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An Overburdened Term: Dewey's Concept of "Experience" as Curriculum Theory

From: Education and Culture
Volume 27, Number 1, 2011
pp. 5-25 | 10.1353/eac.2011.0005

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An Overburdened Term:
Dewey's Concept of "Experience" as Curriculum Theory

From the start, John Dewey's ideas about education have been prone to misunderstanding. One of the greatest casualties has been "experience," a term so routinely misappropriated that Dewey ultimately decided to abandon it. He wrote, "I would abandon the term 'experience' because of my growing realization that the historical obstacles which prevented understanding of my use of 'experience' are, for all practical purposes, insurmountable. I would substitute the term 'culture' because with its meanings as now firmly established it can fully and freely carry my philosophy of experience" (1981, p. 361). Dewey evidently recognized that a main challenge to understanding experience was the conceptual weight the term had been made to carry. Because it was so central to his entire metaphysics, the challenge of understanding experience spills over into the project of grasping his vision for schooling, including what he was fundamentally attempting to do by employing experience in an educational sense in the first place. Adding to this challenge is the range and organization of Dewey's ideas on the matter: he sometimes wrote or lectured about experience and education together (1938), sometimes independently (1932, 1934a, 1990), and sometimes in relation to other issues (1899, 1958, 1980). He also did not always mention them directly, yet they are often implicated in discussions of other topics (1999a, 1999b). After devoting so much time to developing his concept of experience over the years, it is noteworthy that Dewey abandoned it; he might have anticipated the misconstruals that would persist throughout the latter half of the twentieth century as they did in the first.

In this article, Dewey's core educational concept of experience is interpreted in light of his broader aims for reconstructing American democracy, his critique of political economy, and his identification with anthropological thought. We mean to propose a more expansive interpretation of experience than what is commonly represented in the educational literature. We suggest that, for Dewey, experience was a polysemic term serving several functions across different philosophical concerns: [End Page 5] it tethered thinking to practical activity, invoked the interactional nature of human existence, and functioned as an integrating principle that helped reconcile contradictions among theoretical domains, from psychology to cultural-historical evolution. The concept also led Dewey to formulate a curricular logic based primarily on anthropological themes, which, although most concretely developed while he was at the University of Chicago, informed his ongoing critique of other theories that conceived of curriculum in terms of transmitting disciplinary knowledge and maximizing educational outcomes for individuals, which Dewey argued only perpetuated social problems (Westbrook, 1993). Our aim is to suggest that experience, when applied educationally, should be interpreted in light of Dewey's larger effort to establish democratic controls over an increasingly corrosive social, economic, and psychological order brought about by industrial capitalism.

Our argument is motivated by the way experience is often attributed to Dewey in the contemporary educational literature, especially in the experiential or experience-based learning (EBL) tradition, where he is frequently named as the foremost intellectual progenitor in foundational (e.g., Boud, Keogh, & Walker, 1985; Kolb, 1984; Moon, 2004) and applied texts (e.g., Beard & Wilson, 2006; Wurdinger, 2005). Despite his presumed influence in this literature, the connections between Dewey's notion of experience and his broader political, educational, and philosophical agendas are often underspecified, stripping the concept of important meaning. EBL advocates are not the sole claimants to a Deweyan heritage, however; many social justice and civic educators cite his emphasis on critical reflection and democratic life, yet they do not often make experience a central focus or emphasize his pragmatism within their discussions. For example, in the recently published Handbook of Critical Education (Apple, Au, & Gandin, 2009), Dewey's arguments regarding the relationship of education and democracy are referenced several times without indicating what they imply about a comprehensive curriculum for critical education.

We believe Dewey's educational use of experience could inform such a curriculum, but, because of existing interpretations and omissions, the concept tends to suffer from three reductions at the hands of advocates and critics alike: as an apolitical pedagogy...