Dewey versus Illich: Alternative Educational Utopias.

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2000

33 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)


List of contents


2. John Dewey
Educational Theory
Socialisation for Democracy

3. Ivan Illich
Deschooling Society
Socialisation for Autonomy

4. Education in Scotland Today
Issues in Education
Educational Sites and Provisions
1. Primary Education
2. Secondary Education
3. Further and Higher Education
4. Alternative Educational Provisions

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

In this paper I want to discuss two major educational theories which both had and still have an enormous impact on educational theory and practice all over the world. Looking at the American 19th/ 20th century philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey, and at Ivan Illich, a radical educationalist of the late 20th century, I want to focus on the concepts of socialisation underlying their theories. While John Dewey attempted to reform school so as to make possible “true” education in a democratic sense, Ivan Illich promoted an educational revolution with “de-schooling” as only one form of de-institutionalising society. A comparison of these two diametrically opposed approaches towards education will be followed by pointing out where, and how far, they have found their way into educational policies and systems of our days. This will provide insight into the understanding of socialisation as it is manifested in nowadays’ schooling systems in Western Europe, especially in Scotland (Great Britain).

2. John Dewey

John Dewey, born in 1859, was probably the U.S.’ most prominent professional philosopher outside the academy. He taught philosophy (including language studies, psychology and educational theory) at U.S. American universities throughout most of his life, conducted an experimental Laboratory School at the University of Chicago, and wrote regularly on current affairs and political issues. His writings on education and educational reform probably have shown to be the most influential part of his work, being taken up, or at least reacted to, by all educational thought in the Western world ever since. Dewey was concerned with designing a true education within and for a democratic society. The complexity of his work has been simplified, abridged and partly distorted by his followers and interpreters even throughout his lifetime, and he attempted to defend his visions against the appropriation of his thoughts and terms in other, distant, contexts until his death in 1952.[1]

Educational Theory

‘I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s own powers by the demands of the social situation in which he finds himself. Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling, and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs.’

[Dewey (1967), 20]

Dewey’s concept of education is characterised by a belief in human progress (from barbarism to civilisation, and from infancy to adulthood), and an idealised notion of a democratic society. He sees education as a fundamental process of forming critical, autonomous, competent and democratic members of society, thereby placing the future of society entirely into the hands of the school. Education, for him, is the only possible way to social reform without disruption of social order, and therefore, must evolve with the development of society. Its aims are to promote critical thinking and active participation in joint activities for common ends. Learning takes place in and through active social relationships, it must be a fusion of both psychological and social processes. Learning must serve a purpose beyond itself to be meaningful, and thus efficient, and it must be stimulated by the learner’s own motivation and activities. Dewey emphasises that education is not a product or commodity, but a process. As such it has no end, it is an end. Thus, he regards

‘... the very idea of education as a freeing of individual capacity in a progressive growth directed to social aims.’

[Dewey (1966), 98]

He identifies education with three basic processes:

(i) “Education as a social function”[2] means that to interact successfully in a social group forms and stimulates certain “dispositions of action”. Thus, he concludes, an individual produces a “continuity of surroundings with her own active tendencies”. He further differentiates these dispositions of action into those acquired by training, i.e. recurring to “outer changes” in behaviour only, and those acquired through education, i.e. changes in emotional and mental dispositions guided by common interest with the social environment. Education in this sense can only work through directed social interaction and communication, in “joint actions” which give a shared meaning to common experiences. Thereby education, existing in social relations, is assigned a social function in shared meaning production and interpretation of experiences and actions, evaluations, associations, standards of judgement, etc.

(ii) “Education as direction”[3] stands for assistance through co-operation, producing the “sequence and continuity of action” which is necessary to successfully perform a task. Dewey makes clear that all direction, guidance, or control has to be a function of the learner’s own activity:

‘Control, in truth, means an empathetic form of direction of powers, and covers the regulation gained by an individual through his own efforts quite as much as that brought about when others take the lead.’

[Dewey (1966), 24]

Every individual is generally interested in partaking in and sharing activities with others, searching for their approval and for identification. This way, social direction is always already exercised by group action, leading to a common understanding. He insists that all direction be but re-direction, being concerned with the development of an intrinsic and persisting direction of an individual’s dispositions. Meaning is produced by the directed use of a certain “thing” in a certain way in an “inclusive scheme of action”. In that sense, education functions to direct a learner’s activities and to form meanings and associations which will enable her[4] to use all her capabilities for her own ends, which, at the same time, are ideally those of the community.

(iii) “Education as growth”[5] refers to the power, or capacity, to grow.

‘Education is all one with growing; it has no end beyond itself. The criterion of the value of school education is the extent in which it creates a desire for continued growth and supplies means for making the desire effective in fact.’

[Dewey (1966), 52]

‘Since the young at any given time will at some later date compose the society of that period, the latter’s nature will largely turn upon the direction children’s activities were given at an earlier period. This cumulative movement of action toward a later result is what is meant by growth.’

[Dewey (1966), 41]

All growth presupposes immaturity, not in the comparative sense of incompleteness or deficiency, but as the capacity to develop. Immaturity, Dewey argues, is characterised by “dependency” and “plasticity”. The former describes “social responsiveness” of the young as a “first-order equipment for social intercourse”, as the precondition for any learning. The latter means the ability to learn from experience and form persistent dispositions from that. Plasticity can be loosely characterised as a habit of learning, which ideally never ends throughout life. Necessary for plasticity are adoptions, of both the environment to one’s own actions as well as one’s own actions to the environment. Education as growth is a process in its own right, it has no end but it is its own end.

‘To say that education is a social function, securing direction and development in the immature through their participation in the life of the group to which they belong, is to say in effect that education will vary with the quality of the life which prevails in a group.’

[Dewey (1966), 81)

Dewey’s ideal of education is a democratic and egalitarian one. He proposes two criteria for evaluating the “worth” of a social system: On the one hand, internal relations should show mutually shared interests, free participation of all members and symmetrical interactions. On the other hand, a community should have a “full and free interplay” with other forms of social associations, i.e. a community’s external relations to other communities should be build on co-operation and exchange, rather than confrontation and isolation. From that, Dewey concludes, one can see that democratic systems have shown to realise these conditions best so far in the history of mankind:

‘A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.’

[Dewey (1966), 87]

Dewey’s fundamental belief in the feasibility of a truly democratic society in this sense forms the basis of his educational theory:

‘The conception of education as a social process and function has no definite meaning until we define the kind of society we have in mind.’

[Dewey (1966), 97]

Education for democracy, for Dewey, requires free and autonomous individuals who perceive themselves and act as members of a social unity. For such an education it is necessary to stimulate critical thinking and, at the same time, to develop certain mental and emotional dispositions which lead to a common interest and joint activities in a community.

School, as the central place for education, and personified by the teacher, has to perform the following three general functions:[6]

(i) Simplification of not only the subject-matter to be taught – often inherited knowledge which is remote from everyday use – but also of social life, in such a way that pupils can cope with it according to their present abilities. This way, he assumes, children can gradually come to share in the complex interactions of social life.

‘Not sharing in them, their meaning would not be communicated to him, would not become part of his own mental disposition.’

[Dewey (1966), 20]

(ii) School (in effect, teachers and makers of curricula) also has to select the “unworthy features” of the environment from influence upon “mental habitudes”.

‘It establishes a purified medium of action. Selection not only aims at simplifying but at weeding out what is undesirable.’

[Dewey (1966), 20]

This way, Dewey sees the chance of social change through the transmission of what is progressive and democratic in society without inheriting all its faults and inequalities as well.

(iii) The third function of school is to balance the various social influences, so as to level out existing inequalities by bringing into contact all different strata of society. The connection and increasing interrelation of different groups, experiences, interests, will eventually lead to a broader common understanding and interest in ever growing and increasingly complex social orders.

Dewey considers this role of education in society a social necessity, just as understanding of the processes of learning is a psychological necessity. Grading and promotion should be determined by reference to a child’s social abilities, curricula designed as a gradual differentiation according to the psychological development with relation to social life. Subjects must not be the centre of correlation, but the child’s social activities and experiences instead.[7]

‘I believe that the only way to make the child conscious of his social heritage is to enable him to perform those fundamental types of activity which make civilization what it is.’

[Dewey (1967), 26; my emphasis]

Education is the directing of a child’s “natural instincts” towards autonomy and growth as a social being. Progress is not the succession of studies, but the development of “new attitudes towards, and new interests in, experience”.[8]

Methods for achieving these aims are the following: Intellectual and rational processes of learning must be bound up with actions or else they become “arbitrary symbols”. Manifestations are not to be regarded as the ends of learning, but as signs of power and growth. Learning is based on scientific inquiry and participation in joint activities, it takes place through performance of meaningful actions as social functions in social settings. He wants to work primarily with methods of observation, experimenting, taking record and controlled reflection.

‘I believe that the psychological and social sides are organically related and that education cannot be regarded as a compromise between the two, or a superimposition of one upon the other.’

[Dewey (1967), 21]

Socialisation for Democracy

Dewey’s idea of an ideal society is based on a strong belief in the progress of mankind and society. This notion of human progress links up with his idea of education as growth, as a capacity for virtually unlimited improvement of the individual through education. According to his criteria of internal freedom, external freedom and commonality, he considers a participatory representative democracy to be the most advanced and, therefore, most desirable form of social organisation of his time.[9] Such a society needs educated and autonomous subjects who participate in the democratic processes and who share a common interest in social life. Education is to provide society with these subjects: By the processes of transmission, mediation, selection and direction of activities, critical and yet democratically minded individuals who understand themselves as part of a community with shared values and interests are the desired output of Dewey’s educational system. For him education is the primary means of introducing social reform:

‘I believe that education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform [...] and that the adjustment of individual activity on the basis of this social consciousness is the only sure method of social reconstruction.’

[Dewey (1967), 30]

‘Such a society must have a type of education which gives individuals a personal interest in social relationships and control, and the habits of mind which secure social changes without introducing disorder.’

[Dewey (1966), 99]

Accordingly, education is primarily a social process where all learning is to be embedded in social settings and made meaningful as social functions. Its aims are to develop a state of self-control through social and democratic dispositions of habit and mind. Thus, social control is self-control, to be learned in social relationships in a school environment as well as outside of school. The primary function of education as a social institution, then, seems to be to transmit a trust in democracy as essentially the best form of social organisation, which must be improved in detail. In school, children are to learn the meaning of democratic forms of interaction and a common set of values through participation in social processes. For these ends the learning process has to be directed, stimuli selected and social complexity mediated by the teacher in the interest of the child’s own capabilities and directions of growth:

‘Of these three words, direction, control, and guidance, the last best conveys the idea of assisting through cooperation the natural capacities of the individuals guided.’

[Dewey (1966), 23]

School must be designed as a form of community life where joint activities and shared experiences build the basis for a democracy founded on consensus.

Mind as a concrete thing is precisely the power to understand things in terms of the use made of them; a socialized mind is the power to understand them in terms of the use to which they are turned in joint activities or shared situations. And mind in this sense is the method of social control.

[Dewey (1966), 33; Dewey’s emphasis]

There are a number of conflicting claims as to the role of education in Dewey’s theory. Firstly, while such a participatory learning of the ways of society certainly equips children with the necessary skills to cope with their environment, can it really develop critical and autonomous thinking which would enable them to work out alternative ways of social organisation? How far, then, does this conception of education provide the basis for social change rather than reproduce structures – with their inequalities and power relations – as they exist?

And secondly, how does Dewey conceptualise authority in education? On the one hand, he wants the teacher to be a facilitator of democratic activity while delegating her own direct social control to that of the group.

‘The pressure that comes from the fact that one is let into the group action by acting in one way and shut out by acting in another way is unremitting. What is called the effect of imitation is mainly the product of conscious instruction and of selective influence exercised by the unconscious confirmations and ratifications of those with whom one associates.’

[Dewey (1966), 35]

Even though such an exposure does teach children the way society often works, it does not promote individual freedom and diversity of interests and abilities in a group. On the other hand, Dewey is very clear that the teacher should be in charge of the learning process, i.e. its organisation, selection, and mediation, as outlined earlier. For Dewey, social and scientific learning must be bound up with one another at all times. Consequently, he is not at all clear about the desired form of control in the classroom. However, he wants to make sure that there is control – not externally by force, but internally by the formation of habits, dispositions, understandings and social identities. The teacher is assigned an extremely high responsibility in this model, being in charge of the stimuli, processes and outcomes of education.

Furthermore, this socialisation process presupposes an unquestioned authority of the existing cultural inheritance and organisation which transport and ensure its reproduction. Dewey is explicit about this claim:

‘A body of knowledge is transmitted, the legitimacy of which is guaranteed by the fact that the physical equipment in which it is incarnated leads to results that square with the other facts of nature.’

[Dewey (1966), 37]

In other words, Dewey argues for the legitimacy of the rules of the fittest, of the superiors in society. His argument can only be understood from his idealised picture of an achieved democratic society – a picture which was and still is unrealistic and politically and sociologically naive.


[1] cf. Tiles (1992), xxi-xxx

[2] cf. Dewey (1966), 11ff.

[3] cf. Dewey (1966), 23ff.

[4] Hereafter, I will use feminine pronouns whenever referring to both sexes in general.

[5] cf. Dewey (1966), 41ff.

[6] cf. Dewey (1966), 19/ 20

[7] cf. Dewey (1967), 25ff.

[8] cf. Dewey (1967), 27

[9] cf. Dewey (1967), 86ff.

Excerpt out of 33 pages


Dewey versus Illich: Alternative Educational Utopias.
University of Glasgow  (Faculty of Education)
The Learning Society: issues in modern education
1,0 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
538 KB
Dewey, Illich, Alternative, Educational, Utopias, Learning, Society
Quote paper
Michael Obenaus (Author), 2000, Dewey versus Illich: Alternative Educational Utopias., Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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