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Philip W. Jackson's
John Dewey and the Lessons of Art

John Dewey and the Lessons of Art

Review essay by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
Part of Love 1A Series
Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata, June 2000. "Fair Use" encouraged.


This essay is based on the discussion of the meaning of experience in Philip W. Jackson's John Dewey and the Lesons of Art, Yale University Press, 1998. ISBN:0-300-08289-4.

Process Text

I just got Jackson's book on Saturday at the Norton Simon Museum. I am reading it together with Fellman's Rambo and the Dalai Lama and Jablon's Black Metafiction. But I figure that some of you might like to follow my thinking on this as it develops. Please write for clarifications and broader explications. I hope this will spark your thinking also on learning, teaching, measurement, and the liberal arts. jeanne

Jackson is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. He is exploring the significance of Dewey's perception of art and its role in teaching and learning. I very much like that he suggests that the book will guide us towards living better. And he draws connecting links between this enlightenment and our teaching and learning. I would suggest the book to those of you who have already read Buscaglia and Fellman, as another step in that direction of listening and teaching with the goal of caring and mutuality. Jackson's book is more difficult to read than Fellman's and Buscaglia's, but I think that after discussing it here, you'll find it fits very well into our Love 1A sequence.

Intrinsic Meaning of an Experience

In the first thirty pages or so Jackson elaborates on the meaning Dewey gives to experience. He describes extrinsic meaning as the meaning the object takes on as the result its external, instrumental uses. For example, a hammer comes to mean all the things for us that the hammer can do. If the hammer was handed down to us in an emotional moment by a father who had used it all his life, then the hammer also carries for us many intrinsic meanings that have nothing to do with its instrumental use or extrinsic meanings. According to Jackson, Dewey considered objects and events interchangeable. For objects, and the situational context (event) in which they occur are interdependent in terms of the meanings we construct about them. A good example of this is given by Jackson on pp. 29-32 in "A Breakfast Teaspoon.

Relating Intrinsic Meaning to Feedback in Teaching and Learning

In Jackson's John Dewey and the Lessons of Art - around pp. 30 ff. - Jackson is talking about Dewey's recognition of intrinsic and extrinsic meaning to events, and how we enrich meaning by the intrinsic attachments that become part of the whole meaning of the event or object.

That helped me to understand a problem with teaching and learning. We all have experience with correction. Something didn't go right. We were corrected. Negative intrinsic meaning attaches to the object/event with which we associate that correction experience. The next time I am corrected, the old negative meaning attached to the old correction experience provides a general negative feeling. We speak of stimulus generalization in Skinnerian terms.

I think what Dewey, or perhaps I should say, Jackson, would see in this analysis is that the new experience has many connections, one of which would be to the previous correction experience and its intrinsic meanings. What I as a learner and teacher must recognize is the need to focus on experiences that have a good possibility of arousing negative intrinsic connections, and try to re-situtate the new experiences so as to avoid the old negative intrinsic connections.

For me, this is going to translate in new interpretations I have to give to the feedback that I give to students. That feedback must be given in ways that encourage them to do course-corrections with the feedback, and go on to learn more. This would seem to make the whole certification process potentially damaging to education, when it is carried on in close proximity and together with learning. There would seem to be inherent conflict between a ranking response and a positive intrinsic meaning to be attached to learning.

. . . . jeanne, June 21, 2000

Structuring New Experience

June 22, 2000

I have an all day meeting at school, so this must be very sketchy. Last night I read the last chapter of Jackson's John Dewey and the Lessons of Art. It was late, and I could not bear to wait for the ending. I had to know if Jackson saw the implications for teaching as I did.

I was very surprised. Jackson clearly admires Dewey. Yet, his interpretation of Dewey's own teaching (at university level) is that Dewey did not put his own lessons into practice in lecturing. I think Jackson is wrong about that. And I think he will be glad that he is wrong. I think I see another piece to what Dewey is doing, but it may very well be a piece that few of us would have seen.

I remembered Panos Morphos teaching 16th Century French literature In the 50s at Tulane. I could write precisely the same anecdotes of those classes Dewey's students wrote of his. And I felt the same conflict his students seem to feel over saying that the lecturer was dull and boring. And the other students derided me for hanging on Morphos' every word. But the 16th Century came to life in those "dull, boring" lectures, and Panos Morphos seemed not to care whether we noticed that or not.

I think there is something deeper here, a different kind of aesthetic experience. Dewey believed strongly that the meaning of events (objects) was situational. And he believed deeply in the world of the intellectual. He was doing philosophy in those lectures. I think Jackson is right about that. Panos Morphos was doing literary criticism in his lectures. And in many ways, the "doing" of professional thinking is the aesthetic experience of the professional. In that sense, Dewey and Morphos were not "dull and boring." Neither were they entertaining. But it should not be the "occupation" of the college student to be entertained. So entertainment probably did not concern either of them, and rightly so.

I needed very much to write this this morning before my meeting, so that I wouldn't lose the feelings of my reaction. I think that Professor Jackson has helped me find a clue to what I am trying to do with my college students. I agree with Professor Jackson that only a few of Dewey's and Morphos' students were capable of performing the professional activities into which they were invited by those teachers. But we can use Dewey's and Morphos' aesthetic professional experiences to guide us to more meaningful experiences to undertake with all our students. I wonder if we couldn't help students to better understand the aesthetic professional experience by pointing out the differences between entertainment and professional thought. Perhaps if they didn't confuse lectures with entertainment they would derive more aesthetic enjoyment from them.

And that brings me to A.S. Neill and Summerhill . . . . jeanne

Sharing Academic Discourse

Professor Jackson has kindly given his consent to post our e-mail exchange so that we can share this academic discourse. It is just such exchanges that encourage the development of our insights. Please join us in the development of these thoughts.

On June 21, jeanne went to the University of Chicago homepage and looked up the e-mail address for Professor P.W. Jackson:

I found your book on Saturday at the Norton Simon Museum. As a teacher, I appreciate it greatly. Thought you might like to know.

I have begun to use it as a discussion with my students. The process text is at should you care to look.

Jeanne Curran
Professor of Sociology
California State University, Dominguez Hills

On Thursday, June 22, Prof. Jackson wrote:

Ms. Curran,

Many thanks for your kind note. I'll check out the website.

[And later] I thoroughly enjoyed reading your review. Thanks for sharing it with your students. P.W. Jackson

Philip W. Jackson

Early Thursday morning, June 22, before the CFA Bargaining Meeting, jeanne replied:

Dear Prof. Jackson:

I am rushing off to a meeting just now, but I wanted to share this with you. It's on the site at

Again, I would like to thank you for prompting these insights. My writing them as a process text, which my students follow, is my way of trying to gain an aesthetic professional experience for them.


Jeanne Curran

On Friday, June 23, Prof. Jackson wrote:

I think your reaction to Dewey's teaching and that of your French teacher was or is the same as mine. That's a great way to teach--for some students. But what about the vast majority who are bored to death or falling asleep? Is it enough to say that all they want is entertainment? Perhaps they do, but what, then, is the teacher's response to that condition? Is it to ignore their sleeping, as Dewey seemed to do? I have trouble with that. Don't you?

P.W. Jackson

On Friday, June 23, jeanne responded:

Yes, I do have trouble with "the vast majority . . . bored or falling asleep," which is why I developed Dear Habermas, for those students who do not have the background preparation to function at the level Dewey was addressing. I think you are absolutely right on that point.

It was your very discussion of Dewey's meaning of aesthetic experience that led me to try to re-situate myself in Dewey's or Morphos' classroom, in the thirties, or even the fifties. For both of them, I imagine that the world of higher education had never considered dealing seriously with the Gentleman's C. The University of Chicago and Columbia had in their missions to educate the scholars of the future, not mass education, as we have come to understand it, even in the sense of the state colleges.

Please forgive me. I'm still thinking this through, and I appreciate your responses. Dewey and Morphos transplanted today into a commuter state college, would, I agree, need to reconsider their teaching in terms of all students. I have difficulty knowing whether that would also be true at elite universities, but I suspect that it would because the pool from which students are drawn has changed drastically with the "postmodern" culture and a faster-paced world.

I think I always thought of this as a "mission" problem, but I never experienced an "elite" institution. I feel a certain trepidation in thinking of "the vast majority" of students at an elite university "bored and falling asleep." I am remembering Morphos' class. I was never bored, and never fell asleep. But the others did. And they did chide me for my eagerness and interest. I agree with you that my earlier assessment of them as seeking entertainment was superficial and inaccurate. You cause me to recognize that in the fifties I clearly judged my classmates at fault, and overlooked their discontent with Dewey and Morphos. But I am still not sure how to translate this into practice.

I think that Dewey's warning, and yours in reviewing recent research, on the superficiality of some "doing" activities, suggests that perhaps higher education needs to think more in terms of mission and clarify that mission, so that fewer of our students will be so unwilling to bestir themselves intellectually. But I also believe that we must provide alternative means to develop the advanced thinking skills that would enable the vast majority to bestir themselves for an aesthetic experience centered on "thinking philosophically or critically," at least the vast majority of students at elite schools.

I think that another factor you stress, Dewey's love and respect for scholarship, and his admonition that "doing" must not supplant that scholarship, but should be interdependent with it, gives us pause to consider whether there might not be some classrooms and some scholars who should focus on developing the expertise of our future scholars. I also think this broaches the sequencing problem in curriculum within a discipline. I am wondering why students on such different levels of intellectual skill development could not have satisfied their skill needs by appropriate sequencing, or, in the alternative, appropriate academic support. Now there's a value judgment for you! I am giving far heavier weight to the students' need to actively seek and digest the curriculum than to the teacher's need to be sensitive to their needs!

Sir, would you be kind enough to let me put this e-mail sequence up on the site for my student?. At some level, I realize that I am convinced that it is a necessary part of their education to be invited into academic discourse, and to be able to simply watch it happen.

I will continue to elaborate on my thoughts on the site. And should you so wish, I will share that with you. But I hesitate to intrude into your time by such correspondence.

Thank you ever so much for sharing this with me.

Jeanne Curran

On Friday afternoon, Prof. Jackson responded:

By all means. Let's have your students know what you and I are talking about. I find the exchange exhilarating. That has to be what education is all about, don't you aqree? Maybe fewer of them will fall asleep!

P.W. Jackson