From the perspective of the philosophy of John Dewey, the population explosion is first and foremost a crisis in culture. Dewey, perhaps the most influential figure in American education, especially in the earlier part of this century, has come back anonymously but unmistakably, as theorist behind most aspects of contemporary educational reforms. It was his belief that the task of education is first and foremost to critique culture in such a way so that culture might be in tune with the realities of natural environment. He held to a biological model in which culture constitutes our species adaptive advantage. Hence the population explosion is only in one sense an ecological problem, indeed the problem of any organism, it is in another sense the primary problem of culture, to find a way for the species to be suitably adapted to its environment. Dewey's philosophy is thus intrinsically suited to the single most important problem that the coming century is faced with.
The biological model of the task of culture is brought by Dewey into every aspect of teaching and learning in the classroom. Dewey is most remembered for his idea of experience based education. Experience teaches. Typically this is understood to mean learning by doing. In his final work on 'Aesthetics' he made clear that thought begins in feeling. The great model of the intellectual is the sculptor. Reason is finding its bearing in the realm of sensation and confirms its truth in the process of a concrete action or event. Humans, as with all organisms, know their environment through their senses and these are very limited to their ecological needs. Reason connects these sensations to solve a problem and only in the resolution to the problem is there any objectivity. The task of the teacher is therefore to model the conditions for which reason came into existence. The teacher must create some condition in the classroom for the student to experience a sensation. The sensory has to jump out of the ordinary phenomenal flow of events to become a sensation that demands a response that arouses the idea that there is something desirable to explore, a problem to solve, a pleasure to be gained by traversing a particular terrain of experience. Hence the first aim of this teaching unit is to find ways to present the global population explosion as something that is more than just a blip on the student's sensory module but a felt problem that concerns the student as his or her own.
Once the student has entered the sensory dimension of the curriculum, the student does not leave it behind like some motivational gimmick used by a salesman, but rather develops this sensate experience by exploring it using reason and action. Dewey was very impressed by science because it demanded that reason always be subordinate to experience. He was appalled by the way the science of his day had become a compendium of facts that were learned by rote and believed in as if they constituted catechism. The sensate experience is not like the surface photography of empiricism where it is thought there is a one for one correspondence of concept with empirical picture. Experience is multidimensional, creative and peculiarly human. Science does not have a different way of thinking from any other discipline, though it has its technical vocabulary, rather it shares with all disciplines of education the same basic processes of intelligent thought. Hence there is only interdisciplinary thought and to understand that is critical for an appreciation of Dewey. In essence, intelligent thought is experimentation whereby one becomes conscious of a problem, hypothesizes a solution, identifies a way of testing how that idea could be the answer, carrying out some action or using this model to see if it explains events and then a reflection to see if the model really did connect event with idea and the resolution of the problem posed by sensory awareness. Feeling, thinking and doing is thus part of a single act by which humans build up culture. If they are well integrated then culture is suitably adaptive. If not, we have a crisis in culture. In the classroom this translates into the need for students to have an opportunity to solve problems in such an intelligent manner. What passed for education, as Dewey found it in the classroom, was designed to lead culture in to crisis, not away from crisis into an adaptive response.
In this teaching unit, the first two lessons are to be designed with the above ideas shaping their pedagogy. (My lessons usually last one week). The first lends itself to stories, visuals, film and explorations of ideas and experiences that students already have about population explosion. The second lesson lends itself to experimentation with populations of bacteria, algae, insects or seedlings. (Since the unit is spread over a semester, there is time to follow plants and small animals through a life cycle etc). One can create small ecosystems and discover the inter-relationship of limiting factors on population size.
The second set of two lessons could follow on these but in application are best taught in the context of curriculum dealing with sexuality and reproduction. The most troubling part of discussing population explosion is finding a reference point by which to measure crisis, particularly crisis in culture. Just as there are seemingly endless points of view regarding the global warming 'greenhouse' effect, so there is in terms of identifying what in culture is actually in crisis as it affects population explosion. John Dewey's philosophy again, I think, offers a critical point of view. Moral problem solving that is needed to generate social policy solutions can be taught and thought through, rather as in any scientific problem. It is taught in classrooms in New Haven in life skills - a seven-step adaptation of Weinberg and Caplan's 'When you have a problem'.
Because the role of culture is survival of the species, Dewey can take this a step further. He provides a point of view by which to critique other analyses. It is not enough to have a point of view. The paradigm of thought must be justified as valid or desirable in terms of consequences for survival. Dewey provides a measure, a reference point from which to measure data about the population explosion. The best pedagogy for this lesson is for students to take particular aspects of the population problem and develop detailed plans for its solution using the method described below.
The fourth and final lesson that is proposed is one that addresses the 'meta' issues in culture and population explosion. Dewey not only proposed a model by which to teach in a classroom but also defended it by showing up the fallacies of opposing world views or fundamental a priori suppositions that exist in culture that perpetuate self-destructive behavior. He particularly attacked rationalism and empiricism. He did not endear himself to the scientific or philosophical community. The relevance of Dewey's radicalism, however, is that it is not enough merely to come up with an intelligent proposal. One needs to see how our cultural values and suppositions need to be changed. Given the degree to which our culture is out of synchronicity with survival in the environment, the challenge to students is to re-invent culture. 'Gaian' literature is suggestive of the dimensions of paradigm change. The myth of the great individual going out West to survive in the wilderness was appropriate once for U.S. culture, but now it contributes to crisis because it is we who must now be tamed, not nature. The American Dream is another powerful myth that at very least needs to be dreamed anew if it is not to become a nightmare.
A suitable pedagogy for this lesson is presentation or debate about the population explosion from the point of view of justice, markets, nature, religion or humanism etc. The teacher's job is to assist students make judgements about the differing points of view in terms of the task of culture to align behavior with survival.
The outline of the teaching unit is as follows:
Introduction - a Deweyan approach in the classroom.
1. Experience and Meaning
2. Experimenting and Modeling
3. Data and Measuring
4. Conclusions and 'Meta-issues'