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John dewey and teaching morals

John Dewey and Teaching Morals

Webster defines philosophy as "the study of the principles underlying conduct, thought, and the nature of the universe" (Webster’s New World Dictionary and Thesaurus, Macmillian: New York, NY, 1999). Dewey understood the subject of philosophy to be the experience and its problems. For Dewey, the method of philosophy was in the assessment of experiences. It was not some metaphysical achievement of, or quest for, certainty. It does not have its origins in doubt nor does it presume to illuminate some eternal truth. This is in true keeping with his pragmatist attitude.

Additionally, Dewey saw philosophy as empirical and critical, a step-by-step way of intelligently assessing experienced values, making judgmental conclusions about these values, and exploring the methodology of reaching those conclusions. It is easy to see why Dewey focused so much effort on attempting to analyze and explain the importance of education, including the moral principles of children.

John Dewey’s Moral Principles in Education was an analysis of moral education in schools and society. For Dewey, the moral development of children and adults was a never ending process. Dewey allowed that every societal ill involving, seemingly, a lack of good judgment, had definite ties to the lack of ethical education in our society’s groups. Schools have always been expected to reinforce, supplement, sometimes even substitute for, the moral education children should acquire at home or church (Alan, 205). Dewey allowed that maybe the greatest misconception about moral education is the belief that it can be taught as a separate subject unrelated to all other subjects in the curriculum. By drilling and preaching, patterns of acceptable moral behavior will be blazoned in those kids subjected to these tactics. How funny the idea that a school might offer courses in Elementary Virtue, Intermediate Virtue, or Advanced Virtue. Even today, much of our explicit moral teaching, even when it is not sermonizing, suggests that it is a special subject, separate from others (Schilpp, 259).

The first important point that Dewey makes is that moral principles are an integral part of the social life of mankind; that the school is a form of man’s social life, not a preparation for one. Although the teaching of morals in children may be distinguished from what they learn and how they learn, it is never t be separated from it. Moral attitudes are acquired in school throughout the entire course of the education. That is, as the child learns different curriculum, he is also acquiring moral principles and applying them to new ideas and social interactions (Ozmon, Craver 151).

Dewey’s approach therefore undermines the conception of morality as something brought in from outside the experience of the child, as merely a command from some adult authority reinforced by fear or bribes (Democracy, 93). What is true for adults is also true, within the limits of their growth and understanding, of children. "The moral life is lived only as the individual

appreciates for himself the ends for which he is working and does his work in a personal spirit of interest and devotion to these ends" (Moral Principles, 117-121).

Dewey explains that the child truly learns this moral sense, as evidenced in his behavior and interactions with others, by being trained in all areas that elicit interaction and testing or carrying out ideas (Stuhr 326). In other words, by being taught in a methodology that allows the child to put into practice the concepts he is being instructed. Instead of being merely told, the child is encouraged to problem solve by himself and sometimes by interacting with others. This helps instill a strong moral foundation that extends beyond mimicking adult behavior. If this type of instruction is provided through the guidance of a good teacher, certain habitual behavior patterns are formed. These "reliable means of action" develop within the child perseverance, conscientiousness, fidelity, neatness, precision, concentration, cooperation, and team spirit, and other desirable traits (Moral Principles, 26-29).

We may summarize Dewey’s view by saying that the moral principles of education are to be developed through acceptance of the "morality of the task" (Moral Principles, 31). Granted that we can develop allegiance to a set of values derived from the morality of the task, are they sufficient for recognizing and accepting the values implied by the task of morality? Morality is not a matter of mere behavior, it is a matter of feeling too. Character is defined not only by the traits derived from mastering a task or problem but by qualities that reveal

attentiveness to, and consideration for the feelings, needs, and rights of other people. Character has an internal driver, reflected in the desire to be fair to others, in actions that show kindness, tact, service to the community, sometimes to the point of sacrifice. This is what many people understand as the scope and tasks of moral education.

Dewey allows that in order to transition from what we have called the morality of the task to the task of morality, one must teach all subjects in such a way as to highlight their social and personal aspects, emphasizing how human beings are affected by them, and discussing the responsibilities that flow from the inter-relatedness. In the teaching of geography, "the ultimate significance of lake, river, mountain, and plain is not physical but social; it is the part which it plays in modifying and directing human relationships" (Moral Principles, 5). In teaching history "past events are made the means of understanding the presents" (Moral Principles, 6).

For Dewey judgement and value coexist. They are dependent upon one another. "Judgment as the sense of relative values, involves ability to select, to discriminate, by reference to a standard" (Ethical Principles, 150). Where we establish the standard that Dewey refers to depends on the playing field in which we are judging. Where humans are associated "in a democratic and progressive society" the standard is twofold, the degree of shared interests, and the freedom to develop new interests, both shared and personal (Moral Principles, 12).

This involves the development of informed attitudes and dispositions that are responsive to others, susceptible to their feelings and needs. Dewey is very

clear about this, "just as the material of objects of knowledge is related to the sense, so the material of ethical knowledge is related to emotional responsiveness" (Westbrook, 211). Dewey uses the expression "ethical knowledge" to make a point that the responsiveness must be intentional and not just emotional. When we empathize with others, we must be careful to look at the whole picture, how the individual was hurt and what his reaction to our intervention will be. Otherwise we appear sentimental or worse, fake.

Dewey maintained that feelings must also play a part in the moral judgment of another’s actions. If a child were incapable of leaning about and responding to the needs of others, based on his own assessment of the situation, then Dewey would allow that the child would be retarded or abnormal. Feeling precedes and accompanies thinking in the child’s interaction with his world. For in the normal course of his growth, that is how he distinguishes between inanimate things and living things, namely animals and people. Even though the child has the innate ability to respond to others, unless he is properly taught he may end up treating people as animals and animals as things. What Dewey is saying sounds paradoxical because the tradition has been to separate ethical knowledge from all other knowledge, and interpret moral principles as something transcendental/ metaphysical. For Dewey however, what we learn and how we learn in a social context have a bearing upon subsequent conduct in all our relations with our fellow man. Without the spontaneity of the child, intelligent instruction cannot channel it into constructive activities and/or cooperation with others. This does not mean that traditional subject matter and discipline should be neglected, but that they are geared toward the child’s needs and interests in such a way that they hold the child’s interest and imagination. Dewey held that leaning may not always be fun but it can be interesting and therefore enjoyable (Fishman and McCarthy, 30-33).

One can raise a more formidable challenge to Dewey’s account of the nature of moral education. Character consists in activity on behalf of intelligently conceived goals that we accept after careful consideration. Moral courage is important in this consideration. The moral person according to Dewey "must have the power to stand up and count for something in the actual conflicts of life"

(Tiles, 142). This element is embraced in the connotation of the expression "force of character". A person who says one thing and believes another, lacks a "force of character" (Dewey, Moral Principles, 32).

There is no character without intelligence. Granted that without capacity for sympathy, empathy, tact, there is no moral character. Still what about the educated person who lacks force of character, who is fearful of standing up to danger and the threats of danger from the mob or the crowd or a tyrant? The movie "Twelve Angry Men" comes to mind when I think about lack of force of character. Henry Fonda was faced with a crowd of men intent on convicting a man of murder based on prejudices. He maintained his beliefs, morals and ethics, offering logical and intelligent arguments; thereby revealing his force of character. Even when we acknowledge that morality coexists with life, this does not carry with it the requirement for courage to act on the moral insight. Recognizing that human beings differ in their reactions to danger, pain, and uncertainty, Dewey would probably rely on education to reinforce our own reactions to situations that arise and reasoning for those actions. Education must also develop the willingness to take risks on behalf of our moral vision, otherwise we betray ourselves and others too.

John Dewey does not offer a methodology for this. Sidney Hook asks, "Can it be done by providing models of behavior, finding and celebrating them in history, art, and literature? Can situations be organized in which individuals can test themselves and learn both from their failures and their unwillingness to risk

failure?" (Hook, iv) This should be examined further. Dewey’s approach does provide insights and principles that no doubt will have an impact on any proposed method of overcoming the gap between the well-intentioned commitment to intelligent policies, and their courageous and effective execution. If knowledge is to make a difference in creating a better world or resisting evil and that which can be construed as wrong, then education must find the ways.

Pragmatists and Dewey believed education to be a necessity of life (Scheffler, 212). It allows people to face the problems that they may encounter as they interact with their environment. For centuries, cultures have survived due to their education process, ensuring the culture will continue through subsequent generations. This means transferring ideas, habits, activities, thoughts, and feelings from elders to the young ones, establishing the continuance of one’s heritage. Without this transcension of social ideas, the

social life would not continue. Dewey upheld that education, particularly the moral aspect thereof, was paramount to life itself.


Ozmon, Howard, and Samuel Craver. Philosophical Foundations of Education. Columbus: Prentice Hall, 1999.

Schilpp, Paul Arthur, ed. The Philosophy of John Dewey. Lassie: Open Court, 1951.

Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. New York: MacMillan, 1944.

Dewey, John. Moral Principles in Education. Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1909.

Stuhr, John, ed. Classical American Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Tiles, J.E. Dewey: The Arguments of the Philosophers. London: Routledge, 1988.

Fishman, Stephen and Lucille McCarthy. John Dewey and the Challenge of Classroom Practice. New York: Teacher’s College Press, 1998.

Westbrook, Robert. John Dewey and the American Democracy. Ithaca: Cornell university Press, 1991.

Hook, Sidney. John Dewey: An Intellectual Portrait. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1971.

Scheffler, Israel. Four Pragmatists: A critical Introduction to Pierce, Hames, Mead, and Dewey. New York: Humanities Press, 1974.

Agnes, Michael, ed. Webster’s New World Dictionary and Thesaurus. New York: Macmillan, 1996.

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