Imagination & Experience: John Dewey

Experience and Education, written in 1938 by John Dewey, was read as a result of reading Maxine Greene. She referenced him often in her writings, including this sentiment:

Consciousness always has an imaginative phase, and imagination; more than any other capacity, breaks through the “inertia of habit” (1934, p. 272).

dewey.pngDewey’s book is short and the commentary on the back cover calls it his most concise statement of his ideas. Well, it may be concise for Dewey but for me his writing was dense and his sentence structure was awkward. By the second to last chapter I was growing impatient with his prose and skipped that entire chapter. Nonetheless, I did benefit from the reading, and here are some of his ideas, mostly from the early chapters, which made an impression on me.

Educational reform based on opposition to what is current in education results in developing a potentially negative construct. Education has tended to be the handing down of information. Education based on experience will be perhaps more beneficial as it helps prepare students for what they will face. Therefore, it is necessary to have a philosophy of experience.

Of importance is the quality of the experience. Is it immediately agreeable or disagreeable, and how does it/will it influence future experiences? Dewey goes on to mention the experiential continuum.

And then there is the following quote, which resonated with me as a teacher and parent, and made me think of those teachers who practice their craft in one way only and do not take into consideration the differences or needs of those they teach.

The principle of interaction makes it clear that failure of adaptation of material to needs and capacities of individuals may cause an experience to be non-educative quite as much as failure of an individual to adapt himself to the material.

The Outdoor Education Research & Evaluation Center has extensive pages about Dewey, including a number of summaries of Experience and Education, a multitude of pages about Experiential Learning & Experiential Education, as well as pages about John Dewey’s Philosophy of Education.

While Dewey is perhaps more commonly linked these days with the idea of experiential education, he did a lot of writing about the arts. The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an excellent article discussing Dewey’s Aesthetics, in which much is made of imagination. (I smiled to see that the author had similar feelings to mine regarding the accessibility of Dewey’s written words.) The discussion of imagination begins with part 2, Early Psychological Aesthetic Theory, and makes note of Dewey’s books, Art as Experience and Psychology, neither of which I have read.

According to this article, Dewey defines more than one stage of imagination, with creative imagination being the top level.

The highest form of imagination, creative imagination, allows us to penetrate into the hidden meaning of things through finding sensuous forms that are both highly revealing and pleasurable. The creative imagination makes its objects anew: it separates and combines, but not mechanically. It senses the relations of parts to the development of the whole and it raises details to the level of the universal. It develops the ideal aspect of things, freeing it from the contingent.


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