Dewey and Freire’s Philosophy of Education

John Dewey’s (1859–1952) scientific orientation was biology, and he was influenced by the developments in evolutionary biology. His philosophical starting point was the fact that people exist within a biological environment. We create beliefs to adapt to our environment. Dewey created the term “instrumentalism” to describe the human activity of developing and using beliefs as tools or instruments for solving problems and altering our environment to meet our needs and desires. One of Dewey’s primary aims was to reform education to help children develop problem-solving skills — instruments to solve problems.

Dewey’s Instrumentalism and Truth

We exist in a world, and we must react to it and try to navigate within it to accomplish our goals. Our intellectual abilities, Dewey said, are developed in response to our world. The world places demands on us, and we are beings who must make choices and act. The implication of this for Dewey was to understand human intelligence as the continual activity of developing more profitable relations with the objects we encounter. This view rejects the passive mind of Locke and Hume and adopts William James’s “cash value” theory of beliefs. Dewey said that our thinking doesn’t make copies of the objects in our environment but that we think about how to interact with and use them better. Dewey intentionally speaks of “intelligence” rather than “mind” to focus on mental activity rather than on an entity.

Dewey sought to promote human inquiry, which he saw as the core of successful instrumentalism. Very similar to Peirce, Dewey saw doubt as an unsettled and confused state from which we seek to free ourselves by attaining a unified and resolved situation. Dewey, as he consistently did throughout his philosophy, spoke of doubt as a response to the environment — we are doubtful because the situation is doubtful — rather than an intellectual exercise, á la Descartes. In this way, Dewey is not talking about academic doubt but practical and functional doubt. We are thinking about real life rather than conducting thought experiments. Here is one of the examples of inquiry that Dewey gives:

A man traveling in an unfamiliar region comes to a branching of the roads. Having no sure knowledge to fall back upon, he is brought to a standstill of hesitation and suspense. Which road is right? And how shall perplexity be resolved? There are but two alternatives: he must either blindly and arbitrarily take his course, trusting to luck for the outcome, or he must discover grounds for the conclusion that a given road is right. Any attempt to decide the matter by thinking will involve inquiry into other facts, whether brought out by memory or by further observation, or by both. The perplexed wayfarer must carefully scrutinize what is before him and he must cudgel his memory. He looks for evidence that will support belief in favor of either of the roads — for evidence that will weight down one suggestion. He may climb a tree; he may go first in this direction, then in that, looking, in either case, for signs, clues, indications. He wants something in the nature of a signboard or a map, and his reflection is aimed at the discovery of facts that will serve this purpose. (How We Think, 10–11)

This forked road situation is analogous to how we deal with every problem we face, from deciding what to have for dinner to solving complex scientific or moral problems. We are confronted with a question; we gather information; we try a solution; and if that doesn’t work, we seek another, and so on until we come to a satisfactory conclusion.

Dewey’s idea of truth is essentially the same as for Peirce and James. His notion of instrumentalism focused the idea of practicality onto specific tasks. The tool analogy is quite apt. Dewey said that the question is not, “Is a hammer adequate?” That’s too general to be meaningful. The question is, “Is a hammer adequate for pounding in nails?” The answer is, “Yes.” The answer is, “No,” to the question, “Is a hammer adequate for dividing a board in two?” We understand that we use different tools for different tasks, and Dewey asks us to think of beliefs in the same way. Which belief or idea is adequate to solve the situation before me? That’s what thinking is, what ideas are, and what truth is. Dewey says, “Ideas are not then genuine ideas unless they are tools in a reflective examination which tends to solve a problem” (How We Think, 109).

Applying Instrumentalism to Education

Education was Dewey’s prime concern because it is through education that we learn how to solve problems and this is the way we can improve society as a whole for the long term. Students are individual people and should be cultivated as such. Education should not be taught by rote or en masse. Dewey thought that, in schools, students were seen as theoretical spectators who were under the instruction of experts. Dewey criticized education and academia itself as not perceiving the uniqueness of individuals. Individuals have an infinite diversity of active tendencies, and education, and society as a whole, must account for this. Dewey thought that education is best when it is active involvement, not passive seeing or hearing. Central to his educational reforms was the need to get away from rote memorization of facts and instead adopt processes of open inquiry. Good education, he thought, teaches individuals how to solve problems and engage better with their society. Students need to be active questioners — hands-on in both practices and dialogue. Discussion is an important part of education, and the students need to be able to ask questions of their teachers, discuss among themselves, and discover truths for themselves. Dewey’s proposed reforms along these principles, far lengthier and more detailed than we can hope to discuss here, have inspired many educators since. Sadly, some educators, including those with advanced degrees, still insist on requiring “teaching to the test” and treating students as passive vessels to be force-fed facts that they must memorize and regurgitate back to receive a grade. Education still has not achieved Dewey’s vision of a learning process of problem-solving and creative thinking.

Paulo Freire (Biola University)

Paulo Freire

Philosopher of education Paulo Freire (1921–1997) was concerned for those who suffered from colonial oppression in his native Brazil. As a school teacher, he tried to tackle the problem of illiteracy that exceeded 60% in northeastern Brazil. He worked with government agencies on promoting literacy, and grew to realize that the problems of illiteracy and poverty were related to authoritarian attitudes that were deeply ingrained in all aspects of society, even in how parents related to their children.

Influenced by John Dewey, Freire saw that education is more than learning skills; education is about people discovering themselves as creative agents and becoming more human. After teaching for years, he went back to school to get his doctorate and learn philosophy of social justice.

Central to Paulo Freire’s social philosophy is his insight that within oppressive dynamics, the humanity of both the oppressor and the oppressed are diminished. This idea is similar to Hegel’s identification that the master-slave dialectic gives neither the master nor the slave sufficient recognition to realize themselves. Freire believed that political and legal reforms were on their own insufficient to change oppressive dynamics because people in all classes had internalized the historically pervasive authoritarian oppression. Everyone has been conditioned to maintain the dynamic of authoritarian oppression. This includes the oppressed, who have internalized oppressive structures and are conditioned to keep their place in the social hierarchy. Worse, Freire realized, the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors. People embedded in oppressive dynamics become opportunistic oppressors: bosses of their workers, parents of their children, and other situations in which there is an imbalance of power.

In his 1968 book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire calls for an overhaul of pedagogy — the method and practice of teaching. While working as a teacher in the early 1960s, Freire came to realize that widespread illiteracy was related to authoritarian attitudes which bred an environment of oppressions. The value of education, for Freire, was not simply being better able to make a living in a profession but rather empowerment and transformation for an individual and community. Education is a process. Education, well done, leads to social justice.

Freire’s philosophy of education was a response to the legacy of colonialism. Freire says that this traditional dichotomous and authoritarian model of education assumes that experts bestow their gift of knowledge to those who know nothing. This model not only perpetuates oppressive dynamics, it is an ineffective method of education. Freire called this the “banking concept of knowledge.” The bank holds the knowledge and people must come to the bank to receive it. The bank of knowledge is also separate from the people. As Freire wrote in Pedagogy of The Oppressed:

Implicit in the banking concept is the assumption of a dichotomy between human beings and the world: a person is merely in the world, not with the world or with others; the individual is spectator, not re-creator.

Freire argued that this banking concept of knowledge perpetuates hierarchies of power, reaffirming the oppressive dynamics of powerful and powerless. Freire connects the banking model of education to colonialism. The oppressive dynamic of colonialism is that the colonizing culture sees itself as possessing value while the colonized culture does not. Being Brazilian, Freire saw the legacy of colonialism in his country as an oppressive dynamic that permeated all levels of society, including education. Even well-meaning teachers who wish to treat their students as valuable individuals are caught within a system of education that enforces the colonial dichotomy.

Too often, education is conducted en mass with a single lecturer speaking to dozens or hundreds of students. Students are seen as theoretical spectators under the instruction of experts — what Freire referred to as the banking concept of knowledge. Dewey criticized education and academia itself as not perceiving the uniqueness of individuals. Individuals have an “infinite diversity of active tendencies” and education, and society as a whole, must account for this.

Education is never a neutral process, Freire says. Education presupposes about students either inequality between teacher and student or it enters into dialogue with students. The former presupposition perpetuates dichotomies of the banking model and traps students in hierarchies of power. The latter presupposition sees students as equal human beings deserving of trust and respect. It does not mean thinking all students know as much as the teacher. That would be counter-productive. It does mean empowering students to learn. It means seeing education as a process of facilitating practice and critical reflection.

Freire’s pedagogy is one that fosters democratization of conversation between people in which they discuss and learn from each other about their own power and agency. Like Dewey. Freire thought that education is best when it is active involvement, not passive seeing or hearing. Good education teaches individuals how to solve problems and better engage with their society. Students need to be active questioners–hands-on in both practices and dialogue. Discussion is an important part of education. Freire especially emphasized the importance for students to be included as equal discussants. Education needs to empower people by raising their consciousness of their own internalized oppression. Education changes people, and people change the world, Freire said.

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