Category Archives: John Dewey

The Death of Memory

In education—as perhaps in all things—we are what we do. John Dewey thought so, and Marshall McLuhan believed the message of any class resides in the sort of learning valued there. Without making a single explicit statement about what’s important, teachers implant habits that shape students’ sense of what learning is.

In Neil Postman’s 1969 treatise on education, Teaching As a Subversive Activity, he looked at classrooms of the time and saw education centered on content. He observed students facing forward, watching and listening to their instructors transmitting knowledge gleaned from authorities greater than themselves. Later, he said, students would be asked to demonstrate their own belief in these authorities on tests or in other assessments. “Mostly they are required to remember,” Postman said, “They are almost never required to make observations, formulate definitions, or perform any intellectual operations that go beyond repeating what someone else says is true.”

This educational model may persist in places, but at my school, observing, deriving definitions and rules, and performing useful intellectual operations seem commonplace and central. Many teachers regard class as a sort of mental training ground where students exercise their ability to observe, to compare and contrast, to discern patterns in data, to recognize blueprints behind the solutions they find. The McLuhanian message of current classroom practice is that knowledge is less important than using it. A well-trained brain is a tool, and improving its operation is the worthiest aspiration of education.

I’m generally happy with this emphasis on doing. It makes teaching fun, practical and variable, open to inventive and interesting activities. Most importantly, current techniques put students at the center of education.

But I’m not entirely happy. Postman also noted every change produces unanticipated consequences, losses as well as gains. While our methods encourage resourceful and flexible minds, the popularity of emphasizing experience over content, training over knowledge, and application over retention undermines the crucial skill Postman addressed originally, remembering. Students spend so much time using information that their memories are largely untested and untrained and certainly undervalued.

Put data to interpret or analyze before my students, and they are impressive. Ask them to repeat a procedure they’ve practiced multiple times, and they hum like machines. However, if you ask them to recall the content we encountered last month, last week, or even yesterday, they may flounder. Many read for the overall plot and broad themes, not to remember particulars. Most feel responsible for broad concepts and patterns first. The only important details are ones with immediate use. And, once used, most of those details slip away.

Sometimes they remember last night’s reading the way you might recall a movie watched some time ago. When I take them to the brink of a scene or piece of dialogue, they suddenly retrieve what’s next. Information that’s out of context, however, often appears elusive. They struggle with questions like “Who can describe another time Huck apologizes?” and “What are some words Huck used to describe his father in this chapter?” At my school, I am one of the few English teachers who still gives tests—“I don’t care whether they remember names” some colleagues say—but when I do, even my best students stumble on fill-in-blanks and other objective assessments. “I always do so badly on the trivia sections of your tests,” one protested recently.

Some of my students still seek the pride of knowing and feel compelled to attain a thorough and exact memory of books, but some of their peers regard them skeptically and find their compulsion strange and suspect… surely brown-nosing. These skeptics need frequent reminders that discerning interpretations arise from discerning knowledge. They take notes if I insist, but they have trouble judging relevance for themselves. Often they assume someone somewhere has already written it down. They can seek information from the electronic devices circling them like satellites. There are e-texts ready for searching and, should they be stuck on what the author is trying to accomplish, some e-source is ready to explain and point out relevant details they’ve forgotten or overlooked. The goal is to remember content until the assessment or exam—if it hasn’t been replaced with a project—and then jettison it.

Please understand, I’m not insulting my students’ intelligence. Quite the contrary, many are smarter than I am and, properly trained, many could have memories far more powerful than mine. But remembering just isn’t that important in current education. Though teachers still regard learning as cumulative, it adds up differently. And, taking cues from their teachers, students seek to accumulate study skills rather than knowledge. They regard the “stuff’ we study as training material, a means to an end. One welcome side effect of putting practice ahead of memory is that students rarely ask, “Why do we need to know this?” Their assumption—and possibly our assumption—is that they don’t.

And maybe educators should be glad the bad old days of memorizing and regurgitating masses of arcane information are largely gone. Still, I wish we could restore some of that old school emphasis on remembering. As much as I enjoy the improvisational activity of my classroom and believe training brains should be the chief aspiration of education, I suspect I might enjoy teaching even more with exact detail to discuss and debate. For me, memory is a foundation education can’t do without.

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Filed under Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, John Dewey, Laments, Memory, Modern Life, Neil Postman, Teaching, Thoughts

Changing Minds

An essay in ten parts:


“Would you?”

“Would I what?’


“I don’t understand.”

“Could somebody make you answer ‘Yes’  to ‘Would you?’ no matter what?”

“Always and without question?”




Mrs. Mitchell was a boxy woman.  To a fourth grader, she was a big box, but she had rounded edges and used her soft, smiling side with me.  She was not, however, immune to policy.  She had to insist I eat the square of boiled cabbage on my tray.  It smelled of eggs gone wrong or the local refinery’s worst day.

Generally, I’d drink my milk quickly, and when Mrs. Mitchell wasn’t looking, I’d hide a couple of forkfuls in the carton.  That would be enough for Mrs. Mitchell to move on in her smiling patrol, but one day she caught me stowing some cabbage and told me to eat the rest.  I could see she wanted to be nice, and I told her it would make me sick.  She asked if I’d ever tasted boiled cabbage.  When I said no, she asked how a fourth grader could find out what he enjoyed if he never tried new food?

I started to gag on the first bite, my stomach lurching as if it meant to start a race without me.  The smell—a cloud of sulfurous purgative—set me off, and the texture—I imagined the inside of bugs—finished me off.  I survived the second bite, but nothing could hold my gut back.

Mrs. Mitchell stayed out of my lunch after that.


My workplace isn’t extraordinary.  Meetings with colleagues slide through patches of absolute and smooth solidarity, but when we disagree, the brakes lock and everything pitches to a washboard stop.

We have convictions.  Each of us is married to his or her own way, and opposition turns us to the task of persuading others.  We have reasons, we assert, and as they reel out, listeners busy themselves with refutation.  We normally conclude to use our own best judgment, but when we don’t, our discussions depart from the matter at hand.  We initiate a quest for dominance no one can admit.  We discover whose point of view will subsume or overpower the others, which of us will receive concessions and which of us will not.

Don’t get the idea I’m innocent in this.  In fact, I may be the worst.


Scientists who study wolves have soured on “alpha wolf.”  They use the term to describe breeders, those who contribute genetic material to the perpetuation of the pack.  No one wolf holds that post, and, though in larger packs one breeder might defer to another in a recognizable hierarchy, survival in the wild often relies on diversity, redundancy.

Behaviorally, however, dominance and submission appear often.  One wolf raises his ears and tail, another flattens his ears and lowers his tail, takes a lower stance, crouches, rolls over to expose his belly, looks away slightly, and, in some cases, dribbles some urine.


Children learn early on that friends acquiesce.  When I was eight, Harley Ross always wanted to play baseball.  My hand-eye coordination was poor, the game was complicated and strange with just two players, and usually involved much too much exertion for a hot Texas summer.  Still, I played, pitching to Harley over and over as he filled and emptied the bases with ghost runners.

By the time I came up to bat, Harley had bored of the game.  He’d ask if I wanted to come inside, drink some lemonade, and watch T.V.  I had no trouble acquiescing there.


Can anyone convince anyone else how to feel?  What if people are only susceptible to persuasion when they are indifferent or confused?


John Dewey, the champion of progressive education and philosopher, wrote a letter to his wife Alice on October 10, 1894 about an encounter with Jane Addams, the Chicago reformer and pioneer of social work.  Addams was “blue” Dewey said, because she’d lost the financial support of an important local businessman over her remarks about the Pullman strike.  The supporter told Addams she shouldn’t have mixed herself in something that was none of her business.  In a clumsy attempt at consolation, Dewey suggested the antagonism of institutions like labor and capital were not only inevitable but also necessary to arriving at the truth.  Dissent, he suggested, is the engine of change.

Addams’ response, Dewey told his wife, was startlingly calm and composed.  She said that antagonism wasn’t inevitable at all and, in fact, was always pointless and detrimental.  Antagonism, she asserted, never arises entirely from “objective differences” because those could be resolved simply or, if left alone, blend over time. Addams believed antagonism arose instead from “A person’s mixing in his own personal reactions—the extra emphasis he gave the truth, the enjoyment he took in doing a thing because it was unpalatable to others, or the feeling that one must show his own colors and not be a moral coward.”  Every argument, in others words, invariably reverts to emotion and ego.

On whether antagonism was necessary to the growth of ideas, Addams told Dewey conflict was, “Always unreal and instead of adding to the recognition of meaning, it delayed and distorted it.”

Dewey tells his wife, “She converted me internally… I never had anything take hold of me so, and at the time it didn’t impress me as anything wonderful; it was only the next day it began to dawn on me.”  Two days later he writes Jane Addams to apologize and says, “Not only is actual antagonism bad, but the assumption that there is or may be antagonism is bad.”

I wish I had been there.  One great brain moving another with barely a nudge.


Sasha Denninger hated the way I talked, so she decided that we shouldn’t see one another anymore.  I was always so oblique, always speaking through analogy or metaphor so she didn’t ever really know what I was thinking or feeling.  She thought I was funny and could be charming and affectionate, but none of that was going to overcome her feeling that I was too intellectual and abstract.  She liked smart people, she insisted, but she wanted someone who was more than smart.

I hadn’t seen the moment coming.  While we’d had arguments, they’d always ended well with one of us apologizing and the other taking part of the blame him or herself.  I thought maybe this time, the same would happen, and then we’d go on trying to be a couple.

But, as Sasha spoke, I played with the frayed edge of a throw blanket on her couch.  I looked around the apartment and searched for titles I knew on the bookcase.  I glanced at her to see if she was crying or had cried.  Her mascara clumped slightly in her lower eyelash, but no tears.

“I hoped I might rub off on you somehow,” she was saying.

“I think you have—maybe I don’t show it as much as I should, but you have.  Don’t you think we’ll both rub off on each other?”

“God, I hope not,” she said.


A moment comes in racing when, if you’re side by side and stride for stride with another runner, you feel yourself inching ahead or giving way.  My coaches always prepared me for those moments with inspirational speeches about “the will to win” and “courage in the face of adversity” and “intestinal fortitude,” but none of those speeches ever meant much when the moment arrived.  I was in a different world.  After the fact, I could lament or celebrate the outcome of those contests with stories as carefully constructed as my coaches’ speeches, but, at the time, in my heart of hearts, I felt they turned out as they were meant to.


I picture cavemen a lot.  They are lounging at the opening of their home and staring at a sky pinked by the sun dipping below the rocks.  The air is starting to cool, and they begin to think about fire, the magic and color of its fluid shapes, the smoke that scents their hair, the heat with a face that has to be turned to, the feel of fur and flesh as they gather around it, the sound of laughter and then sleep.

Probably it wasn’t like that, or not like that often.  They must have struggled, not just for enough to eat or for shelter from heat, cold, and violent weather, but also for peace among themselves. Assent.

But, in my fantasy, one hand gathering wood turns into many, and one smile ignites many more.  They fall in, agreeing without words to what is best done and therefore needs to be done.  They accept the battles they will create unawares, but each hopes to win at least enough to survive.

We just want to win.

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Filed under Anxiety, Arguments, Buddhism, Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Hope, Jane Addams, John Dewey, Laments, Memory, Modern Life, Persuasion, Recollection, Thoughts, Work