Culture epochs

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From A Cyclopedia of Education, edited by Paul Monroe, Ph.D. (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1911, vol. II, pp. 240-2).

Culture epoch theory

  • John Dewey (Ph.D. LL.D., Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University)

The fundamental ideas of this theory are (1) that there is a general parallelism between the development of the human race and of the individual; that (2) this parallelism is of fundamental importance for the selection and arrangement of the materials of the course of study; that (3) the appropriate basis of the content of study at each period of child growth is the culture products (literature especially) of the corresponding period of race development. The general idea has never been better stated than by Goethe in the following words: "The youth must always begin anew at the beginning, and as an individual traverse the epochs of the world's culture."

The theory has been independently reached from a number of different points of view. Three of these modes of approach may be especially signalized. (1) The philosophic-historic. The reaction against the rationalism and the individualism of the French and German enlightenment of the eighteenth century led many German thinkers to a vivid appreciation of the part played by the social institutions and traditions of the past in bringing individuals to their present status, and of the necessary role of past culture in the further development of a well-founded personality. Against the "Return to Nature" of Rousseau the necessity of nurture by culture was insisted upon. Formal rationalism in its zeal for reform and progress would make a tabula rasa of the past, and regarding government and religion as mainly conscious inventions to keep the masses in subjection to the interests of a few, would start afresh on the basis of an equality and liberty of individuals demonstrated by pure reason. Against this Herder, Lessing, Goethe, and Hegel emphasized the continuity of institutional life, and the fact that history contained implicitly a deeper rationality than that of the isolated self-consciousness of individuals. Moreover these writers upheld the application of the idea of evolution in one form or another to the history of humanity, and thus elaborated the notion of a developing series of stages through which mankind has progressively passed in traversing its course to the full unfolding of its corporate destiny. From these conceptions they drew, with varying degrees of explicitness, the conclusion that individuals go through the same general course of development and attain their fullest and most harmonious development in the degree in which they repeat the progressive stages of the race. (2) Other writers (again mostly German) approached the matter from the educational side. The aim of education is to elevate the child to the perfect cultural plane of present civilization. Because of the contrast between the immaturity and narrowness of the child's experience and the complexity and richness of present civilization, this problem of elevation must be attacked indirectly and gradually. The child cannot directly assimilate or appreciate the highest and best in the life about him. He can rise progressively to it by living through the significant and valuable factors of the past stages out of which the present has evolved; the earlier being the simpler are better adapted to the child psychology — to his apperceptive masses and his interests. Herbart and his followers presented this point of view. (3) The discovery (in embryology) that the individual growth (the ontogenetic series) recapitulates the evolution of animal life (the phylogenetic series) has been employed to give the doctrine a scientific biological foundation, or at least a support by analogy.

Before considering the doctrine critically we may note some of the attempts which have been made to apply the theory to educational practice. Some pedagogical writers have laid stress upon the complete and almost unconscious absorption of the individual in the group as the characteristic mark of the earlier stage of development of the race and the child; have selected individualistic reaction and protest as the sign of the second period, and voluntary and conscious loyal reattachment of the individual to the interests and well-being of the social group as the key to the final stage. Others have fixed upon three stages of intellectual development as the common element: first, the predominance of emotional imagination, — the mythical, animistic phase of mind; second, the development of a matter-of-fact interest, expressed in tendency to observe, to collect, to make utilitarian constructions; third, the emerging of conscious reflection, characterized by interest in abstraction and generalization. Still others have fixed upon typical industrial periods in the evolution of humanity, carrying with them a great knowledge of natural energy and law and increased ability to utilize them: e.g. (a) hunting and fishing, (b) nomadic and shepherd life, (c) agriculture, (d) use of metals and beginnings of manufacture, (e) universal commerce and intercourse. They have then sought for corresponding psychological traits in the development of the child during the years of school age.

The curricula based upon these various methods of interpretation have agreed more closely than the diversity of the point would perhaps have led us to anticipate. Myths and fairy tales afford the appropriate nurture for the earliest period. Robinson Crusoe and stories of the Biblical patriarchs make a transition to the study of tribal and national heroes and founders of states; modern history and literature (especially the development of the particular state to which the child belongs) of the later years. The German schemes are also complicated by the necessity of exerting the scheme on the side of instruction in religion and in the Old and New Testaments.

Regarding the theory in general, it must first be heartily acknowledged that it makes practically the first attempt to treat the curriculum, especially in its sequence, upon other than conventional, or formal and logical grounds. Educational theory is indebted to the doctrine for the first systematic attempts to base a course of study upon the actual unfolding of the psychology of child nature, and at the same time to connect this psychological growth with indispensable sociological considerations. This fact being cordially recognized, certain important qualifications need to be introduced regarding the use of the doctrine to determine the appropriate materials and best sequence of the studies in the curriculum. (1) The primacy of the contemporary social life and relations of the child must be mentioned. Even if the parallelism of child growth and social development could be made out in a general way, it would still remain true that educationally the existence of certain types of culture in the past is no reason for emphasizing the materials of those periods in present education. The child at best has only a short time to pass through what the race has taken long ages to traverse; and it may well be that certain psychological tendencies in the child (supposing that they do correspond roughly to the dominant traits of some past historic period) need to be slurred over, or at least short-circuited, rather than emphasized or brought to consciousness. Hence (a) no past period should be selected except as it serves to increase the child's insight and appreciation of significant and valuable features of present civilization. The criterion of selection and emphasis is in contemporary, not in past civilization. (b) Moreover, the starting point, the ground of departure, must always be sought in activities and materials with which the pupil is already directly familiar in his present social environment. The motive and the "apperceptive masses" of dealing with the past must be found in problems and materials with which children are confronted in their ordinary social life. Finally (e) when excursions are made from the present to the past, pains should be taken to see that the knowledge of the past does not remain isolated, but is promptly reapplied to insure a better appreciation of the present social environment. In short, the child is not, educationally speaking, to be led through the epochs of the past, but is to be led by them to resolve present complex culture into simpler factors, and to understand the forces which have produced the present. (2) The present psychological structure and tendencies of children must be used as criteria for estimating the educational bearing of the past periods, not vice versa. That is to say, we must not assume that because certain activities and interests are presented in the history of the race, they are therefore now presented and significant in child experience. We must make an independent examination of the structure and growth, physical and mental, of children, and having ascertained the operation of certain needs and capacities look to the history of the race to find out appropriate material for supplying the needs and nurturing the capacities. (3) The doctrine, as usually expounded, underestimates the value of the processes which have marked the development of the race, and exaggerates the importance of products. Ziller, for example, stated that the culture history of the race is deposited chiefly in the literary masterpieces in which the various epochs have manifested themselves; and in general the more ardent devotees of the culture epoch doctrine have tended to make literature and history the centers of the course of study. Two fundamental exceptions must be taken to this conception. In the first place, literary products cannot be adequately understood except with reference to the activities which have manifested themselves in artistic expressions. To isolate the literature of Greece and Rome from the social, the economic, political, and scientific, activities which lie behind that art is to deprive the latter of much of its vitality and significance. In the second place, emphasis upon past products at the expense of processes is defective in promoting an understanding of the present. The method tends toward a static conception of society; it fails to present the forces which have made society progressive and which render it still a moving, changing, dynamic process. If the activities shown in industrial struggles, of invention and scientific discovery, in the conquest of nature and in changes of social organization require primary emphasis, the literary products, while precious documents of education, should be treated as consummations of these active processes, not as the primary and essential educative material.

J. D.

See Aqcuired characteristics; Apperception; Correlation; Herbart; Culture and culture values; Course of study.

References

National Herbart Society. Yearbook, 1895. (Van Liew's article.) Yearbook, 1896. Articles by Brown, E. E., Dewey, J., Galbreath, C. H., Hinsdale, B. A., McMurry, C. A., Van Liew, C. C. Rein, W. Outlines of Pedagogy. (London, 1898.)
—. Pädagogik in Systematischer Darstellung. (Langensalza, 1902.) Ziller, T. Einleitung in die Allgemeine Pädagogik. (Langensalza, 1901.)

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