Journey, Map, or Territory? (some observations by John Dewey)

[note: Some of the content below is now used in pp. 125-6 of Whitson, James Anthony. “Decomposing Curriculum, vs. Curriculum-as-Text.” Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy 5, no. 1 (2008): 111-37.]

Informed by the meaning of the Latin root currere, we understand “curriculum” as the course of human experience in which the formation of human being takes place (in which human being(s) “take(s) form,” that is, not only as individuals, but also in the formation of human institutions, practices, cultures, and societies).

But the word “curriculum” is often used in general public discourse as referring to official plans and printed documents, which lay out the scope and sequence of what students in schools are supposed to learn.

Such a notion of curriculum is common not only in the general public, but even among professionals in education; so that even in our doctoral courses in Curriculum Studies, we often need to begin by disabusing our education grad students of such incapacious ways of thinking about curriculum.

I have found it effective to begin with the problem of someone confusing the map for the territory (Korzybski, Bateson), and Bateson’s extension of this to somebody mistaking the menu for the meal (which conjures images of somebody walking into a restaurant and chomping on the menu).

This helps people move from their idea of “curriculum” as State or National Guidelines, District or Building-Level documents, or even classroom lesson plans (which would be like the maps or menus) to an idea of the curriculum as being, instead, the meal to be consumed, or the territory to be covered (e.g., the math, the history, the biology, the literature, etc.).

That’s only the first step, however, to preempt people from eating their menus. As quickly as possible, we need to take the next step: realizing that curriculum is NOT the territory: It is, rather, the journey

In 1915 Dewey wrote:

No book or map is a substitute for personal experience; they cannot take the place of the actual journey. The mathematical formula for a falling body does not take the place of throwing stones or shaking apples from a tree.

(mw.8.255: “The Reorganization of the Curriculum” – chapter 4 in Schools of Tomorrow)

In Dewey’s Logic (1938), he writes that a plan

… no more is a functioning division of labor than a blueprint is a house in process of building or a map is a journey. Blueprints and maps are propositions and they exemplify what it is to be propositional. Moreover, a map is no less a means of directing journeys because it is not constantly in use.


Both of these shorter quotations caution against mistaking the map for the journey, while at the same time recognizing the map’s crucial participation in the journey. The complexities are elaborated in a longer passage that he had published earlier, in his 1902 work, The Child and the Curriculum (Dewey, John, 1859-1952. The middle works, 1899-1924: Volume 2: 1902-1903 (1976) Southern Illinois University Press)

Page mw.2.283

. . . We may compare the difference between the logical and the psychological to the difference between the notes which an explorer makes in a new country, blazing a trail and finding his way along as best he may, and the finished map that is constructed after the country has been thoroughly explored. The two are mutually dependent. Without the more or less accidental and devious paths traced by the explorer there would be no facts which could be utilized in the making of the complete and related chart. But no one would get the benefit of the explorer’s trip if it was not compared and checked up with similar wanderings undertaken by others; unless the new geographical facts learned, the streams crossed, the mountains climbed, etc., were viewed, not as mere incidents in the journey of the particular traveler, but (quite apart from the individual explorer’s life) in relation to other similar facts already known. The map orders [Page mw.2.284] individual experiences, connecting them with one another irrespective of the local and temporal circumstances and accidents of their original discovery.

Of what use is this formulated statement of experience? Of what use is the map?

Well, we may first tell what the map is not. The map is not a substitute for a personal experience. The map does not take the place of an actual journey. The logically formulated material of a science or branch of learning, of a study, is no substitute for the having of individual experiences. The mathematical formula for a falling body does not take the place of personal contact and immediate individual experience with the falling thing. But the map, a summary, an arranged and orderly view of previous experiences, serves as a guide to future experience; it gives direction; it facilitates control; it economizes effort, preventing useless wandering, and pointing out the paths which lead most quickly and most certainly to a desired result. Through the map every new traveler may get for his own journey the benefits of the results of others’ explorations without the waste of energy and loss of time involved in their wanderings–wanderings which he himself would be obliged to repeat were it not for just the assistance of the objective and generalized record of their performances. That which we call a science or study puts the net product of past experience in the form which makes it most available for the future. It represents a capitalization which may at once be turned to interest. It economizes the workings of the mind in every way. Memory is less taxed because the facts are grouped together about some common principle, instead of being connected solely with the varying incidents of their original discovery. Observation is assisted; we know what to look for and where to look. It is the difference between looking for a needle in a haystack, and searching for a given paper in a well-arranged cabinet. Reasoning is directed, because there is a certain general path or line laid out along which ideas naturally march, instead of moving from one chance association to another.

There is, then, nothing final about a logical rendering of experience. Its value is not contained in itself; its significance is that of standpoint, outlook, method. It intervenes [Page mw.2.285] between the more casual, tentative, and round-about experiences of the past, and more controlled and orderly experiences of the future. It gives past experience in that net form which renders it most available and most significant, most fecund for future experience. . . .

Note: These excerpts from Dewey were located and compiled from the collection edited by the project at © Southern Illinois University and published in searchable electronic form in the Past Masters series by © INTELEX, without which I would not have managed to bring these things together.

© 2006 James Anthony Whitson. Permission to use the original material in this post is granted subject to the condition that the source is cited, including the information in either of the following citations (1 for APA style [5th]; 2 for Chicago style A [15th]):

  1. Whitson, J. A. (2006). Journey, Map, or Territory? (some observations by John Dewey). Retrieved Month date, 20xx from  OR
  2. Whitson, James Anthony. “Journey, Map, or Territory? (Some Observations by John Dewey).” (2006), (accessed Month date, 20xx).

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] in John Dewey’s work, as, for example, in the points quoted on this blog concerning the curriculum as journey, in relation to the map and territory. The curriculum is not the map; nor is it the territory to be “covered” that is represented by […]

  2. […] Maxine Greene post, like the post here on Journey, Map, or Territory? (some observations by John Dewey), is meant to expose and displace the inadequate conceptions of curriculum that are widespread in […]

  3. […] For a relevant post, see Dewey re: the journey, map, and territory. […]

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