Interest and Effort in Education/Chapter 5

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1397972Interest and Effort in Education — Chapter 51913John Dewey



We conclude with a brief restatement setting forth the importance of the idea of interest for educational theory. Interests, as we have noted, are very varied; every impulse and habit that generates a purpose having sufficient force to move a person to strive for its realization, becomes an interest. But in spite of this diversity, interests are one in principle. They all mark an identification in action, and hence in desire, effort, and thought, of self with objects; with, namely, the objects in which the activity terminates (ends) and with the objects by which it is carried forward to its end (means). Interest, in the emotional sense of the word, is the evidence of the way in which the self is engaged, occupied, taken up with, concerned in, absorbed by, carried away by, this objective subject-matter. At bottom all misconceptions of interest, whether in practice or in theory, come from ignoring or excluding its moving, developing nature; they bring an activity to a standstill, cut up its progressive growth into a series of static cross-sections. When this happens, nothing remains but to identify interest with the momentary excitation an object arouses. Such a relation of object and self is not only not educative, but it is worse than nothing. It dissipates energy, and forms a habit of dependence upon such meaningless excitations, a habit most adverse to sustained thought and endeavor. Wherever such practices are resorted to in the name of interest, they very properly bring it into disrepute. It is not enough to catch attention; it must be held. It does not suffice to arouse energy; the course that energy takes, the results that it effects are the important matters.

But since activities, even those originally impulsive, are more or less continuous or enduring, such static, non-developing excitements, represent not interest, but an abnormal set of conditions. The positive contributions of the idea of interest to pedagogic theory are twofold. In the first place, it protects us from a merely internal conception of mind; and, in the second place, from a merely external conception of subject-matter.

(1) Any one who has grasped the conception of an interest as an activity that moves toward an end, developing as it proceeds thought of this end and search for means, will never fall into the error of thinking of mind (or of the self) as an isolated inner world by itself. It will be apparent that mind is one with intelligent or purposeful activity—with an activity that means something and in which the meaning counts as a factor in the development of an activity. There is a sense in which mind is measured by growth of power of abstraction, and a very important sense this is. There is another sense in which it can be truly said that abstractness is the worst evil that infests education. The false sense of abstraction is connected with thinking of mental activity as something that can go on wholly by itself, apart from objects or from the world of persons and things. Real subject-matter being removed, something else has to be supplied in its place for the mind to occupy itself with. This something else must of necessity be mere symbols; that is to say things that are not signs of anything, because the first-hand subject-matter which gives them meaning has been excluded or at least neglected. Or when objects—concrete facts, etc.—are introduced, it is as mere occasions for the mind to exercise its own separate powers—just as dumb-bells or pulleys and weights are a mere occasion for exercising the muscles. The world of studies then becomes a strange and peculiar world, because a world cut off from—abstracted from—the world in which pupils as human beings live and act and suffer. Lack of "interest," lack of power to hold attention and stir thought, are a necessary consequence of the unreality attendant upon such a realm for study. Then it is concluded that the "minds" of children or of people in general are averse to learning, are indifferent to the concerns of intelligence. But such indifference and aversion are always evidence—either directly or as a consequence of previous bad conditions—that the appropriate conditions for the exercise of mind are not there:—that they are excluded because there has been no provision of situations in which things have to be intelligently dealt with. Everything that is disparaging in the common use of the terms academic, abstract, formal, theoretical, has its roots here.[1]

(2) The supposed externality of subject-matter is but the counterpart phase of the alleged internal isolation of mind. If mind means certain powers or faculties existing in themselves and needing only to be exercised by and upon presented subject-matter, the presented subject-matter must mean something complete in its ready-made and fixed separateness. Objects, facts, truths of geography, history, and science not being conceived as means and ends for the intelligent development of experience, are thought of just as stuff to be learned. Reading, writing, figuring are mere external forms of skill to be mastered. Even the arts—drawing, singing—are thought of as meaning so many ready-made things, pictures, songs, that are to be externally produced and reproduced. Then we have the situation described in the early portion of this essay: Some means must be found to overcome the separation of mind and subject-matter; problems of method in teaching are reduced to various ways of overcoming a gap which exists only because a radically wrong method had already been entered upon. The doctrine of interest is not a short cut to "methods" of this sort. On the contrary, it is a warning to furnish conditions such that the natural impulses and acquired habits, as far as they are desirable, shall obtain subject-matter and modes of skill in order to develop to their natural ends of achievement and efficiency. Interest, the identification of mind with the material and methods of a developing activity, is the inevitable result of the presence of such situations.

Hence it follows that little can be accomplished by setting up "interest" as an end or a method by itself. Interest is obtained not by thinking about it and consciously aiming at it, but by considering and aiming at the conditions that lie back of it, and compel it. If we can discover a child's urgent needs and powers, and if we can supply an environment of materials, appliances, and resources—physical, social, and intellectual—to direct their adequate operation, we shall not have to think about interest. It will take care of itself. For mind will have met with what it needs in order to be mind. The problem of educators, teachers, parents, the state, is to provide the environment that induces educative or developing activities, and where these are found the one thing needful in education is secured.

  1. Of course, nothing that is said here is meant to depreciate the wonderful possibilities involved in an imaginative experimentation with things, after the conditions of more direct transactions with them have been met.