more than convince me of the amazing benefit that such universal preschool could provide for our struggling education system (to say nothing of many other social and cultural benefits).
Whenever I start making any argument in support of preschool, or frankly any education-related argument period, it makes me think of one of the most impressive and erudite and wide-ranging American philosophers and activists—and definitely the only one who is I believe widely known solely for an idea that, while practical and useful, wasn’t his own. That thinker is John Dewey (1859-1952), the Progressive, populist, and pragmatist philosopher who was for many decades one of America’s leading scholarly and public experts on, among other things, education, psychology, logic, democracy, journalism and its role in the public sphere, contemporary politics, and humanism; but not, ironically enough, library sciences (the Dewey Decimal System was developed in 1876, during Dewey’s lifetime, but by Melvil Dewey). Even just a list of his close personal and professional relationships reveals many of the most significant and impressive thinkers and voices and efforts of the end of the 19th and opening of the 20th centuries: he founded The New School with Charles Beard and Thorstein Veblen; he worked with William James and his ideas of pragmatism to develop (with a cohort of students) the study of functional psychology; he exchanged letters for many years on a variety of issues with Jane Addams; he edited with Horace Kallen a series of articles defending academic freedom in response to the Bertrand Russell case; and he played a small but significant role in the lead-up to the founding of the NAACP.
Can’t argue with the importance of any of those efforts, but to my mind—and I am familially biased, but in terms of how many Americans and people around the world were affected I think I’ve got a good case—none of them were as significant as his arguments and philosophies and activisms on behalf of democratic, experiential, and fundamentally child-centered education. In works like the two seminal ones linked below, The Child and the Curriculum (1902) and Democracy and Education (1916), as well as in numerous others and, perhaps even importantly, in on-the-ground efforts with schools and teachers throughout his career, Dewey helped revolutionize (along with other figures worldwide, such as Friedrich Frobel in Germany, Maria Montessori in Italy, and Paolo Freire in Brazil) many of the most basic concepts of education; virtually everything we now associate with a preschool classroom (and many other kinds of classes as well), from the use of movement and experiential practices to an emphasis on each child’s identity and needs and on learning as a partnership between teacher and students) was strongly influenced by Dewey’s ideas and works. Perhaps even more basically, in an era where universal public education was still a new idea and where many continued to argue that education was not at all necessary for every individual, Dewey argued with great force for the exact opposite position: Chapter One of Democracy and Education is entitled “Education as a Necessity of Life,” and for Dewey no individual or community (and certainly no nation) could ever succeed with a consistent and meaningful educational presence.
Does that mean that we should raise taxes a few percentage points on the wealthiest American families and pay for universal preschool for all our kids? Well, yeah. But Dewey’s contributions to our national perspectives on education—and on a great many other topics—go way beyond any individual political issue or debate. At a time when prioritizing education, and perhaps especially early childhood education, remains a troublingly contested position, Dewey’s work reminds us of just how essential, beneficial, and fun the best and broadest educations can be. More tomorrow, on the laughably inaccurate xenophobic predictions of one of our smartest and most talented national heroes.
PS. Two links to start with:
1) Full text of The Child and the Curriculum: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/29259/29259-h/29259-h.htm
2) Full text of Democracy and Education: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/852/852-h/852-h.htm