emancipating and enlarging experience

John Dewey once wrote that the 'business of education might be defined as an emancipation and enlargement of experience'. 

As educators most of us can identify with these words. For example, we may describe parts of our work in terms of 'learning by doing' and of widening opportunities, or giving people new experiences. Yet, Dewey meant something more than this.

When we talk of 'enlarging' the meaning is fairly clear. We usually mean that we want to make something bigger - to extend its limits. With regard to experience this is not just a matter of widening, of encouraging people to do different things, it also involves deepening. By this we mean that as educators our task is to work with people so that they may have a greater understanding or appreciation of their experiences. For example, the way in which we may work with a group to plan a foreign visit would be significantly different from the way we would plan a holiday. The prime purpose of the first is learning, the second relaxation.

Again, the meaning of 'emancipation' need not trouble us - it is a process of setting free. But what does it mean to set free experience? Here we touch on the profound. It is easy to fall into seeing experiences as things. After all, we often talk of 'having an experience', of things 'happening to us'. In this we get a picture of being on the receiving end of some event. Yet this is only half the story. Experiences are not only 'had', they are also 'known'. By this we mean that they are thought about at some level, although we may not be conscious of this. We interpret what is going on and this allows us to be 'set free' - we need not be dictated to by, or victims of, experience. We can become not just ‘experiencers’ but also experimenters: creators as well as consumers.

Experience entails thought. It includes reflection. To emancipate and enlarge experience, we must attend to both having and knowing.

infedcov.jpg (18462 bytes)Taken from Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith (2005) Informal Education. Conversation, democracy and learning, Nottingham: Educational Heretics Press.

© Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith
First published October 18, 1999. Last update: July 08, 2014