No doubt generations of teachers have believed in the cliche that experience teaches or experience is the best teacher. However either what is meant by the phrase is that experience is something you get after you leave school or it is identified with the learning gained by hands on activities. This is not what was meant by the three philosophers of America’s only major school of thought, Pragmatism. Peirce is credited with the dictum ‘experience teaches’ but activity was not the primary mode of knowing—the aesthetic was. Dewey held to a modified form of this and William James, the third of the triumvirate, understood existence to be existential, which is not the same as doing.
Unfortunately constructivists, as far as I can tell, follow this popular identification of ‘doing’ with experience-based education. It is true that Dewey invariably insists on the omnipresence of action in knowing, but often he means by active as used in the sense of active listening or in the sense used by Prof. Spence at Yale. In his lectures to an auditorium of hundreds of students he mesmerizes them with Chinese history. He lulls their imagination so that his audience enter past events as if they were there. He recreates history as an experience. Colleagues crititize him for doing a disservice to history because he supposedly plays on subjectivity rather than offers analysis that the distance of time offers to the historical perspective. Spence does generate extraordinary passion for his subject, but the passion also generates a plethora of analytical voices. An otherwise deadly dull and seemingly irrelevant subject, in his hands, has become one of the fascinating campus subjects and full of important multidisciplinary questions
. He also disproves those constructivists who think that knowledge cannot be verbally transmitted
. His words are telling (transmit) because in telling historical events the listener actively enters these events as if they were the listener’s own experiences and thus worthy of finding rational meaning. Reason has a substrate on which to act. It is not reasoning in a void as occurs when there is no clear reference point in the listener’s experience.
The success of science is surely that of Spence where analysis is centered in an experience that is open to all to be entered into. Reason is made subject to a clear reference point in experience. When science is science there is no room for creating fanciful castles in the air, to paraphrase Kant (used in the context of metaphysics). The all important and practical question is what exactly constitutes an experience? There is no easy answer and Dewey spent a lot of time and ink trying to adequately answer this question. When the question becomes one’s own question, then in Dewey’s mind, we have come to the central enterprise of philosophy, and most imparticularly to the central issue in a philosophy of science
. From this vantage point he combated the popular ideas of science of his time that he felt had fallen prey to the long history of absolutist and rationalist philosophies. He considered himself a naturalist but fellow naturalists typically had the idea of experience similar to that of Locke’s tabular rasa in which mind was thought to passively absorb experience on a blank slate, images encoded by Pavlovian conditioning and similar mechanisms
. Though Dewey abandoned Idealism, he maintained that mind is an active, imaginative and intelligent entity that searched for satisfaction, fulfillment and meaning. Though intelligence was characteristic of human thought, mind was part of human biology and an integral part of its environment and never should be understood apart from this interaction.
The central experience event in Chemistry is the experiment and the experiment, according to Dewey, is the key to arousing the intelligent mind to real thinking, imagination, fascination and enthusiasm. Reason is on certain ground because it is disciplined by the reality of an experience. In this sense, it is the experiment that teaches
. Applying this insight to the classroom, Dewey held that it was inappropriate to use an experiment as an attention getter, an entertainment device to ‘tititlate’, or a way to exemplifying text or supplement to theory. Chemistry is the experiment. None of its facts, as Dewey makes clear in his metaphysics, have any validity outside or beyond this context. We may not hypostatize measurements or facts to absolute status. No amount of usage of SI units makes measurements any thing but relative. All facts are subject to change if only because their meaning is given by an evolving understanding and context in flux.