1973 - when I started asking questions, like, "Why are we all dressed so funny?"

Friday, April 24, 2009

Dewey VII

Later, Dude!

Let God be the judge between you and me, Mr. Dewey! I tried (and tried) to read your book with an open mind in order to understand what is attractive about your thought. As I mentioned before, Experience and Education came highly recommended from a man I admire and respect (Dennis Littky), so I thought, "OK, I'll give Dewey a second chance."

I did so. When you went from obscurity to obscurity, I pressed on; when you used ordinary words (i.e., experience, freedom, purpose, etc.) in the most peculiar ways, I remained open to the possibility of some good emerging from my Herculean labors. While I can say that I do have some vague notion of what your approach to education is all about, I would have to emphasize "vague."

The Scientific Method

Were I forced to say what you say the essence of education is, it would run something like this:
Education is most authentic when it uses the scientific method as its means and ends: one hypothesis leads to another "truth" that serves as a stepping stone for another hypothesis which leads to more and more transitional truths, which lead to more and more growth.
I'll pat myself on the back for such a concise statement of your thought, but I freely acknowledge that it might be inaccurate. But this summary does seem to sum up your love for science and it as a model for education. But I think you are patently wrong on this score: If education is all about life, then take a look around and see how life is more than "science." Science reduces reality to what can be managed, manipulated and manufactured. Education-as-science is something ultimately inhuman.

A final quotation

On the last pages of Experience and Education you write:
What we want and need is education pure and simple, and we shall make surer and faster progress when we devote ourselves to finding out just what education is and what conditions have to be satisfied in order that education may be a reality and not a name or a slogan (90-91).
"Finding out"? "May be a reality"? I believe, sir, that the primary purposes of writing non-fiction are either to understand better some aspect of reality one is wrestling with or to communicate some truth to others one has discovered. It seems to me you have done neither.

Farewell, Mr. Dewey. I shall now take the advice of that great theist, C.S. Lewis, and read an ancient text after I have read your thoroughly modern work.

(Mutter, mutter! Twenty two days of reading his book and all I have are rambling posts and a raging headache! Mutter, mutter...)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Dewey VI

Authority the Unavoidable

Such was the title of a chapter in Chesterton's What's Wrong with the World. In the fourth chapter (Social Control) Dewey deals with the role of the teacher in the classroom and gives us the image of children at play as a point of contrast and comparison. With children at play we find an example of "social control of individuals without the violation of freedom" (54).

Dewey rightly indicates that the teacher often has an "undue role" that is forced upon him because of school design. I agree. He goes on to claim that in the "new schools, the primary source of social control resides in the very nature of the work done as a social enterprise in which all individuals have an opportunity to contribute and to which all feel a responsibility" (56). These seems a little fuzzy and seems to ignore the obvious: in both traditional and new (now old) schools, authority is imposed from without. The freedom of the students is conditioned upon the willingness of the adults to give it to them (I'm not suggesting it should be otherwise, only that it is true in both cases).

I have seen numerous times when group projects quickly devolve into one or two students taking responsibility for what gets done and feeling (rightly) resentful at the slouching mass of students who have nothing to contribute.

Put me in, Coach!

Dewey claims that when schooling is more of a social process, "The teacher loses the position of external boss or dictator [no, I assure you, he wrote that] but takes on that of leader of group activities" (59). Sounds good; sounds democratic. But wait a minute. This transition is based on Dewey's earlier comparison of schooling with games. This image seems inapt on several points.

First, games have a natural attraction to kids that need no external mandate (at least before XBox and associated lethargy-makers); schooling is required.

Second, games cannot be sustained for prolonged periods of time. When you're done, you're done (Dewey might go so far as to urge the modification of the school day to fit the "needs" of the students, I don't know - I wouldn't mind a two-hour teaching day!)

A third thing that bugs me about the game image is that it implies that fun and "engagement" (now there's a thorougly misused term) are coextensive with education. I think this is patently false. Perhaps a more realistic metaphor for education is exercise. It requires self-discipline and endurance, but it possesses moments of fun and engagement. If I approach exercise with a gamish mentality, I shall soon slouch back into my couch potato self.

Next time: the role of the teacher and the myth of the teacher as the Great Architect.

Dewey V

An (The?) End in Itself

I well remember Aristotle's insistence that in the moral life, happiness is paramount. It is also an end after which we seek no further end. Once one is happy, satisfied, blessed -- the journey, in a sense, comes to an end.

Dewey's insistence on growth as good when it leads to more growth, which leads to still more growth made me think of Aristotle. Think of The Philosopher in this sense: What Would Aristotle Think (or WHUT)? I don't know what he'd think of Dewey's ideas about education, but I don't think he'd like his ambiguity.

Biology and Teleology

For Aristotle the moral life has a clear end - happiness; for Dewey, education has no end beyond vaguely differentiated, on-going (infinite?) growth. With Dewey's materialism, he surely recognized that life runs up against its terminus in death. So it seems the life Dewey envisions goes something like this: Growth, growth, growth, annihilation. You, me, everybody.

Here we find yet another case of "bad infinity," where the need for the infinite gets projected onto finite realities. In focusing on growth the way he does, Dewey is at odds with himself, for how can life (existence) come to an end but growth never come to an end?
Question: Did Dewey ever confront this riddle?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Dewey IV

Progress and Democracy

In Chapter 3, Criteria of Experience, Dewey says that "one thing which has recommended the progressive movement is that it is more in accord with the democratic ideal to which our people is commited than do the procedures of the traditional school..."(33). It is interesting how Dewey links "the progressive movement" (in education, presumably) with "democratic ideals." He paints both the "new education" and "traditional schooling" with such broad strokes (perhaps even bordering on caricatures of the latter) that he has failed to demonstrate this thesis. How odd for a man who takes the methods of science for his model in educational philosophy.
#1 Because a school is more "democratic" (whatever that might mean), is it a better school?
#2 What evidence would validate Dewey's thesis?
#3 What evidence would validate it?
Dewey's Mythical Anthropology (or why growth will not suffice for man)

Again and again Dewey highlights how education is all about growth. But a nagging question for me is: Is it possible to have the goal of growth as "the" end in education ["the educative process can be identified with growth" (36)] without a fairly definite idea (or ideal) about what this growth ought to tend toward? I think one must have an ideal, lest growth simply be an end in itself (growth for growth's sake), which leads towards ambiguity, incoherence, and perhaps even nihilism.

All of this growth talk by Dewey makes me think of the various schools of Utilitarianism with their future-oriented calculi: whatever brings the most happiness/pleasure for the majority, well that's the right thing to do. By invoking growth and the way he defines it without a goal for the human subject, one seems to be always stuck in the future (perhaps this makes the term progress apropos indeed).

[At some point it would be interesting to look at Dewey's ideal of growth in light of the biological fact of death. If death is the end for Dewey, then why bother with all this growth? Growth would seem to lead only to nothingness. Maybe later we can look at this.]

Dewey's growth (unlike Aristotle's flourishing, which is linked to excellence), lacks any end beyond more growth. "Growth without end, amen." Such is the prayer of Dewey.

I'm not persuaded. Dewey has the ideal opportunity to address the concerns people have about his definition of growth (really, a lack of definition) and how he would distinguish "good" from "bad" growth: "[A] man who starts out on a career of burglary may grow in that direction, and by practice may grow into a highly expert burglar. Hence it's argued that 'growth' is not enough; we must also specify the direction in which growth takes place, the end towards which it tends" (36). Indeed, we must; however, Dewey never does.

The closest he seems to come to a specification of ends is to say that good growth is the growth that has "opportunities for continuing growth in new directions" (36). Coming back to our burglar, we would seem to have no way of judging whether or not the "school of theft" is educative or mis-educative: if he grows in skill and expertise, this might be enough. Who ultimately is the judge of growth untethered from tradition, ethics and anthropology?

#1 Is it reasonable to accept such a premise (growth and its inherently subjective nature) when it is on its face so incoherent? (If one were to say the goal of eating is more eating - would this persuade anyone?)
#2 How can a thinker who is all about democracy and community base his educative project on such a subjective premise?
#3 If it is possible to build democracy and community on such a principle, is it not necessary for the community (or the majority) to be in charge of creating conditions for appropriate growth or defining what is appropriate? (I'm tending toward thinking this is what Dewey is suggesting at some level.)

Next time: something about Dewey's use of biblical allusions or his definition of the aim(s) of education.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Dewey III

One out of three ain't bad

I had hoped to discuss what John Dewey thinks experience is, how it can be (or cannot be) communicated, and its telos, but at least through the second chapter, he has not given a defintion of experience. I had assumed that he would provide a definition because he says, "To know the meaning of empiricism we need to understand what experience is" (25).

Communicating experience. He does suggest that teachers help students experience things in an orderly fashion: "It is [the educator's] business to arranged for the kind of experiences which ... engage [the student's] activities and ... promote desirable future experiences" (27). Something curious about this the lack of his discussion of inter-subjectivity. That is, he does not discuss how one can create a lesson that is for one student a powerful, life-changing experience, but for another student it is "boring." (What teacher hasn't seen this?). In any event, we'll see if he goes into communication of experience in more detail.

I'm happy to report that he does define what the end or goal of experience is: further future experience. No joke. Here are a couple of examples:

Any experience is mis-educative that has the effect of afresting or distroting the growth of further experience (25).

"[Y]oung people in traditional schools do have experiences [but the trouble is] their defective and wrong character -- wrong and defective from the standpoint of connection with further experience" (27).

Wholly indepedent of desire or intent, every experience lives on in further experiences. Hence the central problem of an education based upon experience is to select the kind of present experiences that live fruitfully and creatively in subsequent experiences (27-28).

"[A] coherent theory of experience ... is required by the attempt to give new diretion to the work of the schools.... It is a matter of growth, and there are many obstacles which tend to obstruct growth and to deflect it into wrong lines" (30)

All of these are from Experience and Education, but this zinger comes from Democracy and Education: "The educational process has no end beyond itself; it is its own end" (59).

If this is accurate, I think Dewey's view has staggeringly negative anthropological implications: humanity has no goal, no center, no point of reference beyond "growth" or the "educational process."

Questions so far in this chapter:

#1 Why doesn't he discuss his own experience (either as a student or as an educator)? This chapter is entirely too disengaged from any discussion relating to students and teachers (not even anecdotally do either show up).

#2 Dewey thinks that the empirical sciences "offer the best" kind of educational organization but he doesn't say why. Why?

#3 Is it ultimately coherent to say the primary purpose of education is to have experiences that lead to more experiences, ad infinitum? To achieve that goal, one could play in traffic, take hikes, read books.... Anything would seem to achieve the goal of richer, worthier, better experiences.

#4 How does Dewey's thought converge/diverge from Aristotle? I was think of Dewey's growth and Aristotle's flourishing. Are they compatible?

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Dewey II

I remember a talk that Lorenzo Albacete gave a dozen years ago in Denver. At one point he said something like this: "All of these people running around talking about their experiences, but they're not talking about ex-perience because it's all about them.... All real experiences come from the outside, not our own subjectivity."

For some reason I recalled Albacete's remarks in my reading of Dewey. I'm now delving into chapter two of Experience and Education and I'm finding that Dewey seems to suggest something erroneous about what experience is and how it can be communicated. But first, something positive about Dewey (lest I never get there!):

The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative (25).

Again, experiences may be so disconnected from one another that, while each is agreeable or even exciting in itself, they are not linked cumulatively to one another. Engergy is then dissipated and a person becomes scatterbrained (26).
Just so. An experience is not merely a "something" that happens, for then we would talk about the experiences of monkeys and lions; rather, an experience requires a something, an event, but also reflection and an understanding of what the event means. Otherwise it's just one damn thing after another.

Next time I'll pick up on where I think Dewey goes off the rails with his understanding of what experience is, how it can be (or cannot be) communicated, and its telos.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

John Dewey I

Just started John Dewey's Experience and Education. It's come highly recommended from someone I admire and respect; others have spoken highly of Dewey too. I'm trying to be open to anything me might have to say that could be useful.

As an undergrad I took a philosophy course devoted to Dewey's thought. What a mortifying experience. Terrible writer. And vague. Mystifications from a famous pragmatist. Well, everyone - especially one departed - deserves a second chance.

Experience and Education is allegedly a clear and concise overview of Dewey's approach to education. In the preface he says that he will "call attention to the larger and deeper issues of Education" (p. 6). We'll see. I'm open - no, really.

The Joy of Spring Break

How useful to step off the merry-go-round that teaching can be. Intense year, intense semester. Stepping back gives perspective (good, bad, ugly).

Began and finished Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five (Vonnegut is so "unsummarizable" that I will merely point out that he has a great capacity for showing the depths of our human needs in a way that is always funny, profound, and unresolved - he was the president of a humanist organization, after all).

Began Augustine's Confessions and Chris Hedges' I Don't Believe in Atheists. Augustine is moving and deeply personal; Hedges not so much. Trying to "dip into" Augustine a little each week (I think I've got what I can out of Hedges' book, so I may stop reading - God love reporters, but they seem to have a real knack being superficial and annoying.)

Augustine on Cicero's Hortensius: "What won me in it was what it said, not the excellence of its phrasing" (p. 38, Sheed translation).