Home > Uncategorized > Dewey vs. Terman, continued

Dewey vs. Terman, continued

September 6, 2012

Several years ago when I was researching a book I hoped to write, I read a quote that recapped the history of education in one phrase: John Dewey and Lewis Terman had a philosophical debate about the direction education should take and Terman won. Dewey argued for a holistic approach to schooling, one that would provide EVERY student with the tools and background needed to appreciate the work done by others and to achieve their highest level possible. Terman, the inventor of the IQ test, saw testing as a means for sorting students into categories and was not at all reluctant to declare that some students were incapable of learning. One only need to look a RTTT and NCLB to see that Terman won the hearts and minds of America.

Today’s NYTimes editorial page features an op ed piece by Michel Roth lamenting the loss of Dewey’s sensibilities in the ongoing debate about education. In the article he references the report issued by the Council on Foreign Relations a few months ago that framed “…the problems of the nation’s public schools as a threat to national security”  noting that  “Large, undereducated swaths of the population damage the ability of the United States to physically defend itself, protect its secure information, conduct diplomacy, and grow its economy,” It referred to students as “human capital,” a mechanistic term that reflected the whole tenor of the article. Roth writes:

Who wants to attend school to learn to be “human capital”? Who aspires for their children to become economic or military resources? Dewey had a different vision. Given the pace of change, it is impossible (he noted in 1897) to know what the world will be like in a couple of decades, so schools first and foremost should teach us habits of learning.

For Dewey, these habits included awareness of our interdependence; nobody is an expert on everything. He emphasized “plasticity,” an openness to being shaped by experience: “The inclination to learn from life itself and to make the conditions of life such that all will learn in the process of living is the finest product of schooling.”

Instead of emphasizing our interdependence, American education emphasizes independence, and as a result we are accepting a system that values training over schooling. Roth is writing about higher education, but in order for our country to achieve the kind of education Roth envisions for post-secondary schools it is necessary to make certain our K-12 schools change as well. He concludes his article with this exhortation:

In a nation that aspires to democracy, that’s what education is primarily for: the cultivation of freedom within society. We should not think of schools as garrisons protecting us from enemies, nor as industries generating human capital. Rather, higher education’s highest purpose is to give all citizens the opportunity to find “large and human significance” in their lives and work.

Getting high scores on State assessments doesn’t meet that highest purpose.

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