An admirable essay on Dewey at Aeon

Draft of 2016.08.02

May include: public policyhistoryagile&c.

Several people in my feeds have mentioned this essay at Aeon:

Dewey put forth the philosophy of education that would change the world in Democracy and Education, a book that turns 100 this year. Dewey’s influence is far-reaching, but his pedagogy has been under assault for at least a generation. The United States Department of Education report A Nation at Risk (1983) signalled the rise of the anti-Dewey front, under the somewhat misleading name of the ‘education reform’ movement. The report warns that other countries will soon surpass the US in wealth and power because ‘a rising tide of mediocrity’ engulfs schools in the US. The problem, according to the report, is that US education is ‘an often incoherent, outdated patchwork quilt’. The education reform movement aims to replace that ‘patchwork quilt’—mostly made by local school boards, teachers and parents—with a more uniform system based on national standards.

The political right has often led the charge against Dewey’s legacy. In 1897, Dewey described his ‘pedagogic creed’ as ‘individualistic’ and ‘socialistic’ because it sees the need to nurture each child’s unique talents and interests in a supportive community. For both the business community and traditional-values conservatives, Dewey’s pedagogy fails to train workers, and inculcates liberal, even socialistic values. The US Chamber of Commerce and the Charles Koch-funded conservative think tank the Heartland Institute, to take just two examples, have tried to purge the US education system of its progressive elements. Similarly, in 2002, President George W Bush signed the No Child Left Behind act, an anti-Deweyan measure requiring states to implement test-based education reform.

As I read through this essay, I was reminded several times of the controversies and arguments surrounding the agile approach to work. Like Progressive views of education vs. industrialists’ and conservatives’ goals for students, it’s also cast (sometimes) as a battle between individual development and “measurable effectiveness”.

One difference, of course, is that software developers themselves get a voice in the matter, unlike the children being educated. I wonder if there would be as many children complaining bitterly about having “Deweyan Progressive education forced on them” in the 1900s, as there are software developers who seem to despise working with and around other people in an agile way.