Form and content

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From A Cyclopedia of Education, edited by Paul Monroe, Ph.D. (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1911, vol. II, pp. 641-2).

Form and content

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

As already noted (see Content subjects), there exists a division of studies into form studies (e.g. writing as penmanship, spelling, formal grammar, numerical calculations) and content studies, such as literary composition, history, literature, nature study, etc. The division has practical convenience, but from the standpoint of educational principles brings to light a serious dualism and an important problem. In principle both form and content lose when separated from each other; the value of correlation, as a practical device, consists largely in overcoming or counteracting their divorce. That the merely formal tends to be barren and mechanical needs no argument. Conversely, content, without form, tends to be miscellaneous, unorganized, and, consequently, ineffective. The problem thus brought to attention is whether there exists an inherent connection between form and content, and if so, what is the genuine meaning of each from the standpoint of their organic relation to one another.

The discussion of experience indicates that experience has a double aspect; it always involves subject matter, or is an experience of something, and it involves definite tendencies toward change of subject matter, or exhibits a transition. Since different subject matters (whether facts, ideas, or acts) have very different values, the control of the process of change becomes a matter of fundamental importance. It is necessary that experience should not proceed (or change) at haphazard, but that it should maintain its subject matter at a certain level of value, and that there should be growth, progress to the richer and more significant, not retrogression into the trivial and superficial. The more static aspect of experience (its subject matter taken in cross section) may be called its what, or content; its dynamic or lengthwise aspect may then be called its how, or method of change. When this manner of change is distinguished with reference to the control of matters of further experience, we have the form side.

This abstract formulation may be made more definite by calling attention to the fact that the symbols with which reading, writing, arithmetical and algebraic operations, the general laws of science, etc., are concerned, are the instrumentalities by which the ongoing course of human experience is directed. Any method or tool consciously used for some end may be regarded as form, while the subject matter which is obtained and improved through its use is content. The problem, then, of the proper relation of form and content in education is the problem of dealing with a subject matter of a valuable experience in such a way that a hold upon this class of subject matter will be secured and improved; in other words, so that a method of control of this type of subject matter will grow up. Content must come first, but the contact with content — the way of experiencing it — is defective unless it results in a gain of power to obtain and manage that sort of content when needed.

Even a slight inspection shows that forms, or methods of control, are of two sorts, one more natural, the other more conventional. The formulæ of mathematics, the laws of the natural sciences, the fundamental logical and psychological relations of speech, are of the former sort. The notational system used in mathematics, forms of oral and written address, rules of punctuation, changes in the inflection of words, modes of etiquette, and much of what is termed "polite manners," are of the latter type. With respect to this distinction, it is (1) requisite that pupils should become aware of what is more natural and fixed in distinction from forms that are more arbitrary and variable, while it is also (2) necessary that they should realize that, though the use of this rather than that form may be conventional, some conventional arrangement is absolutely necessary. In other words, the existence of conventions is not conventional, but necessary. For example, whether a person speaks the English or the French language originally will be more or less arbitrary; but to be able to speak some language is an indispensable condition of social intercourse and of intellectual power, with all that these two things imply for the guidance and enrichment of experience. The same principle holds as to manners; it is more or less arbitrary that respect is shown by tipping the hat, but the existence of some sign of respect and regard for others is a social necessity.

It will be found that educational errors in practice, with respect to the relation of content and form, tend to group themselves between two poles. Either forms are treated as ends in themselves, not as methods of securing and enriching content; or, in reaction against this exaggeration, they are treated as of slight or negligible importance. We may paraphrase what Kant said of a somewhat similar matter: Form without content is empty; content without form is blind. And this applies educationally to the relation of the phases of subjects which are concerned with mastery of symbols and technique to those phases which consist of subject matter inherently significant.

J. D.

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