My Favorite Chapter in John Dewey

A few weeks ago, during my school vacation, I spent some time dissecting a book I’d put down months ago: John Dewey’s Democracy and Education.  It’s taken me a while to get through — Dewey’s a hard read. One writer termed it, “Dewey’s inimitable (one hopes) style”: obscure, dense, philosophical.  It’s not quite Immanuel Kant-level unreadable, but it’s not exactly Malcolm Gladwell either. But every so often, Dewey gets excited, and his prose suddenly becomes readable. This happens toward the end of Democracy and Education, in a chapter with the rather inauspicious title “Vocational Aspects of Education.” It’s my favorite chapter in the book. It’s Dewey really hitting his stride.

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By the time you arrive at this chapter, Dewey has been outlining the Aristotelian split between education for practical purposes and education to prepare for the life of the mind only.  Dewey instead argues to combine the two; the marriage of a purpose, a vocation that calls upon both practical and intellectual skills, is where real learning happens.  

“To find out what one is fitted to do and to secure an opportunity to do it is the key to happiness,” Dewey writes, although he believes that schools should not educate students too narrowly for some specialized form of training, divorced from the social meaning of the work.  Dewey writes that finding one’s vocation is not only best because it motivates you to learn, but because it provides your best form of service to your community: what Dewey calls the “fulfillment of social needs in the most harmonious way” (220). That’s Pragmatism, folks.

So far what I find most moving about Dewey — and I think he finds it moving too, which is why his prose suddenly straightens — is his concept of an “occupation.” It’s more than just a job.  He writes, “Education through occupations . . . combines within itself more of the factors conducive to learning than any other method. It calls instincts and habits into play; it is a foe to passive receptivity.  It has an end in view; results are to be accomplished” (220). He sometimes refers to it as a “calling,” that “provides an axis which runs through an immense diversity of detail.” (Look at that alliterative flourish from Dewey!)  “It causes different experiences, facts, items of information to fall into order with one another.” One who has found his calling, “has a constant working stimulus to note and relate whatever has to do with his concern. He unconsciously, from the motivation of his occupation, reaches out for all relevant information, and holds to it.  The vocation acts as both magnet to attract and glue to hold.” 

This is what Dewey is all about.  It’s an inspiring idea — finding a calling that unites all of your learning, and causes you always to be on the lookout for more that you might put to use.  “To find out what one is fitted to do and to secure an opportunity to do it is the key to happiness,” he writes. It’s Dewey at his best.  

What’s interesting is that Dewey is not talking about narrow vocational training.  He writes, “To predetermine some future occupation for which education is to be a strict preparation is to injure the possibilities of present development and thereby to reduce the adequacy of preparation for a future right employment” (221).  He derides “machine-like skill in routine.” Therefore, you should engage students in what they’re interested in, but not too directly — always with an eye toward “a genuine discovery of personal aptitudes so that the proper choice of a specialized pursuit in later life may be indicated.” In fact, even after you find a pursuit you like, according to Dewey, you should still be able to keep learning and growing within that pursuit: “The discovery of capacity and aptitude will be a constant process as long as growth continues” (221).  He calls it “arbitrary” that we believe we make a final decision about what we want to do with ourselves at some fixed date. He says that someone interested in the field of engineering, “only blocks out in outline the field in which further growth is to be directed . . . It is the discovery of a profession in the sense in which Columbus discovered America when he touched its shores” (221).  

So even when you identify what you’re interested in — which schools should help you do — you should be educated in a way that is not limiting of your future growth in the profession.  Dewey seems to be arguing against a dead-end technical education, which he believed existed for the “masses” for many years: “It was called apprenticeship rather than education, or else just learning from experience” (222), while schools taught the three R’s to the extent they were needed in labor.  But now educators must be vigilant that “the vocational preparation of youth is such as to engage them in a continuous reorganization of aims and methods” (222).  

So what does this mean, anyway?  What exactly is the “right” vocational or occupational training?

At the end of the chapter, Dewey gets (more) clear about what exactly he means.  He thinks the right education “acknowledges the full intellectual and social meaning of a vocation” and includes “the historic background,” “training in science,” and “study of economics, civics, and politics, to bring the future worker into touch with the problems of the day and the various methods for its improvement” (226).  Above all, Dewey writes, the ideal education would “train power of readaptation to changing conditions” with the goal that they “not become blindly subject to a fate imposed upon them.” 

It sounds like Dewey wants a blend.  He wants students to be encouraged to think about or try out career paths so that they can discover what they’re passionate about and so their academic studies have purpose.  But he also wants students’ occupational learning to be paired with enough liberal academic learning to enable them to chart their own life courses, not to be stuck in the industrial jobs of yesterday because all they know are narrow technical skills. 

This is easier said than done, of course.  Every step of the way is challenging, in fact.  It’s hard to get kids thinking clearly about their goals; it’s not easy to set up internships or work learning programs with mentors.  Transportation is always an issue. Students who are doing these sorts of things in high school are not taking other classes. Honors Chemistry — or an internship at a bike shop?  Lots of parents choose the former every time. Too often students are only interested in the technical skills of the profession, not the academic learning. I remember teachers from my own grad school cohort who thought everything that was not practical, on-the-job training was a waste of time.  And often we choose jobs for something other than intellectual fulfillment.

Sometimes I wonder, “What would Dewey think of our current state of technical or vocational education?  What would Dewey think of our work-based learning programs, our community learning programs?” But then I realize that that’s the wrong question.  Dewey would love these programs because, in large part, they are due to his influence on American education. We are not just sending kids into school buildings to learn from textbooks.  Most American high schools have some type of tech program, some type of community based learning program. So much of this is due, as best as I can tell, to the influence of John Dewey.

It’s so interesting to go back to what I believe is the single source of so much of what we do, the cutting edge of today’s education — that was written a hundred years ago, and to find an altogether rich account of our own ideals.  As I’m starting to realize, in many ways, Dewey got there first, and if we hope to understand our own present, we’d do well to study Dewey in our past.