A summarized reflection on John Dewey’s 1909 Moral Principles in Education.
Dewey is one of the most referenced names in education. His book Moral Principles in Education is one of his most well known works and is a valuable resource for any student of education. Yet his book does not just speak in terms of education as a separate profession. Though he does use many references to the traditional formal school system, he more so speaks of education as an integral part of any citizen’s life. Therefore, this reference would be of interest to anyone attempting to better understand what morality in learning really means. Educators, he says, are not just those that are found in the school setting, they are those responsible for creating moving ideas.
Moral Principles in Education is broken down into several parts. In each he addresses a different aspect of moral training. What is moral training? Dewey claims that “it is not out of the question to aim at making the methods of learning, of acquiring intellectual power, and of assimilating subject-matter, such that they will render behavior more enlightened, more consistent, and more vigorous than it would otherwise be” (Dewey, pg. 3). Dewey defines the concept of moral ideas as “ideas of any sort whatsoever which take effect in conduct and improve it, make it better than it otherwise would be” (Dewey, pg. 1). In other words, education should be preparing students with the proper experience and skills to make positive contributions to society as a functional social being.
Although students are learning how to act morally while they are in school, Dewey does not propone training for the future, but instead preaches preparing for the present. One of his biggest criticisms lays in the “eternal emphasis upon preparation for a remote future” (Dewey, pg. 25). This, he explains, is evident in the way that passing an examination to get a good grade, to get into a good college, to get a good job, is too relevant in the way that the education system is set up. In this system, the student loses moral power as they are never in the real thing. Instead, Dewey proposes methods that “appeal to the child’s active powers” to “shift the centre of ethical gravity from an absorption which is selfish to a service which is social” (Dewey, pg. 26). In other words, having the child utilize these skills while in the process of learning to recognize them allows their minds to make a connection with the lessons and their social life. Education, or moral training, should be experiential in nature. There is no divorce between learning and doing.
Another main concept from Moral Principles in Education is that moral training should emphasize judgement over knowledge of information. For instance, Dewey takes the case study of history to show that we can either memorize the facts of what happened, or recognize patterns and view the past as a “projected future with some elements enlarged” (Dewey, pg. 37). Using these lessons to have students recognize social forces that still, and always have been, true and influential in day to day events allows them to apply the subject of history to their social, moral, lives. In mathematics students can learn to view numbers as a “means to accomplishing an end” (Dewey, pg. 45) of practical problems referenced for use in social, moral, life etc.
All in all, the idea of a moral training and education is something that Dewey claims, needs to be brought down from higher grounds into something feasible and practical. They are not a separate subject. From his own words, “we need to translate the moral into the conditions and forces of our community life, and into the impulses of habits of the individual” (Dewey, pg. 58). The education system is both a service and a business, but moral training can be taught across all subjects and areas of learning, by any educator, whether they be the paid school teacher or grandmother.
Dewey, J. (1909). Moral Principles in Education. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.