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The Philosophy of American Education

by William H. Kilpatrick - 1928

There is, of course, no one philosophy of education to be ascribed to America. There are, however, certain tendencies more or less consistent with each other which, taken together, may with reasonable accuracy be said to characterize the dominant Ameri can attitude in educational matters. Such tendencies the philosophy of education should sense and criticize with a view to securing a more defensible unity of outlook and endeavor. Beyond these character istic trends there will thus result individual philosophies. One such is here presented.

There is, of course, no one philosophy of education to be ascribed to America. There are, however, certain tendencies more or less consistent with each other which, taken together, may with reasonable accuracy be said to characterize the dominant Ameri­can attitude in educational matters. Such tendencies the philosophy of education should sense and criticize with a view to securing a more defensible unity of outlook and endeavor. Beyond these character­istic trends there will thus result individual philosophies. One such is here presented.

The account here given is necessarily but sketchy. At the outset a glance is taken at the background and source of American educa­tional problems and attitudes. Then follows an outline of the basic philosophy of education with a correlative discussion of certain more fundamental problems in the educational situation. It is but fair in connection with this to say two things—first, that the author of these lines is but one of a group, of which Professor Dewey is the most distinguished member, to hold in general to this position, and, second, that to various aspects of the position herein taken there is opposition from certain other groups in American thought. The reader will understand that the writer speaks then only for himself.

What is the background of American thought and attitude? A hasty glance at this will serve to orientate our thinking and at the same time to set before us some of the more insistent problems con­fronting American education.

Perhaps the most characteristic factor in American history has been the influence of frontier life, the necessity of subduing a wilder­ness on its own terms. For this European tradition did not suffice. New ways must be found. Strong individual self-direction wasneeded, a reliance on self and on small group cooperation. Through I successive generations characteristics of initiative, self-reliance, and face-to-face cooperation were built into the folkways, along with an impatience at restraint of practically any sort. These characteristics meant a ready acceptance of the conscious doctrines of liberty and of the more doctrinaire theory of laissez-faire. The last-named might almost be said to be the sophistication of all the rest, a principle, however, from which America now increasingly departs. Religiously, the early settlement was in outlook almost entirely Protestant and even Puritan, a fact which has given the national outlook a definite tendency toward external regulation of morals and conduct.

It is easy to see democracy as the political outlook natural to the Protestant and the frontiersman, and this in spite of the contradiction between moral regulation and frontier freedom.

The later half of American national life has seen great changes, possibly more sweeping than any hitherto found within the range of European culture. Streams of foreign immigration have poured in from many diverse sources, breaking up the older uniformity of out­look and introducing a new need for social integration. Industrializa­tion has come almost as a flood, with an unparalleled mass production. A popular faith in scientific thought has spread over the country, partly as cause and partly as effect of industrialization. The min­gling of different national cultures, the changes introduced into living by great industry and its products, the opportunities at indulgence from increasing wealth and leisure, the popular faith in science and its criticisms—all have united to shift old folkways and to question traditional outlooks. The resulting problems cut deep.

Amid all these changes, one faith of America stands firm with even clearer idealism—that in popular education, secondary no less than primary. In favored sections practically all adolescent population is enrolled in secondary schools. Popular education is almost patheti­cally the hope for directing civilization along right and better lines.

In facing thus its task, American education sees a people buoyant in the faith that effort counts and willing perhaps beyond all others to try the new. The situation is plastic to thought. Ideas, at least within a certain range, spread more rapidly here than in any other part of the world. The opportunity of the school to influence life is real and great.

No less real or great is the demand. The loosening of tradition, ere as elsewhere in the world, raises serious questions. Youth in­creasingly rejects external authority. Our only hope seems internal authority based on an inherent "Why?" Still further, increasing change in general social life makes it increasingly impossible to con­duct education on the old basis of specific preparation to meet fore­known situations. The future is too largely unknown. We of the older generations must acknowledge our lack of foreknowledge and somehow prepare the rising generation to face its own problems as these shall arise. To fix our present ideas in the young may prove hurtful disservice. Education must remake its ways to meet these new demands.

In the face of the insistent need for an intelligent re-thinking of our social tradition, we have nevertheless in this country many who exactly fear this re-thinking and wish to prevent it. They rightly fear that thinking may not justify and retain all they have hitherto held. These opponents of progress are able to mobilize a certain herd-mindedness and with it seriously to oppose the free and impartial weighing of questioned doctrines and institutions. It has even been proposed to maintain the old by legal prescription. Education is thus threatened in its own house. Democracy has been tempted to hamper teaching.

The task of the school is thus increased. But there is yet more. A civilization loosed from its old moorings, industrially efficient and wealth-producing beyond compare, faces the ever old, ever new prob­lem of life itself. What is the life we should intelligently seek? If we do not know an answer to this problem or if the majority will not recognize the best answer thus far found, what shall the school do? What can the school do, seeing that it is controlled by this same majority? This is perhaps the most difficult of all the problems facing American education.

The general attack upon these problems here presented and de­fended may be stated in two parts; first, the more fundamental as­sumptions taken to underlie a defensible outlook on life, and, second, the educational superstructure built upon these assumptions specifically to meet the problems of American life as set out above.

These as fundamental assumptions are here stated in brief, even dogmatic fashion. They are to be counted as hypotheses for under­standing and ordering life.

a. Criticized experience is the final test of all things—experience criticized in its bearing on other experience. From this point of view, knowledge and "principles" are hypotheses for guiding ex­perience.

b. The universe is fundamentally precarious. But effort produces real effect. Thinking is past experience guiding present effort. Through thought man is self-directive and effective in a sense and degree true of no other organism.

c. No principle is absolute but each such is to be applied only in the light of all other principles involved in the situation under con­sideration.

d. The self is an organization effected through continued experi­ence in the social situation, the beginning being in biologic heredity, communication playing an essential part. The individual is thus inherently social in origin and nature.

e. The good life is one of activity of the varied capacities of the person so managed as to continue and increase such activity, both individual and shared, in the self and in others. We seek then the maximum development of each in relation to all, each as an end in himself and never a means merely.

From the foregoing, particularly the last two, we get definitions and guiding conceptions of development, ethics, and democracy. De­velopment is no mere unfolding of latency, but an ever-extending process (stopped only by senile decay), taking continually more and more adequate account of meanings disclosed through experience. Such growing is of the very nature of the good life. Ethics gets its definition in the effort to bring this good life in the highest possible degree to all together. Democracy, much more than mere govern­ment, is the kind of society built to favor this good life and the maximum development.

With these as the more fundamental conceptions, what shall be the system of education reared on this foundation to take adequate care of the demands of American life?

In describing the proposed scheme of education, it is perhaps well to warn the reader that certain older terms as method and curriculum have been re-defined for use here that they may the better carry the new burdens placed upon them. The new definitions appear more or less explicitly in the descriptions given below.

In the resulting scheme of education, method takes a leading part, possibly the dominant part. Method is the how side of the educa­tive process, but is far more than how to teach arithmetic or the other subjects. Rather it is how to deal with children, how to help steer the whole life of the learner that all aspects of life may be more adequately called into play and more adequately directed so that integration will result, internal integration of the self, external integration of the self with the environment.

The psychology we follow tells us that learning is essentially active. Behavior is responding and we learn only the responses that we make, no others. We cannot learn what we do not practice. If this be so, then the schoolroom environment must be such as to evoke from the learner the varied desirable characteristics which he is to build. To accomplish this school must be actual life, not a mere learning about life. It is selected life, yes; but so selected and steered as to have in it all the riches of real living, its stimulations, its opportunities, and its responsibilities. On no other basis can the child build the kind of self demanded by the highest conception of the good life.

But our psychology tells us further that we do not learn all the responses that we make. There is a selective effect on learning, as the outcome does or does not satisfy our endeavor. In any actual instance we learn to do what meets the case for us, we learn not to do what fails to meet the case. The learner's attitude is thus an es­sential factor to determine the direction of his learning, whether he shall learn to do or learn not to do.

It is from this point of view that the factor of purpose comes to be stressed in the educative experience. When the learner has a purpose of his own which he himself wishes to effect, whether, for example, to make a boat, or to write a poem expressive of a certain emotion or idea, or to join with others in presenting a play, he has not only an impulse which efficiently calls out his endeavors along the line of his purpose, he has besides (in the aim held thus in view) a criterion for telling success from failure, and even more he has (in his willed purpose) the inner attitude which identifies the objective success of the enterprise with inner success to him. So that all the psychology of learning discussed above is through purpose automati­cally put to work in behalf of better learning.

Nor is this yet all.    A study of the psychology of behavior discloses that behavior and effort arise when some equilibrium is disturbed within the self or organism. This disturbance creates an (flip organic urge or "mind-set" to straighten out the difficulty, to set mat­ters straight. This urge or "set" involves the whole organism. When through thought the self sets up in imagination an end or aim the attainment of which defines satisfaction and the re-establishment of equilibrium, then the whole organism being involved all its resources pertinent to the attainment of the end are thereby rendered "ready" for action. The eye is quicker to see anything pertinent to the quest, the ear quicker to hear, the hand quicker to act. Action is thus facilitated in detail and learning quickened. In this, purpose again helps.

And there is yet more: Always many learnings are simultaneously in process.  While any extended experience is under way, attention is directed now to this factor and now to that, especially as these I factors help or hinder the aims that the experiencer has.  Where any element or factor in the experience is thus such as to arouse conscious attention and consideration, with consequent like or dislike, for each such factor at least two learnings and generally three are in process: first, an attitude of like or dislike is being built (and if suf­ficiently keen or sufficiently prolonged  or  sufficiently  repeated  an abiding attitude will be built) ; second, an idea of the factor at work and how it acts is being built  (or strengthened or weakened if such has already existed) ; and, third, there is generally being built also an ideal as to what should be the character and action of this factor.  With such an attitude and idea or ideal always being built with regard to each outstanding factor involved in the experience, and with the admitted significance of attitudes and ideas for life, it needs no argument to prove that such accompanying learnings are in the aggregate often more important than the learnings more obviously in the mind of teacher and pupil. In this way through infinitely many small effects children come to build their abiding attitudes and ideals to­wards the various significant aspects of life. Fortunate are they if the resulting ideals are clear and good and the attitudes sound. And here again purposing may greatly help. It requires little thought to see that when the purpose is itself sound and wholesome and intelli­gently sought, ideals will the more likely be intelligently built and attitudes favorable to them be built in accord.

So in order to build self-directing characters that can be relied upon to act intelligently and efficiently, the method of purposeful activity is stressed. Properly guided it makes for efficient learning and for effi­cient organization of learning and builds at the same time the kind of character needed to cope with the changing life that confronts. This is what is often called the "project method" or the "project idea." he essence of the idea is that the unit element of the educative process is to be conceived as an enterprise (or instance of purposeful experience) felt by the learner to be his own so that he of himself assumes responsibility for carrying it forward to successful com­pletion.

The terms "free" and "freedom" are often used in connection with such purposeful activity. It is at once clear that freedom is here desired as a condition necessary for such prosecution of the enterprise as best fosters good learning conditions. The function that freedom thus plays tells us not only why we wish freedom but tells us equally how much and what kind we need. The test is always: What is being learned?

Such a conception of method as the purposeful and responsible pursuit by pupils of enterprises characteristic of all the varied aspects of life will mean that subjects such as geography or history will no longer be learned separately. This method recognizes what is in fact true, that our various separate school subjects are adult sophis­tications, abstractions of and from life, not units in life. Genuine instances of living seldom remain long at a time within the artificial confines of such abstractions. Typically then we as teachers will ignore such boundaries, as we help our pupils to live in our schools.

We are thus led to consider the curriculum. It is but fair to say that there is at this point even less agreement among our people than on method. The position here presented is not the traditional one but one so chosen as to place education more inherently in the life process. It is, of course, true that in the history of the race educa­tion long preceded the school. If we consider out-of-school living, say of a child before going to school or of any man of affairs as he faces a novel situation, it is easy to see how learning is inherent in each forward step made in such living. Take, for instance, a child first attempting to feed himself with a spoon. Five steps are distin­guishable: (1) he starts to feed himself; (2) he meets (typically) a difficulty, he lacks the needed behavior-skill; (3) he tries under the direction of nurse or mother to get the needed way-of-behaving; (4) at length, he finds, gets, and applies the hitherto lacking behavior-skill, the needed new way-of-behaving; (5) the activity begun under (1) and balked under (2) now goes forward. These steps are typical wherever life takes a step forward. We see then (a) how the demand for learning is inherent in progressive living; (b) how study, item (3) above, is for each individual an effort at the finding of a new way of behaving in the light of the demands of the situation and possibly under the guidance of one who can help steer the process; (c) how learning when thus got is essentially a creative act, even though the act is in part guided by another; and (d) how the actual situation tests whether the learning has in fact taken place by whether the balked activity really goes forward, whether the proposed new step is really taken.

We can at once say of such life learning that it is intrinsic in life, having a real function to play in the development of life. In com­parison we can say that much, if not most, of ordinary school learn­ing is extrinsic to the life of the learner, not having been called for by the present demands of his life as he now lives that life nor, when learned, functioning in any full sense in that life as it now is. This distinction between "intrinsic" and "extrinsic" learning is crucial to the present discussion. The position here taken is that school learn­ing is good and wholesome, other things being equal, to the degree that it is intrinsic.

It is well to see further how learning functions inherently in the on-going and developing life. Consider a baby that has just learned to crawl. Clearly he has added a new way-of-behaving to his previous repertoire of behavior patterns. But the effect is far more and other than this mere addition. Before times when he has been placed on a rug, for example, he has necessarily stayed where he was placed. His active experiences were then limited to what was within reach of the fixed spot where he had been placed. But now that he can crawl he has greatly increased the range of his possible experiences. And each new experience brings with it new things to be learned. This he may touch, that he may not; this he may put in his mouth, that he may not. When he does put this in his mouth, it calls for thus-and-such behavior. All of these new learnings—facts, sense-experiences, appropriate reactions, social obligations—all have been made possible and even called out by the single added learning of how to crawl.

Not all new learnings are so prolific of new experiences and new learnings, but in general each new thing learned opens in some meas­ure new possibilities. The remaking of experience from such learn­ings is what Professor Dewey has called the "reconstruction of ex­perience." We are then prepared for his definition of the aim of education as such a reconstruction of experience as yields ever new meanings and gives to the learner continually increasing control over the process.

From this point of view the curriculum is not properly conceived in terms of the subject matter to be acquired but as a life process, a succession of experiences, each growing out of the preceding ex­periences in such a way as to continue most fruitfully the reconstruc­tion of experience. At any point taken as a beginning, the teacher will then help his pupils to choose as their next experience one that is both rich as present living and pregnant with promise for the future. While this experience is being lived, the teacher will help so to steer it that it will mean most in continuous succession for rich living there­after.

Space does not allow a detailed discussion of criteria for choosing experiences nor of immediate aims as we try to steer any present experience. Besides these are also many other matters to be con­sidered, as how to secure sufficient skill and techniques, and how to avoid one-sided growth. Important as these are they are minor to the revised conception of the curriculum here outlined. Such a revision is as the shift from Ptolemy to Copernicus. The center of attention is shifted from subject-matter to life, from inertness to dynamic life and its remaking. Such a conception puts the emphasis on life and personality, on the increasing self-direction of life in the light of an ever-broadening outlook and deepending insight.

One concluding word about morals and religion. Many of us in this country, most I think of those who speak most authoritatively in education, feel that morals has no need of support in dogmatic theology. For my part what is said above, properly understood, will care inherently for morals and religion better than will any scheme of separate lessons in either or both. Surely morals and religion in any defensible sense lie at the heart of the life process. When we care properly for life and its education we care properly for them. The name of either need then not appear as a separated item in the school program. If we take pains that life's meanings are got as best we can from each succeeding experience, all is done that man can do.

Such seems the American situation. Such is the philosophy pro­posed for its understanding. Such is the education suggested for meeting the situation. If merit it has, this lies exactly in its being thoroughout experimental. On this basis only dare we face our changing future.

* This is an address made at Teachers College on April  16,  1918, to a group of German educators visiting America.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 30 Number 1, 1928, p. 13-22
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 5654, Date Accessed: 1/18/2022 6:18:57 PM

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