Dewey & education

I have taken it upon myself to read Dewey after many years’ hiatus from his remarkably clear prose and his fervent support of free, equal, and accessible education for all. The essays in his Philosophy of Education (Problems of Men) were written between 1935 and 1945 and yet in many ways are relevant to 2014: In his era, technology has led to enormous social changes, as have global conflicts; school districts are under pressure to conform to top-down management and are feeling the pinch as politicians cry for school-tax cuts; more young people than ever graduate from high school and college, only to find that jobs are not available for them; an economically-advantaged elite dis-empowers the middle- and working-classes by using class, money, and networking to subvert or gut the democratic system. What is the philosophical, patriotic pragmatist of 1940 to do? Urge people to exert themselves into action, of course.

Dewey’s passion for education and his pragmatism appeal to me even when I do not wholeheartedly agree with his premises, proposals, or–alas–his optimism. Right from the introduction of this series of essays, he sets out such sensible observations about culture, society, and government that it is hard to disagree with him; his works always begin with a straightforward clarity that is refreshing among philosophers. One of the most trenchant observations he makes, over and again, is that the education of the citizenry must change as social developments occur; education must not remain in stasis and, he insists, democracy must also be flexible and living, always moving with the current times:

“I find myself resentful and really feeling sad when, in relation to present social, economic and political problems, people point simply backward as if somewhere in the past there were a model for what we should do today…We have a great and precious heritage from the past, but to be realized, to be translated from an idea and an emotion, this tradition has to be embodied by active effort into social relations…It is because conditions of life change that the problem of maintaining a democracy becomes new, and the burden that is put upon the school, upon the educational system is not that of merely stating the ideas of the men who made this country…but of teaching what a democratic society means under existing conditions.”

My italics in the passage above are there to indicate what I feel is Dewey’s most enduringly important recognition–that social conditions change, and, to stay vital, the foundations of a society need to be resilient enough to be adapted to existing conditions. Tradition has considerable value, but a too-conservative approach to law or education or any other abstract, social construct will fail in time, Dewey says. There is “an inherent, vital and organic relation” between democracy and education that reflects democracy’s recognition of “dignity and the worth of the individual.” As a person who engages in the task of educating others, and who finds she frequently has to change the curriculum to keep up with the technology and the changing mood and environment surrounding her students, I’m glad to be reminded of that organic relationship. It’s important to me that each individual I instruct, advise, and (in turn) learn from feels that he or she embodies dignity and worthiness.

Much as I enjoy reading and thinking about philosophy, it seldom gives me a “warm feeling” the way Dewey’s well-considered, thoughtful words do. He saw the need for balance and for growth–human growth, interpersonal and social growth–which he posited could be achieved through the conscious, considered, informed actions of well-meaning people in community. Educators are, by such lights, among the foremost in the endeavor. Certainly Dewey thought they were.

larch cones by Ann E. Michael

 

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Enabling & stewardship

The season of seed catalogs is upon us, and I begin to fantasize about all of the vegetables and flowers I want to grow and how I will arrange my small garden area to accommodate them. I imagine having time to keep the rows cultivated and the foliage free of insect pests. Yes, I need to do some work on the fencing. And yes, some terracing might help where the garden’s taking a decidedly southeasterly dip. The asparagus patch finally played itself out, so it will need some restructuring and weeding; I’ll have an opportunity to use that area in a new way.

There’s snow on the garden now. All of this planning is purely speculative on my part. Yet–how clearly I can envision it, in my mind. One of my concerns is whether I’ll feel hale and hearty and energetic enough to get all of this work accomplished!

Ah, my garden-consciousness brings me to the mind-body problem, though perhaps in a more physical way than philosophers encounter it. My conscious mind imagines the garden that does not yet exist. Is that garden real or an illusion? What makes it possible for me to conjure it so vividly? Is it merely memory of past experience? If so, why does my imagination invent a slightly different garden–this year’s ideal? My animal self takes action, physical action (phenomenological action) in order to bring about fruition to feed the physical body that loves the taste of vine-ripe tomatoes and fresh beans and tender lettuces. Do my actions cause the plants to grow? No. I’m more of a steward or a guide. I help them get a better-than-average start.

This sort of thinking brings me around to a (2011?) post by biologist Stuart Kauffman, on the NPR philosophy blog.

Kauffman says:

We think we live in a web of cause and effect. We do. We also live in a web of enabling opportunities that may or may not be seized, and the living world, biosphere up, unfolds in a different way, creating ever new possibilities of becoming.

But these possibilities often can’t be stated ahead of time. No one foresaw Facebook when Alan Turing did his work in the first half of the 20th century. Nor can we foresee all the possibilities of the evolution of life.

Life is not a well-formulated, complex optimization problem to be solved. We do not know all the variables that may become relevant.

Science is my life, and it is wonderful. But science will not ultimately know everything.

In the world of modernity, our values have become badly deformed. Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” has replaced “integrity, generosity, and courage” as our First World cultural ideal. Modernity does not serve our humanity well, although it does offer enhanced standards of living. We are reduced — to price tags, cogs in an economic system making often useless products in the name of forever GDP growth on a finite planet. The bankers corrupt themselves and our government. Our government does not yet realize that its better job is to enable, not command, to “garden,” to coach, to enable the creativity of its peoples, here and around the globe.

Yes, that’s it. I engage with my environment partly by enabling things to grow or flourish. The term enabling has garnered some negative connotation in recent years due to its use in psychology: we are warned not to enable alcoholics, manipulative people, or those who need to learn some grit and self-motivation. The idea of enabling is, however, essentially positive: to help, to nurture. In fact, I think I prefer to think of myself as one who enables the earth rather than as a steward–though both concepts suggest that we human beings must engage willfully with the world.

We have work to do here on earth. And I am well aware that I do not know, with my garden, “all the variables that may become relevant.” (Past complex variables have included drought, hail, flooding, and beetles.) My small part this year includes serving the land I temporarily inhabit as well as serving myself and my family our favorite foods.

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My favorite sources for seed include: Seeds of Change, Territorial Seed Co., Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, and–while less on the organic spectrum, the British firm of Thompson & Morgan for its amazing variety of herbs, vegetables, fruits, ornamentals and grasses from heirloom to the latest hybrids. For American gardeners interested in some truly historical strains, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello offers quite a selection.

(Photo: a previous year’s garden in May)