Ross School - Senior Project 2007-08

Student: Christian Scheider

Mentor: Primary:       Kenneth Sacks

             Substantial:   Patricia Lein


Title: Socrates, Dewey, Philosophies of Education


My paper is an analysis and production of educational philosophy, of and inspired by specific readings (noted in the works cited) of Socrates and Dewey. This includes discussions in the following order: Firstly, the concepts of being, becoming and chora, Socrates understanding of the universe, secondly, his Cave Allegory, arguably the premiere metaphor for education in the western world and thirdly, the concept of being a midwife to wisdom, or the Socratic method. 

The second part of the paper looks at John Dewey. It begins by reconciling the individual with Socrates’ republic, and the inherent dangers of such an application in the modern world. It then moves to look at the underlying distinction as such an argument, between development vs. formation, two oppositional forces in education philosophy. After this, it looks at Dewey's experiential model, as it reconnects education and experience. Finally in the Dewey section, I analyze the implied dangers within Dewey's writing in the matters of curriculum, specifically, its reification, seeing the enemy of independence within educational systems.

In the third and final part of the paper, I attempt to synthesize the insights of these two philosophers, separated by over a thousand years of history, but connected in their contributions to what is, as it is proclaimed to be, a synthetic vision of the educative process. This claim represents my own notes on the progressive model, both as it is defined now, and as it might strive to be.


Socrates, Dewey, Philosophies of Education


Why educational philosophy? It began as a way to vindicate myself and my different experiences and understandings of school. My background is varied and absurd. I have attended 5 different private schools. I had to ask myself, was I going to be stuck in between all of these institutions? I had one foot one place, one foot in another, and I running out of legs. I felt as though I had to be constantly justifying myself to the other, like being almost caught cheating, living with a wife wile sleeping a lover.

Then school collapsed, I join a totally different one in my 11th grade year, and there are the SATs. The final straw upon my new camels back. And it broke it. I had had enough with mandates. I had had enough of busyness, and I had had enough with answering to others without them ever having to really having to answer to me. I was an egotistical maniac, and bad at it. I might not get anywhere, but I did not want to be in that room on that Saturday morning on Shelter Island ever again in my life. So I had a new plan. I snuck by my 11th grade year, declined my AP lit final, and began to plan for my senior year. I needed to be in good enough standing. My plan was as follows: I would begin to do the assignments I wished I had been assigned, and  begin to answer the questions I wished I had been asked instead to the one those that were assigned to me.  I was going to do it for my own sake, and if it worked, it worked, and if it didn't, it didn't.

Senior Project fit wonderfully into that plan. I could do a project on my plan. What I wanted to work on, more then anything else for reasons I did not at the time consciously understand, was to define, or re-define, my own past, so as to make informed decisions about my education. I wanted to take ownership of it, not just do better at it. I wanted to set for myself what better really meant.

It was around this initial moment I was introduced to philosophy. I had never imagined this endeavor to be a philosophic one, but, as Dewey would say,

I had developed a genuine inquiry, and because of that, I was wiling to do whatever it meant to tackle it. I had found good parameters for myself to “experience” education in.

It was good because as a tool, it could open doors without touching them.

It could allow me to escape people, money, and institutions and think about how my questions might apply universally.  I had found something that could help me address my real question: What is good education?

I am now going to read some of my work. The following thoughts represent a sort of hypothetical discussion between the principles of two distinct and related aspects of educational philosophy. On the one hand, the power of the mind to overcome its inherent limitations and to strive for wisdom, and the other, a most inspired method towards such an effort, experience. 

First I read Socrates’ Cave Allegory. It was more abstract then other educational philosophies, but, as I discovered in my subsequent readings, connected and invariably affected most others that followed it. The allegory uses the metaphor of shadows, fires and sunlight to depict the development of the mind. Respectively, they each are representative of a stage in a beautifully constructed allegory of the mind. Firstly, shadow, for the senses and our dependence upon them. Secondly, fire, as the shadows ‘caster,’ our understanding of the science behind what we sense. But finally Socrates’ most important contribution to the history of western educational philosophy, was the

Sun. It represents the pure, ideal conception of everything in the universe, including the “Cave” below it, our world. These beautiful conceptions are the prototypes off of which all things in our cave are based. It is the home of truth, good and beautiful.

It is through these stages that Socrates constructs an allegory that compactly summarizes the internal and external worlds, that of our universe in which we reside and that of our conceptual natures which we, through practice, may escape to. In an effort to create an education that takes us through these stages, that can teach such transitions, it was Socrates’ intention to make us aware of both. Socrates’ allegory is an elevation from the necessities of survival. It is the first recorded educational philosophy, one that describes two realms, one of the sensual world and the other of the conceptual.

If we are to grant Socrates any merit for his described transitions through the “Cave”, if we attribute wisdom to those who have ventured beyond the cave into the conceptual and intellectual realm, then we must endeavor to construct a method that leads to this “Sun”. It is in such an effort, whether purposefully or not, that the 80-year-old American philosopher John Dewey did just that.

Ironically, and in contrast to Socrates Republic, Dewey proposed a system of learning that could never be codified. Expressed clearly through his belief in the value of experience, John Dewey provided an educational philosophy that essentially removed predetermination of study from the equation. As Socrates claimed to never have known anything, and therefore could never have been able to teach, so too did Dewey see that nothing could be taught from without, but only could be “experienced” within. In the world outside of academia, often it is through a sort of “dissatisfied” understanding of something that we are earnestly motivated to know more about it, often leading to an equally valid offshoot. It is in this light that it becomes possible to discern the power of natural curiosity as a means towards intellectual advancement.

However, unlike Socrates, Dewey did not separate intellectual discovery from sensual discovery. Dewey believed that each person should take advantage of the innate passion for discovery this sensual world provides. They should create a habit of such inquires, basing their education upon successive experiences. The pupil ought to have a goal or problem, not for teacher or authority, but simply for himself or herself.

Hopefully, the habit would be so well established that it could be used to transition from tier to tier of the cave, each offering inspiration to venture to the next. Where Socrates, who was admittedly afraid of the natural sway of sense for its ability to fool the mind, shunned the ‘shadows” of  ‘Cave’ experience, Dewey utilized them. Dewey believed that in order to understand the truth of a concept, one must have a foundation in that concepts manifestations. Reverence for conceptual truth could only be established properly by using sense as propulsion towards it. To empower ourselves -- which is the goal of the progressive educational endeavor -- we must capitalize on what our senses can provide. Dewey, with remarkable intuition, suggested that we utilize the Cave and our dependence upon it as means of transition though and eventually outside it. He simply recognized the senses as a motivational force in discovery and innovation, and imposed a self-reflective habit upon them.  In doing this, Dewey hypothesized that man could then understand the remote and abstract by having first thoroughly experienced the immediate.

“The source of whatever is dead, mechanical and formal in schools is found precisely in the subordination of the life and experience of the child to the curriculum.”1

We must “defetishize” the notion of curriculum as we know it. It must be reconstructed. If we are to lend credibility to the great thinkers of this presentations focus, our notion of curriculum cannot afford to remain. If we take a closer look into what Progressivism is - in both the light of student and their experiences, and teacher and their guidance within them- curriculum must provide a goal that incorporates both. It must facilitate genuine experience, and provide the environment necessary for the art of progressive teaching.


 Page 13, The Child and the Curriculum, See Works Cited

A curriculum is a means of limiting study. Limitation acts as a parameter for the education it provides. It serves as a pathway to knowledge, available through its pre-established track. Consider the word “curriculum.” Taken literally, it is from the Latin racetrack. Curriculum is a streamlined, universal path, a way of getting from the start to finish - infancy to adulthood - in the hope of the individual becoming part of the human community.

But these connotations of curriculum do not fit into progressivism. As it is manifest in the educational environment, the heart of progressivism is genuine, earnest inquiry. Inquiry is the way we experience what we are educated in, what

Dewey saw as the beginning of good experience. It must be asked, “How can a curriculum and genuine inquiry be reconciled?” If you provide the inquiry, how can it be genuine? Indeed, it will have already been inquired. It stands to reason then, that if an inquiry were to take place inside of a pre-determined tract of study, it would be in spite of it, not thanks to it. Such is the case of the child vs. the curriculum.

But hope, for a moment, that curriculum could change. Hope that, if instead of providing the topics and pathways for study, curriculum provided more simply an environment for the collaborative determination of them. Instead of pre- determining the students educational pathway, the curriculum would stand as a requirement for the student to do so themselves. Employed in such a manner, it would provide a vital space, where informed parameters are cultivated for the construction of a student’s own, individualized experience and success.

If the curriculum stands as manifesto for both individual maturity and civic position, then the environment, or the parameters for experience, rests in the teacher’s expertise. The teachers themselves must have had successful inquiries, leading to successful experiences. A teacher is one most qualified to hold the responsibility of perimeter creation for their students. Who better to guide in the creation of progressive experience then those most successful at having done it? Teachers have experience, but more then that, they have had them in such that they understand the parameters of them.

Teachers must be talented in their art. Their expertise rests not only in their success within their own experiences, but in their successes in facilitating good inquires developed by their students. Can they foster progressive inquiries that have lead to progressive experiences. The teacher is the embodiment of these new curricular ideals: they can successfully enable students to determine good parameters for their own experiences. No singular, rote, or pre-determined curriculum could ever achieve such a democratic, intricate and wide reaching degree of success.

We see now that the progressive model does not describe a one-way street. Genuine inquiry stems from the student, and is invisibly guided by the teacher. For a time, the teacher acts to lead a shared inquiry, determine its direction, and cultivate the most beneficial experiences from it. Such is their art. In such an environment, this leadership can not help but exemplify the process

for the student. The process of progressive education is then itself a symbol for its own end.

On the brink of an educations' culmination, there is a necessary appropriation that has to take place. Garnering the most from genuine experience is of paramount importance. It is not until the student becomes the true expert of their own process, the maker of their own parameters and experiences, that they can complete their educational journey by hardening the hypothetical goal of the newly defined curriculum into a solid truth of their being in the world. They must make the leap - from a student under a teacher’s guidance - to being their own teacher in their own endeavors. Progressive education is teaching, by example, the process of learning. This fact must be made conscious before graduation into adulthood. They must have the ability to create their own parameters of environment, fashioned from their own self- initiated experiences. It is when there is an expertise in experience that the student becomes their own teacher.

Phew!  In a full circle, my endeavors into philosophies of education exemplified their own principles: in realizing the dangers of curriculums, I managed to escape one to write this. In realizing the subtle and most important role the teacher plays in the highest levels of formation, I became the recipient of it. In coming to understand the highest goal of a humane education, I tasted it. This is the product of my inquiry, as well as my self-proclaimed culmination of my primary education.

My desire in this presentation and in the publication of this work is to clear a different path, and to support great teachers doing great things with their students. There is no job in our society that puts one person in a better position to help another as consistently and repeatedly, everyday in their profession. It is not a matter of doing something for someone, but rather teaching that someone to do for themselves. Teachers must be the masters of this art, and the institutions in which they teach must facilitate their craft. Such is the freeing of the educative process towards its most fruitful ends.

The synthesis of everything I have read and thought and experienced about educational philosophy, and have written about to the best of my ability in this work, could be applied tomorrow. It could happen in any environment of courage. As I learned first hand, courage has no minimal endowment. It has no predefined pathway for guaranteed success. the integrity required for courage in education exists only between those dedicated to teaching, those dedicated to their passions, and those dedicated to living, the student. It is the courage to forgo presumptive societal requirements, and redefine them for their own individual aspirations.

Works Cited

Cahn, Steven M. Classic and Contemporary Readings in the Philosophy of Education. New York:

McGraw-Hill, 1997.

Clays, Michelle. E-Mail interview. 2 Oct. 2007.

Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. New York: Plain Label Books, 1993.


Dewey, John. Experience and Education. 1st ed. Vol. 1. Michigan: The Macmillan Company, 1938. <>.

Dewey, John. The Child and the Curriculum. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press,

1902. 2 Oct. 2007 <>.

Locke, John, John W. Yolton, and Jean S. Yolton. Some Thoughts Concerning Education. New

York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Plato, and C. C. W Taylor. Protagoras. Rev. Ed. ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

Plato, and C. C. W Taylor. Protagoras. Rev. Ed. ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

Plato, and R. S. Bluck. Meno. Cambridge Eng: University P, 1961.

Plato. Plato's the Republic. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. New York: The Modern Library, 1941.

Plato. Gorgias and Timaeus. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. Comp. Plato. Mineola, N.Y: Dover

Publications, 2003.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile, or, Treatise on Education. Amherst, N.Y: Prometheus Books, 2003.

Schrag, Peter. "Schoolhouse Crock: Fifty Years of Blaming America's Educational System for Our

Stupidity." Harpers Sept. 2007: 36-44.

Stork, Janet. Personal interview. 1 Jan. 2008.

Stork, Janet. Telephone interview. 3 Oct. 2007

Community Member (Details)

Awaiting responses form Kathy Engel and Janet Stork. They both received a link to the video of the presentation, and both will be writing their responses (I wIll submit them when they arrive).