john dewey on children, childhood, and education

david knowles kennedy

Abstract


It is difficult to find just one place to look for children and childhood in the American philosopher John Dewey’s work. This is not because he uses the terms so often, but because the concept of childhood pervades his opus in and through another set of terms—development, growth, experience, plasticity, habit, impulse, and education. In Dewey’s language, none of these terms mean quite what they mean in other thinkers’ language, and especially not in the language of the human development theorists of the early twentieth century and after, who based their thinking on a monological, unidirectional developmental trajectory that could be applied at all levels of the evolutionary continuum. Dewey is an interactionist through and through, and thus all his terms should be understood as dialectical. He does not invoke the concept “child” without invoking the concept “adult,” nor does he describe anything that does not have a normative dimension, which by definition belies “pure” description. His is a language of possibility, and the limits of human possibility are incalculable. This is why the concept of childhood is so important in his work. In this text we present selections from two works, the first emerging at the sickening epicenter of the Great War, in 1916—a war in which youth was sacrificed to what he calls adult “infantilisms” on a historically unprecedented scale, and a war that, arguably, effectively suppressed the educational possibilities his work represents for the rest of the century. Democracy and Education (New York: Macmillan) is his magnum opus on education, and characteristically both garrulous and brilliantly pointed, maddeningly oblique and trenchantly critical, painfully dull and fitfully enthralling, explicitly conservative and implicitly radical. The next selections are from Human Nature and Conduct (Carbondale IL: Southern Illinois University Press), published in 1922, when the orgiastic death-feast of the tyrants, the politicians, and their hosts of blind acolytes was (temporarily) over.

Keywords


childhood, education, children

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e-issn 1984-5987 | p-issn 2525-5061