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After Dewey
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© Paul Fairfield 2009

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Act, 1988, to be identified as Author of this work.

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

ISBN: 978-1-4411-4586-4 (hardcover)

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Fairfield, Paul, 1966-
Education After Dewey / Paul Fairfield.
p. cm.
ISBN 978-1-4411-4586-4 (hardcover)
1. Education--Philosophy. 2. Education--Aims and objectives. 3. Education,
Humanistic. 4. Dewey, John, 1859-1952. I. Title.

LB14.7.F33 2009


Typeset by Kenneth Burnley, Wirral, Cheshire

Printed and bound in Great Britain by . . .
Chapter 1


A Note about References vii

Introduction: An Enigmatic Transition 1

Part 1: The Educative Process

1 Beyond Progressivism and Conservatism 13
2 Dewey’s Copernican Revolution 52
3 What Is Called Thinking? 101

Part 2: Education in the Human Sciences

4 Teaching Philosophy: The Scholastic and the Thinker 149
5 Teaching Religion: Spiritual Training or Indoctrination? 183
6 Teaching Ethics: From Moralism to Experimentalism 210
7 Teaching Politics: Training for Democratic Citizenship 233
8 Teaching History: The Past and the Present 257
9 Teaching Literature: Life and Narrative 280

Index 305
For Gwyneth Fairfield
Chapter 1

A Note about References

All references to John Dewey’s texts are from The Collected Works, 1882–
1953, edited by Jo Ann Boydston and published by Southern Illinois
University Press. In the endnotes, EW refers to The Early Works, 1882–
1898 (5 volumes), MW refers to The Middle Works, 1899–1924 (15
volumes), and LW refers to The Later Works, 1925–1953 (17 volumes).
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An Enigmatic Transition

The crucial matter in education is the transition from relative ignorance to

a condition as difficult to attain as to describe theoretically: intellectual
agency, maturity, emancipation, or, more modestly, being informed are a few
possibilities. Education is the name for this transition or transformation, the
ambiguity of which has long been a topic of theoretical reflection. In describ-
ing the learning process, Plato first emphasized the difficulty of leading the
mind from the world of illusion that is its original abode to enlightenment.
His account of this process was couched in epistemological and metaphysi-
cal terms that no longer warrant belief even as the story of the cave itself and
the prisoners’ gradual introduction to the world above retains a special rele-
vance, as a metaphor at least. This should not surprise us; metaphorical
interpretations often shed light in a way that literal and theoretical proposi-
tions do not, particularly when what we would describe is as ambiguous as
the nature of the educative process and the aims that guide it. Our goal in
this study is to understand this process. It is a project that will not succeed if
we overlook this ambiguity or insist on reducing it to zero, for the ambiguity
of education directly reflects that of human experience in general. It is a
quality that we must cope with and endeavor to clarify, but gaining clarity has
its limits when the thing itself is no mere technical puzzle but belongs
fundamentally to our experience of the world.
Several possibilities suggest themselves, some more metaphorical than
others, in speaking of this transition: from bondage to liberation, illusion to
enlightenment, ignorance to the truth, nature to culture, immaturity to
maturity, possessing less information or skills to more, and so on. Each
succeeds in some measure in illuminating the phenomena of teaching and
learning. In thinking about education we are often tempted to select one
such phrase and set it up as a model to which everything can be reduced, but
if the object of inquiry is itself multidimensional, so as well must be our
account of it. It is here that reductionist theories run aground: deeming
clarity and simplicity cardinal virtues of theorizing in general, they reduce all
richness and complexity to artificial simplicity and so misunderstand the
object. This remains a common failing of educational theories. On the side
of the individual, education represents a transformation of perspective that

2 Introduction

in one fashion or another raises the mind to a condition of some higher

kind, or kinds. It informs and transforms in about equal measure, depend-
ing on the subject matter, the stage of the learning process, and a variety of
other factors. On the side of the social, education initiates the young into a
tradition; it produces acculturation and makes it possible for the younger
generation to participate in the ways of an historical community. The indi-
vidual and the social dimensions of education are themselves inseparable,
adding further to its complexity. This practice also has an unmistakable polit-
ical dimension, is often difficult to distinguish from indoctrination, draws
upon an underdeveloped and often reductive understanding of human
psychology, and has long been the playground of social engineers and enthu-
siasts of every possible kind, all of whom maintain that the solution to our
problems is to mold the young in accordance with whatever opinions they
hold dear. No practice is as vulnerable as education to political or scientific
fashion, its practitioners continually pulled this way and that by the latest
findings in the social sciences as well as by economic imperatives and societal
trends that have little to do with the cultivation of intellectual maturity. Edu-
cational meddling by an endless array of the well meaning but misinformed
remains as commonplace in our times as in any other, the effect of which is
not only, and not primarily, to educate the mind but to produce a certain
form of subjectivity: workers, consumers, or believers of one kind or another.
A consequence of scientific and philosophical theorizing, social forces
and economic pressures, as well as the complexities already inherent to the
learning process, is a certain lack of orientation on the part of educators, or
an orientation beset by contradictions. Educators are charged with deliver-
ing a curriculum they have little or no part in selecting, preparing students
for standardized tests produced by ostensible experts, training a workforce,
preserving traditions, managing behavior, instilling values, acting as role
models and therapists, applying techniques and research findings while
raising standards as governments understand or misunderstand the phrase.
Education today can be likened to a soup over-rich in ingredients: every new
cook in the kitchen adds a pinch of this and a dash of that until at last the
concoction has everything in it but flavor. Cooks, to push the metaphor a bit,
typically do not see their customers, while those responsible for serving up
the tasteless brew know very well how it is going over, yet neither server nor
customer has any say as to its composition. By the time the reviews reach the
kitchen, the recipe has changed yet again along with the cook. The situation
is different for university professors, of course, who have long and jealously
guarded their autonomy in the classroom, but teachers at the primary and
secondary levels have found their status as professionals severely compro-
mised as the scope for independent judgment diminishes. Teachers faced
with these conditions may be forgiven for being bewildered, caught as they
An Enigmatic Transition 3

are in the maelstrom of empirical studies and social realities, politics and
religion, philosophy and other philosophies, psychology and other psy-
chologies, and lacking the autonomy proper to any professional to form and
act on their own judgment.
The real world of education is a miscellany of often irreconcilable aims,
imperatives, and fashions, many of which are extraneous to the practice and
simply imposed from without, and all of which individual educators must
square in some precarious way with the realities of the classroom. To get our
bearings we must gain a more explicit understanding of the transition noted
above and the principles that belong to it. There is, as I shall argue, a logic
that is always already inherent to the educative process. The philosopher’s
task is to render this logic or dynamic explicit and to identify its implications.
It is also to critique approaches to education that effectively undermine this
logic either by pursuing means that negate the practice’s own aims or by sub-
stituting extraneous ends, a common occurrence at present if it is not indeed
a universal phenomenon.
Like any social practice, education contains its own immanent conditions
and ends which can be undermined when pursued by improper means or
when conflicting aims supplant them. The temptation toward the latter is
great and certainly not limited to our own time and place. The classroom will
remain the playground of politicians and social engineers, religionists and
enthusiasts, social scientists and philosophers, sometimes for the better and
sometimes not. When they are for the better, such efforts recognize a kind of
integrity – an integration of principles – inherent to the learning process,
principles that must be identified and implemented if the practice is to
succeed. When for the worse, these efforts reduce education to a mere
means to an end, usually an end defined in terms of economics, politics, or
Whatever education is at the most fundamental level of analysis, it is not
merely a means to an end. While it has always been known that a good
education prepares one for a career and for later life in general – whether
directly or indirectly, by intention or by accident – its meaning is not limited
to this. In particular, it is not limited to economic utility. There is a higher
purpose that education serves, as Plato taught us to see even while mis-
describing this purpose or construing it in crude, metaphysical terms.
To understand the nature and purpose of education we must view it in the
larger context of human experience. The philosophical concept of experi-
ence provides the most appropriate point of view from which to interpret
our theme for the reason that the transition that education essentially is is a
transition in our experience of ourselves and our world. Beyond having
acquired a certain amount of information, the educated mind possesses a
capacity for experience that is richer and more expansive than its less
4 Introduction

educated counterpart. The transition that it undertakes is from an experi-

ence that is narrow and superficial to one that is broad and profound. When
it achieves its purpose, education leads the mind from the world of the
familiar and narrowly practical to the unfamiliar and abstract; it teaches us
how to see beneath surfaces and beyond the false certainties with which our
culture provides us as a talisman against thinking. Above all, the educated
mind is open, and radically so, to new experiences and ideas that require
critical reflection and, if adopted, a rearrangement of our prior opinions. It
is inclined to ask questions, to seek justifications for ideas, and to have its
experience of the world transformed. Education requires a venturing
beyond oneself to what is foreign and unexpected and a consequent alter-
ation of the conversation that is our culture while cultivating a range of
capacities and intellectual virtues necessary to that end. What education is
not is a world unto itself, something divorced from experience outside the
classroom or a realm of ideas disconnected from life. At its worst this is pre-
cisely what education becomes: a cloister of other-worldly concerns or intel-
lectual gymnastics that connect in no way with the ordinary search for
understanding of which our experience consists. The relation of formal
education to experience, as I shall argue in this study, is that of species to
genus. Understanding education requires that we investigate this connection
and see how the former, when it is successful, originates in the latter and also
returns to it.
It is the nature of human experience to encounter situations that upset
our expectations and that are in some manner or other problematic.
Everyday life brings us into contact not only with that which confirms our
knowledge and anticipations but especially with that which disconfirms
them. This happens most often on a small scale, but occasionally on a larger
one: our assumptions about the world come up against competing views, our
beliefs are called into question in the encounter with texts or persons not of
like mind, or our self-certainty is challenged by a sense of contingency. If
experience is our point of departure, and if it is of the nature of experience
to be beset with problems to be resolved and questions to be answered, then
education consists in the search for solutions and answers or in a series of
investigations. The concept of inquiry is fundamental here and is impor-
tantly different and places students in a different role than older concep-
tions of students as essentially passive receptacles of a curriculum consisting
entirely of predigested information. Students are better regarded as partici-
pants in investigation and fellow discussants – perhaps discussants in training
– in the conversation that is their culture. The accent on experience, partic-
ipation, and inquiry requires us to take seriously contemporary notions of
dialogue, thinking or ‘critical thinking’, and to inquire into their meanings.
Education, as all can agree, crucially bears on a student’s ability to think
An Enigmatic Transition 5

intelligently, whatever this means exactly for students at different stages of

the learning process and in different fields of study. Is thinking one or many?
Is there a theoretical model that can capture everything properly describable
as thought? For that matter, can thinking be taught, and if so, then by what
means? Intelligent thought is what the educated mind is ostensibly capable
of and what experience culminates in, yet in what does it consist? These are
philosophical questions all, and they are neither straightforward nor avoid-
able if we are to get a handle on what education is. Thinking undoubtedly
has to do with the search for understanding that is central to education, but
beyond the preliminaries and slogans, in exactly what does it consist? The
concepts of experience and thinking are fundamentally connected, but what
is the nature of this connection and what are its educational consequences?
What educational success ultimately looks like is a mind that is both well
informed and capable of intelligent reflection. It is also what our times,
rather desperately in my view, call for: the ability to exercise judgment and
to engage in intelligent discussion about ideas and worldly events, to think
outside of narrow specialties and rules and to be able to justify with some
semblance of rationality whatever beliefs that we hold. Our educational insti-
tutions appear to be of two minds on the question of thinking, and it is an
ambivalence that directly reflects an ambivalence of our age: we speak of the
imperative to think outside the box, of the need for creativity and innovation
that would match the innovation of technology and the progress of scientific
knowledge, yet at the same time we are troubled by unconventionality of
values, by the concept of judgment, and by ideas that cause more than small
modifications in our understanding of the world. The concept of judgment,
for instance, appears to many to be inseparable from intolerance or even
fanaticism unless it is practiced by a body of specially trained experts. To
judge is to be judgmental, we commonly hear, thus to commit a certain intel-
lectual or moral failing. Yet the capacity for judgment is indispensable both
in education and in our experience in general. Like common sense and
imagination, what is called good judgment – practical, political, ethical,
aesthetic, and so on – is fundamental to intellectual agency. Limiting this to
experts is an abdication of reason, of ordinary capacities of thought and
intelligence that largely define what it means to be a human being.
Judgment in these forms does not permit of expertise, however it can be
trained through habitual use. The same can be said of thinking in general,
in its higher reaches: while it sometimes works with formal methods and
techniques, often there are neither rules to be followed nor expertise to be
gained, and one must undertake a more creative act of cognition than the
concepts of technique and expertise suggest. Whether there are rules to be
followed or not depends on the object of investigation and the questions we
are asking about it. In an age in which science is regarded as more or less
6 Introduction

synonymous with rational thought in general, it seems to many dangerously

subjectivist to speak of a reflection that is unscientific and not governed
by rules of some objective kind. If it is the nature of human thought, ex-
perience, and education that we are investigating, then there are indeed
empirical questions to be asked, yet there are also properly philosophical
ones for which scientific methods will not help us. In particular, there is
something called the art of thinking – of imagining and judging, justifying
and criticizing, interpreting and questioning, narrating and metaphorizing,
understanding and self-understanding, speculating and wondering – which
is highly resistant to scientific explanation and which requires philosophical
and phenomenological investigation.
I regard this as an urgent matter both in view of the ambivalence regard-
ing thinking just noted and because the art of thinking, whatever we take this
to mean in specific terms, appears in many ways to be out of step with the
times. A variety of historical conditions, from the scientific and technological
to the philosophical and epistemological, the economic and political, and so
on, has had the effect not only of reducing thought to a technique but of
gradually reducing opportunities for its exercise. Increasingly thought is the
preserve of expertise, something that ordinary persons need not and perhaps
ought not engage in; instead we must defer and adapt to what the experts
determine, and in a society that offers up experts on just about everything
there is. Even the well educated now have information and opinions but not
knowledge – not the genuine article, that is. For this they must look else-
where, to persons with specialized qualifications, even if only a short time ago
the item of knowledge in question was considered a matter of ordinary
common sense. If what is called thinking were one day to disappear from the
face of the earth, it would be due not to any breakdown in societal structures
or to the ‘school failures’ about which we hear so much, but to simple irrele-
vance. When there is no need any longer for educated professionals to make
ethical judgments in the workplace due to the availability of specialized ‘ethi-
cists’, when citizens of a democracy need only defer to the political and
economic expertise of television pundits, when we are unable even to take
care of ourselves in ordinary matters of mind and body but must defer to an
endless proliferation of caring professionals, we have indeed become an
unthinking society. Whether, as Allan Bloom has asserted, the American mind
has been closed, I do not know, and not only because I am not American.1 I
suspect it has not, or not in the way that he suggests. It may be closer to the
truth to say with Martin Heidegger that ‘we are still not thinking’, that our
conceptual framework has become excessively beholden to technology and
dangerously one- or perhaps two-dimensional.2 His worry, and the worry of
numerous existential and phenomenological thinkers following him, was that
by the twentieth century thinking had become thoroughly assimilated into
An Enigmatic Transition 7

the machinery of technological civilization and that genuinely novel ways of

seeing the world had become a veritable impossibility. The new credulity
toward science and technology spells trouble for any ideas that wish to
announce themselves in an unscientific vocabulary. Were I to devise a blue-
print for making an unreflective culture still less reflective, I would do the
following: reduce knowledge or thinking to a single form, reduce that form
to so many bits of useable information, organize education around the pos-
session of information in the largest possible quantity, and standardize the
information that is taught and learned in educational institutions. The result
would be a pretty good assurance that nothing new would be said and that
mainstream culture would become even more hegemonic. There are many
today who see education precisely in this light, who warn of the dangers of a
young generation unprepared to enter the workforce and compete in the
global economy. I am not in the least sympathetic to their cause and instead
regard the central business of education at all levels as the cultivation of intel-
lectual agency, something that necessitates acquiring a good deal of informa-
tion and scientific knowledge but that also surpasses this.
In advancing this argument my primary interlocutor will be John Dewey.
In spite of the vast educational literature that has emerged in recent decades
from a variety of disciplines and theoretical approaches, I believe that none
has surpassed Dewey if what we are after is a principled account of the educa-
tive process. No more contemporary philosopher in this area has rendered
his thought outdated, nor in my view has the philosophy of education that
he advanced been convincingly refuted. It has been clarified and refined,
interpreted and very often misinterpreted, used and abused, but refuted or
surpassed it has not. As so often happens in the history of ideas, the conver-
sation has moved on since Dewey’s time, yet a change in direction is not
always an indication of progress. Like several other aspects of Dewey’s
philosophy, his theory of education is no longer the fashion, if indeed it ever
was. Students of education and teachers in training typically know a certain
amount about Dewey – that he was associated with the progressive
movement, for instance, and that his texts do not make for light reading –
but they do not usually read his work. Nor, it would seem, do many of his
critics, past and present, or not with the care that is usual in scholarly dis-
course. For all their ostensible influence and fame, most especially Democracy
and Education of 1916, his writings in this field have been so misread, by so
many and for so long, that it remains necessary for scholars to correct the
misunderstandings that greeted his work from the beginning. Dewey’s own
efforts to repeat and clarify his position did little to dispel the caricatures.
His theory of education is neither positivistic nor an excuse for lowering
academic standards; it is neither unclear nor to be understood in isolation
from his philosophy as a whole. Indeed his educational thought is highly
8 Introduction

integrated with his contributions to epistemology, psychology, philosophy

of science, politics, ethics, and even aesthetics. A model of experimental
knowing underlies his philosophy in general and must be understood if we
are to assess the relevance of his philosophy of education a century after its
original formulation.
Additional reasons for returning to Dewey are that he explicitly grounded
education in a theory of human experience that continues to warrant our
attention. Understanding the nature of the learning process requires that we
view it in the larger context of experimental and intellectual maturation, of
the gradual formation and transformation of the self, and in terms that
recognize the individual’s thorough embeddedness in culture. As Dewey
often pointed out, what takes place in the classroom is, or ought to be, con-
tinuous with life outside it. Questions regarding curriculum, techniques of
instruction, and so on must not be approached as if the mind of the student
were an ahistorical mechanism of some kind, a computer to be programmed
or a producer-consumer in training. Nor should the question of develop-
ment be approached in quasi-objective fashion, apart from phenomenologi-
cal description of our lived experience. The transition that education brings
about is a rising up to humanity, a cultivation of the self as an intellectual
agent and active participant in the life of its society. It does not merely
prepare the young for later life but transforms their perspective on the world
and puts them in the role of questioners, inquirers, and participants in
dialogue. While these are contemporary themes, they were also familiar to
Dewey and to many of his predecessors, including G. W. F. Hegel and the
Bildung tradition in German philosophy. Examining these themes obliges us
to reconsider Dewey’s educational thought, where this means both elucidat-
ing its meaning and examining its contemporary relevance. Dewey’s educa-
tional philosophy, minus the misinterpretations to which it has long been
subject, continues to demand our attention. Yet its appropriation, or perhaps
its rehabilitation, must be a critical one. It is a philosophy whose basic outline
was formulated well prior to the publication of Democracy and Education in
1916, in the final decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of
the twentieth, and which not surprisingly bears the traces of that era.
I shall be treating Dewey as an interlocutor in the chapters that follow,
thus neither as a villain to be castigated for whatever failings we believe our
educational institutions suffer from, nor as a Master Thinker whose views
may be wholeheartedly assented to once suitably understood. An interlocu-
tor is not one whose views meet with an unqualified yes or no. While I find
myself in substantial agreement with his writings on education and on some
other matters as well, the title of this book is not Education According to Dewey.
The significance of the ‘After’ is that I shall be bringing his views into contact
with some more contemporary philosophical developments, including
An Enigmatic Transition 9

figures and themes following his time and in some cases figures who belong
to a tradition that interested Dewey very little. This is the tradition, or tradi-
tions, of continental European philosophy that includes, among many other
figures, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, Hans-
Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, Michel Foucault, Paulo Freire, and John
Caputo, all of whom will be interlocutors as well in the study that follows. My
question is how well Dewey’s position stands up today, in view of what we may
consider to be developments in the field. Do Heidegger’s statements on the
nature of thinking, for instance, add anything of importance to Dewey’s view
or compel a re-examination? Does Gadamer’s philosophy of experience
advance beyond Dewey’s experimental model? How does a Deweyan view
of moral or political education look in light of Arendt’s theory of judgment
or Freire’s theory of dialogical education? Does Ricoeur’s narrative theory
of the self supplement a Deweyan view of literary education, and does
Foucault’s genealogical conception of history complement or undermine
Dewey’s notion of an historical education?
These are the questions that orient the following studies. In addressing
them I have endeavored to bring Dewey’s thought into contact with ideas not
radically unlike his own or, at any rate, that are sufficiently commensurable
with it to make productive dialogue possible. Conversation across philosoph-
ical traditions is always difficult but rarely impossible, and while it is clear that
Dewey was not well disposed to continental philosophy much after Hegel, or
especially knowledgeable of it, deep affinities do exist between Dewey and
several strains in the continental thought of the twentieth century. Some of
these affinities are traceable to his profound and lifelong indebtedness to
Hegel while other similarities will be due to factors less readily identifiable.
Dewey was a profoundly American philosopher, one for whom the works of
his European contemporaries for the most part held little or no interest, in
spite of his deeply phenomenological sensibility and the important similari-
ties between his work and much of what was happening in French and (espe-
cially) German philosophy during his lifetime. While in 1930 Dewey would
describe how his ‘acquaintance with Hegel has left a permanent deposit in my
thinking’, the same cannot be said of the continental thought of his day.3
Indeed, even his knowledge of such key figures as Nietzsche, Husserl, and
Heidegger was surprisingly scant, with no or very few references to their works
appearing in Dewey’s writings, and none demonstrating a proper under-
standing of their significance or affinity to his own thought.
My own views on education will emerge in the confrontations between
Dewey and the above-mentioned theorists. Part 1 looks at Dewey in connec-
tion with two of the most important figures in twentieth-century phenome-
nology and hermeneutics: Heidegger and Gadamer. After examining in
some detail Dewey’s conceptions of experience and thinking, I shall place
10 Introduction

these views in relation to Gadamer’s conception of experience (Chapter 2)

and Heidegger’s notion of thinking (Chapter 3). I also return in Part 1
(Chapter 1) to an old distinction in the philosophy of education between
progressivism and conservatism, the contemporary relevance of which is
plain to see. Conservatism remains alive and well in some influential circles,
although its recent incarnations differ in some ways from the forms of tradi-
tional instruction that Dewey sharply criticized. This distinction still emerges
into the foreground of current debates, although more often it operates in
the background. I return to it in order to situate and clarify Dewey’s position
as well as to enframe the argument of this book.
Part 2 applies the principled framework developed in Part 1 to the
teaching of several disciplines of the human sciences. The disciplines are
philosophy (Chapter 4), religion (Chapter 5), ethics (Chapter 6), politics
(Chapter 7), history (Chapter 8), and literature (Chapter 9), and our inter-
locutors in the same order are Nietzsche, Caputo, Arendt, Freire, Foucault,
and Ricoeur. The list of disciplines is clearly non-exhaustive and is based in
part on Dewey’s interests, in part on my own, and in part on the need to
avoid undue repetition in the argument. The chapters in Part 2 are arranged
in no particular order. Their guiding questions concern the aims that
fundamentally orient teaching and learning in these fields and what the
marks of success of an historical, literary, or moral education might be.
While this book is an inquiry in the philosophy of education, I hope it will
be found relevant not only to philosophers but to those in the various
branches of the human sciences who have a serious interest in education,
and not only at the university level. These reflections pertain most directly to
university education, but they apply as well to teachers in secondary institu-
tions who are charged with teaching literature, history, and related subjects.
If there is still such a thing as an educated reading public, as I believe there
is, hopefully this book will not be irrelevant to them as well.

1. Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987).
2. Martin Heidegger, What Is Called Thinking?, trans. J. Glenn Gray (New York: Harper
and Row, 1968), 4.
3. Dewey, ‘From Absolutism to Experimentalism’ (1930). LW 5: 154.

The Educative Process

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Chapter 1

Beyond Progressivism and Conservatism

Progressivism as a movement in the philosophy of education is associated in

historical terms primarily with the early and middle decades of the twentieth
century in North America and Europe, and with the writings of such figures
as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Herbert Spencer, Jean Piaget, John Dewey,
William Heard Kilpatrick, and Clarence Kingsley. Its basic principles were
formulated in reaction against traditional methods of direct and whole-class
instruction, memorization and learning by rote, standardized subject matters
and standardized tests, emphasis on grades and competition, and a tradi-
tional curriculum of information and skills considered useful in later life.
Advocates of progressive education reacted strongly against the conservatism
of traditional educational institutions, favoring not only new methods of
teaching and learning but as their political accompaniment a far more
liberal ethos for which individual activity and the development of autonomy
supplanted older values of conservation and socio-cultural transmission.
Progressives favored more active, collaborative, and experiential modes of
learning, greater choice of educational goals and subject matters, and the
placing of educational policy more generally on a politically liberal and
scientifically secure basis. New theories of psychological and cognitive devel-
opment seemed to undermine many of the methods of traditional education
and to entail new, ‘developmentally appropriate’ approaches to pedagogy
and curriculum.
Progressivism would have a radical effect on education in the twentieth
century, and while the term itself is dated and perhaps passé, its legacy
remains very much with us. Several of its principles have become something
of an orthodoxy in current educational research and teaching colleges even
while being transformed in a great many ways, often to the point of unrec-
ognizability. Progressivism has become a part of the common knowledge that
educational theorists and practitioners largely share, even as the writings of
its classical theorists remain largely unread by those in the business of
applying them. Presently, advocates and critics of progressivism alike often
demonstrate a surprising lack of familiarity with its history, including
the writings of its foremost philosophical representative. John Dewey’s
philosophy of education is presently in the odd position of constituting an

14 The Educative Process

important part of the current thinking that prevails among most theorists
and practitioners of education while the texts themselves are often forgot-
ten, caricatured, or misread. Conservative and other critics of progressive
education are often similarly inclined toward misinterpretation of Dewey in
particular, often faulting him for good reason or bad for what they consider
the failings of our educational institutions.1 While we continue to hear of the
enduring legacy of progressive education and the pre-eminent status of
Dewey in that movement, progressivism can also appear to be a merely
historical phenomenon which recent advances in educational research have
consigned to the past along with its conservative antithesis. A vital question
becomes whether the old dispute between progressives and conservatives has
lost its relevance in light of findings in the philosophical and especially the
scientific dimension of education. Philosophical debates often appear to
have been superseded by developments in learning theory and developmen-
tal psychology in particular, raising the hope in many minds that the essen-
tial business of education might finally transcend the contested realm of
politics and philosophy and be placed on a scientific foundation.
The prospect of education becoming a purely scientific, technical, or
otherwise non-philosophical field of research is one that should give us
pause. While the dichotomy of progressive or conservative education may
well need to be replaced it must first be worked through in dialectical
fashion. If this opposition is to be superseded, this will occur not on a scien-
tific or technical basis alone but on philosophical grounds. The ultimate
questions of education have always been and will remain philosophical,
despite the efforts of many to transform them into purely technical issues. In
one sense this old binary opposition is of merely historical interest as the
conversation moves on and different issues come to the fore, yet in a deeper
sense the dichotomy, or at least the distinction, remains very much with us.
New forms of educational conservatism and of what might still be character-
ized as progressivism, however loosely, have many defenders at the present
time both in theoretical discourse and at the policy level, obliging us to
revisit some of the questions that Dewey was engaged with a century ago,
albeit in altered form. As two commentators have recently pointed out, ‘It
might be argued that classical progressivist approaches and methods, at least
in some school systems, have become the new orthodoxy.’2 It is undoubtedly
not an orthodoxy that Dewey envisioned, but it retains at least a family
resemblance with his philosophy of education and with other classical
progressive views which claimed to be influenced by him.
The continuing relevance of this distinction is also apparent in recent
defenses of educational conservatism from such writers as R. S. Peters, Allan
Bloom, and E. D. Hirsch, the latter two of whose views I shall examine in this
chapter. The purchase that conservative views have gained, particularly
Beyond Progressivism and Conservatism 15

among policy-makers, politicians, and the general public, makes them

impossible to ignore, even as we may be tempted to do so. They serve as a
reminder that while the theoretical discourse has in many ways moved on
from the progressive/conservative debate, the real world of education
remains fundamentally oriented by this distinction. Our present vocabular-
ies remain oriented around notions of conservation and ‘cultural literacy’,
the efficient transmission and retention of information, vocational and
professional values, as well as by student- versus curriculum-centeredness,
individual autonomy and development, students’ experience and nature,
discovery learning, critical thinking, and so on. These vocabularies continue
to generate heated political debate between liberals and conservatives, of
course, and are prominent in the culture wars that continue to loom large in
public debate. While ‘it is tempting’, as David Carr writes, ‘to suppose that
the weary centuries-old debates between traditionalists and progressivists
might once and for all be settled by value-neutral scientific method’, efforts
by educational theorists and researchers to transcend these debates typically
remain within their orbit, often by endeavoring to subject these views to
empirical or quasi-empirical examination. The opposition of progressive or
conservative education is, as Carr correctly observes, ‘a real and persisting
one’ and ‘is alive and well in almost every contemporary public debate about
educational policy’.3
Perhaps the most basic hypothesis of progressivism is that education must
be tailored to the students’ nature and experience, and where this nature is
understood on a developmental model. Enlisting empirical psychology, this
basic hypothesis has given rise to ambitious investigation into early develop-
ment and learning theory as well as into the psycho-social dimension of
education. As educational discourse assumed an increasingly scientific and
psychological guise throughout the course of the twentieth century, the
imperative to legitimate teaching methods and the curriculum with refer-
ence to the latest findings of developmental psychology has become para-
mount. The conventional wisdom, and no longer among progressives alone,
is that educational matters can and must be scientifically grounded. The
necessity of making it scientific is so widely felt at present that even many
conservatives and other antiprogressives increasingly attempt to turn the
discourse of empirical psychology to their advantage. ‘Research shows’ has
become a singularly ubiquitous phrase in departments of education which
are anxiously seeking to establish their scientific credentials within the
When conservatives are not questioning the empirical basis of progres-
sivism, they are frequently given to holding this philosophy in particular
responsible for the failings of contemporary education. The criticisms here
are many, and include the charge that an over-concentration on or simple
16 The Educative Process

misunderstanding of students’ nature and experience has eclipsed the

matter of their acquiring information that is important for reasons of both
cultural transmission and practical life. Graduates of institutions at all levels,
we now regularly hear, possess too little knowledge in terms of the Western
canon in general and also in terms of practically useful information, a devel-
opment attributable, its critics allege, to the influence of progressivism in
general and often of Dewey in particular.4 The criticism is often couched in
economic terms: either an individual graduate’s or an entire generation’s
lack of knowledge causes an unpreparedness for productive work and in turn
a loss of national competitiveness with foreign economies. The global com-
petition for prosperity will be won, we so often hear, by economies whose
workforces possess the most useful and up-to-date information available,
especially as this pertains to mathematics and science in an increasingly tech-
nological world. Progressivism’s de-emphasis on practical information is the
cause of our falling behind our national competitors in the quest for wealth.
Another argument decries the loss of culture among younger generations
due to the displacement of the traditional Western canon, as important fields
of study are either postponed for later grades or removed from the curricu-
lum altogether on grounds of developmental appropriateness. Lack of
acquaintance with traditional subject matters causes students to become
culturally adrift, their minds and characters being deprived of proper nour-
ishment. Progressive methods, it is alleged, have diminished the importance
of knowledge itself, particularly informational knowledge about traditional
fields of study such as history, literature, and language, rendering students
ignorant of their own cultural traditions in efforts to emphasize problem-
solving and critical thinking skills of which traditionalists are often skeptical.
Especially intriguing are critiques of progressivism that single out Dewey
as the source of our current educational woes. The charge has been made
for a few decades now that Dewey, being the pre-eminent theorist of pro-
gressivism, bears ultimate responsibility for the movement’s excesses and
failures, whatever these are said to be. Thus Allan Bloom, for one, alleges
that Dewey is the source of American students’ present lack of historical
knowledge; Dewey, he writes, ‘saw the past as radically imperfect and
regarded our history as irrelevant or as a hindrance to rational analysis of our
present’.5 Another critic claims that Dewey’s ‘concept of reconstruction in
education, which includes problem solving and critical thinking, represents
a narrow, technical application of reason’, while a couple of other recent
critics’ views may be gleaned from the titles of their books: John Dewey and the
Decline of American Education (Henry Edmondson) and Getting It Wrong From
the Beginning: Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and
Jean Piaget (Kieran Egan).6 Perhaps the most general complaint against
Dewey in this regard is that his views have led to a deterioration in academic
Beyond Progressivism and Conservatism 17

standards at all educational levels due to his ostensible de-emphasis on

traditional subject matter and overemphasis on the students’ nature and
experience. His defense of active learning rendered old-fashioned learning
from books passé, thereby discouraging students from gaining an adequate
appreciation of the canon or sufficient knowledge for later life.
What makes such critiques intriguing is that Dewey himself addressed
them and as far back as 1938 leveled strikingly similar criticisms at progres-
sives who had claimed to be following his lead. Experience and Education is an
important text in that Dewey here clarified and refined the argument of
Democracy and Education (1916) and numerous other works in light of the
impact that progressive ideas were beginning to have and the misinterpreta-
tions of his views which were becoming, and unfortunately remain, common-
place. In this clearly written and brief text Dewey reminded both progressive
and conservative educators of the need to reject the false oppositions that
both camps had accepted uncritically and which he himself had rejected from
the beginning. Student- or curriculum-centeredness, critical reflection or
conservation, active or passive learning, interest or discipline and other
dichotomies that divided early progressives and traditionalists, and indeed
dichotomous thinking in general, Dewey categorically rejected, and not only
in his educational writings. Dewey’s style of thought on all subjects was invari-
ably dialectical and suspicious of the tendency toward binary oppositions
that has been prevalent since the beginning of the Western philosophical
tradition. The still prevalent misinterpretation of Dewey as a defender of
child-centered education was one he was already trying to dispel in 1902:

[Let us] get rid of the prejudicial notion that there is some gap in kind (as
distinct from degree) between the child’s experience and the various
forms of subject-matter that make up the course of study. From the side of
the child it is a question of seeing how his experience already contains
within itself elements – facts and truths – of just the same sort as those
entering into the formulated study; and what is of more importance, how
it contains within itself the attitudes, the motives and the interests which
have operated in developing and organizing the subject-matter to the
plane which it now occupies.7

The persistence of such misinterpretation was a frequent source of frustra-

tion for Dewey and by the 1938 text had moved him to undertake a larger-
scale clarification of views he had already expressed numerous times in the
past. The argument of Experience and Education takes particular aim at
Dewey’s would-be follower William Heard Kilpatrick, whose book of 1925,
Foundations of Method, had exerted wide influence on the development of
progressive ideas. As Robert Westbrook writes,
18 The Educative Process

Though Dewey rarely named names in his criticisms of progressive

reform, one of his principal targets was William H. Kilpatrick, his col-
league at Columbia University, whose ‘project method’ was perhaps the
single most influential practical curriculum reform to emerge from child-
centered progressivism. The Teachers College Record distributed some sixty
thousand reprints of the 1918 article in which Kilpatrick first described
the project method, and by the twenties Kilpatrick was the dominant
figure at the leading school of education in the country. . . . Kilpatrick
thought of himself as Dewey’s disciple. . . . But [Dewey] insisted that
projects must have as one of their goals the child’s mastery of organized
subjects. . . . [M]uch of what critics then (and now) attacked as aimless,
contentless ‘Deweyism’ was in fact aimless, contentless ‘Kilpatrickism’.8

The disparagement of subject matter which came to be associated with

progressivism had nothing whatever to do with Dewey’s texts or with the so-
called Laboratory School at the University of Chicago which was modeled on
these texts and overseen by Dewey himself. Rather, it was Kilpatrick and
other early progressives, many of whom claimed Dewey as an influence while
misreading or neglecting his texts, who formulated the new philosophy in
simple oppositional terms to the older practice, creating a new set of
dichotomies which Dewey emphatically rejected, and the legacy of which is
with us still.
As Dewey would write in this text,

There is always the danger in a new movement that in rejecting the aims
and methods of that which it would supplant, it may develop its principles
negatively rather than positively and constructively. Then it takes its clew
in practice from that which is rejected instead of from the constructive
development of its own philosophy.

This was the fundamental mistake of the progressive movement, he main-

tained, and a grievous one since the new doctrine was being formulated in
undialectical, reactionary terms. Thus experience was placed in false oppo-
sition to tradition, active to passive learning, interest to discipline, and so on,
with the predictable consequence that the latter value in each of these
pairings was replaced by the former, and with unfortunate consequences. As
he observed in the same context:

[M]any of the newer schools tend to make little or nothing of organized

subject-matter of study; to proceed as if any form of direction and
guidance by adults were an invasion of individual freedom, and as if the
idea of education should be concerned with the present and future meant
Beyond Progressivism and Conservatism 19

that acquaintance with the past has little or no role to play in education.
Without pressing these defects to the point of exaggeration, they at least
illustrate what is meant by a theory and practice of education which
proceeds negatively or by reaction against what has been current in
education rather than by a positive and constructive development of
purposes, methods, and subject-matter on the foundation of a theory of
experience and its educational potentialities.9

Far from being diminished in importance, organized subject matter and

book learning were to be regarded as instruments within a larger investiga-
tive process, with the student in the role of researcher in an intellectually
rigorous sense of the word. Education as Dewey envisioned it is a demanding
affair in which traditional skills of reading, writing, and so on are pressed
into service within larger fields of experience, not placed in false opposition
to experience and divested of importance thereby. Similarly, Dewey made
much of the concept of interest as a source of students’ motivation, yet
without creating a dichotomy between interest and discipline, as many other
progressives would and inevitably at the expense of the latter. The students’
existing interests, he argued, are neither to be ignored nor fetishized but
guided along properly educative channels and brought into contact with an
organized curriculum. ‘[T]he danger of the “new education”’, he would
write in The Child and the Curriculum, is ‘that it regards the child’s present
powers and interests as something finally significant in themselves’, a
tendency formulated in reaction to the older practice. The newer tendency
to regard interests as sacrosanct, or to allow students simply to do as they
please, would ‘inevitably . . . result in indulgence and spoiling’. ‘Any power,’
he further argued, ‘whether of child or adult, is indulged when it is taken on
its given and present level in consciousness. Its genuine meaning is in the
propulsion it affords toward a higher level.’10 It was the vital connection of
an organized curriculum to the students’ interests and lived experience that
Dewey constantly emphasized, an idea that in no way entailed the neglect of
subject matter. Unfortunately, the movement that Dewey had helped to
inspire lacked the dialectical nuance and flexibility of Dewey’s own views,
leaving these views to be caricatured for decades by critics and ostensible
followers alike.
Determining the actual influence that Dewey has had on the practice of
education, or indeed on the theory, is a rather difficult matter in view of the
widespread misunderstanding that originally greeted his works and which
continues to do so. For a few generations now educators at all levels know of
the importance of John Dewey as an early figure in the progressive
movement and frequently acquire a little knowledge about his views, usually
from second-hand sources or textbook descriptions. They will often hear
20 The Educative Process

about the ambiguity and difficulty of his texts, and perhaps for this reason
(or for reasons of their datedness or the fact that they may not be required
reading in educational faculties and teaching colleges) do not read them. Yet
the idea persists that Dewey has had an all-pervasive influence on both the
theory and practice of education. One recent and rather vociferous critic,
for example, alleges that Dewey has had a disastrous effect on American
education in particular while also noting (apparently without noticing the
contradiction) that ‘[i]t is impossible to determine exactly how much influ-
ence Dewey has had on American education’. The same critic writes:

Unfortunately, despite his iconic status, Dewey is rarely read and his work
is poorly understood in public schools and in colleges of education.
Future teachers often learn a little bit ‘about’ Dewey the man and
educator, but they are never given the opportunity to assess critically the
Deweyan ideas that underlie their classes and permeate their professional

Even the assertion that ‘Deweyan ideas’ in some form or other have had a
profound impact on education is difficult to assess precisely for the reason
that the texts themselves are seldom read by educators and are badly carica-
tured. Speaking of Dewey’s early influence, Sidney Hook noted in 1939 that

[a]s important as that influence has been – and no recent theoretical

influence has been more important – it has been limited. Limited by the
way it has been interpreted, limited by the way it has been applied, limited
by the absence of certain social conditions whose existence its ideals
presupposed – and limited, above all, in comparison with the tremendous
possibilities of educational reconstruction which would follow from a
nationwide experiment in carrying out its basic principles.12

Of course, this large-scale experiment was never effected, educators and

administrators being in the main far more concerned with practical realities
than philosophical ideas. Perhaps the most accurate statement we can make
in this regard is that a highly distorted rendering of Dewey’s philosophy of
education – essentially ‘Kilpatrickism’, as Westbrook calls it – has indeed
exercised a large influence on the conventional wisdom within teaching
colleges and university departments of education, and in a way that has never
translated into the kind of classroom practice that Dewey, and perhaps even
Kilpatrick, envisioned.
Recent decades have seen a new influence emerge which increasingly
dominates the official thinking within educational departments and
teaching colleges as well as the actual practices of teaching and learning, an
Beyond Progressivism and Conservatism 21

influence that bears less and less resemblance to Dewey’s views. While still
showing signs of continuity with progressivism, the more recent trend has
taken a decided turn toward the scientific, the technical, and the managerial.
The matter of how students learn – different categories of students at differ-
ent stages of development – has become the dominant issue in the discourse
of education. Dewey as well posed the general question of ‘how we think’
(not least in his 1910 book of that title, published again in revised form in
1933), yet while his approach to this question can be best described as
phenomenological, the current thinking is framed strictly within a vocabu-
lary of empirical and developmental psychology, a non-phenomenological
and ostensibly apolitical methodology. Education, according to this new
orthodoxy, is essentially a scientific matter and its central question is one of
technique: how (not why or whether) to bring about certain predetermined
educational ‘outcomes’. These outcomes are often described in vaguely pro-
gressive terms, to be sure. The language of individual growth and autonomy,
of creativity and critical thinking, now enjoys very broad appeal and is
coupled with a more political terminology of empowerment and democratic
equality. To all appearances the spirit of progressive education lives on, yet
on closer inspection it appears closer to the truth to say that certain Deweyan
themes have been thoroughly transformed and perhaps co-opted to lend
legitimacy to a philosophy that Dewey would have rejected.
The broad outlines of this trend are as follows. It includes a decided
emphasis on technology, particularly the use of computers in an ever more
pervasive way, an exhortation toward managerial efficiency and cost-
effectiveness, the concept of the student as customer and the educator as
resource, service provider, or facilitator of a kind, student-centeredness, an
emphasis on ‘learning outcomes’ conceived as tangible and measurable
results of one kind or another, general skills of problem-solving and critical
thinking, the acquisition of useful information, particularly in the areas of
mathematics and science, cognitive and psycho-social development, the
various and growing number of learning styles, individual autonomy, educa-
tion as a commodity, and so on. Increasingly it is the language not only of
science and technology but of the marketplace that dominates the discourse
of education (I would not say the philosophy of education in view of the res-
olutely un- or indeed antiphilosophical nature of so much of this discussion).
A general mindset of technology and of scientific and economic rationality
is now so entrenched, and its basic orientation so contrary to Dewey’s stance,
that its connection with progressive education is increasingly difficult to see.
Perhaps the most accurate description of the current thinking in educa-
tion remains one put forward in 1979 by Jean-François Lyotard in his well-
known book The Postmodern Condition, in which he pronounced a diagnosis
of the state of education, research, and knowledge in general in the second
22 The Educative Process

half of the twentieth century. To be educated, he wrote, now means to have

mastered all the various bits of informational knowledge that are necessary
for the maintenance of efficiency and for the optimizing of technological
and economic use-value. According to the new standard of ‘performativity’,

The question (overt or implied) now asked by the professionalist student,

the state, or institutions of higher education is no longer ‘Is it true?’ but
‘What use is it?’ In the context of the mercantilization of knowledge, more
often than not this question is equivalent to: ‘Is it saleable?’ And in the
context of power-growth: ‘Is it efficient?’

Knowledge in postmodernity, on this influential account, has been reduced

to the status of a commodity, and along with it the whole business of educa-
tion, particularly at the post-secondary level which is the focus of Lyotard’s
analysis. Values of experimentation, inventiveness, and judgment become
subordinated within a new ethos that is at once positivistic and corporate. It
is the performativity and efficiency of the economic system that drives the
entire process, while ‘[t]he old principle that the acquisition of knowledge
is indissociable from the training (Bildung) of minds, or even of individuals,
is becoming obsolete and will become ever more so’. As education and
research are absorbed within a logic of the marketplace, ‘[k]nowledge is and
will be produced in order to be sold, it is and will be consumed in order to
be valorized in a new production: in both cases, the goal is exchange’.13 The
essential business of educational institutions, accordingly, is the production
and consumption of information which must itself be ‘useful’ in an
economic sense. Its utility consists in the credentials with which it supplies
students intent on entering the workforce and making a living. Knowledge
and education cease to be ends in themselves or essential ingredients of the
good life but are reduced to their functionality.
Lyotard pronounced this diagnosis in 1979 and the trend that he was
describing at that time has continued to gain momentum in the present
‘information age’, as the economy becomes increasingly oriented toward
technology and informational knowledge and as social and political institu-
tions become ever more beholden to technological rationality. He, of course,
is not alone in his diagnosis. It has been a frequent observation among
philosophers in the continental European traditions for a century that
scientific and technological rationality has assumed an altogether dominant
presence in the conduct of social life no less than in the science of nature.
Hans-Georg Gadamer, for instance, remarked upon this phenomenon in
1965 in the following terms, and in a manner reminiscent of his teacher,
Martin Heidegger:
Beyond Progressivism and Conservatism 23

What appears to me to characterize our epoch is not the surprising

control of nature we have achieved, but the development of scientific
methods to guide the life of society. Only with this achievement has the
victorious course of modern science, beginning in the nineteenth century,
become a dominant social factor. The scientific tendencies of thought
underlying our civilization have in our time pervaded all aspects of social
praxis. Scientific market research, scientific warfare, scientific diplomacy,
scientific rearing of the younger generation, scientific leadership of the
people – the application of science to all these fields gives expertise a
commanding position in the economy of society.14

Max Weber’s description of the ‘iron cage of rationality’, Martin Heidegger’s

analysis of ‘science-technology’, and Michel Foucault’s ‘regimes of truth’ all
have relevance here. What all depict is the hegemony of scientific and tech-
nological ways of thinking within social reality and the consequent delegiti-
mation of ways of thinking and knowing that do not fit this model. It is not
surprising, then, that the practice of education and the ways of thinking that
have come to assume a dominant position within it are no exception. Here
as well, a kind of managerial or corporate scientism has largely displaced
progressivism, even as the language of progressive education continues to
have a place in the current thinking. If Dewey’s influence on the progressive
movement was limited, his impact at the present time is slight indeed.
Let us use the expression ‘corporate scientism’ to refer to the general
phenomenon that Lyotard and many other educational theorists have called
to our attention. The first principle of this new positivism is that education
should be scientific. Why this should be so is a question seldom answered
and seldom asked. As a branch of social science, educational research must
be strictly empirical and draw upon the latest findings of empirical psychol-
ogy, cognitive science, sociology, and any other field of inquiry that will
support its claim to constitute a legitimate form of scientific knowledge and
an independent discipline within the university. Educational research must
above all strive to be rigorously methodological and concerned with means
far more than ends. If it cannot be entirely apolitical or value-free, as the
older philosophical positivism urged (together with the requirement to
dismiss metaphysical and evaluative questions as nonsense), it must
approach evaluative matters in as empirical and technical a manner as the
topic will permit. Whenever possible, quantitative methods are employed,
and if it cannot be denied that qualitative ‘methods’ have a place, one
suspects the concession is somewhat grudging, the positivist dichotomy of
fact and value still having considerable purchase.15
The managerial or corporate dimension of the current thinking is
sufficiently evident, I trust, to require little demonstration. The marketing
24 The Educative Process

material of educational departments and teaching colleges alone is un-

ambiguous in its descriptions of the research conducted therein and the
decided emphasis on professional credentials. The vocabulary of economics
is blended with one of technical rationality. As one group of observers notes,

The new theoretical emphases are on statistics and the countable, on

observation and testing, on the useful and on ‘what works’. Its new watch-
words are skills, competences and techniques, flexibility, independence,
targets and performance indicators, qualifications and credentials,
learning outcomes. Profound objections, from both theoretical and
practical perspectives, to established shibboleths are angrily dismissed as
idle or self-indulgent diversions from brute educational necessities. . . .
The standard under which this movement marches is itself that of ‘raising

Two other theorists writing in the same volume similarly lament this new
‘rhetoric of the marketplace’:

Headteachers’ conference bars rang to the sound of ‘marketing strate-

gies’, ‘mission statements’ and ‘business plans’, ‘performance measures’
and ‘performance-related pay’; parents became ‘customers’ or ‘clients’;
heads of department were constituted into ‘senior management teams’
and became ‘line managers’. Schools ‘delivered’ ‘products’ in the most
‘cost-effective’ ways they could invent.17

Surely no one could stand opposed to raising standards or evidence-based

learning outcomes, but the gloss that is put on these terms is increasingly
and crudely economic. The aim is to produce a certain kind of subject and
a certain kind of worker: one that is efficient, informed, technically compe-
tent, and skilled in the execution of tasks spelled out in advance, perhaps not
especially creative or reflective unless this can be disciplined by technique
and turned to profitable use. In the end, one must have a product. It matters
only as a secondary issue whether this be a good or a service, a trade or a
profession, but one must have the necessary preparation and credentials
to enter the workforce, and education is ultimately a means to this end.
Students themselves are consumers of a service, but it is as future producers
that they are trained.
This new corporatism is encouraged by governments that continually
warn of impending economic crisis if education is permitted to go its own
way or underemphasize science and mathematics. Anxiety regarding
economic preparedness is instilled in students’ consciousness, and in such a
way that even the fashionable political language of empowerment becomes
Beyond Progressivism and Conservatism 25

translated in many minds into issues of competitive advantage and the

relative speed at which one is likely to ascend the corporate ladder. The
values of autonomy and freedom shrink down to the freedom to consume
and the secure knowledge that this will not be easily jeopardized in the event
of economic downturn.
Perhaps the most fundamental problem with this managerial and posi-
tivist mindset is its tendency to regard education in general as a mere means
to an end. When this view prevails, it is perfectly irrelevant what end edu-
cation is thought a means of achieving, whether it be economic success,
preservation of tradition, or what have you. Whatever the ultimate ends of
the educative process are, they are nothing outside of that process itself, as I
shall argue throughout this study. What we need to be reminded of is that
while education does surely serve, and has always served, as a means of attain-
ing practical and economic ends, it is also, at a more fundamental level of
interpretation, an end in itself. The meaning and implications of this thesis
will be our focus in the chapters that follow. So as well will be our untimely
claim that education is and will always remain an art. While it undoubtedly
benefits from empirical investigation into human psychology and cognition,
the essence of education remains the search for understanding and self-
understanding that occurs between educators, students, and the subject
matter. The imperative to ‘make it scientific’, whether it be for purposes of
disciplinary legitimation or simply because in an age of science the impera-
tive has become something of an axiom, will not succeed in transforming
what is by its nature an art and a practice into a science or technique. Regard-
ing this art on the behaviorist model of stimulus and response, for instance,
or as any kind of closed causal system in which learning is construed as a
certain kind of effect and teaching a certain cause or technology, constitutes
a profound misunderstanding of this practice and an overestimation of
science. The present enthusiasm for technique and instrumental rationality
must be reminded of its limits and be regarded within a larger context of
education as a cultural practice and art.
A major difficulty of the new corporate scientism that I have described is
that it leaves little room for genuine agency on the part of students and
indeed their educators. The cognitive development and learning outcomes
about which we hear a great deal presuppose a level of personal and intel-
lectual agency together with the conditions that make such agency possible.
The educated mind is fundamentally one with a capacity for free thinking,
an inventive and self-directing agent. It is the human being who is able and
vitally concerned to participate in the conversation that is its culture, who is
therefore learned in the great texts and ideas that make up that conversation
and, no less important, capable of taking it further and relating it to one’s
own existence. Education at a more fundamental level of analysis is not an
26 The Educative Process

outcome or a science but a life process that has no end beyond itself.
Educational institutions no more approximate corporations than students
are human capital in the making or laboratory rats in a behaviorist’s maze.
Their purpose far exceeds instilling virtues of adaptation and efficiency,
but includes such economically useless qualities as inquisitiveness, wonder,
originality, and self-understanding. There is still a place for such values in a
scientific age, and if these and similar intellectual virtues are being de-
emphasized and consequently unlearned in the rage to make it scientific,
then it is not only our educational institutions that are in trouble. What
students must ultimately learn is the art of thinking, yet this is precisely what
defies measurable outcomes, standardization, and formal calculation. While
I shall not urge that the vocabulary of performativity and educational science
be rejected in its entirety – a proposition that is surely absurd – my focus in
this study will be the limits of this vocabulary and its subordinate place within
a roughly Deweyan philosophy of education.
What must not be lost sight of, as Dewey himself never did, are the limits
of science. There is no doubt that knowledge derived from psychology, cog-
nitive science, sociology, and other branches of social science have profitably
informed our understanding of the educative process, particularly regarding
issues of means: how students of different descriptions and at different
maturational levels successfully integrate new knowledge into an established
conceptual framework and how our pedagogical practices may be adjusted
in this light. Enormous quantities of empirical study have devoted them-
selves to this purpose for some decades now; however what too much of this
research overlooks is that the question of how learning takes place is not only
an empirical matter but a properly philosophical one, and that as a philo-
sophical question it calls upon the resources of phenomenology, hermeneu-
tics, and perhaps epistemology. This again is an issue of which Dewey was well
aware and that educational researchers today often are not. Furthermore,
empirical questions regarding the means, or the how, of education remain
subordinate to the matter of its ends, or its why. Here again we are faced with
a philosophical question for which science will not help us, as Dewey also
knew. Empirical investigation will never disclose what the ultimate aims of
education are, or what the whole enterprise is for. It cannot account for
which ‘learning outcomes’ we ought to seek and why, which subject matters
are of importance and why, or any other question pertaining to ends. Like
politics, education is a matter about which we may certainly ask scientific
questions, but a science itself it is not. Treating it as one narrows rather than
deepens our understanding of it and causes us to overlook the often tenuous
connection between empirical – particularly psychological – research and
the actual practices of teaching and learning. Inferences drawn from the
realm of empirical study to what actually takes place in classrooms are often
Beyond Progressivism and Conservatism 27

less than obvious, and educators obliged to bridge these worlds are often and
quite understandably at a loss as to how to do this. The confusion itself is
instructive, I would suggest, and affects very little whether education
succeeds or fails. Educational success depends to a great extent on the intan-
gibles and unquantifiables of the classroom, precisely on that which no
method can teach. There is no technique for instilling a fascination with
history, a capacity for inventive interpretation, or a sense of justice.
It is on this last point that Lyotard placed his emphasis. The heart and soul
of education, on his account, is the students’ own capacity for novelty in fash-
ioning ideas and in questioning received bodies of knowledge. Research and
education are likewise centered on dissension rather than consensus.
Success occurs when we are able to invent novel moves within settled
language games or, better still, to invent new language games and thus
‘disturb the order of “reason”’.18 The truest indicator of educational success
is that for which there is no science and no method: the power of the imag-
ination to destabilize what presently passes for knowledge and to invent new
ways of seeing the world. The conditions that would make this possible, of
course, are not present when imperatives of scientificity and performativity
gain a dominant position, effectively creating a world that is ever more an
object of calculation and administration and of means over ends.
Corporate scientism has little use for the intangibles of education or for
that which cannot be brought within an ethos of scientific and economic
rationality. The arts and humanities in particular are regularly, and quite
inevitably, deemed unnecessary luxuries in comparison with the sciences and
mathematics and the utilitarian benefits that these disciplines provide.
Those champions of the arts and humanities who are obligated to plead
their case within a vocabulary that is foreign, if not antithetical, to them are
engaged in a losing cause indeed. No cost–benefit analysis redeems the study
of music or philosophy. The problem here is not that we are unable to
provide such an accounting – without resorting to clever but inauthentic
marketing – but that we are required to do so.

The conservatism of Allan Bloom

The new managerial positivism that I have been describing can be alternately
described as the latest form, perhaps the dead end, of progressivism or as an
attempt by means of objective science to transcend the progressive/conserv-
ative opposition altogether. A case can be made for either interpretation,
however if by progressivism we have in mind a philosophy stemming directly
from Dewey’s writings, then the former reading would be misleading. A pos-
itivist in any sense Dewey most certainly was not.19 His faith in what he would
often call ‘scientific intelligence’ bears little relation to the scientism that we
28 The Educative Process

presently see and would never lead him to overlook the limits of scientific
knowledge or to regard education itself as a science. Fundamentally, Dewey’s
project was never to issue a prescription proclaiming under the banner of
science what education should be but to describe what it is. It is, he argued,
a process that is continuous with human experience more generally, not
something that can be sharply distinguished from the ordinary life of
students and not merely a means to an end of whatever kind. The educative
process has ends internal to itself, and it is these ends that provide the whole
business of teaching and learning with their basic orientation. This idea has
been lost sight of by progressives and positivists alike. If there are grounds in
Dewey’s philosophy, as there undoubtedly are, on which to critique the cor-
porate scientism of the present, there are other, more conservative, grounds
on which to do so as well. Surprisingly perhaps, some of these arguments
Dewey himself advanced, yet their contemporary proponents most often call
not for a critical appropriation of Dewey’s thought but for an unDeweyan
return of sorts to traditional education.
Allan Bloom and E. D. Hirsch are particularly interesting cases in point.
Their views warrant attention here for reasons of both the considerable influ-
ence they have had since the nearly simultaneous publication in 1987 of
Bloom’s bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind and Hirsch’s bestseller,
Cultural Literacy, as well as the evidence they provide of the continuing
relevance of the progressive/conservative distinction and the inherent
merits of at least some of their arguments. Bloom’s version of educational
conservatism begins with a broad-ranging critique of education in American
universities or of particular trends within them, the primary sources of
which, Bloom asserts, are the thought not of Dewey or Kilpatrick but of
Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger.20 While I cannot do justice here
to the scope of Bloom’s harsh and wide-ranging critique, the main thrust of
it concerns the lack of knowledge of and reverence for the canon which has
become commonplace among the university students of today – or of 1987,
although this has hardly changed in more recent years. As Bloom writes,
‘Today’s select students know so much less, are so much more cut off from
the tradition, are so much slacker intellectually, that they make their pre-
decessors look like prodigies of culture.’ Speaking of the students whom
Bloom taught during the latter part of his career in comparison with those
he encountered at the beginning, he laments:

The loss of the books [the great canonical texts of the Western tradition]
has made them narrower and flatter. Narrower because they lack what is
most necessary, a real basis for discontent with the present and awareness
that there are alternatives to it. They are both more contented with what
is and despairing of ever escaping from it. The longing for the beyond has
Beyond Progressivism and Conservatism 29

been attenuated. The very models of admiration and contempt have

vanished. Flatter, because without interpretations of things, without the
poetry or the imagination’s activity, their souls are like mirrors, not of
nature, but of what is around. The refinement of the mind’s eye that
permits it to see the delicate distinctions among men, among their deeds
and their motives, and constitutes real taste, is impossible without the
assistance of literature in the grand style.21

The kind of ignorance about which Bloom worries is far less a lack of practi-
cal, informational knowledge which students of prior generations possessed
in greater quantity but a lack of acquaintance with and deep appreciation for
the great works of literature, art, philosophy, and so on which, for Bloom, still
constitutes the heart and soul of education. The humanities in particular have
fallen into disarray since ‘[w]ith the “information explosion”, tradition has
become superfluous’. Rather than being a source of edification or inspira-
tion, tradition has become merely the dead weight of the past if not an
oppressive force or a cause of boredom. No longer do students believe that
the canon is where they may expect to find truths more profound than in
popular culture or the mass media. As reverence for the canon erodes, so too
do students’ capacities for depth of feeling and aesthetic appreciation, for
separating what is important from what is trivial, and for gravity or seriousness
of purpose. The love of reading and expectation of personal improvement
through reading the classics are disappearing and being replaced by more
immediate forms of entertainment. Education and students’ characters them-
selves have become shallow and unimaginative as the more ultimate matters
of life disappear from view and as utilitarian values and ‘careerism [become]
the centerpiece of the university’.22 Books and ideas no longer change the
lives of the young but, when they are attended to at all, provide a pleasing
diversion from the business of acquiring professional credentials.
The very raison d’être of the university is in question, Bloom maintains,
when students are no longer expected to know the tradition in which they
stand and to gain a proper appreciation of its canonical texts. Students who
do not read fail to understand themselves and become more alike in their
thinking and actions due to a lack of awareness that what is might be other-
wise. As Bloom expresses this rather important point, ‘the failure to read
good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal
tendency – the belief that the here and now is all there is’.23 It is literature in
particular that educates the imagination and instills both the means and the
desire to understand human existence differently. It is, then, no lack of
funding or underattention to the basics that is the source of educational
failure but a forgetfulness of the university’s proper mission and the conse-
quent neglect of the arts and humanities.
30 The Educative Process

If this is the cause of what ails the contemporary university, then the
remedy is not far to seek:

Of course, the only serious solution is the one that is almost universally
rejected: the good old Great Books approach, in which a liberal education
means reading certain generally recognized classic texts, just reading
them, letting them dictate what the questions are and the method of
approaching them – not forcing them into categories we make up, not
treating them as historical products, but trying to read them as their
authors wished them to be read.

Tradition, accordingly, is the very essence of good education, and it is its

preservation, not its critique or disruption, and not its contribution to resolv-
ing the problems of the present, that is the appropriate goal of a university
education. On the question of how students and their educators should
approach the great texts of the past, he remarks:

There is an enormous difference between saying, as teachers once did,

‘You must learn to see the world as Homer or Shakespeare did’, and
saying, as teachers now do, ‘Homer and Shakespeare had some of the
same concerns you do and can enrich your vision of the world.’ In the
former approach students are challenged to discover new experiences
and reassess old; in the latter, they are free to use the books in any way
they please.

Beyond Bloom’s call for a return to the canon he offers little or nothing by
way of recommendations for educational reform. As he puts it, ‘One cannot
and should not hope for a general reform. The hope is that the embers do
not die out.’24 One keeps tradition alive as it were by placing it carefully
under glass and urging students to study its features, to transport themselves
into the past without any apparent concern for transforming the present and
without any genuine critique. This in a phrase is the nature and goal of edu-
cational conservatism: the point is to conserve. It is also to encounter texts
in the manner in which their authors would have wished: with an attitude of
receptivity and indeed reverence. The point is not to take issue with the texts
or with tradition itself but rather to preserve it in essentially unaltered form.
Bloom’s traditionalism, like all forms of this doctrine, represents a mis-
understanding of the very nature of tradition and the way in which it repro-
duces itself. When culture or tradition is a living phenomenon rather than
merely the dead weight of the past, which Bloom fears it has become in the
hands of today’s students, it is appropriated selectively, critically, and with an
eye to how it may in one way or another serve the needs of the present. We
Beyond Progressivism and Conservatism 31

become slaves to the past when we encounter it in the reverential and passive
manner that Bloom recommends. While we may have a certain sympathy –
indeed a great deal – for his lament for the erosion of the canon, the failure
to instill in students a passion for reading, and the narrowing of perspective
and slackening of thought that this causes, the remedy does not lie in an
uncritical conservatism. Nor does the respect for tradition entail any manner
of traditionalism, if by this term we mean the insistence on preserving the
past in unaltered form. What distinguishes a living from a moribund tradi-
tion is precisely that the former is appropriated in the way in which one joins
a conversation that began long ago: by listening and learning, to be sure, but
equally, and perhaps more essentially, by participating in it. To participate in
tradition, or to take it up authentically, always means to carry it forward, to
apply it to present circumstances, and more than occasionally to critique and
transform it, sometimes radically. Where tradition is not a source of dogma-
tism and intellectual conformity it is a conversation which students and all
members of a culture are called upon to take up and creatively transform.
Keeping tradition alive therefore does not consist in merely preserving the
embers or in any museum tour through the canon. It amounts not to a
simple repetition of the past but to a task of critical appropriation, and it is
the critical dimension that traditionalists like Bloom either underemphasize,
ignore, or deny. The slackness and narrowing of intellect about which he
rightfully worries is not remedied by having students adopt quite as passive
and unresisting a stance toward tradition as Bloom recommends. If he is
correct in his view that the ‘most fatal tendency’ to which students can
succumb is ‘the belief that the here and now is all there is’, it is incorrect to
assert that the only or best alternative to the present is the past. Dissolving
the common assumption that how matters currently stand is either
axiomatic, natural, or ahistorically given is indeed fundamental to education
and to wisdom itself. (This is not, incidentally, an original insight of Bloom’s,
and was a major theme in the writings of both Nietzsche and Heidegger, the
ostensible sources of the ills Bloom describes.) What is, will not always be,
nor has it always been so; there are alternatives to the present arrangement
of things, whether we are speaking of social institutions, worldviews, or what
have you. When this lesson is not imparted, one goes through life overly con-
tented with what is and unable to imagine that things could be otherwise.
Undoubtedly the commonness of this phenomenon represents an important
educational failure, however it is eminently doubtful both that there was a
time in the past (Bloom’s youth perhaps) when this failure or this assump-
tion was less prevalent and that the remedy to it lies in a traditionalism that
is equally dogmatic.
Bloom’s conservatism should not be dismissed outright, as many have
done (understandably, given the harsh and often cantankerous tone of his
32 The Educative Process

critique), but viewed within a larger context. Conservation of tradition is

about equally fundamental to education as its critique and application to the
present. One learns not merely about the past but also from it, and where
the latter signifies more than that one is able to see the world as Homer did
(important as that is) but that one is able to apply what one has learned – the
lessons of history, for example – in one’s critical understanding of the
present. This does not mean that in reading the classics students ‘are free to
use the books in any way they please’, but very nearly the opposite: they are
free, and indeed obliged, to turn what lessons they learn from such texts to
constructive use in their present ways of thinking and experience of life. Nor
is this a formula for disconnection from tradition but a precondition of its
authentic appropriation.

The conservatism of E. D. Hirsch

Similar difficulties arise in other forms of educational conservatism, including
the influential formulation defended for the last two decades by E. D. Hirsch.
Like Bloom, Hirsch laments the general decline in standards that progressive
and student-centered approaches have purportedly brought about in what
has come to be called, owing to his well-known book of that title, ‘cultural
literacy’. Evidence of decline Hirsch finds less in students’ relative lack of
knowledge and appreciation of canonical texts than in the deficit in infor-
mational knowledge that is demonstrated by standardized test scores. Citing
as evidence the test scores of students attending institutions implementing
ostensibly progressive policies relative to both nations that have never imple-
mented such policies and the same institutions prior to their introduction,
Hirsch and many other conservatives speak of an alarming and prevalent
decline in knowledge among students at all stages of the learning process.
What has declined in particular, according to Hirsch, is culturally shared
information which traditional pedagogical methods accentuate as a means of
cultural reproduction. The consciousness of the student Hirsch conceives in
quasi-empiricist terms as a kind of mental container empty at the beginning
of the learning process and awaiting to be filled by subject matters which con-
stitute the ‘intellectual capital’ necessary for later reflection, a conception
that counsels a return to direct and whole-class instruction, a standardized
curriculum, standardized testing, memory work, and so on.25
According to Hirsch, it is the nature of education and the duty of educa-
tors to impart to students large quantities of information that is deemed to
be of cultural significance. The aim of teaching and learning at all levels is
the amassing of ‘factual knowledge’ in ‘the traditional disciplines’ by means
of ‘drill and practice, memorization, whole-class instruction’, and other
traditional pedagogical techniques.26 If we are to take seriously the crisis in
Beyond Progressivism and Conservatism 33

education which progressivism in particular has brought about and which is

proven by low scores by international standards on standardized tests – tests
that Hirsch regards as wholly objective indicators of educational success or
failure – then we must rehabilitate the techniques of traditional education
which Dewey and the progressives rejected. Hirsch’s ‘core knowledge
movement’, accordingly, represents ‘a countervailing theory of education
that once again stresses the importance of specific information in early and
late schooling’. He continues, in a vein that purports to be scientific:

The corrective theory might be described as an anthropological theory of

education, because it is based on the anthropological observation that all
human communities are founded upon specific shared information.
Americans are different from Germans, who in turn are different from
Japanese, because each group possesses specifically different cultural
knowledge. In an anthropological perspective, the basic goal of education
in a human community is acculturation, the transmission to children of
the specific information shared by the adults of the group or polis.

Deploying the same rhetoric of science that he decries, often heatedly,

among progressives and other contemporary educational theorists, Hirsch
appeals to the science of anthropology and the contention made by some
(certainly not all) in that field that the pre-eminent aim of education in
human communities universally is the transmission of information between
generations as a means of cultural reproduction. In the passing down of
information, students acquire not only the received wisdom of their tradition
but, in an argument directed squarely at progressivism, also the cognitive
skills that progressives prize over information in the traditional disciplines.
On the question of whether ‘facts’ ought to receive priority over ‘skills’
among the aims of education, Hirsch defends the former option on the
grounds that the amassing of large quantities of information is both a
necessary and sufficient condition of the development of the higher cogni-
tive capacities. The acquisition of such skills, he asserts, follows automatically
upon the acquisition of factual information. Hirsch expresses this intriguing
claim as follows:

Once the general knowledge has been acquired, the skill follows. General
programs contrived to teach general skills are ineffective. AI research
shows that experts perform better than novices not because they have
more powerful and better oiled intellectual machinery but because they
have more relevant and quickly available information. What distinguishes
good readers from poor ones is simply the possession of a lot of diverse,
task-specific information.27
34 The Educative Process

Hirsch is advancing three claims in this passage and it is important that they
be distinguished: the first concerns the futility of teaching general thinking
skills in a curricular vacuum; second, possessing information in large quan-
tities is a necessary condition of higher-order thinking; and third, it is a
sufficient condition as well. It is the third claim that is especially important,
and also peculiar when we consider that its author is not himself a cognitive
psychologist or researcher in artificial intelligence but a professor of English
literature – a field in which skilled readers are customarily distinguished
from unskilled ones on grounds that far exceed the quantity of factual infor-
mation at their disposal (something that a detailed plot summary could
provide), and include capacities of aesthetic appreciation, interpretation,
and critical discernment, the ability to articulate questions and to see what is
questionable, to be appropriately receptive or resistant to the message of a
text depending on what emerges in the reading of it, to negotiate one’s way
about the hermeneutic circle, to search for coherence, detect tensions and
contradictions, and so on. I shall return to this later.
Essential, Hirsch also maintains, to the rehabilitation of traditional
education is not only the return to traditional pedagogical techniques but a
standardized curriculum, standardized testing, and a renewed accent on par-
ticular ethical and religious values, specifically those of the Judeo-Christian
tradition. Shifting with perfect equanimity from the language of science to
the language of religious politics, Hirsch defends the notion of an ‘American
civil religion’ that was bequeathed by the founders and that remains foun-
dational to American society. Against ‘secularist-Americans’ – who, Hirsch
tells us, are ‘just another species of hyphenated Americans’ – he insists on
returning to a religious ethics in the classroom at both elementary and
advanced levels.28 ‘Consensus values’ such as Christian altruism, the golden
rule, civic duty, patriotism, and loyalty, along with a reverence for national
symbols and belief in God, are to be directly instilled by educators in the
minds of the young.29
This form of conservatism spells trouble for plurality and indeed for intel-
lectual freedom itself. Despite occasional protestations to the contrary, the
concept of education that Hirsch espouses directly entails both cultural and
intellectual homogeneity. Evidence of this is plentiful throughout Hirsch’s
educational writings. In addition to the ‘consensus values’ that purportedly
constitute the ‘American civil religion’, Hirsch speaks in highly dismissive
terms of bilingualism and multiculturalism in the schools on the grounds
of the ‘cultural fragmentation, civil antagonism, illiteracy, and economic-
technological ineffectualness’ that such policies cause both in parts of the
United States and in nations such as Canada and Belgium in which they are
applied on a larger scale. The latter two nations are singled out in particular
as examples that, as he puts it, ‘are not encouraging’. Cultural monoliteracy
Beyond Progressivism and Conservatism 35

being already in steep decline, he reasons, the prospect of multiliteracy is

dim indeed. For Hirsch, values of ‘civil peace and national effectiveness’
could not withstand the challenge that bilingualism and multiculturalism
pose to mainstream America and its institutions of learning.30 A culture of
homogeneity, the nostalgic yearning for which is evident throughout
Hirsch’s writings, is directly entailed by a philosophy of education that con-
scripts students into a way of life and a way of thinking in which it is their lot
to conform. This love of sameness is carried to the point where Hirsch is
sharply critical of curricular guidelines that allow any flexibility whatever in
their applications or professional judgment on the part of educators. Guide-
lines that call, for instance, for the teaching of national symbols or historical
events in the primary grades must be specific and standardized, leaving no
room for the educator’s discretion or for students’ interests. Such guidelines
must specify which symbols or events are to be taught in which grades, for
otherwise ‘the children are learning quite different things’.31 Why it is prob-
lematic if some students learn about the Statue of Liberty while others learn
about the Washington Monument is not plain to see, but for Hirsch’s
warnings about dire economic and social consequences if students do not
absorb exactly the same information at the same time and in the same
manner. What is plain to see is that curricular guidelines, in Hirsch’s view,
are not to be guidelines at all but hard-and-fast rules.
What is equally clear is that the culture in ‘cultural literacy’ means ‘main-
stream culture’ or ‘the basic culture of the nation’, in contrast to ‘some local,
regional, or ethnic culture’, to any sub- or counter-culture, and especially to
cultural plurality. The culture that Hirsch designates as mainstream is what
others call dominant, of course, and while he is aware of the objection, he is
untroubled by it. It is wholly inevitable that a culture be ‘fundamentally
conservative’ and that ‘its core contents change very slowly’, if indeed at all.
‘Changes at its core must occur with glacial slowness if it is to accommodate
all the people and serve as our universal medium of communication.’32
Culture is a unitary monolith of information, highly resistant to change but
for periodic additions and few if any subtractions. It is to be received by
students as an altogether given and prepackaged body of material to be com-
mitted to memory without troubling themselves to think, apart from purely
mechanical acts of memorization. This, Hirsch believes, constitutes the true
meaning of acculturation: not to become initiated into a conversation that is
ongoing but the veritable antithesis – to conform to the cultural mainstream
and its ‘consensus values’. It is to become normalized, not especially critical,
and intellectually docile. Hirsch’s account wholly assumes that it is the
nature of human cultures to be discrete, homogeneous, and fixed. The
(quasi-) anthropological, objectivistic notion of culture on which he relies –
one constituted by ‘information’ and ‘factual knowledge’ rather than a
36 The Educative Process

lifeworld of shared practices, understandings, and language – may well entail

a conception of education as exclusively occupied with the transmission of
material that is ready made, complete, and unassailable, yet this is a
thoroughly naive view of what culture itself is, and hence education as well.
Neither culture nor tradition nor knowledge has the homogeneous,
monolithic character that educational conservatives commonly attribute to
them. Anthropologists are far from agreeing upon a proper definition of
culture, a fact that Hirsch does not appear to be aware of as he confidently
proffers his reified, informational theory of culture as the ‘anthropological
perspective’. Far more nuanced and sophisticated conceptions of culture
have been proposed by anthropologists and philosophers, of course, includ-
ing phenomenological, hermeneutical, and poststructuralist views in which
culture is described in terms of meaning, texts, interpretation, language, and
social practices of various kinds rather than in terms of simple information.
Clifford Geertz, for one, has defended a semiotic or hermeneutical theory of
culture for which the basic condition of the human being as an acculturated
agent is to be ‘suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun’ or to
live according to a set of meanings that precede one but in which one is
nonetheless a participant in a rich and critical sense of the word.33 Without
becoming embroiled in this debate, it suffices to say that whatever culture is,
it is far more complex than Hirsch supposes. His account of culture as a body
of information is anything but uncontrovertible scientific fact; nor is it such
a fact that education is by nature and universally a simple means to an end,
whether it be the conservation of tradition or anything else.
An observation of Alfred North Whitehead is relevant in this connection:

It must never be forgotten that education is not a process of packing

articles in a trunk. Such a simile is entirely inapplicable. It is, of course, a
process completely of its own peculiar genus. Its nearest analogue is the
assimilation of food by a living organism: and we all know how necessary
to health is palatable food under suitable conditions.34

The merit of Whitehead’s remarks will be evident to any who attend closely
to the practices of teaching and learning as they are actually experienced.
The process succeeds, we say, not when a prepackaged collection of data is
stored away in the inner recesses of a student’s mental warehouse, where it
is placed neatly on a shelf and preserved for future use, but when a degree
of insight or self-understanding is gained by means of the subject matter that
is appropriated. Such appropriation is no merely superficial absorption of
information but a more profound process in which an active intellect in-
tegrates deeply and critically transforms a given subject matter in a way that
is consistent with any learning experience undergone in the course of
Beyond Progressivism and Conservatism 37

ordinary life. A learning experience, or indeed any experience that is worthy

of the name, leaves its subject in an important respect changed, and in a
sense utterly unlike the storing away of articles in a trunk. So as well does
acculturation change, indeed constitute, the subject; it fashions one as a
particular being-in-the-world or existing individual, in the language of exis-
tential phenomenology. Becoming initiated into a culture does undoubtedly
involve absorbing information of particular kinds, and a great deal of it, but
that it involves something far more and far deeper than this is wholly missed
by Hirsch’s account. Both everyday acculturation and formal education
involve a reciprocal process in which new items of knowledge are integrated
into an existing orientation or conceptual framework while altering that
framework in significant ways. Learning allows one not only to preserve
existing facts but to do so in a spirit of intelligent criticism, to enlarge one’s
horizon while adding coherence, depth, and meaning to experience, and to
make oneself at home in the world by this means. Becoming literate in one’s
culture involves but also far exceeds gaining familiarity with a catalog of
truths more or less familiar to a population; it involves becoming a certain
kind of subject, one constituted by a lifeworld of shared meanings and prac-
tices, language, tradition, and common sense. It is to adopt a particular way
of being-in-the-world, an historically contingent understanding of the world
and self-understanding, and to participate in a conversation that precedes
one. A culture is a fundamentally dynamic enterprise into which the indi-
vidual is taken up and that sets in motion the full range of human capacities.
Hirsch’s conservatism, then, errs in its simplistic notions of culture,
learning, and experience as essentially informational matters and of reflec-
tive capacity as an inevitable and happy by-product of the mere accumulation
of facts. Cultural literacy stands or falls on an understanding of culture as a
reified and given body of facts, initiation into which consists in the simple
reception of data and the acceptance of values presented in the guise of
‘consensus’. It presupposes a view of tradition as a kind of absolute that
students are obliged to take up in unrevised form rather than a conversation
in which they freely participate, something that is unitary, homogeneous,
and highly resistant to change. It presupposes as well a folksy and unphilo-
sophical view of the educated mind as something that is easily measured and
quantified by means of standardized testing which examines only the
amount of information that has been committed to memory and which lacks
any means of testing the quality of understanding that has been gained.
Finally, it presupposes a naive view of reflective capacity or thinking as a skill
that follows automatically upon the accumulation of information. While
such knowledge is obviously a necessary condition of abstract reflection –
one must, needless to say, have something to think about – it is hardly suffi-
cient. Hirsch provides no account of the higher reaches of thought but for
38 The Educative Process

the insistence that those who are capable of it are also well informed, an
observation that is true but uninformative. Learning to think, however this is
accomplished, is far more complex a matter than Hirsch’s account allows.
One point, however, on which educational conservatives do not err is
their worry regarding the kind and amount of knowledge that students are
currently gaining. Whether it be higher capacities of reflection and inven-
tiveness that we are speaking of, Hirsch’s informational knowledge, or
Bloom’s beloved canon, students who pass successfully through the various
stages of education today are not, let us say, and without putting too fine a
point on it, overburdened with knowledge. Educators are well aware of what
their students know and care about and what they do not know and care
about, and while the matter may be less dire than some conservatives believe,
nor is it a cause for celebration that universities are now obliged to provide
remedial education in writing or mathematics, that students’ knowledge of
language and grammar is often lamentable, and that the love of reading or
of knowledge as an end in itself has seen better days. Conservatives are right
to worry about this, but tempting as it may be to hark back to a time in the
past when students ostensibly knew more, in whatever sense of this phrase
that one prefers, such a stance is nostalgic and foolish. It is no simple return
to tradition that is called for, or to progressivism for that matter, but a new
thinking that gets us beyond the dichotomies that Dewey was already urging
us to reject a century ago and that continue to orient so much of the dis-
course of education. Hackneyed oppositions of student-centered or curricu-
lum-centered education, critical thinking or factual knowledge, active or
passive learning, and so on must be overcome, and in a fashion more
convincing than what I have called corporate scientism has managed. It
should be obvious, for instance, that there is no genuine dichotomy between
the possession of informational knowledge – which conservatives like Hirsch
dwell upon to the point of excluding other, equally important educational
aims – and the development of critical thinking skills – which progressives
have sometimes overemphasized, misunderstood, or presumed can be
imparted apart from subject matter. One does not think critically in a
curricular vacuum, nor does one appropriate a heritage by accepting it as an
unquestionable given.
Understanding education requires that we orient the discussion no longer
around oppositions that a growing number of theorists are correctly urging
us to abandon, and that we attend less to theoretical -isms that mistake a part
of the educative process for the whole, and focus our attention instead on
that process itself and the conditions that make it possible. Learning experi-
ences that happen in institutions are not different in kind from learning
experiences that happen in ordinary life. We would do well, then, to ask what
the nature and conditions of such experience are.
Beyond Progressivism and Conservatism 39

The educative process

It was Dewey who urged educational theorists to take this process itself as
their point of departure and to identify its own immanent ends and condi-
tions rather than import ends from other areas of life in ways that effectively
distort the educative process. This important methodological move was
central both to his critique of conservatism and to his own positive views, but
was adopted only in a limited way by progressives such as Kilpatrick and
Kingsley. Progressive theorists concurred with Dewey in regarding traditional
curriculum-centered, if not teacher-centered, approaches as unduly regi-
mented and divorced from the actual course of human experience and from
the practice of learning itself. In severing theory and abstract subject matters
from practice – the vital process of experience and learning – traditional
education was compelled to seat students in orderly rows, their attention
centered on the figure standing imposingly at the front of the room, dili-
gently absorbing their lessons on pain of physical and moral censure, and
submitting to a regime of institutional power. What is needed, Dewey and the
progressives argued, is the replacement of such regimentation, along with
the separation of theory and practice that made it possible and necessary,
with a new accent on the learning process as it actually unfolds within the
intellectual life of the student.
This new phenomenological concentration on ‘how we think’ – the basic
manner in which human beings negotiate their experience of the world –
and on the stages of development that students pass through on the way to
intellectual maturity, entails a shift in accent from the educator and the
curriculum to the students and the conditions that foster development.
Progressives taken by Dewey’s account amplified this relative shift in
emphasis into a full-blown dichotomy and a categorical elevation of students,
their cognitive development and indeed their social and emotional well-
being, above the curriculum itself, giving new life to the very dichotomies
that Dewey had urged us to leave behind. From Dewey’s point of view, the
reforms that progressives were calling for amounted to a mere swing of the
pendulum from one side of the old binary oppositions to the other rather
than the more radical stance for which he called, a pendulum swing that had
the effect of sacrificing the curriculum in a way that he himself had never
intended. Dewey’s educational writings had never advocated any sacrifice in
knowledge to whatever is identified as the students’ needs, whether they be
cognitive, psychological, or social, but that the curriculum should comple-
ment students’ experience outside of the classroom and be taught and
learned in ways that are conducive to higher capacities of thought. That
these capacities could not be educated in the absence of a challenging,
indeed tough-minded, curriculum seemed to go without saying for Dewey,
40 The Educative Process

and it was only when this seemingly obvious proposition was overlooked by
progressive educators that he was compelled to point this out explicitly. Yet
point it out he did, and in a way that left no doubt of his ambivalence for the
movement he had ostensibly inspired.
If it is a common mistake to identify Dewey as the originator of the
dichotomies that continue to orient much educational theory as well as the
principal cause of progressivism’s more unfortunate consequences – includ-
ing especially the sacrifice of a rigorous curriculum to the supposed condi-
tions of students’ well-being – it remains that much of progressive education
did arise directly or indirectly from Dewey’s writings, including especially its
critique of traditional, schoolmasterish pedagogy. This critique, as applicable
to contemporary as to older forms of conservatism, maintains that while it is
among the principal aims of education to transmit traditional subject
matters, it is essential that this be carried out in the spirit of research and
critical inquiry rather than simply ingested for the purpose of conservation.
Dewey’s reasons for rejecting the notion of education as either a simple
repetition of the past or a preparation for later life – or, as for Hirsch, a com-
bination of the two – were at once political and philosophical. While the
political objection concerned the kinds of democratic citizens which the
older education was designed to produce, the philosophical objection
concerned the nature of knowledge and experience.
It is the nature of human knowledge, Dewey the pragmatic experimental-
ist maintained, not simply to accommodate the present to the past but to
appropriate traditional ideas in the spirit of intelligent criticism and with an
eye to their enhancement and transformation. Received knowledge is not
merely bestowed on groups of students as a fait accompli but taken up into an
inquiry which learns about and from the past while identifying the errors
that have also been handed down in tradition. As Dewey expressed it,

Education has accordingly not only to safeguard an individual against the

besetting erroneous tendencies of his own mind – its rashness, presump-
tion, and preference of what chimes with self-interest to objective
evidence – but also to undermine and destroy the accumulated and
self-perpetuating prejudices of long ages.35

We err equally in regarding knowledge as a mass of previously assembled

information and in regarding education as a simple piling up of such data in
the largest possible quantity. Knowledge is not a static value but a funda-
mentally dynamic one that is properly gained in the course of inquiry. The
mark of knowledge having been acquired is less the ability to retrieve infor-
mation for the purpose of inspection – although this is involved – than habits
of reflective attention, curiosity and originality, and an appetite for contin-
Beyond Progressivism and Conservatism 41

ued learning. Informational knowledge acquired through rote learning

typically fails to reach the desired depth and can become an obstacle to
thought when ‘it swamps thinking’ by cluttering the mind with a mass of data
the large majority of which remains at a surface level of consciousness. That
knowledge is not a monolithic edifice to be passively beheld but something
to be pressed into service – ‘vital energy seeking opportunity for effective
exercise’ – is fundamental both to Dewey’s critique of traditional education
and to his own positive conception.36
In keeping with his general philosophical view of the theory–practice
relation, Dewey’s philosophy of education refuses all external impositions on
the practices of teaching and learning, recognizing no higher authority than
the learning process itself and the conditions that it requires. On this essen-
tially practice-immanent account, education unfolds according to a logic of
its own and is distorted when ends extraneous to that process are imposed
on it from without. This logic is always already present and at least vaguely
understood by educators and students alike; rendering it explicit is the task
of the theorist. Dewey articulated this important methodological point as

A true aim is thus opposed at every point to an aim which is imposed upon
a process of action from without. The latter is fixed and rigid; it is not a
stimulus to intelligence in the given situation, but is an externally dictated
order to do such and such things. Instead of connecting directly with
present activities, it is remote, divorced from the means by which it is to
be reached. Instead of suggesting a freer and better balanced activity, it is
a limit set to activity. In education, the currency of these externally
imposed aims is responsible for the emphasis put upon the notion of
preparation for a remote future and for rendering the work of both
teacher and pupil mechanical and slavish.37

Dewey would often express this view in his educational writings.38 The
learning process must receive its basic orientation from knowledge itself and
the manner in which it is acquired in human experience. Educational aims
are ‘an outgrowth of existing conditions’ and are ‘based upon a considera-
tion of what is already going on’, where ‘what is already going on’ is everyday
experience and the search for understanding.39 Herein lies the principal
failing of traditional (also some less traditional) education and the one from
which many others stem: in articulating educational aims in the abstract
(preparation for later life, the requirements of economic prosperity, per-
formativity) and importing these into the learning process as an external
imposition, the process itself is distorted by extraneous values inflexibly held
and inserted into a practice that by its own constitution expressly forbids
42 The Educative Process

them. Inevitably the imposition of aims from without reduces education to a

means to an end and supplants what it always already aims to achieve.
When we reflect upon our experience of the learning process, be it as
educators or students, we find that when the process is successful a certain
ethos or spirit prevails, one that is intangible and eludes easy description but
that gets us to the heart of what education truly is. This is an ethos that is
shared, that is in the air, as it were, and which belongs to everyone and no
one. It is a common reality that is sustained by educators and students alike
and which is dominated by none. It is a process into which all are taken up,
in the manner of a conversation in which one participates but that one does
not control. An intersubjective phenomenon, the spirit or the logic of edu-
cation, like a good conversation, is dominated by none of the participants,
including the educator, but is conducted in dialogical fashion. Hans-Georg
Gadamer provided a fitting phenomenological description of this process,
albeit without applying it to education:

We say that we ‘conduct’ a conversation, but the more genuine a conver-

sation is, the less its conduct lies within the will of either partner. Thus a
genuine conversation is never the one that we wanted to conduct. Rather,
it is generally more correct to say that we fall into conversation, or even
that we become involved in it. The way one word follows another, with the
conversation taking its own twists and reaching its own conclusion, may
well be conducted in some way, but the partners conversing are less the
leaders of it than the led. No one knows in advance what will ‘come out’
of a conversation. Understanding or its failure is like an event that
happens to us. Thus we say that something was a good conversation or
that it was ill fated. All this shows that a conversation has a spirit of its own,
and that the language in which it is conducted bears its own truth within
it – i.e., that it allows something to ‘emerge’ which henceforth exits.40

Gadamer’s description readily applies to the educational setting. Here as

well what takes place in the classroom ‘has a spirit of its own’; it is ‘like an
event that happens to us’, one in which we are ‘less the leaders of it than the
led’, with ‘the conversation taking its own twists and reaching its own con-
clusion’ – a conclusion that ‘allows something to emerge’. When successful,
education involves a voluntary relinquishing of control comparable to the
at once active and passive nature of conversation, oriented as it is toward a
critical examination of the subject matter and not a merely expertocratic
bestowing of knowledge on docile minds. Dewey reminded us that educators
‘conduct’ the conversation in the limited sense of providing clarification,
posing questions, inviting observations, and so on rather than presiding over
it dogmatically. Their task, in his words, ‘is to protect the spirit of inquiry, to
Beyond Progressivism and Conservatism 43

keep it from becoming blasé from overexcitement, wooden from routine,

fossilized through dogmatic instruction, or dissipated by random exercise
upon trivial things’.41 The educator, accordingly, is not the one who knows
but a participant in the investigative process – one, to be sure, with a differ-
ent role in inquiry than the students, but a participant nonetheless.
Education is misunderstood when regarded in isolation from the larger
extracurricular process of inquiry and experience to which it is related as
species to genus. As Dewey took great pains to demonstrate, learning expe-
riences that take place in classrooms, while more formally arranged and
structured, are not different in kind from the learning experiences of
ordinary life. Education is entirely consistent with the basic human practice
of making ourselves at home in the world through understanding. Far from
a simple amassing of information, it opens the mind, broadens horizons
and interests, connects disparate fields of experience, arranges traditional
subject matters into meaningful configurations, and cultivates habits of
contemplation and inventiveness. It draws upon existing curiosities while
directing these along lines that are less narrow or parochial and that open
up a larger field of vision. The acculturation that it surely involves extends
beyond gaining factual knowledge or learning how to see the world as
Homer did, and includes extending students’ acquaintance with a lifeworld
and deepening their understanding of themselves.
It is the nature of human experience, Dewey held, to search for a resolu-
tion to the perplexities with which we are daily confronted. A given line of
inquiry begins with an experienced confusion or difficulty through the
observation of relevant phenomena, formulating a hypothesis to resolve the
difficulty, refining and testing the hypothesis through application and obser-
vation of its consequences, and inferring a conclusion. This is an experien-
tial as well as a social undertaking, drawing each of us into common
participation with our fellow inquirers rather than proceeding in the fashion
of a Cartesian meditator. For Dewey, this account of experience and inquiry
is not an a priori prescription governing how we ought to think but is a
phenomenological description of the structure of thought itself. It is the
nature of thought to arise from experience and at the end of the day to
return to it in order to provide illumination and to clear up the perplexities
that it continually generates.
The subject matter of education, then, must connect with experience and
lead toward new experiences of a properly educative kind. While simple
curiosity carries a certain authority here, this is not to be understood as mere
self-indulgence, but is governed by a dynamic of its own. Except in its trivial
forms, curiosity does not terminate as soon as a new bit of information has
been acquired, but initiates a process of opening up further avenues of
inquiry. One thing, as we say, leads to another; curiosity is a prospective value
44 The Educative Process

that leads us from an existing interest toward a more expansive set of these,
interests that are more abstract and theoretical than the original curiosity. A
common, and potentially misleading, way of stating this is that the curricu-
lum must ‘be relevant’ or ‘engage students’ interests’ in a sense that is
contrasted with the traditional separation of students’ experiences inside
and outside the classroom. This does not mean that educators should
indulge whatever interests students happen to have or, what is worse, restrict
their experience to the merely enjoyable. Education makes demands on
us, just as human experience in general does, and requires all who take it
seriously to engage in a process that is taxing, rigorous, and seldom enter-
While not always pleasurable, education as Dewey described it is nonethe-
less an end in itself in the sense that its aims are immanent to a learning
process that is itself continuous with the broader course of human experi-
ence. If its beneficiaries are not mere cogs in the economic machinery but
beings who, as Aristotle told us, ‘by nature desire to know’ then even as edu-
cation serves to prepare students to earn a livelihood it always aims beyond
this to instill higher capacities of thought, including especially the capacity
for learning itself. As Dewey remarked,

The best thing that can be said about any special process of education,
like that of the formal school period, is that it renders its subject capable
of further education: more sensitive to conditions of growth and more
able to take advantage of them. Acquisition of skill, possession of know-
ledge, attainment of culture are not ends: they are marks of growth and
means to its continuing.42

To speak of ‘ends’ here in no way signifies a termination of inquiry or any

finally realizable end-state (professional credentials, economic prepared-
ness, cultural literacy, performativity), but habits of mind that in a larger
sense yield an understanding of the world and of oneself.
While it is rooted in the concept of experience, then, Dewey’s philosophy
of education must not be confused with those student-centered approaches
that regard the critique of traditional pedagogy as entailing a de-emphasis
on the curriculum or any lessening of intellectual standards in the name of
the students’ ostensible well-being. Dewey harshly criticized progressive
schools that claimed to accentuate cognitive skills, along with psychological
and social skills, over the subject matter, insisting that such skills do not
develop apart from a challenging curriculum and that the dichotomy of
skills versus knowledge is spurious. Intelligent reflection is not learned apart
from something to reflect upon, an abstract skill cultivated in courses
specially designated ‘critical thinking’, as if this were separable from subject
Beyond Progressivism and Conservatism 45

matter or even a curriculum unto itself comprised of inferential rules which

if scrupulously followed directly produce the ability to think. One does not
learn to think by being supplied with a method and told to venture forth in
applying it. One learns to think by thinking, which always means thinking
about this or that subject matter in some depth and in the most rigorous way
Emphasizing the continuity between education and the larger course of
human experience is not unique to Dewey but has deep roots in Western
philosophy and an obvious affinity to hermeneutics and the Bildung tradition
in particular. The paradox of Meno might serve as an origin point: how does
one learn about a given object, Meno asked, unless one already possesses a
prior knowledge of it, for otherwise the process of inquiry cannot begin?
Plato’s solution came in the form of the doctrine of recollection, while in
modern times a less metaphysical answer is provided by hermeneutics: under-
standing invariably takes place within a circular process in which a particular
item of knowledge is related to a larger context or universal, while the
universal itself is understood only in relation to particulars. Inquiry is thus a
movement back and forth between universal and particular, between a
context of background knowledge, experience, or prereflective understand-
ings comprising one’s cultural heritage on one hand and on the other an
inquiry into what is not yet understood. One acquires new items of knowledge
by absorbing them within a prior framework of language and experience, a
framework that is in turn modified by the addition. Since the conceptual
framework that defines one’s point of view is an historical inheritance,
education is inseparable from acculturation and may be understood on the
model of joining a conversation. If we imagine culture to be a living conver-
sation, then to become educated is to gain the capacity to participate – to
listen and to learn as a necessary prelude to finding a voice that is properly
one’s own.
A hermeneutical approach to education would share Dewey’s view of the
curriculum as inseparable in principle from students’ experience and the
‘problematic situations’ and curiosities that arise within it.43 The process of
formal education is a species of the larger genus that is the search for under-
standing and self-understanding, these two being themselves ultimately
inseparable, as Gadamer in particular has taught us to see.44 Education
belongs as well to a larger movement of Bildung or the gradual formation of
the individual in the transition from nature to culture. While Dewey himself
did not make explicit reference to the Bildung tradition which extends from
medieval mysticism through German idealism and into the twentieth
century, his affinity to this tradition is plain to see.45 As Hegel spoke of this
concept in his Phenomenology of Spirit, Bildung involves a never-ending process
of cultivating one’s natural capacities and finding one’s way toward the
46 The Educative Process

universal. This cultivation of the self is its own end and involves the simulta-
neous formation of an object – a work – and oneself. As Gadamer wrote,

In forming the object – that is, in being selflessly active and concerned
with a universal – working consciousness raises itself above the immediacy
of its existence to universality; or, as Hegel puts it, by forming the thing it
forms itself. What he means is that in inquiring a ‘capacity’, a skill, man
gains the sense of himself.

The work of education forms and transforms the self, calls it into question
and requires a ‘distancing from the immediacy of desire, of personal need
and private interest, and the exacting demand of a universal’.46 In similar
terms, Dewey would speak of the formation of the individual student as a
competent citizen of a democracy, one with cultivated faculties and sympa-
thies which incline the individual toward constructive forms of social engage-
ment. The transition from childhood to maturity expressed in the notion of
Bildung is at once a matter of individual formation and acculturation; one
gains a sense of oneself in forms of social participation, by risking oneself
and one’s judgments in the conversation that one’s culture essentially is.
Education requires an openness to what is other and a dialectical movement
back and forth between a venturing beyond oneself into the unfamiliar and
having one’s point of view and one’s being transformed in the process. Here
at last we get to the heart of the matter: education fundamentally is an
unending process of fashioning and refashioning the self by rising to the
universal, as Hegel would say. In Deweyan terms it is the cultivation of habits
and capacities which make us competent democratic citizens and fully
rational beings. While education inevitably informs students and prepares
them to take their place in the workforce, such aims are subordinate to the
formation of the self as a reflective agent. In only the loosest sense of the
term may we speak of education as a science; while it is informed by various
kinds of empirical inquiry, education itself is an art by virtue of that with
which it is ultimately concerned: human understanding and the formation
of persons as cultural participants. The model for this art remains Socrates
engaged in conversation with the citizens of Athens, an informal and undog-
matic mode of inquiry in which all are participants and no one, including
the educator, is above the fray of dialogue. From the educator this art
requires the skilful guidance of inquiry from a given set of interests toward a
broader horizon, a guidance that draws upon a variety of methods – from
direct instruction and lecturing to informal discussion, posing questions,
hazarding opinions, interpreting texts, and provoking thought in any way
one is able. The common tendency in educational research to treat this
practice as an application of empirically discoverable laws of learning is
Beyond Progressivism and Conservatism 47

scientistic idolatry in its most crude form, as William James already noted in
his Talks to Teachers on Psychology of 1899:

. . . you make a great, a very great mistake, if you think that psychology,
being the science of the mind’s laws, is something from which you can
deduce definite programmes and schemes and methods of instruction for
immediate classroom use. Psychology is a science and teaching is an art;
and sciences never generate arts directly out of themselves. An interme-
diary inventive mind must make the application by using its originality.47

Nor necessarily is this art even an indirect application of scientific psychol-

ogy. We are all familiar with highly competent educators who know nothing
of this science yet who bring to their profession a depth of knowledge and
passion for the subject matter, a care for what their students are getting from
their education, and an experience and professional judgment of which
science knows nothing. Such teachers are not technicians or mere custodi-
ans of information but educators in the truest sense, professionals who rely
upon their judgment in selecting or tailoring the curriculum to particular
groups of students and in training minds using whatever approaches prove
effective. Proponents of standardization, again in the rage to be scientific,
effectively reduce educators to functionaries with no scope for professional
judgment and who must be strictly monitored to ensure that outcomes pre-
scribed by external authority are achieved. Such teachers are not properly
speaking educators at all, but a certain variety of technician, facilitators not
of cultural literacy but of intellectual homogeneity. The current emphasis on
‘accountability’ in the teaching profession is in large part a veneer beneath
which lies the corporate scientism discussed above – a philosophy for which
standardization and rule-following are seemingly ends in themselves or
objective requirements of scientific rationality – together with a thoroughly
conservative political program. Beneath such phrases as accountability,
teacher evaluation, professionalization, learning outcomes, and so on are
underlying imperatives that make it increasingly unlikely that the graduates
of our educational institutions will have either the ability or the inclination
to think anything that is genuinely new and unanticipated by educational
It is no small irony that at a time when ‘dialogue’ and ‘thinking outside
the box’ have become popular slogans the institutions whose business is to
train these capacities have rendered their attainment a singular improbabil-
ity owing to trends toward scientism, curriculum standardization, and an
overemphasis on informational knowledge at the expense of the higher
reaches of thought. As educational conservatives lament a diminishing
reverence for the canon and the loss of practically useful information, what
48 The Educative Process

they do not lament, but ought to, is an unlearning of an altogether different

kind, and one that is far more worrisome. This is a diminution of capacities
and intellectual virtues that yield no tangible utilities but on which the fate
of our culture depends: habits of contemplation and critical questioning,
imagination and inventiveness, the love of reading and writing for their own
sake, the art of conversation and listening, the hospitality to new ideas and
the refusal of false self-certainty, and capacities of judgment, prolonged con-
centration, and unhurried deliberation. The kind of unlearning I have in
mind was already pointed out some decades ago by Karl Jaspers in the
following terms:

We see, also, the loss of the capacity for meditation, for solitude, for sus-
tained thinking that can concentrate only on one thing at a time, not on
an infinite number. Are the pessimists right in claiming that the actual
rule of mediocrity calls for drill in place of a free intellectual life, that it
requires existence to be divided into an empty bustle of work and no less
empty pleasures? Or is it possible to give another chance to a free life –
one that would be spiritually intensive rather than just scholastically exten-

The relevance of Jaspers’ remarks is plain to see, as is Nicholas Burbules’

more recent observations along similar lines:

When teacher–student interchange becomes primarily a matter of telling,

or a matter of asking extremely narrow, one-way questions, the capacities
of both participants to listen, think, question, and consider alternatives
atrophy. When instruction is geared toward ‘correct answers’, the inclina-
tion toward discussions that pertain more to investigation and divergent
points of view is suppressed. When student–student dialogue is actively
discouraged, or relegated only to very specific limited domains . . . partic-
ular communicative skills and dispositions are certainly deterred. But
more than this, a tacit message is expressed that these dialogical skills and
dispositions are not themselves educationally (or socially, or politically)
significant; because, clearly, if they were significant, the curriculum would
acknowledge them.49

Educational theorists who worry about a diminution in knowledge among

the students of today must avoid overstating their case and becoming nos-
talgic, as Bloom, Hirsch, and other conservatives are especially inclined to
do. At no time in the past did younger generations as a whole stand head and
shoulders above the youth of today in terms of either the possession of
factual knowledge, an appreciation of the canon, or the intellectual virtues
Beyond Progressivism and Conservatism 49

to which Jaspers and Burbules allude. Short of nostalgia and exaggeration,

however, it is perfectly appropriate to worry about all of the above: the kind
and amount of information that students now possess relative to prior gen-
erations (certainly different information and likely less overall), a knowledge
and appreciation of the great works of the Western tradition (again, likely
less), and intellectual habits of reflection. No method or standardized test
allows us to gain an accurate measurement here, but there can be little doubt
that we have cause for concern about all of these matters, and particularly
for the intellectual capacities that produce no immediate payoff in terms of
performativity, professional credentials, or what now passes for cultural
literacy. When the cultivation of the self as an informed but also critical,
contemplative, and moderately inventive participant in the life of its society
is consigned to the margins in the rage to place education on the secure path
of a science or to prepare students to attain a high grade on a standardized
test at the expense of other educational aims, those aims will go by
the wayside, leaving new generations too well adapted to the economic-
technological apparatus and unable to see beyond it.
The argument of this chapter is best developed in relation to specific
disciplines, where our guiding question concerns the aims of education in
different fields of study. Our basic hypothesis may be stated in general terms,
the details of which I shall examine in the following two chapters, while its
relevance to specific fields is the focus of the chapters in Part 2. That hypoth-
esis is that we must look to the fundamental conditions and requirements of
the learning process itself, its own immanent dynamic and ends, rather than
to educational aims articulated outside of that process in fashioning policies.
The philosopher’s task is to articulate the aims that are always already in
play in the educative process and identify distorting influences caused by
impositions from without. I shall undertake this task in relation to several
disciplines in the human sciences, especially at the secondary and post-
secondary levels where these questions take on increasing urgency.

1. A few unfortunate examples of this in the contemporary literature are Henry
Edmondson’s John Dewey and the Decline of American Education (Wilmington: ISI Books,
2006), Kieran Egan’s Getting It Wrong From the Beginning: Our Progressivist Inheritance
from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget (New Haven: Yale University Press,
2002), and E. D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (New
York: Vintage, 1988) and The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (New York:
Doubleday, 1996).
2. John Darling and Sven Erik Nordenbo, ‘Progressivism’ in The Blackwell Guide to the Phi-
losophy of Education, eds N. Blake, P. Smeyers, R. Smith and P. Standish (Malden: Black-
well, 2003), 288. The same authors also raise ‘the delicate question of whether such
approaches and methods still merit the term “progressivism”’ (Ibid., 288).
50 The Educative Process

3. David Carr, Making Sense of Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy and Theory of
Education and Teaching (New York: Routledge Falmer, 2003), 215–16, 214.
4. See for instance Edmondson, John Dewey and the Decline of American Education, 4; Egan,
Getting It Wrong From the Beginning, 5; Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind
(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 3; and Hirsch, Cultural Literacy, 8, 9.
5. Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, 56.
6. Shaun Gallagher, Hermeneutics and Education (Albany: State University of New York
Press, 1992), 185.
7. Dewey, The Child and the Curriculum (1903). MW 2: 277–8.
8. Robert B. Westbrook, John Dewey and American Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell University
Press, 1991), 504–5.
9. Dewey, Experience and Education (1938). LW 13: 9.
10. Dewey, The Child and the Curriculum (1903). MW 2: 280–1.
11. Edmondson, John Dewey and the Decline of American Education, 110, 4.
12. Sidney Hook, John Dewey: An Intellectual Portrait (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1995),
13. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff
Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984),
51, 4.
14. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Hans-Georg Gadamer on Education, Poetry, and History: Applied
Hermeneutics, trans. Lawrence Schmidt and Monica Reuss, eds Dieter Misgeld and
Graeme Nicholson (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), 165.
15. Derek Briton observes regarding adult education in particular: ‘The commonsense
assumption that the modern practice of adult education is a disinterested, scientific
endeavor that need not, indeed, should not concern itself with moral and political
questions has become all but impossible to question because the field’s normative
base can no longer be addressed within its narrowly defined, depoliticized, dehistori-
cized, technicist, professional discourse.’ Derek Briton, The Modern Practice of Adult
Education: A Postmodern Critique (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), 9.
16. N. Blake, P. Smeyers, R. Smith and P. Standish, ‘Introduction’ to The Blackwell Guide
to the Philosophy of Education, 8.
17. David Bridges and Ruth Jonathon, ‘Education and the Market’ in The Blackwell Guide
to the Philosophy of Education, 29.
18. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 61.
19. The mistaken but still common reading of Dewey as a positivist of sorts is convincingly
critiqued by James Scott Johnston in his excellent study, Inquiry and Education: John
Dewey and the Quest for Democracy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006).
20. As Bloom puts it, ‘Our stars are singing a song they do not understand, translated
from a German original and having a huge popular success with unknown but wide-
ranging consequences, as something of the original message touches something in
American souls. But behind it all, the master lyricists are Nietzsche and Heidegger.’
Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, 152. Careful readers of Nietzsche and
Heidegger – which Bloom clearly is not – will appreciate just how preposterous this
claim is.
21. Ibid., 51, 61.
22. Ibid., 58, 340.
23. Ibid., 64.
24. Ibid., 374, 380.
25. Hirsch, The Schools We Need, 19.
26. Ibid., 176.
27. Hirsch, Cultural Literacy, xv–xvi, 61.
28. Ibid., 99.
Beyond Progressivism and Conservatism 51

29. Hirsch, The Schools We Need, 236.

30. Hirsch, Cultural Literacy, 92.
31. Hirsch, The Schools We Need, 28.
32. Hirsch, Cultural Literacy, 22, 102, 107. Throughout this book, italics in quoted
material are in the original.
33. Clifford Geertz, ‘Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture’ in The
Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1977), 5.
34. Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education and Other Essays (New York: The Free
Press, 1967), 33.
35. Dewey, How We Think (1910). MW 6: 201.
36. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 165, 77.
37. Ibid., 117.
38. See, for example, MW 9: 107, 111; LW 8: 222–3; and LW 13: 6.
39. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 111.
40. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G.
Marshall (New York: Continuum, 1989), 383.
41. Dewey, How We Think (1910). MW 6: 207.
42. Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920). MW 12: 185.
43. See Shaun Gallagher, Hermeneutics and Education.
44. See Gadamer, Truth and Method.
45. James A. Good provides a thorough account of this in his exemplary study, A Search
for Unity in Diversity: The ‘Permanent Hegelian Deposit’ in the Philosophy of John Dewey
(Lanham: Lexington Books, 2006).
46. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 13.
47. William James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology (New York: W. W. Norton, 1958), 24.
48. Karl Jaspers, Philosophy and the World: Selected Essays, trans. E. B. Ashton (Washington:
Gateway Editions, 1963), 28.
49. Nicholas C. Burbules, Dialogue in Teaching: Theory and Practice (New York: Teachers
College Press, 1993), 152.
Chapter 2

Dewey’s Copernican Revolution

Dewey was an unlikely revolutionary. Seldom given to impassioned prose,

provocation, or literary excess, Dewey’s writings throughout his long and
remarkably prolific career are marked by an unusual sobriety of analysis and
a common sense seldom associated with a revolutionary purpose. Yet such a
purpose unmistakably characterized his educational writings throughout his
career. When Dewey spoke of his aim in the philosophy of education as to
affect a revolution of Copernican proportions, this is to be understood not
as an uncharacteristic rhetorical flight but as an altogether accurate state-
ment of his goal.1 That goal begins with a shift in the ‘center of gravity in
education, one that would often be misunderstood by progressivists and
others who began to insist on a student-centered conception of education’.
Whereas traditional views had identified the subject matter – conceived as a
ready-made body of knowledge – as the center around which the educational
process properly revolves, progressive educators placed the student at the
center, citing Dewey as their authority. Dewey’s considered position,
however, differs considerably from many of those who would claim him as
their inspiration. It is, for Dewey, not the student him- or herself but the
student’s experience that constitutes this new center of gravity. Recognizing
this, he argued, requires a radical transformation in both the theory and
practice of education.
For Dewey, the educative process contains an immanent logic which it is
the theorist’s task to render explicit. The aims of the practice of education,
as we have seen, are internal to the practice itself. The theorist’s primary task,
accordingly, is descriptive rather than prescriptive; it is to describe in explicit
terms what aims and purposes always already belong to the learning process
and thus to refrain from pronouncing upon what such aims ought to be in
the traditional manner. Fundamentally, Dewey’s intention was not to pre-
scribe in the usual fashion ‘what education should be’, in the sense that the
theorist reflecting a priori would ‘set up ideals and norms for it’ from a point
of view external to the educative process, but rather to describe in a phen-
omenological manner ‘what actually takes place when education really
occurs’.2 This seemingly modest aim would represent an important method-
ological departure from traditional views for which education’s purpose and

Dewey’s Copernican Revolution 53

center of gravity are determined by considerations unrelated to students’

experience and to the integrity of the learning process itself, by a body of
knowledge that educators must instill by whatever pedagogical methods
prove most effective and which students must learn in the sense of receive,
comprehend, and remember. The principal aim in the philosophy of educa-
tion is neither to prescribe the most efficient techniques by which a given
curriculum may be deposited into students’ minds nor to judge which items
of knowledge or belief are most important from the standpoint of cultural
transmission or practical necessity. Without rejecting these aims, Dewey
insisted on their subordination to experience, a consideration that for
Dewey represents the Alpha and Omega of education.
If the Copernican revolution that Dewey set out to effect shifts the locus
of education to experience, the questions this move raises for the philosophy
of education include what the nature of experience itself is, what this move
entails, and why it is necessary. My focus in this chapter is on the first
question, yet before turning to this it is important to recall the argument
Dewey provided for why such a revolution is called for and what defects he
identified in traditional educational approaches. Without repeating the
argument of Chapter 1, let us recall the original impetus that prompted
Dewey to reject more conservative views. Dewey provided an early summary
of his critique in the following terms:

Upon the whole, I believe that the crying evil in instruction today is that
the subject-matter of the curriculum, both as a whole and in its various
stages, is selected and determined on the objective or logical basis instead
of upon the psychological. The humble pedagogue stands with his mouth
and his hands wide open, waiting to receive from the abstract scientific
writers the complete system which the latter, after centuries of experience
and toilsome reflection, have elaborated. Receiving in this trustful way the
ready-made ‘subject’, he proceeds to hand it over in an equally ready-
made way to the pupil. The intervening medium of communication is
simply certain external attachments in the way of devices and tricks called
‘method’, and certain sugar-coatings in the way of extrinsic inducements
termed ‘arousing of interest’.3

Dewey never tired of criticizing, often in the harshest terms, the conservative
approaches that were the norm in his day and which he himself endured as
a youth in the public school system of Vermont, an educational system likely
no worse than the norm of that time but nonetheless lamentable. To appre-
ciate Dewey’s critique here, it is necessary to understand first the manner in
which he typically engaged in criticism of views that he rejected. Unlike so
many philosophers of his time and our own, Dewey was an uncommonly
54 The Educative Process

gentle critic. Slow to criticize at all, invariably measured, dispassionate, and

charitable when he did, and never prone to exaggeration, nonetheless when
his topic was the educational practices on which he himself was raised and
the theory that underlies them, he was uncharacteristically severe. His
critique focused on the nearly total eclipse of students’ experience that
occurs within the traditional paradigm in which students stand to the cur-
riculum as subject to object while the essential business of learning involves
impressing information on students’ minds in the largest possible quantity
and in the most efficient way possible, in so doing overcoming the resistance
to learning that (ostensibly) naturally characterizes the young. A curriculum
at once abstract and formal, disconnected from experience, the significance
of which will become apparent to the students only in a remote future, is
presented and received as a deliverance from on high, perhaps as the dead
weight of the past, and in any event as a body of knowledge that is ‘essentially
static . . . a finished product, with little regard either to the ways in which it
was originally built up or to changes that will surely occur in the future’.4
Such a regime produces an atmosphere that discourages learning pre-
cisely by denying the ground from which it emerges – the students’ experi-
ence. It is ‘an atmosphere of timidity’,5 lack of interest, ‘docility, receptivity,
and obedience’.6 The ‘average traditional school’, he wrote, is marked by
‘wooden routine’ and ‘deadly conventionality’, an atmosphere completely
removed from the students’ lives outside of the classroom.7 Lacking motiva-
tion to learn under such conditions, students must be given artificial induce-
ments ‘so that the mind may swallow the repulsive dose unaware’,
inducements such as a teacher’s approval, high grades, or entertaining
pedagogy combined with an array of disincentives for failure.8 Even when
education succeeds by these standards, it typically produces students who are
themselves disconnected from life, ‘academic’ in the colloquial sense,
unduly bookish, and above all conventional in their thinking. Having
succeeded in amassing great quantities of information, they tend to remain
deficient in the capacity for original and critical thought.
While Dewey’s judgment of traditional education was harsh, he stopped
short of embracing its logical antithesis, as the progressive movement he
inspired often did and for which he faulted them as well, particularly in his
short monograph of 1938, Experience and Education. A dialectical thinker,
Dewey almost invariably refused to think in terms of binary oppositions and
was no less skeptical of philosophical dichotomies than his German pre-
decessor (with whose works it appears he had only a passing acquaintance),
Friedrich Nietzsche. The dichotomy of progressive or student-centered
versus traditional, curriculum-centered education which it had appeared
Dewey himself presupposed he instead rejected. The progressive movement
had begun contrasting in starkly dichotomous terms discipline and freedom,
Dewey’s Copernican Revolution 55

effort and interest, imposition from on high and expression from experi-
ence, preparation for the future and present life, and so on, in each case
replacing the former with the latter. Dewey would not follow them in this –
more accurately, he would rebuke them for not following him – insisting
instead that it is the dichotomy of progressivism and conservatism itself that
must be rejected in favor of a more nuanced position whose point of depar-
ture is the students’ experience but that endeavors to develop this in a direc-
tion and manner that is determined by the logic of experience itself.
To accomplish this, Dewey would insist that educators seek not merely to
‘hammer in’ or ‘plaster on’ the curriculum into students’ minds by the
traditional pedagogical means of memorization, drill, recitation, and so on,
but to create an environment of a kind that is instrumental in ‘calling out
certain responses’. If we think of education on the model of organic growth
and of life itself, it becomes ‘a fostering, a nurturing, a cultivating, process’,
all of which concepts represent ‘conditions of growth’.9 Supplying these con-
ditions expresses a conception of education as in a sense intermediate
between the progressive idea of ‘development from within’ and the conser-
vative ‘formation from without’, although as with so many issues Dewey
remained closer to the former.10 One of the criticisms Dewey would most
often level against traditional education precisely concerns the environment
in which it occurs – typically one that stifles intellectual growth rather than
promotes it. An educational environment is properly regulated with a view to
its effects on such development and is produced by creating ‘experienced
situations’ that ‘call out thinking’ or spontaneously elicit reflection ‘in the
way in which . . . out-of-school situations do’. Thinking, if it occurs at all in
academic settings, does so when certain conditions are in place; when they
are not, thought typically stops in its tracks, if it arises at all. If it is charac-
teristic of thinking in general that it ‘arises out of a directly experienced
situation’ rather than out of an entirely predigested curriculum, or perhaps
‘out of nothing’, it becomes the business of the educator to provide and draw
upon experienced situations, directing them in the course of the learning
process along particular lines.11
Dewey’s accent on experience was not intended, as so many of his critics
and even his supporters often took him to mean, to devalue the curriculum
or knowledge itself but to insist on its connection with the experiential.
When this connection is not apparent, as so often it is not, the consequence
is not the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake but its veritable opposite: the
unmotivated mind confronting information ‘simply as information to be
retained for its own sake’, knowledge that ‘tends to stratify over vital experi-
ence’ rather than shed meaning on it.12 This motivation deficit has long been
one of the chief ills of education at all levels, yet rather than view this in the
traditional way as a sign of intellectual laziness on the part of the young,
56 The Educative Process

Dewey regarded it as a symptom of pedagogical failure. Even as abstract a

subject matter as mathematics, Dewey argued, can be presented to students
in ways that accentuate rather than ignore its roots in human experience. If
at the elementary level in particular ‘the study of number suffers from . . .
lack of motivation’, what causes this is nothing in the nature of students’
minds or which is perhaps inherent to mathematics itself, as if the subject
were inherently uninteresting, but ‘the radical mistake of treating number as
if it were an end in itself, instead of the means of accomplishing some end.
Let the child get a consciousness of what is the use of number, of what it
really is for, and half the battle is won.’13 A motivation deficit is a predictable
consequence when an answer to the student’s perennial question, ‘Why are
we studying this?’ is far to seek.
For Dewey, this is a question that educators at every level must take more
seriously than they traditionally have and answer in terms not wholly dis-
continuous with students’ extracurricular experience. As Dewey noted, it is
characteristic of young minds in particular to have a nearly inexhaustible
appetite for knowledge regarding nearly everything with which life brings
them into contact – provided that it is life or vital experience from which
knowledge derives:

A little child, when awake, is always busy. If we analyze this tendency we

shall find that the mind, acting through the medium of the body, is all the
time seeking for something. For instance, the child seems always hungry
for physical food. In that respect he is certainly not a blank piece of paper.
On the contrary, his hunger is an active thing, so active that it causes him
to search eagerly for food. Now the child’s eyes, his ears, his fingers, his
nose are just as hungry as his stomach. Children naturally hunger for what
gives health, for what makes up life; for form, for color, for sound, and
especially for holding things and doing something with them.14

Dewey was hardly the first to note the natural inclination of the mind to seek
knowledge. Aristotle, in one of the most frequently cited remarks in the
history of Western thought, opened the Metaphysics with the observation that
‘All men by nature desire to know’, an observation with which few would
disagree, yet as every educator knows, it is a desire that can become remark-
ably attenuated in academic settings.15 Why is it, Dewey asked, that the im-
perative to understand that is so pronounced and ubiquitous in ordinary
experience is so often replaced with indifference in the classroom? His
answer was that students in traditional institutions are presented with infor-
mation in ways so removed from ordinary life that students begin to perceive
the world of knowledge as an altogether remote and ‘strange world’ that
‘overlies’ rather than connects with ‘the world of personal acquaintance’.
Dewey’s Copernican Revolution 57

To the students’ way of thinking, academic knowledge becomes a wholly

separate affair from the more vital knowledge to which Aristotle alluded, the
value and purpose of which can be utterly mysterious apart from authorita-
tive commands. As Dewey continued:

The sole problem of the student is to learn, for school purposes, for
purposes of recitations and promotions, the constituent parts of this
strange world. Probably the most conspicuous connotation of the word
knowledge for most persons to-day is just the body of facts and truths
ascertained by others; the material found in the rows and rows of atlases,
cyclopedias, histories, biographies, books of travel, scientific treatises, on
the shelves of libraries.16

The traditional reply to this is that the purpose of education can be confi-
dently expected to become apparent to students later in life and consists
essentially in preparing them for that life, a matter that the immature mind
cannot be expected to comprehend. Dewey countered that while the notion
of education as a preparation for the future is not wholly without merit, it
faces insurmountable difficulties, beginning with the fact that the discon-
nection between the subject matter of education and present life under-
mines the motivation to learn, distorts students’ conception of knowledge,
and fosters attitudes of intellectual docility and conventionality. Additionally,
the doctrine of preparation undermines itself by overlooking the very factors
that make a genuine preparation for the future possible. As he argued, ‘only
by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experi-
ence are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future’.17 Supplying
students with knowledge that in the educator’s estimation they will some day
need creates a sizeable problem regarding retention, as is apparent when we
reflect on our own years of schooling and how much of the information
presented to us we have managed to retain.18 When we compare this with the
capacity to absorb and retain information that vitally connects with students’
experience, the contrast is remarkable. It is commonplace for a child or
young adult to possess little capacity to retain their lessons in mathematics or
literature while having an encyclopedic knowledge of sports or music that
can remain with them for decades.19 It is nothing inherent to sports, music,
or the youthful mind that explains this contrast but the connection of the
former to the lived experience of the young. When educators are able to
draw genuinely upon students’ experience outside the classroom the situa-
tion is dramatically different. Unless we wish to assert that students do not
learn outside of institutions, or that what they learn there does not constitute
education, we must explain why it so often happens that one and the same
mind can be lackluster and indifferent to learning in an academic setting yet
58 The Educative Process

intensely inquisitive outside it. The ‘indirect education’, as Dewey referred

to it, that we receive through experience provides a model by which to
conceive education in the academic connotation of the term.20
It is a model in which activities of the kind that once took place in the
home are reproduced in the classroom. In elementary school, for instance,
such as the one that Dewey himself instituted at the University of Chicago
(the so-called ‘Laboratory School’ of 1896–1903, created as an experimental
attempt to put Dewey’s philosophy of education into practice), academic
subject matters are organized around such activities as woodworking and
carpentry, nature study, domestic farming, cooking, and similar practices
which in former times belonged to the ordinary experience of childhood in
rural areas or small cities. The ‘ideal home’ prior to modern urbanization
and technological mechanization included ‘a workshop where the child
could work out his constructive instincts’ as well as ‘a miniature laboratory in
which his inquiries could be directed’. Additionally, ‘[t]he life of the child
would extend out of doors to the garden, surrounding fields, and forests. He
would have his excursions, his walks and talks, in which the larger world out
of doors would open to him.’21 The school that Dewey envisioned is larger in
scale, more explicitly social or public, more carefully structured and directed
in its activities than domestic life, yet in its essentials is modeled on the ideal
home as he conceived of it. The ultimate justification of this idea lies in the
nature of the educative process itself: knowledge acquisition must be rooted
directly in human experience since the latter is the ground from which
knowledge emerges and is that upon which knowledge ultimately bears.
If one senses a hint of nostalgia in Dewey’s conception of the ideal home
one would not be wholly mistaken. During his long lifetime (1859–1952)
Dewey witnessed first-hand the profound changes that modernization was
bringing about and viewed them with a mixture of optimism and lament-
ation. While his general outlook was by no means conservative, Dewey did
view with regret the exodus into large cities and suburbs that was occurring
during the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as well as some of
the changes in childhood experience that this was bringing about. With his
characteristic even-handedness, Dewey lamented the disconnection from
nature that urban life causes together with the narrowing of experience and
loss of practical knowledge that children raised in rural settings traditionally
acquire, and the loss of the small scale of life in which Dewey himself grew
up, yet without becoming backward-looking or overlooking the merits of
modern life. As Dewey wrote in 1899:

But it is useless to bemoan the departure of the good old days of

children’s modesty, reverence, and implicit obedience, if we expect
merely by bemoaning and by exhortation to bring them back. It is radical
Dewey’s Copernican Revolution 59

conditions which have changed, and only an equally radical change in

education suffices. We must recognize our compensations – the increase
in toleration, in breadth of social judgment, the larger acquaintance with
human nature, the sharpened alertness in reading signs of character and
interpreting social situations, greater accuracy of adaptation to differing
personalities, contact with greater commercial activities. These considera-
tions mean much to the city-bred child of today.22

If modernity is in so many respects a mixed blessing, exacting a heavy price

for the myriad practical and cultural advantages that it ushers in and which
we would be loath to give up, the question for education is how to ensure
that the learning process is rooted in the only ground from which it can
spring. If experience, in an expansive sense of the term, constitutes this
ground, how can educators prevent the disconnection of knowledge and
experience from becoming still more pronounced or, more optimistically,
reverse it?
For Dewey, the answer must come in the form of a curriculum that arises
directly from activities and situations of real life which he encapsulated in
the term experience, a concept that he would seek to elucidate over the
course of several decades. If the root of the problem with traditional educa-
tion is its neglect of the experiential dimension of life, Dewey’s task was to
make the implications of his Copernican revolution explicit – to spell out
which kinds of experience he held to be educative, how they are to be
directed along properly educational lines, and of course what his conception
of experience itself is. This old term, which has its roots in ancient Greek
philosophy and later underwent profound transformation during the
modern Enlightenment period in the thought of the British empiricists and
others, Dewey would endeavor to overhaul in radical terms while also
demonstrating its far-reaching implications in several areas of philosophical
concern. It is to this question of experience itself and the conditions under
which it is properly educative that I now turn.

Experience as experimental inquiry

The long history of the concept of experience in the Western philosophical
tradition is, of course, a topic to which I cannot do justice here; however in
order to orient matters let us take a very brief excursion into epistemology
and the more orthodox conceptions of experience that have come down to
us from the Greeks and from modern empiricism, rationalism, and idealism,
since it is these views that Dewey’s notion of experience seeks to overcome.
The concept of experience as experimental inquiry is fundamental not only
to Dewey’s theory of education but to his entire philosophical outlook, from
60 The Educative Process

his pragmatic epistemology to logic, psychology, aesthetics, ethics, politics,

and other areas of investigation. It is an idea that has played a central role as
well in the epistemology of the ancients and in the great age of Enlighten-
ment, yet as Dewey often had occasion to remark, it continues into the twen-
tieth century to be plagued by ancient associations that invite us to regard it
in a rather dim light. The general disparagement of experience began in
Greek philosophy, particularly in the writings of Plato and Aristotle, and
belongs to a broader critique of such items as practice, rhetoric, opinion,
and appearance, among others, all of which were asserted in one fashion or
another to belong to a subaltern realm in the order of knowledge and being.
The most eminent of Greek philosophers instituted a series of hierarchically
ordered dichotomies that would fundamentally structure Western thought
into the modern age. Binary oppositions ranging from reality/appearance to
knowledge/opinion, theory/practice, reason/desire, dialectic/rhetoric,
human/animal, man/woman, public/private, virtue/vice, and so on and so
forth lent the several branches of philosophical investigation their basic traj-
ectory, in each case the former possessing a status of categorical superiority
over the latter.
Classical philosophy would speak of experience as well in dichotomous
and hierarchical terms. The realm of experience and the empirical belonged
to a decidedly lower order of cognition than the rational – the faculty that
constitutes our human essence, elevates us above the brutes, and enables us
to know the true nature of being. Experience became associated in the
Greek mind with the sum of opinions and practices that custom had author-
ized and hence with the past. Empirical knowledge or belief was limited in
scope to the world of contingency, probability, and change, and lacked the
necessity and certainty of the knowledge that is founded on the secure basis
of reason. If reality in its ultimate dimension transcended the order of mere
appearances it could not be known by empirical means but required a
categorically higher order of cognition, one capable of grasping the forms,
essences, first causes, and what have you. Mathematics and logic, for
instance, were quite beyond the reach of experience while constituting the
purest forms of knowledge available to human beings. Their very purity was
precisely a result of their being unmixed with the merely empirical, with the
senses or the reliance on opinions accumulated from the past. For the
Greeks, the higher reaches of knowledge bear less on what a thing is than
why it is, its underlying reason or cause. The ultimate aim of science is not to
gain empirical knowledge about a given object but to comprehend it ration-
ally, where this means explaining its causes.
During the Enlightenment the concept of experience would undergo
transformation in the thought of the rationalists, idealists, and of course the
empiricists of the British school while in many ways continuing along the
Dewey’s Copernican Revolution 61

trajectory set by classical philosophy. What remained firmly in place within

rationalism and idealism is the ancient depreciation of the empirical and the
insistence on the unreliability of the senses without the tutelage of rational
categories. Descartes’ Meditations famously outlined the case against empiri-
cal observation unaided by clear and distinct ideas, concepts whose guaran-
tor can only be of a divine, not an empirical, order. The concepts of reason
for rationalists and German idealists alike are located above experience and
possess a self-sufficiency with respect to the empirical such that the latter can
neither confirm nor negate such concepts. Whereas experience can never
rise above the order of particularity, probability, and contingency, the cate-
gories of rational thought enable us to grasp universal and necessary laws,
principles, and a priori certainties which form the true basis of knowledge.
For Kant, it is the categories of pure reason that impose intelligibility on an
experience that unto itself is chaotic and unknowable. While Kant would
attempt to demonstrate the limits of the reason that is divorced from expe-
rience, what is decisive in Dewey’s reading of Kant is the ‘dogmatic rigidity’
that still clings to the latter’s critical project:

[B]ecause he taught that the understanding employs fixed, a priori,

concepts, in order to introduce connection into experience and thereby
make known objects possible (stable, regular relationships of qualities), he
developed in German thought a curious contempt for the living variety of
experience and a curious overestimate of the value of system, order,
regularity for their own sakes.

Dewey faulted Kant in particular for introducing into German philosophy

a ‘system of absolutism’ that looks away from worldly realities in favor of a
transcendent order, and whose characteristic stance is both polarizing and
conservative: ‘a resolution of experience into atomic elements that afford no
support to stable organization or a clamping down of all experience by fixed
categories and necessary concepts’. The political implications of this are
dangerously apologetic if we are compelled to choose between ‘complete
radicalism neglecting and attacking the historic past as trivial and harmful,
or complete conservatism idealizing institutions as embodiments of eternal
Continental rationalism and idealism were not alone in separating reason
from experience, even if British empiricism would take a far less disparaging
view of experience itself than these other schools. If the empiricism of
Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and so on would insist that it is the evidence of the
senses rather than abstract reason that constitutes the foundation of know-
ledge, it would nonetheless employ a conception of experience that Dewey
would later reject. Orthodox empiricism defined experience as an essentially
62 The Educative Process

passive beholding of nature or what modern epistemology often refers to as

the ‘external world’. The knowing subject, which Hobbes articulated as a
system of matter in motion, confronts its environment in a fundamentally
passive manner, the reliability of its ‘simple ideas’ resting precisely on their
coerciveness. Sensations impose themselves forcefully on our awareness,
giving observation an inescapable quality that affords a guarantee of validity
superior to that provided by ostensibly rational ideas, all of which, empiricists
insisted, have their origin not a priori but rather in the simple ideas of
experience. If there is nothing in the mind that was not once in the senses
then it is empirical observation alone that supplies the content of human
The concept of experience itself would be characterized in orthodox
empiricism as an atomistic matter rather than one marked by continuity in
time and space. Consciousness receives impressions as discrete deliverances
of sense (red, spherical, firm, sweet) rather than holistically (apple), leaving
it with the problem of how to string these ideas together without resorting to
speculation or in a manner that is accurate and empirically grounded. The
foundation of knowledge is accordingly first-hand, direct observation of
material objects or their qualities, an experience that provides the ingredi-
ents that give rise to more complex ideas and operations of thought. What
experience does not supply, empiricists insisted, is any perception of rela-
tions such as causality, contiguity, or necessity. Hume, for instance, would
provide the classical empirical analysis of causality, arguing that nowhere in
human experience does one perceive a necessary connection between events
rather than their constant conjunction. It is habit alone that accustoms
consciousness to expect one event to follow another, not a direct beholding
of causal necessity or any other unseen powers operative behind the back of
sense. The marks of knowledge, then, in classical empiricism are a passive
awareness, a well-functioning sensory apparatus, strict refusal to embrace
beliefs not traceable to simple ideas, and a method by which such ideas can
be strung together to form inferences. Any concepts that we deem ‘rational’
are inventions of the mind and are known only on the basis of empirical
observation. In the beginning, the mind is a blank slate upon which experi-
ence inscribes all that we can genuinely know, there being neither innate nor
a priori concepts that structure our awareness or constitute a foundation of
Toward the end of the nineteenth century empiricism in the United States
would take a ‘radical’ – one might also say phenomenological – turn in the
writings first of William James and subsequently of Dewey. James’ work in
both philosophy and psychology during this period profoundly influenced
Dewey’s entire outlook, helping (along with Darwinian biology and his
reading of Hegel) to reorient his thought from an earlier allegiance to a
Dewey’s Copernican Revolution 63

form of British idealism indebted in the main to Hegel and T. H. Green (an
allegiance that Dewey never abandoned entirely, or, at any rate, not to
Hegel24) and toward a Jamesian psychology and ‘radical empiricism’
modeled rather directly on biology. Where earlier epistemologies had failed,
radical empiricists now maintained, is in the basic notion of mind as con-
fronting the world from an external perspective, as an essentially worldless
subjectivity standing to the ‘external world’ as if on one side of an ontologi-
cal abyss, in the world in one manner or another but not of it. The episte-
mological problematic of knowing the world meant escaping by some
reliable method the inner confines of subjectivity and ascertaining whether
objects in the world resemble in their true being the ideas of them that are
immediately before the mind. The empiricism that James and Dewey put
forward rejects this model in its entirety and replaces it with a naturalistic
and biological model of experience. Human experience is fundamentally
bound up with, is indeed ultimately inseparable from, the world – an idea
that the phenomenological movement, following Edmund Husserl, would
speak of as the intentionality of consciousness. Conscious experience, radical
empiricism and phenomenology likewise maintained, has an intentional
structure and is always already directed toward, bound up with, and ulti-
mately inseparable from its object. The subject–object dichotomy represents
a distortion of how we experience both objects in the natural world and
social phenomena belonging to what Husserl would now call the lifeworld.
Experience does not occur in a vacuum, these thinkers now asserted and
elaborated in vocabularies rather different both from each other and from
the earlier epistemologies of empiricism, rationalism, and idealism. While it
is highly regrettable that radical empiricism and phenomenology would
develop as entirely separate traditions of thought, barely on speaking terms
with each other, with phenomenology emerging in Germany and France and
radical empiricism remaining an American phenomenon, the basic premises
they share include a general skepticism of Enlightenment foundationalism,
the primacy of practice and lived experience, the intentionality of conscious-
ness, and some related ideas. For James in particular, conceiving of experi-
ence in a non-atomistic way meant affirming what the earlier empiricism had
expressly denied: that we do indeed experience connections or relations
between different objects of sense rather than wholly discrete and discon-
nected events. As James articulated the basic point of radical empiricism:

To be radical, an empiricism must neither admit into its constructions any

element that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from them any
element that is directly experienced. For such a philosophy, the relations
that connect experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of
relation experienced must be accounted as ‘real’ as anything else in the system.25
64 The Educative Process

Such relations as conjunction and disjunction, causality, contiguity, and

resistance, for example, are proper objects of human experience, and where
experience itself is conceived as a ‘stream of thought’ or consciousness (to
use James’ term26) rather than a succession of discrete perceptions. The
problem that the older empiricism faced of how to link together an array of
experiential atoms in a fashion that is non-speculative and empirically
sound, for James and Dewey alike, is a pseudo-problem that is premised on
a phenomenologically inadequate and altogether artificial conception of
how human beings encounter their world.
Dewey outlined his conception of empiricism, or what in one of his very
earliest works from 1886 he termed ‘the psychological standpoint’, as

We are not to determine the nature of reality or of any object of philo-

sophical inquiry by examining it as it is in itself, but only as it is an element
in our knowledge, in our experience, only as it is related to our mind, or
is an ‘idea’. . . . [T]he nature of all objects of philosophical inquiry is to
be fixed by finding out what experience says about them.27

Dewey would never waver in his commitment to radical empiricism and to

Jamesian psychology, and would return to the general theme of experience
and its implications for philosophy throughout his career, repeating as late
as 1949 the basic point that ‘my philosophical view, or theory, of experience
does not include any existence beyond the reach of experience’.28 The proper
objects of awareness, that is, what our experience ultimately is an experience
of, are not observations or what the British empiricists had called ‘ideas’, but
things, relations, and the ‘dynamic continuities’ between objects. As a thing
of this world, experience is no crossing of an ontological divide but is ‘bound
up with the movement of things by most intimate and pervasive bonds’, and
‘is of necessity a matter of ties and connexions, of bearings and uses’.29 The
world as it is disclosed in our lived experience is very different from the
particularistic or atomistic world of the earlier empiricism and closer, if not
altogether identical, to the lifeworld of phenomenology – a world of
connections, continuities, and meaningful relations of a myriad kinds.
The empiricism of James and Dewey rejected both the age-old deprecia-
tion of experience and the separation of the rational from the experiential,
preferring to speak of the latter in terms variously describable as phenome-
nological, naturalistic, or holistic. Human experience is most aptly spoken of
in its verbal connotation as a doing as well as an undergoing, a continual
process of acting and reacting, synthesizing and transforming an environ-
ment rather than merely suffering or passively registering sense impressions.
Reason is not an extra-empirical faculty or method but is rather inherent to
Dewey’s Copernican Revolution 65

the interaction of the human organism and its world, a part of the process
by which human life sustains itself and negotiates its way about an environ-
ment on a model that is at once biological and social. The concepts of
rational thought are neither Descartes’ clear and distinct ideas nor Kant’s
a priori categories nor innate ideas; instead they are historical and linguistic
constructions that fundamentally structure our experience. Dewey antici-
pated in some ways the new accent on language that would prevail in
phenomenological, hermeneutical, and other philosophical traditions
throughout the twentieth century in drawing attention to the linguistic
and interpretive dimension of human thought. Thus in Reconstruction in
Philosophy, Dewey wrote:

The conceptions that are socially current and important become the
child’s principles of interpretation and estimation long before he attains
to personal and deliberate control of conduct. Things come to him
clothed in language, not in physical nakedness, and this garb of commu-
nication makes him a sharer in the beliefs of those about him. These
beliefs coming to him as so many facts form his mind; they furnish the
centers about which his own personal expeditions and perceptions are
ordered. Here we have ‘categories’ of connection and unification as
important as those of Kant, but empirical not mythological.30

This important passage – which owes as much to James as to Hegel – not only
anticipates a great deal of later twentieth-century philosophy but puts in
question the orthodox empiricism of Hobbes, Locke, and Hume. The em-
pirical is now to be theorized in terms of James’ ‘stream of thought’ or
consciousness, as an organic and synthetic process by which human beings
find their way about the world.
The rationality that, for Dewey, is immanent to human experience is what
he termed ‘experimental intelligence’, a rather expansive concept which I
shall analyze in more detail in Chapter 3. If the older empiricism erred in its
conception of mind as a passive and prelinguistic receptacle of sensory data,
the new empiricism would accentuate the active and synthetic dimension of
experience that Dewey articulated in his concept of the experimental. It is
the nature of experience to be at once passive and active, not merely to
receive sensory input but actively to interpret, categorize, and transform it in
the manner of an experiment directed toward a pragmatic end. Particular
sensations are not self-enclosed units but rather ‘points of adjustment’ by
which consciousness is organized in an organic and dialectical fashion into a
larger flow of perceptions all of which are ultimately subservient to, or
indeed are, the life of the organism. Experience in this sense is life itself, the
growth or being-in-motion of a worldly subjectivity.31 It is an experience that
66 The Educative Process

is temporal and adaptive, that adjusts itself to objects in the world while
simultaneously transforming them to suit its own purposes, and that is con-
tinually growing and expanding. Experience is ‘an affair of the intercourse
of a living being with its physical and social environment’.32 Such ‘inter-
course’, to use one of Dewey’s favorite expressions, is to be understood not
solely in biological or evolutionary terms but in social and cultural terms as
well. The human being is a social animal in every facet of its being, and is by
no means the worldless atom of Hobbesian lore (a theme that Dewey
frequently discussed in his ethical and political writings33).
The experimental model of experience and rationality finds its highest
expression in scientific investigation wherein inquiry is both a social practice
of co-operative experimentation and dialogical reciprocity as well as an
empirical inquiry into the constitution of our environment. While the exper-
imental attitude seeks knowledge regarding the way the world is, it is not
limited to this but aims as well at achieving a high degree of control. If expe-
rience, as Dewey put it, ‘is a matter of simultaneous doings and sufferings’,
and thus includes both an active and a passive dimension, its active side
consists of interaction with an environment that is, again, conceived on the
model of biological life.34 Experience has a vitality about it that impels the
subject of experience to take action in pursuit of its ends rather than merely
to receive impressions or perhaps adapt to the world as it is encountered.

Every living creature, while it is awake, is in constant interaction with its

surroundings. It is engaged in a process of give and take, of doing some-
thing to objects around it and receiving back something from them –
impressions, stimuli. This process of interacting constitutes the framework
of experience.35

The successful negotiation of experience issues in a kind of growth in which

one stage leads into the next or prepares the conditions for future experi-
ences. An intelligent agent uses its experiences from the past to transform
conditions in which future experiences will occur, thus establishing partial
control over the direction its future will take. Scientific experimentation is
the most explicit instance of a rationality implicit in all intelligently directed
awareness, one in which a particular set of observations and conclusions
generates a hypothesis that in turn directs the course of future inquiry, and
that opens up new paths of experience while closing off others.
Dewey also spoke of experience in a more emphatic connotation, most
notably in his writings on art and aesthetics.36 These are experiences that we
speak of in ordinary language in their singularity; we speak of ‘an experi-
ence’ in an emphatic and particular sense to set it apart from the ordinary
course of events and to give it a special significance. This may be a learning
Dewey’s Copernican Revolution 67

experience or some other culmination of a larger experiential process. If it

is the nature of experience to include a certain orientation and purposive-
ness then it may either fulfil its course or fail to do so. The project that we
take up may fail in its purpose or lead toward a dead end; it may become
misdirected, lose its bearings, or otherwise fail to lead anywhere that we
would wish to go. Alternatively, a course of experience may reach an impor-
tant culmination – a purpose realized, a destination reached, a lesson
learned. It is the latter that Dewey spoke of as ‘an experience’ in a singular
and emphatic connotation and which, he maintained, has special relevance
in the interpretation of art and aesthetic experience.
Returning now to education, if it is the students’ experience that affords
the appropriate point of departure for educational practice rather than a
curriculum that is altogether ready made and imposed from on high, then
the notion of interest assumes a special importance. The learning process as
it takes shape within an institutional setting properly begins from the same
starting point from which learning occurs in ordinary life: the existing, vital
interests of the young. While Dewey qualified this statement in important
ways, he was adamant in rejecting the customary view according to which it
is effort rather than interest that is of optimal importance in education. On
traditional views, effort and self-discipline in a rather advanced degree are
urgent requirements of education since these qualities produce a vigorous
and resolute temperament whereas education that is organized around
students’ interests molds character in the opposite direction, toward egoism,
self-indulgence, and indolence. Children’s interests in particular are super-
ficial, non-educative, and fleeting, conventional views have it. Students must
cultivate habits that will be useful in later life, and if left to pursue their
natural impulses this will occur only by chance. The purpose of education,
conventional wisdom maintains, is very nearly the opposite of cultivating the
given interests of students (unless they be at a post-secondary level, although
even this is strongly qualified): it is to train the mind to be capable of
exerting effort to complete tasks that it may not find particularly interesting
or enjoyable. Intellectual maturity requires the cultivation of such disposi-
tions no less than the acquisition of information.
In his typically dialectical way, Dewey rejected not the traditional concen-
tration on effort altogether but the dichotomy of effort versus interest to
which conservatives and progressives both subscribed. The process of formal
education must begin somewhere, whether we are speaking of a young child
entering elementary school or an adult entering the university. At whatever
stage of maturity they may be, students enter upon the educative process
with a formidable baggage of experience, interests, and capacities, and never
as a Lockean tabula rasa upon which the educator can simply set to work
impressing information, likely with the admixture of whatever degree of
68 The Educative Process

discipline is necessary to ensure attention and behavioral decorum. If atten-

tion and the will to learn are necessary conditions of education, these con-
ditions are not met by externally imposed discipline alone or when students
are compelled to ingest information almost against their will. Where it is
present, a genuine will to learn arises on the basis of lived experience and
the interests that it incorporates. The failure of the older view, Dewey held,
is visible not only theoretically but practically as well, in the motivation
deficit noted above and in the manner in which knowledge is so often ill-
digested and quickly forgotten after the examination period ends. The moti-
vation to seek and retain knowledge is present only when it acquires a
grounding in the ‘existing natural interests’ of students, and while it is
undoubtedly the case that some such interests will be fleeting and superficial
– most obviously at the elementary level – it remains that ‘they are all there
is, so to speak, to the child; they are all the teacher has to appeal to; they are
the starting points, the initiatives, the working machinery’.37
As with so many of Dewey’s hypotheses, this one was promptly misunder-
stood by critics and progressives alike to entail that educators are to regard
such interests as sacrosanct, as desires to be appeased for their own sake
rather than directed along properly educative lines. The purpose of educa-
tion, Dewey was well aware, is not to entertain or amuse but to learn. The
question is what conditions make such learning possible, and the answer
must include enlisting existing interests into forms of inquiry that lead from
old interests to new and more sophisticated ones. Interests are pursued not
for their own sake or for the sake of any pleasure that may attend them but
for that to which they lead if appropriately interpreted and harnessed. The
widespread misunderstanding of Dewey’s position on this matter is surpris-
ing given how explicitly and how often he articulated the point from his
earlier to his later writings. In 1896, for instance, he wrote: ‘And the teacher
who always utilizes interest will never merely indulge it. Interest in its reality
is a moving thing, a thing of growth, of richer experience, and fuller power.
Just how to use interest to secure growth in knowledge and in efficiency is
what defines the master teacher.’38 One senses a clear note of exasperation
on Dewey’s part when in 1938 he was compelled to reiterate the point yet

In an educational scheme, the occurrence of a desire and impulse is not

the final end. It is an occasion and a demand for the formation of a plan
and method of activity. Such a plan, to repeat, can be formed only by study
of conditions and by securing all relevant information.39

It should have gone without saying, although for many of Dewey’s casual
readers it did not, that no little effort is an inevitable part of the learning
Dewey’s Copernican Revolution 69

process, that discipline and rigor are fundamental to the pedagogical practice
of directing interests within certain channels in view of the educator’s knowl-
edge. Interest is the starting point of education, but in order for the process
to advance it must lead into lines of inquiry that require concentration,
perseverance, and intellectual discipline.
Where traditional views had erred was not in prizing effort or the dis-
ciplined mind but in misconceiving the conditions that make this possible. A
worthy goal may be undermined by the means used to pursue it, as is the case
when the older practice of emphasizing drill and rote learning creates a
docile and unimaginative mind. As Dewey was well aware from his own expe-
rience as a student, children educated in the traditional manner can be
remarkably adept at giving the appearance of effort and attention while the
mind wanders the moment the teacher’s gaze is no longer fixed upon them.
The only guarantee of attention is when students see for themselves the
relevance of the subject matter to life and to that in which they take an
unforced interest. Without this condition in place, we fashion not the virile
character so prized by the conservative philosophy but ‘a character dull,
mechanical, unalert, because the vital juice of spontaneous interest has been
squeezed out’ or ‘the narrow, bigoted man who is obstinate and irresponsi-
ble save in the line of his own preconceived aims and beliefs’.40 For Dewey, it
is a mystifying proposition that discipline should be effectively gained only
when the mind studies a subject matter more or less against its will rather
than on the basis of intelligent interest. If conservatives would sometimes
concede the need to ‘make it interesting’ by identifying pedagogical tech-
niques that make the curriculum more palatable to young minds, it
remained for Dewey that in the absence of a vital connection between the
subject matter and students’ interests such techniques can only serve as the
sugar coating on a bitter pill.
Having identified the point of departure of the educative process as the
experience and interests that students bring with them into the classroom,
everything in education then depends upon that to which such interests
lead. It is here that the educator’s role is vital in directing or redirecting
these interests along properly educative lines. If the traditional practice had
trained the young to imitate prematurely ‘the fixed pattern of adult habits
of thought and affection’, Dewey’s proposal was that schools not regard
children as little adults but instead concentrate on guiding their experience
by centering an interest on a particular end.41 It is in the nature of experi-
ence and interest alike that one thing, as we say, leads to another; when
appropriately directed, a relatively narrow and pedestrian interest can lead
into an organized activity or inquiry that broadens the scope of that interest
and introduces an intelligent ordering of experiences. In an important
passage from a short book of 1912, Interest and Effort in Education, Dewey
70 The Educative Process

asked his readers to recall how their present intellectual interests originally
took shape. What occurs is that an interest, usually limited in scope, leads
beyond itself into a larger sequence of activities, a project or investigation
into the whys and wherefores surrounding it. Questions arise as to an object’s
composition, history, or implications in one direction or another, and an
organized subject matter arises. What we find, as Dewey put it, is that

wherever his activities have grown in extent and range of meaning

(instead of becoming petrified and fossilized) . . . narrower and simpler
types of interest (requiring a shorter time for their realization) have been
expanding to cover a longer time. With this change they have become
richer and fuller.42

A given interest can grow well beyond its original context as new questions
are formed and inquiries undertaken. With the passage of time the original
interest is outgrown and replaced with a series of other, more sophisticated
ones. A subject matter that had been regarded with indifference when
viewed solely as an abstract matter can take on urgency when it is shown to
arise out of a series of activities and interests that already engage the student,
while immature interests are superseded. Thus a child’s interest in his or her
home and neighborhood can lead into an interest in the larger town, into
the town’s history or geography, and subsequently into the history or geog-
raphy of the native country, continent, and so on. In time, the child’s interest
in history may develop into one in larger historical patterns, the history of
other civilizations, or intellectual history. A child’s interest in the parents’
hardware store may grow into a larger curiosity about economics, account-
ing, or political economy; a childish interest in paint, for instance, may
develop into an interest in its physical or chemical composition, and in time
into dimensions of chemistry or physics far afield from paint. An attachment
to an old article of furniture may grow into an interest in antiques or the
history of furniture or architectural styles, into the trade of cabinetmaking or
woodworking, and so on.43 The examples may be easily multiplied, and the
point that they illustrate is the interconnectedness of human activities and,
due to this, the organic nature in which interests develop from relative
immaturity to progressive sophistication.
Outside of an academic setting, interests may develop quite spontaneously
on the basis of lived experience alone and occurrences that may be entirely
happenstance. However, within these settings it is the business of educators
to guide intellectual development by redirecting interests and not, as some
progressives took Dewey to imply, by leaving students at complete liberty to
do as they will. While it is a mistake for a teacher to dominate the course of
inquiry by directing students’ interests along lines that suit only the purpose
Dewey’s Copernican Revolution 71

of the teacher rather than the students, the mistake is not remedied by a
swing to the opposite extreme in which the teacher takes no active part in
the process. In his later years Dewey would criticize many progressives for
falling into the second error while traditionalists had committed the first:

Sometimes teachers seem to be afraid even to make suggestions to the

members of a group as to what they should do. I have heard of cases in
which children are surrounded with objects and materials and then left
entirely to themselves, the teacher being loath to suggest even what might
be done with the materials lest freedom be impinged upon.44

While freedom to choose activities and lines of inquiry is an important part

of the learning process, this gives rise not to a laissez-faire policy but, on the
contrary, to a specific conception of the educator’s role in the classroom: as
a leader or director of inquiry rather than dictator or passive onlooker (an
issue to which I shall return). Since the educator has a larger scope of know-
ledge and breadth of experience than the students, it falls to him or her to
introduce an intelligent order or plan of activity that will lead a given interest
in the direction of an inquiry that is likely to bear fruit in the form of a
discovery, the acquisition of knowledge, or the enlarging of horizons.
Most often the direction such inquiry takes is from the narrow to the
broad, from the concrete to the abstract, from the particular to the univer-
sal, and from the practical to the theoretical. If a student’s immediate
interest pertains more often to the former in each of these pairings, the
educator’s role is to lead it in the direction of the latter or toward any expe-
rience that is properly educative. In the course of intellectual development
the latter may gain an importance to the students that is quite remote from
the original, childish interest that had first occasioned reflection. This, for
Dewey, is the nature or general pattern of maturation. One does not take an
interest in theoretical matters at any stage of intellectual development unless
the ground has been prepared in the practical and experiential. Whether it
is elementary mathematics or university-level philosophy, a new interest takes
hold when it is rooted firmly in an existing one and cannot be plastered on
by clever pedagogy. Educators are well familiar with the phenomenon of the
student whose mind appears utterly impervious to a new theoretical subject
matter. What difference does it make, the student will unfailingly ask,
whether we are rationalists or empiricists, realists or antirealists, foundation-
alists or antifoundationalists, interactionists or epiphenomenalists? For the
professor the question is pedestrian and perhaps insulting; the answer is self-
evident, he or she will declare. For the student, of course, it is anything but,
and the issue has every appearance of perfect irrelevance. The chasm that
can separate the educator from the student on such matters most often
72 The Educative Process

pertains not to a simple difference in intelligence level, as the former is often

inclined to suppose, but to the fact that the professor has long since stopped
asking the question, having perceived its experiential ramifications and
become convinced over the course of time that it is not only an important
question but indeed the question on which all else turns, perhaps even the
only important question that remains for theorists in the field (a phenome-
non with which, I trust, we are all familiar). A theoretical interest may
become an end in itself (and indeed can deteriorate into scholasticism), yet
its origin remains pragmatic and experiential, a principle that Dewey again
conceived on the model of organic growth. ‘There is no difference’, he
maintained, ‘between the growth of a plant and the prosperous development
of an experience’, where such development proceeds from the practical to
the theoretical and from the concrete to the abstract.45
This conception of growth or of intellectual development as growth is one
example of a larger principle of continuity which together with the principle
of interaction constitute Dewey’s criteria for an experience to qualify as
educative. Not all experiences have educational value, he insisted, but only
those that meet certain conditions. Here again is an issue on which Dewey’s
critics and disciples alike would often misread him, taking him to intend that
any experience, no matter how trivial, may be appropriately pursued in the
classroom so long as students find it interesting. Dewey, of course, never
countenanced this view – which he regarded as self-evidently silly – and with
evident consternation set about to correct yet another misinterpretation in
Experience and Education. There he repeated that the direction in which the
educator ought to guide the students is toward experiential continuity or
toward a continuing and habitual process of intellectual growth. ‘[T]he prin-
ciple of continuity of experience’, he wrote, ‘means that every experience
both takes up something from those which have gone before and modifies
in some way the quality of those which come after.’ Educative experience
takes an existing interest as its point of departure, but it must lead some-
where, in the direction of new questions and discoveries. The students’
future must be uppermost in the mind of the educator, yet not in the sense
that what they are presently learning is solely a preparation for what will
some day prove useful but that what is currently being taught and learned
will generate a momentum that will continue in the future course of intel-
lectual maturation. With this in mind the teacher arranges for experiences
and lines of inquiry that can be anticipated to lead to further learning. It is
the very nature of experience to lead beyond itself and to orient one toward
what is to follow. Since ‘every experience lives on in further experiences’,
rather than being a disconnected happening, ‘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’.46
Dewey’s Copernican Revolution 73

Of special importance in this connection is the cultivation of habits of

thought and conduct that will ensure an enduring interest in a field of
knowledge and a capacity to develop new interests. The idea of education as
crucially involving habit formation, of course, has clear roots in the educa-
tional thought of Plato and Aristotle and is repeated with great regularity
throughout the history of the philosophy of education. Dewey is no excep-
tion in this regard, arguing that the habit of thought itself and the abiding
curiosity that sustains it are among the marks of an educated mind. It is not
uncommon for students to say of a certain subject matter that they have
‘taken it’, with the implication that the matter is over and done with. Uni-
versity students, for instance, who have received credit for an introductory
course surveying Western intellectual history from ancient Greece to yester-
day often report that they ‘have taken’ Plato, Descartes, or Freud – likely for
a class or two each coupled with a textbook introduction to their thought
and perhaps a handful of selected passages from the thinker him- or herself
– and that since the important information has been registered and retained
long enough to pass an examination, the subject is behind them. No interest
in further inquiry remains, nor even a sense of why this might be desirable.
For Dewey, it is an indication of educational failure when ‘a student does not
take into subsequent life an enduring concern for some field of knowledge
and art, lying outside his immediate profession preoccupations’, and
irrespective of ‘how good a “student”’ he or she was or how successful the
examination.47 This is counted as a failure because of the habits both
instilled – in this case of regarding ideas as soundbites and great texts as
capable of being distilled into small doses or flattened out entirely into
textbook descriptions – and not instilled – an enduring sense of the impor-
tance of ideas and the continuing relevance of classic texts.
So much of mental life is governed by habit that it is difficult to over-
estimate its importance in the learning process. Habits of thought formed in
childhood can control the life of the mind – from its fundamental orienta-
tion to its capacity for attention, its tastes and sense of what is important –
throughout life and can be remarkably resistant to change at later stages of
intellectual development. The habits of mind that take shape at a relatively
early developmental level, as Dewey noted, ‘are usually deepest and most
unget-at-able just where critical thought is most needed – in morals, religion
and politics’ – a point to which I shall return in later chapters.48 The survival
of habits associated with the immature mind into adulthood severely limits
the individual’s capacity for new experiences and most often results in a
permanent arrest in intellectual growth. An early plasticity and openness of
mind settles into a defined set of inclinations which actively seek occasions
for expression and have a controlling influence on later experience.49 This
is exemplified in the will to learn itself, which may be urgent and enduring
74 The Educative Process

throughout life or entirely lifeless, but in either case is an habitual matter.

If continuity marks the first criterion of educative experience, Dewey’s
second criterion is what he referred to as the principle of interaction, where
this signifies the integration or the hanging together of different experi-
ences in a coherent configuration. It is the nature of mature experience to
display not only continuity from one course of inquiry or activity to the next
but also an interaction between conditions both external and internal to the
individual which comprise a given situation. ‘Any normal experience’, as
Dewey expressed it, ‘is an interplay of these two sets of conditions’, that is, of
the ‘objective’ conditions that belong to an educational situation and the
conditions that are ‘internal’ to the mental life of the inquirer.50 If traditional
educational methods erred in ignoring the importance of conditions
internal to the individual student, or ‘what he is at a given time’, progressives
made the opposite error of ignoring objective conditions.51 The two princi-
ples of continuity and interaction are not altogether separate in meaning
and still less so in their applications since both refer to the essential con-
nectedness of human experience and speak against the experiential
atomism of orthodox empiricism. If experience is experimental then there
is a flexible give and take between the inquirers themselves and the situation
that is to be inquired into, and it is the combination of these two principles
that marks an experience as properly educative.
By the same token, then, a miseducative experience is one that fails to
promote the continued development of students’ minds. It is the experience
that leads nowhere, either to a dead end or, what is worse, to the promotion
of mental habits that block the path of future learning. Examples of the
former include undertakings that students find ‘interesting’ merely in the
sense of being entertaining without broadening horizons or culminating in
anything beyond immediate enjoyment, while the latter includes a broad
range of classroom experiences the net effect of which is the narrow and
dulled state of mind that Dewey associated with traditional education. While
the traditional methods undoubtedly give rise to experiences, they are too
often miseducative both in the sense that they fail to connect with extra-
curricular experience and that they ‘deaden and stupefy’ the mental life of
the young in ways that often become habitual and irreversible.52 The mind
that is inattentive and indifferent to matters that are not immediately reward-
ing, that is incurious, unimaginative, or uncritically obedient to authority is
the usual outcome of conservative educational methods, Dewey and the
progressives maintained. Yet while other progressives were asserting that
experiences of most any kind simply are not had in traditional schools,
Dewey’s critique was that they are indeed had but that they are of the wrong
kind. As he wrote, in a passage hardly less relevant today than in 1938:
Dewey’s Copernican Revolution 75

How many students, for example, were rendered callous to ideas, and how
many lost the impetus to learn because of the ways in which learning was
experienced by them? How many acquired special skills by means of auto-
matic drill so that their power of judgment and capacity to act intelligently
in new situations was limited? How many came to associate the learning
process with ennui and boredom? How many found what they did learn so
foreign to the situations of life outside the school as to give them no power
of control over the latter? How many came to associate books with dull
drudgery, so that they were ‘conditioned’ to all but flashy reading matter?53

The distinction, then, between the educative and the non- or miseducative
turns upon the relation of a given experience to further experience, includ-
ing both what is prior to it and that to which it leads.
The role of the educator, accordingly, is not to be the passive bystander in
the classroom that many progressives mistakenly took Dewey to be recom-
mending, nor to be the classic authoritarian of the traditional philosophy,
but to take up an intermediate position or perhaps a higher synthesis of the
two extremes. Whether in the elementary school or the university, the
educator is a leader of inquiry and director of the kind of activities that he
or she can anticipate will lead in a direction that is worth pursuing, whether
for the knowledge that is to be gained, the intellectual habits it will instill, or
the capacities it will develop. In many ways, then, the educator’s role is far
more difficult than has traditionally been thought, and extends beyond
mastering the subject matter or knowing effective pedagogical techniques
and perhaps disciplinary methods to include a knowledge of the students
themselves, of their psychology and life experience, of the various avenues
toward which a given curriculum may lead, and in general of the larger
trajectory of which the present inquiry is a part. It extends as well to knowing
the obstacles in a student’s psychology or social background that can
adversely affect their ability to learn, the different styles of learning, and
related issues that traditional methods had overlooked.
The ultimate concern of the educator as Dewey conceived of it thus
accords fully with the etymology of the word ‘education’ itself, a term that
connotes both ‘a drawing out’ and ‘a leading forth’.54 Human intelligence is
drawn out precisely by a leading forth of the student from what they have
experienced to what they might yet experience. This process of intellectual
development or growth may unfold outside of the classroom environment,
but the true business of the teacher and professor is to carry the process
forward in a way that is not dependent on chance occurrences in the
students’ out-of-school environment and to lead them toward any experi-
ence or knowledge that enhances the capacity to learn after the period of
formal education ends.
76 The Educative Process

Intellectual virtues and vices

What the educative process ultimately aims to achieve has traditionally been
viewed as something external to that process itself: a sum of knowledge and
habits that will be instrumental in later life, particularly in the individual’s
efforts to gain a livelihood, to achieve social respectability, or to carry on a
tradition. Education so conceived is a means to ends variously pertaining to
career, class, or creed, and in no important sense is to be considered an end
in itself. When stated plainly, this view might be associated more with the past
than the present, yet evidence of its persistence is easily found, from the
university student majoring in a discipline within the arts or humanities who
is compelled to admit with embarrassment that they do not know what they
are going to ‘do’ with their degree, to the politician who is continually
warning of the economic perils that await if test scores in mathematics and
the sciences are permitted to fall behind other nations. Even that last bastion
of the ‘useless degree’, the department of philosophy, is now regularly
compelled to include in its marketing material and its website dubious infor-
mation regarding the practical advantages of a degree in this field and the
glorious careers that their graduates have gone on to achieve. The view, in
short, that a university degree is essentially a means to an end – which may
also, as a secondary matter, yield less tangible benefits or even be inherently
rewarding for a few eccentric characters – remains widespread if it is not
indeed the majority belief. The plausibility of this view is evident enough:
formal education is indeed instrumentally valuable in any number of
respects, particularly as it concerns earning qualifications necessary for
certain careers. The question, however, is whether the aims of education are
limited to the order of instrumental values or whether there is something
more to it than this, a higher purpose that is inherent to the educative
process itself and to which its utilitarian value is ultimately subordinate.
I wish to defend the latter view in a manner that is roughly consistent with
Dewey if it is not in the end altogether identical. I shall argue that there is a
conception of experience and of ‘being experienced’ that is still more expan-
sive than Dewey’s experimental view as well as a conception of the intellectual
virtues that accords with the spirit of Dewey’s thought while hopefully advanc-
ing a step beyond its letter. The ‘something more’ to education that tran-
scends its practical utility may be conceived as a set of intellectual virtues,
dispositions, and habits that are indispensable ingredients of the educated
In broad terms this is the position that Dewey defended as well, in oppo-
sition to the more conventional views alluded to above – that formal educa-
tion is essentially an instrumentally valuable training for later life. Dewey’s
Copernican revolution reorients the practices of teaching and learning to
Dewey’s Copernican Revolution 77

students’ experience and the conditions of its further development, yet even
revolutions gain their orientation from the ancien régime to which they are a
response and typically remain in the latter’s orbit long after the revolution
has taken place. If this is observable in political history it is equally evident
in the fashioning of philosophical positions which inevitably retain traces of
that in opposition to which they were originally formulated. Dewey’s radical
reformulation of the philosophy of education is no exception to this,
although I would urge this point not as a critique of Dewey’s position but as
a reminder of the manner in which we ought to interpret and ultimately
come to terms with it.
How, then, did Dewey reply to the question regarding the ‘something
more’ that the educative process properly aims to achieve beyond the
obvious practical benefits associated with career preparation and perhaps
social respectability – in the conventional sense of ascending to a higher
rung on the socio-economic ladder? His answer turned upon his notion of
intellectual growth or what in different contexts he referred to as the ‘spirit
of inquiry’, the ‘spirit of curiosity’, and ‘the quality of mental process’ that
he distinguished from ‘the production of correct answers’.55 Education aims
at producing minds that are not merely capable of entering the workforce or
respectable society, or that have amassed a certain body of information, but
that possess the capacity and inclination to learn more in the course of
future experience. The educated mind is characterized by particular intel-
lectual virtues and by the absence of corresponding vices. What exactly these
virtues and vices are is the question to which I now turn.
Throughout his writings on education and on some related issues, Dewey
made frequent reference to a fundamental attitude of mind or intellectual
posture that is the mark of educational success as well as to its antithesis. The
following passages are representative:

A person who has gained the power of reflective attention, the power to
hold problems, questions, before the mind, is in so far, intellectually
speaking, educated. He has mental discipline – power of the mind and for
the mind. Without this the mind remains at the mercy of custom and
external suggestions.56

The best thing that can be said about any special process of education,
like that of the formal school period, is that it renders its subject capable
of further education: more sensitive to conditions of growth and more
able to take advantage of them. Acquisition of skill, possession of know-
ledge, attainment of culture are not ends: they are marks of growth and
means to its continuing.57
78 The Educative Process

But intellectual growth means constant expansion of horizons and con-

sequent formation of new purposes and new responses. These are impos-
sible without an active disposition to welcome points of view hitherto
alien; an active desire to entertain considerations which modify existing
purposes. Retention of capacity to grow is the reward of such intellectual
hospitality. The worst thing about stubbornness of mind, about preju-
dices, is that they arrest development; they shut the mind off from new
stimuli. Open-mindedness means retention of the childlike attitude;
closed-mindedness means premature intellectual old age.58

The conception of the educated mind that emerges in Dewey’s writings

remained consistent throughout his long career and is in many ways an out-
growth of his instrumentalist or pragmatic theory of knowledge. Flexibility,
open-mindedness, originality, persistence, and an active curiosity are some of
the principal Deweyan virtues. In both his conception of educational success
and in his philosophical outlook more broadly, Dewey prized the intellectual
disposition that is forward-looking, hospitable to new ideas, undogmatic, and
in particular that is given more to constructive problem-solving than to
critique in the negative sense of fault finding.
Beyond this, the educated mind is reflective in the sense that it is capable
of ‘turning a subject over in the mind and giving it serious and consecutive
consideration’.59 It is unhurried, contemplative, and would sooner examine
a matter in depth than arrive at conclusions quickly and superficially. It is
careful, attentive, able to maintain concentration, and self-controlled. It
possesses the capacity for good judgment in the sense not only that one is
able to follow procedures laid out in advance but that one has a sense of the
problem or question before one, an understanding of its larger significance,
and is able to ‘grasp the scene or situation before him, ignoring what is irrel-
evant, or what for the time being is unimportant, who can seize upon the
factors which demand attention, and grade them according to their respec-
tive claims’.60 The judicious mind is able to estimate degrees of importance
and is neither indifferent to what is weighty nor preoccupied by trivia.
Additionally, Dewey spoke of the educated mind as capable of ‘reconstruct-
ing’ its experiences in the sense of reorganizing and reinterpreting it in ways
that infuse it with meaning. To reconstruct one’s experience is to be capable
of learning from it and integrating whatever insight one is able to gain from
past experience for the future. Having integrated the lessons of the past, be
it one’s personal past or the larger lessons of history or previous inquiry, one
is able to apply this knowledge in imposing direction and a degree of control
over the future rather than remain at the mercy of events. One is capable of
anticipating what is to come, planning, fending off disaster, or generally
applying what one has learned for the enrichment of the future.
Dewey’s Copernican Revolution 79

Successful education fashions a mind that is not overly specialized or

narrow in its horizons, that is passionate in its interests and not overly
discriminating in the matters in which it takes an interest. Dewey cited with
full approval a remark by John Stuart Mill that ‘the cultivated mind . . . finds
sources of inexhaustible interest in all that surrounds it; in the objects of
nature, the achievements of art, the imaginations of poetry, the incidents of
history, the ways of mankind, past, present and their prospects in the
future’.61 There is a certain restlessness of mind and passion for questioning
that Dewey held in particularly high esteem and certainly displayed himself
in his voluminous writings on just about every philosophical subdiscipline
and every political issue that he ever encountered. He both prized and
exhibited in himself an enthusiasm for ideas in a great many domains and a
capacity to develop new interests, whether they be of a narrowly academic or
non-academic nature. The matter of desire was of such importance to Dewey
that he would speak of its communication from educator to student as ‘the
one thing most needful’ in education since it is the passion for ideas them-
selves, far more than the instilling of information or beliefs, that is the
driving force behind the students’ continuing intellectual development
beyond their years at the university.62
The virtues of mind that represent, for Dewey, the highest achievement of
the educative process also go beyond the narrowly intellectual to include the
emotional and, still more, the social. Good judgment and the passion for
inquiry itself are at once intellectual, emotional, and social virtues; they are
habits of mind that lead one into co-operative discussion with others rather
than lock the self within its own inner confines. Curiosity, for instance, draws
the self into forms of intellectual exchange that challenge one’s convictions
and reveal the nature of ideas as hypotheses rather than dogmatic certain-
ties. We are challenged toward self-reflection and inventiveness precisely
through co-operative inquiry and participation in shared undertakings of
various kinds and by having our own ideas challenged in conversation.63 By
the same token, good judgment is no merely logical operation of thought
but includes a certain ‘emotional responsiveness’ that informs our ethical
knowledge and ensures the capacity to put into operation whatever judg-
ments we form regarding the good or the true.64 Democracy and the demo-
cratic character are terms that Dewey employed with great frequency to
express the social dimension of education, where they signify less a political
creed than an ethos of co-operative discussion, respect for differences of
opinion, and other social virtues associated with democratic citizenship.
Democracy and Education, as well as being the title of one of his most impor-
tant educational works, are completely intertwined notions as they pertain
both to the political and to the educational in the narrower, institutional
sense of the term – a topic to which I shall return in Chapter 7.
80 The Educative Process

The intellectual vices that for Dewey are the marks of educational failure
go well beyond the inability to retain information or understand difficult
concepts to include inflexibility of mind, dogmatism, narrowness of horizon,
parochialism, inattention, conventionality, and apathy, among others. The
over-reliance on custom and deference to authority which the old education
had instilled produce a docility of mind that leaves one at the mercy of intel-
lectual fashion and ill-equipped to challenge the orthodoxy of the times. It
was a serious worry of Dewey’s that the general populations of America and
Europe had become too unresisting to political propaganda in particular,
and it is less the politicians than the educational institutions that are the
culprit. Rather than instilling the spirit of inquiry, educators in most any
field teach the art of acceptance – of received wisdom, information, or the
educator’s beliefs – and an unquestioning attitude toward ideas that are
presented to students in the guise of facts rather than hypotheses and instru-
ments of analysis. The resulting disposition is one to which it does not occur
that there is any need for questioning, one that lacks a capacity to discern
what is questionable and what is not. If the ‘natural tendency of man is
not to press home a doubt, but to cut inquiry as short as possible’, this
tendency is aided and abetted by educational practices that breed intellec-
tual laziness and passive acceptance of controversial hypotheses as orthodox
Another intellectual failing upon which Dewey frequently remarked is the
tendency toward overspecialization and the academic scholasticism and
narrowing of perspective that inevitably follow from this. A certain thought-
lessness accompanies the trend that increasingly conscripts students, educa-
tors, professionals, and workers alike into narrow specialties beyond which
the individual will often know remarkably little. The important matter of the
connections between separate fields of inquiry or the relations between
different experiential domains is increasingly unlearned, and not only within
the sciences in which this may be thought an inevitable consequence of the
advancement of knowledge but within the humanities and the arts no less.
Dewey was particularly concerned about the trend toward excessive special-
ization in his own discipline of philosophy and – as I shall discuss in Chapter
4 – the high price that this and any other field of investigation pays when
those within it become uncognizant of all that lies outside a narrow field of
expertise. A related phenomenon is the remoteness and disconnection of
the university from the broader culture and the irrelevance of so much of
what takes place there. As Dewey remarked, ‘it would sometimes seem that
only athletic exhibitions form a direct line of connection between the
college and the average community life’ – an observation hardly less accurate
today than in 1901 when Dewey wrote these words.66 The increasingly blink-
ered nature of research and subject matter in post-secondary institutions
Dewey’s Copernican Revolution 81

renders professors and students alike dangerously indifferent to the larger

implications of the inquiries they undertake.
Related intellectual vices include the doctrinaire turn of mind that holds
its opinions in ridiculously high esteem, that is unmoveable and inflexible
regarding whatever orthodoxy it holds dear. The ‘cultivation of openness
and flexibility of mind’ was of such importance to Dewey that, as he wrote in
one of his very earliest essays, ‘If I were asked what is the chief intellectual
defect found in pupils, I should answer, judging from my own experience,
lack of flexibility, lack of ability to turn the mind towards new ideas, or look
at old ones in new lights.’67 The mind that is self-satisfied and self-certain is
as much a symptom of educational failure as the one that is indifferent to
ideas, apathetic, thoughtless, or whose thoughts are limited to simple
formulas and fashionable sentiments. Were the educative process to be
rooted in human experience and unfold in an appropriate environment,
Dewey fervently believed, these and other intellectual failings which render
the life of the mind impoverished and underdeveloped would be replaced by
the open and experimental turn of mind that is the mark of intellectual

From Erlebnis to Erfahrung

The logic of education – the basic ground and orientation that, phenome-
nologically speaking, always already characterizes the learning process – is
the logic of experience. This, in short, is the Copernican revolution that
Dewey sought to effect. Education rooted not in students’ lived experience
but in notions of preparation for later life, economic or technological
efficiency, cultural literacy, or indoctrination into particular beliefs distorts
the learning process by displacing its own immanent ends with values
imported from outside the process itself. The tendency to distort the
learning process in this way, essentially by reducing education to a means of
manufacturing subjects of a particular kind (those who believe, value, and
act as educational authorities wish), is, I would suggest, the principal failing
of a great deal of educational theory and practice and is the root of a myriad
more specific failings. The temptation to overlook education’s immanent
logic in the zeal to import extraneous ends of one kind or another may well
be a universal phenomenon, one resisted as seldom by educational liberals
as conservatives. Yet resist it is what must be done if we wish to provide edu-
cation with a proper grounding. Experience is the starting point of thought;
it is what arouses curiosity, gives rise to questioning and interpretation, and
motivates minds whether young or old to understand what confronts them
in some vital way. Education begins with experience ultimately because it
must. A parallel may be found in Heidegger’s answer to the question why
interpretation properly operates within the contextual, back-and-forth
82 The Educative Process

structure of the hermeneutic circle. One does not decide to enter the
hermeneutic circle; phenomenologically, one is always already thinking
within it. The choice to be made is not whether to enter this circle but how
to negotiate one’s way within it, how to reconcile part with whole and whole
with part in a way that brings about coherence and meaning.68 By the same
token, students in educational settings have no choice but to bring their
experience into the classroom and to learn on this basis. This is the context
in which learning takes place, not any purely rational or ‘academic’ (non-)
context of information and blackboard exercises. Were students not beings-
in-the-world but computers or perhaps gods, no appeal to experience would
be necessary. Yet we must take students as we find them, with a point of view
that is at once intellectual, psychological, cultural, and existential, and which
is summarized in the notion of experience.
A question we must ask in coming to critical terms with Dewey’s philoso-
phy of education is how well his experimental conception of experience
stands up today. We may well accept his case for a shift in the ‘center of
gravity’ of education while having some reservations about his conception of
experience itself. While the conception that Dewey articulated is commend-
ably rich and expansive, particularly in comparison with earlier forms of
empiricism, I wish to argue for a still more expansive view, the general
contours of which roughly accord with Dewey’s position yet without its
somewhat reductionist and scientistic tendencies. Dewey was never inclined
toward positivism or any uncritical idolatry of science (despite what certain
of his critics alleged), yet he did regard scientific experimentation as the
paradigm case of intelligently directed experience.69 We may wish to ask,
however, why science should hold so central a place in our understanding of
experience rather than, say, the encounter with art or literature or history.
Is an educational encounter with literature properly understood in terms of
scientific inquiry? If we are so enamored with science that we would wish to
answer this question in the affirmative, it would seem to me that we are
making the phenomenon fit the theory. A work of literature is an object to
be experienced, to be sure, but is it to be inquired into in quite the sense that
a physicist inquires into the atom or an astronomer investigates black holes?
A negative answer need not prompt us to reject Dewey’s account, but it does
raise the question of the limits of experience as experimental intelligence
and cause us to inquire further into the concept of experience itself. There
may be more to the concept than what Dewey has given us.
There may indeed be far more, as becomes evident when we examine the
history of the concept of experience in more detail than the cursory overview
above. Fortunately we find a guide to this in Martin Jay’s Songs of Experience,
in which he endeavors to show that philosophical theories of experience
both ancient and modern are ‘as much “songs” of passion as sober analyses’.
Dewey’s Copernican Revolution 83

Rather than defending any theoretical account as an altogether accurate

description of what experience actually is, Jay makes the interesting sugges-
tion that experience ‘is a signifier that unleashes remarkable emotion in
many [including Dewey] who put special emphasis on it in their thought’,
and more closely approximates ‘lyrical panegyrics’, ‘elegiac laments’, and
‘bitter denunciations’ than philosophical theories in the usual sense. It is
certainly questionable whether experience as conceived of by philosophers
constitutes a ‘song’ in Wordsworth’s sense of the word, or any other; however
Jay may well be correct in his assertion that ‘because of the term’s ubiquity
. . . no totalizing account can hope to do justice to its multiple denotations
and connotations over time and in different contexts’.70 Experience is not
only a technical term in philosophy but a word in everyday language, and
theoretical efforts to explain its meaning must do justice to this fact and to
the concept’s interpretive richness rather than reduce it to a single dimen-
sion which is purported to be essential. It is highly unlikely that experience
has an essence of which we could provide an exhaustive theoretical analysis.
What we can expect of philosophy is not this but a more modest interpreta-
tion of its significance in certain more important respects, an interpretation
that makes no claim to exhaustiveness or finality. Whether Dewey proffered
his theory of experience in this spirit or in the more usual, reductionist way
is a debatable matter; textual support may be found for either reading. Of
more importance for our purposes is whether Dewey’s account, attractive as
it is, is sufficient.
Hans-Georg Gadamer has noted that ‘the concept of experience seems to
me one of the most obscure we have’, an observation with which it is difficult
to disagree. In making the word into a technical term, modern epistemology
‘truncates its original meaning’, orienting it too exclusively toward the
scientific at the expense of the historical. As Gadamer further noted,

In its methodology modern science thus simply proceeds further toward

a goal that experience has always striven after. Experience is valid only if
it is confirmed; hence its dignity depends on its being in principle repeat-
able. But this means that by its very nature, experience abolishes its history
and thus itself.71

This critique would appear to apply to Dewey as well, although Gadamer

himself did not so apply it – presumably for the reason that, like so many
other continental philosophers of the twentieth century, he did not read
Dewey or the other American pragmatists. Be that as it may, the truncating
of the concept of experience that we witness in modern epistemology is a
serious matter, and not one that we ought to perpetuate yet again by offering
an analysis that purports to separate the concept’s essential from its merely
84 The Educative Process

apparent meaning. Ambiguity cannot always be reduced to zero, nor ought

philosophers be quite so anxious to dismiss a concept that cannot be so
‘clarified’ as hopelessly vague. Part of the word’s ineliminable ambiguity is
due to the variety of concepts to which it has long been contrasted; reason,
theoretical knowledge, naivety, and hope are just a few, and they do not
appear to have much in common to which a single concept could stand in
Another complicating factor is of course the history of the word, and not
only as it functions within philosophical discourse or for that matter in the
English language. The German language includes a rather important dis-
tinction between two senses of experience – a distinction, curiously, that
never attracted Dewey’s attention. German philosophy of the late nineteenth
and twentieth centuries, increasingly dissatisfied with the reduction of expe-
rience to an epistemological matter excessively beholden to natural science,
began to speak of experience in terms of the distinction between Erlebnis
and Erfahrung, where the former connotes a ‘lived experience’ that is pre-
theoretical and immediate while the latter signifies a larger integration of
perceptions and judgments over time. Erlebnis must be understood in terms
of its connection with life (Leben); it is an experience of the world that is vital,
conceptually undifferentiated, personal, and more than occasionally emo-
tional. Often associated with the sensational and unique, Erlebnis is typically
spoken of in its singularity as it arises in the course of everyday life or as an
interruption of that life and of the larger projects and habits that comprise
it. Experience in this sense is a discrete and intimate possession of the self,
an individual occurrence that often leads to no larger configuration of
meaning or to any social realities beyond the interiority of consciousness.
Gadamer has noted a distinction between two senses of this ambiguous word.
Erlebnis, he observed, refers at once to the act of experiencing as well as its
object or content:

This content is like a yield or result that achieves permanence, weight, and
significance from out of the transience of experiencing. Both meanings
obviously lie behind the coinage Erlebnis: both the immediacy, which
precedes all interpretation, reworking, and communication, and merely
offers a starting point for interpretation – material to be shaped – and its
discovered yield, its lasting result.72

Experience in this sense, then, must be understood in connection with life

rather than in solely epistemological terms. It is an episodic occurrence
which, while arising from life, lacks the larger significance and temporal
frame that characterizes experience in the second connotation of the word.
This is experience as Erfahrung, in the sense that German thinkers such as
Dewey’s Copernican Revolution 85

Heidegger and Gadamer would speak of it in twentieth-century phenome-

nology. Another ambiguous expression, experience in this sense refers to the
larger configurations of meaning and temporal duration that Erlebnis is
without. Often associated in epistemological terms with perceptions and
judgments, Erfahrung took on a less empirical or scientific connotation and
a more historical one. It is less concerned with individual happenings than
with the larger course of human experience in terms of which those hap-
penings take on meaning. As Jay writes, Erfahrung ‘came to mean a more
temporally elongated notion of experience based on a learning process, an
integration of discrete moments of experience into a narrative whole or an
adventure’.73 The notion of adventure itself exhibits an interesting ambigu-
ity. Gadamer noted:

An adventure is by no means just an episode. Episodes are a succession of

details which have no inner coherence and for that very reason have no
permanent significance. An adventure, however, interrupts the customary
course of events, but is positively and significantly related to the context
which it interrupts. Thus an adventure lets life be felt as a whole, in its
breadth and in its strength. Here lies the fascination of an adventure. It
removes the conditions and obligations of everyday life. It ventures out
into the uncertain. But at the same time it knows that, as an adventure, it
is exceptional and thus remains related to the return of the everyday, into
which the adventure cannot be taken. Thus the adventure is ‘undergone’,
like a test or trial from which one emerges enriched and more mature.

Experience in this sense has a dialectical quality: it exhibits a continual

movement back and forth between the particular occurrence and the
general context to which that occurrence may be related as either a depar-
ture or a continuation but from which it derives whatever meaning is
possible for it. Like the dialectical movement of the hermeneutic circle and
the basic structure of an adventure as a venturing forth and subsequent
return to the everyday, it is from the particular to the universal and vice versa
that human experience is played out and understood. Citing Gadamer once
more, ‘Every experience is taken out of the continuity of life and at the same
time related to the whole of one’s life. . . . Because it is itself within the whole
of life, the whole of life is present in it too.’74 Until an individual episode is
integrated within a context or larger sequence of experience, it either defies
understanding or is intelligible only in an immediate and generally one-
dimensional way.
Experience in the sense of Erfahrung, then, exhibits the temporal continu-
ity and at times progress that individual occurrences do not. It often assumes
a larger social significance as well as a narrative structure, incorporating an
86 The Educative Process

ever-increasing number of episodes, social practices, persons, and lessons

learned to form a kind of story, albeit one that is likely to be shot through
with discordance and contradiction. Insofar as it is understood, experience
in this sense resembles a narrative, with a more or less coherent thread of
meaning running through it over time and rendering particular happenings
significant in view of their contribution to the story. Hermeneutical phe-
nomenologists after Heidegger would often characterize both experience
and the human being itself as either having a narrative structure or, more
pointedly, as being a narrative. As one understands one’s experience by
arranging it into narrative form, or telling a story about it rather than regard-
ing it in its isolated particularity, many in this tradition would also speak of
the self as a personal history rather than a stable substance of some kind, be
it describable in scientific or metaphysical terms.75
Erfahrung would also be described in this tradition as a transformative
experience, in contrast to one that merely is what it is, as it were, or that one
undergoes without being in any significant way changed. Experience in this
sense is fundamentally a learning experience. It causes a modification in our
self-understanding or our understanding of the world in some important
respect, transforming old patterns of thinking rather than always confirming
them. Gadamer would even maintain that Erfahrung, or experience ‘in the
genuine sense’, ‘is initially always experience of negation: something is not
what we supposed it to be’.76 Experience either conforms to our expectations
or it defies them. In the latter case we are brought up short and compelled
to revise whatever anticipations we had brought with us into a given experi-
ence, transforming our point of view in large ways or small and causing a
reconsideration of what we thought we knew. The negativity of such experi-
ence is accordingly productive; it makes possible a more comprehensive
knowledge than what we previously had, corrects mistakes, or otherwise
makes learning a genuine possibility. Experience that does no more than
confirm our anticipations – the perception of the sun rising again this
morning, for instance – is not a learning experience, if indeed it is an
experience at all. The encounter with art, by contrast, leaves us transformed.
It forces a modification in our perceptions, confronts us with what is unex-
pected or strange, and carries us along in a process that changes us.
Here at last we get to the heart of the matter: experience ‘in the genuine
sense’, as Gadamer aptly put it, is indeed experimental yet not only in
Dewey’s scientific understanding of the word – as investigative, rationally
ordered, and solution oriented – but in the sense that it is profoundly trans-
formative. Ultimately it is oneself and one’s point of view that experience
transforms, in the sense not only that one has resolved a problematic situa-
tion but that one has become changed in one’s being. ‘I am not the person
I was’, we say at the conclusion of an experience that is worthy of the name.
Dewey’s Copernican Revolution 87

One emerges from it with new insights and a richer understanding or self-
understanding; one has learned – and not only where this means gaining
information or successfully concluding a course of inquiry, but in the sense
that one’s stance toward the world has been altered.
Gadamer would speak of experience (Erfahrung) and of ‘being experi-
enced’ in terms that accord roughly with Dewey’s view while in a way going
beyond it. ‘The truth of experience’, as he wrote, ‘always implies an orienta-
tion toward new experience.’ It is neither simply an outcome of a certain
kind – the condition of having amassed a tidy sum of facts and observations
– nor a method but a posture toward the future. As a result of what one has
learned, one is oriented toward future experience with a disposition of
openness and curiosity.

That is why a person who is called experienced has become so not only
through experiences but is also open to new experiences. The consumma-
tion of his experience, the perfection that we call ‘being experienced’,
does not consist in the fact that someone already knows everything and
knows better than anyone else. Rather, the experienced person proves to
be, on the contrary, someone who is radically undogmatic; who, because
of the many experiences he has had and the knowledge he has drawn
from them, is particularly well equipped to have new experiences and to
learn from them. The dialectic of experience has its proper fulfilment not
in definitive knowledge but in the openness to experience that is made
possible by experience itself.77

One certainly hears echoes of Dewey here. He as well spoke of educative

experience as disposing one toward future learning, as opening up new
pathways for inquiry and arousing curiosities and decidedly not as a process
that reaches a final conclusion. The habits of mind that education properly
instills dispose us against intellectual self-satisfaction and self-certainty,
Dewey always insisted. Because it is the nature of experience that it ‘lives on
in further experiences’ rather than being an altogether discrete happening,
the decisive matter for educators is ‘to select the kind of present experiences
that live fruitfully and creatively in subsequent experiences’.78 What is essen-
tial with respect to experience is that to which it leads: further experience,
yet in a sense not of more of the same but more of what is different.
While the conceptions of experience that these two philosophers
defended are hardly identical, it remains that the intellectual virtues that
Dewey prized include the phenomenon of which Gadamer spoke, albeit less
explicitly. Gadamer’s accent on openness to experience and the transforma-
tion of one’s point of view is more pronounced than in Dewey’s writings and
occurs in a context quite different from philosophy of education. Gadamer
88 The Educative Process

would also emphasize the dialectical nature of experience in a more

Hegelian way than Dewey, the two being profoundly Hegelian thinkers yet in
very different ways. As well, Gadamer would always place considerable
emphasis on the most un-Deweyan theme of the limits of methodological,
and especially scientific, thinking. To say that experience has an experimen-
tal and in some ways dialectical quality means for Dewey that it follows a
method, one that is broadly applicable and repeatable in principle by any
rational agent. While it connotes a process that is open-ended, its essence, as
it were, is its methodology. For Gadamer, one of the principal features of
experience, or of ‘being experienced’, is precisely a sense of the limits of
technique as well as an understanding of human finitude more generally – a
theme that did not escape Dewey’s notice but that never made it to the fore-
front of his thought. That it belongs in the forefront is Gadamer’s point.
Exaggerating only slightly, and to good effect, Gadamer remarked: ‘Thus
experience is experience of human finitude. The truly experienced person
is one who has taken this to heart, who knows that he is master neither of
time nor the future. The experienced man knows that all foresight is limited
and all plans uncertain.’79
If experience and education alike can be said to culminate in anything, as
for both Dewey and Gadamer they can, they culminate for the latter less in
the acquisition of methods or solutions to problems than in a knowledge of
the limits of human understanding. Above all, they culminate in what
Gadamer would call ‘historically effected consciousness’; this is a conscious-
ness that is at once an effect of history – that is constituted by language,
beliefs, evaluations, and prereflective understandings that are passed down
to us in tradition – and aware of itself as so effected. The person with histor-
ically effected consciousness realizes the contingency of the ground on
which he or she stands and thus the limits of human reason. It is an aware-
ness of this kind, more than any possession of factual information or even
abstract cognitive skills or methods of inquiry, that makes it optimally
possible for us to have new experiences. The realization that what is seem-
ingly natural or self-evident is an historical construction – that our moral
sense, for instance, disposes us this way and that not because it has grasped
some deep truth about morality but owing to centuries of received judg-
ments and popular conceptions, most of them inspired by religion – makes
it possible to ask new questions about how what is might be otherwise and to
undertake in a creative way the very kind of experimental inquiry that Dewey
recommended. A more radical kind of inquiry thus becomes possible, one
that regards as problematic situations that had appeared altogether unprob-
lematic and unquestionable, which assumes less and questions more, and
more deeply, than was hitherto possible. At the same time one’s capacity for
having new experiences is enhanced. It becomes possible to have experi-
Dewey’s Copernican Revolution 89

ences that were hitherto impossible because unthinkable. What Gadamer

called one’s horizon, in the sense of what is perceivable and thinkable from
a finite point of view, is modified and broadened in the course of experience,
in the process opening up new possibilities of what can become an experi-
What the process culminates in, then, is an explicit awareness of one’s
own historicity, or of the extent to which one’s perspective and one’s very
being are an historical artifact and accordingly might have been otherwise.
To be experienced in this sense – still in the sense of Erfahrung – means to
stand to tradition in a certain way: neither to accept everything that is passed
down to us unquestioningly nor to reject it in its entirety as the dead weight
of the past, but to adopt a disposition that is in a sense intermediate between
the two. What Gadamer referred to as ‘the inner historicity of experience’ –
precisely that which the reduction to epistemology and science overlooks –
causes us to ‘belong’ to tradition in the sense of to participate in it. Being
open to experience means being open to the claims that our historical tra-
dition makes upon us and replying to such claims with an intelligent yes or
no. Historically effected consciousness keeps itself open to such claims and
allows tradition to address one as a Thou – which is to say, as an interlocutor
with which one may agree or disagree but which may not be ignored.
‘Openness to the other’, Gadamer continued,

. . . involves recognizing that I myself must accept some things that are
against me, even though no one else forces me to do so. . . . I must allow
tradition’s claim to validity, not in the sense of simply acknowledging the
past in its otherness, but in such a way that it has something to say to me.
This too calls for a fundamental sort of openness.80

It is an openness or disposition of selective appropriation and critical

engagement that directly parallels the open-endedness of experience. In
both instances the one who is experienced is equally far removed from the
dogmatic closed-mindedness that knows all and so has nothing to learn and
from the naive conformity that believes everything it is told.
Insofar as experience leads to or culminates in anything, in Gadamer’s
view, it ‘culminates not in methodological sureness of itself, but in the same
readiness for experience that distinguishes the experienced man from the
man captivated by dogma’.81 Dewey would also speak of experience as having
a consummatory dimension, albeit in very different terms. In Art as Experience
Dewey would speak of experience as culminating in the aesthetic while in an
educational context he would always characterize the experiential process
essentially as an affair of leading: an existing interest, when properly
explored, leads to another one, usually one that is more sophisticated,
90 The Educative Process

abstract, or theoretical than the original. It is largely in virtue of that to which

an interest or experience can be anticipated to lead that we judge it
educational or non-educational, Dewey would always maintain. Like
Gadamer, Dewey placed some emphasis on the continuity of experience as
well, albeit in less historical and more scientific terms. As Jay has noted,
Dewey’s conception of experience is of ‘an open-ended process of cumulative
realization’, adding: ‘In the vocabulary of experience that was not his own,
aesthetic experience was thus closer to a dialectical, historically maturing
Erfahrung than to an unmediated, instantaneous Erlebnis.’82 The same can be
said of educative experience. Here as well we may speak of a ‘process of cumu-
lative realization’ and of ‘historically maturing Erfahrung’, to speak a
somewhat more continental language than Dewey preferred. But where
Gadamer’s position can be regarded as an advance over Dewey’s is in bringing
to the forefront both the distinction between Erlebnis and Erfahrung and inter-
preting the latter as (or as culminating in) historically effected consciousness.
The latter idea, it is interesting to note, is indeed one we find important
glimpses of in Dewey’s writings, although it would never become a major
theme for him in the way that it would for some of his European counterparts.
Much the same can be said of Bildung, a concept classically defined by
Johann Gottfried Herder as ‘a process of rising up to humanity through
culture’. While Dewey never employed the word, the concept of Bildung can
be said to be present in nascent form in many of his writings, although
certainly not in the prominent way that it is in Gadamer’s work. It is an idea
with roots in the Middle Ages and that came into philosophical prominence
in the Hegelian tradition which itself had such a profound effect on Dewey
in various aspects of his thought. Bildung is closely related to both culture
and form, or the gradual process of formation and self-formation which
philosophers such as Hegel and Wilhelm von Humboldt would identify as
central to both experience and education. It refers to a process of gradual
cultivation from within and to the results of this process, a character that has
realized its humanity and come into its own by overcoming those elements
of its nature that are immediate or merely given. Be it in formal educational
settings or ordinary life, ‘every individual’, in Gadamer’s words, ‘is always
engaged in the process of Bildung and in getting beyond his naturalness’.
This is accomplished by distancing oneself from the immediacy of desire and
the particular and finding one’s way toward the universal. The ‘rising to the
universal’ of which philosophers in the Bildung tradition speak is no simple
negation of nature, practice, or desire in favor of wholly abstract notions of
culture, theory, or reason, however the general orientation of this process is
in the direction of the latter.83 Bildung is of the nature of a task or project,
and a universal one for human beings. It is the task of rising above one’s
immediate nature or circumstances for the sake of a higher purpose, one
Dewey’s Copernican Revolution 91

that transcends the self while simultaneously forming or transforming it in

the image of the universal.
An illustration of this is found in the nature of work. As Hegel described
it in The Phenomenology of Spirit, ‘working consciousness’ is no mere means
toward economic ends but in an important respect is an end in itself. The
essence of work is to lend form and meaning to an object: to take something
out of its naturalness and transform it with a view to the universal. Otherwise

In forming the object – that is, in being selflessly active and concerned
with a universal – working consciousness raises itself above the immediacy
of its existence to universality; or, as Hegel puts it, by forming the thing it
forms itself. What he means is that in acquiring a ‘capacity’, a skill, man
gains the sense of himself.84

One works not only, and not essentially, to consume the object of one’s labor
but to form it and oneself thereby. One comes into one’s own or fashions
oneself precisely by putting oneself aside or, at any rate, those aspects of
one’s being that are immediately given and unformed. Following Hegel,
Gadamer would also speak of the universal as exacting a demand; one’s com-
mitment to knowledge or justice acts as a restraint on desire and the grosser
forms of self-interest, thus imposing a kind of training and order on the self
that is difficult and ennobling. This process of inner cultivation – which is to
say the process of human experience in general – does not end and has no
goals outside of itself.
But as much as Bildung refers to the experiential process, it equally refers
to its results. The person who is formed in this way has a sense about it: a
sense of what is proportionate and important, of what is beautiful or right.
Thus the cultivated person has a sense of tact or of the aesthetic which is very
different from a technique. One is able to make judgments without follow-
ing rules and may be quite unable to produce formal arguments to ground
them, even as one’s judgments are correct. As Gadamer rather eloquently
described the sense of tact, for instance:

By ‘tact’ we understand a special sensitivity and sensitiveness to situations

and how to behave in them, for which knowledge from general principles
does not suffice. Hence an essential part of tact is that it is tacit and unfor-
mulable. One can say something tactfully; but that will always mean that
one passes over something tactfully and leaves it unsaid, and it is tactless
to express what one can only pass over. But to pass over something does
not mean to avert one’s gaze from it, but to keep an eye on it in such a way
that, rather than knock into it, one slips by it. Thus tact helps one to
92 The Educative Process

preserve distance. It avoids the offensive, the intrusive, the violation of the
intimate sphere of the person.85

Much the same can be said of the sense of memory. Here too one develops,
or fails to develop, a sense of what is memorable. What a good memory is not
is an indiscriminate piling up of past experiences in the mind or ability to
retrieve them on command. It is a sense of what is worthy of remembrance
and a selective retention of this and only this, not of anything and every-
Bildung, then, is marked by the possession of this sense, or senses, and is
simultaneously a cultivation of the self and an orientation toward the uni-
versal. Experience must therefore be understood dialectically, or in terms of
a structural reversal of consciousness. One recognizes oneself – one becomes
oneself – in venturing beyond one’s private immediacy and encountering
what is other. It is in this encounter that one recognizes oneself, and pre-
cisely not by withdrawing into some private sanctum of interiority. One
ventures forth in experience and returns a changed being; one has learned,
become experienced, and become open to future venturings. Although one
has amassed information in the process, this is not what is essential. What is
is the transition from one state of being to another. The encounter with what
is other transforms one from one’s ‘natural being’ to a state of cultivation
and higher sensibility, or as Gadamer, in a Hegelian mood, expressed it, ‘To
recognize one’s own in the alien, to become at home in it, is the basic
movement of spirit, whose being consists only in returning to itself from what
is other.’ If experience, or consciousness, is dialectically structured, and if
‘keeping oneself open to what is other’ is thus ‘the general characteristic of
Bildung’, such an openness is as much a necessary condition of experience as
its culmination.86 An openness to what is novel and unknown is the very
lifeblood of experience.
‘[G]etting beyond his naturalness’ may also describe the transition from
the transient immediacy of Erlebnis to the more reflective mode of experi-
ence that is Erfahrung.87 If for Dewey the educator’s task in essence is to guide
students from an experience that is immature to one that is intellectually
differentiated and sophisticated, this process may well be articulated as the
transition from Erlebnis to Erfahrung – a characterization that he might well
have accepted had the distinction been part of his philosophical vocabulary.
Where he spoke of the learning process as proceeding typically from the
concrete to the abstract, from the particular to the universal, and from
the practical to the theoretical, he might also – and better – have spoken of
the transition from the unformed to the formed, from the narrow and
parochial to the expansive and open, and from nature to culture, and where
these values are not conceived in abstract opposition. The experienced
Dewey’s Copernican Revolution 93

person no less than the educated has been cultivated in such a way that they
are hospitable to new ideas, curious and restless of mind. They possess the
intellectual virtues and the experiential continuity and interaction of which
Dewey spoke while also exhibiting qualities of which he did not speak but
might have, that is, which are consistent with the spirit of his philosophy of
experience and education but not altogether with its letter. The concepts of
Bildung and Erfahrung both suggest an experience that is continuous in
Dewey’s sense while showing a dialectical and also a narrative quality that is
better articulated in phenomenological and hermeneutical philosophy than
in radical empiricism and pragmatism.
Experience in what Gadamer called ‘the genuine sense’ is temporally
elongated, integrated, meaningful, and transformative. Its significance is
understood in terms of a story that unfolds over time and decidedly not as a
mere succession of happenings disconnected from each other. The experi-
ential continuity that largely distinguishes radical from British empiricism is
a narrative continuity since it is this form of interpretation that renders
meaningful, or understandable, human experience in general. It is precisely
by fitting our experiences together into a followable story that they gain the
continuity and interactivity that Dewey identified as the criteria of genuinely
educative experience.
I wish to add by way of a conclusion a remark or two, to which I shall
return in later chapters, regarding Erfahrung and Bildung as they bear upon
certain conditions of modern life. It does not appear to me that the present
times are well suited to the kind of experience and cultivation that these
concepts evoke, whether we are speaking of the realities of education or
more generally of the state of modern life as a whole. The realities of the
classroom, which directly reflect the condition of social life in general, are
such that appeals to theoretical notions such as these can appear hopelessly
academic when pressures to get through the material, prepare students for
examinations, deal with administrative inanities, and cope with behavioral
problems can make ideals of this or any kind seem like castles in the air.
Indeed, one may get the impression that a great deal of educational theory
is yet another scholasticism whose debates are contemporary equivalents of
consubstantiation versus transubstantiation. One may even be right about
this, in cases, but in the present case it is worth asking whether the ideals of
experiential integration, narrative continuity, and personal cultivation of
which I have been speaking are genuine possibilities for educational prac-
tices that are beset by conditions of the kind just noted. Educators charged
with preparing students for standardized examinations and who have little or
no freedom to select the curriculum will find it difficult, to say the least, to
identify natural continuities between their particular students’ experience
and the standardized curriculum that is imposed on them. Are any ideals
94 The Educative Process

possible under this condition, or does it reduce the whole business so thor-
oughly to a technical matter of information-bestowing and information-
cramming that the discussion we have been having is a perfect irrelevance?
To the extent that such conditions continue to prevail, philosophical ideals
of every kind – not only the ones spoken of here – are not only unattainable
but something far worse: they are beside the point. There is no leading of
young minds from Erlebnis to Erfahrung in an institution modeled on Hirsch’s
conservatism, for instance, no place for the intellectual virtues at all aside
from the most rudimentary, and except by accident no possibility of any
‘rising up to humanity through culture’. When culture itself is flattened out
to a mere sum of information, as for Hirsch it is, there is nothing there to
which one can rise up; there are only facts to be crammed in, piled up, or
plastered on. The sad reality is that this is often what education comes to,
and in such a philosophy (or antiphilosophy) there are no ideals to be had
but for such singularly empty notions as efficiency and cultural literacy.
It often appears as if the times, in which the latter notions are so readily
at home, are such that the kind of ideals that a Dewey or a Gadamer recom-
mended are complete no-hopers since they fit so poorly into present ways of
thinking and fly in the face even of many approaches that claim them as an
influence. It often seems as well that conditions outside of educational insti-
tutions render these ideals still more untimely. The frantic pace of modern
life combined with the fragmentation of experience, the temporariness of
nearly everything, the fleeting and superficial nature of so much of what
occupies us and what we care about do not bode well for a conception of
experience as enduring, meaningful, and at times profound. Dewey
lamented as far back as 1934 the impoverished state of human experience in
the twentieth century, a lament far more appropriate at present than when
he commented on the extent to which

zeal for doing, lust for action, leaves many a person, especially in this
hurried and impatient human environment in which we live, with ex-
perience of an almost incredible paucity, all on the surface. No one
experience has a chance to complete itself because something else is
entered upon so speedily. What is called experience is so dispersed and
miscellaneous as hardly to deserve the name.88

The consummatory dimension of experience, the unhurried development

of events and projects over time, or even the capacity for delayed gratifica-
tion or sustained attention, appear in increasingly short supply at a time
when efficiency and haste have become all-pervasive imperatives. Erfahrung
and Bildung both signify a process that unfolds very gradually through the
years; there is no standardized examination that can test for their attain-
Dewey’s Copernican Revolution 95

ment, they are unquantifiable and unprofitable, there is no science of them,

and no technique imparts them. They are also the heart and soul of educa-
tion and the highest indicators of its success.
Education always seeks in some measure to adapt or constitute its subjects
in accordance with prevailing norms and a way of life. It prepares them to
lead a life of a certain kind, with experiences that are typical of such a life,
and works with whatever experiences students bring with them into the class-
room. When such experience is inclined toward the immediate, the fleeting,
and the fragmented, it falls to educators to swim against the tide in leading
students, often against formidable odds, toward a mode of experience that is
more integrated and enduring than what they may find in the general society
or in the home. An educational environment can still be something of a
respite from the daily barrage of information, the disconnected happenings
and unrelated episodes that have become commonplace in so many lives,
even if the pressures that come to bear on educators would often force them
into becoming mere trainers in efficiency and adaptation, brokers of infor-
mation, or facilitators of social conformity. Beneath many of the slogans
of contemporary education, the latter phrases, I believe, reflect rather
accurately what much of education has become. Too often it reproduces
habits of mind that are a positive hindrance to experience in a richer sense
of the word and adapt the young entirely too well to the cult of efficiency that
awaits them.
In the next chapter I wish to take up a hypothesis of Martin Heidegger,
not dissimilar to what I have been arguing, to the effect that the present age
is unthinking or so profoundly beholden to a single conceptual framework –
‘science-technology’ – that what he rather ambiguously termed ‘thinking’, in
a higher sense of the word, has become something of an impossibility.
Whether this is so is clearly an urgent question for education. Before turning
to Heidegger’s discussion of this, I shall return to Dewey and ask what exactly
he understood thinking to consist in, what his theoretical model for intelli-
gent thought is, what its relevance to education is, and how it stands up to
Heidegger’s line of questioning.

1. ‘Now the change which is coming into our education is the shifting of the center of
gravity. It is a change, a revolution, not unlike that introduced by Copernicus when
the astronomical center shifted from the earth to the sun. In this case the child
becomes the sun about which the appliances of education revolve; he is the center
about which they are organized.’ Dewey, The School and Society (1900). MW 1: 23.
2. Dewey, ‘The Need for a Philosophy of Education’ (1934). LW 9: 194.
3. Dewey, ‘The Psychological Aspect of the School Curriculum’ (1897). EW 5: 171.
Similar sentiments are found throughout Dewey’s writings on education.
4. Dewey, Experience and Education (1938). LW 13: 7.
96 The Educative Process

5. Dewey, ‘Report of Interview with John Dewey’, by Charles W. Wood (1922). MW 13:
6. Dewey, Experience and Education (1938). LW 13: 6.
7. Dewey, ‘Current Tendencies in Education’ (1917). MW 10: 120.
8. Dewey, ‘The Psychological Aspect of the School Curriculum’ (1897). EW 5: 166.
9. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 14–15, 14. Dewey continues in the
same vein: ‘We also speak of rearing, raising, bringing up – words which express the
difference of level which education aims to cover. Etymologically, the word education
means just a process of leading or bringing up. When we have the outcome of the
process in mind, we speak of education as shaping, forming, molding activity – that
is, a shaping into the standard form of social activity.’
10. Dewey, Experience and Education (1938). LW 13: 5.
11. Dewey, How We Think (rev. edn, 1933). LW 8: 194, 193.
12. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 216.
13. Dewey, Moral Principles in Education (1909). MW 4: 284.
14. Dewey, ‘How the Mind Learns’, Educational Lectures Before Brigham Young
Academy (1901). LW 17: 214. Elsewhere Dewey wrote: ‘Yet by way of expiation we
envy children their love of new experiences, their intentness in extracting the last
drop of significance from each situation, their vital seriousness in things that to us are
outworn.’ Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct (1922). MW 14: 72.
15. The entire paragraph reads: ‘All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this
is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved
for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to
action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might
say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know
and brings to light many differences between things.’ Aristotle, Metaphysics in The
Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), 980a
16. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 194, 194–5.
17. Dewey, Experience and Education (1938). LW 13: 29–30.
18. ‘Almost everyone has had occasion to look back upon his school days and wonder
what has become of the knowledge he was supposed to have amassed during his years
of schooling, and why it is that the technical skills he acquired have to be learned over
again in changed form in order to stand him in good stead. Indeed, he is lucky who
does not find that in order to make progress, in order to go ahead intellectually, he
does not have to unlearn much of what he learned in school. These questions cannot
be disposed of by saying that the subjects were not actually learned, for they were
learned at least sufficiently to enable a pupil to pass examinations in them.’ Dewey,
Experience and Education (1938). LW 13: 28.
19. When I think back on my own adolescence, for example, I can recall virtually nothing
of at least half of the courses that I studied in high school, even what subjects they
covered, yet can remember the lyrics to just about every song that the Eagles ever
recorded and hockey statistics of every imaginable kind.
20. Dewey, ‘Education, Direct and Indirect’ (1904). MW 3: 240.
21. Dewey, The School and Society (1900). MW 1: 24.
22. Ibid., 8. Dewey would express much the same even-handedness in the following
remarks from 1932: ‘I remember the village in which stood my grandfather’s house,
where in my childhood I went to spend the summer vacation. There in the village was
the old-fashioned sawmill, the old-fashioned gristmill, the old-fashioned tannery; and
in my grandfather’s house there were still the candles and the soap which had been
made in the home itself. At certain times the cobbler would come around to spend a
few days in the neighborhood, making and repairing the shoes of the people.
Dewey’s Copernican Revolution 97

Through the very conditions of living, everybody had a pretty direct contact with
nature and with the simpler forms of industry. As there were no great accumulations
of wealth, the great majority of young people got a very genuine education through
a kind of informal apprenticeship. They took part in the home-made duties of the
household and farm and activities of the neighborhood. They saw with their eyes, and
followed with their imaginations, the very real activities about them. The amount of
genuine education, and of training in good habits that were obtained in this way
under earlier pioneer conditions, is not easy to overestimate. There was a real educa-
tion through real contact with actual materials and important social occupations.
‘On the other hand, knowledge in the form of written and printed word then had
what economists call a “scarcity value.” Books, newspapers, periodicals, in a word
reading matter of all kinds, were much rarer and more expensive than they are today.
Libraries were comparatively few. Learning, or rather the mastery of the tools of
learning, the ability to read and to write and to figure, had a high value, because the
school was the one place where these tools of learning could be mastered.’ Dewey,
‘Monastery, Bargain Counter, or Laboratory in Education?’ (1932). LW 6: 102.
23. Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920). MW 12: 136, 137.
24. See James A. Good’s A Search for Unity in Diversity: The ‘Permanent Hegelian Deposit’ in the
Philosophy of John Dewey (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2006) for a thorough treatment
of Dewey’s profound indebtedness to Hegel throughout his lifetime and well beyond
his break with the Hegelianism of his youth – which, as Good demonstrates, was far
more a break from British Hegelianism than from Hegel himself.
25. William James, Essays in Radical Empiricism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press,
1996), 42.
26. See James, The Principle of Psychology, vol. 1 (New York: Dover, 1950), especially chapter
9, ‘The Stream of Thought’.
27. Dewey, ‘The Psychological Standpoint’ (1886). EW 1: 123. Dewey reiterated the point
on the following page: ‘Now the psychological standpoint is this: nothing shall be
admitted into philosophy which does not show itself in experience, and its nature,
that is, its place in experience shall be fixed by an account of the process of knowl-
edge – by Psychology.’
28. Dewey, ‘Experience and Existence: A Comment’ (1949). LW 16: 383. Regarding ‘the
influence of William James’ on his thought, Dewey wrote in 1930: ‘As far as I can
discover one specifiable philosophic factor which entered my thinking so far as to
give it a new direction and quality, it is this one.’ Dewey, ‘From Absolutism to Exper-
imentalism’ (1930). LW 5: 157. Dewey would also endeavor quite frequently to defend
James against his often hostile and uncharitable critics such as Bertrand Russell and
G. E. Moore, among others. The carelessness with which such critics would often
dismiss James, and often Dewey as well, was an obvious source of irritation to him.
The following passage is typical in this regard: ‘James is an essayist, and he enjoys
writing. When he writes about a problem, he uses figurative language, and elaborates
his point even to a degree of exaggeration. The fact that James enjoys his use of
literary license has made him vulnerable to misinterpretation by unfriendly critics.’
Dewey, ‘Three Contemporary Philosophers’ (1920). MW 12: 219.
29. Dewey, ‘The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy’ (1917). MW 10: 11.
30. Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (1916). MW 12: 132.
31. Ibid., 131.
32. Dewey, ‘The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy’ (1917). MW 10: 6.
33. See, for example, Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct (in MW 14), Freedom and Culture
(LW 13), Individualism, Old and New (LW 5), The Public and its Problems (LW 2), and
Ethics (LW 7), among others.
34. Dewey, ‘The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy’ (1917). MW 10: 9.
98 The Educative Process

35. Dewey, How We Think (rev. edn, 1933). LW 8: 141.

36. See especially Dewey, Art as Experience (in LW 10).
37. Dewey, Interest in Relation to Training of the Will (1896). EW 5: 142.
38. Ibid., 143.
39. Dewey, Experience and Education (1938). LW 13: 46. Another representative passage
from 1901 reads: ‘I used to talk sometimes to teachers about the subject of interest. I
found out that the term is getting to be misunderstood. A great many people think
that to interest means to make everything easy and amusing, when in reality it means
quite the opposite. . . . To put it etymologically, interest is that which comes between
the subject and object in attention, between what the man has to give and what the
object brings. And wherever there is this sense of contact between the old that is
already in the mind, and the new which is yet to be mastered, there will not fail to be
interest.’ Dewey, ‘Attention’, Educational Lectures Before Brigham Young Academy
(1901). LW 17: 280.
40. Dewey, Interest and Effort in Education (1912). MW 7: 154.
41. Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct (1922). MW 14: 70.
42. Dewey, Interest and Effort in Education (1912). MW 7: 171.
43. A few of Dewey’s examples on this point include the following: ‘the direct interest in
carpentering or shop work should gradually pass into an interest in geometry and
mechanical problems. The interest in cooking should grow into an interest in
chemical experimentation and the physiology and hygiene of bodily growth. The
original casual making of pictures should pass into an interest in the technique of
representation of perspective, the handling of brush, pigments, etc.’ Dewey, How We
Think (rev. edn, 1933). LW 8: 298.
44. Dewey, Experience and Education (1938). LW 13: 46.
45. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 174.
46. Dewey, Experience and Education (1938). LW 13: 19, 13.
47. Dewey, ‘The Way Out of Educational Confusion’ (1931). LW 6: 88.
48. Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct (1922). MW 14: 71.
49. As Dewey remarked in a different context: ‘All habits are demands for certain kinds
of activity; and they constitute the self. In any intelligible sense of the word will, they
are will. They form our effective desires and they furnish us with our working capaci-
ties. They rule our thoughts, determining which shall appear and be strong and
which shall pass from light into obscurity. We may think of habits as means, waiting,
like tools in a box, to be used by conscious resolve. But they are something more than
that. They are active means, means that project themselves, energetic and dominat-
ing ways of acting.’ Ibid., 21–2.
50. Dewey, Experience and Education (1938). LW 13: 24. The phrase ‘objective conditions’
that Dewey employs here ‘includes what is done by the educator and the way in which
it is done, not only words spoken but the tone of voice in which they are spoken. It
includes equipment, books, apparatus, toys, games played. It includes the materials
with which an individual interacts, and, most important of all, the total social set-up of
the conditions in which a person is engaged.’ Ibid., 26.
51. Ibid., 26.
52. Dewey, Interest and Effort in Education (1912). MW 7: 178.
53. Dewey, Experience and Education (1938). LW 13: 12.
54. Dewey, ‘How the Mind Learns’, Educational Lectures Before Brigham Young
Academy (1901). LW 17: 214.
55. Dewey, The School and Society (1900). MW 1: 48. ‘Education and the Social Order’
(1934). LW 9: 180. Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 183.
56. Dewey, The School and Society (1900). MW 1: 102.
Dewey’s Copernican Revolution 99

57. Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920). MW 12: 185.

58. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 182.
59. Dewey, How We Think (rev. edn, 1933). LW 8: 113.
60. Dewey, Moral Principles in Education (1908). MW 4: 288.
61. Dewey, Ethics (1932). LW 7: 208.
62. Dewey, How We Think (rev. edn, 1933). LW 8: 329. The larger passage reads: ‘He will
note that the teachers who left the most enduring impression were those who
awakened in him a new intellectual interest, who communicated to him some of their
own enthusiasm for a field of knowledge or art, who gave his desire to inquire and
find out a momentum of its own. This is the one thing most needful. Given this
hunger, the mind will go on; while it may be stuffed to overflowing with information,
if this one thing is omitted, little will be gained in the future.’
63. One of Dewey’s infrequent references to Maria Montessori expressed his partial dis-
agreement with her on the means by which individual creativity is learned: ‘I think we
owe a great deal to Madame Montessori, but she has misled herself and others in
assuring that there must be isolation or separation in order to get individuality; that
each child must be doing something by himself rather than working with others; that
it is impossible to combine the two principles of school work with the development of
individuality. I think quite the opposite is the case. Children, of course, need a certain
amount of isolation. They must get off by themselves and have time to think. This is
true; but in the main, the best stimulus to the inventiveness and the ingenuity of the
child, the calling out of his own individuality, is found when the individual is working
with others, where there is a common project, something of interest to them all, but
where each has his own part.’ Dewey, ‘Individuality in Education’ (1923). MW 15: 176.
64. Dewey, Moral Principles in Education (1908). MW 4: 288.
65. Dewey, ‘Some Stages of Logical Thought’ (1900). MW 1: 151.
66. Dewey, The Educational Situation (1901). MW 1: 290.
67. Dewey, ‘Psychology in High-Schools from the Standpoint of the College’ (1886).
EW 1: 85–6.
68. See Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson (New
York: Harper and Row, 1962).
69. James Scott Johnston has done an admirable job of documenting and replying to
these allegations in his Inquiry and Education.
70. Martin Jay, Songs of Experience (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005), 1, 4.
71. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 346–7.
72. Ibid., 61.
73. Jay, Songs of Experience, 11.
74. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 69.
75. For a few examples of this, see Paul Ricoeur, Oneself As Another, trans. K. Blamey
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Cam-
bridge: Harvard University Press, 1989); Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame:
University of Notre Dame Press, 1984); and Anthony Kerby, Narrative and the Self
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991).
76. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 353, 354.
77. Ibid., 355.
78. Dewey, Experience and Education (1938). LW 13: 13.
79. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 357.
80. Ibid., 346, 361.
81. Ibid., 362.
82. Jay, Songs of Experience, 162–3.
83. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 10, 14, 12.
100 The Educative Process

84. Ibid., 13.

85. Ibid., 16.
86. Ibid., 14, 17.
87. Ibid., 14.
88. Dewey, Art as Experience (1934). LW 10: 51.
Chapter 3

What Is Called Thinking?

Theorists of all persuasions agree that whatever the true business of educa-
tion is, it crucially bears on what is rather ambiguously termed thought or
thinking. Disagreements most often center on the proper objects of thought
– which subject matters are of relative importance at which stages in the
learning process – and the methodology by which particular curricula are
most effectively taught and learned. Other disagreements pertain to whether
it is the content of thought, in the sense of which items of knowledge or
belief are to be instilled and what students are to accept as the truth or the
good, or the capacity to think independently that matters most and is the
true mark of educational success. Beneath these and the many other dis-
agreements that have long occupied theorists is the shared conviction that
thought, whatever it is, is the central concern of education. Logically prior
to questions of the what and the how of education is the question in the title
of this chapter. Since Plato, the more ambitious philosophers of education
have often posed this question directly along with related questions con-
cerning what is knowledge, reason, and truth. If the educative process
involves a transition of some description from ignorance to knowledge, of
which Plato’s allegory of the cave affords the classical model, how are we
to theorize this transition? It is a transition from a state of not knowing or
ignorance, something that requires no elaborate philosophical account, to
something that manifestly does: knowing, understanding, thinking. What,
then, are these? For that matter, is this one question or three?
While Dewey regarded the three questions as distinct in principle, answer-
ing them requires fashioning a unified account of mental life which high-
lights the organic connections between the philosophically distinct
categories of thinking, knowledge, truth, experience, and understanding.
The specific question of what thought itself is, for Dewey the Jamesian
empiricist, is of course an empirical, or better phenomenological, matter, as
the title of one of his major works, How We Think, rather matter-of-factly
suggests. The phenomenological question of what thinking is and the logic
by which, as a matter of fact, it unfolds in various fields of inquiry has
primacy over the epistemological or methodological question of how we
ought to think, as if the latter could be answered in an a priori fashion.

102 The Educative Process

Thinking, or the practice of intelligent inquiry, already contains an

immanent method which it is the task of logic and epistemology to render
explicit rather than replace with a method derived in abstraction from the
practice itself.
Today no less than in Dewey’s time, educators commonly speak of the
need for students at all levels to learn how to think, or to think critically,
where it is supposed that the faculty of thought is separable in principle from
the particular subject matters that it takes up, rather like the capacity for
strength is distinct from the heavy lifting that it makes possible. Thus depart-
ments of philosophy now invariably offer undergraduate courses both in
formal logic and in critical thinking on the premise that thinking may be
taught and learned apart from subject matter, or that it is a subject matter
unto itself, and that it is essentially a technical matter of following rules of
inference and avoiding fallacies. Once committed to memory and dutifully
heeded, the rules of thought can be counted upon to lead the mind in the
direction of truth on any occasion that calls for inferences to be made or for
critical thinking. It is, of course, a thoroughly laudable goal of the university
to see to it that its graduates emerge from their years of study not only with
a body of knowledge or information at their disposal but also with a capacity
to think, even as many of the professors charged with teaching the technique
itself view the task with some consternation. Exactly how does one teach
another how to think? they can be forgiven for asking, that is, to think in the
abstract and apart, in principle at least, from something to think about, an
object or subject matter. The usual solution is to supply the students in a
course on critical thinking with a somewhat watered-down version of
symbolic logic. Since thinking is a matter of following rules, the curriculum
in such a course consists of the rules themselves along with some exercises in
which the rules can be applied, rather in the fashion of a course in mathe-
matics or accounting. Once students have mastered the technique, they are
henceforth able to think.
When one surveys the history of thought, one may legitimately wonder
whether any of the thinkers whose works continue to be studied decades or
centuries after they are written ever learned how to think in this manner, or
whether the reason that we continue to regard the great thinkers of history
as great lies in their singular capacity to follow the rules such as we find them
in textbooks on formal and informal logic. We may wonder as well whether
the eminent thinkers of the present are one and the same individuals as
those who we may presume have most thoroughly mastered the technique of
thought itself: the logicians.
Whatever this highly interpretable notion is taken to mean, it is no more
likely to be reducible to technique or simple rule-following than participating
in a conversation or playing a game, although, as with the latter practices,
What Is Called Thinking? 103

rules or principles may well play a role. If being a good conversationalist or

hockey player involves observing certain very general principles or rules that
can be spelled out in advance, so as well does the art of thinking, yet as with
these other cases becoming adept at thinking is no mere conformity to rules
but is more the nature of making skilful or creative moves within the rules and
occasionally changing the rules themselves or intelligently departing from
them. There is an important element of creativity and freedom – precisely
that which is irreducible to technique – that gets us to the heart of the matter
that is thinking. If critical and intelligent thought sometimes makes use of
logical inferences, as it undoubtedly does, it also involves that which no
method can teach: the art of asking questions and of seeing what is question-
able, of reflecting and contemplating, slowly weighing the strength or force
of an argument, detecting what is salient, cultivating the intellectual virtues in
general, and other elements that go far beyond the following of rules.
I shall discuss this further in due course. First, I wish to examine in some
detail Dewey’s replies to the questions before us. If education crucially bears
on developing students’ ability to think, as well as the content of such
thought, in what sense is this the case? What is this ability itself and can it be
taught and learned in the abstract or apart from inquiry into some particu-
lar subject matter? Is it what students think or whether they are able to think
independently that matters most in education? Which pedagogical methods
are best suited to teaching the art of thinking, if we determine that it is
indeed an art or a skill rather than a formal technique? Dewey’s first con-
tention in this matter was that there is no separation to be made between
thought and its object, a view that, apparently unbeknown to Dewey, directly
parallels Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological doctrine of the intentionality
of consciousness. All thought is a thinking about some particular object or
other, and is not, in Dewey’s words, ‘something cut off from experience’ or
from an intentional object, and accordingly is not ‘capable of being culti-
vated in isolation’.1 Thinking is not a faculty or capacity of mind that may be
trained in isolation from particular fields of inquiry or that is such a field in
its own right. Thinking, on Dewey’s view, is precisely an ‘ordering of subject
matter with reference to discovering what it signifies or indicates’, and thus
‘no more exists apart from this arranging of subject matter than digestion
occurs apart from the assimilating of food’.2 It is a popular but mistaken
conception of the mind as consisting of separate faculties of reasoning,
perception, memory, and so on, as if each were a kind of muscle that could
be exercised apart from the others and without the necessity of accomplish-
ing some work. While Dewey firmly maintained that ‘the prime need of every
person at present is capacity to think’, it is a capacity that can be trained
neither in a vacuum, directly, nor easily, on the contrary being ‘the most
difficult occupation in which man engages’.3
104 The Educative Process

On the question of what thinking itself is, Dewey defined this rather con-
cisely as a ‘response to the doubtful as such’.4 It is essentially the practice of
experimental inquiry into a given problem, the aim of which consists in ‘the
directed or controlled transformation of an indeterminate situation into a
determinately unified one’.5 Thinking responds to a doubtful or problematic
situation – the unknown, anomalous, or perplexing – by posing questions,
advancing interpretations and hypotheses, following the course of a given
hypothesis to its conclusion, testing it against the available evidence, and
looking for specific experiential consequences. It is a process that never loses
connection with experience, arising from a doubtful situation within it and
ultimately returning to it with an enhanced knowledge of the connections
between events or ideas and the significance of the original situation.
‘Thinking is thus equivalent’, in Dewey’s words, ‘to an explicit rendering of
the intelligent element in our experience. It makes it possible to act with an
end in view.’6
What thinking is not is precisely what it is so often taken to be by educa-
tors: in essence an affair either of following rules or of amassing information
in the largest possible quantity combined with the capacity for recall. What
this ‘cold-storage ideal of knowledge’ overlooks is the active and creative
dimension of thought. While it is not to be doubted that an education in
thinking necessarily involves gaining information about a given field of study,
and often a great deal of it, thinking itself refers to what is done with such
information or the purposes to which it is turned. The cold-storage concep-
tion, no less than traditional notions of education in which the art of
thinking is a far less urgent matter than the content of what students know
and believe, is positively inimical to thought for the reason that the mind
that is overladen with ill-digested facts is effectively smothered and unable to
put such information to meaningful use. Not only are opportunities for intel-
ligent inquiry not taken advantage of, but ‘it swamps thinking’ by piling on
information that exceeds the students’ capacity to interrogate or integrate
constructively into their experience.7 Learning in the popular sense of
absorbing information more or less passively which may be retrieved at a
later time should the occasion arise is a stage on the way to thinking, but it
is not itself the genuine article or the ultimate aim of education. Rather, it is
a secondary matter – not unimportant, as Dewey’s critics sometimes alleged,
but secondary and instrumental to the development of intellectual capacity.
In 1937 Dewey illustrated this point with respect to the study of civics as

There is, I think, considerable danger that this phase of social study will
get submerged in a great flood of miscellaneous social study. When the
subject was first introduced, I think there was a good deal of evidence of
What Is Called Thinking? 105

faith in the truly miraculous power of information. If the students would

only learn their federal and state Constitutions, the names and duties of
all the officers and all the rest of the anatomy of the government, they
would be prepared to be good citizens. And many of them – many of us,
I fear – having learned these facts went out into adult life and became the
easy prey of skillful politicians and the political machines; the victims
of political misrepresentation, say, on the part of the newspapers we
happened to read.8

Much the same can be said of how at the present time we often teach in the
arts, humanities, and social sciences on the premise that if only students
become informed about philosophy, history, or anthropology they will
become philosophers, historians, or anthropologists by some automatic
process, perhaps at some point during their doctoral studies. That this is not
so is readily observable when we consider the innumerable instances of
students graduating from the university with an impressive array of facts at
their disposal yet unable to turn them to creative use. Nothing ‘simulates
knowledge’ or thought, Dewey observed, ‘and thereby develops the poison
of conceit’ quite as effectively as information piled high in memory and
available to be showcased upon the occasion of an examination or social
What thinking also is not is what would better go under the name of in-
culcation or indoctrination, for which it is also frequently mistaken. When
educators set about prescribing what students shall believe, particularly as it
concerns controversial opinions and still more when students have not
reached an age of intellectual maturity, they are instilling habits not of
intelligent thought but of unreasoning submission. Quite apart from the
intentions of educators, which in the usual course of things may be entirely
beneficent, the practice of instilling a particular set of beliefs on the pretense
that they are training the mind is positively miseducative and very nearly the
opposite of what it claims to be. Even supposing such beliefs to be true, the
mark of an educated mind is not at all the content of one’s convictions –
whether one be liberal or conservative, religious or irreligious, egoist or
altruist – but rather the manner in which one’s beliefs are arrived at, the
reasons one can adduce on their behalf, one’s ability to draw connections
between ideas and experience, to defend one’s position against rival views,
and so on.10 Thinking pertains to the method, and indeed is the method, by
which beliefs are rationally acquired and is thus far less concerned with end
states than processes. The process itself, as he would continually emphasize,
requires the students’ active participation and thus an overcoming of both
the educator’s temptation to indoctrinate and the intellectual laziness and
conventionality that, in his view, most often characterize youth.11 Dewey’s
106 The Educative Process

criticism of the practice of instilling or inculcating beliefs is harsh by his

standards and is applied equally to opinions with which he himself agreed
and disagreed.12
While Dewey’s conception of thinking crucially bears upon method, it is
not limited to the methods of deductive and inductive inference that today
constitute the focus of undergraduate courses in formal and informal logic.
Instead it pertains to the method of intelligent inquiry itself and the spirit of
such inquiry. Exactly what is this method is the issue to which I now turn.

Pragmatic intelligence
Understanding Dewey’s account of thought as inquiry and his philosophy of
education more generally requires viewing both in light of the pragmatist or
experimentalist (instrumentalist) theory of knowledge that he appropriated
primarily from William James. Without going into the details of this episte-
mology, a pragmatic conception of knowledge accentuates the connection
between thought and action or the relation of ideas to problematic situations
that arise in the course of human conduct and experience.13 Although
Dewey, particularly later in his career, was less fond of the term ‘pragmatism’
itself than James – recommending in 1938 that we ‘avoid its use’ altogether
given the widespread and singularly uncharitable misinterpretations that
had surrounded this term – and was very mindful of the criticism that had
greeted James’ formulation of this in Pragmatism and its ‘sequel’, The
Meaning of Truth, the theory of knowledge that Dewey defended throughout
his career is thoroughly Jamesian (and to a lesser extent Peircean) in regard-
ing ‘consequences as necessary tests of the validity of propositions, provided
these consequences are operationally instituted and are such as to resolve
the specific problem evoking the operations’.14 The proviso was Dewey’s sup-
plement to James’ view (or clarification of it, given that even a moderately
charitable reading of James would include the proviso and does not lead to
the simplistic misreadings of pragmatism formulated by unsympathetic
critics like Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore and that have remained wide-
spread until the present day), and forestalls objections to the effect that a
pragmatic epistemology provides a philosophical rationalization for wishful
thinking or for whatever propositions one happens to hold dear.
In Dewey’s pragmatic instrumentalism, as he preferred to call it, the
process of inquiry is described phenomenologically in a fashion that over-
turns what he referred to as the ‘spectator conception of knowledge’ or ‘the
idea that knowledge is intrinsically a mere beholding or viewing of reality’,
on the model of unconditioned subjectivity on one side and an objective,
uninterpreted reality on the other. Against the spectator theory such as we
find it in rationalism and British empiricism, Dewey sought to render explicit
What Is Called Thinking? 107

‘the existing practice of knowledge’ as we find it operative in both scientific

and humanistic investigation, a practice in which thought and action are
ultimately inseparable and ‘knowledge is power to transform the world’, not
as an accidental byproduct but essentially.15 The true test of an idea or
hypothesis, then, lies in the experiential consequences to which it leads or in
its capacity to bring about a more adequate and coherent arrangement of
our experience of the world. C. S. Peirce’s dictum that ‘there is no distinc-
tion of meaning so fine as to consist in anything but a possible difference of
practice’ was taken up by Dewey and given a more explicitly experimental or
scientific connotation.16 Whereas older conceptions of science had been
misled by classical empiricism into regarding scientists as in essential respects
passive recipients of observations and discoveries provided that they direct
their attention toward a given object for some period of time, Dewey insisted
that the scientist is an active investigator who must ‘do something’ – hazard
an hypothesis, perform an experiment, study an object under a variety of
conditions, and so on – in order to gain knowledge.17 Thought in general,
from the explicitly scientific to philosophical theorizing and reflective
understanding, crucially bears upon the pragmatic – ‘how things work and
how to do things’ – not as a secondary matter but ultimately.18 It is not
thinking but information that is complete unto itself, as it were, and related
only contingently and accidentally to action. To be informed is at most to
have gained that upon which thought might set to work, but it is not yet to
For Dewey, the paradigm of thought is scientific experimentation in the
sense that here we find the same method of inquiry that is properly followed
in any field of study in an explicit and ‘intensified form’.19 While he would
never embrace any form of positivism, nor maintain that procedures proper
to the natural sciences can be simply transferred to the social sciences and
humanities, Dewey did hold a decidedly optimistic view of science and of
what the scientific method might accomplish in refashioning thought in
general.20 One finds throughout his writings not any simplistic or naive adu-
lation of science – although there are passages that do approach this – but a
somewhat more measured optimism that ‘the scientific habit of mind’ is
generally applicable to human affairs.21 Dewey’s reading of the general
movement of twentieth-century culture was that it is an age of science into
which modern civilization has moved, in the sense that empirical and experi-
mental methods of inquiry are rapidly replacing the worldviews of the past,
from the philosophical to the religious, political, ethical, and so on. While
numerous other theorists of his time were making much the same observation
– some with optimism, others (notably Martin Heidegger) with foreboding –
Dewey would speak of this new scientific era in his characteristically sober and
measured way as neither a Heideggerian dark night of the forgetfulness of
108 The Educative Process

Being nor a positivist’s utopia but as something intermediate between the two.
Science is something neither to be idealized dogmatically in the manner of
positivism nor brooded over in the fashion of certain existential thinkers but
regarded more modestly as a method, and a singularly useful one. It is,
moreover, the same method as that pursued with less elaborateness and exac-
titude in ostensibly non-scientific forms of inquiry. While the promise that
this method holds for the transformation of human affairs is nothing short
of revolutionary, in Dewey’s view, he stopped short of an uncritical idealiza-
tion of science of the kind that characterized many of his contemporaries.
Science represents an ideal of thought in the sense that here the method
of rational investigation that is proper to thought in general is visible in its
purest form. Distinguishing between science as a body of knowledge or
academic subject matter on one hand and a method on the other, it is the
latter that holds potential for liberation and advancement in all realms of
human concern. ‘The general adoption of the scientific attitude’ which
would effect ‘nothing less than a revolutionary change in morals, religion,
politics and industry’ means not that we ought all become physicists or biol-
ogists or acquire vast learning about the latest empirical discoveries but
that the ‘attitude’ and method of experimental ‘intelligence’ (to use one of
Dewey’s favorite expressions) is what is needed to bring about a radical trans-
formation in our ways of thinking and relating, both in liberating us from the
absolutes of the past and in supplying us with a positive model for human
Regarding the exact nature of this model, Dewey stated in one of his more
concise descriptions:

By science is meant . . . that knowledge which is the outcome of methods

of observation, reflection, and testing which are deliberately adopted to
secure a settled, assured subject matter. It involves an intelligent and
persistent endeavor to revise current beliefs so as to weed out what is
erroneous, to add to their accuracy, and, above all, to give them such
shape that the dependencies of the various facts upon one another may
be as obvious as possible. It is, like all knowledge, an outcome of activity
bringing about certain changes in the environment.23

Following James, Dewey conceived of the investigative process as one of

experimental hypothesizing and empirical testing of ideas in a fashion that
proposes and modifies hypotheses with a view to arranging or rearranging
phenomena with optimal coherence. As experimental, this procedure calls
for a dynamic interaction between inquirer and investigated object which
bears no resemblance to the technical application of rules. In the process of
experimental inquiry, an hypothesis is proposed by which to account for
What Is Called Thinking? 109

particular phenomena, the progress of which is then followed as it proceeds

through various discursive stages until it registers pragmatic consequences of
a specific kind. Provided these accord with the consequences anticipated by
the original hypothesis, and by this means provide for the organization or
reorganization of a given set of phenomena, the hypothesis passes for true
until and unless it generates a contradiction in another region of experi-
ence. This method integrates experiences with other experiences, phenom-
ena with phenomena, in dialectical fashion, drawing connections between
disparate ideas and observations in ways that make it possible to find our way
about the world.
Knowing and thinking generally constitute an effort to resolve a prob-
lematic situation of one kind or another. Thinking indeed ‘is the actual
transition from the problematic to the secure, as far as it is intentionally
guided’.24 This short definition encapsulates a larger process of method-
ological investigation that begins with a difficulty, doubt, or confusion that
arises in the course of lived experience and leads to a question and the
assertion of a provisional hypothesis, a ‘conjectural anticipation’ or a ‘tenta-
tive interpretation’ concerning a problematic situation. The basic trajectory
of thought is a solution-oriented refinement of this hypothesis in light of a
more thorough examination of the relevant facts or evidence surrounding
the case. The hypothesis is then tested against competing ideas and against
the evidence itself by determining its capacity to accommodate a greater
range of phenomena and by ‘doing something overtly to bring about the
anticipated result’, whether this be subjecting an empirical object to a variety
of experimental conditions in order to determine whether it reacts in the
specific ways that the hypothesis predicts, or testing a textual interpretation
by checking it against a progressively larger number of passages.25 This is a
method of trial and error that if successful resolves the original difficulty
without in the process generating more problems than it solves. Speaking
generally, then, ‘Anything that may be called knowledge, or a known object,
marks a question answered, a difficulty disposed of, a confusion cleared up,
an inconsistency reduced to coherence, a perplexity mastered.’26 Dewey’s
choice of verbs in this passage is telling: to think – also to know – is to answer,
dispose of difficulties, clear up, reduce to coherence, or master a given issue,
in essence to solve a problem. Not certainty but ‘warranted assertibility’ is the
outcome of successful inquiry, a conception of knowledge and of truth itself
as invariably contingent on the course of future research. Dewey stressed that
it is the nature of inquiry, be it scientific or philosophical, to be futural,
fallible, and ultimately practical in orientation, never allowing us to rest
altogether on our conclusions but setting these in operation on the model
of scientific experimentation. Truth is never the final outcome of thought in
the sense of an end attained once and for all, but is itself a processual notion,
110 The Educative Process

as James before him had maintained. In pragmatic knowledge, ‘the process

of growth, of improvement and progress, rather than the static outcome and
result, becomes the significant thing’.27 In principle, truth remains always
provisional on future inquiry and on the consequences for practice and
experience that they engender.
While scientific experimentation affords the model for thought in
general, it is important to qualify this in a couple of ways. First, the ‘research’
that, according to Dewey, ‘all thinking is’ most often is of a rudimentary
variety and involves no sophisticated operation of inference whatever.28
Dewey provided the following example of thinking in its ordinary, everyday

[A] man is walking on a warm day. The sky was clear the last time he
observed it; but presently he notes, while occupied primarily with other
things, that the air is cooler. It occurs to him that it is probably going to
rain; looking up, he sees a dark cloud between him and the sun, and he
then quickens his steps. What, if anything, in such a situation can be called
thought? Neither the act of walking nor the noting of the cold is a
thought. Walking is one direction of activity; looking and noting are other
modes of activity. The likelihood that it will rain is, however, something
suggested. The pedestrian feels the cold; first he thinks of clouds, then he
looks and perceives them, and then he thinks of something he does not
see: a storm. This suggested possibility is the idea, the thought. If it is
believed in as a genuine possibility which may occur, it is the kind of
thought which falls within the scope of knowledge and which requires
reflective consideration.29

In the usual course of human experience, this is the typical pattern of

‘research’ or ‘inquiry’ that Dewey had in mind, and differs from scientific or
logical investigation only in degree of explicitness and sophistication.
The second qualification to add is that thought is not a monological but
a dialogical matter. Pragmatic inquiry includes an important social element,
as Peirce and James also maintained, albeit in different ways. For Peirce, it is
the nature of inquiry to strive for consensus among a community of inquir-
ers rather than, as the older empiricism and rationalism both had it, to occur
essentially in the inner sanctum of the mind.30 James and Dewey extended
Peirce’s view into a broader theory of knowledge and truth, arguing that
while in the first instance both knowledge and truth are predicated of the
individual inquirer – are a function of a belief’s pragmatic success within an
individual’s experience – the belief in question must be submitted to the
general conversation of a community. As the investigative process unfolds,
the locus of truth shifts from the individual thinker to a community of
What Is Called Thinking? 111

participants, while one’s own perspective broadens to incorporate an

increasing number of inquirers. As the conversation continues and the pool
of shared experience enlarges, knowledge becomes less idiosyncratic and
increasingly intersubjective, with consensus rather than accuracy of repre-
sentation being the best (albeit fallible) indication that truth has emerged.
So conceived, truth is invariably a social construction that is strictly contin-
gent on human experience and symbolizing practices and is in no sense an
ahistorical or purely objective relation that is happened upon in the course
of inquiry.31 In pragmatic intelligence, then, it is coherence in both an
intra-experiential and intersubjective sense that is the ‘end’ to which thought
leads even while never finally attaining it.
Regarding ideas themselves, Dewey conceived of these as essentially
hypotheses or means of resolving problematic situations. Their instrumental
function alone supplies whatever meaning they hold for us, as Peirce and
James had argued. This pragmatic conception of ideas poses a direct chal-
lenge to standard philosophical views according to which ideas, whether they
be mind-dependent or mind-independent, have an essential nature and
proper meaning which it is the business of philosophical reflection to
capture theoretically, be it in the form of contemporary ‘analysis’ – in which
ideas, despite their apparent ambiguity, can be counted upon to sit still long
enough for us to pronounce a definitive account of their meaning, and
ideally one that reduces their ambiguity to zero – or ancient efforts to answer
the Socratic ‘What is x?’ question by discovering a Platonic Form or Aris-
totelian essence. Ideas in general, on the pragmatic view, are not ‘rigidly
fixed’ in their meaning but are contingent upon their use-value in resolving
difficulties in human experience and facilitating our commerce with a life-
world. They never rise above the status of ‘intellectual instruments to be
tested and confirmed – and altered – through consequences effected by
acting upon them’. Ideas therefore ‘lose all pretense of finality – the ulterior
source of dogmatism’. Dewey’s remark about dogmatism is no mere after-
thought but is fundamental to the instrumentalist conception of ideas and to
its justification. Part of the basis for the instrumentalist theory of ideas and
of thinking lies precisely in its promotion of the intellectual virtues discussed
in Chapter 2 and in its capacity to unseat the dogmatic frame of mind of
which Dewey was a lifelong critic. If so many human efforts throughout
history have been invested in the war of ideas and creeds tenaciously clung
to without regard for their consequences for human life, a better idea would
be to transform how we view ideas themselves. Regarding ideas as hypothe-
ses and means of solving problems, Dewey maintained, ‘would do away with
the intolerance and fanaticism that attend the notion that beliefs and judg-
ments are capable of inherent truth and authority; inherent in the sense of
being independent of what they lead to when used as directive principles’.32
112 The Educative Process

Nothing is more fatal to inquiry than conceiving of ideas as fixed verities that
must be adhered to regardless of where the investigative process leads or that
are above the fray of criticism and justification. Once Peirce had proposed
that the meaning of a given idea lies in the consequences to which it leads
for human practices, James and Dewey saw no reason not to extend this to
include the idea’s purpose and truth-value as well (an extension that Peirce
himself vehemently opposed, to the point of renaming his theory of
meaning ‘pragmaticism’ to distinguish it from the ‘pragmatism’ of James).

Reflective thinking
From the beginning, pragmatism’s critics have charged it with lacking a
certain reflective quality or even with anti-intellectualism, as if it constitutes
a counterpart within epistemology to a crude form of ethical utilitarianism.
Any association of truth-value with use-value for many represents a betrayal
of philosophy’s age-old promise of gaining an accurate knowledge of reality
in its true dimension, one that forswears all prejudice and enables us to
separate knowledge from mere opinion, reason from rhetoric, and the truth
itself from what merely passes for it in ordinary discourse. At first glance –
which many such critics never advanced beyond – it may indeed appear that
the pragmatic view of ideas as hypotheses and instruments of research rather
than fixed verities misses something essential to the life of the mind: some-
thing like reflection, contemplation, or understanding for its own sake
rather than as a means to a practical end. To many, it appeared as if
pragmatism was denying this and putting forward a crass and simplistic, even
antiphilosophical, conception of thought.
The inaccuracy of this impression is easily seen when one brackets the
reputation that pragmatism received a century ago and which remains wide-
spread to this day and actually reads Dewey’s works, in which he repeatedly
addressed the numerous misinterpretations of James’ and his own position
that continually appeared throughout the first half of the twentieth century.
An important case in point concerns the nature of reflective thought,
contemplation, and understanding in the sense of these terms that common
sense distinguishes from the pragmatic. The connotation of ‘pragmatic’ and
‘instrumental’ that James and Dewey invoked is not the narrow one of
common parlance. So far was Dewey from separating the practical from the
theoretical or the instrumental from the reflective that for this profoundly
dialectical thinker such dichotomies are renounced entirely along with the
everyday connotation of the pragmatic as lacking the depth dimension
associated with the contemplative and philosophical. Indeed, one of Dewey’s
most enduring concerns as both an education theorist and cultural critic was
precisely the manner in which traditional pedagogy and the general society
What Is Called Thinking? 113

of his time had become dangerously superficial and fascinated by outward

things at the expense of depth and reflectiveness. As a social observer, for
instance, Dewey frequently lamented the manner in which the leisure time
of Americans had become consumed by amusements devoid of meaning but
inexpensive and generally available to an increasingly urbanized population.
The fascination with amusements combined with declining taste in the arts
and science constituted ‘a very serious situation for thousands of people
whose industrial and economic life does not have either soul or spirit’, as
Dewey would remark in 1923.33 The remedy for the cultural deterioration he
believed he was witnessing must come from educational institutions whose
social duty includes instilling capacities of reflectiveness and taste which will
allow their graduates to make better use of leisure time throughout life.34
Moreover, as I discussed in Chapter 2, Dewey’s notion of the intellectual
virtues and the educated mind includes a central place for reflectiveness and
the turn of mind that is ‘slow but sure’, in contrast to the ‘brightness’ that
‘may be but a flash in the pan’. The student who is genuinely thoughtful ‘is
one in whom impressions sink and accumulate, so that thinking is done at a
deeper level of value than by those with a lighter load’. The reflective intel-
lect is precisely the one with an advanced capacity for contemplation and for
the ‘wisdom’ that tradition has long distinguished from mere information.
Retaining this distinction, Dewey considered it an important matter for
educators to separate the accumulation of factual knowledge from the
higher ideal of wisdom in the sense of ‘knowledge operating in the direction
of powers to the better living of life’.35 If education crucially bears upon the
training of thought, this includes encouraging habits of mind that far tran-
scend being pragmatic or solution oriented in the colloquial sense of these
terms to include cultivating ‘a deep personal sense of the problem to be dealt
with’. Reflective thought begins with this ‘sense of the problem’ which, in an
unhurried way and before proposing a solution, searches for clarification
regarding the proper dimensions of the problem or question itself, includ-
ing the critical issue of ‘why it is a problem’. Is it an ostensibly perennial
question that simply falls from the sky, as so many academic problems are
customarily presented to students, or does it arise from some vital experi-
ence of life which the student can be made to see? If the former, the course
of thought that ensues is more likely to resemble ‘mere debating’ and
‘sophistry’ than the ‘reasoning together’ and ‘process of cooperative search’
that characterizes genuinely reflective inquiry.36 It is precisely the depth
dimension of thought that is among the most vital matters in education, as
Dewey would so often argue against his conservative critics.

The depth to which a sense of the problem, of the difficulty, sinks, deter-
mines the quality of the thinking that follows; and any habit of teaching
114 The Educative Process

that encourages the pupil for the sake of a successful recitation or of a

display of memorized information to glide over the thin ice of genuine
problems reverses the true method of mind-training.37

Dewey all but defined the condition of being educated as the capacity for
reflective thought in a sense that includes the power to articulate and pursue
questions to their depths and to ‘go below the surface’ of appearances in the
way that philosophy has always prized, to reject the premature answer and
the facile conclusion in favor of slow and rigorous investigation.38 The term
‘reflective thought’ itself he defined as the ‘[a]ctive, persistent, and careful
consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the
grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends’, thus
as an explicitly philosophical or scientific search for the basis of human
knowledge.39 It searches as well for the connecting links in human experi-
ence between one problematic situation and another, between different lines
of inquiry or whole fields of study, and between a particular subject matter
and its larger significance for human life. As mentioned in Chapter 2, an
important part of what distinguishes radical empiricism from its predecessor
in British thought is the accent placed by the former on relations or con-
nections within experience in contrast to the experiential atomism of the
older tradition. Since it is experience that constitutes the proper object of
reflective thought, such thought pays particular attention to these connec-
tions rather than studying objects or ideas apart from the context that
supplies them with meaning. Philosophical concepts, for instance, are
properly studied not as a god might view them, as acontextual essences
which are what they are apart from the uses to which they are put, but as
terms within a larger train of thought or discursive vocabulary, and which, to
be understood, must be so regarded. Whether it is the philosopher theoriz-
ing on the nature of time or justice, or the philosophy professor providing
instruction on the same, reflective thought that proceeds by removing the
concept from all context and connections with other concepts, with its
history, etymology, and variety of uses in different fields of inquiry and expe-
rience – except perhaps as a secondary matter or for purposes of illustration
– is a project destined for failure. We neither experience nor reflect upon
intentional objects of any kind – philosophical concepts, scientific hypothe-
ses, empirical objects, or what have you – as disconnected atoms but by
regarding an object in organic relation to a context of thought and experi-
ence. In Dewey’s view it is the ‘neglect of context’ that constitutes ‘the most
pervasive fallacy of philosophical thinking’, a habit of thought that is as old
as the Greeks and as contemporary as certain forms of ‘analysis’.40
Reflection upon an idea, then, involves locating it within a train of thought
or argumentative sequence that importantly includes a ‘con-sequence – a
What Is Called Thinking? 115

consecutive ordering [of ideas] in such a way that each determines the next
as its proper outcome’. In reflective thinking, as in the experience with
which it is concerned, one thing leads to another; an idea or object is com-
prehended by relating it to a purpose, a history, a different idea or object, by
identifying that to which it leads, or otherwise by drawing it into association
with something else, and not simply providing an inventory of its properties
or component parts. This of course includes a critical examination of its
justificatory rationale, yet in a sense that is not limited to formal reasoning.
In How We Think, Dewey identified three differences between formal reason-
ing in the sense of logical deduction and ‘thinking as it actually goes on in
the mind of any person’.41 Whereas the former is as perfectly impersonal as
mathematics, the latter is contingent on the intellectual habits of the thinker
– whether the individual is attentive or inattentive, careful or careless, disci-
plined or undisciplined. Second, while logical argument forms are unchang-
ing and unconcerned with the content that fills them, thought is a process
that changes with some regularity and is forever taking account of its object
and trying to resolve difficulties without creating new ones. As well, formal
reasoning is indifferent to context while for reflective thought the larger
context of resolving problematic situations must remain uppermost in view.
These differences notwithstanding, reflective intelligence as Dewey con-
ceived of it is as concerned with the rational basis of belief as what conven-
tionally goes under the name of logical inference.
Dewey’s conception of reflective thought also includes the notion of
understanding, and in a sense of this term that anticipates developments in
the phenomenological hermeneutics of Martin Heidegger and later German
and French thinkers working under his influence (as I shall discuss later in
this chapter). If pragmatic inquiry as Dewey described it is a properly social
undertaking, so too is the practice of understanding which is intimately
related to reflection. Although Dewey would not write at great length about
the concept of understanding itself – certainly not providing the elaborate
phenomenological account of the kind articulated by Heidegger or
Gadamer – he did speak of understanding and its synonym, comprehension,
in a very short essay of 1929 as

an inclusive word – it signifies coming together, bringing things together;

and when we say that human beings have come to an understanding, we
mean that they have come to an agreement, that they have reached a
common mind, a common outlook from which they see the same things
and feel the same way about them.42

A few years later he would again describe understanding as ‘an agreement or set-
tlement of some affair’ between persons, hence in an explicitly intersubjective
116 The Educative Process

connotation, as well as in more straightforwardly cognitive terms as the

capacity ‘to grasp meaning’ in context. To understand an expression is to
locate it within the context that is afforded by a sentence, conversation, or
discourse, and thus to grasp it in relation to what surrounds it. Taken out of
context, the expression permits of only a narrow, definitional understand-
ing. Without mentioning the concept of the hermeneutic circle by name –
the idea, that is, that understanding has a circular structure and operates by
relating the parts to the whole and vice versa – Dewey did make mention of
‘the constant spiral movement of knowledge’, and wrote that all under-
standing and all knowing ‘proceeds by taking the thing inquired into out of
its isolation’ and placing it in a context ‘until the thing is discovered to be a
related part in some larger whole’.43 The process of contextualization applies
as much to grasping the significance of the first robin in March as marking
the beginning of spring as to understanding the meaning of a sentence by
relating it to the paragraph of which it is a part or to the text as a whole –
although textual hermeneutics itself would never be a preoccupation of
Understanding an object also involves comprehending the uses to which
the object can be put, and in a sense that pertains to the gaining of control.
If meaning consists, as Peirce argued, in consequences for practice, then the
object must be understood in terms of the consequences that it brings about
or that for which it is a means. Thus, we may understand an historical event
– a battle, let us say – as the decisive turning point in a war, as bringing about
the eventual victory of one side over the other, or as the defining moment of
the war, which allowed lessons to be learned or a larger meaning to be
grasped. If understanding is one part of a larger reflective process that
involves the resolution of problematic situations generally conceived, it is the
part that bears directly on the connection between means and conse-
quences. From the means or instrumental side of the equation, an object
such as a chair is comprehended in being seen as something on which to sit,
while from the side of consequences we can see in examples of invention
how a desire to produce a certain outcome requires us to understand
the means that will produce it. In either event, ‘[t]he relation of means-
consequence is the center and heart of all understanding’.44
If Dewey’s insistence on the inseparability of understanding and action
differs in important respects from other phenomenological accounts of the
nature of understanding and interpretation, the accent on context remains
very much in line with such accounts, as do Dewey’s remarks concerning the
pervasiveness of language in understanding. At around the time that Hei-
degger would speak of the ‘as-structure’ of interpretive understanding (that
all understanding involves interpreting an object as belonging to this or that
linguistic category), Dewey emphasized that it is by means of concepts and
What Is Called Thinking? 117

language that we comprehend meaning, that ‘[c]oncepts enable us to gener-

alize, to extend and carry over our understanding from one thing to
another’. Thus if one is familiar with the concept of an ‘island’ and is
informed that a particular object is such, one gains a general understanding
of the object. Should one want more detailed knowledge concerning this
particular island, one would then inquire into what distinguishes it from
other islands – hence its relations by way of similarity and difference to other
objects of the same linguistic kind – even if ‘for practical purposes it is often
enough to know what kind of thing it is’.45
From elementary perception to the higher reaches of thought, knowledge
is no purely objective or immediate beholding of reality, but is invariably
mediated by prior understanding and by language, as Heideggerian phe-
nomenology would also maintain and explicate in far more detail. Simple
perception is mediated by the linguistic categories that allow us to interpret
an object and is thus an ‘active outgoing construction of mind’, as Dewey
remarked as early as 1887.46 Nearly a half-century later he spoke of a ‘pecu-
liarly intimate connection’ between language and thought in general, noting
(as would Heidegger) that the word from which logic itself derives – logos –
‘means indifferently both word or speech and thought or reason’.47 Dewey
and Heidegger both regarded this fact as no mere accident of etymology but
as a philosophically interesting indication of the fundamental inseparability
of word and object along with language and reflection. Language is no mere
tool for communicating wordless intuitions, a kind of accidental garb that is
added to thought which in essence is an alinguistic ‘private soliloquy or solip-
sistic observation’.48 Thought in general does not occur apart from language,
and where Dewey intended by language not only ‘oral and written speech’
but ‘[g]estures, pictures, monuments, visual images, finger movements –
anything deliberately and artificially employed as a sign’. Thinking occurs in
signs and its object is not wordless things but their meaning or pragmatic
significance. Reflective thought also transpires within a context afforded not
only by language but by tradition and culture. Another frequent theme in
phenomenology and hermeneutics, the facticity of thought is a matter with
which Dewey was also well familiar both in his earlier Hegelian (or Anglo-
American neohegelian) period and in his later (still Hegelian) period. The
life of the mind in general, for Dewey, is occupied with signs that are social
inventions and works with ‘acquired habitual modes of understanding’, with
‘a certain store of previously evolved meanings or at least of experiences
from which meanings may be educed’.49 To understand is at its core to com-
municate and to participate in ongoing discursive practices which constitute
a culture. If its object is a particular experience or meaning, it is an object
that is always already (as phenomenologists would say) imbued with cultur-
ally inherited understandings and tradition that constitute the point of view
118 The Educative Process

of the thinker while remaining largely in the background of thought. The

philosopher, the artist, and the scientist all ‘derive their substance from the
stream of culture’ and exhibit the same ‘dependence upon tradition’ that
characterizes thought in general, including its most creative forms.50 Dewey’s
model here is once again biological: thinking represents an inheritance as
well as a carrying forward of the accumulated thought and experience of the
past. Our most innovative ideas are themselves ‘already overlaid and
saturated with the products of the reflection of past generations and by-gone
ages’, and constitute so many learned habits of mind, responses, and depar-
tures from what has been transmitted to us by virtue of our participation in
a cultural tradition.51 Creative and critical thinking, then, no more divests
itself of tradition than of language itself.
In maintaining this view, Dewey never reverted to any kind of traditional-
ism or intellectual conservatism. A thinker whose habitual turn of mind was
consistently progressive and futural, Dewey would speak of the creative and
imaginative dimension of thought no less than its embeddedness in
language and tradition. Reflection is continually finding new uses for
received ideas, whether it is new technological applications of an old
scientific hypothesis or artistic innovations within old styles and genres. That
originality arises from a context that is determined by familiar ways of
thinking rather than out of thin air implies only that it is contingent and
limited, not that it is unattainable or a rarity. Indeed, thought in general and
‘all conscious experience has of necessity some degree of imaginative quality’,
some ‘conscious adjustment of the new and the old’. As the living organism
interacts with its environment and is never its mere product, human thought
as well represents a vital interaction with the knowledge and meanings that
are passed down to it, whether this involves a wholesale appropriation of
received truths or a conscious departure from the old ways. Either way, the
inventiveness that is proper to thought is fundamentally a new reply in a con-
versation that began long ago. Regarding the concept of imagination itself,
Dewey would sometimes speak of this in a general way as ‘a way of seeing and
feeling things as they compose an integral whole’ and as a novel configur-
ation of the old and the new, while in other contexts he defined it in a
narrower and more conventional way as a ‘power of forming mental
pictures’ or images in a sense more or less synonymous with fantasy.52 When
writing as a social critic he would more than occasionally decry the unimag-
inativeness of twentieth-century culture in the sense of its conservatism and
lack of creativity, and the incapacity of its educational institutions to instill
more forward-looking habits of mind.53 The poverty of the modern imagin-
ation is a pervasive cultural phenomenon, in Dewey’s view, the remedy for
which lies in educational reform that encourages a facility with ideas that far
surpasses cultural transmission or social reproduction in the sense of simple
What Is Called Thinking? 119

conservation. Traditional education has positively hampered reflective

thought not only by failing to take opportunities for creativity in studying
received ideas but by actively blocking this through instilling beliefs as ready-
made certainties or authoritative pronouncements.
Both a symptom and contributing cause of the unimaginativeness of the
present, Dewey fervently believed, was the scholasticism that increasingly
characterized the thought of the twentieth century. Across the disciplines,
the trend has long been toward increasing specialization, partly no doubt
due to the nature of inquiry itself and its inherent tendency to branch out
into smaller and narrower avenues, but partly due to other factors. The latter
include what Dewey perceived as a growing unconcern among scholars in all
fields for matters that fall outside their own narrow specialty, whether it be
the broader implications of knowledge gained in a specific area of inquiry
for other disciplines or subdisciplines or, more especially, the consequences
for human life in a larger sense. That knowledge in general exists for the
purpose of furthering human interests is increasingly lost sight of by special-
ists whose focus can become so narrow that all contact with the pragmatic
and the social disappears. Overspecialization tends to create indifference
toward social questions that are the ultimate end of inquiry in general, and
to give rise to theoretical discourses that lack any vital connection to practice.
In Dewey’s own discipline of philosophy, for instance, the compartmentaliz-
ation of knowledge that he observed in the early decades of the twentieth
century had become so extreme in his view that the discipline itself had
become largely irrelevant to the pressing social issues of the day if not to
human life more generally, as I shall discuss further in Chapter 4. Rather
than broadening horizons and fashioning theories that facilitate our
commerce with the world, philosophy of the contemporary period most
often has a narrowing effect on the mind and generates theoretical dis-
courses that are dangerously scholastic, formalistic, and conservative. The
professor of philosophy, Dewey lamented, is a technical specialist concerned
increasingly with ‘form . . . for its own sake’, and indeed with a ‘form of
forms, not forms of subject matter’; the twentieth-century philosopher
speaks a highly technical language inaccessible to non-specialists and
engages in hair-splitting minutiae to which the outside world is understand-
ably indifferent. Dewey was unusually severe in his criticism of the retreat of
philosophy in particular from ‘the facts of human life into purely formal
issues’, adding: ‘I hesitate to call them issues because nothing ever issues
except more form! It’s harmless for everyone except philosophers. This
retreat accounts for the growing disinterest of the general public in the
problems of philosophy.’54 In addition to its formalism and departmentaliz-
ation – which of course have increased dramatically since Dewey’s time –
philosophy has become ‘unusually conservative’, less for the solutions it
120 The Educative Process

offers than for ‘clinging to problems’ of old and often merely translating
centuries-old problems into new vocabularies rather than resolving or dis-
solving them. Meanwhile the ‘[d]irect preoccupation with contemporary
difficulties is left to literature and politics’.55
Other disciplines received a similar assessment from Dewey, the common
denominator being that the ‘[s]cholastic specialization’ and compartmen-
talization of research in all fields ‘breed indifference to larger social issues
and objects’ and produce scholars who are ‘socially isolated and socially irre-
sponsible’, and who exhibit ‘more than usually poor judgment in matters not
closely allied’ to their field of expertise.56 The weddedness of research to the
university produces educational practices that reproduce such traits within
students more often than instilling the intellectual virtues and habits of mind
that for Dewey are the marks of an educated mind. Reflective thought in
particular is hampered by overspecialization, its orientation being toward
precisely that which all scholasticism overlooks: the connections between dif-
ferent domains of experience, the consequences of ideas and theoretical
constructions for our practices, the larger contextuality of understanding,
and the inventive quality at the heart of all inquiry.

Pedagogical matters
We thus arrive at an answer to the question posed in the title of this chapter.
The defining features of thinking in Dewey’s expansive sense of the term
include an orientation toward the experiential and the problematic, an
experimental frame of mind that is modeled on scientific inquiry while also
being reflective, imaginative, and hospitable to new ideas, which seeks depth
of understanding and a breadth of interests, and above all that demonstrates
a concern for resolving difficulties within human affairs rather than theoriz-
ing in the spirit of scholastic formalism. What thinking is not includes
amassing information in the largest possible quantity, following rules or for-
malist methods, an inculcation of beliefs, or a faculty of mind that is isolated
from subject matter. Thought is a methodological enterprise, yet one that
more closely resembles ordinary trial and error than formal logic in the
non-pragmatic connotation of the term.
Accordingly, if the business of education crucially bears upon the art of
thinking or what is called ‘critical thinking’, as so many currently profess and
as Dewey himself maintained, what pedagogical recommendations did he
provide for educators charged with teaching this art? How does one teach
another to think, recognizing that the answer will depend significantly on
the students’ level of intellectual maturity as well as the subject matter?
Clearly, if pragmatic intelligence is an essentially social and co-operative
form of inquiry, a fair proportion of class time will be occupied with informal
What Is Called Thinking? 121

discussion, most obviously in disciplines within the arts, humanities, and

social sciences. Rejecting the customary habit of educators intent upon
arriving at the ‘right answer’ by the shortest possible route of ‘getting things
under discussion settled’ quickly – most often by educators supplying their
own answers to their own questions – Dewey recommended an unhurried
approach to discussion that leaves students free to propose ideas while
requiring them to clarify and justify whatever views they propose.57 Having
argued that education requires a certain kind of environment in order to
succeed, an important dimension of this concerns the spirit of open-ended
conversation that ought to prevail, most especially in the university setting
where a level of intellectual maturity has been attained. Here it is the testing
of ideas against other ideas that is decisive and the adoption by students of
the role of active participants in the process of inquiry in combination with
the demands of intellectual rigor. In particular, Dewey urged that the inves-
tigative or conversational process that historically unfolded between individ-
uals in a given field be transferred to the student’s own thought process, that
the dispute between Plato and the sophists, for example, or between Galileo
and the Roman church be engaged in the student’s private reflection. ‘No
process is more recurrent in history’, he wrote, ‘than the transfer of opera-
tions carried on between different persons into the arena of the individual’s
own consciousness.’58 Ever mindful of the connection between the fate of
education and the fate of democracy, Dewey argued that while free discus-
sion in the classroom can easily get off track or deteriorate into the pointless,
it is essential to the training of democratic citizens to answer to their peers
for the opinions they hold and to ‘share in joint conference and consultation
on social questions and issues’.59
The free classroom discussion that Dewey advocated requires a degree of
forbearance on the part of the educator, beginning with the conscious
refusal to instill one’s own controversial beliefs in students’ minds on the
pretense of authority or special insight, while including as well the practice
of directing discussion along fruitful avenues and instilling intellectual disci-
pline without insisting that to every question there is a single correct answer
or, equally problematically, that all answers are equal, that ideas are merely
subjective or arbitrary ‘biases’. A pedagogical offshoot of the dichotomy
between objectivism and relativism that Dewey categorically rejected and
that remains widespread among students and educators today is the notion
that the purpose of classroom discussion is either to discover the single right
answer quickly or to allow one and all to air their arational prejudices. Dewey
held out hope for an intermediate ground where the conversation approxi-
mates experimental intelligence under the direction of the educator.
In order that the spirit of inquiry prevail, a considerable measure of
freedom to propose and debate ideas is an indispensable principle of
122 The Educative Process

classroom discussion and of education generally, as Dewey often had

occasion to argue. Students must have the freedom to determine their own
purposes and to pursue them since ‘the formation of purposes and the
organization of means to execute them are the work of intelligence’.60 As I
discussed in Chapter 2, the educative process takes the students’ extra-
curricular experience as its point of departure and requires their active
participation in deciding which interests will guide subsequent activity.
Accordingly, the principal form of freedom in education is what Dewey
called the ‘freedom of work’, by which he meant not only academic freedom
in the familiar sense of the term but a certain intangible quality as well –
‘something which is in the atmosphere and operates as a continuous and
unconscious stimulus’ – the freedom essentially to pursue knowledge
without undue institutional constraints and in the true spirit of inquiry
itself.61 Academic freedom in its usual connotation is virtually axiomatic in
Dewey’s view, there being nothing more fundamental to the very meaning of
education than the right to advance and debate any and all hypotheses. As
he wrote, ‘Freedom of mind, freedom of thought, freedom of inquiry,
freedom of discussion is education, and there is no education, no real edu-
cation, without these elements of freedom.’62 Consequently no idea or field
of belief is properly immune from critical examination, and no concessions
may rightfully be made to public opinion or to the intellectual fashions of
the day. Thus in an essay of 1902 Dewey would defend the teaching of the
biological doctrine of evolution irrespective of popular views on the subject:
‘It is safe to say that no university worthy of the name would put any limita-
tion upon instruction in this theory, or upon its use as an agency of research
and classification. Very little sympathy could be secured for an attack upon a
university for encouraging the use of this theory.’ Noting public pressure and
also internal pressure within religious colleges in particular to limit or forbid
the teaching of this hypothesis, Dewey continued:

There are still, however, large portions of society which have not come to
recognize that biology is an established science, and which, therefore,
cannot concede to it the right to determine belief in regions that conflict
with received opinions, and with the emotions that cluster about them.63

Twenty years later Dewey would speak in similarly critical terms of the Lusk
laws in New York state which required teachers to take loyalty oaths in light
of the red scare of the day. Speaking in an interview, Dewey remarked:

The moment we stipulate what a child shall think, we make it impossible

for him to think at all. Dealing with human intelligence as though it were
mostly a matter of animal training constitutes the real viciousness of such
What Is Called Thinking? 123

measures as the Lusk laws. However such laws may be defended from the
standpoint of public comfort, they do not permit us to educate our
children. Their tendency is to make of them a lot of well-trained apes.64

While no formal method teaches the art of thinking, there are conditions
that educators must guard against, from indoctrination to prohibitions on
certain ideas or regimes of belief, an undue compartmentalization of
thought, directionless activity, intellectual irresponsibility, and also excessive
formality in the classroom.65 As for more precise pedagogical recommenda-
tions regarding how thought or the intellectual virtues that Dewey esteemed
are best taught and learned, Dewey was often surprisingly circumspect apart
from some very general remarks. On the subject of lecturing, for example,
Dewey stated very briefly that while he regarded lecturing as indispensable,
where the question of ‘the best method of lecturing’ is concerned, ‘I can
only say that I have been wrestling with the problem for some years, and have
been regretfully forced to the conclusion that the best way a man can, is the
best way for him to lecture.’ Providing direct instruction is far superior, in his
view, to ‘the text-book fetish’ and ‘superstition’ according to which human
knowledge may be presented to students in ready-made form as so much
information to be amassed.66 Lecturing being an art rather than a technique,
there is little by way of positive guidance or formalizable rules that can be
devised. What it is essentially is a skill in presenting information or ideas
regarding a given field of inquiry in a fashion that leads the students into
engaging the inquiry in their own consciousness and in common discussion.
What lecturing is not is a method of ‘pouring knowledge into a mental and
moral hole which awaits filling’.67 Its aim, as with educational practices in
general, is to contribute to the students’ intellectual growth, and thus must
be thought of more as a processual matter than the achievement of a specific
Much the same applies to the issue of assigning grades. The ‘evil’ that
marks represent is owing to their intrinsic nature of imposing quantitative
measure on what is a properly qualitative matter – the students’ acquisition
of intellectual habits that approximate thinking.68 While the straightforward
acquisition of information may be easily quantified, with grades determined
by means of traditional examination, the ‘things of the spirit’, as Dewey
expressed it, ‘do not lend themselves easily to exact quantitative measure’.69
Where they are unavoidable, grades should be regarded as something of a
necessary evil or, in any event, ‘a minor matter’ rather than the ultimate goal
of learning, as they are so often regarded today. What education ultimately
demands of students is no different from what experience itself requires of
us all: very simply that the student ‘do absolutely the best that he can under
all circumstances’ and let the grades be what they will. Since there is no telos
124 The Educative Process

in the educative process save for more education, the only measure of
success is whether students have developed a facility with the subject matter
which allows them to pursue further study, to carry a line of thought further,
or in general whether they have derived from a course what is derivable from
it. To substitute for this the standard of passing or of achieving a certain
grade, such as the ‘false and demoralizing standard’ that is the class average,
sets the bar entirely too low and over time accustoms students to expect little
of themselves in other areas of life as well.70
Dewey’s assessment of the importance or ultimate unimportance of
grades, as he pointed out, is often faulted for itself setting too low a standard
and for promoting a ‘soft pedagogy’ that fails both to reward achievement
and to discourage undesirable intellectual habits. His reply that ‘the exact
contrary holds’ stems from his belief that stressing the qualitative over the
quantitative and process over end-states, while unusual in modern culture,
better captures the meaning of education while also being a more demand-
ing task for educators and students alike.71 Students who achieve a relatively
high grade are given to believe that they are where they need to be and may
therefore rest on their laurels while it is those at the bottom end who have
more learning to do. Where the art of thinking is concerned, one is never
entirely where one needs to be.

Dewey and the continent

The dialectical and synthetic conception of thought that the early pragma-
tists defended shows such obvious affinity with strains in the German and
French thought of the same period that one might have expected a produc-
tive dialogue to ensue between a James or a Dewey on one side and a Husserl
or a Heidegger on the other, yet pragmatic instrumentalism and phenome-
nological hermeneutics developed largely in isolation from each other.
While the founder of phenomenology himself was well acquainted with
James’ writings and profoundly influenced by The Principles of Psychology, the
influence was not mutual, nor did Husserl instill much interest in the
American movement among his German students of the time. The
European reception of pragmatism was undoubtedly influenced by politics
and by a certain Old World arrogance that refused to view America as a
possible home for philosophical innovation, a prejudice confirmed by such
early and influential critics as Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore who
dismissed the pragmatic movement with a wave of the hand as so much
superficiality and crass Americanism. When pragmatism was not ignored
completely it was saddled from the beginning with a reputation for super-
ficiality, materialism, and naive optimism. Worse still, it became widely
regarded as an apology for intellectual license, owing mostly to a merely
What Is Called Thinking? 125

passing familiarity with a few hypotheses – particularly as represented in

James’ widely misread Pragmatism – and in part to James’ sometimes careless
use of language. A text originally written for oral presentation, Pragmatism
contains numerous formulations of the pragmatic theory of inquiry and
truth, several (by no means most) of which lack the desired clarity and some
of which demonstrate more regarding his fondness for pithy remarks than
his considered view. His references to the concept of truth, for instance, as
‘only the expedient in the way of our thinking’, or ‘the name for whatever
proves itself to be good in the way of belief’, stuck in the minds of many while
doing nothing whatever to clarify the pragmatic conception of truth. James’
artful yet occasionally careless manner of writing in places led him to state
that truth is the ‘expedient in almost any fashion’, a view taken by his critics
as opening the door to irrationality and intellectual license, a suspicion
seemingly confirmed by the argument of The Will to Believe.72
It is unfortunate that language of this kind, which does not begin to do
justice to James’ considered position, much less that of Peirce or Dewey,
would profoundly influence pragmatism’s early reception and occasion its
immediate dismissal by many in Europe as well as in North America. Indeed,
critics of pragmatism to this day continue to labor under standard miscon-
ceptions rooted in over-attention to pithy phrases of the kind cited above
and under-attention to James’ and Dewey’s more precise exposition. In more
careful moments, James emphasized that the ‘cash value’ of an idea, in which
its truth consists, is to be understood strictly ‘in experiential terms’ or with
respect to its phenomenological verifiability: ‘True ideas are those that we can
assimilate, validate, corroborate, and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot. That
is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that, therefore, is
the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known-as.’73 The ‘satisfaction’
that truth affords is neither identified with the emotional satisfaction a belief
may bring about nor as broad in meaning as his critics routinely suppose. For
James, a statement passes for true for the reason that it produces experien-
tial coherence which in turn may create a measure of consensus and makes
it possible to negotiate our way about the phenomena, and not on the
grounds that it produces an emotional or material payoff. While fond of
economic metaphors which may at first glance support the crassly utilitarian
reading of pragmatism, James in less casual moments clearly rejected the
crass view for the coherentist one. In phenomenological terms, it is ‘the cir-
cumpressure of experience itself’ that is ‘the only real guarantee we have
against licentious thinking’.74 A cognitive being that makes its way about a
lifeworld by fashioning coherence and identifying connections between
disparate phenomena does not ‘succeed’ in realizing its ‘practical interests’
by selecting beliefs that produce pleasure while doing violence to the
phenomena as they present themselves. True ideas are those that save the
126 The Educative Process

phenomena and account for our various experiences, ideas that may be
revised should a new experience contradict a previous conviction.
Dewey was still clearer in this regard, carefully avoiding James’ occasional
casualness of expression while insisting on the circumscription of terms such
as ‘satisfaction’ and ‘practical interests’ to the immediate object of inquiry:

Too often . . . when truth has been thought of as satisfaction, it has been
thought of as merely emotional satisfaction, a private comfort, a meeting
of purely personal need. But the satisfaction in question means a satisfac-
tion of the needs and conditions of the problem out of which the idea, the
purpose and method of action, arises. . . . Again when truth is defined as
utility, it is often thought to mean utility for some purely personal end,
some profit upon which a particular individual has set his heart. . . . As a
matter of fact, truth as utility means service in making just that contribu-
tion to reorganization in experience that the idea or theory claims to be
able to make. The usefulness of a road is not measured by the degree in
which it lends itself to the purposes of a highwayman. It is measured by
whether it actually functions as a road, as a means of easy and effective
public transportation and communication. And so with the serviceable-
ness of an idea or hypothesis as a measure of its truth.75

The satisfactoriness of an empirical belief consists exclusively in its

capacity to predict future experience, account for present perceptions, and
cohere with other relevant beliefs just as a true understanding reconciles the
elements that belong to a given context and so allows us to grasp meaning.
The ‘utility’ that is promoted by a hypothesis consists not in any extraneous
psychological satisfaction on the part of the believer or community of believ-
ers, but in its ability to account coherently for, or save, all the relevant
phenomena and allow for a resolution of the original difficulty. The problem
that a true belief resolves is solely that which originally occasioned a given
line of inquiry, and decidedly not any utilities merely supervening on that
Despite James’ and Dewey’s repeated clarifications, the reception of prag-
matic thought in Europe would remain marred by misunderstanding and
wilful ignorance, effectively preventing any meaningful exchange between
pragmatism and phenomenology from taking place and leaving both to
develop as separate traditions on separate continents. (Only in recent
decades has pragmatism begun to receive a serious hearing in continental
thought, owing largely to the efforts of such philosophers as Richard Rorty
and Jürgen Habermas, among others.) Such disregard, however, was not
one-sided. Dewey himself, despite being a voracious reader his entire life,
and despite the fact that his early ‘acquaintance with Hegel’, as he stated in
What Is Called Thinking? 127

1930, ‘has left a permanent deposit in my thinking’, would turn his back res-
olutely on German thought in particular – partly, again, for obvious political
reasons but partly for reasons more philosophical.76
Like so many Anglo-American assessments of German thought in the early
decades of the twentieth century, Dewey’s assessment emphasized the con-
nections that he believed he saw between German philosophy from
Immanuel Kant onward and German culture more generally, including in
particular the political culture that culminated in Hitler. Already in 1915,
Dewey would write in a short book titled German Philosophy and Politics
(undoubtedly not one of his more impressive achievements) that ‘there is no
people so hostile to the spirit of a pragmatic philosophy’ as the Germans and
that ‘supreme regard for the inner meaning of things, reverence for inner
truth in disregard of external consequences of advantage or disadvantage, is
the distinguishing mark of the German spirit’.77 Well prior to Hitler and
indeed to the First World War, Dewey would adopt such a dim view of
German philosophy’s antipragmatic bent toward the spiritual, the transcen-
dental, the romantic, and the a priori, and away from the practical and polit-
ical consequences of ideas that the German thinkers of the late nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries with whom Dewey had a good deal in common
would remain ignored and usually unread by him (and he did possess
reading knowledge of German). The 38 volumes that comprise Dewey’s
collected works contain not a single reference, for instance, to either Husserl
or Heidegger, and it does appear that he did not read them. Even Dewey’s
acquaintance with Nietzsche’s thought was surprisingly superficial and
largely second-hand, the references to his works very few and passing. Still
more surprising perhaps is the thesis of German Philosophy and Politics that it
is none other than Kant who bore ultimate responsibility for the lamentable
state of German political consciousness at the outbreak of the First World
War due to his rigid separation of nature from the higher realm of spirit, the
things in themselves, the will, and moral duty, and due as well to his
dichotomy of reason and experience and his anti-consequentialist fanaticism
regarding the categorical imperative.
By the early twentieth century Dewey had come to view European culture
ever more as ‘the Old World’ – more especially continental Europe, ‘and
Germany in particular’ – in contrast to which American culture and
American philosophy needed to assert itself. Two world wars, of course, did
nothing to reverse his view, such that by 1944 he would remark that America
must regard itself no longer as ‘an offshoot of Europe, culturally speaking’,
but ‘as a New World in other than a geographical sense’. If the New World
did not yet rival the Old in terms of artistic achievement, it was rapidly
gaining ground in scientific advancement and in philosophical thought still
more. ‘Philosophy’, he now asserted, ‘needed to be taken out of the hands
128 The Educative Process

of those who have identified it with barren intellectual gymnastic exercise

and purely verbal analyses’ – which is to say the rationalists, the idealists, and
their contemporary offspring.78 If Dewey never made common cause with
the American isolationists of this period (and he did not), he may well have
fallen into its philosophical counterpart. He was hardly alone in this, of
course, yet his case is made especially unfortunate by the missed opportunity
for exchange with his German colleagues who at the same time were
engaged in equally radical and at times interestingly similar efforts to recon-
ceive the nature of human thought.

Thinking in the pre-eminent sense

Foremost among these is Martin Heidegger, with whose works Dewey’s often
show interesting affinities. While the differences between their respective
traditions and vocabularies of course run deep, both theorists sought to
reconceive in an essentially phenomenological way the basic nature of
human thought, identifying its intimate connection with practice, language,
and culture as well as its relation to science. Both philosophers would remark
upon the thoughtlessness of twentieth-century culture and speak of thinking
in a higher sense of the word than what ordinarily passes for it. Thinking as
rule-following, a matter of formally demonstrating the truth-value of propo-
sitions with reference to a foundation and abstract technique, would be
replaced with a fundamentally creative conception, one that Dewey believed
finds its highest expression in science and that Heidegger would contrast
with science. What the latter would refer to as thinking in the pre-eminent
sense surpasses method, including evidently the method of experimental
inquiry that Dewey regarded as a model of thought in general. Thinking for
Heidegger and the tradition of hermeneutics that he decisively transformed
is not only experimental, in search of solutions, but interpretive, in search of
That the process of inquiry includes interpretation and understanding
was certainly not lost on Dewey, as we have seen, yet Heidegger would have
undoubtedly regarded the former’s analysis of these terms as insufficient if
we are intent upon overcoming the rationalistic excesses of Enlightenment
foundationalism and doing justice to how, as a matter of phenomenological
fact, we think. Dewey’s scientific model undoubtedly succeeds in capturing a
good part of what one might call thinking, yet that it captures the whole of
this phenomenon is somewhat more doubtful, as Heidegger’s work helps us
to see. Particularly relevant here is the distinction the latter would draw
between calculative and meditative thinking as well as his phenomenological
investigations in Being and Time into the structures and conditions that are
always already in play in the process of interpretation. The latter includes the
What Is Called Thinking? 129

as-structure of interpretation – that all perceiving is a perceiving-as this or

that kind of thing – along with the hermeneutic circle, the thoroughgoing
embeddedness of understanding within an historically conditioned horizon
of language, practices, and prereflective interpretations. Interpreting partic-
ular objects invariably occurs against the background of an encompassing
understanding of Being, one that constitutes one’s historical inheritance as
a being-in-the-world or participant in a cultural tradition. Consciousness
inhabits a lifeworld in the sense of a meaningful totality of relations that
precede all explicit knowing and inferring, a world that we never stand apart
from, as subject to object, nor grasp in its totality. Reflective thought in
general is preceded, made possible, and also limited by prereflective and
often unconscious background judgments against which particular inter-
pretations are made.
Heidegger’s influential hermeneutics of facticity shares much with
Dewey’s view while also surpassing it in important respects. Dewey would
often anticipate hypotheses that later received more explicit treatment in
phenomenology and hermeneutics, including the contextual, historical, and
linguistic nature of understanding. But where Dewey regarded scientific
experimentation as a model for thinking in general, Heidegger considered
it vital in an age increasingly dominated by science to draw attention to its
limits and the dangers of a culture in which non-scientific modes of thought
had become eclipsed. For all its merits, ‘science’, as Heidegger concisely put
it, ‘does not think’.79 On the face of it, this is a preposterous claim, surely one
that would have aroused the ire not only of Dewey and the pragmatists but
of virtually all of twentieth-century intellectual culture. On closer inspection,
it is a view that must be taken very seriously indeed.
Two texts in particular – What Is Called Thinking? (1954, a text that coin-
cidentally bears the same title as the present chapter) and Discourse on
Thinking (1959) – find Heidegger remarking repeatedly upon the ‘growing
thoughtlessness’ or the ‘flight from thinking’ that characterizes a scientific-
technological age.80 ‘[W]e are still not thinking’, Heidegger stated and restated.
What could this conceivably mean, and moreover did Heidegger include
himself in this ‘we’? He did indeed, or so he said: ‘we are still not thinking;
none of us, including me who speaks to you, me first of all’. This ‘[m]ost
thought-provoking’ of thoughts – that we are not thinking, ‘not yet capable of
thinking’, nor even ‘ready to learn thinking’ – is surely one of Heidegger’s
darker sayings, yet one that warrants no less attention for that reason. To
grasp his meaning we must understand what he does and does not mean by
thinking. To think is not to philosophize:

But how dare anyone assert today that we are still not thinking, today
when there is everywhere a lively and constantly more audible interest in
130 The Educative Process

philosophy, when almost everybody claims to know what philosophy is all

about! Philosophers are the thinkers par excellence. They are called thinkers
precisely because thinking properly takes place in philosophy. . . . But
even if we have devoted many years to the intensive study of the treatises
and writings of the great thinkers, that fact is still no guarantee that we
ourselves are thinking. . . . On the contrary – preoccupation with philos-
ophy more than anything else may give us the stubborn illusion that we
are thinking just because we are incessantly ‘philosophizing’.81

The thoughtlessness of which Heidegger spoke extends to modern culture

in general, including the intellectual culture of science and philosophy and
was not merely a bit of social criticism or rebuke against the popular culture
of the times. What passed for thinking in philosophy had become a tech-
nique of calculation far removed from thinking in its most ultimate sense.
This reduction of thinking to technique would include not only the posi-
tivism and formalism that Dewey would also criticize but the latter’s experi-
mental model no less. Here as well we are presented with a model of thought
‘that plans and investigates’; while indispensable in its sphere, it ‘always
reckon[s] with conditions that are given’ and serves purposes that are
conceived in advance. Thinking as calculation or problem-solving ‘is not
meditative thinking, not thinking which contemplates the meaning which
reigns in everything that is’.82
This ‘flight from thinking’ includes scientific inquiry no less than thought
in its more popular forms. If in ordinary experience ‘we take in everything
in the quickest and cheapest way, only to forget it just as quickly, instantly’ –
an observation far more true today than in 1959 – a similar unreflectiveness
is visible in science and technology as well.83 While ‘in themselves positively
essential’, the sciences nonetheless possess a limited capacity to reveal that
which is, and it is these limits of which the modern world had lost sight,
Heidegger believed.84 It is science’s totalizing pretensions that is the main
object of Heidegger’s critique, including the naive overestimation of its
ability to know the world as it is in itself together with its lack of historical
consciousness and the common tendency to regard science as a model of
what philosophy should be. For Heidegger, as for Nietzsche before him,
science cannot be more than a perspective and an interpretation of the
world, a way of revealing beings that is both precise in its methods and
singularly useful in its applications, yet an interpretation all the same. Like
all interpretations, it reveals and conceals in the same gesture, there being
no unconditioned perspective on what is, but partial and limited ways of
revealing only.
Heidegger’s distinction between thinking and the sciences is often
mistaken as a disparagement of the latter in spite of his clarifications to the
What Is Called Thinking? 131

contrary, not unlike popular misconceptions of Dewey running in the

opposite direction. Neither figure resorted to a naive adulation of science,
nor was either inclined to disparage it in its own right. It was the dogmatic
over-reach of science and technology, and the consequent delegitimation of
non-technological modes of understanding, that greatly troubled Heidegger
and which ought to trouble us still. A mode of thought that reduces nature
to so many objects of planning and calculation or human beings to resources
of a certain kind or a ‘standing-reserve’, something therefore to be used and
used up, is ominous when countervailing ways of knowing are stripped of
their legitimacy or appear out of step with the times. The twentieth century
had become an age of ‘science-technology’ (for Heidegger a unified
phenomenon), of calculation and control, and of the very kind of rational
planning and problem-solving that Dewey held up as an ideal, as definitive
of thought itself. That a single ‘way of revealing’ or mode of understanding
the world could become totalized is the danger of which Heidegger warned,
‘that calculative thinking may someday come to be accepted and practiced as
the only way of thinking’.85 It is a warning that applies far less to Dewey himself
than to the positivists and rationalists whom Dewey himself criticized harshly,
yet there can be no doubt that Heidegger would have included Dewey in his
Of special relevance in this critique is Heidegger’s distinction between
calculative and meditative thinking. Calculative thought, which reaches its
highest expression in science-technology, plans, manipulates, and predicts
with a view ultimately to achieving a kind of mastery over everything that is,
including human beings. While

[n]o one can foresee the radical changes to come . . . technological

advance will move faster and faster and can never be stopped. In all areas
of his existence, man will be encircled ever more tightly by the forces of
technology. These forces, which everywhere and every minute claim,
enchain, drag along, press and impose upon man under the form of some
technical contrivance or other – these forces, since man has not made
them, have moved long since beyond his will and have outgrown his
capacity for decision.86

Calculative rationality deduces and plans while understanding neither its

limits nor the meaning of its object nor the very act of calculation itself. As
it outstrips our will it transforms our relation to and perceptions of the world
as a set of usable objects set over against ‘inner’ subjectivity. Whether it be
theoretical or practical, scientific or philosophical, calculative thought is
governed by a method that in principle anyone can follow and repeat; it
purports to be free of subjectivity and bias, of partiality and prejudice, and to
132 The Educative Process

be an essentially technical affair of ascertaining an object’s nature and use

value. It prizes efficiency and organization, clarity and precision in its
methods, and certainty in its conclusions.
Meditative thinking, by contrast, seeks depth of understanding over cer-
tainty and may be applied not only to learned discourses but to ordinary
human experience no less. It follows no method and requires no special
expertise. Thus, ‘anyone can follow the path of meditative thinking in his own
manner and within his own limits’. If the human being ‘is a thinking, that is, a
meditating being’, it falls to each one of us to take up this mode of thought and
direct it particularly toward that which concerns us intimately. It is a mode of
thought that produces no certainty, employs no technique, and gets no results
apart from the understanding that it makes possible. Importantly, it is a way
of thinking for which there is no model; it may or may not begin with a prob-
lematic situation and may or may not lead to its solution. Nor did Heidegger
offer us a formal definition, there being a certain interpretive richness about
the term that eludes straightforward analysis.
What is clear, however, is that meditative thinking possesses a depth
dimension that calculative thought does not, content as the latter is to
remain at a surface level where technical precision and definite outcomes
are sought rather than any deeper dimension of meaning. Meditative
thought, in its orientation toward the meaning and uniqueness of beings
rather than that about them that can be generalized, measured, or used,
resists philosophical abstraction or formal modeling and possesses an open-
ended and transformative quality that is consistent with experience as
Erfahrung. It aims to reveal or ‘un-conceal’ particular beings in a manner
closer to the artistic than the scientific, yet synonymous with neither. Thus in
thinking about the eventuality of one’s own death, for example, one is not
only, and not primarily, inquiring into a problem to be solved or reckoning
with technicalities but reflecting without method or the possibility of a
solution upon the meaning of an experience. Likewise one reflects upon an
event in one’s past with an eye to interpreting its significance, understanding
how it fashioned the person one has become or changed one in some
particular way. One thinks about an historical event similarly in terms of what
it meant for later generations or for a nation’s self-understanding, quite
apart from any measurable generalities in terms of which that event can be
known. One contemplates a work of art in similar terms: precisely not by
squeezing it into a scientific or technical set of concepts but by allowing the
work to speak to us as a unique work, one that conveys meaning and opens
up a world for us. In such cases there is no problem to be solved, no causal
relations to ascertain, nothing to quantify or represent, unless perhaps as a
secondary matter. The point rather is to understand, to grasp a meaning that
is singular and unrepeatable.
What Is Called Thinking? 133

Dewey’s model of thought as experimental inquiry here encounters its

limits. Thinking does not follow a single track, or when it does – as for
Heidegger it had – thought itself becomes dangerously narrowed and
surface-level. That which resists problem-solving, representation in concepts,
calculation, or control becomes literally unthinkable; we are reduced to
silence before it or perhaps to speculation or unreasoning guesswork. The
mode of thought that Heidegger somewhat ambiguously gestured toward is
non-linear and transformative in the manner of experience itself. It changes
one and leads one not toward any reassuring solution but to where one
already stands, only transformed. We see this most obviously in the
encounter with art: we emerge from the experience changed in a manner
that we could not have predicted and that is not readily repeatable in others.
We have understood something anew, or emerged from the experience with
a new outlook or set of questions.
Such thinking, as Heidegger would often say, is a ‘way’ rather than a
technique, one that must be traveled to be understood. A method can be
represented in the abstract while the thinking that is or that ‘builds a way’
cannot.87 Instead he likens it to traversing a path in the wood – one of uncer-
tain destination, that is without a map but that contains the occasional
‘clearing’ in which something comes into view. Metaphors abound in
Heidegger’s description of thinking: building, dwelling, clearing, the four-
fold of earth and sky, gods and mortals. While I shall not undertake a
detailed analysis of Heidegger’s metaphors, what they call attention to is the
inexhaustibility of meditative thinking, its breadth and depth, and its
capacity to bring into focus the meaningful dimension of its object without
linearity or empty circularity.
Dewey himself was certainly alive to this depth dimension of thinking and
understanding while invariably insisting that it be brought under the
umbrella of pragmatic inquiry. The difficulty to which Heidegger pointed,
correctly in my view, is that not everything can be so described. Consider as
a case in point the experience of wonder. The experimental model would
regard this as a felt difficulty or perception of a problematic situation, thus
as the starting point of investigation. This partially describes the experience,
yet that it captures the whole of it is doubtful. Wonder has an open-ended
quality to it and belongs still more at the conclusion of thinking than at its
origin, if indeed thought can be said to have an origin at all. When reflective
thinking, or a given line of it, culminates not in a definitive answer but in a
heightened sense of wonder or awe in the face of the unknown, Dewey’s
model would seem to deem this a failure of inquiry; the sense of wonder
logically belongs to the beginning of the investigative process, not its end. Yet
that it so often characterizes the end can hardly be counted a failing or a
mark of incompleteness. It might fairly be said that thinking in general is
134 The Educative Process

incomplete, and in a few senses. It has neither an absolute point of origin –

rather, it emerges from previous inquiries and is embedded in historically
contingent understandings and symbolizing practices – nor an altogether
settled conclusion. But for the more rigidly technical modes of calculative
thought, intelligent thinking typically culminates in no final solution but in
something far less definitive: a judgment, decision, or interpretation that is
not dogmatically held but regarded as the best idea to emerge thus far. Here
we recognize that thinking is of the nature not only of inquiry but of con-
versation. The conclusion that we settle upon is that which emerges from the
conversation relatively unscathed, which withstands criticism with some
success, provides more illumination than shadow, or creates fewer problems
than it solves. Yet it is not final. This is illustrated dramatically in many of
Plato’s dialogues, in which Socrates’ interlocutors, intent upon ascertaining
the truth, in the end must settle for the idea that has withstood challenges
with relative success, and the dialogue ends without the note of finality that
Socrates’ line of questioning had led us to expect. The same point is illus-
trated in many a classroom discussion, including the most productive, in
which once again no final determination is made and no consensus reached,
yet a heightened sense of wonder has been aroused and a false self-certainty
This experience of wonder may well lead to further inquiry, but the point
that warrants emphasis is that it belongs no less at the conclusion of thought,
and where this is not properly a conclusion at all but a thinking forward
into a sort of expanse. Open-endedness, expansiveness, and undecidability
belong to the structure of wonder, and it is an undecidability that must not
be counted a failing. The best and most educative conversations may end this
way, with more questions than answers, more possibilities than determinate
conclusions. In Being and Time Heidegger would speak of the human being
itself as more of the nature of a possibility of what it might become than a
present actuality, and much the same can be said of our thinking; it never
reaches a state of finality but presses onward in the manner of any growing
thing. Its conclusions are at most temporary resting places while thought
itself moves ever forward into what is unknown and possibly unknowable.
Dewey himself was fond of organic and naturalist metaphors and often
characterized education and thinking as a lifelong process, yet the model of
inquiry itself captures very imperfectly the open-ended quality of thought
that Heidegger drew to our attention.
The notion of mystery warrants attention here as well. On a scientific
model of thought, mystery is either banished altogether or consists in what
is not known as of yet. Science rarely tells us what it does not know; it tells us
what it does not know yet. The qualification is important for what it suggests
about the limits of human knowledge. The notion of mystery has no place in
What Is Called Thinking? 135

a scientific vocabulary and can only translate as what remains to be discov-

ered or explained, a problem yet to be solved, which of course is not what a
mystery signifies at all. Like wonder, mystery is in principle open-ended. It
signifies what is unknowable and yet that with which our thinking must
nonetheless engage, and in a way that more closely approximates meditative
thinking than experimental inquiry. As Gabriel Marcel would point out, in
the encounter with mystery there is no space between the questioner and the
question or the matter that is to be thought about, be it the nature of
freedom, love, or life itself. It is not experienced as a problem – as an
obstacle in my path, which requires a technique to resolve – but as a matter
that concerns me in my existence.88
Other examples from everyday life of a thinking that can only very awk-
wardly be characterized as inquiry in Dewey’s sense are not difficult to find:
the remembrance of personal experiences of joy or suffering may well
occasion inquiry into the causes or consequences of such events, but funda-
mentally a remembrance of this kind involves an interpretation of their
meaning and an appreciation of their emotional overtones; the experience
of grief is not essentially an inquiry into a problematic situation but again an
interpretive meditation upon the significance of a life now at an end and an
equally important sense of loss; indeed many of the events in our lives that
we look back upon as learning experiences have this character of forming us
this way or that, perhaps deepening our experience or character yet without
having solved a problem, unless we stretch the problem-solving model
beyond Dewey’s meaning or truncate the experience itself. A history lesson
on the Second World War certainly inquires into a wide variety of problems,
but learning the lessons of the Holocaust or simply understanding the
enormity of this occurrence does not comfortably fit within Dewey’s model.
It can of course be made to fit, as theorists are wont to do, but not without a
considerable loss of meaning. The student in this case must be transported
in imagination into the point of view of the victims and witness the moral
outrage of this event; thus do they begin to appreciate its significance in
addition to any problems they may solve. Dewey may have wished to charac-
terize this as developing a ‘sense of the problem’ – thus as an important pre-
liminary stage within a larger investigative process – yet it would genuinely
seem that the development of this sense belongs still more to the end of the
process than to the beginning. Understanding an historical event and learning
the lessons it teaches importantly involves a resonance of emotionally charged
meaning in addition to and more fundamentally than any solutions reached.
The same can be said of a work of literature. An educative experience of
literature can mean any number of things, including Deweyan inquiry, but
here again the model does not capture the full richness of the experience. A
theoretical model of any kind would have difficulty capturing at once the
136 The Educative Process

imparting of information, the cultivation of aesthetic sensibility or taste, the

art of interpretation and literary criticism, and the application of lessons
learned to one’s own life. Interpretation of meaning once again seems a
better umbrella term than experimental inquiry, but even this term is
unlikely to include everything that is involved in thinking about or having an
educative experience of literature. Theoretical models always have their
limits, yet Dewey insisted that thought as inquiry is sufficient to cover all the
various phenomena, including the less linear ones, that we associate with this
word. Such phenomena would include such intangible matters as sugges-
tiveness, intimations, provocations, and the art of asking questions and of
seeing what is questionable – something that, as Gadamer has remarked, no
method can teach.89 The questioning act often falls within Dewey’s model, as
either the articulation of a problem or the formation of an hypothesis, yet
not every question advances an hypothesis, describes a problem, or even
permits of a definite answer. Some of the most important questions are
precisely those that remain open-ended and leave us in a state of wonder
while also, but perhaps less essentially, leading us to hazard opinions of one
kind or another. The human sciences are replete with questions that provoke
us this way and that, and which appear to prepare us for ensuing inquiry
complete with the promise of an answer. The answer sometimes comes, yet
rather often it does not, sometimes because the question is badly formulated
or contains a false assumption and at other times because of the matter itself
that we are questioning. What is the meaning of the French Revolution?
What did the collapse of the Soviet Union teach us about a wide variety of
social issues? What does War and Peace teach us about human nature or war?
What is the good life for human beings? What is the meaning of Being?
These questions give rise to thought certainly, and not merely to empty spec-
ulation. Perhaps we have comprehended a meaning, become attuned in a
certain way, let go of our dogmatism, or become open to possibilities we had
not seen. Perhaps we have replaced an old and fruitless line of questioning
with new questions, ones better articulated or more likely to shed light on a
certain phenomenon even while remaining unanswered. This is precisely the
form that intellectual advances often take: abandoning old questions for new
ones, where the answers are something of a secondary matter. The more
eminent thinkers are known not only or even primarily for the arguments
and theories that they advance in answer to the questions they pose but for
the questions themselves, questions that others may take up and refine.
This accent upon apparent preliminaries – formulating the question,
distinguishing what is from what is not worthy of being called into question,
an openness to possibilities of one kind or another – is part of what we may
learn from Heidegger together with the manner in which our thinking has
always already been pre-formed by an ontological preunderstanding that is
What Is Called Thinking? 137

our historical inheritance. It is typical of Heidegger’s own works, as one

recent commentator points out, that ‘[t]hey are all more or less preparatory,
with some having more of the character of a leap into a radically different
way of thinking in their attempt to bring “be-ing itself” to language’.90 How
many times, for instance, would Heidegger formulate and reformulate the
question of thinking in What Is Called Thinking? or of being in Being and Time?
Not one to reach for the quick answer, Heidegger in some ways provides a
model for the unhurried meditative thinking for which he called, including
at times the poetic thinking of which he spoke in his later period. Thinking
in the pre-eminent sense includes some encroachment into the poetic, and
for Heidegger has quite as much to do with mythos as logos. The thinking that
transforms us partakes of the poetic and mythical, in spite of the Western
tradition’s repeated attempts to sanitize thought by abolishing the poetic,
mythical, and rhetorical. Greek philosophy, as the story goes, undertook a
profound transformation in thought ‘from mythos to logos’, and elevated
reason decisively above these now ill-reputed modes of utterance. By Niet-
zsche’s time the rational or Apollonian dimension of thought had won such
a decisive victory over the Dionysian that it had led thought into a lamenta-
ble condition of dogmatic rationalism and beyond this to a larger cultural
enervation and decline of the instincts. The rights of the Dionysian had to
be rehabilitated, which Nietzsche sought to effect through such devices as
the eternal return, the Übermensch, amor fati, the will to power, and a variety
of critiques and provocations that, while experimental, do not conform to
Dewey’s scientific model of experimentation.
While Heidegger himself would not take up Nietzsche’s conception of
philosophy as a gay science, he did call for a reconnection of logos and mythos,
particularly at the level of language. As Heidegger expressed it,

Myth means the telling word. For the Greeks, to tell is to lay bare and
make appear. . . . Mythos is what has its essence in its telling – what is
apparent in the unconcealedness of its appeal. The mythos is that appeal
of foremost and radical concern to all human beings which makes man
think of what appears, what is in being. Logos says the same; mythos and
logos are not, as our current historians of philosophy claim, placed into
opposition by philosophy as such; on the contrary, the early Greek
thinkers are precisely the ones to use mythos and logos in the same sense.91

To think is to say what is telling, to make the object of thought apparent in

language – an achievement of poetry and art no less than of philosophy and
of mythos no less than logos, if indeed there is a meaningful distinction to be
drawn here. Heidegger’s efforts, or Nietzsche’s, to remythologize thinking
after a fashion have little to do with scientific inquiry, yet in an age that is so
138 The Educative Process

thoroughly dominated by science and technology we would do well to take

such efforts seriously. Thought that travels only by tried and true avenues or
that conforms to a single model is in a precarious condition indeed. Under
this condition a thinking that is ‘outside the box’, as the current expression
has it, or tolerably original becomes difficult, to say the least. When even the
experimental is beholden to method, and a single method at that, a way of
thinking that is genuinely transformative and that allows something radically
new to be said becomes ever more improbable, something to be debarred as
so much subjective opinion.
If to think for Heidegger is to pronounce the telling word upon a certain
object or theme – the word that brings a being into a state of unconcealed-
ness – it also signifies a certain mode of relating to the object. Heidegger
illustrated this point with the example of the cabinet-maker’s apprentice and
the kind of learning or thinking that is undertaken in the course of appren-
ticeship. The apprentice must learn in the straightforward sense of acquiring
useful facts about wood, tool usage, and what not, but beyond this he must
develop a rather less tangible way of thinking. One learns the cabinet-
maker’s art by learning to think like a cabinet-maker, which means learning
how to relate to the object of one’s craft: ‘If he is to become a true cabinet-
maker, he makes himself answer and respond above all to the different kinds
of wood and to the shapes slumbering within wood – to wood as it enters into
man’s dwelling with all the hidden riches of its nature.’ It is a deeper ‘relat-
edness to wood’ that ‘maintains the whole craft’, an attunement that tran-
scends the purely practical and economic without falling into mysticism.92
One might say the same about the musician or the writer: one learns to think
like a musician by acquiring a certain mode of relatedness – ambiguous,
intangible, but essential – to one’s instrument, a relatedness that is likewise
removed from the mystical and the merely technical. The advanced musician
knows how to distinguish the master from the technician, and it is not a
distinction that turns on any ability to play notes. The same can be said of the
writer and of the relation to language that the novice must learn. Could we
not apply the point quite generally and say that learning to think like an
artist, a chef, or an athlete transcends both informational knowledge and an
ability to solve problems in Dewey’s sense, that what is decisive in all such
cases is the matter of how one relates and responds to the object of one’s
labors, whether these are material things or ideas? There is nothing mystical
in this; while it is ambiguous to speak of thinking as a ‘way’, as incessantly
preparatory, open-ended, and transformative, and as ‘a craft, a “handicraft”’,
‘something like building a cabinet’, this general characterization captures a
dimension of thinking that Dewey’s model does not and that simplistic
contemporary notions of critical thinking do not. Like experience in the
sense of Erfahrung, such thinking is neither altogether active nor passive. It
What Is Called Thinking? 139

demands much of us or even has its way with us, so to speak, even as it
remains our own thought, one that does not think itself. In a sense it is
perfectly true that the cabinet-maker responds to the wood and the poet
responds to language. It is equally true that wood and language do not form
themselves. But what Heidegger’s phenomenological account adds to
Dewey’s is that were we less beholden to science and technology we might
better understand the simultaneously active, experimental or form-bestowing
as well as the passive, responsive, or transformative dimension of thinking. To
think is not to preside over being.
I would like to conclude this chapter with a few remarks concerning
thought in either Dewey’s or Heidegger’s sense of the word, and certain con-
ditions of the present time, both social and educational, that are less than
conducive to the manner of thinking of which these philosophers spoke.
Heidegger’s ominous-sounding words, ‘we are still not thinking’, ring about
as true today as they did when he pronounced them, and not only in the
sense that he intended but in Dewey’s sense and some others. Our class-
rooms are still not inquiring, nor are they imparting habits of mind that lead
students into a deeper examination of their experience. After decades of
research into curriculum, the psychology of the young, and pedagogical
methodology, students of today appear no more inclined toward reflective-
ness, in whatever sense of the word one prefers, than they ever did, if indeed
they are not still more fascinated by the outward and superficial. A mind that
is fashioned within an order of technology, calculation, and performativity,
of standardized information and standardized testing, learns to follow rules.
According to widespread belief, it was in the olden days – whenever we
imagine these to be – that students were conscripted into ways of thinking
that were conformist and oppressive while today students are thinking for
themselves, critically and scientifically. Educational research has made this
possible, and but for the interference of the unlearned it would produce a
generation of critical thinkers with profitable careers and enviable self-
esteem. Science too has its mythology. When thought in general is reduced
to a single form, abolishing the remainder, the educated mind becomes
adapted to techniques and expects to find rules and methods governing all
aspects of its existence. It looks to, and readily finds, a special class of experts
who are the guardians of such techniques, and it submits to their instruction
as fervently as in any olden days of educational authoritarianism. The author-
ities and the rules of thought may both have changed, but this matters
less than the thoughtlessness that remains the outcome of contemporary
The thoughtlessness of our times undoubtedly assumes a different form
than in the past. The variety of this that was the focus of Dewey’s criticism has
been replaced by standardization and an inauthentic scientification of the
140 The Educative Process

learning process. In spite of contemporary catchwords of empowerment, of

skills and critical thinking, and of cognitive, social, and psychological devel-
opment, students of today are trained to take their place in the economy as
ever they were, to heed economic and technological imperatives, to defer to
expertise, and to adjust themselves to rules of thought and action so ubiqui-
tous and seemingly without alternative as to take on an appearance of
perfect naturalness. It is only natural and progressive, we now think, to look
to technology or to some method that either is grounded in or exhibits the
trappings of scientific knowledge should the need for thinking arise. What
this view continues to overlook is that thinking is an art. No scientific or
logical model, whether Dewey’s or more recent ones, can capture the com-
plexity of human knowing and understanding. At most, such models succeed
in formalizing one aspect of a larger process, and in the usual course of
things mistake the part for the whole. A fact we shall not escape is that the
intelligent mind, whatever it is, is too multifarious to be captured in a theo-
retical model or technique; its reasonings and imaginings, its ways of
knowing and experiencing defy reduction to a method. Dewey’s efforts to
theorize intelligence succeed in some measure in describing phenomeno-
logically ‘how we think’ yet overlook the limits of the experimental model.
More recent efforts to the same end commit the same error, and we shall
continue to err as long as we suppose that what is by its nature an art might
be put on the secure path of a science. Like experience, thinking is an inter-
pretively rich notion; it includes understanding and critique, analysis and
synthesis, interrogation and explanation, narrative and metaphor, inference,
judgment, taste, discrimination, remembering, information, and a good deal
else – most of which have little to do with technique. Understanding and
interpretation, for instance, conform to no methods but the hermeneutic
circle; they strive for coherence and consensus, however these are not formal
rules but very rough guidelines only. No technique instructs us on how to
read Plato, how to respond to the meaning that emerges, or how to critique
what we read or apply it to our own circumstances. Nor is there a method of
constructing a narrative or fashioning a good metaphor – if a good meta-
phor is one that brings into sudden proximity two items that had appeared
entirely disparate, and in such a way that something new comes to light.
Recent trends toward standardization and technologization are a veritable
recipe for unreflectiveness. Standardized information presages standardized
beliefs and values, as the advocates of cultural literacy well realize. Technol-
ogization facilitates the acquisition of information while subtly transforming
thought itself or even removing the need for it. It simplifies and orders
matters for our convenience while dumbing down nearly everything it
touches. Internet research, to take an obvious case in point, creates the
illusion that the student is inquiring in a way no different from the old-
What Is Called Thinking? 141

fashioned reading of books signed out from a library but for its superior
efficiency. Thinking as gaining quick access to highly simplified, abbreviated,
and predigested information coupled with a bit of computerized cutting and
pasting – a process that for many a student passes quite satisfactorily for
thinking – is, I would suggest, not the genuine article. If Heidegger had good
cause to remark in 1959 that ‘[t]he world now appears as an object open to
the attacks of calculative thought, attacks that nothing is believed able any
longer to resist’, it may now appear as so much information on a computer
screen, purified of unnecessary detail, complexity, precision, imagination,
and style.93 Why go to the trouble, many now reason, of plowing through
Being and Time, with its difficult prose and complex argumentation, when
one can access websites that have boiled down all the necessary information
to a paragraph in plain English? Why read War and Peace with its long-winded
chapters in which nothing happens, when one can find plot summaries with
thematic analysis sufficient for any examination? Questions of this kind are
now asked in earnest, not embarrassment, and not only by the lean-minded.
Were thinking one day to disappear from the face of the earth it would be
due far less to intellectual laziness than to a want of opportunities for its
exercise, to the simple lack of need for it due to an iron cage of calculative
rationality, performativity, and standardization containing one and all. This
day is not at hand, yet deeply rooted social and educational conditions of our
times are reducing rather than increasing opportunities for the kind of
thinking of which Dewey and Heidegger both spoke, trends that see thinking
in the classroom either as a simple matter of being informed or as an idle
luxury, thinking in the workplace as an obstacle to efficiency, thinking in
ordinary conversation as an affectation, and thinking in solitude as evidence
of mental disturbance.
Heidegger was correct: ‘We are still not thinking.’ He did exaggerate the
point; we are thinking, but in too restricted a capacity, and we are losing sight
of the need or even the possibility of thinking differently. Dewey was correct
as well: thought is experimental. Yet it is experimental in a way or to a degree
that Dewey did not see. Experimentation includes the incalculable, the
metaphorical and the questioning, the mysterious and open-ended. Not
everything that counts as thinking can be made to fit a single model, nor is
every intelligent course of thought a problem to be solved. Much as we have
always sought, and will no doubt continue seeking, to codify thinking, to
reduce it to a system of rules and thus call it to order, it remains that thinking
itself, most especially in its higher reaches and its inventive capacity, has a
way of leaving the rules behind. Our impatient culture may long for the
ready solution and the measurable outcome, for the self-certainty and ease
of mind that technical models often promise, but much of this is an illusion.
There is not always a code to be cracked, and if we would speak of thinking
142 The Educative Process

as it is, then we must speak of it as an art that sometimes draws upon abstract
methods of one kind or another and sometimes does not.

1. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 160.
2. Dewey, How We Think (rev. edn, 1933). LW 8: 315.
3. Dewey, ‘The Need for Orientation’ (1935). LW 11: 164. ‘Philosophies of Freedom’
(1928). LW 3: 112.
4. Dewey, The Quest for Certainty (1929). LW 4: 179.
5. Dewey, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (1938). LW 12: 121.
6. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 152.
7. Ibid., 165.
8. Dewey, ‘The Challenge of Democracy to Education’ (1937). LW 11: 185.
9. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 159.
10. As Dewey expressed this point: ‘Thus the tenets of political and economic liberal faith
are made the criterion of a liberal education and mind. And here also it may be stated
that even if these views are sound, the mark of a liberal mind is not that they are held,
but is the way in which they are reached and accepted.’ Dewey, ‘The Prospects of the
Liberal College’ (1924). MW 15: 203.
11. See, for instance, Dewey, ‘Bankruptcy of Modern Education’ (1927). LW 3: 277.
12. One representative passage reads: ‘But the child who has been most perfectly trained
as to conduct, the one who acts in every way as he is told to act and even holds the
opinions which he is told to hold, is quite apt not to be educated at all. He may make
a good soldier, he may make a “good citizen”, in the sense that he may be depended
upon not to murder or steal, not to drink, swear, gamble, or get married too often:
but such a person may only be trained; he may not be educated at all. It is quite
possible that he cannot think.’ Charles W. Wood, ‘Report of Interview with John
Dewey’ (1922). MW 13: 428.
13. For an analysis of the pragmatist theory of truth, see Chapter 2 in my Theorizing Praxis:
Studies in Hermeneutical Pragmatism (New York: Peter Lang, 2000), in which I defend
this theory in its Jamesian and Deweyan formulations and bring it into conversation
with the hermeneutical conception of truth articulated by Martin Heidegger and
Hans-Georg Gadamer.
14. Dewey, ‘Preface’ to Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (1938). LW 12: 4. See William James,
Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975).
15. Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920). MW 12: 144.
16. C. S. Peirce, Collected Papers, vol. 5 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1931–1958),
17. Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920). MW 12: 144.
18. Dewey, ‘The Challenge of Democracy to Education’ (1937). LW 11: 184.
19. Dewey, The Quest for Certainty (1929). LW 4: 200.
20. Dewey made explicit the point concerning the methods of the natural sciences not
being transferrable to humanistic inquiry in a footnote to an essay from 1949: ‘The
word “methods” is italicized as a precaution against a possible misunderstanding
which would be contrary to what is intended. What is needed is not the carrying over
of procedures that have approved themselves in physical science, but new methods as
adapted to human issues and problems, as methods already in scientific use have
shown themselves to be in physical subject matter.’ Dewey, ‘Philosophy’s Future in our
Scientific Age: Never Was Its Role More Crucial’ (1949). LW 16: 379.
21. Dewey, ‘Science as Subject Matter and as Method’ (1910). MW 6: 78. A few passages
What Is Called Thinking? 143

that do approach a thoroughgoing scientific idealism may be found in MW 6: 78; MW

9: 196; LW 3: 101; LW 5: 115; LW 13: 279–80.
22. Dewey, Individualism, Old and New (1929). LW 5: 115.
23. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 227.
24. Dewey, The Quest for Certainty (1929). LW 4: 181.
25. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 157.
26. Dewey, The Quest for Certainty (1929). LW 4: 181.
27. Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920). MW 12: 181.
28. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 155.
29. Dewey, How We Think (rev. edn, 1933). LW 8: 118–19.
30. As Peirce expressed the point: ‘In sciences in which men come to agreement, when a
theory has been broached, it is considered to be on probation until this agreement is
reached. After it is reached, the question of certainty becomes an idle one, because
there is no one left who doubts it. We individually cannot reasonably hope to attain
the ultimate philosophy which we pursue; we can only seek it, therefore, for the com-
munity of philosophers. Hence, if disciplined and candid minds carefully examine a
theory and refuse to accept it, this ought to create doubts in the mind of the author
of the theory himself.’ C. S. Peirce, ‘Some Consequences of Four Incapacities’. The
Journal of Speculative Philosophy, vol. 2, 1868, 140.
31. James repeatedly emphasized this point, perhaps most eloquently in the following
text: ‘The trail of the human serpent is thus over everything. Truth independent;
truth that we find merely; truth no longer malleable to human need; truth incorrigi-
ble, in a word; such truth exists indeed superabundantly – or is supposed to exist by
rationalistically minded thinkers; but then it means only the dead heart of the living
tree, and its being there means only that truth also has its paleontology and its “pre-
scription”, and may grow stiff with years of veteran service and petrified in men’s
regard by sheer antiquity. But how plastic even our oldest truths nevertheless really
are has been vividly shown in our day by the transformation of logical and mathe-
matical ideas, a transformation which seems even to be invading physics.’ James, Prag-
matism, 37.
32. Dewey, The Quest for Certainty (1929). LW 4: 221.
33. Dewey, ‘Social Purposes in Education’ (1923). MW 15: 167–8.
34. As Dewey wrote in the same essay, ‘We must develop a taste in science or art, not only
for those who are going to be scientists or artists, but also for those who, when leisure
time comes, will be interested in reading or hearing something of nature, or litera-
ture, or have a capacity to enjoy music and the drama. This will create an active
demand for the better things instead of the poorer things. These, I repeat, seem to
me to be the three general phases of the problem of realizing the social purpose of
the school which teachers, and especially those who are training other teachers, have
to deal with.’ Dewey, ‘Social Purposes in Education’ (1923). MW 15: 169.
35. Dewey, How We Think (rev. edn, 1933). LW 8: 148, 163.
36. Dewey, ‘Foreword to Argumentation and Public Discussion’ (1936). LW 11: 515.
37. Dewey, How We Think (rev. edn, 1933). LW 8: 148.
38. Dewey, ‘John Dewey Responds’ (1950). LW 17: 85.
39. Dewey, How We Think (rev. edn, 1933). LW 8: 118.
40. Dewey, ‘Context and Thought’ (1931). LW 6: 5.
41. Dewey, How We Think (rev. edn, 1933). LW 8: 114, 171–2.
42. Dewey, ‘Understanding and Prejudice’ (1929). LW 5: 396.
43. Dewey, How We Think (rev. edn, 1933). LW 8: 225, 237, 226–7.
44. Ibid., 233.
45. Ibid., 236.
46. Dewey, Psychology (1887). EW 2: 180.
144 The Educative Process

47. Dewey, How We Think (rev. edn, 1933). LW 8: 301.

48. Dewey, ‘The Inclusive Philosophic Idea’ (1928). LW 3: 51.
49. Dewey, How We Think (rev. edn, 1933). LW 8: 301, 214–15.
50. Dewey, Art as Experience (1934). LW 10: 270. On this point, also see MW 9: 7; LW 2: 57;
LW 6: 11–13; and LW 10: 274–5.
51. Dewey, Experience and Nature (1925). LW 1: 40.
52. Dewey, Art as Experience (1934). LW 10: 276, 271; ‘Imagination’ (1902). LW 17: 242.
Also see EW 2: 168.
53. In an essay from 1928, for example, he would write: ‘If one looks at the overt and
outer phenomena, at what I may call the public and official, the externally organized,
side of our life, my own feeling about it would be one of discouragement. We seem to
find everywhere a hardness, a tightness, a clamping down of the lid, a regimentation
and standardization, a devotion to efficiency and prosperity of a mechanical and
quantitative sort.’ Dewey, ‘A Critique of American Civilization’ (1928). LW 3: 134.
54. Dewey, ‘The Future of Philosophy’ (1947). LW 17: 469.
55. Dewey, ‘The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy’ (1917). MW 10: 3, 4.
56. Dewey, ‘Bankruptcy of Modern Education’ (1927). LW 3: 278; Reconstruction in Philos-
ophy (1920). MW 12: 178; Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 71.
57. Dewey, Education and the Social Order (1934). LW 9: 180.
58. Dewey, ‘Some Stages of Logical Thought’ (1900). MW 1: 158.
59. Dewey, How We Think (rev. edn, 1933). LW 8: 335.
60. Dewey, Experience and Education (1938). LW 13: 43.
61. Dewey, ‘Academic Freedom’ (1902). MW 2: 61.
62. Dewey, ‘Freedom in Workers’ Education’ (1929). LW 5: 332.
63. Dewey, ‘Academic Freedom’ (1902). MW 2: 56.
64. Charles W. Wood, ‘Report of Interview with Dewey’ (1922). MW 13: 428.
65. On this last point, Dewey recommended ‘a certain atmosphere of informality,
because experience has proven that formalization is hostile to genuine mental activity
and to sincere emotional expression and growth’. Dewey, ‘Progressive Education and
the Science of Education’ (1928). LW 3: 258.
66. Dewey, ‘Lectures vs. Recitations: A Symposium’ (1891). EW 3: 147.
67. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 56.
68. Dewey, ‘Education, Direct and Indirect’ (1909). MW 3: 244.
69. Dewey, The Educational Situation (1901). MW 1: 271.
70. Dewey, ‘Education, Direct and Indirect’ (1909). MW 3: 245, 244.
71. Ibid., 244.
72. James, Pragmatism, 106, 42, 106.
73. Ibid., 97.
74. James, The Meaning of Truth, 47.
75. Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920). MW 12: 170.
76. Dewey, ‘From Absolutism to Experimentalism’ (1930). LW 5: 154. Dewey’s early
Hegelianism was heavily influenced by the Anglo-American idealism of figures such
as T. H. Green in Britain and Dewey’s own doctoral adviser at Johns Hopkins Univer-
sity, George Sylvester Morris.
77. Dewey, German Philosophy and Politics (1915). MW 8: 152, 153.
78. Dewey, ‘Challenge to Liberal Thought’ (1944). LW 15: 274, 272.
79. Heidegger, What Is Called Thinking? trans. J. G. Gray (New York: Harper and Row,
1968), 8.
80. Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking, trans. J. Anderson and E. H. Freund (New York:
Harper and Row, 1966), 45.
81. Heidegger, What Is Called Thinking?, 4, 14, 4, 3, 5, 4–5.
82. Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking, 46.
What Is Called Thinking? 145

83. Ibid., 45.

84. Heidegger, What Is Called Thinking?, 14.
85. Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking, 56.
86. Ibid., 51.
87. Heidegger, ‘The Question Concerning Technology’, trans. W. Lovitt, in Basic Writings,
ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 311.
88. See especially Gabriel Marcel, Man Against Mass Society, trans. G. S. Fraser (South
Bend: St Augustine’s Press, 2008).
89. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 365.
90. Gail Stenstad, Transformations: Thinking After Heidegger (Madison: University of Wis-
consin Press, 2006), 52.
91. Heidegger, What Is Called Thinking?, 10.
92. Ibid., 14–15.
93. Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking, 50.
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Education in the Human Sciences

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Chapter 4

Teaching Philosophy:
The Scholastic and the Thinker

From the time in the early modern era when philosophers became gradually
absorbed into the university to become the new breed of academic profes-
sional that is the secular professor of philosophy, there is no area of practice
with which philosophers have been more intimately acquainted in our
nine-to-five existences than the practice of education. Since roughly the
eighteenth century, philosophers in the main have been university educa-
tors, a consideration that one might expect would cause more of us to
inquire into the principles and conditions of this practice than has in fact
been the case. Like other matters of social philosophy, the question of
education is a topic on which philosophy professors, irrespective of our field
of specialization, believe ourselves eminently qualified to pronounce an
opinion, yet beyond the bounds of university politics and our own classroom
we typically elect to hold our peace and to leave the matter for administra-
tors and education department faculties to sort out among themselves. His-
torically speaking, this is a recent phenomenon. Prior to the era of
professionalization, and especially prior to the twentieth century, the great
philosophers of the Western tradition have typically had a great deal to say
on the subject, quite apart from whether they were educators themselves or
not. Thus Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Descartes, Hobbes,
Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Mill, Nietzsche, and a great
many others all made important contributions to the philosophy of educa-
tion, while in more recent times philosophers have been somewhat more
reticent on this matter than might have been expected. So much so, in fact,
that in the educational literature of the past century the philosophers of
note who stand out as exceptions do so rather prominently: Alfred North
Whitehead, Bertrand Russell, and – a philosopher never known for reticence
– Dewey stand out notably among major philosophers of the twentieth
century for their writings in the philosophy of education.
When we look back to the Greeks, of course, we find the connection
between the love of wisdom and a preoccupation with education to be far
from accidental. Plato’s lengthy discussion in the Republic of the kind of
education that the guardian class and the philosopher-king should receive is
hardly a secondary issue in Plato’s conception of the just state, nor is the

150 Education in the Human Sciences

question of education ultimately separable for Aristotle and many other clas-
sical thinkers from one of philosophy’s most basic concerns: the nature of
the good life. If the human being’s essential nature is its rationality – its pos-
session of the logos – then the good life is the life that is proper to a rational
being: the life of disinterested contemplation, of scientific, mathematical, or
philosophical study. From the beginning, then, the fate of philosophy was
inseparable from the fate of education, while the ‘educational enterprise’, in
Dewey’s words, ‘was regarded as the systematic means by which the good life
was to be arrived at and maintained: the life full, excellent, rich, for the indi-
vidual center of that life, and the life good for the community of which the
individual was a member’.1 Philosophy’s original connection with education
was indeed part of a broader association of the love of wisdom with the
conduct of life, with a wider outlook on the natural and human world, and
ultimately with social aims, as the example of Plato well illustrates. It is not
an accident of history that Plato founded the Academy or Aristotle the
Lyceum, nor were these schools created as a secondary or unphilosophical
undertaking. Instead they were to form the proper abode of philosophy itself
and to put into practice the cultivation of wisdom and the intellectual virtues
that defined both education and the best way of life for rational beings.
Dewey’s philosophy of education in many ways represents a continuation
of this Greek ideal, modified of course to suit modern conditions but con-
tinuing the idea that the ultimate aims of education transcend the acquisi-
tion of information or technical skill to include the business of thinking itself
– the cultivation of intellectual capacity, the fashioning of ideas, and the
resolution of whatever problems beset a society. Where there is genuine
education, and genuine philosophy, the two are vitally connected not only to
each other but to the urgent social questions of the day, to the fate of democ-
racy and the condition of the culture of which one is a part.
Today, however, in the era of professionalization and specialization the
philosophy of education has become a relatively marginal subdiscipline
within what is termed ‘applied’ or ‘social philosophy’, where ‘applied’ and
‘social’ are contrasted with the ostensibly ‘core’ branches of philosophy –
metaphysics, logic, epistemology, and philosophy of language – while within
social philosophy itself the theory of education most often takes a back seat
to ethics and political theory. Despite its impressive pedigree in Greek
thought and the ensuing tradition, and despite the burgeoning literature in
the field that has emerged in recent decades, the theory of education has
been effectively demoted to a minor specialty within the contemporary
philosophy profession. This is reflected in the course offerings of philosophy
departments at the present time, where seminars at the graduate level are
seldom offered in this field while at the undergraduate level perhaps as many
as a single course is taught, most often as a ‘service’ course attended mainly
Teaching Philosophy: The Scholastic and the Thinker 151

by students in other disciplines. Eyebrows are seldom raised when philoso-

phy departments offer no courses whatever on the subject or defer the
matter to educational departments wherein the philosophy of education
again takes a back seat, this time to specific empirical inquiries or technical
issues rather more in the spirit of social science than philosophy.
How did it come to pass that the philosophy of education has become a
minor specialty within rather than a vital and essential part of philosophy,
and at a time when philosophers are most all of us professional educators?
What does it signify for philosophy itself when this field of inquiry is held to
be far removed from the ‘core’ areas of thought? These are questions that
greatly concerned Dewey, as indeed they may concern us all. It is a topic to
which he would return again and again, from the beginning of his career to
the end, and on which he would write with unusual passion. His answer took
the form of a surprisingly scathing indictment of a great deal of the philoso-
phy of his time as it was undertaken by academic specialists. The ultimate
concerns of both education and philosophy, for Dewey, are the fundamental
problems that affect a culture at a given time and the articulation of intelli-
gent solutions, to look beneath the surface of events, and to think, in the
most expansive sense of the word, of how things might be otherwise. As
Dewey would write as late as 1947, ‘The principal task of philosophy is to get
below the turmoil that is particularly conspicuous in times of rapid cultural
change, to get behind what appears on the surface, to get to the soil in which
a given culture has its roots.’2 It is to attain a degree of wisdom in the conduct
of life, including both the life of the individual and the broader life of the
society, and to turn human knowledge in the direction of the practical, the
social, and the experiential. The principal task of education is to render
students capable of precisely this, not in the sense of transforming them into
specialists in whatever degree is optimally possible but in the sense of culti-
vating habits that render them no longer ‘at the mercy of every intellectual
breeze that happens to blow’, that eliminate the gullibility, the parochialism,
and the docility of mind that Dewey viewed as commonplace in modern
What Dewey found, however, when he surveyed the professional philo-
sophical scene toward the end of the nineteenth century and in the first half
of the twentieth, was both the end of the historical connection of philosophy
and education and the decline of the Greek ideal of philosophy itself. So
often did Dewey express disdain for what philosophy had become in the
hands of the professors that it is difficult to select for the purpose of brief
citation among the innumerable remarks he would express over the decades
to the effect that the classical love of wisdom is ‘becoming a form of Busy-
work for a few professionals’.4 A good place to begin – and I shall endeavor
to keep this brief, despite both the eloquence of many such remarks and my
152 Education in the Human Sciences

complete agreement with the sentiments they express – is a short essay from
1891 entitled ‘The Scholastic and the Speculator’. This remarkable text finds
Dewey comparing the philosophical specialists of the day with the scholastics
of the Middle Ages. Where the medieval schoolmen had abstracted Aristotle
from any living connection with Greek culture and in the zeal for a system
treated his texts in a purely formal and contextless fashion, when the scholas-
tics ‘had suffocated Aristotle by removing him from the conditions of life’
and then ‘proceeded to dismember the remains’, so the philosopher of the
present inquires into an object by tearing it out of its context and analyzing
it, proffering cut-and-dried definitions, drawing razor-thin distinctions, and
engaging in what appears to all the world to be purely formal and verbal
exercises. Dewey continued:

Even the miser, I suppose, has to do something with his gold, or else he
wouldn’t know he had it. He must count it over, he must jingle it together,
he must bury his fingers in it and roll the coins about. So the Scholastic
had to use his learning in some way. He pulled it this way and pulled it that
until he pulled it all to pieces. When anything is abstracted, when it is
taken off by itself, having lost its connections, all that remains is to go over
and over the same thing, dissecting, dividing, analyzing, and then sorting
out and piling up the fragments. Distinction-making and collecting always
accompany the scholastic habit.

The reflective object’s very life consists in its contextuality and organic
connections with other objects and processes, yet this is precisely what is lost
sight of when the primary business of thinking consists of an abstraction and
analysis that at the end of the day fails to return to the world of experience
and the object’s ‘place in the movement of life’. Modern philosophy, far
from putting an end to the scholastics’ ways, instead gives them different
form and a far broader range of application. Where the schoolmen were
limited to the texts of Aristotle and the Scriptures, the specialists of modern
times may turn their gaze in any direction, toward the entire domain of
thought and language. As he continued,

The monastic cell has become a professional lecture hall; an endless mass
of ‘authorities’ have taken the place of Aristotle. Jahresberichte, monographs,
journals without end occupy the void left by the commentators upon Aris-
totle. If the older Scholastic spent his laborious time in erasing the writing
from old manuscripts in order to indite thereon something of his own, the
new Scholastic has also his palimpsest. He criticizes the criticisms with
which some other Scholastic has criticized other criticisms, and the writing
upon writings goes on till the substructure of reality is long obscured.5
Teaching Philosophy: The Scholastic and the Thinker 153

These sentiments from Dewey’s early period were repeated frequently

throughout his career. While applying them very generally to the condition
of contemporary inquiry across the disciplines, he continually singled out
philosophy as ‘the chief wrong-doer in this matter’.6 Philosophical thought,
in Dewey’s estimation of it, had become ‘reduced . . . to a show of elaborate
terminology, a hair-splitting logic, and a fictitious devotion to the mere
external forms of comprehensive and minute demonstration’. It exhibited
‘an overdeveloped attachment to system for its own sake’, ‘an over-preten-
tious claim to certainty’, ‘a hateful division of theory and practice’, and an
‘aloofness’ from the world which represents an ‘unconscious protective
reaction’ compelling philosophers to retreat into increasingly narrow
avenues of thought.7 Philosophers had become a socially isolated and
inward-looking class of professionals, a new cultural elite who regarded
themselves as above the fray of what Dewey often called ‘the problems of
men’, whose ‘problems’ are strictly their own, and who criticize the Deweyan
pragmatist ‘on the ground that concern with the needs, troubles, and
problems of man is not “philosophical”’.8 Later in his career Dewey would
direct this criticism toward the logical positivism and analytic philosophy that
had emerged in the Anglo-American world. One example of this is his
critique of his younger British associate and sometime friend Bertrand
Russell, whose philosophy, Dewey would write, ‘smacks of authoritarianism
appropriate to an aristocracy’. While applauding the liberal-democratic
spirit of many of Russell’s writings on social issues, Dewey took a decidedly
dim view of Russell’s ‘aristocratic’ rationalism:

Why do we compare this attitude with that of the aristocracy? It is simply

that some people are impatient with the practical affairs of life, and seek
to raise themselves above mundane considerations and enter a sphere of
pure reflection. Such people feel that they are ‘artistic’, and that they
belong to a higher order of being than the run of common man. It is not
difficult to see that the theoretical aspects of Russell’s philosophy are
characterized by this tendency.9

Russell’s logical atomism and the new logical positivism that had its begin-
nings in the Vienna Circle both placed philosophical thought within such
narrow confines as to lose connection with the vital world of human
concerns and became a purely formal exercise. As philosophy turns its back
on the world, the latter responds in kind or looks with bewildered incom-
prehension upon the ‘barren intellectual gymnastic exercise and purely
verbal analyses’ that are passed off as problems.10 The new analytic rational-
ism’s propensity for technicality, formality, and hair-splitting was, in Dewey’s
estimation, so remote from philosophy’s proper purpose and grounding in
154 Education in the Human Sciences

experience as to constitute an irrelevance in most respects and a contribut-

ing cause of the ‘decline of liberality of mind’.11 The combination of analytic
formalism and overspecialization in the person of the professional philoso-
pher creates a turn of mind that retreats in the face of worldly concerns and
that is socially irresponsible, a basic conviction being that ‘certain matters of
fundamental import to humanity are none of my concern because outside of
my Fach’.12
These are harsh statements, particularly by the standards of this unusually
mild-mannered philosopher, yet the sentiments that they express would
inform Dewey’s own practice as a theorist. Hardly a narrow specialist himself,
his writings included major contributions to nearly every philosophical
subdiscipline, while he would also serve for decades in the role of America’s
foremost public intellectual. This description, of course, fits few other
philosophers of Dewey’s time or our own. Indeed, the trends in scholarship
that so concerned Dewey have continued to the present day, while signs of
their imminent reversal are nowhere to be seen. With few exceptions,
philosophers of the present day are not only specialists but technicians,
analysts, or scholarly readers of the great thinkers. The Deweyan public intel-
lectual is largely a thing of the past, and where the role is occasionally taken
up by a few brave souls it is typically frowned upon by one’s fellow profes-
sionals. University professors of today receive no academic credit by way of
tenure and promotion, research grants, and so on, for non-peer-reviewed
publications if indeed their reputations do not take a sizeable hit for their
efforts. If Socrates remains the patron saint of philosophers, few any longer
follow him into the public marketplace or venture to pose the variety of
questions that he, and Dewey, did.
This unfavorable review of the condition of philosophy in the twentieth
century would inform Dewey’s assessment of the education that students of
philosophy currently receive. Although Dewey would not address the specific
issue of the aims of education in philosophy at either the undergraduate or
graduate level in the direct and sustained way that one would wish and
perhaps expect, given the many years he would teach in several of America’s
better philosophy departments, his writings provide ample evidence of his
views on the subject. What the aims of a philosophical education are not, on
his account, are to provide the technical training and preparation for a
career in the academic profession which we are easily tempted into regard-
ing as the highest mark of educational success. Particularly at the under-
graduate level, students of philosophy are not to be regarded as aspiring
professors or prospective members of the cultural elite. The traditional
notion of education in general as a preparation for later life, including
especially the students’ entry into the economic life of the society, is an idea
that Dewey would often have occasion to criticize, as we have seen. Without
Teaching Philosophy: The Scholastic and the Thinker 155

directing this critique in the direction of any specific field, Dewey argued
that education in general prepares students for future life only ‘in a certain
sense’ and that preparation for a specialized profession is not its central

Now ‘preparation’ is a treacherous idea. In a certain sense every experi-

ence should do something to prepare a person for later experiences of a
deeper and more expansive quality. That is the very meaning of growth,
continuity, reconstruction of experience. But it is a mistake to suppose
that the mere acquisition of a certain amount of arithmetic, geography,
history, etc., which is taught and studied because it may be useful at some
time in the future, has this effect, and it is a mistake to suppose that
acquisition of skills in reading and figuring will automatically constitute
preparation for their right and effective use under conditions very unlike
those in which they were acquired.13

While the educator in philosophy or in any discipline must take the students’
future into account, this must not be interpreted in a narrow or purely
instrumental way, as happens when undergraduate education is regarded as
the training that is a necessary prelude to becoming a specialist, be it as an
academic philosopher or in another field of professional life. The conven-
tional and still prevalent view that an education in philosophy or in anything
must be good for some end outside of the educative process itself is, of
course, a view that Dewey rejected, even while acknowledging the obvious
practical value of a university education. He rejected as well the notion of
higher learning as a preparation for entry into a cultural aristocracy of sorts.
The ‘theoretic type of education’ that philosophy provides and which its
‘upholders always defend . . . on the ground of “culture” and “liberal,”
“humanistic” education’, Dewey remarked, ‘has prevailed almost entirely in
the schools aiming to produce “gentlemen” in the English conventional
sense – that is, members of the ruling and leisure class’.14 To maintain that a
theoretical education, while a good, is ‘not good for anything’ – a prepar-
ation for a career as a specialist, an initiation into the elite, a stepping stone
to law school – is to assert that its instrumental value is not its ultimate end
but is subordinate to ends of a less tangible nature.15 Insofar as an education
in philosophy prepares students for anything, what it prepares them for is
to be competent democratic citizens and to possess the intellectual virtues
that are needed to participate in forms of community life that transcend
economic labor. Ever mindful of the properly democratic spirit of education,
Dewey adamantly opposed the division of students into those destined for
‘an academic life of leisure and culture’ and those who are being prepared
for the ‘somewhat passive and dulled participation in unidealized labor’.16
156 Education in the Human Sciences

This class-based conception breeds docility of mind in the latter group and
an Old World elitism in the former.
Perhaps Dewey’s most direct answer to the question of the aims of an
undergraduate education in philosophy is one that he outlined in a very
brief essay of 1893, appropriately entitled ‘Why Study Philosophy?’ Address-
ing a student audience, he answered his own question by stating the impor-
tance of knowing the origins and basis of current ideas, a knowledge that
enables students to gain facility with ideas and at times to ‘free ourselves
from them’. If ideas are instruments for resolving problematic situations
rather than components of a creed, the educated mind must be proficient in
their use rather than uncritical or deferential. In his words,

I am not here to magnify my calling unduly, but I feel that one who has
done what is termed ‘completing his education’ without an insight on his
own behalf into the processes historical, logical, psychological, by which
the present structure of ideas and of emotions and volitional attitudes, has
been brought into existence has an outlook, at once narrow and rigid,
upon a field monotonous, of hard and fast perspective, of fixed horizon,
while he might, relatively at least, be looking with wide and flexible vision
upon a scene of melting hues, of playing lights, shifting limits.

While harboring no illusions that the formal study of philosophy at an

American university in 1893 was likely to instill to an appreciable degree the
intellectual virtues that Dewey prized, he did hold out as an ideal a concep-
tion of the educated mind as possessing an advanced capacity to think.
Whether departments of philosophy in fact have any special insight into how
to impart this capacity is a matter on which he would express some mis-
givings, yet a laudable ideal it remains. Dewey’s essay concludes on the note
that studying philosophy serves ends more ultimate than the instrumental,
including the sense of wonder that is ‘the feeling of a philosopher’ and the
instinct to pursue knowledge simply because one must.17
It is a familiar idea that a philosophical education teaches students how to
think. Additional to the knowledge of intellectual history that it imparts, the
formal study of philosophy trains minds in the art of rational thought, an art
or technique conventionally regarded in its purest form as the study of
formal logic and in its popular form as what is called ‘critical thinking’. As
Chapter 3 discussed, rational thought is most often regarded in both its pure
and vulgar forms as a technique that may be taught and learned apart from
a concrete subject matter, or that is a subject matter unto itself. Dewey’s
rejoinder, as we know, is that thought is not an isolated faculty that may be
trained in isolation from ideas, texts, or some other object. The intentional
structure of thought – the fact that it is invariably about something or other
Teaching Philosophy: The Scholastic and the Thinker 157

– prevents us from conceiving of logical studies as a purely formal operation,

empty of content, or of thinking itself as occurring on the near side of a
chasm opposite of which lies the world of experience. The ‘mental faculties’
in general, he wrote, ‘are not powers in themselves, but are such only with
reference to the ends to which they are put, the services which they have to
perform’.18 This, of course, flies in the face of received views during Dewey’s
time and our own that rational thought in essence is a formal and method-
ological affair and that only as a secondary matter need the method be
applied to an item of experience, perhaps to serve the purpose of illustration
or practical exercise. On this view, the rules of logical inference are the only
essential subject matter, while if one is teaching critical thinking, one may
need to supplement these with the informal argument fallacies and perhaps
some rules of thumb.
What these views overlook is not only the intentional and pragmatic ori-
entation of thought but also the important issue of its inventiveness. The vital
business of all philosophical thinking is not forms that are empty of content
but the content itself, intelligently formed. Dewey rejected the dichotomy of
form and content as he rejected that between reason and experience. What
is called ‘critical thinking’ can only be a thinking that is critical of this or that
idea, not something – a faculty, a capacity – that is separate unto itself and
that may be trained in isolation from a curriculum. By the same token, philo-
sophical reflection is a reflection upon the texts of this or that philosopher
or upon the questions that arise in the course of lived experience. Where
rationalism in its older and newer forms errs is not only in its abiding
tendency to separate reason from experience and to denigrate the latter but
in advancing a strictly formalistic conception of rational thought in which
creativity or inventiveness plays at most a minor role. For Dewey, it is not only
the higher reaches of thought that go beyond the following of rules.
Thought in general requires some creativity and itself constitutes ‘an incur-
sion into the novel’.19 Aside from the purely mechanical, mental acts of
thinking and knowing require a posing of questions, a grasping of meaning,
a placing in context, an ‘emotionalized thinking’, and the carrying over of a
received idea to a new field of experience, all of which well surpass rule-
Accordingly, if an education in philosophy involves learning not only what
the great philosophers of the past have maintained but in a general sense
how to think philosophically, this entails something more than avoiding fal-
lacies and following the rules of logical inference. It requires a reconnection
of reason and experience and an understanding of how philosophers do in
fact think rather than an abstract idealization of how they supposedly ought
to. If the great thinkers of the Western tradition did not devise arguments in
an experiential vacuum, as surely they did not, nor does the philosophy
158 Education in the Human Sciences

student of today assess their arguments or create new ones through the
straightforward application of technique. The error of many a philosophy
professor, Dewey believed, is to reproduce in students’ minds the traditional
series of binary oppositions – between reason and experience, the a priori
and the a posteriori, theory and practice, thought and emotion, form and
content, knowledge and opinion, certainty and probability, and so on – and
to insist that the serious business of the intellectual is the former value in
each of these polarities while the latter values represent so much watering
down of the ideal. The consequences of this include the distorted view that
students receive regarding how philosophers think and ought to think, as
well as a dangerous disconnection between ‘logical thought, as something
abstract and remote, and the specific and concrete demands of everyday
events’. More ultimately, these consequences go beyond the narrowly intel-
lectual to encompass the practical and the ethical: ‘The gullibility of special-
ized scholars when out of their own lines, their extravagant habits of
inference and speech, their ineptness in reaching conclusions in practical
matters, their egotistical engrossment in their own subjects’ are a few of the
effects that the severing of thought from experience produces, and among
students quite as much as their educators.21
One of the vital matters in a philosophical education, as in philosophy
itself, is the set of problems with which it deals and the origin of these
problems. When the professor of epistemology informs his or her students
that there is a problem regarding the existence of the world, or of other
minds, the students quite possibly require convincing as to the genuineness
of the problem. How, they might be forgiven for asking, does this problem
arise? Why is this a problem? Before inquiry into solutions gets under way,
these elementary questions must be answered, yet unanswered or even un-
addressed they often remain. The zeal for answers easily inclines us to
overlook the worthiness of the question, however as Dewey pointed out, this
seemingly elementary matter is all-important for the inquiry that follows.
Learning requires a motivation, a degree of curiosity or desire, as does
thinking itself. If an educator can often instill this simply through the force
of his or her own enthusiasm for the subject, it remains that for education to
succeed, students must have a sense that the problems they are studying are
not pseudo-problems or puzzles on which to sharpen their wits. The ‘great
questions’ with which they are presented must be regarded by the students
themselves as living and urgent questions rather than ostensibly perennial
ones which, as the professor informs them, simply arise whenever the human
mind sets about to think, or that perhaps fall from the sky.
When Dewey wrote in Democracy and Education that ‘a peculiar artificiality
attaches to much of what is learned in schools’, he may well have had in
mind a great deal of the curriculum that is offered by departments of
Teaching Philosophy: The Scholastic and the Thinker 159

philosophy (if ‘schools’ may include post-secondary institutions), especially

in light of what he would often write on the issue of philosophical problems
and pseudo-problems.22 In Knowing and the Known, for instance, Dewey
remarked upon the artificiality of a great many of the problems with which
philosophy has long been concerned:

What has been completely divided in philosophical discourse into man

and the world, inner and outer, self and not-self, subject and object, indi-
vidual and social, private and public, etc., are in actuality parties in life-
transactions. The philosophical ‘problem’ of how to get them together is
artificial. On the basis of fact, it needs to be replaced by consideration of
the conditions under which they occur as distinctions, and of the special
uses served by the distinctions.23

A distinction that arises in the course of practical experience becomes in the

hands of many a philosopher a grand either–or, an abstract polarity that has
been uprooted from experience and that must now be examined as a
theoretical matter without the benefit of context. When this occurs within
philosophical inquiry itself, it typically gives rise to arguments and theoreti-
cal positions that fail to satisfy the pragmatic maxim, while when it happens
in the classroom it creates an atmosphere of unreality in which students
come to think of philosophical problems as a kind of parlor game.
To be genuine, a philosophical problem must originate in human ex-
perience while its eventual resolution must be brought back to the original
problematic situation for verification. Theoretical reflection in general, be it
philosophical, scientific, or what have you, both arises from and returns to
the realm of the practical and the experiential. Otherwise thinking is so
much castle-building in the air. This, in short, is the pragmatic view of what
constitutes a philosophical problem. Its implication for education is that
students must be able to see the true dimensions of a problem and develop
a sense of what the problem is, how it arises, and what is at stake in resolving
it. Too often, however, all of this is thought to go without saying or even to
be unphilosophical or anti-intellectual. When students are presented with
the ‘fundamental problems’ of philosophy, followed in quick succession by a
series of theoretical proposals without developing a sense of the problem
before them, education becomes a losing cause of passing examinations and
memorizing information. Students learn not to expect philosophical reflec-
tion to touch down in any meaningful way to what is practical or academic
study in general to have any vital connection to life outside of the classroom,
and to equate this with intellectual sophistication. In further consequence,
‘[o]rdinary experience does not receive the enrichment which it should; it
is not fertilized by school learning. And the attitudes which spring from
160 Education in the Human Sciences

getting used to and accepting half-understood and ill-digested material

weaken vigor and efficiency of thought.’24
As I discussed in Chapter 2, the educative process in general must have its
basis in the students’ out-of-school experience, yet in the case of a discipline
that so often is far removed from such experience and to many a student
appears utterly disconnected from it, a special difficulty presents itself for the
educator. How might the professor connect a purely conceptual subject matter
to ordinary experience without oversimplification or lowering the level of dis-
course? Dewey firmly held that in order to awaken interest in an area of study
among students for whom no prior interest exists, it is imperative that the
educator appeal to an existing impulse or curiosity of one kind or another.
How is this done when the subject matter is entirely theoretical? If the con-
ventional answer is to ‘make it interesting’ either through some clever peda-
gogical technique or through the infectious influence of the educator’s own
passion for the subject matter, Dewey’s view remained that the students’ own
experience must be looked to as the ground of interest and the motivation for
inquiry. Thus an interest in political philosophy may be awakened if a student
is not indifferent to social injustice and can be persuaded of the benefit of
inquiry into possible remedies. An interest in epistemology may be awakened
by relating – or better still, reading about – Descartes’ experience of doubt
regarding all that he had previously believed, an experience without which the
argument of the Meditations would have little point.
In the event that an ostensible problem cannot be so grounded, Dewey
would sooner question the genuineness of the problem itself than fault the
students for their lack of interest. Without denying that a student’s interest
in theoretical matters may, and often does, take on a momentum of its own
and eventually outgrow the impulse that originally inspired that interest –
indeed, at an advanced level of study this will hopefully be the norm – Dewey
emphasized ‘the importance of seeing to it that the preliminary period – that
in which the form or means is kept in organic relationship to real ends and
values – is adequately lived through’.25 As students attain intellectual
maturity and develop some reasonable degree of specialization, that original
impulse or curiosity will have been long since outgrown and replaced with a
succession of further interests, in the manner of any growing thing.
If what Dewey called the ‘organic connection between education and
personal experience’ is often thought to be tenuous or unsophisticated in a
discipline as theoretical as philosophy, that it need not be so may be seen in
a couple of examples.26 An undergraduate course in moral issues most often
attracts far more students than one in moral theory, critical thinking more
than formal logic, and so on. As for why this is so, the conventional wisdom
is that in both cases the former is less advanced and perhaps less intellectu-
ally challenging, particularly for students not majoring in philosophy. A
Teaching Philosophy: The Scholastic and the Thinker 161

course with the word ‘issues’ in its title rather than ‘theory’ is thought by
many students looking for an easy elective to be a promising candidate and
perhaps to have a more immediate appeal than the theoretical course. There
may be more to the story, however, than what the conventional wisdom
captures. A course in moral issues or in a branch of applied ethics will often
connect with a student’s experience and existing interests far more readily
than a course in ethical theory. Students will often bring a high level of
interest to such a course, and an interest that is sustained even after it
becomes apparent that the course is not as easy as they had anticipated. If a
majority of such students are reluctant subsequently to study ethical theory,
this is more likely due to its perceived irrelevance to practical issues than its
advanced level of difficulty or sophistication. The demand for ‘relevance’ so
often heard from students may not (or not only) be the symptom of mis-
guided anti-intellectualism that their educators often take it to be, but in part
a legitimate expectation that the theoretical will help us to cope with the
practical and also a complaint about the disconnection between experience
and education that they so often perceive.
Is ‘making it relevant’ a legitimate expectation when so much of the philo-
sophical curriculum consists essentially of intellectual history? If one is
teaching Plato’s Republic or Hobbes’ Leviathan, does it not suffice to teach the
argument of the text, to elucidate its meaning in the traditional manner, and
perhaps engage in some critical analysis? Must one relate the text to the
students’ personal experience – a matter that is customarily regarded as
pedestrian or at best a preliminary issue to be dispensed with as quickly as
possible in order to get to the essential business of the argument? For that
matter, under what conditions is teaching the history of ideas properly
educative at all? What is the point of this, and is it ever mis-educative?
Dewey’s response to this line of questioning is that connecting the great
works of the past to the students’ present-day experience is both a legitimate
expectation and a necessary condition of it having educational value at all.
Reading such works does not resemble a visit to a museum in which priceless
antiques are carefully roped off by the educator while students are com-
pelled to gaze in appreciative passivity at the wonders within the roped-off
area. On the contrary, learning the great works means engaging with them,
and in a sense that is not limited to inspecting the logic of their arguments
or engaging in what philosophers in a certain tradition call ‘analysis’.
Genuinely to engage with the Republic is to have one’s horizon widened and
one’s convictions tested, to comprehend one of the sources of Western
culture not as an end in itself but, as Dewey put it, ‘in order that the current
may receive a new direction’.27 Ultimately, the justification and relevance of
studying intellectual history is no different from the study of history in its
other forms: to enable us the better to cope with the present and the future.
162 Education in the Human Sciences

For any experience to be educative, it must exhibit continuity with other

experiences. As Dewey expressed this principle in Experience and Education,
‘when and only when development in a particular line conduces to continu-
ing growth does it answer to the criterion of education as growing’. By the
same token, an ‘experience is mis-educative that has the effect of arresting
or distorting the growth of further experience’.28 Applying this principle to
the history of ideas, we would say that the educational value of the Republic
lies not in any of the text’s intrinsic qualities but in conditions both prior to
and following the students’ encounter with it. Long experience has shown
that exposing students who have reached an age of intellectual maturity
to great works such as the Republic or Leviathan, if competently taught, is
typically very well conducive to further intellectual growth, directs existing
interests along new and fruitful lines, and deepens the capacity for intelli-
gent thought. From the example of Socrates, students learn something
about the intellectual virtues which they can apply in other areas of inquiry.
Then again, their encounter with this or any text can be mis-educative if
students become callous to ideas or anti-intellectual, if they retreat into dog-
matism or become disdainful of philosophy in general, whether on account
of poor instruction or other factors. Simply knowing the argument of the
Republic or committing it to memory is not in itself an indication of educa-
tional success but is a means of opening up avenues of further experience.
This view clashes directly with educational conservatives for whom a
knowledge of intellectual history is considered to be inherently educational.
Indeed it clashes not only with the conservatism of a Harold Bloom or an
E. D. Hirsch, for whom it is the possession of information, not the cultivation
of intellectual capacities, that is the vital matter, but with views that have long
been defended by the mainstream of philosophy professors – or, at any rate,
that are often implicit to their practice as educators. If many profess
allegiance to the idea that in teaching the Republic they are not only impart-
ing information about an ancient philosopher’s views but teaching students
to engage critically with the text, and beyond this to think philosophically,
common practice tends to overlook this idea and settle for students ‘knowing
the material’ in a sense that may be quantified by an examination, including
even the multiple-choice examination which actively prevents thought and
any manner of intelligent engagement with the text. That the amassing of
information is a necessary part of the learning process is sufficiently evident
as to go without saying, for Dewey, and indeed he was surprised when in
Experience and Education he was forced to state this explicitly. What does not
go without saying is that ‘knowing the material’ is a non-ultimate value, that
it places second to the cultivation of intellectual habits and attitudes: ‘For
these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future. The most impor-
tant attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning.’29 It is
Teaching Philosophy: The Scholastic and the Thinker 163

entirely possible, for instance, for students of philosophy to acquire a wealth

of knowledge about intellectual history or about this or that area of inquiry
while at the same time adopting an intellectual arrogance that renders them
virtually unteachable. This is not an uncommon phenomenon among
students of philosophy, and is especially prevalent when their educators are
themselves dogmatic in their views or regard themselves as members of an
intellectual aristocracy. Students are often highly mindful not only of their
professors’ opinions on the subject matter but, more important perhaps, of
their attitudes toward ideas in general, including those that they may know
little about – whether they are flexible or inflexible in their beliefs, open to
new ideas or closed-minded, tolerant or intolerant, and so on. Such attitudes
are often quickly adopted by students and can be far more enduring than
any knowledge acquired in the course of formal study.
If the highest aim of a philosophical education is for students to learn how
to think philosophically, and if the art of thinking is taught and learned not
in a curricular vacuum but through critical engagement with texts and ideas,
then a major portion of such an education will necessarily involve studying
the great texts of the past and gaining a thorough grounding in the history
of philosophy – not, again, as an end in itself or as an exercise in conserv-
ation but because encountering the works of a Plato or an Aristotle, a
Hobbes or a Nietzsche, constitutes the best training ground for thought that
we have yet discovered. If one would learn to think, one would best study the
great thinkers of history, just as if one would be an artist, one would do well
to study the masters, not to imitate them but to learn from and ultimately to
surpass them. Dewey made this point in speaking of the importance in
scientific studies of students receiving the ‘proper nutriment’ by actively
engaging in laboratory experimentation – in the practice of inquiry – rather
than merely absorbing information about the content of prior discoveries.
‘The real value of the laboratory method’, he stated, ‘. . . is not really that a
person can discover truths over again . . . ; but the mere handling of the
thing, the mere going through the operation originally gone through with
in finding that truth, gives a natural outlet of expression which makes the
idea his own.’ Applying the same principle to philosophy, we may say that as
students retrace the operations of thought of the great thinkers of history,
they are learning to think far more genuinely than when they are supplied
with an abstract method. If it is true, for instance, that ‘we are at the end of
one historical epoch and at the beginning of another’, as Dewey and so many
other twentieth-century thinkers believed, and if one of the aims of philo-
sophical reflection is to understand ‘what sort of change is taking place’,
students’ ability to engage in this sort of reflection is informed by ‘the mere
going through the operation originally gone through with’ by thinkers of the
past who also stood at the threshold of a new era.30 What better reason do we
164 Education in the Human Sciences

have for studying the writings of Descartes or Hobbes, for example, than to
see how philosophers have previously negotiated in thought the transition
from one age to the next? Many of the philosophers of the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries, of course, as many of more recent times, were well
aware of the historical transition in which they stood and regarded it as the
philosopher’s task both to interpret what this new era fundamentally signi-
fies and to provide it with intelligent direction. The capacity of students to
take up a similar reflection is likely doomed to failure or superficiality if they
lack adequate knowledge of such efforts and of intellectual history more
Dewey defended a few additional principles that readily apply to the
teaching of philosophy, although once again his own applications usually
focused on education at more elementary levels than the university. As we
have seen, a basic principle of Dewey’s is that the classroom constitutes a
‘special environment’ which is distinguished from other environments in
that everything within it is purposefully arranged with a view to promoting
intellectual growth. Dewey went so far as to argue that ‘we never educate
directly’ but rather ‘indirectly by means of the environment’.31 We can
readily imagine how this applies in the primary school, where activities and
materials in general are ordered with an educative purpose in mind, but how
does the same principle apply at the post-secondary level to philosophy?
What are the conditions of a proper ‘learning environment’ in the seminar
room or lecture theater of the modern university? Again without ever asking
this specific question, Dewey did provide a general direction by speaking of
an educational environment as one that leaves students and educators at
liberty to propose and test ideas in free discussion, that widens horizons,
challenges received beliefs, and practices inquiry without fear of repercus-
sions that often follow outside of an academic environment from challeng-
ing orthodoxy or established taboos of thought. The ideal of freedom is so
central to any properly educational environment that, as Dewey put it, the
‘one great obstacle’ to intellectual growth, widespread during Dewey’s time
and our own, is ‘that there is a region of beliefs, social, religious, and politi-
cal, which is reserved for sheer acceptance and where unbiased inquiry
should not intrude’.32 In the philosophy classroom of today we continue to
have our intellectual orthodoxies which students are forbidden to challenge,
whether it be the political correctness orthodoxy of recent decades or the
professor’s own views, both of which students are often keenly aware and by
which they are often intimidated. It remains a common occurrence for
students who allude in class discussion or written work to a philosopher to
whom the professor is not well disposed to be informed with an air of author-
ity that the philosopher in question ‘is not a philosopher’, but perhaps a
sophist or a charlatan. An equally common phenomenon is, of course, the
Teaching Philosophy: The Scholastic and the Thinker 165

teaching of philosophy within religious colleges where students may have

less than free reign to pursue rational inquiry into theological questions or
to study the works of atheist philosophers.
On one occasion when Dewey addressed a student audience, he
responded to the question of what students at the university may expect from
their studies by accentuating the broadening of intellectual horizons that
free inquiry brings about:

One thing, then, that a University should do for a man is to rid him of his
provincialisms. We all – or almost all – of us come out from a sphere of life
somewhat narrower than that into which we come. The question is
whether in this emergence we come out of our shells, or bring them with
us. Certainly the boy or girl who comes to college judging all things from
the standpoint of the way they think and do ‘in my place’, ought to have
his horizon of outlook pushed out a little further, and his standard of
measurement lengthened.33

This principle is commonly professed in theory and commonly negated in

practice by a classroom environment in which orthodoxy reigns and the
freedom to consider any hypothesis that is relevant to the subject matter is
denied. The practice of classroom discussion, Dewey often argued, is
properly regarded as a form of shared inquiry, and it is when the spirit of
inquiry prevails that an environment is appropriately educational. If it is the
nature of experience to be actively experimental and inquisitive, it is im-
perative that in an academic environment students do more than receive
information but themselves engage in the practice of inquiry, whether it be
in writing essays or in discussion. Students must do something with the ideas
about which they learn; they must interpret an idea’s meaning and implic-
ations, debate its justification, compare it to competing hypotheses, and view
it within its proper context rather than passively register the professor’s views
regarding its meaning and truth-value. This requires free discussion that
takes the student out of the comfortable role of spectator and into that of
philosophical inquirer, while the professor falls out of the role of ‘external
boss or dictator’ and becomes a ‘leader of group activities’.34
In the case of studying philosophy at the university, the only group activity
of which we can speak is, of course, class discussion. Often regarded as a
secondary matter in philosophy, as in so many other fields of intellectual
study, class discussion’s fundamental purpose, on the Deweyan view, is not
merely to provide students with an opportunity to express their opinions in
the fashion of a television talk-show but to challenge them to articulate and
justify their views in confrontation with other ideas, whether the latter views
are proffered by other students, the instructor, or the text that orients the
166 Education in the Human Sciences

discussion. The educator’s role here is neither to play the expert, and so
close off the conversation, nor merely to pass the microphone from one talk-
show spectator to the next, but is rather something intermediate between
the two or, better still, that represents a higher synthesis. Their role, as Dewey
would often insist, is to direct the conversation along fruitful avenues,
allowing it neither to deteriorate in level or tone, lose focus, or to become
one-sided or dominated by too few students. The educator’s task also
includes giving direction to class discussion and ensuring that what Dewey
called ‘the spirit of inquiry’ prevails. How this is done in terms of pedagogi-
cal technique is decidedly secondary to the intellectual frame of mind that
the educator brings to the subject matter and to the discussion, since this
attitude so often becomes infectious, for better or worse, among the
students. For Dewey, one of the main features that distinguishes the highly
competent educator from the ordinary one, entirely aside from their level of
expertise or ability to apply the latest findings of pedagogical science, is the
less tangible matter of their comportment toward inquiry itself. As he
expressed this point,

We have here, I think, the explanation of the success of some teachers

who violate every law known to and laid down by pedagogical science.
They are themselves so full of the spirit of inquiry, so sensitive to every sign
of its presence and absence, that no matter what they do, nor how they do
it, they succeed in awakening and inspiring like alert and intense mental
activity in those with whom they come in contact.35

If this is not good news for pedagogical science, it is well familiar to anyone
who recalls from their own student days those, perhaps few, educators who
embodied this ‘spirit of inquiry’ to an optimal degree and inspired our own
intellectual efforts or guided our interests in a new direction.
The professor’s role in the classroom, of course, is not limited to inspir-
ation or embodying the intellectual virtues that he or she would instill, but
also involves direct instruction and lecturing on the subject matter, more or
less in the traditional manner, while also ensuring that the general discussion
remains faithful to standards of rational discourse. It is not a conversational
free-for-all that Dewey advocated, but the very practice of pragmatic inquiry
and social intelligence that he described in his logical and epistemological
writings carried over to the classroom. Since class discussion exhibits a
certain ‘haphazard’ quality which, as Dewey remarked, ‘gives it the devious
tendency indicated in Plato’s remark that it needs to be tied to the post of
reason’, it falls to the professor to keep matters on the rails and direct
attention toward the philosophical basis of whatever assertions are made.36 If
students do not arrive at the university as blank slates, but possess a wide
Teaching Philosophy: The Scholastic and the Thinker 167

range of beliefs which they have acquired this way or that and which they
may or may not have explicitly articulated, classroom discussion provides
perhaps the most effective means of drawing out the students’ ideas, and
where this involves not only giving such ideas public expression but subject-
ing them to scrutiny by their peers.
Ultimately, the purpose of a philosophical education on Dewey’s view is to
teach the art of thinking and to instill the intellectual virtues of flexibility
and open-mindedness, creativity, argumentative rigor, reflectiveness, curios-
ity, and so on. If it is the case, as Dewey believed, that ‘there is no such thing
as genuine knowledge and fruitful understanding except as the offspring of
doing ’, then the understanding that students gain or the enlarging of
horizons that takes place appropriately occurs in the give and take of dis-
cursive inquiry.37 The ‘doing’ to which he referred signifies more than an
absorption of ideas but their active rearrangement, critical examination, and
synthesis with other ideas, an active process of thought that occurs both in
the privacy of inner reflection and, more important for Dewey, in the public
form of co-operative discussion.
The accent that Dewey placed on education as inquiry and on teaching as
the nurturing of the students’ intellectual capacity and habits of mind carries
important implications regarding the issue of instilling beliefs. In the field of
philosophy, as in many others, educators often see their role in the classroom
as that of authoritative judge of what is true. A long-standing tradition has it
that the professor is something of a venerable figure, particularly in his or her
own classroom, a member of the intellectual elite perhaps and in virtue of
whose expertise one’s role includes instilling particular beliefs of one’s own
into the minds of the students. To teach and to learn, after all, is to teach and
learn what is true, and who is the most competent judge of this but the
esteemed personage at the front of the room? If, for instance, an idea
emerges from the general discussion that passes for true while the professor
knows better, or believes otherwise, then it is the professor’s role to instruct
students in their errors and to profess the truth. This conventional and still
widespread view undoubtedly contains some plausibility, however Dewey
would often express the need for caution on the issue of instilling debatable
views in students’ minds on the pretense of authority or special expertise. If
the knowledge that one is teaching in a course on political philosophy, for
instance, concerns the struggle between classes in a market economy rather
than a point of incontrovertible truth, then ‘education becomes simply a
matter of inculcation – in short, of agitation and propaganda’.38 Competent
educators, from elementary schoolteachers to university professors, realize
the influence they exert on the minds of the young, and in the case of
philosophy professors and their students how credulous the latter can be in
the face of opinions confidently asserted by the former. Such credulity, even
168 Education in the Human Sciences

in the intellectual make-up of the advanced student, easily makes for a blurring
of the line between instruction and inculcation or between education and
indoctrination. Insofar as education involves the art of thinking, and insofar as
‘passivity is the opposite of thought’, the students’ passive deference to the pro-
fessor’s philosophical views is mis-educative and easily shades into indoctrina-
tion. An analogous phenomenon in the elementary grades is what Dewey
referred to as ‘satisfying the teacher instead of the problem’. As he wrote,

The operation of the teacher’s own mental habit tends, unless carefully
watched and guided, to make the child a student of the teacher’s peculi-
arities rather than of the subjects that he is supposed to study. His chief
concern is to accommodate himself to what the teacher expects of him,
rather than to devote himself energetically to the problems of subject
matter. ‘Is this right?’ comes to mean ‘Will this answer or this process
satisfy the teacher?’ – instead of meaning ‘Does it satisfy the inherent
conditions of the problem?’39

Any university professor knows how common it is for students presumed to

be intellectually mature to be more urgently concerned with satisfying the
professor than the problem, and it is a matter that is more urgent still when
the professor intimates that the students would do well to agree with his or
her philosophical position. This intimation, to which students are often care-
fully attuned, effectively brings thinking to a halt.
If it is the art of thinking that a philosophical education would foster,
over and above information about the great philosophical systems of the
past and present, what this requires is ‘the active participation of students
in reaching conclusions and forming attitudes’, while from professors it
requires a measure of forbearance in propagating their own beliefs.40 The
latter entails not that they remain silent in their views but that they express
them in the spirit of pragmatic inquiry rather than as the incontestable
facts for which students can often mistake them. Further, it requires culti-
vating the intellectual virtues that will enable the learning process to
continue long after the period of formal education ends and that make it
possible for students to engage intelligently both with the problems of
philosophy and with what Dewey called ‘the problems of men’. Philosophy
must not lose contact with the culture of which it is a part and the problems
that belong to it. Philosophers must not retreat into new forms of scholas-
ticism while training students to follow suit, but must reverse the trend
toward hyper-specialization and technification that lead to the disconnec-
tion that Dewey saw between much of the philosophical discourse of the
twentieth century and the actual modes of practice and problematic
situations that beset present society.
Teaching Philosophy: The Scholastic and the Thinker 169

What calls for thinking, argued Dewey the philosopher and public
intellectual, is the state of the culture as we presently find it no less than the
conceptual and formal issues of academic philosophy. An education in this
field must therefore equip students with the knowledge and capacities of
mind that allow them no longer to be ‘silent partners in the intellectual life
of humanity’. While a philosophical education hardly affords a guarantee of
success in this regard, ‘it does acquaint the student’, as Dewey expressed it,
‘with the forces that create ideas and make them potent, and it should give
some increase of expertness in the use of the tools by which the leading ideas
of humanity are worked out and tested’. Education will always serve a prac-
tical function in helping students to make a living, yet as he continued, ‘to
have some part in the making of ideas is a necessary part in the making of a
living that is worth living, and the chief justification of philosophical study is
that it renders the student more apt at this particular kind of making’.41 This
is an ambitious view of what the formal study of philosophy can achieve, one
premised on an equally ambitious view of philosophy itself and the role that
the philosopher can play in the general culture. If such views are out of step
with Dewey’s time and our own, they remain continuous with the Greek ideal
of bringing the classical love of wisdom to bear on the living of life and the
search for the good.

Nietzsche and the philosopher’s education

These views show an interesting affinity with a philosopher whose name is
rarely mentioned in the same breath as Dewey and with whose works it
appears Dewey had at most a passing acquaintance: Friedrich Nietzsche. The
condition of philosophy and the role of the thinker were major preoccupa-
tions of both figures, and the assessments that they offered were similar in
both tone and substance. On the question of the state of philosophy during
his day, Nietzsche was characteristically harsh in his opinion and, like Dewey,
brought this assessment to bear on his conception of a philosophical educa-
tion. Nietzsche’s assessment is not surprising given his love of criticism both
moderate and immoderate, yet what is surprising is the similar note on which
both the American and the German thinker pronounced their critiques of
the philosophy of their day and the manner in which these critiques
informed their educational views. While the differences between their philo-
sophical positions clearly run deep, their views on the questions that are
before us exhibit sufficient similarities to warrant some creative rapproche-
ment. I wish therefore to return to Nietzsche’s critique and to ask a few
slightly awkward questions about its contemporary relevance as well as its
educational implications. What is the self-image under which philosophy has
labored from Nietzsche’s and Dewey’s times to our own, what ultimately is
170 Education in the Human Sciences

the role of the philosopher in a culture, and what relevance does this have
to a philosophical education? I shall argue not that Nietzsche surpassed
Dewey on any of these issues but that the former offered insights that the
latter might well have drawn upon while violating neither the letter nor the
spirit of his own position, insights that we would do well to recall.
Let us begin by outlining Nietzsche’s rather broad-ranging critique of the
philosophy and philosophers of his day before turning to the educational
consequences of this critique. Nietzsche would cast his net still wider than
Dewey, applying his assessment not only to his contemporaries but to the
entire tradition stemming from Socrates. The philosophers of the nine-
teenth century and prior, Nietzsche held, had committed errors so
numerous and profound that documenting their full extent is a daunting
and perhaps impossible task. I shall focus therefore on several of the major
critiques from which many of the smaller and more specific criticisms are
derived, beginning with the general enervation of philosophy that he
believed to be something of an epidemic by his time.
The roots of this phenomenon, Nietzsche believed, extend many centuries
prior to the nineteenth, in the philosophical systems of Plato and Aristotle as
well as in the person of Socrates. What this period represents, for Nietzsche,
is not a transition from mythos to logos but ‘a decline of the instincts’ and the
decisive triumph of the Apollonian over the Dionysian.42 Philosophical
thinking invariably constitutes an instinctive activity of sorts, a form of self-
expression not unlike the artistic. If Greek tragedy represented, in Nietzsche’s
view, the supreme achievement of ancient culture, it was because of its power
to synthesize the rational spirit of the Apollonian with the instinctive drive of
the Dionysian, a synthesis that would not be duplicated by the greatest of the
Greek philosophers or by any who would follow. Philosophy from this point
forward would be dominated by dichotomies of reason or passion, theory or
practice, reality or appearance, necessity or contingency, and so on, all of
which both Nietzsche and Dewey would decisively reject.
The enervation of philosophy of which Nietzsche spoke was a symptom of
this ancient decline of the instincts and along with them the only ground
from which philosophy could emerge. ‘The history of philosophy’ then
became ‘a secret raging against the preconditions of life, against the value
feelings of life, against partisanship in favor of life.’43 With Socrates began
the renunciation of the instincts, of the body and the senses, of appearance
and experience in favor of the rational and other-worldly, creating a trajec-
tory that would orient all later philosophers in one way or another. The loss
of the Dionysian instincts in philosophy led directly to its decline or perhaps
its stillbirth, since for Nietzsche there was no time either prior to Socrates or
later in which philosophy would synthesize the Apollonian and Dionysian in
the manner of the ancient tragedians.
Teaching Philosophy: The Scholastic and the Thinker 171

By Nietzsche’s own time, philosophers had become very much as Dewey

later described them: university men, scholastics, specialists, decidedly not
what Nietzsche or Dewey regarded as the philosopher’s proper calling. As
Nietzsche would write in Beyond Good and Evil, ‘I insist that people should
finally stop confounding philosophical laborers, and scientific men gener-
ally, with philosophers; precisely at this point we should be strict about giving
“each his due,” and not far too much to those and far too little to these.’44
Nietzsche would often demarcate rather carefully philosophers from a range
of academic professionals that included scholars, critics, historians, scien-
tists, and philosophical laborers, all of whom far outnumbered the former.
A typical expression of this point from the notes to The Will to Power reads as

Superstition about philosophers: confusion with scholars and scientists. As

if values were inherent in things and all one had to do was grasp them! To
what extent they study under the direction of given values (their hatred of
appearance, the body, etc.). . . . At last, confusion goes so far that one
regards Darwinism as philosophy: and now the scholars and scientists

The philosopher, for Nietzsche, is a fundamentally creative and free spirit,

beholden to no values or judgments that are not of one’s own explicit
fashioning. The academics from whom he distinguished the philosopher
follow a trajectory of someone else’s design and values that they neither
created nor chose. Of scholars and specialists Nietzsche would write with
palpable disdain:

. . . they are all losers who have been brought back under the hegemony of
science, after having desired more of themselves at some time without
having had the right to this ‘more’ and its responsibilities – and who now
represent, in word and deed, honorably, resentfully, and vengefully, the
unbelief in the masterly task and masterfulness of philosophy.46

Countless such remarks may be found in Nietzsche’s works, and what they
clearly signify is a lament for philosophy itself and the disappearance of an
ideal among those who were calling themselves philosophers. The note of
contempt in such remarks is consistent and unmistakable: ‘For this is the
truth [says Zarathustra]: I have left the house of scholars and slammed the
door behind me.’47 Why this note of contempt, we might ask? Is this merely
symptomatic of an unusually cantankerous personality or is there a properly
philosophical point to this?
To answer this we must understand Nietzsche’s rather elevated conception
172 Education in the Human Sciences

of philosophy and the philosopher and how the thought of his day quite
obviously fell short not only of this ideal but of philosophy’s original self-
understanding as the love of wisdom. I shall discuss Nietzsche’s positive
conception of the philosopher in more detail in due course. For now, it will
suffice to note that its principal themes include value-creation, inventiveness,
critical questioning, depth of understanding, breadth of vision, and respon-
sibility for one’s culture. The academic laborer of the nineteenth century
lacked not one but all of these qualities, Nietzsche fervently believed; their
business requires a narrowing of vision, a focused and limited range of
knowledge, and a self-restraint that is antithetical to free-spirited question-
ing. Fundamentally, they are servants of received thought: analysts and
systematizers, commentators, followers and managers of ideas not their own.
‘It is for these investigators to make everything that has happened and been
esteemed so far easy to look over, easy to think over, intelligible and man-
ageable, to abbreviate everything long, even “time,” and to overcome the
entire past.’ He continues: ‘Genuine philosophers, however, are commanders and
legislators: they say, “thus it shall be!” They first determine the Whither and For
What of man, and in so doing have at their disposal the preliminary labor of
all philosophical laborers, all who have overcome the past.’48
The philosophers of Nietzsche’s time were scholastic in Dewey’s sense,
‘mere spectators in everything’, as Zarathustra put it: ‘Like those who stand
in the street and stare at the people passing by, so they too wait and stare at
thoughts that others have thought.’ Such scholars ‘crack knowledge as one
cracks nuts’ – again not a complimentary description, even while Nietzsche
would occasionally qualify this by suggesting that the philosopher’s educa-
tion must include a certain quantity of scholarly labor as a precondition for
thought.49 Yet a precondition is all that it is, and it is this fact of which the
philosophers of Nietzsche’s time had lost sight. For this advocate of perspec-
tivism it was necessary to a philosopher’s development that they master the
skills of the scholar, critic, historian, and what have you, ‘to be able to see with
many different eyes and consciences, from a height and into every
distance’.50 Creative thought undoubtedly requires that we stand on others’
shoulders, but as a means of finding a voice of our own, not in order to
become lifelong scribes and disciples. For Nietzsche, even the greatest of
German thinkers – Kant and Hegel – had been but great critics and schema-
tizers, not philosophers in this sense. Anyone following their lead could at
best remain at their level while a vast majority of their number would of
course fall far below. One implication of this is that ‘the philosopher should
be a rare plant’, above all not one to be confused with the academics of the
nineteenth-century university.51
The failure of the professors to rise above the condition of laborer creates
further problems when the judgments and evaluations of the past are
Teaching Philosophy: The Scholastic and the Thinker 173

adopted as a kind of faith. This is a faith, of course, that does not realize it is
a faith and that indeed regards itself as at the furthest remove from this: it
represents a call to rational order, to certain truth and justice. It is a rejec-
tion of appearances and uncertainty, of unreasoning faith and prejudice of
any kind. Nietzsche’s rejoinder is that the philosophers are one and all
believers in ‘the faith in opposite values’, in an endless series of dichotomies
whose values are hierarchically ordered and unquestioned.52 Reality and
appearance, truth and falsehood, objectivity and subjectivity, good and evil,
and so on remain incontrovertible polarities between which we are com-
pelled to choose, and where there is no choice to be made but for how to
articulate the meaning of the former in each of these pairings. In failing to
question the dichotomies themselves, philosophers fall victim to historical
forgetfulness and transform evaluations and interpretations into an ortho-
doxy. Concepts that are historical contingencies, symbols, and expressions of
a particular form of life or will to power become transcendental deliverances
to be analyzed and systematized but not questioned. Here we arrive at the
heart of Nietzsche’s critique:

You ask me about the idiosyncrasies of philosophers? . . . There is their

lack of historical sense, their hatred of even the idea of becoming, their
Egyptianism. They think they are doing a thing honour when they de-
historicize it, sub specie aeterni – when they make a mummy of it. All that
philosophers have handled for millennia has been conceptual mummies;
nothing actual has escaped from their hands alive.

Such philosophers are ‘conceptual idolaters’; ‘they have trusted in concepts

as completely as they have mistrusted the senses: they have not stopped to
consider that concepts and words are our inheritance from ages in which
thinking was very modest and unclear’.53
It is the tendency toward historical forgetfulness above all that causes
philosophy to deteriorate into scholasticism and idolatry. If the classical love
of wisdom had by Nietzsche’s time been transformed into an orthodoxy of
received concepts and values it was the thinker’s task to philosophize with a
hammer, which always means not to demolish such values but to question
them in a radically undogmatic way. Yet this is precisely what his contem-
poraries had failed to do, leaving philosophy with an altogether false objec-
tivism of reified symbols and unquestioned values. This lack of historical
consciousness contributed to philosophy’s reduction in the modern period
to the theory of knowledge, with its erroneous notions of objectivity,
certainty, and epistemic foundations. Philosophical thought that conceived
of itself as a quest for incontrovertible grounds amounted, as Nietzsche put
it, to a ‘doctrine of abstinence – a philosophy that never gets beyond the
174 Education in the Human Sciences

threshold and takes pains to deny itself the right to enter – that is philosophy
in its last throes’.54 A thinking that was free-spirited and questioning had no
quarter under these conditions and on the pretense of objective reason
succumbed to what Zarathustra would call the ‘spirit of gravity’. A philoso-
phy that was beholden to science and that idolized received concepts was a
solemn business indeed; it required from the scholar a painstaking sobriety
and a seriousness of purpose not unlike the priests of old to whom Nietzsche
would compare modern philosophers. It required as well an increasingly
minute division of intellectual labor which again had the effect of narrowing
vision and hemming thought within ever smaller specialties.
Nietzsche’s critique of his contemporaries, again like Dewey’s, did not
exclude the personal foibles of philosophers. Ever the psychologist, Niet-
zsche would often remark upon ‘the self-glorification and self-exaltation of
scholars [which] now stand in full bloom, in their finest spring, everywhere’.
If philosophy during the long period of the Middle Ages had been the
handmaid of theology, forcing the thinker to adopt the ways of the schol-
astic, its modern transformation into the handmaid of science changed
nothing essential and left entirely intact the ‘Jesuitism of mediocrity’ that
prevailed among scholars prior to the Enlightenment, including its charac-
teristic preoccupations and ostensible virtues. Respectability and reputation
remain uppermost here, whether we are speaking of the medieval school-
men or modern philosophers, scholars, or scientists:

Let us look more closely: what is the scientific man? To begin with, a type
of man that is not noble, with the virtues of a type of man that is not noble,
which is to say, a type that does not dominate and is neither authoritative
nor self-sufficient: he has industriousness, patient acceptance of his place
in rank and file, evenness and moderation in his abilities and needs, an
instinct for his equals and for what they need; for example, that bit of
independence and green pasture without which there is no quiet work,
that claim to honor and recognition . . . , that sunshine of a good name,
that constant attestation of his value and utility which is needed to
overcome again and again the internal mistrust which is the sediment in
the hearts of all dependent men and herd animals.55

The personal vanity of scholars was a frequent object of his criticism. No

modest man himself, of course, Nietzsche’s own brand of immodesty was of
a rather different and somehow more forgivable kind than what he so often
diagnosed among his contemporaries: a petty egotism rooted in mediocrity
and envy of superiors. The psychology of the scholar was one of ressentiment
and respectable ordinariness, a character not without ambition and skill in
satisfying the requirements of professional life, but uncreative and unin-
Teaching Philosophy: The Scholastic and the Thinker 175

spired. The nineteenth-century philosopher cum university professor desired

above all the ‘dignities and respectabilities’ that Zarathustra contrasted with
the ‘freedom and the air over fresh soil’ which were the conditions of his own
proper existence.56 Little can be expected when the comforts of position and
reputation had thoroughly supplanted the free-spirited urgency and untime-
liness of the Nietzschean philosopher.
For Nietzsche and Dewey alike, the philosopher’s reason for being must
still be understood in terms of the classical love of wisdom, where this means
neither the division of knowledge into an endless array of specialties nor its
altogether secure possession, but rather its unending pursuit. For both
figures, philosophy’s proper object is not any merely formal or technical
knowledge but a knowledge of what is of ultimate importance to human
beings as individuals and as a culture. For this reason the self-image of
philosophy must not be what for so many it is today: that of a science or
quasi-science, a technical specialty of logical and linguistic analysis or deduc-
tive formalism. Philosophy, Dewey and Nietzsche both believed, must retain
something of its original self-understanding while aspiring to something
rather more difficult and experimental than the norm of their time and, still
more, our own.
Both figures would also emphasize the responsibility of the philosopher,
one that expands far beyond the obligations of the scholar or professional
and that takes upon itself a wider responsibility for the culture of which one
is a part. Nietzsche’s philosopher, as he would say of himself, is a psycholo-
gist of sorts and ‘cultural physician’, responsible for the detection of
maladies such as the nihilism that he himself diagnosed as a widespread
condition of modern Europe. It is a responsibility that includes pronouncing
a verdict on how the general culture is faring and indeed on the value of
human life itself. Philosophy does not shy from such questions, but takes
them up in the boldest spirit possible, contestable though any judgment we
form will inevitably be. Dewey as well would speak of philosophy as an
examination of the roots of one’s culture and an interpretation of its under-
currents as they manifest themselves in the arts, religion, politics, language,
and so on. Though Dewey would not be given to Nietzschean excess on this
point, or any other, their positions here are substantially the same: philoso-
phy properly concerns itself with cultural problems the scope and depth of
which transcend all specialized inquiry. No mere technicians, philosophers
‘derive their substance from the stream of culture’ and remain tied to the
traditions in which they invariably stand and which supply them with a
fundamental orientation.57 They are charged not only with interpreting
culture but with getting out front of it and if need be supplying it with a new
direction. Philosophy, Dewey would write,
176 Education in the Human Sciences

is a language in which the deepest social problems and aspirations of a

given time and a given people are expressed in intellectual and imper-
sonal symbols. It has been well said that philosophy is a reflective self-
consciousness of what first exists spontaneously, effectively, in the feelings,
deeds, ideas of a people.58

Philosophy so conceived ‘is a conversion of such culture as exists into

consciousness’, a translation of its symbols and aspirations into a coherent
way of thinking.59
For related reasons both figures would also emphasize the difficulty of
philosophical thinking. Owing to its broad-ranging responsibility, its neces-
sarily creative dimension, and other factors, such thinking ‘is the most diffi-
cult occupation in which man engages’, as Dewey put it.60 For Nietzsche, the
untimeliness of the thinker, his standing as ‘of necessity a man of tomorrow
and the day after tomorrow’, adds to the difficulty of the task. Such a thinker
invariably stands opposed to the ideals of his time and is charged with
sounding out these ideals for signs of their deterioration into idols as well as
with fashioning new ideals. Thinking is an essentially creative, experimental,
and also free-spirited activity, one given to adopting a variety of perspectives
without becoming dogmatic about any of them. The ‘new philosophers’ or
‘philosophers of the future’ whom Nietzsche believed or hoped to be on the
way were ‘men of experiments’, ‘attempters’, ‘very free spirits’, posers of ques-
tions and lovers of masks in addition to being ‘friends of “truth”’. Such a
philosopher ‘lives “unphilosophically” and “unwisely,” above all imprudently
. . . – he risks himself constantly, he plays the wicked game’.61 Above all,
Nietzsche’s philosopher of the future is a solitary and inventive spirit,
resolute in will and fated invariably to swim against the tide of the present.
Good democrat that he was, Dewey would never describe the philosophical
enterprise as a solitary endeavor, yet a singularly demanding one it is.
Both figures also sought to reconnect thought to life in ways that make
philosophy of obvious relevance to the world and to human experience
outside of the cloister. Nietzsche’s aim in this respect was to reconnect the
Apollonian dimension of thought with the Dionysian, a project that required
a rehabilitation of the latter in view of its expulsion from philosophy at the
hands of the Greeks. It is a comprehensive outlook for which philosophy
properly strives, both thinkers maintained, one that transcends the point of
view of the specialist and encompasses within itself an ever-increasing
number of ideas and points of view. The possibility of attaining what Dewey
called ‘an outlook upon life’ in the sense of ‘a general attitude toward it’, or in
Nietzsche’s words ‘the height for a comprehensive look’, belongs to the
philosophical non-specialist alone.62 The purpose of serious thought in
general, as both figures were keenly aware, is not only to clarify concepts but
Teaching Philosophy: The Scholastic and the Thinker 177

to enhance and often to alter radically the general course of human

existence. ‘Whenever philosophy has been taken seriously,’ Dewey wrote, ‘it
has always been assumed that it signified achieving a wisdom which would
influence the conduct of life.’63
Clearly, these two thinkers did not hold identical views on the questions
that are before us, but what their respective critiques and positive views share
is of more than historical significance. A philosophy that understands itself
as a quasi-science or technical specialty of any kind, Dewey and Nietzsche
likewise warned us, inevitably becomes moribund and disconnected from
vital human experience. That their warnings have gone largely unheeded by
later generations of philosophers will, I trust, be evident to all. Their views
on the state of philosophy during their lifetimes are strident, uncompromis-
ing, and unfashionable by the standards of their time and, still more, our
own. Yet few philosophers at present will have difficulty recognizing some-
thing of themselves, or at any rate their profession, in Dewey’s and Niet-
zsche’s remarks. If not all of us are ‘scholastics’, ‘herd animals’, or some
similarly unkind epithet, we nonetheless are all specialists now – technicians
or would-be scientists of one kind or another, analysts, critics, disciples, or
scholarly interpreters of some Master Thinker. This is how graduate students
are trained and how the professional ladder is climbed, even while it is no
secret that specialization precludes the more comprehensive outlook for
which both of these philosophers called and which they and the greatest of
philosophers have always sought to articulate. Today, however, a familiar
pattern finds students becoming enamored with philosophy at the under-
graduate level and proceeding to graduate school only to find blinkers
quickly affixed, often for life. From this point forward, specialists are relieved
of having to learn of any other field apart from a few preliminaries, or even
of the history of their own specialty. It is now common, for instance, for new
PhDs in moral or political philosophy not to have read more than bits and
pieces of even the most important historical texts in their own field, to have
more than a little knowledge only about the latest technical puzzles that are
causing a stir in the journals, and to race from conference to conference for
the purpose of building a CV and competing for employment. It is equally
common for specialists not to read the literatures of traditions not their own,
for liberals or feminists to take seriously the literature of liberalism or
feminism alone, or even a narrow strain of this literature, closing off any
possibility of conversation across boundaries of any kind. Specialization and
ahistoricism have emerged together and have become difficult to untangle.
It is a mystifying proposition that one can be expected to advance the con-
versation when one lacks more than superficial knowledge of its origins and
history, and when one is trained to take seriously only one’s fellow travelers
in liberalism, feminism, or what have you.
178 Education in the Human Sciences

For as long as philosophy retains the self-image of science it will continue

the slide into irrelevance of which students and non-philosophers so often
and so rightly complain. The general public largely stopped listening to
philosophers long ago, at about the time when the latter began speaking
exclusively to and about themselves and within ever smaller circles of insiders
and specialists. Were they wrong to do so? Is it a symptom of anti-intellectu-
alism when the general public is perfectly incurious about analytic meta-
physics, formal logic, or decision theory? Let me suggest that it is not. Nor
are they to be faulted for their failure to make household names of the
leading figures in these and many other philosophical subdisciplines.
Philosophy as science – meta, aspiring, handmaid to, quasi-, or pseudo-
– is a recipe for the scholasticism and hyperspecialism of which Dewey and
Nietzsche warned. Their warnings may have been in vain and far too late, yet
it may at least be hoped that conceptions of philosophy reminiscent of their
ideals or even of philosophy’s original signification will emerge, as a correc-
tive perhaps to the technicist and scientistic excesses of the present.
A philosophical education that takes Nietzsche’s critique seriously would
accentuate a kind of creativity and experimentation that is roughly consis-
tent with Dewey’s view while broadening somewhat the notion of experi-
mentation. Experimental thinking as Nietzsche conceived of it has no
model. It is not a science in Dewey’s sense but a ‘gay science’, a thinking that
is grounded in the Dionysian no less than the Apollonian, the imaginative
and questioning no less than the demonstrative. The creativity of which
Nietzsche would speak means in the first instance the creation of values and
revaluation of received values and knowledge-claims of whatever kind, in
particular the decided refusal of the philosopher’s traditional ‘faith in
opposite values’.
Nietzsche’s stance on a philosophical education is a direct entailment of
his conception of philosophy itself and of the role of the thinker. The aim of
this education is clearly not to produce the ‘philosophical laborers’ and
priestly types that were the objects of his contempt, but to create the condi-
tions that make creative thinking a genuine possibility. Nietzsche would
express this in his characteristic way by declaring the ‘supreme objective’ of
this education to be ‘the production of the philosophical genius’, and
identified the conditions that would make this possible as follows:

. . . free manliness of character, early knowledge of mankind, no scholarly

education, no narrow patriotism, no necessity for bread-winning, no ties
with the state – in short, freedom and again freedom: that wonderful and
perilous element in which the Greek philosophers were able to grow up.
Teaching Philosophy: The Scholastic and the Thinker 179

If it is free thinkers that an education in philosophy would produce, a large

dose of freedom – the freedom to inquire in the direction that an intelligent
mind wishes and to arrive at opinions that are genuinely one’s own – is its
most indispensable condition. Such learning will not be limited to studying
the great systems of the past, and certainly not as an end in itself. In his

And finally, what in the world have our young men to do with the history
of philosophy? Is the confusion of opinions supposed to discourage them
from having opinions of their own? Are they supposed to learn how to join
in the rejoicing at how wonderfully far we ourselves have come? Are they
supposed even to learn to hate philosophy or to despise it? One might
almost think so when one knows how students have to torment themselves
for the sake of their philosophical examinations so as to cram into their
poor brain the maddest and most caustic notions of the human spirit
together with the greatest and hardest to grasp. The only critique of a
philosophy that is possible and that proves something, namely trying to
see whether one can live in accordance with it, has never been taught at
universities: all that has ever been taught is a critique of words by men of
other words. And now imagine a youthful head, not very experienced in
living, in which fifty systems in the form of words and fifty critiques of
them are preserved side-by-side and intermingled – what a desert, what a
return to barbarism, what a mockery of an education in philosophy!64

One who would learn to think philosophically would do well to learn some-
thing of the history of philosophy – a history with which Nietzsche himself
was well acquainted – yet neither as an end in itself nor to acquire Bloom’s
reverence for tradition, but as a training ground for thinking thoughts of
one’s own. Ideas and values are what one lives by, and it is in this spirit that
Nietzsche would have us teach and learn the history of philosophy – as
something to be lived, not entertained as historical antiques or blackboard
Not all of our students will become Nietzsche’s geniuses. Perhaps none of
them will, but it remains that an education that is oriented by this aim is
more likely to produce competent thinkers than one that serves more ped-
estrian aims. What is abundantly clear is that the education that Nietzsche
and Dewey both criticized – one dominated by intellectual history, the mem-
orization of lifeless ‘words’, and unimaginative testing – produces only a
stockpiled memory, and only under the best of circumstances. Under more
usual circumstances it produces ennui and a disconnection between the life
of the mind and life. A philosophical education that puts a premium on
independent thought is informed but not overwhelmed by intellectual
180 Education in the Human Sciences

history. It harks back to Greek philosophy’s marriage of education and the

good life while also regarding the relation between education and philoso-
phy itself as far more intimate than it has appeared in recent times.
Is it asking too much of students of philosophy and their educators to
strive for a thinking that is at once historically informed and rigorous while
also experimental and free-spirited? It is a strenuous ideal that asks students
to become Nietzsche’s cultural physicians and Deweyan problem-solvers at
the same time that they are becoming grounded in the history of ideas, yet
anyone who has fallen under the spell of this particular discipline in their
youth well knows how attainable this ideal is, how the love of ideas leads the
mind from one question, text, or field of inquiry to the next in a process that
never ends. This, in short, is what educational success in this field looks like:
the mind that is restless, unsatisfied, undogmatic, and unrelenting in ques-
tioning itself and its world. If it does not revolutionize the culture in quite
the way that Nietzsche wished and himself aspired to do, it might more
modestly operationalize the ancient imperative to know thyself.

1. Dewey, ‘Philosophy and Education’ (1930). LW 5: 290–1.
2. Dewey, ‘The Future of Philosophy’ (1947). LW 17: 466–7.
3. Dewey, Experience and Education (1938). LW 13: 31. As Dewey remarked in 1934,
‘There is complaint, and rightly, that the population is too amenable, on the whole,
to the influence of propaganda. But why is it? Why are so many people so ready to
swallow what is persistently told them, or told them with an air of authority? Why is
there so much gullibility? I do not believe that it is mainly from lack of native intelli-
gence. It is because they have acquired the habit of listening and of accepting, instead
of that of inquiry, and, if you please, of intelligent scepticism. There are other causes
for this mental passivity. Men and women working mechanically all day, tending
machines, are not likely to be especially alert. But I think the schools have to accept
some responsibility for the prevalence of this habit of mind. While methods of
teaching in arithmetic, history, geography, in fact, all school subjects, aid in estab-
lishing the mental habit of passive acceptance, while docility at the expense of an
inquiring disposition, is too generally cultivated, the evil culminates in the attitudes
that are formed in political, social, and economic matters.’ Dewey, ‘Education for a
Changing Social Order’ (1934). LW 9: 159–60.
4. Dewey, ‘Modern Philosophy’ (1952). LW 16: 411.
5. Dewey, ‘The Scholastic and the Speculator’ (1891). EW 3: 150–1.
6. Dewey, Knowing and the Known (1949). LW 16: 249.
7. Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920). MW 12: 91. ‘The Liberal College and its
Enemies’ (1924). MW 15: 208.
8. Dewey, ‘Philosophy’s Future in our Scientific Age’ (1949). LW 16: 377.
9. Dewey, ‘Three Contemporary Philosophers’ (1920). MW 12: 239–40. The paragraph
immediately following reads: ‘In one of his articles in which he extols the merit of
pure mathematics, and deals with the distinction between the practical life of man
and his ideal life, Russell avers that the most one can hope for in practical life is some
sort of adjustment between the ideal on the one hand, and what is possible on the
Teaching Philosophy: The Scholastic and the Thinker 181

other. But in the world of pure reason, no such adjustment is needed; there is nothing
to limit development or to stand in the way of continuing increment of creative
activity and noble aspiration. This world of pure reason is far above all human
desiring; it is immeasurably beyond the impoverished phenomena of nature; there
man can construct a systematic universe for himself and dwell therein in perfect
peace. There human freedom can be realized, and the sufferings of practical exis-
tence be known no more.’ Similar remarks are found in MW 2: 64; MW 3: 77; MW 4:
181–2; MW 9: 91; LW 5: 176; LW 8: 39; LW 14: 324 and 334; LW 15: 272; LW 16: 249
and 361–2.
10. Dewey, ‘Challenge to Liberal Thought’ (1944). LW 15: 272.
11. Dewey, ‘The Liberal College and its Enemies’ (1924). MW 15: 208.
12. Dewey, ‘Academic Freedom’ (1902). MW 2: 64.
13. Dewey, Experience and Education (1938). LW 13: 28.
14. Dewey, ‘The Bearings of Pragmatism upon Education’ (1908). MW 4: 182.
15. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 250.
16. Dewey, ‘Culture and Industry in Education’ (1906). MW 3: 289.
17. Dewey, ‘Why Study Philosophy?’ (1893). EW 4: 63, 64, 65.
18. Dewey, ‘Ethical Principles Underlying Education’ (1897). EW 5: 61.
19. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 165.
20. Dewey, Art as Experience (1934). LW 10: 80.
21. Dewey, How We Think (rev. edn, 1933). LW 8: 161–2.
22. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 168.
23. Dewey, Knowing and the Known (1949). LW 16: 248.
24. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 168.
25. Dewey, ‘Ethical Principles Underlying Education’ (1897). EW 5: 74 note 1.
26. Dewey, Experience and Education (1938). LW 13: 11.
27. Dewey, ‘Philosophy and Civilization’ (1927). LW 3: 7.
28. Dewey, Experience and Education (1938). LW 13: 20, 11.
29. Ibid., 29.
30. Dewey, ‘How the Mind Learns’, Educational Lectures Before Brigham Young
Academy (1901). LW 17: 216, 221. ‘The Future of Philosophy’ (1947). LW 17: 467.
31. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 22, 23.
32. Dewey, ‘The Supreme Intellectual Obligation’ (1934). LW 9: 99.
33. Dewey, ‘A College Course: What Should I Expect From It?’ (1890). EW 3: 52.
34. Dewey, Experience and Education (1938). LW 13: 37.
35. Dewey, ‘The Relation of Theory to Practice in Education’ (1904). MW 3: 265.
36. Dewey, ‘Some Stages of Logical Thought’ (1900). MW 1: 161–2.
37. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 284.
38. Dewey, ‘Class Struggle and the Democratic Way’ (1936). LW 11: 384.
39. Dewey, How We Think (rev. edn, 1933). LW 8: 327, 160–1.
40. Dewey, ‘Education and Social Change’ (1937). LW 11: 415.
41. Dewey, ‘The Study of Philosophy’ (1911). MW 6: 137.
42. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale,
ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1968), sec. 439, p. 242.
43. Ibid., sec. 461, p. 253.
44. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1989),
sec. 211, p. 135.
45. Nietzsche, The Will to Power, sec. 422, p. 226.
46. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, sec. 204, p. 123.
47. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Penguin, 2003),
p. 147.
48. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, sec. 211, p. 136.
182 Education in the Human Sciences

49. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p.147.

50. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, sec. 211, p. 136.
51. Nietzsche, The Will to Power, sec. 420, p. 226.
52. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, sec. 2, p. 10.
53. Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Penguin, 2003),
p. 45. The Will to Power, sec. 409, p. 220.
54. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, sec. 204, p. 123.
55. Ibid., sec. 204, p. 121; sec. 206, pp. 125, 126.
56. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p. 147.
57. Dewey, Art as Experience (1934), LW 10: 270.
58. Dewey, ‘Philosophy and American National Life’ (1905). MW 3: 73.
59. Dewey, ‘Philosophy and Civilization’ (1927). LW 3: 9.
60. Dewey, ‘Philosophies of Freedom’ (1928). LW 3: 112.
61. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, sec. 212, p. 137; sec. 210, p. 134; sec. 42, p. 52;
sec. 44, p. 53; sec. 43, p. 53; sec. 205, p. 125.
62. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 334. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil,
sec. 205, p. 124.
63. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 334.
64. Nietzsche, ‘Schopenhauer as Educator’, Untimely Meditations, trans. R. J. Hollingdale
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 187, 182, 187.
Chapter 5

Teaching Religion:
Spiritual Training or Indoctrination?

When Dewey wrote that ‘too much of traditional education . . . tends to

create the closed mind’, there is no doubt that he was referring in part to the
instilling of religious beliefs which for ages has been a primary goal of
educational institutions of the traditional type.1 Conservatives in particular
have long insisted that a vital dimension of education is ‘faith based’ and
involves the ‘spiritual training’ of the young and the reproduction of reli-
gious tradition. Traditions survive by passing down to the next generation
the accumulated experience and wisdom of the past, and one of the mecha-
nisms by which this is effected is education. Spiritual training runs parallel to
training of the more purely academic sort and to moral education as well,
each element contributing in the conservative’s way of thinking to the true
meaning of education. It would be difficult to overstate the influence this
idea has had throughout human history to the present day and in a great
many, if not indeed all, cultures. It is an idea with which Dewey was, of
course, well familiar and one with which his philosophy of education to all
appearances clashes rather directly. In view of this, one might have expected
Dewey to confront the issue of religious instruction in schools and universi-
ties, yet curiously he did not, or not in the direct and sustained fashion that
his decidedly non-traditional conception of education would lead us to
expect. What provoked his most sustained opposition with respect to ‘the old
education’ are its disconnection from experience, its authoritarianism, and
its tendency to narrow rather than widen students’ horizons.2 The direct
inculcation of religious teachings, however, remained more in the back-
ground of Dewey’s critique than in the foreground where one might think it
belongs, and nowhere in Dewey’s educational writings would he argue
directly and at length against the practice of providing religious instruction
in the schools.
The grounds that Dewey provided for opposition to religious education
are unmistakable and several: religious instruction at an early age severely
weakens the capacity for independent thought, creates an often insur-
mountable prejudice that distorts future inquiry into theological, philo-
sophical, ethical, and related questions, creates deplorable intellectual
habits of docility and deference to authority, promotes dogmatism and

184 Education in the Human Sciences

parochialism rather than their opposites, and in general furthers the cause
of illiberal education. All the arguments that one could wish to make against
religious instruction for the young are present and well articulated in
Dewey’s works, yet curiously he himself applied these arguments to religious
education with some hesitation. Religious education was not treated as a
major theme in any of Dewey’s works, yet that it constitutes a major obstacle
to the educational reform he advocated there can be no doubt.
What I outline in this chapter, accordingly, is a Deweyan position on this
issue which is based upon arguments that he provided while applying them
to our present theme in the direct and sustained way that Dewey himself did
not. My question pertains less to what the proper aims of teaching and
learning particular religious doctrines are, be it at the primary, secondary, or
post-secondary level, than to whether the practice ought to be undertaken at
all. My Deweyan argument is that teaching religion in any manner to the
intellectually immature is mis-educative and that what passes for spiritual
training in countless institutions of learning today can be nothing other than
indoctrination and a distortion of education’s true purpose.
To begin, let us recall a few principles that are fundamental to Dewey’s
critique of traditional education and to his own positive views. A basic prin-
ciple of Dewey’s is that when theorizing about the practice of education, as
with other practices, we must avoid imposing aims on the educative process
that are extraneous to the process itself. Practices always already contain
their own immanent ends, and it is the theorist’s task to identify and inter-
pret what these are and to critique the imposition of aims or means that
negate the practice’s given purpose. If the ultimate end of education is the
art of thinking or the cultivation of intellectual capacity which enables
students to negotiate experience intelligently, this requires that educational
authorities practice restraint regarding the instilling of beliefs to which the
authorities themselves subscribe. It requires an adjustment of pedagogical
means to the ends that are immanent to the learning process and a ground-
ing of that process in the students’ own experience. Where traditional
education errs is in its tendency to ground the process in goals that are exter-
nally imposed and that effectively undermine its true purpose. Regarding
the sources and consequences of these extraneous aims, Dewey wrote the

The vice of externally imposed ends has deep roots. Teachers receive
them from superior authorities; these authorities accept them from what
is current in the community. The teachers impose them upon children. As
a first consequence, the intelligence of the teacher is not free; it is
confined to receiving the aims laid down from above. Too rarely is the
individual teacher so free from the dictation of authoritative supervisor,
Teaching Religion: Spiritual Training or Indoctrination? 185

textbook on methods, prescribed course of study, etc., that he can let his
mind come to close quarters with the pupil’s mind and the subject matter.
This distrust of the teacher’s experience is then reflected in lack of confi-
dence in the responses of pupils. The latter receive their aims through a
double or treble external imposition, and are constantly confused by the
conflict between the aims which are natural to their own experience at the
time and those in which they are taught to acquiesce. Until the demo-
cratic criterion of the intrinsic significance of every growing experience is
recognized, we shall be intellectually confused by the demand for adapt-
ation to external aims.

The external aims to which Dewey here refers include a particular body of
doctrine, be it religious, political, or what have you, that a community
expects educational institutions to instill in the minds of the young or that
such institutions or individual educators themselves decide to impose. When
such ends supplant the aims that are inherent to the educative process itself
– ends that, according to Dewey, are ‘always rigid’ and ‘can only be insisted
upon’ – education becomes merely a means to an end, and where the end
itself is the content of students’ beliefs rather than their ability to fashion
beliefs independently.3
If conventional views on education regard the practice as in all essential
respects a means to an end – the continuation of a tradition, a preparation
for later life, a precondition of gaining a livelihood, etc. – the Deweyan reply
takes the form not of a categorical denial of education’s instrumental value
but of the assertion of a higher and altogether immanent purpose: ‘the edu-
cational process has no need beyond itself; it is its own end’.4 In theorizing
about the aims of education we face a choice between regarding the learning
process as most fundamentally an end or a means, and where asserting the
former does not deny that as a secondary matter (and the qualification is
important) it is also a means to any number of ends beyond itself. This basic
choice is of special relevance to the question of religious instruction. For its
advocates, religious education ultimately serves the purpose of reproducing
a particular tradition of belief in the minds of the young or, more innocu-
ously stated, seeing to students’ spiritual and moral training, where such
training is taken to be distinct from academic training in the usual sense of
the term. Interestingly, Dewey did not reject outright the view that education
serves as a means of social continuity and of the passing down of tradition.
On the contrary, this fundamentally Hegelian thinker would always remain
mindful of the human being’s situatedness in culture and tradition, and was
never tempted into adopting a Hobbesian or strongly individualistic con-
ception of the self. Persons are constituted by the social relations that sustain
them and the traditions of belief and evaluation that provide them with a
186 Education in the Human Sciences

fundamental orientation – yet another theme in Dewey’s philosophy that he

would share with twentieth-century phenomenology. The following passage
is representative of Dewey’s view on this matter:

The child is an organic whole, intellectually, socially, and morally, as well

as physically. We must take the child as a member of society in the
broadest sense, and demand for and from the schools whatever is neces-
sary to enable the child intelligently to recognize all his social relations
and take his part in sustaining them.5

Further, the entire life of the mind takes its orientation from the traditions
in which we stand: ‘There is no thinking which does not present itself on a
background of tradition’, Dewey wrote, and where tradition consists far less
in ‘blind custom’ than in ideas and interpretations that are passed down to
us. ‘Traditions are ways of interpretation and of observation, of valuation, of
everything explicitly thought of. They are the circumambient atmosphere
which thought must breathe; no one ever had an idea except as he inhaled
some of this atmosphere.’6 Well prior to the hermeneutic or interpretive
turn in philosophy, Dewey asked: ‘Would we have any intellectual operations
without the language which is a social product?’ – a question, of course, to
which he replied in the negative while adding that ‘apart from uncondi-
tioned reflexes, like the knee-jerk, it may be questioned whether there is a
single human activity or experience which is not profoundly affected by the
social and cultural environment’.7
Dewey also maintained that education belongs to a larger social under-
taking to transmit the accumulated knowledge and experience of a culture
to the next generation; however the point that he emphasized concerns the
limits of this undertaking and the conditions under which it appropriately
occurs. In this respect Dewey stood in a long line of philosophers going back
to Plato and Aristotle who warn of the inhibiting effect on rational thought
of deference to tradition or past experience. There is a considerable differ-
ence between acknowledging the embeddedness of thought in tradition and
the kind of traditionalism that is often upheld by advocates of conservative
and religious education. Simple repetition of the past is neither rational nor
educative, while tradition itself constitutes not simply the dead weight of the
past which must be conserved for its own sake but ideas that are often useful
in resolving problematic situations of the present. While much of the cur-
riculum in any educational context, in Dewey’s words, ‘represents the
enduring experience and thought of the centuries’, the ultimate justification
for this is not the conservation or reproduction of tradition as an end in itself
but at best as a means: ‘that it [the school or university] may put more effec-
tually the resources of the past at the disposition of the present’. Whereas the
Teaching Religion: Spiritual Training or Indoctrination? 187

traditionalist is likely to view the transmission of past experience and culture

to the young as an end justifiable on grounds of the inherent value or truth
that it contains, and in the case of religious education of the salvation of
souls, Dewey insisted that ‘[t]he sole reason for maintaining the continuity
of culture is to make that culture operative in the conditions of modern
Another basic principle of Dewey’s is that the curriculum at all educa-
tional levels must connect directly with students’ lived experience rather
than be imposed on it from without. The subject matter ought not consist of
a body of entirely ready-made knowledge or belief that teachers must actively
instill and students passively receive, as the traditional model of religious
instruction has it. For experience to be educative, it must unfold organically
rather than according to a predetermined plan; otherwise stated, it is the
process of expanding development rather than the outcome of students’
religious or other beliefs that is the educator’s proper focus. The mark of an
educative experience, for Dewey, is not that it results in anything specific by
way of personal convictions but that it exhibits continuity from one experi-
ence to another, that it broadens horizons and opens minds without fear of
what beliefs students will one day hold. Also relevant here is the simultane-
ously passive and active dimensions of human experience as Dewey con-
ceived of it. Its active dimension is exemplified in scientific experimentation
where again beliefs have the epistemological status of hypotheses which it is
the business of inquiry to confirm or disconfirm rather than doctrines to
which one clings. While intellectual growth requires an experimental frame
of mind regarding ideas in general, Dewey lamented that

[m]en still want the crutch of dogma, of beliefs fixed by authority, to

relieve them of the trouble of thinking and the responsibility of directing
their activity by thought. They tend to confine their own thinking to a
consideration of which one among the rival systems of dogma they will

Even the passive dimension of experience is no simple reception of ideas or

suffering of sense impressions but is a witnessing of the consequences that
follow upon the provisional acceptance or entertainment of a hypothesis,
and is fulfilled in dialectical fashion by an active re-evaluation, again on the
model of experimentation.
Proponents of religious education will object that the growth in experi-
ence that Dewey held out as an ideal is potentially anything but, depending
entirely on that into which one grows. The experience of a criminal may
unfold continuously from one activity or interest to another. Rather than
allow it to culminate where it will, the educator’s obligation is to shape the
188 Education in the Human Sciences

students’ character so that future experience will unfold in the desired

direction, Dewey’s critics will urge, and it is here that positive instruction in
religious and moral doctrines has a place. Dewey took the objection seriously
and replied to it directly in Experience and Education not by denying that one
may grow in a direction that is morally unsound but by asking whether
growth in the direction of a skilled criminal, for instance, ‘promotes or
retards growth in general’. He continued: ‘Does this form of growth create
conditions for further growth, or does it set up conditions that shut off the
person who has grown in this particular direction from the occasions,
stimuli, and opportunities for continuing growth in new directions?’10
Beyond this reply, he expressed considerable reservation on the question of
the capacity of educators to shape students’ character by conscious design.
This reservation is based on several considerations regarding the conditions
that shape character. First, schools are hardly alone in influencing students’
moral character, nor on Dewey’s view is their influence as profound or
lasting as the larger configuration of practices and social relations in which
they are embedded. Students’ experience outside the classroom typically
reaches deeper into who they are than anything that takes place within it,
while schools can fundamentally alter a character formed in an out-of-school
environment only in a limited degree. Further, a person’s character ‘is some-
thing that is formed rather than something that can be taught as geography
and arithmetic are taught’. Its formation is contingent upon the habits of
thought and action that are ‘the fibre of character’ and upon experience
generally. This may and ought to include specific moral instruction about
actions approved of and disapproved of, but even here, Dewey maintained,
more depends on the spirit than the content of such instruction:

Reproof may be given in such a way that dislike of all authority is incul-
cated. Or a child develops skill in evasion and in covering up things that
he knows are disapproved of. Negativism, fear, undue self-consciousness
often result. Consequently the net effect of even direct moral instruction
cannot be foretold, and its efficacy depends upon its fitting into the mass
of conditions which play unconsciously upon the young.11

In short, the roots of character extend deeper than formal religious and
moral instruction reaches and pertain more to the imagination, desires, and
habits that form conduct than to any doctrines instilled by educators.
Dewey’s reservation regarding character formation and religious educa-
tion more generally extends into his critique of direct efforts by educational
institutions to mold the convictions of the young, particularly convictions
that are of obvious contestability and that are instilled into the minds of
students prior to an age when they are capable of rational criticism. The
Teaching Religion: Spiritual Training or Indoctrination? 189

inculcation of controversial beliefs on the pretense of authority, tradition, or

spiritual training, for Dewey, is the veritable antithesis of education and is
vulnerable to criticism on several grounds, beginning with the docility of
mind that indoctrination in any form brings about. The educated mind is
above all adept in the art of thinking or of actively inquiring into a given field
of belief without a predetermined or dogmatically held conviction regarding
what is true. If it is the art of thinking that we would teach, this entails that
‘[w]e must have no misgivings as to what the child shall think. The moment
we stipulate what a child shall think, we make it impossible for him to think
at all.’12 All genuine inquiry requires the freedom to pursue ideas in the
spirit of scientific experimentation and to let whatever conclusions are
reached be what they will or what the general course of investigation deter-
mines. When certain beliefs are declared by educational authorities to be
beyond the scope of such inquiry, students learn not to think but to obey;
‘for thinking’, as Dewey put it, ‘is not the attribute of parrots’, nor of
‘well-trained apes’.13 The outcome this produces is not an intelligent appro-
priation of tradition but a simple uniformity of beliefs uncritically held.
A further argument that Dewey applied specifically to the instilling of
religious beliefs bears on the mis-educative effects of imposing, or attempt-
ing to impose, adult experiences of spirituality upon children and youth.
Children are not small adults, and if they can be said genuinely to have a
spiritual life at all it will not be of the same qualitative nature and depth as
the adult’s experience of sin, redemption, or what have you. Attempting ‘to
force prematurely upon the child either the mature ideas or the spiritual
emotions of the adult is to run the risk of a fundamental danger, that of fore-
stalling future deeper experiences which might otherwise in their season
become personal realities to him’.14 Recalling Dewey’s definition of a mis-
educative experience, this is described as one that closes off possibilities of
further experience rather than the contrary. This occurs, for instance, by
creating an aversion in the student’s mind to a particular domain of ideas or
experience, or indeed to learning in general. The adolescent who is com-
pelled to read Shakespeare and feign comprehension is likely to come away
from the experience with an aversion to Shakespeare or to literature gener-
ally which may remain with them throughout life. By the same token, when
the religious experiences of the adult are effectively forced on the con-
sciousness of the young, the latter are more likely to develop a lasting
aversion to spirituality than an authentic understanding of it.
Regarding the teaching of religion in the public schools, Dewey remarked
briefly in an essay from 1908 that one of the primary missions of the public
school system is to promote social unity, not in the sense of instilling a
particular doctrine but in the sense that by nurturing the intellectual
capacity of the young, schools are at the same time and by the same means
190 Education in the Human Sciences

preparing students for democratic citizenship. If democratic politics involves

a search for social unity amid difference, as in Dewey’s view it does, the
public schools promote this aim ‘in bringing together those of different
nationalities, languages, traditions, and creeds, in assimilating them together
upon the basis of what is common and public in endeavor and achievement’.
Religious instruction effectively undermines this aim by separating students
into denominations, ‘each with its private inspiration and outlook’.15
Dividing students at the appointed hour into groups of Protestants and
Catholics, Jews and Muslims, promotes an intellectual segregation that is the
undoing of democracy while it simultaneously conscripts students into move-
ments of believers rather than educating them for democratic citizenship
and the intellectual independence that this requires. On the subject of in-
tellectual conscription, Dewey would also remark on the dangers of this in
an essay of 1897, arguing that any form of education in which ‘the child is to
be a member of a certain form of social life’, such as a member of a religious
denomination, is mis-educative in the ‘mere fact that he is not taken in
himself, but as a type of society’. Students are regarded under this condition
not in their own right as intelligent agents or citizens but merely as members
of a faction or means of carrying on a tradition or organization. In addition
to the mis-educative effects of such conscription, modern society has become
‘too complex’ and ‘makes too many demands upon personality to be capable
of being based upon custom and routine without the utmost disaster’.16
Modern democratic societies require a population that is educated not for
special membership in a faction but to be intellectually competent citizens
in a complex social order.
Additional arguments that Dewey provided without applying them specif-
ically to religious instruction concern the training of intellectual habits and
the central role of the environment in education. The development of the
capacities of mind that are the highest achievement of education occurs, as
Dewey would often argue, not ‘by direct conveyance of beliefs, emotions, and
knowledge’, but ‘through the intermediary of the environment’.17 Only
indirectly, through the creation of conditions in which intellectual abilities
and habits are called forth in larger processes of inquiry, do such capacities
develop rather than through more direct means. As we have seen, the ability
to think develops not as a result of direct instruction on how to master a
certain method but in the course of thinking about a particular subject
matter, thus through the intermediary of a curricular environment as well as
a general learning environment that is conducive to free inquiry. Education
happens in a social atmosphere in which the individual participates actively
in a joint enterprise of one kind or another, not through the passive recep-
tion of an educational authority’s beliefs.
As we have seen in previous chapters, Dewey regarded intellectual habit
Teaching Religion: Spiritual Training or Indoctrination? 191

formation as a crucial educational aim, raising the question in the present

context of the habits of mind that religious instruction typically instills
together with a certain body of doctrine. Quite apart from educators’ inten-
tions, their practices produce effects in the intellectual makeup of their
students, for good or for ill. The intention to enable personal salvation, for
instance, often renders future learning in certain directions difficult. Dewey
made this observation without applying it to the religious context in one of
his earliest essays from 1886:

If a student is thoroughly inoculated with a system, his growth in the

future is rendered difficult. The cartilaginous portions of the brain are
hardened and its sutures closed. One who has been introduced when his
mind is most plastic into a system of hard and fast distinctions, cannot lose
their impress. All new facts he can classify and comprehend only by their
connection with his system. When a new fact appears he does not assimi-
late it; he takes out his rule and his pigeon-holed box; measures the fact
according to his ready-made standard, and tucks it away in its appropriate

This important passage rings true for university professors who teach courses
in religious studies, ethics, or philosophy to students who have graduated
from religious elementary and secondary schools, and still more perhaps for
such graduates themselves. Instructors in such fields are regularly compelled
to engage at the outset of a course in unwelcome exercises in intellectual
ground-clearing, attempting to remove long-standing prejudices and to pry
open minds long closed by years of indoctrination. Minds long habituated to
the feeling of certainty and security in convictions for which they are unable
to argue but that have been instilled from an early age and believed in by all
one’s peers and prior educators can be remarkably resistant to entertaining
new ideas, to regarding ideas as hypotheses rather than certainties, and to
questioning their convictions in an intellectually honest fashion. When such
students are not completely unteachable they are nonetheless so habituated
to regarding worldviews as dogmatic systems of belief which can only be
insisted upon or fought over that the concept of education as rational and
co-operative inquiry in the absence of certainty is registered as a kind of
heresy. ‘This professor must be an atheist’, such a student will often think
when the professor speaks of argumentative rigor and the need to subject
one’s convictions to critical scrutiny.
The habits of jumping to conclusions, immunizing certain ideas from
serious questioning, and confusing justification with the provision of emo-
tional comfort are a few of the more common miseducative effects of
teaching religion to the intellectually immature. Such habits may be
192 Education in the Human Sciences

extended well beyond the religious domain to other areas of intellectual life,
such as the ethical and the political, and can prove intractable at later
educational stages and throughout life. Indeed, on Dewey’s view so much of
human thought and action is a result of habits formed and ingrained at an
early age that it is difficult to overstate their significance at all stages of the
learning process. The importance of habit consists not only in its resistance
to change but in its nature as a disposition or inclination that leads the
individual toward certain future experiences and away from others, which
actively seeks out the conditions that call for its expression. It shapes future
experience through anticipation and expectation and by providing powers
by which to negotiate one’s environment and to form purposes. At every
stage of education intellectual habits are being formed and re-formed:

. . . if not habits of careful looking into things, then habits of hasty,

heedless, impatient glancing over the surface; if not habits consecutively
following up the suggestions that occur, then habits of haphazard,
grasshopper-like guessing; if not habits of suspending judgment til infer-
ences have been tested by the examination of evidence, then habits of
credulity alternating with flippant incredulity, belief or unbelief being
based, in either case, upon whim, emotion, or accidental circumstances.19

If it is the former habits in each of these pairings that educators would instill,
this is accomplished by creating the conditions that call them forth and fur-
nishing the environment that demands their exercise. The student educated
into membership in a religious tradition is habituated to regarding certain
areas of thought, such as the scientific or the mathematical, as requiring
rational investigation and the rigorous justification of conclusions, while
other areas, notably the religious and the ethical, are beyond reason’s scope,
an attitude of mind that positively inhibits future intellectual development.
One of the principal indicators of educational success, quite apart from
the quantity of knowledge that is amassed, is the students’ adoption of
particular intellectual virtues and the absence of corresponding vices. The
reason for their importance lies in the fact that the intellectual virtues
constitute the conditions that are necessary for future learning and that
make it possible for students to reflect upon their experience long after their
formal education is at an end. Dewey’s list of intellectual vices includes
several that are relevant to the present discussion, none more so than the
dogmatism that he would decry throughout his career. The ‘over-positive
and dogmatic habit of mind’ that is so often associated with religious educa-
tion is fatal to intelligent thought.20 ‘To be bound to a given conclusion is the
exact opposite of being required to inquire so as to find out the means of
reaching a conclusion as a decision that warrants resumption of decisive
Teaching Religion: Spiritual Training or Indoctrination? 193

behavior.’21 The habit of regarding ideas not as provisional and fallible

methods of interpretation but as eternal verities and absolutes about which
one can only be correct or incorrect, saved or unsaved, constitutes the
demise of thought itself. Excessive self-certainty, rigidity of outlook, narrow-
ness of perspective, and inflexibility of mind prohibit new ideas from coming
forth or simple learning from different traditions of thought.
Other intellectual vices Dewey identified include an unimaginative
scholasticism, conventionality, parochialism, and deference to authority,
none of which are unknown in traditional religious education and all of
which are formidable obstacles to future learning. The educated mind is
characterized by openness and inquisitiveness, by a hospitality to new ideas
and a flexibility that does not equate with indecisiveness or lack of convic-
tion. Its habitual attitudes include a reflectiveness and persistence in
thinking matters through to a conclusion, a wide-ranging curiosity and an
‘inclination to learn from life itself’, a preference for depth over breadth,
and a critical intelligence that allows one to resist propaganda. For Dewey,
the educated mind resolves problematic situations and reaches conclusions
in an unhurried way; its beliefs are formed only at the outcome of an inves-
tigative process, regardless of whether the belief in question pertains to a
scientific, philosophical, theological, or any other issue. It is reflective not
only in the sense of being preoccupied with fundamental questions of
human existence but in the sense that its chief concern lies in identifying the
grounds of belief while it refuses to accept any system of thought without a
convincing rationale. In general, then, it is the combination of ‘[o]pen-
mindedness, single-mindedness, sincerity, breadth of outlook, thoroughness,
assumption of responsibility for developing the consequences of ideas which
are accepted’, and related dispositions that Dewey praised both as properly
intellectual virtues as well as ‘intrinsically moral questions’.22
The virtues of mind and character that religious instruction at the ele-
mentary and secondary levels most often aims to instill are hardly those
described by Dewey. Traditionally, it is the content of students’ thought far
more than their capacity to think independently of a particular religious
tradition that is the chief aim of ‘spiritual training’, as is regularly testified to
by the intellectual habits that one most often finds among the graduates of
religious schools. A tendency commonly exhibited by these students upon
reaching the university is to combine an often impressive knowledge and
astuteness in the realm of science or mathematics with an alarming credulity
regarding religion and any matters that relate even tangentially to it – ethics,
politics, philosophy. A kind of intellectual schizophrenia is often the result
of years of religious education, where the student holds to all the appropri-
ate standards of rigorous thought in some areas of intellectual life while
expecting no rational basis whatever in other areas, and indeed regards this
194 Education in the Human Sciences

as a given or a virtue. This might strike us as pathological were it not so

commonplace, and not only among the young.
Recall as well that for Dewey the very spirit and meaning of education is
definable in terms of inquiry, a practice that requires an advanced degree
of freedom in order that educators and students may pursue given lines of
investigation or argumentation to their logical conclusions without fear of
contradicting a creed. The ‘freedom of intelligence’ is a necessary precon-
dition of intellectual growth since such growth takes place only through the
cultivation of habits of thought and in the ‘free mental play’ that follows the
subject matter wherever it leads and ‘apart from any subservience to a
preconceived belief’.23 In view of the strong accent that Dewey placed on
academic freedom, one might expect that on the infrequent occasion that
he took up the issue of education within denominational schools and
colleges he would apply the principle there as well. However, in an essay
of 1902, simply entitled ‘Academic Freedom’, Dewey expressed a curious
ambivalence on the question of whether the very principle that most essen-
tially defines the mission of the school and the university applies equally to
denominational institutions. He began the essay by distinguishing ‘the
university proper’ from ‘those teaching bodies, called by whatever name,
whose primary business is to inculcate a fixed set of ideas and facts’, among
which he explicitly included religious schools and colleges. After noting the
obvious conflict an educator at such an institution faces when charged with
teaching in a field some of whose conclusions run afoul of the institution’s
doctrines, Dewey stopped short of asserting that he or she must challenge
these doctrines should the course of inquiry require it, as we would expect
in the secular university. As he wrote: ‘An ecclesiastical, political, or even
economic corporation holding certain tenets certainly has the right to
support an institution to maintain and propagate its creed.’ This surprising
statement – surprising since the institution in question is ostensibly an edu-
cational institution and Dewey continually insisted that uninhibited inquiry
is the very lifeblood of education – is coupled with a second, equally surpris-
ing, assertion: that the relevant question here is ‘not so much of freedom of
thought as of ability to secure competent teachers willing to work under such
conditions, to pay bills, and to have a constituency from which to draw
students’.24 Here it appears not to be an issue of principle at all, but a prac-
tical problem of finding students for such schools and educators who do not
find such conditions odious. It is odd as well that he would speak in this
connection of the rights of institutions over against the rights of students to
be educated rather than indoctrinated into a creed.
Dewey went on in the essay to observe the historical point that the line of
separation between universities and denominational institutions has become
increasingly blurred as the latter have gradually taken upon themselves many
Teaching Religion: Spiritual Training or Indoctrination? 195

of the characteristics and functions of the secular university. Insofar, then, as

an institution that is formally associated with a religious denomination takes
up the functions of the university – and, it seems, only to that extent – it is
bound by the principle of freedom of inquiry. ‘[I]n other respects,’ however,
‘while the historical denominational ties are elongated and attenuated, they
still remain; and through them the instructor is to some extent bound.
Implicit, if not explicit, obligations are assumed.’ Acknowledging the
obvious conflict that arises for educators attempting to reconcile fundamen-
tally irreconcilable aims, his suggestion was a meager one: ‘in the confusion
of this conflict it is difficult to determine just which way the instructor is
morally bound to face. Upon the whole it is clear, however, that the burden
falls upon the individual.’ Should such an individual find his or her institu-
tion’s doctrinal restrictions unduly burdensome, then ‘there is one liberty
which cannot be taken away from him: the liberty of finding a more con-
genial sphere of work’.25
Dewey’s strange ambivalence on this issue, and his reluctance more gener-
ally to proscribe entirely the inculcation of religious beliefs in the classroom,
stem from a basic conviction of his regarding the ultimate importance of
religion in human life. He would even speak in an essay from 1903 of ‘the
moral and religious’ as ‘the most fundamental of all educational questions’ –
not only a philosophical but an educational question, and indeed a single
question. Here he asserted that if the question cannot be ignored in an
educational context due to its profound importance, it can nonetheless be
taken up ‘in the reverent spirit of science’ rather than in the traditional
manner.26 While his account of how this is done is predictably short on detail,
he did at least suggest the possibility of providing religious instruction to the
young in a fashion that is consistent with his general approach. One might
expect that ‘the most fundamental of all educational questions’ would receive
the voluminous treatment that typified Dewey’s practice as a philosopher, and
while he would never provide one, he did at least provide a few clues, mostly
by way of negative description. Thus, as we have seen, such instruction must
not amount to straightforward indoctrination or instill mis-educative intellec-
tual habits; it must not undermine the spirit of inquiry by creating too many
prohibitions on what may be thought and said in the classroom, yet somehow
it must instill a particular set of religious beliefs in students’ minds. The
means by which this is done poses an interesting dilemma, to say the least.
One principled suggestion Dewey did provide, albeit with uncharacteristic
brevity, was to point out that the denominational school and the university are
both committed to the truth; the latter’s function straightforwardly pertains
to the production and dissemination of knowledge while in the case of the
former it is the transmission of tradition that is the primary aim, yet in both
kinds of institution ‘[t]he one thing that is inherent and essential is the idea
196 Education in the Human Sciences

of truth’.27 Dewey’s distinction here between the production and the trans-
mission of truth is anything but straightforward for either an educator or a
pragmatic experimentalist, both of whom, as he so often argued, must regard
received knowledge of all kinds not as absolutes but as hypotheses found
useful in the past and that may or may not assist us in resolving problematic
situations of the present. If one were teaching biology within a Christian high
school, to take an obvious test case, is it the received truth of Genesis or the
scientific truth of evolution that one should teach? Were one teaching in a
public institution, Dewey’s answer would plainly be the latter, yet what of the
institution whose doctrines directly contradict the consensus of modern biol-
ogists? While this is undoubtedly a question that Dewey entertained, the only
answer he provided – and briefly – is not a principled but a personal one: if
one subscribes to evolution, one would do well to find other employment.
As I have noted, Dewey also expressed considerable skepticism about the
likelihood of direct instruction in religion or ethics producing a profound
impression on students’ character. It is the educational environment, habit
formation, and the course of experience generally that form character, not
straightforward lecturing on religion. ‘It is one thing’, Dewey wrote, ‘to learn
words and sentences by heart and another thing to take them to heart so that
they influence action.’28 A teacher’s example exercises a far more profound
influence on students’ character, including their spiritual character, than
lessons learned on doctrinal matters. As well, Dewey always insisted that
education never be regarded merely as a means to an end, whether the end
is the continuation of a tradition of belief, a preparation for later life, or
anything else. Any activity or subject matter that is genuinely educative
should be treated as an end in itself, even if as a secondary matter it is also a
means to some further end. The same can be said of human experience in
general. Dewey expressed considerable discontent with theological world-
views such as the evangelical Christianity on which he himself was raised, and
in which he fervently believed as a young man, which regard human experi-
ence and life in general essentially as a means to an afterlife, and in the same
spirit in which he opposed viewing education as a means only. As Dewey
expressed it in an essay from 1893,

We have to a considerable extent, given up thinking of this life as merely

a preparation for another life. Very largely, however, we think of some
parts of this life as merely preparation to other later stages of it. It is so
very largely as to the process of education; and if I were asked to name the
most needed of all reforms in the spirit of education, I should say: ‘Cease
conceiving of education as mere preparation for later life, and make of it
the full meaning of the present life.’29
Teaching Religion: Spiritual Training or Indoctrination? 197

When writing on religion and education, Dewey generally adopted a

liberal attitude, one that was not well disposed to traditional organizations
such as the Roman church which depreciate both education and human
experience generally by regarding the former as a means of indoctrination
and the latter as a means of gaining entrance into the afterlife. He would, for
instance, oppose efforts by that church to obtain state funding for its schools,
writing in 1947 in opposition to a proposed federal law to extend govern-
ment subsidies to such schools that the bill expressed ‘encouragement of
a powerful reactionary world organization in the most vital realm of
democratic life with the resulting promulgation of principles inimical to
democracy’.30 Roman Catholic and other religious schools embody the same
ethos of authoritarianism that characterizes the hierarchical structure of the
churches themselves. The public school system, by contrast, is a vital ingre-
dient of a democratic society and, accordingly, is alone the proper recipient
of state funding. If education would serve the cause of religion in any way,
Dewey argued, it would most effectively do so not through such direct
measures as providing instruction in theology or government subsidies for
denominational schools but by ‘serving the cause of social unification’.
Education serves an important democratizing function – it is training
citizens for democratic participation – and so must never abandon the
democratic spirit. Insofar as it approaches religion at all, it must therefore
resist the parochialism and dogmatism that are the undoing of a democratic
society. ‘[U]nder certain conditions,’ as he would also write, ‘schools are
more religious in substance and in promise without any of the conventional
badges and machinery of religious instruction than they could be in culti-
vating these forms at the expense of a state-consciousness.’31
As I remarked at the outset of this chapter, what is most noteworthy about
Dewey’s writings on religious education is their uncharacteristic brevity and
the clear note of hesitation on which what remarks he would offer on the
subject were advanced. It was certainly no lack of courage on Dewey’s part
that caused the hesitation to argue directly and forcefully against religious
instruction in schools in the manner that he argued against other forms of
traditional education, but rather his conviction that religious institutions
and traditions have a right to reproduce themselves, and schools are one of
the usual means by which this is effected. In what follows I propose to take
up this question in a more or less Deweyan spirit while examining how well
the views that he provided stand up at the present time.

Dewey and the postmoderns

Here is an unlikely coupling. When it has any chance of succeeding,
dialogue presupposes a degree of common ground between interlocutors as
198 Education in the Human Sciences

well as areas of disagreement; the latter gives us something to talk about

while the former provides the conditions that make productive dialogue
possible. What common ground exists, one will surely ask, between Dewey’s
philosophy and the contemporary postmodern/poststructuralist scene, be it
on the topic of this chapter or any other? There is no need to provide an
account of what these two schools of thought do not have in common (and,
of course, postmodernism itself is very far from constituting a unified school
of thought, as its proponents will be very quick to point out). Nonetheless,
and with all due respect to the many differences that exist between a Jacques
Derrida, a Michel Foucault, a Gilles Deleuze, and so on, the subject that is
under discussion here provides a possible meeting ground owing to a recent
trend in postmodern thought toward the rehabilitation of religion. Jean-Luc
Marion, Jacques Derrida, John Caputo, Richard Kearney, Gianni Vattimo,
and Calvin Schrag are a few of the key figures in this trend and, once again,
the differences between their positions prevent us from speaking of a unified
school of thought. What is both interesting and surprising is that some of the
basic gestures that we find in the postmodern literature were foreshadowed
in Dewey’s own contribution to the philosophy of religion. I should like
therefore to put two texts ever so carefully into speaking terms with each
other with a view to seeing what this might contribute to our theme. The
texts are Dewey’s A Common Faith, published in 1933, and John Caputo’s On
Religion, published in 2001. The latter text contains no references to the
former or to Dewey, nor does one find Dewey a frequent topic of discussion
in postmodern discourse. A Common Faith is Dewey’s principal contribution
to the philosophy of religion, and in it he did not take up the question of
religious education. Nor is education a major theme in Caputo’s On Religion
or some other of his texts in this field.32 My aim in this section is not to
provide a simple comparison between these two texts or thinkers as an end
in itself but to question whether an examination of their views on religion
can shed light on the educational question: is there any sense of religious
education that is, properly speaking, educational, or is everything that passes
for spiritual training a veneer for miseducation and indoctrination?
In the interest of brevity I shall not go into great detail in interpreting
these figures’ positions on religion and the philosophy of religion. Both of
their views emerge from their philosophies as a whole, Dewey’s being fully
consistent with his theory of experience and Caputo’s with his ‘radical
hermeneutics’. Dewey’s text begins with a key distinction between religion
and ‘the religious’, which is where the similarity to later postmodern thought
begins. By the former term, Dewey intended ‘a special body of beliefs per-
taining especially to the supernatural and practices having some kind of
institutional organization’. There being in his view ‘no such thing as religion
in general’, only religions in the plural, each can be thought of as a world-
Teaching Religion: Spiritual Training or Indoctrination? 199

view comprising a set of doctrines, rituals, and so on. The adjectival expres-
sion, by contrast, refers to

nothing in the way of a specifiable entity, either institutional or as a system

of beliefs. It does not denote anything to which one can specifically point
as one can point to this and that historic religion or existing church. For
it does not denote anything that can exist by itself or that can be organ-
ized into a particular and distinctive form of existence. It denotes attitudes
that may be taken toward every object and every proposed end or ideal.33

Dewey’s preference for ‘the religious’ over religion reflects both his skepti-
cism of religious doctrines insofar as they purport to describe the truth about
the world and his interest in religious experience. Dewey viewed religious
experience neither as a grounding for any given set of beliefs or practices
nor as incommensurable with other dimensions of human experience. The
religious, for Dewey, is an aspect of ordinary experience, one that need not
commit us to particular beliefs concerning the supernatural. Religious
experience can come into its own only when divested of doctrines regarding
the supernatural. He therefore did not seek to justify any of the confessional
faiths, instead preferring to speak in somewhat ambiguous terms of his
conception of the religious.
It is a conception that does not regard the religious as categorically apart
from experience in its other forms, such as the scientific, aesthetic, and so
on. The ‘“religious” as a quality of experience signifies something that may
belong to all these experiences’ and ‘is the polar opposite of some type of
experience that can exist by itself’. It is a dimension or ‘quality of experi-
ence’ that religions in their traditional forms actively stand in the way of
rather than afford with an authentic outlet. Dewey would speak of religious
experience as ‘a certain attitude and outlook, independent of the super-
natural’, as a ‘deep-seated harmonizing of the self with the Universe (as a
name for the totality of conditions with which the self is connected)’, and ‘a
just sense of nature as the whole of which we are the parts’. None of these
experiential descriptions would amount to theological doctrines, nor did his
somewhat halting use of the word ‘God’ commit him to theism. Dewey would
speak of God as a name for a kind of ‘natural piety’ which he believed to be
absent in traditional religions and atheism alike, both of which presuppose
a view of ‘man in isolation’. As he summarized the point,

For in spite of supernaturalism’s reference to something beyond nature,

it conceives of this earth as the moral center of the universe and of man
as the apex of the whole scheme of things. It regards the drama of sin and
redemption enacted within the isolated and lonely soul of man as the one
200 Education in the Human Sciences

thing of ultimate importance. Apart from man, nature is held either

accursed or negligible. Militant atheism is also affected by lack of natural
piety. The ties binding man to nature that poets have always celebrated are
passed over lightly. The attitude taken is often that of man living in an
indifferent and hostile world and issuing blasts of defiance. A religious
attitude, however, needs the sense of a connection of man, in the way of
both dependence and support, with the enveloping world that the imagi-
nation feels is the universe. Use of the words ‘God’ or ‘divine’ to convey
the union of actual with ideal may protect man from a sense of isolation
from consequent despair or defiance.34

Dewey’s sense of religiosity was centered on the connections between human

beings and the natural world, on that which takes the individual out of
isolation and binds it to conditions and ideals by which it lives. Dewey’s God
is thoroughly naturalized in naming the ends to which we are ultimately
devoted and the union of these ideals with the actual. God is not a supreme
being, for Dewey, but a description of experience.
Whether he was speaking of God, religious experience, or religious know-
ledge, Dewey insisted in each instance against regarding these in isolation
from their ostensible opposites. Should we speak of religious knowledge, for
instance, we are not referring to a special domain of truths inaccessible by
the usual means of knowing. In this text as well Dewey would repeat that
‘[t]here is but one sure road of access to the truth – the road of patient,
cooperative inquiry operating by means of observation, experiment, record
and controlled reflection’. Religious faith is not an exception to this and in
no sense transcends ordinary ways of knowing. The ‘whole notion of special
truths that are religious by their own nature’ must be emphatically rejected
‘together with the idea of peculiar avenues of access to such truths’. The only
conception of faith that Dewey believed permissible is the kind of ‘natural
piety’ just alluded to – a this-worldly faith in ideals and in ‘the unification of
the self’ that may be accomplished through their actualization. Any concep-
tion of religious education that would be compatible with this view would
need to abandon the old practice of compartmentalizing truth, declaring
some off limits to rational inquiry and utterly sacrosanct while other domains
of knowledge or belief require intellectually rigorous justification. It would
need to conceive of the religious in its continuity with the rest of human
experience and as no less intelligent, in the pragmatic sense of the word,
than experience in its other dimensions. This last point Dewey would qualify
by remarking that intelligence is not a passionless affair. Passion, including
religious passion, must be tied to the post of reason, he would always insist,
but this does not give rise to a dichotomy of reason versus passion, intelli-
gence versus faith, or what have you. ‘There is such a thing as passionate
Teaching Religion: Spiritual Training or Indoctrination? 201

intelligence, as ardor in behalf of light shining into the murky places of

social existence, and as zeal for its refreshing and purifying effect.’35 I shall
return to this point in due course.
First, I would like to bring Dewey’s views on religion and the religious into
connection with John Caputo’s ‘religion without religion’ (a phrase he
borrows from Derrida) before turning the discussion back to education. If
there are compelling arguments against teaching religion in the usual sense
to students prior to an age of intellectual maturity, do such arguments also
apply to what Dewey called the religious or to Caputo’s postmodern religion?
Several decades after Dewey called for ‘the emancipation of the religious
from religion’, a variety of continental – mostly postmodern – philosophers
would attempt a rehabilitation of religion of their own, one that does not
borrow from Dewey but differs from his account less than one might
expect.36 Caputo’s efforts in this regard fall within the tradition of post-
Heideggerian phenomenology and hermeneutics with a large admixture of
Derridean deconstruction. More than a century after Nietzsche pronounced
the death of God, many postmoderns who claim Nietzsche as a major influ-
ence, Caputo included, now speak of God’s or religion’s return, albeit in
much altered form. While Caputo’s formulation of this continues to be
‘parasitic upon the confessional forms’ of religion, most especially Chris-
tianity, it is a ‘religiousness without the confessional religions’ – particularly
without their theological and metaphysical commitments – that he wishes to
salvage after a few centuries of learned skepticism.37
The centerpiece of this religion is what Caputo calls ‘the passion for the
impossible’. The ‘mark of a religious sensibility’, as he writes, is far less an
intellectual assent to a body of doctrines than what he calls the ‘movement
of living on the limit of the possible, in hope for and expectation of the
impossible, a reality beyond the real’. Religion is a question of desire, not
reason; it ‘is for the unhinged’, not the sober-minded. It is a ‘sense of life
[that] awakens when we lose our bearings and let go, when we find ourselves
brought up against something that exceeds our powers, that overpowers us
and knocks us off our hinges, something impossible vis-à-vis our limited
potencies’. To this sense of life he contrasts the rationalistic and narrowly
pragmatic, the sort of person who is concerned only with certainties and
practicalities of a mundane variety and whose experience is not cognitively
deficient so much as unimaginative. While a passion, or passionate mode of
experiencing life, religion is not a simple matter of anti-intellectualism. The
‘condition of this passion’, he holds, ‘is non-knowing’, but it is a non-
knowing that harks back to ‘what the mystics call a docta ignorantia, a learned
or wise ignorance’ rather than ignorance in its more usual forms.38 It is, like
the ignorance of Socrates, the knowledge that one does not know and must
live in this condition without expectation of deliverance.
202 Education in the Human Sciences

Nor is there deliverance from the flux in which human existence is invari-
ably played out, in Caputo’s view. The religious sense of life is part of a larger
openness to mystery and effort to cope with uncertainty that define our
existential condition. ‘Religion’, as he writes elsewhere,

. . . is a way of coming to grips with the flux, a struggle with the power of
darkness, which is ‘authentic’ only so long as it ‘owns up’ to the contin-
gency of its symbols. Faith makes its way in the dark, seeing through a glass
darkly, and it is genuine only to the extent that it acknowledges the abyss
in which we are all situated, the undecidability and ambiguity which
engulfs us all.

Religious faith is an effort to live in the ambiguity and to make ourselves at

home in a world in which our concepts constitute so many ‘thin membranes
of structures which we stretch across the flux’.39 If we cannot know the truth
about the world with certainty, the best we can hope for is to learn to cope
with mystery the best way we can. If we cannot know who we ourselves are,
we can at least engage in interpretation and self-interpretation in the face of
what we do not know.
If in addition we cannot know exactly what it is that we love when we love
God, as for Caputo we cannot, we can at least strive to keep the question
open and to love whatever it is that we love with passionate urgency. In places
Caputo defines religion itself very simply as ‘the love of God’, while acknow-
ledging that the phrase ‘needs more work’. The work that he later does in
this text does little to clarify matters, remarking in several places, for
instance, that ‘what we really mean by “God” is love’ rather than any kind of
supreme being, and that ‘God is a name we confer on things we love very
dearly, like peace or justice or the messianic age’.40 God names love or the
object of love, regardless of what that object may be. It is a love marked by
excess, unconditionality, and a loss of self-possession.
In saying this, Caputo is engaging in some phenomenological description
of religious experience that is not unlike Dewey’s own efforts. Neither
thinker is a theologian in the sense of an expounder of doctrines asserted to
represent the truth about the deity or the afterlife. It is an experience that
both are interpreting, a sense of life that goes beyond, and for Caputo that
has little to do with, knowledge. Both insist upon preserving the ambiguity
and open-endedness of this experience, upon resisting the metaphysical
urge to reduce this to some determinate form which can be known or
debated as an intellectual proposition. As a sensibility, Caputo writes that it
is analogous to an aesthetic or political sense, a capacity for affective inter-
pretation that anyone should have. Those who do not, or who conceive of
the religious as a propositional matter, Caputo chides as people who are not
Teaching Religion: Spiritual Training or Indoctrination? 203

‘worth their salt’, an expression that he uses rather often. One who lacks a
religious sense of life also lacks love, he insists, along with passion, depth,
and a few other things. Their experience of life is impoverished and one-
dimensional. Religiosity is ‘a basic structure of human experience’ and
indeed ‘the very thing that most constitutes human experience as experi-
ence’.41 It is a structure that impels us beyond ourselves, beyond what is
known or securely possessed, and toward the impossible. It partakes of the
Dionysian far more than the Apollonian.
Yet religion also partakes of truth, Caputo argues. It is, to be sure, an
unusual notion of truth of which he speaks – a truth without knowledge, or
Knowledge in the upper case. Religious truth ‘is of a different sort than
scientific truth’; it is not epistemologically rigorous or demonstrable. It is
neither a relation of correspondence between a proposition and objective
reality nor is it experimental inquiry. Instead it is analogous to the truth that
we find in art. A novel, for instance, ‘lies’ only in the sense that it reports
fiction rather than facts, in a way that is antithetical to scientific truth. Works
of art say what is true in a different and deeper sense; they disclose meanings
and open up possible avenues of thinking in ways that resonate and transform
our lives. Religious experience as well reveals truth, yet not in the sense that
it provides access to knowledge of a specific kind. He does, however, retain a
notion of special religious truth. It is a truth that is non-propositional,
unscientific, and unknowing; it is not something possessed but made and
enacted in the course of loving whatever it is that we love. Since we love many
things and enact this love in many ways, religious truth is not one but many.
Caputo draws the obvious conclusion: ‘unlike a scientific theory, there is not
a reason on earth (or in heaven) why many different religious narratives
cannot all be true. “The one true religion” in that sense makes no more
sense than “the one true language” or the “one true poetry,” “the one true
story” or “the one true culture”.’ All religions are true – equally so, such that
there is no religious conversion that can be understood as a transformation
from ignorance to knowledge. It is accordingly an undogmatic and, it seems,
relativistic religion that Caputo defends, albeit he does qualify this
somewhat. ‘We may and need to have many religions, and many “sacred
scriptures,” so long as all of them are true’, he writes. However, in discussing
certain religious movements and persons, particularly fundamentalists, he
takes a somewhat different line. Here indeed are movements that enthusias-
tically proclaim their love of God and make a rather strong claim to the
truth. Where do they go wrong, as for Caputo they decidedly do? His answer
is that fundamentalism typically deteriorates into idolatry of a creed, a
‘passion for God gone mad’ which inclines the faithful toward hatred and
violence for those who are not of like mind.42 A group that speaks of itself as
the chosen people or in any way special in the eyes of God is likely to become
204 Education in the Human Sciences

sectarian and oppressive, he argues. The fundamentalist or dogmatist of

whatever kind insists that since there is only one true religion, all others are
mistaken in their beliefs and quite possibly damned. Religiosity deteriorates
into intolerance only when its truths are alleged to be exclusive. It is the
nature of religion to exist in a state of tension, but in the sense of being at
odds with itself, not in competition with rival creeds.
Caputo is equally critical of newer forms of spirituality of the kind that fill
the shelves of popular bookstores. If fundamentalism makes the mistake of
reducing the love of God to a single body of beliefs and practices which is
idolized and sectarian, religious nonsense in its flashier forms is simple
‘poppycock’. Exactly what makes New Age spirituality, enthusiasm about
angels, channelings, and so on daft while religion in its older forms is not, is
unclear on Caputo’s account. Religion, he maintains, has to do with the
‘transformability of our lives’ and is not to be trivialized, yet believers in these
newer forms of religious nonsense would be likely to agree with him.43 Even
the fanatic – especially the fanatic – has been transformed and loves his or
her God with all the abandon that Caputo would want.
It is here that Dewey provides a bit of a corrective: religious passion that is
untied to the post of reason is a dangerous proposition if not the definition
of stupidity. The same can be said of religious truth without knowledge, or
experience without intelligent inquiry. Caputo and other postmodern
religionists wish to reject the Enlightenment’s (not only Kant’s) ‘religion
within the limits of reason alone’ and to inject religion with some passionate
free-spiritedness, yet in ways that can border on frivolity. Dewey, a singularly
unfrivolous thinker, also wished to emphasize the passionate and open-
ended quality of religious experience, but in a decidedly measured way. The
religious, both figures agree, is an experiential and passionate business, not
a matter of intellectual propositions or theological doctrines. It is about the
love of ideals above all. But even love, Dewey warned, even passion must take
intelligent form. Otherwise we have no answer to the ‘poppycock’ that
Caputo rightly rejects.
Let us now return to the question of religious education. Should religion
be conceived not as a doctrinal matter – as essentially an issue of particip-
ation in a particular tradition of belief and ritual – but a question of experi-
ence – a sense of life involving passionate ideals and longing for the
impossible, as either Dewey or Caputo speak of it – then is this a fitting
matter for educational institutions to take upon themselves? Is there a spirit-
ual training that involves the same kind of broadening of horizons or
experiential growth that we examined in Chapter 2, one that does not
degenerate into an uncritical inculcation of beliefs? The possibility is intrigu-
ing, not least because the passionate mode of experience that both philoso-
phers describe might inject some much-needed vitality into an education
Teaching Religion: Spiritual Training or Indoctrination? 205

that is often lifeless. That their schooling is dull is the most frequently heard
complaint among students, and nowhere is it duller or more oppressive than
when the subject matter is religion. A lamentable business is religious edu-
cation. Yet might it rise above all this and inspire students with a more pas-
sionate sense of life, one hopefully that remains tied to the post of reason or
that at least can find its way back after the occasional day trip?
If there is one thing needful in education it is the ‘passionate intelligence’
that Dewey spoke of – not intelligence alone or passion alone but the two in
permanent combination. For intelligence without passion, and indeed a
passion for the impossible and the unknowable, is lifeless, and passion without
intelligence is besotted. Successful educators know the importance of infusing
some passion into their teaching and expressing not only their knowledge but
their love of ideas and ideals. Educators may well exemplify a sense of life over
and above teaching in its more usual sense. If one is teaching art or politics,
for instance, it is perfectly appropriate to try to instill a love of art or a sense of
justice that transcends the information the curriculum contains. In the case of
religion, however, there are grounds for skepticism even in the case of Dewey’s
and Caputo’s unconventional conceptions of this. First, religious education is
customarily provided in institutions that are beholden to a specific tradition of
belief. The mission of these institutions is to perpetuate that tradition, in
addition of course to providing an education of a less sectarian kind. Instilling
a passion for the impossible without any doctrinal commitments does not fit
such a mission. Educating students’ religious experience is well and good, they
will say, so long as this means instilling commitment to a creed and remaining
scrupulously on the straight and narrow path. Divesting religion of religion, as
Caputo wants, is easier said than done, and in an educational setting it is likely
impossible. In the case of actually existing religious institutions, as Dewey
noted, they have all ‘retained a certain indispensable minimum of intellectual
content’, and it is futile to wish it otherwise.

All religions . . . involve specific intellectual beliefs, and they attach – some
greater, some less – importance to assent to these doctrines as true, true
in the intellectual sense. They have literatures held especially sacred,
containing historical material with which the validity of the religions is
connected. They have developed a doctrinal apparatus it is incumbent
upon ‘believers’ (with varying degrees of strictness in different religions)
to accept. They also insist that there is some special and isolated channel
of access to the truths they hold.44

This is the sense of religion with which Caputo parts company, and as a
matter of private religious sensibility this may be commendable, but as an
educational matter it is singularly unlikely. Individual educators in sectarian
206 Education in the Human Sciences

(‘faith based’) institutions may be able to get away with this on occasion, if
their employers are unusually broad minded, but it is improbable that this
could be undertaken on a large scale.
Second, we have been speaking of religious experience in its higher
reaches. It is an adult’s experience of God – an unusual God and an unusual
adult – that Dewey and Caputo are describing. Dewey was correct to warn
against trying to impose adult experiences on the young; it is their experi-
ence, not ours, that is the starting point of education. While educators
properly seek to lead the young toward a more mature quality of experience,
they must not have an entirely preconceived notion of where the students
should end up, be it in Dewey’s sense of harmony with the universe, Caputo’s
sense of being unhinged, or what have you. Mature religious experience, if
there is any such thing and if either of these thinkers has succeeded in
describing it, cannot be plastered on from the outside but, if it is to take
shape at all, must arise from within in the manner of any growing thing. How
this is to be accomplished in educational institutions is difficult to see. Instill-
ing a passion for the impossible may be accomplished by educating the imag-
ination, but this is more likely to bear fruit when the subject matter is not
religion but literature and the arts, history, politics, or what have you.
Third, Dewey would emphasize the limits of educators’ ability to shape the
character of their students by conscious design, especially as this concerns
ethics. Character is a result of out-of-school experience far more than in-
school. The same point is relevant in the present context. If we wish our
students to be worth their salt in Caputo’s sense, to love their God or
whatever it is they love with passionate devotion and to enact a religious sen-
sibility in their lives, it is not an educator’s efforts alone that will bring this
about but their larger experience of life over the course of years or decades.
Have educators ever succeeded in producing a mature religious sensibility in
their students through conscious planning? What technique would bring
about this particular ‘learning outcome’? I believe it is inevitable that when
educators maintain this as a goal, indoctrination into a creed or another
form of miseducation is the result. Those who practice religious indoctrin-
ation, of course, never believe that they are indoctrinators; they are providers
of character education, spiritual training, or some other misnomer. They are
saving souls and preserving a sacred tradition. The reality is that they are
conscripting the young into a worldview before they reach an age at which
they might evaluate it rationally, a worldview that will usually remain with
them for life without ever being properly examined. By the time they reach
an age of intellectual maturity their beliefs are set, their habits of mind,
values, and passions highly resistant to intelligent modification.
Finally, regarding both Dewey’s and Caputo’s uses of the words ‘God’,
‘religion’, and the ‘religious’, I would say the following: when we take up a
Teaching Religion: Spiritual Training or Indoctrination? 207

word, we are taking up a tradition of usage, and we are not perfectly free in
how we may do this. ‘God’, to take an obvious example, is a word with a very
long and very troubled history. Redefining or reinterpreting words may be a
philosopher’s prerogative, at least on some occasions, however their histories
are not so easily left behind. Dewey and Caputo both wish to speak of God
no longer in the language of theology or substance ontology, as the biblical
deity or a supreme being of some kind, but as a name for whatever ideals that
we hold, for that which we love with passionate intensity and which rules our
lives. These uses of the word leave tradition almost completely behind, and
while I am not one to insist upon preserving traditional usage simply for
tradition’s sake – language is after all a living thing, and old usages are not
necessarily to be preferred over new ones – these usages appear to border on
the cavalier. Caputo in particular, although he is given to frequent appropri-
ations of Augustine and Aquinas, may be a little too freewheeling here.
Phenomenological redescriptions of religious experience are always
welcome, but reinterpretations of words can be expected to show at least
some historical continuity. As a postmodernist he wants to leave behind the
tradition of onto-theology, as Dewey also wished to do; again this is unobjec-
tionable, but disentangling God from that tradition seems to me an impossi-
ble task.
As improbable a coupling as Dewey and the postmoderns may appear, on
the question of religious experience and religious education the two may be
put on speaking terms. Doing so changes the question of religious education
in interesting ways. It may not, however, change the answer. These two
figures have suggested non-metaphysical and undogmatic conceptions of the
religious; as interpretations of private religiosity they may even succeed,
however importing them into the practice of the classroom, for the reasons
I have suggested, will not.

1. Dewey, ‘Between Two Worlds’ (1944). LW 17: 463.
2. Dewey, Experience and Education (1938). LW 13: 8.
3. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 115–16, 111.
4. Ibid., 54.
5. Dewey, Moral Principles in Education (1908). MW 4: 270.
6. Dewey, ‘Context and Thought’ (1931). LW 6: 12.
7. Dewey, Experience and Education (1938). LW 13: 329. Dewey would return to this theme
quite often in his writings and in a wide variety of contexts. In Art as Experience, for
instance, he wrote: ‘Any psychology that isolates the human being from the environ-
ment also shuts him off, save for external contacts, from his fellows. But an individ-
ual’s desires take shape under the influence of the human environment. The
materials of his thought and belief come to him from others with whom he lives. He
would be poorer than a beast of the fields were it not for traditions that become a part
208 Education in the Human Sciences

of his mind and for institutions that penetrate below his outward actions into his
purposes and satisfactions. Expression of experience is public and communicating
because the experiences expressed are what they are because of experiences of the
living and the dead that have shaped them.’ Dewey, Art as Experience (1934). LW 10:
274–5. A similar thought is expressed in an essay from 1931: ‘We cannot explain why
we believe the things which we most firmly hold to because those things are a part of
ourselves. We can no more completely escape them when we try to examine into them
than we can get outside our physical skins so as to view them from without. Call these
regulative traditions apperceptive organs or mental habits or whatever you will, there
is no thinking without them. I do not mean, that a philosopher can take account of
this context in the sense of making it a complete object of reflection. But he might
realize the existence of such a context, and in doing so he would learn humility and
would be debarred from a too limited and dogmatic universalization of his conclu-
sions. He would not freeze the quotidian truths relevant to the problems that emerge
in his own background of culture into eternal truths inherent in the very nature of
things.’ Dewey, ‘Context and Thought’ (1931). LW 6: 13.
8. Dewey, The Educational Situation (1901). MW 1: 301–2.
9. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 348.
10. Dewey, Experience and Education (1938). LW 13: 19.
11. Dewey, ‘Character Training for Youth’ (1934). LW 9: 187–8, 186, 188.
12. Charles W. Wood, ‘Report of Interview with Dewey’ (1922). MW 13: 428.
13. Dewey, ‘Context and Thought’ (1931). LW 6: 15. Charles W. Wood, ‘Report of Inter-
view with Dewey’ (1922). MW 13: 428.
14. Dewey, ‘Religious Education as Conditioned by Modern Psychology and Pedagogy’
(1903). MW 3: 212.
15. Dewey, ‘Religion and Our Schools’ (1908). MW 4: 175.
16. Dewey, ‘The Interpretation Side of Child-Study’ (1897). EW 5: 214, 215, 220.
17. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 26.
18. Dewey, ‘Psychology in High-Schools from the Standpoint of the College’ (1886).
EW 1: 85.
19. Dewey, How We Think (rev. edn, 1933). LW 8: 185–6.
20. Ibid., 124.
21. Dewey, ‘Importance, Significance, and Meaning’ (1950). LW 16: 325.
22. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 56, 366.
23. Dewey, Experience and Education (1938). LW 13: 39. How We Think (rev. edn, 1933).
LW 8: 347.
24. Dewey, ‘Academic Freedom’ (1902). MW 2: 53.
25. Ibid., 54.
26. Dewey, ‘Religious Education as Conditioned by Modern Psychology and Pedagogy’
(1903). MW 3: 215.
27. Dewey, ‘Academic Freedom’ (1902). MW 2: 55.
28. Dewey, ‘Character Training for Youth’ (1934). LW 9: 189.
29. Dewey, ‘Self-Realization as the Moral Ideal’ (1893). EW 4: 49–50.
30. Dewey, ‘Implications of S. 2499’ (1947). LW 15: 285.
31. Dewey, ‘Religion and our Schools’ (1908). MW 4: 175.
32. See John Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997); The Weakness of God: A Theology of the
Event (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006); What Would Jesus Deconstruct? The
Good News of Postmodernism for the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007).
33. Dewey, A Common Faith (1933). LW 9: 23, 52.
34. Ibid., 19.
35. Ibid., 23, 52.
Teaching Religion: Spiritual Training or Indoctrination? 209

36. Ibid., 19.

37. Caputo, On Religion (New York: Routledge, 2001), 33.
38. Ibid., 67, 13, 19.
39. Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics: Repetition, Deconstruction, and the Hermeneutic Project
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 281, 269.
40. Caputo, On Religion, 1, 25, 126.
41. Ibid., 9.
42. Ibid., 111, 110, 107.
43. Ibid., 136.
44. Dewey, A Common Faith (1933). LW 9: 22, 21.
Chapter 6

Teaching Ethics:
From Moralism to Experimentalism

Like religious education, some form of ethical training has long been
thought, more or less universally, to be an essential part of the educative
process. Whether it is the direct instilling of values of a particular kind in
students in the primary and secondary grades or the presentation of ethics
as a properly academic subject matter at the university, teaching ethics in one
form or another is traditionally regarded as fundamental and indeed indis-
pensable. As Dewey noted in an essay from 1893, ‘there has never been such
a widespread interest in teaching ethics in the schools as at present’, while in
our own time the interest in ethics in education as in so many other areas of
public and private life is widespread indeed. It is now common practice, for
instance, for university students intent on pursuing a career in the profes-
sions to receive mandatory instruction in biomedical ethics, business ethics,
engineering ethics, or whatever field of professional life one wishes to
pursue. At the primary and secondary levels as well, the idea has long been
that students should be taught to accept certain values or social norms which
educational authorities or the larger community deem important. At the
same time, however, and as Dewey also remarked, there is the ‘pretty wide-
spread conviction that conscious moralizing in the schoolroom has had its
day – if it ever had any’.1 In public schools in particular, we have come to
expect teachers to refrain from instilling at least controversial values and
those that extend beyond the requirements of discipline, civility, and
ordinary decency. If religious schools continue the traditional practice of
providing a ‘moral education’ in the sense of instilling a comprehensive and
theologically based conception of right and wrong, most often we take a dim
view of such ‘conscious moralizing’ in public institutions at the very least and
to regard it as a throwback to the past.
The kind of arguments that Dewey presented against traditional forms of
moral education have carried much influence, of course, yet the questions
that his critique would generate for Dewey himself over a century ago remain
very much with us: what are the aims of teaching ethics at the different stages
of the learning process? Is it to instill a particular configuration of values –
and if so, which values, in what spirit, and by what means – or to teach
students how to think about ethics on their own terms? What, for instance, is

Teaching Ethics: From Moralism to Experimentalism 211

the aim of teaching ethics in the university, whether in the form of a course
in ethical theory or in one of the increasingly numerous branches of profes-
sional or applied ethics? Should we teach ethics at all in the primary and
secondary school, or do the arguments presented in Chapter 5 against
teaching controversial religious doctrines to the intellectually immature
apply as well to the teaching of equally debatable moral doctrines?
Let us begin with an overview of Dewey’s critical assessment of traditional
views regarding the kind of moral education that may be undertaken in the
schools. The conventional model is one of direct instruction in ethical
conduct and the precepts that underlie it, precepts that are most often
rooted either in a religious worldview or in the prevailing ethical norms of a
community. The goal of such instruction is to see to it that students hold to
a particular set of values and become habituated to applying them to their
actions – that they become respectful and caring of others, generous and
altruistic, or what have you. Dewey’s critique begins, as would his assessment
of traditional education in general, with the disconnection between
students’ lived experience and the moral lessons that are presented to them
as a ready-made body of doctrine for them to absorb and retain. When moral
instruction takes the form of old-fashioned lecturing on the virtues
combined with practical measures to instill these in the conduct and
character of the young, such education can amount to little more than
‘sheer obedience to the will of an adult’, not least when obedience itself is
seen as a virtue of childhood.2 Students come to conceive of the ethical as
‘certain special acts which are labelled virtues and set off from the mass of
other acts’, or as a set of rules that they must follow for no other reason than
that an authority demands it. Ethics loses contact with the realities of
everyday life and becomes a kind of transcendent deliverance raining down
from on high. On the traditional model, ‘[t]he ethical has been conceived
in too goody-goody a way’, as a matter of naive compliance with a set of
authoritative pronouncements without any connection to the ordinary moti-
vations of the young. Moral education so conceived has little permanent
effect on students’ character, Dewey believed, and remains at a surface level:
‘it does not reach down into the depths of the character-making agency’.3
When it does leave a lasting impression, it is as likely to be mis-educative as
the reverse, as for instance when students acquire an aversion to any
mention of ‘morality’ due to its association in their minds with moralistic
preaching or simple authoritarianism. An equally mis-educative effect is the
common impression of ethics as a body of dogma that is inscrutable to
reason or that is not placed in the service of human life and happiness.
Traditional moral instruction furthermore ‘is pretty sure to be formal and
perfunctory, and to result rather in hardening the mind of the child with a
lot of half-understood precepts than in helpful development’. A strictly
212 Education in the Human Sciences

rule-governed conception of ethics instilled from an early age creates in

many a morbid self-consciousness, ever scrutinizing its interiors for signs of
ungodliness, while in others it creates ‘offensive prigs, possibly hypocrites’.4
The basic idea that moral character is formed by having a system of rules
continually drummed into one’s being is a distortion of ethics and of moral
education alike, while it also exhibits a basic misunderstanding of human
psychology and character formation. However ethical dispositions are
formed, Dewey argued, it is not through an external imposition of rules or
duties upon an acquiescent mind.
With the possible exception of Dewey’s views on religious instruction, he
would always argue against measures that have the effect of reducing educa-
tion to a purpose that lies beyond the learning process. Where conventional
views most fundamentally err is in substituting extraneous ends for aims that
are immanent to education itself. This includes traditional notions of ethical
instruction where again the goal of imposing upon the young an external
and altogether debatable conception of the good, which may or may not be
religiously tinged, supplants the kind of education that Dewey supported.
The old methods habituate students to looking beyond experience and this
world for their highest values and to a disparagement of human experience
rather than training students to deal with ethical problems in a more prag-
matic and reflective spirit. ‘A narrow and moralistic view of morals’ causes
educators to overlook the more genuine moral education that the learning
process itself brings about, as we shall see.5 It fosters dogmatic habits of mind
in regard to fashioning moral judgments and makes it difficult for students
at a later stage of intellectual development to think intelligently about ethics,
their basic orientation in moral matters having long since been carved in
The kind of authoritarianism that is associated with traditional moral
education, Dewey maintained, is not an accidental by-product of such an
approach but an inevitable consequence. When the source of ethics lies
beyond the students’ experience and activities in the classroom and is pre-
sented in the form of an externally imposed set of requirements, students
lack any motivation to heed such requirements and so must be compelled to
do so by the personal commands of the teacher and by a system of rewards
and punishments. The problem of creating order necessarily becomes one
of command and obedience when it does not arise, as Dewey would have it,
out of common activities in which students take a genuine interest. In the
traditional school, then, the motives for what passes for ethical conduct are
chiefly the desire to please authority and the fear of punishment for dis-
obedience, a motivation that often takes religious form. Thus while all may
agree, as Dewey put it, that ‘the question of the moral attitude and tenden-
cies induced in youth by the motives for conduct habitually brought to bear
Teaching Ethics: From Moralism to Experimentalism 213

is the ultimate question in all education whatever’, it remains that ‘moral

education is the most haphazard of all things’; efforts to induce particular
moral attitudes and dispositions through direct instruction are more likely to
fail than to succeed for the reason that when such attitudes take lasting form
they arise under conditions that are less direct and top-down than indirect
and bottom-up.6
If we wish students to acquire certain ethical dispositions, Dewey argued,
it is imperative that we reject traditional moralism and look to the educa-
tional environment as an indirect but ultimately more effective means of
fostering such attitudes. Dewey would always maintain that it is the school
environment that is ultimately decisive in creating educative and mis-
educative experience alike, and that if it is ethics that we wish to teach, then
again it is not primarily direct instruction on the virtues that will bring this
about but a larger set of environmental conditions that draw students out in
particular directions and elicit responses of the desired kind. Using an
organic metaphor, Dewey spoke of the essential business of the educator as
‘supply[ing] the proper nutriment’ or the ‘intellectual and spiritual food’
that naturally gives rise to a certain kind of character formation.7 Such
nutriment takes the form of an educational environment in which ‘a spirit of
social cooperation and community life’ prevails.8
The school itself ought to have no moral purpose aside from participation
in common activities and the values that are necessary to that end. It is not
the mission of educational institutions to instill a particular conception of
the good life or attitudes widely approved of in the general community, any
more than it is to inculcate a controversial political ideology. While Dewey
would often speak of education as preparing students for participation in
democratic life, he did not mean by this that teachers are to indoctrinate the
young in a debatable political philosophy but that the kind of shared activi-
ties in which students engage will under appropriate conditions promote the
same habits and virtues that will later be brought to bear in democratic
activity. The school, for Dewey, is to be thought of as a small-scale community
in the sense that the relationships and activities that students take up in the
school are precursors of later forms of social and political involvement. The
ethics that is appropriately taught and learned in this setting is an ethics that
is implicit in the educational environment: not a set of transcendent rules
and duties but an ethos of civility and co-operation in joint undertakings.
Students are preparing themselves for social life only in the sense that they
are engaged in it from the start; they are forming habits of co-operation and
respect by virtue of involvement in shared projects and social situations that
elicit a moral response. When the school is conceived as a community,
ethical principles such as respect and non-conformity arise not as authorita-
tive commands but out of the conditions of community life itself. The need
214 Education in the Human Sciences

to articulate the value of non-conformity or individuality, for instance, arises

only in social situations in which this value becomes necessary and is experi-
enced as a felt need. It is only in such a social setting, moreover, that one has
an opportunity to cultivate this value. By the same token, the principle of
respect for differences arises only in forms of social life in which differences
of belief or identity exist and are brought into mutual engagement.
Accordingly, if there is a conception of moral education that is immanent
to the educative process itself, it is one that regards the school environment
not as a mere training ground for later social life or for the ethical relations
of adulthood but as a small-scale community unto itself, one wherein shared
activities and relationships give rise to particular ethical imperatives. Moral
education arises out of the ethos of the social life of the school and is a matter
of habit and character formation within this environment. As Dewey
expressed it,

The only way to prepare for social life is to engage in social life. To form
habits of social usefulness and serviceableness apart from any direct social
need and motive, apart from any existing social situation, is, to the letter,
teaching the child to swim by going through motions outside of the water.9

The activity of inquiry, as Dewey often remarked, is a properly social enter-

prise and as such gives rise to a particular set of ethical requirements. To
engage in inquiry is to participate in a joint undertaking which, if it is to be
successful, requires co-operation, civility, discipline, and respect from each of
the participants. It is accordingly a moral, not merely intellectual, activity –
that is, on the condition that knowledge is gained through active investiga-
tion rather than passive reception of information. Under this condition, the
moral glue that holds the community together is nothing imposed by author-
ity but is rather the work of co-operative inquiry itself and the conditions that
make it possible.
To the extent, then, that the formation of moral character is a possible
and appropriate educational aim – and, again, Dewey emphasized the limits
of the educator’s ability to shape such character – it is an aim that is not
pursued apart from properly intellectual goals. Indeed, for Dewey the ethical
and the intellectual are ultimately inseparable in the sense that habits
formed in one sphere naturally spill over into the other. If we would educate
the moral character of students, insofar as this is possible at all, how would
we go about it and what would be the indicators of success? On the first
question, as we have seen, we must look to the classroom environment to do
a good deal of the work, with the educator serving less in the role of moral
lecturer than leader of group activities and inquiry, keeper of discipline, and
so on. Accordingly, if, as Dewey put it, ‘upon its intellectual side education
Teaching Ethics: From Moralism to Experimentalism 215

consists in the formation of wide-awake, careful, thorough habits of

thinking’, and if such habits of thinking draw us by necessity into forms of
social participation, then upon its ethical side education includes the fash-
ioning of social attitudes and habits no less, or an ethical orientation that is
modelled on co-operative investigation and dialogue.10
The intellectual virtue of good judgment, for instance, in the sense of the
ability to discriminate between relative degrees of importance and value, and
thus to form a perspective that is one’s own, is not acquired apart from the
practice of testing judgments against others’ views and being drawn into
forms of social life that are co-operative and experimental. Good judgment
is simultaneously an intellectual virtue as well as ‘an integral factor of good
character’.11 Indeed, one further criticism that Dewey would direct against
many of the educational institutions of his time is that they fail to develop
this capacity in the young by limiting the opportunities to fashion and test
judgments of their own and instead overprescribe predigested subject
matter. Should we desire students to develop the capacity for good and
independent judgment – intellectual and moral – then one learns to judge
by judging, and not merely, as traditional views have it, by having students
passively adopt the judgments of others. A couple of other examples of
which Dewey spoke in this connection are good manners, or what he would
refer to as ‘minor morals’, and good taste. Both are imparted far less by
direct instruction than through the indirect influence of environment and
example. In the case of manners, for instance, these are ‘acquired by
habitual action, in response to habitual stimuli, not by conveying informa-
tion’. By the same token, good taste arises only when ‘the eye is constantly
greeted by harmonious objects, having elegance of form and color. . . . The
effect of a tawdry, unarranged, and over-decorated environment works for
the deterioration of taste, just as meagre and barren surroundings starve out
the desire for beauty.’12 Both manners and taste, then, are habits formed in
a social environment and are dependent on the examples that it provides.
In arguing that moral character is fashioned through habit formation and
in combination with the intellectual virtues, Dewey was of course drawing
upon an Aristotelian principle while adapting it to a pragmatic or experi-
mentalist point of view. This can be seen as well in his analysis of discipline
and freedom in the classroom, a matter that is simultaneously intellectual
and ethical. How, Dewey asked, is discipline properly achieved in the school
and how much freedom should educators allow, and where freedom encom-
passes both behavioral liberty and the freedom of students to form plans and
choose their own activities? As we have seen, he was severely critical of
conventional approaches that prize discipline so highly as to sacrifice any
meaningful freedom for students whatever and to reduce them to a condi-
tion of intellectual and moral docility. The questions this then raises include
216 Education in the Human Sciences

how much and what kind of freedom should educators permit and by what
means is order or discipline to be attained if not in the traditional, school-
masterish way? The progressive schools that Dewey inspired were often
faulted for their apparent lack of order, with students free to walk about the
classroom rather than silently working at their desks. To visitors the ostensi-
bly Deweyan classroom often appeared to be a chaotic scene of children
engaged in boisterous activity and conversation while the teacher would look
on with shocking approval. Discipline and order, it seemed, had been
sacrificed to libertarianism. Yet how, Dewey asked, is genuine discipline
maintained and in what does it consist? His answer was that ethical or social
discipline must be comprehended together with intellectual discipline, and
that the order that properly prevails is not one imposed by an authority but
‘is the kind of order that exists in a roomful of people, each one of whom is
working at a common task. There will be talking, consulting, moving about
in such a group whether the workers are adults or children.’13 The ‘control-
ling motive in discipline’, then, is ‘the social spirit’ that prevails when
students are engaged in a joint undertaking.14 The work of inquiry itself
requires as an enabling condition the maintenance of a certain level of social
order as well as the freedom to participate, to suggest activities and ideas, to
refine hypotheses, and so on. Such work equally requires intellectual disci-
pline in order that inquiry will arrive at a satisfactory conclusion rather than
deteriorate into pointlessness.
As an educator of many years himself, of course, as well as a parent of
eight children, Dewey was not naive in regard to the maintenance of disci-
pline among the young. As naive or idealistic as it sounds, he would always
insist that both intellectual and social discipline are effectively brought about
not by the traditional means but through free participation in joint under-
takings. As he wrote, ‘No experienced and successful teacher has any doubt
that right instruction is the primary means of maintaining discipline. Students
who are interested in their work and in doing their work well are not
students who are a menace to the well-being of the school.’ If a certain
degree of disorder and carelessness is an inevitable feature of youth, it is
effectively checked less through a ‘system [of] more or less constant espi-
onage’ by the teacher than by means of students voluntarily undertaking
forms of inquiry in which they take a genuine interest.15 The work itself
makes demands upon students in the same way and for the same reasons that
advanced research exacts demands upon investigators in every field which
prevent them from making statements that they cannot justify. These
demands, when they arise in the environment of the classroom, are as much
social and ethical as intellectual or rational.
The principle of freedom arises in the same way, whether it applies to
children in the elementary school or to the academic freedom associated
Teaching Ethics: From Moralism to Experimentalism 217

more particularly with the university. In both instances, intellectual work

requires the freedom to devise plans and to pursue ideas wherever they lead,
while the notion of academic freedom itself is equally a rational and an
ethical imperative. The freedom that rightly prevails in either setting, Dewey
held, is no merely Hobbesian absence of constraint upon activity or speech
but consists in the imperative of offering one’s own contribution to work
undertaken in common; ‘it means’, as he wrote, ‘intellectual initiative, inde-
pendence in observation, judicious invention, foresight of consequences,
and ingenuity of adaptation to them’.16 Such freedom is not incompatible
with either discipline or planning, and indeed requires both if it is to lead in
a direction that is genuinely educative. In his usual dialectical way, Dewey
regarded freedom and order as equally vital and mutually entailed principles
of education. Free inquiry – if it is indeed to be inquiry rather than unintel-
ligent chatter – requires not only the liberty to form purposes and to speak
one’s mind but the discipline to pursue a given line of questioning, to
endure frustration and difficulty, and to work on a co-operative basis. If the
planning is provided by the educator, then such ‘planning must be flexible
enough to permit free play for individuality of experience and yet form
enough to give direction towards continuous development of power’.17 The
‘spirit of social cooperation and community life’ that prevails in such an
environment includes as well ‘a certain disorder’ that closely resembles that
of ‘any busy workshop’; if the classroom is to be a place of work then it must
realize the conditions, both intellectual and ethical, that such work
Dewey would also speak of moral education in a more direct connotation,
however. While never losing sight of its connection with intellectual work
and of his critique of traditional moralism, he did discuss the possibility of
teaching ethics as a subject matter in the university as well as in the higher
secondary grades. In a couple of essays from the early 1890s, for instance, he
would defend a conception of ethics that may be taught directly to students
who have attained a degree of intellectual maturity, a view that he would
develop further in later years. This is the examination of ethics not as a
system of hard and fast rules, nor even, interestingly, the study of ethical
theory and its history, but instead ‘the study of ethical relationships, the study,
that is, of this complex world of which we are members’. Ethics, as an
academic subject matter, investigates the essential relatedness of human
beings to each other and to the larger community. The ethical instruction
that is not preaching is conducted in a concrete, matter-of-fact way and aims,
through the study of human relations, at the cultivation of students’ moral
imagination. The spirit of such instruction is profoundly important, Dewey
held, and must never deteriorate into doctrinaire moralizing. Instead it
ought to remain primarily a practical matter of deciding how to go about
218 Education in the Human Sciences

remedying social ills if it is agreed upon that a remedy is required. As he


Let the teacher, at the outset, ask the pupils how they would decide, if a
case of seeming misery were presented to them, whether to relieve it and,
if so, how to relieve. This should be done without any preliminary dwelling
upon the question as a ‘moral’ one; rather, it should be pointed out that
the question is simply a practical one, and that ready-made moral consid-
erations are to be put one side. Above all, however, it should be made
clear that the question is not what to do, but how to decide what to do.19

This last idea refers to his notion of social or moral imagination that is at the
center of Dewey’s conceptions both of ethics and of moral education. The
ultimate aim of such education is the cultivation of an imagination that is at
once sympathetic and ‘intelligent’ in the pragmatic sense of being skilled in
problem-solving. It is ‘the power of observing and comprehending social
relations – and social power’ that an education in ethics seeks to instill, not
a particular set of beliefs or values.20 Terms such as ‘social intelligence’ and
‘moral imagination’ would always remain slightly ambiguous in Dewey’s
writings, but in general terms what these expressions connote is an ethical
counterpart to his pragmatic experimentalism. If it is the art of thinking that
is the ultimate goal of education in general, then moral education as well
aims to develop students’ capacity to think about human relations with an
orientation toward remedying injustice in ways that avoid traditional
moralism. Dewey remarked in an essay of 1894 upon the tendency of uni-
versity students merely to say what appears edifying or what they believe is
expected of them when moral questions arise, an observation that is likely no
less accurate today. The professor must endeavor to get beyond this and to
inquire in an intellectually honest fashion into how students and others
actually engage ethical questions under real-world conditions. He or she
must resist the purely formal and theoretical and make the focus of study
‘the actual behavior, motives, and conduct’ of human beings.21
This orientation away from the theoretical and toward concrete social
relations makes the study of ethics as an academic subject matter more sci-
entific, Dewey maintained, and less doctrinaire. It gets students away from
thinking of ethics as a set of transcendent laws or a system of principles at
some remove from actual human practices and motivations and substitutes a
more case-specific approach that once again stresses ‘how to decide what to
do’. Without renouncing principles altogether, this approach concentrates
on their applications rather than their theoretical grounds divorced from
practice. It construes principles, moreover, not as hard and fast rules or
formal decision procedures, in the manner of the categorical imperative or
Teaching Ethics: From Moralism to Experimentalism 219

the utilitarian calculus, but as instruments for the analysis of problematic

situations. Ethical principles are hypotheses that, like all hypotheses, succeed
or fail based on that to which they lead in the process of inquiry, whether
they remedy a given social ill or moral difficulty or fail to do so, and not on
purely theoretical grounds. When principles are not brought down to earth,
morality takes on the appearance of ‘a special region or portion of life’, a
system of absolutes that fall from the sky, and particularly when coupled with
traditional methods of moral instruction.22 It is imperative, Dewey main-
tained, that in teaching ethics, students come to regard this area of study as
indeed an area of inquiry, of experimental analysis of particular human rela-
tions and practices, the aim of which is not to uphold a creed but to improve
such relations. Accordingly, as he wrote in Reconstruction in Philosophy, moral
‘[r]ules are softened into principles, and principles are modified into
methods of understanding’. Principles are ‘intellectual instruments for
analyzing individual or unique situations’.23 Their application requires
careful perception of the contingencies of a given case as well as flexibility in
application. The need for flexibility is based on the nature of experimenta-
tion itself, where an initial hypothesis or judgment is proposed, followed
through successive stages of application, refined and tested by the conse-
quences for good or ill that it generates, and ultimately accepted or rejected
in light of its success in resolving the original problem.
This is ethics in the scientific spirit, Dewey argued, and it may be imported
into the university classroom so long as it is taught and learned in this spirit.
Its principles remain subject to revision or refinement according to the
issues they confront and their success as tools of understanding and resolv-
ing such issues, and without a general, theoretical conception of that in
which a proper resolution consists. Dewey proposed no equivalent of the
utilitarian’s greatest happiness principle, for instance, nor did he reduce
ethics in Kantian fashion to the cultivation of a good will and dutiful adher-
ence to the categorical imperative. All ethical principles are closer to what
Kant termed hypothetical imperatives in the sense that they are mindful of
the practical consequences to which they lead, allow for exceptions, and are
not hard and fast rules to be heeded for duty’s sake alone. In fact, Kantian
ethics represents the veritable antithesis of the experimentalist view Dewey
defended, a conception of ethics that makes no appeal to the a priori or the
transcendent, and that requires imaginative understanding and flexibility
rather than formalism and rule following. The only ‘virtues’ this ethics
includes are as much intellectual as moral: ‘[w]ide sympathy, keen sensitive-
ness, persistence in the face of the disagreeable, balance of interests
enabling us to undertake the work of analysis and decision intelligently’.
These are essentially virtues of experimental inquiry rather than the kind of
ethical virtues that one would find in an Aristotelian catalog. While such
220 Education in the Human Sciences

inquiry, as an imaginative and pragmatic enterprise, conforms to no formal

technique, Dewey did provide a very general description of the course that it
follows in understanding specific moral contexts:

A moral situation is one in which judgment and choice are required

antecedently to overt action. The practical meaning of the situation – that
is to say the action needed to satisfy it – is not self-evident. It has to be
searched for. There are conflicting desires and alternative apparent
goods. What is needed is to find the right course of action, the right good.
Hence, inquiry is exacted: observation of the detailed makeup of the
situation, analysis into its diverse factors; clarification of what is obscure;
discounting of the more insistent and vivid traits; tracing the conse-
quences of the various modes of action that suggest themselves; regarding
the decision reached as hypothetical and tentative until the anticipated or
supposed consequences which led to its adoption have been squared with
actual consequences. This inquiry is intelligence.24

So long as ethics is conceived in this general spirit rather than along more
conventional lines, it may well be taken up as an academic subject matter in
the university and high school without the danger of it deteriorating into yet
another orthodoxy to which students are expected to conform. They are
expected, on the contrary, to think for themselves about the social ills of
their time and the possible remedies that suggest themselves to the imagi-
nation, given a careful analysis of specific moral contexts. The habits and
capacities such education fosters include in particular the moral or social
imagination in the sense of the ability to apply experimental reasoning to
social questions in the same matter-of-fact way that one would approach an
issue in the natural sciences. Students are to be presented with specific
instances of moral conflict and encouraged to examine the detailed features
and circumstances of a case. From here they are to construct a hypothesis
regarding its possible resolution, rehearse in imagination what probable con-
sequences the hypothesis will bring about, compare this against alternative
hypotheses, and form a judgment about the proper course of action. As
befits experimental and imaginative thought in general, it does not search
for demonstrative proof for its judgments and remains open to revising these
in light of the overall good that such judgments produce or fail to produce
in their applications. In a decidedly non-Kantian way, the final judgment one
fashions in a case is entirely dependent on its application and whether the
consequences envisioned in imagination eventually materialize and resolve
the original conflict or generate unanticipated and perhaps exacerbating
The educator’s task in teaching ethics is therefore no different from
Teaching Ethics: From Moralism to Experimentalism 221

teaching almost any subject matter: ‘the proper method of teaching is to

present the facts and to let them be worked up according to the capacity of
the minds that work upon them. But in politics, ethics and so-called social
sciences, we have not yet learned this lesson.’ Remarking on the common
practice of sacrificing intelligent inquiry for moralism, he continued: ‘We
still surround these subjects with prohibitions and warnings, and we are still
hunting heretics among our school teachers – among the very people whose
intellectual freedom is most necessary to all society.’25 Educators and their
institutions must practice a good amount of restraint and avoid the tempta-
tion to instill particular values or a controversial view of the good life and
instead allow students’ capacities of imagination and judgment to develop
together with other intellectual habits. If anything at all is to be instilled, it is
habits of reflective attention and careful perception of moral conflict.
Students must develop an appreciation of the complex texture of human
relations and ‘the interrelation of all individuals’ rather than be made to
adhere to a fixed set of moral beliefs.26 Ethical principles themselves are
neither to be rejected outright nor regarded as ‘in the air’, ‘something set
off by themselves’, but instead ‘need to be brought down to the ground
through their statement in social and psychological terms’.27
As long as an education in ethics is conceived in this way, it need not be
limited to a particular area of study in the high school or university, but
crosses disciplinary boundaries into literature, history, psychology, and other
areas of inquiry that address the human condition broadly conceived.
History is particularly apposite in this connection, being the study not only
of what happened in the past but, more important, of the forces that are at
work in social relations in general and their consequences for good and for
ill. The ultimate aim of teaching and learning history at all educational
levels, Dewey argued (and as I shall discuss in Chapter 8), is not to gain an
accurate knowledge of what happened in the past for its own sake, as a
common view has it. ‘The past’, he wrote, ‘is the past, and the dead may be
safely left to bury its dead.’28 The value of studying history as an academic
subject matter is ultimately ethical, as it is here especially that students learn
about the complexity of human relations and social forces, the motives that
underlie conduct and that impel progress and decline, and the conse-
quences of our habitual patterns of behavior. If it is the case, as Dewey
believed, that ‘social forces in themselves are always the same – that the same
kind of influences were at work 100 and 1,000 years ago that are now’, then
understanding the social reality of the present and the forces at work within
it benefits significantly from studying the social reality of the past.29 One of
the impediments to understanding the present condition of social relations,
and so ethical inquiry, is their considerable complexity. The structures,
motivations, and ends of human relations and conduct are so mired in
222 Education in the Human Sciences

complexity that the student requires a great deal of distance from the social
world of the present in order to gain critical perspective on it, and it is here
that a retrospective glance into history can afford a kind of illumination that
is very difficult to achieve with respect to the present. Historical events are a
kind of moral resource in the sense that the consequences of choices made
and actions taken do not have to be anticipated in imagination but are
already known, motivations and the driving forces behind social relations
may be observed from a distance and so understood, and critical lessons may
be learned that apply as well to the present as to the past. Historical inquiry
not only imparts information of a sociological nature but in an ethical spirit
‘shows the motives which draw men together and push them apart and
depicts what is desirable and what is hurtful’.30 It reveals the consequences of
human foibles and generally provides a larger perspective on social life both
past and present. It enhances students’ capacities of social analysis and
ethical judgment in a manner directly comparable with the study of litera-
ture, which has also been long regarded as an important resource in moral
It is once again in the spirit of experimental inquiry that Dewey conceived
of an education in ethics rather than as any kind of dogmatic imposition of
belief by an authority. How well this general view stands up over a century
after Dewey began writing on the topic is the question to which I now turn.

The art of judgment

A couple of decades after Dewey’s time, the theme of ethical-political
judgment was taken up in a particularly interesting way by another conti-
nental philosopher whose writings demonstrate certain affinities with Dewey
without being influenced by him in any identifiable way. Hannah Arendt in
many ways practiced the kind of philosophical inquiry and social criticism
that Dewey called for, and the connections between their philosophies are
significant and under-analyzed. Relevant to our discussion is her simultane-
ously Kantian and Aristotelian account of the art of judging. It is an account
in which she emphasized the political dimension more than the ethical, yet
its significance for our theme in this chapter is equally clear. A moral educa-
tion, as Dewey argued, crucially involves the acquisition of good judgment
quite apart from the acceptance of any given set of values. Good judgment,
we may well say, is more important than the values we profess, since what
ethics is ultimately concerned with is particulars – actions, problems, cir-
cumstances – and it is judgments that are particular while values are general
and quite meaningless until they are applied in specific actions and judg-
ments. If it is ethics that we would teach, the highest indication of success will
consist in the students’ ability to form judgments that are either intelligent
Teaching Ethics: From Moralism to Experimentalism 223

in Dewey’s sense or otherwise fitting to the case at hand rather than in their
professions of faith in this or that system of values.
If Dewey was correct that ‘conscious moralizing in the classroom has had
its day’, the art of judgment most certainly has not. Indeed, among Arendt’s
major concerns in her analysis of twentieth-century Western culture were
precisely the importance of this art as well as what she viewed as its decline
in the modern world. In a way, Arendt shared Heidegger’s view of the
modern age as characterized by a certain thoughtlessness, although she
would formulate the idea in different terms. Ours is an age, she maintained,
in which ethical-political judgment has become something of a lost art. It has
been rendered increasingly difficult by the decline of agreed-upon standards
by which value judgments may be grounded or with reference to which the
faculty of judgment might gain an orientation. As she wrote in her post-
humously published Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, ‘The chief difficulty
in judgment is that it is “the faculty of thinking the particular”; but to think
means to generalize, hence it is the faculty of mysteriously combining the
particular and the general.’ To think in this sense may well be to solve a
problem, as Dewey would say, but it is also to judge, where this means not
only estimating something’s relative value or importance but bringing a uni-
versal to bear on a particular without recourse to rules of any kind. Judgment
‘. . . is relatively easy if the general is given – as a rule, a principle, a law – so
that the judgment merely subsumes the particular under it. The difficulty
becomes great “if only the particular be given for which the general has to
be found”.’31 The latter condition that Kant described is what we are faced
with, Arendt maintained, in moral-political judgment. What is immediately
before the mind is a particular situation or problem that requires not only a
solution but a universal under which it may be properly subsumed. Evalua-
tive judgment thus operates not only on a model of problem-solving but in a
dialectic of universal and particular, and a dialectic for which no rules can be
Dewey certainly had no interest in oversimplifying the moral domain.
Indeed he faulted moral philosophers such as Kant and Mill – particularly
Kant – for their rigidity and rule fetishism, among other things, and sought
to formulate a method of solving moral problems that was far more nuanced
than the categorical imperative and the utilitarian calculus. In this he can
well be said to have succeeded, yet Arendt’s point is that often methods of all
kinds must be left behind and that even the most nuanced of rules will not
help us. Good judgment requires that we ‘see the whole’ of a given case or
problematic situation, in this sense playing the role of a spectator rather than
an actor to whom a particular part is assigned. From this distanced, albeit not
completely objective, perspective it becomes possible to adopt an ‘enlarged
mentality’ that transcends the partiality of persons directly involved in a
224 Education in the Human Sciences

given case.32 What remains impossible is reaching provable conclusions.

Moral thinking is experimental in the sense not only that it proceeds by trial
and error and begins with the indeterminate but that it also ends with it.
For Arendt the social world is a world of particulars, appearance, action,
opinion, and moral-political judgment. It is a realm far more complex than
modern normative theories had allowed for, as Dewey also held, yet despite
its complexity it is a world that calls upon each of us to opine and to judge
the best way we can. To Arendt’s way of thinking, judgment is imperative yet
at a time when the act of judging seems to leave us at a loss. How do we
proceed when the moral absolutes of the past have been (rightly) rejected
and we appear to lack the means of judging in a way that is rationally defen-
sible? By the second half of the twentieth century the very idea of forming
value judgments had come to seem not only unscientific but utterly subjec-
tive, relativistic, and inscrutable to reason, a simple matter of expressing a
preference or an intuition. World events that urgently required the verdict
of reason and justice now left us speechless but for those who harked back to
the absolutes of the past. It fell to Arendt to attempt to rehabilitate notions
of persuasive judgment and opinion that had long ago fallen into disrepute
at the hands of philosophers and subsequently the general culture. In doing
so she appealed to Aristotle’s concept of practical judgment (phronesis) as
outlined in Book Six of the Nicomachean Ethics and also, and especially, to
Kant’s Critique of Judgment.
Common opinion now has it that no one has the right to make judgments,
that doing so is hopelessly dogmatic, intolerant, and out of step with the
times. These same times have witnessed some of the most unspeakable events
in human history – quite literally unspeakable, since we no longer have the
means by which to speak of them in the sense of understanding and judging
them. The Holocaust, to take the most obvious example, left social com-
mentators at a loss in the sense not only that no words could measure up to
the enormity of this event but that, in Arendt’s words, ‘we have lost our tools
of understanding’.33 Twentieth-century totalitarianism in general defies
comprehension and judgment and yet demands it urgently. As one scholar

The crisis in understanding is identical to a crisis in judgment, for under-

standing is ‘so closely related to and interrelated with judging that one
must describe both as the subsumption’ of something particular under a
universal rule. The trouble is that we no longer possess the reliable uni-
versal rules required for this subsumption; the inherited wisdom of the
past fails us ‘as soon as we try to apply it honestly to the central political
experiences of our own time’.34
Teaching Ethics: From Moralism to Experimentalism 225

Forming opinions and judgments requires an orientation – traditionally a

settled moral tradition – that we now lack, yet judge we must. How did we
come to this, and how are we to proceed?
In addressing the first question, Arendt provided a compelling analysis of
the trial and character of Adolph Eichmann, an individual who in her view
personified the mentality not only of the Nazi regime but of much of the
modern world. Arendt herself attended the trial of Eichmann in 1961,
reporting on it for the New Yorker and later publishing the complete account
in book form under the title Eichmann in Jerusalem. For Arendt, what made
this trial interesting not only from a legal, political, or historical but also
from a philosophical point of view were two main factors. The first was the
compelling need to understand and judge this man given the role he played
in the transportation of millions to the death camps. How is justice to be
rendered in such a case, and was it rendered by the Jerusalem court? Second,
what is the nature of the grotesque thoughtlessness that the accused man so
thoroughly exhibited? Eichmann’s crimes, Arendt stated, were the conse-
quence not of a hateful or psychologically deranged mind but of a mentality
that is altogether commonplace. In short it is a mentality that refuses to think
and to judge, which lacks intellectual and moral agency of any discernible
kind and simply complies with what it is told. Eichmann’s was not a maniacal
but a fundamentally docile mind. His self-descriptions of joining the Nazi
party, ascending the ranks, following orders, and organizing the delivery of
masses of human beings to their deaths were recounted with perfect equa-
nimity, as an accountant might read a ledger. If insanity or simple hatred was
not driving this man, what made it possible for him to act in the way that he
did and to remain unapologetic years later?
The answer for Arendt is moral incompetence in the form of an atrophied
faculty of judgment. This was a man with no convictions of his own apart
from the duty to follow orders from superiors, who did not know, much less
subscribe to, the Nazi program, who was not in favor of the Final Solution,
and who at the conclusion of the war, in his words, ‘sensed I would have to
live a leaderless and difficult individual life, I would receive no directives
from anybody, no orders and commands would any longer be issued to me,
no pertinent ordinances would be there to consult – in brief, a life never
known lay before me’. The refusal or inability to judge renders us moral
non-agents living forever at the mercy of public opinion or political fashion.
It was Eichmann’s ‘lack of imagination’, his ‘sheer thoughtlessness’ that led
to his crimes. As Arendt observed, ‘such remoteness from reality and such
thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken
together’.35 Most disturbing of all in her analysis was precisely Eichmann’s
psychological and moral normality. His failings and his character were com-
monplace; it was the circumstances in which this man was placed that had
226 Education in the Human Sciences

led him to commit his crimes. Arendt was at pains in this text to show that
Eichmann was not alone in his failure to think and to resist what the Nazis
were doing. German society in general failed utterly to resist this regime,
including even many Jewish leaders. What explains this fact but the per-
vasiveness of a mentality that either refuses or is unable to judge?
Arendt’s account of judgment is thus embedded within a larger historical
view of twentieth-century Western culture and what she perceived to be the
increasing incapacity of persons to think and judge for themselves, a phe-
nomenon of which Eichmann serves as a symbol. This man was and remains
a sign of the times, a mind unwilling to resist public opinion or political
fashion no matter what it deems. What made this case so compelling for
Arendt is precisely the fact that Eichmann was not a stereotypical Nazi but a
frighteningly normal individual. His case, together with the public reaction
to her book, indicate just ‘[h]ow troubled men of our time are by this
question of judgment (or, as is often said, by people who dare “sit in
judgment”)’.36 When the very word conjures up associations of self-right-
eousness and moralistic preaching, its importance is lost sight of and an
essential dimension of moral agency is abolished. Nazism and totalitarianism
in general needed not only to be understood but judged – harshly – in order
that we can make sense of our social reality and not repeat its errors. It is not
obvious that this kind of assessment quite fits the Deweyan model.
What is the model in this case? When we think back on the Nazi phe-
nomenon we are compelled with some urgency to ask questions and to learn
lessons of a great many kinds, but as so many have remarked, the enormity
of the task makes this singularly difficult. How can we come to intellectual
and moral terms with this? What judgments can we pronounce that do not
deteriorate into the trivial or that underestimate dramatically the sheer scale
of this event? In pronouncing them, moreover, what problem are we solving
and what experiment are we performing?
To understand what is involved in the act of judging, Arendt returned to
Kant – not, however, to his ethical or political writings but to what she
believed to be the unwritten political philosophy implicit to his work on aes-
thetics, the Critique of Judgment. Arendt shared Dewey’s skepticism regarding
Kant’s deontological ethics yet maintained that the third Critique contained
a theory of judgment that was without the rigidity of the categorical impera-
tive while being readily transferable from the domain of judgments of taste
to moral-political judgments. The centerpiece of this theory is Kant’s dis-
tinction between reflective and determinant judgments, which can be briefly
summarized as follows. Judgment in general for Kant involves classifying
a particular under a universal, whether the universal be a concept, law,
principle, or rule. A determinant judgment subsumes the particular under a
universal where the latter is given in advance, such as a rule or law that is
Teaching Ethics: From Moralism to Experimentalism 227

formulated in general terms. A straightforward application of the categorical

imperative to a moral case is an example of this. In reflective judgments it is
the particular that is given and we are in a position of having to discover or
derive through reflection the universal that is appropriate to it. Aesthetic
judgments illustrate this phenomenon; we are able to pronounce a particu-
lar work of art as beautiful or ugly yet not in a way that is automatic or
governed by a rule. No formal method can be appealed to in reflective judg-
ments, although they still involve viewing a particular in light of a general
concept. It is judgments of the latter kind that Kant was concerned with in
the Critique of Judgment and which Arendt applied to the realm of the moral
and political. The art of judgment thus involves a kind of perception of the
universal in the particular rather than a straightforward application of rules,
the kind of quasi-bureaucratic application that Kant had defended in his
writings on ethics. An individual action or case must be classed under a uni-
versal since an uncategorized particular simply defies both judgment and
understanding. By the twentieth century the universals to which judgment
would appeal had lost much of their persuasive force, which on the face of it
might spell trouble for the faculty of judgment, yet for Arendt it is under this
condition that this faculty achieves its potential.
It is precisely when the false absolutes of the past have lost their hold on
us that it becomes possible to think and to judge in ways more adequate than
in the past. No longer bound by rules that formerly dominated our deliber-
ations, judgment now comes into its own as a capacity of mind that genuinely
thinks about a case in its particularity without simply obeying commands
or filing things in pigeonholes. This frame of mind may be described as
experimental in a sense and also as open-ended in a way that Deweyan exper-
imentation does not quite approximate. In principle, for Dewey a problem
has a solution, even if that solution is always subject to ongoing inquiry.
Judgment in Arendt’s sense is more indefinite than this, and where the indef-
initeness serves not to make us indecisive but to do justice to the case at
hand. If the essential concern of ethics is the particular case before us that
calls for action then justice must do justice to this rather than simply comply
with abstract moral requirements. Doing justice to the particular requires
viewing it in light of a universal, but for Arendt it is the particular that has
Kant’s theory of moral judgment of course had asserted the opposite –
that the universal is prior to the particular and that the categorical impera-
tive is to be followed for duty’s sake alone – yet it is his theory of aesthetic
and reflective judgment that Arendt wished to appropriate. This theory is
not fundamentally at odds with Dewey. Both spoke of the primacy of the
particular without abandoning principles, of the absence of foundations and
formal decision procedures, and also of the social dimension of judgment.
228 Education in the Human Sciences

Again following Kant, Arendt characterized judgment as an inherently social

practice. Without explicitly invoking a notion of democracy in the Deweyan
manner, Arendt spoke of judgment as oriented toward the persuasion of
others in conversation rather than as formally demonstrable. Reflective judg-
ments ‘share with political opinions that they are persuasive; the judging
person – as Kant says quite beautifully – can only “woo the consent of every-
body else” in the hope of coming to an agreement with him eventually’. It is
‘[f]rom this potential agreement’ with others that ‘judgment derives its
specific validity’, in clear contrast to determinant judgments whose validity in
the subsumption of particulars under a given universal is governed by a
rule.37 The distinction between persuasion and formal proof is rooted in
Greek philosophy, as Arendt was well aware. Aristotle’s division of phronesis or
practical judgment and sophia or philosophical wisdom similarly distin-
guished between a knowledge that was grounded in common sense while
aiming at informal persuasion and one that compelled universal assent while
leaving common sense behind. Moral judgments for Aristotle and Arendt,
and of course for Dewey, do not compel agreement in the manner of math-
ematical reasoning but appeal to the experience and common sense of our
interlocutors. Insofar as anything can be said to make such judgments
legitimate, this will be found only in the social agreement to which they lead
rather than in their conformity with a rule formulated a priori.
The social nature of judgment is entailed by the need when thinking
about moral questions to imagine oneself in others’ circumstances and not
to remain solely occupied with one’s own stake in the matter. One of the
indications of Eichmann’s moral incompetence, Arendt noted, was precisely
his inability or refusal ever to see his actions from another’s perspective.
Good judgments are rational in the sense that they are persuasive to others
differently situated without compelling their assent. Their persuasiveness
includes the ability to transcend the standpoint of one’s private interests and
consider how our judgments appear from various points of view and their
consequences for other persons. Moral thinking therefore proceeds on a
communal basis, both in the sense that it draws upon common sense and
more or less agreed upon social values and in that it aims to persuade others
by taking their points of view seriously into account. The principle of impar-
tiality is thus fundamental to good judgment. Just as aesthetic judgments for
Kant must justify themselves with reference to a shared culture rather than
simply express one’s private subjectivity, moral-political judgments, in
Arendt’s view, strive for intersubjective recognition through persuasive rea-
soning. Part of a judgment’s persuasive force lies in its ability to be commu-
nicated to others differently situated and to gain their consent by describing
a particular from their point of view no less than one’s own. This is what Kant
termed an ‘enlarged mentality’, a leaving behind of purely personal
Teaching Ethics: From Moralism to Experimentalism 229

advantage and an impartial taking into account of all persons who are
affected in a given case. This mentality is a sine qua non of good judgment,
Arendt maintained, since the inability or refusal to regard a situation from
any other perspective than self-interest is persuasive to no one while also con-
stituting a rejection of common sense. Judgments have a public quality that
draws us into discussion without formal methods of adjudication. As she
expressed it,

. . . this enlarged way of thinking, which as judgment knows how to tran-

scend its own individual limitations . . . cannot function in strict isolation
or solitude; it needs the presence of others ‘in whose place’ it must think,
whose perspectives it must take into consideration, and without whom it
never has the opportunity to operate at all. As logic, to be sound, depends
on the presence of the self, so judgment, to be valid, depends on the
presence of others. Hence judgment is endowed with a certain specific
validity but is never universally valid. Its claims to validity can never extend
further than the others in whose place the judging person has put himself
for his considerations.38

Traditionally, moral philosophers have insisted that judgments be not only

intersubjective but objective, not only impartial but universal, not only
persuasive to ordinary reason but rationally unassailable, all of which Arendt
and Dewey regarded as an absurd overestimation of moral knowledge. What
is possible in this area of inquiry is persuasive judgments and good reasons,
not formal proofs of the kind that Kant wanted or a technique of deliber-
ation such as the utilitarian calculus. Techniques of this kind inevitably fail
to do justice to the particular and make us into rule fetishists ever mindful of
how we stand with respect to the rules rather than to human beings. Dewey
was about as severe in his criticism of the doctrinaire kind of moralist who
scrupulously follows rules for their own sake as Arendt was in her similar
criticisms of Eichmann for his unthinking devotion to orders. The principles
that guide reflection, both argued, are not transcendent deliverances but
historically emergent values which orient reflection without binding it irrev-
ocably. It is a decidedly undogmatic judgment for which both theorists
called, one that aims for consensus without making this a criterion of formal
In ethics as in politics, the concept of formal validity has no place. Here,
we are in the domain of persuasive reasoning or experimental inquiry not
unlike Aristotle’s notion of phronesis or practical judgment, a notion to which
Arendt made explicit reference and Dewey did not but might have. Aristo-
tle’s remark at the outset of the Nicomachean Ethics that we must expect from
moral philosophy only as much clarity and precision as the object of our
230 Education in the Human Sciences

theorizing allows is one that modern theorists have largely forgotten or

dismissed. Dewey and Arendt are important exceptions to this, both en-
deavoring to articulate a conception of judgment that rejects outmoded
dichotomies of objectivism and subjectivism, knowledge and opinion, and so
on, and that defends the rights of practical reasoning of a more common-
sense variety. Both philosophers were correct in their refusal to regard
judgment as soaring over the head of ordinary persuasion and consensus-
seeking and as an art of one kind or another. Arendt’s strategy of returning
to Kant and Aristotle – or to her controversial interpretations of these two,
both of whom are usually contrasted on this matter but in whom she believed
she had found an important affinity – is intriguing. That she made no effort
to bring her views into contact with Dewey is as disappointing as it is unsur-
prising. She may well have found the language of scientific inquiry simply
off-putting, but superficial differences aside, there is at least as much affinity
between these two figures on this issue as there is between Arendt and
Kant. It is unfortunate as well that Dewey made so little use of Aristotelian
phronesis. This maneuver was certainly open to him, as was the appeal to
Kant, although given Dewey’s antipathy for the latter on moral matters, such
a move was unlikely.
Why an appeal to either Aristotle or Kant would have been well advised
for Dewey is that, unlike in the natural sciences, where the criteria of
successful experimentation are relatively settled, experimental inquiry in
ethics has no obvious standards of success. Dewey held that the utilitarian
‘social welfare’ principle came as close as any to such a standard, but this did
not satisfy him either.39 How in an ethical context do we determine that a
problematic situation has been adequately resolved or that an experiment
has met with a satisfactory conclusion? If we inquire experimentally into the
issue of abortion, for example, what are the signs that our experiment has
been successfully concluded? The question does not permit of a general
answer, he insisted, but only specific answers, each of which must do justice
to a particular case. This much seems reasonable: the quest for first princi-
ples and a formal method by which to solve all moral problems has ended in
failure, and Dewey was correct not to provide a successor to the categorical
imperative and the principle of utility. Yet it seems that in such inquiry we
still require ultimately an appeal to judgment, whether it be Aristotelian
phronesis, Kantian reflective judgment, or some other conception. Dewey
neither provided such a conception nor saw the need to do so. My sugges-
tion that such an account is necessary is based on the unavoidability of the
above questions. Experimental inquiry into an ethical problem, whether it
be an abstract question such as where we stand on abortion or one that is
case specific, gains orientation from a set of values appropriated from the
culture in which one stands. These values are pluralistic, ambiguous, and
Teaching Ethics: From Moralism to Experimentalism 231

often conflicting. Their application to a case does not resemble the simple
following of a rule but calls upon the interpretive ability, imagination, and
context sensitivity of a competent judge. It requires tailoring a value or prin-
ciple to a case, viewing a particular in the light of a universal. It requires, in
other words, the art of judgment, if by this we understand the capacity to
decide how to set up a given line of experimental inquiry, which values come
to bear and which are secondary or irrelevant, which aspect of a case is
morally salient, which argument is the most persuasive from our own and
from all other relevant perspectives, and when a problematic situation has
been adequately resolved. None of these questions is avoidable or may be
answered in wholly abstract terms. The answer to each is that it depends on
the particularities of the case, and this is exactly where judgment is required.
An education in ethics involves precisely an habituation to answering
questions of this kind. Good judgment is the highest indication of educa-
tional success in this field and it is exceedingly difficult – likely impossible –
to impart directly. More important than a knowledge of ethical theory or
commitment to a given set of values is whether students are able to exercise
intelligent judgment of the kind that Eichmann and his cohorts so hope-
lessly lacked. It is a capacity that is gained through practice above all, in
discussing, reading, and writing about social ills of any and all kinds. Simply
becoming habituated to asking moral questions and attempting to justify our
views in dialogue with others goes a long way toward developing this capacity
and undoubtedly further than presenting students with a simple technique,
with the educator’s own views, or at the other end of the spectrum encour-
aging students to express their judgments without any thought of justifying
them with reasons. To speak of persuasive judgment does not mean that we
are in the land of decisionism, delivered from the need to argue in ways that
are capable of changing minds through an appeal to intelligence. The well-
educated mind may or may not measure up to Aristotle’s phronimos, but it is
able to formulate and defend its judgments with an experimental frame of

1. Dewey, ‘Teaching Ethics in the High School’ (1893). EW 4: 54.
2. Dewey, Experience and Education (1938). LW 13: 34.
3. Dewey, ‘Ethical Principles Underlying Education’ (1897). EW 5: 75.
4. Dewey, ‘Teaching Ethics in the High School’ (1893). EW 4: 54.
5. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 369.
6. Dewey, ‘The Chaos in Moral Training’ (1894). EW 4: 107, 113.
7. Dewey, ‘How the Mind Learns’, Education Lectures Before Brigham Young Academy
(1901). LW 17: 216.
8. Dewey, The School and Society (1900). MW 1: 11.
9. Dewey, Moral Principles in Education (1909). MW 4: 272.
232 Education in the Human Sciences

10. Dewey, How We Think (rev. edn, 1933). LW 8: 177.

11. Dewey, ‘Ethical Principles Underlying Education’ (1897). EW 5: 82.
12. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 22.
13. Dewey, ‘Why Have Progressive Schools?’ (1933). LW 9: 154.
14. Dewey, ‘Significance of the School of Education’ (1904). MW 3: 282.
15. Ibid., 282–3.
16. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 311.
17. Dewey, Experience and Education (1938). LW 13: 36. As Dewey further wrote on the
issue of discipline, ‘A person who is trained to consider his actions, to undertake them
deliberately, is in so far forth disciplined. Add to this ability a power to endure in an
intelligently chosen course in face of distraction, confusion, and difficulty, and you
have the essence of discipline. Discipline means power at command; mastery of the
resources available for carrying through the action undertaken. To know what one is
to do and to move to do it promptly and by use of the requisite means is to be
disciplined, whether we are thinking of an army or a mind. Discipline is positive.’
Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 136.
18. Dewey, The School and Society (1900). MW 1: 11.
19. Dewey, ‘Teaching Ethics in the High School’ (1893). EW 4: 60, 56.
20. Dewey, ‘Ethical Principles Underlying Education’ (1897). EW 5: 75.
21. Dewey, ‘The Chaos in Moral Training’ (1894). EW 4: 106.
22. Dewey, ‘Ethical Principles Underlying Education’ (1897). EW 5: 83.
23. Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920). MW 12: 172, 173.
24. Ibid., 173–4, 173.
25. Dewey, ‘Report of Interview with Dewey’ by Charles W. Wood (1922). MW 13: 430.
26. Dewey, ‘Teaching Ethics in the High School’ (1893). EW 4: 59.
27. Dewey, Moral Principles in Education (1909). MW 4: 291.
28. Dewey, ‘History for the Educator’ (1909). MW 4: 192.
29. Dewey, ‘Ethical Principles Underlying Education’ (1897). EW 5: 71.
30. Dewey, ‘History for the Educator’ (1909). MW 4: 192.
31. Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, ed. R. Beiner (Chicago: Univer-
sity of Chicago Press, 1982), 76. Arendt is quoting Immanuel Kant, Critique of
Judgment, Introduction, section IV.
32. Ibid., 55, 43.
33. Arendt, ‘Understanding and Politics’, Partisan Review 20 (1953), 383.
34. Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, 94. Beiner is citing ‘Understanding and
Politics’, 383, 379.
35. Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Penguin,
1994), 32, 287, 288.
36. Ibid., 295.
37. Arendt, Between Past and Future (New York: Viking, 1961), 222, 220.
38. Ibid., 220–1.
39. Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920). MW 12: 183.
Chapter 7

Teaching Politics:
Training for Democratic Citizenship

Dewey did not invent the idea – indeed it is an idea as old as the Western
tradition itself – that the citizens of a democratic or any well-functioning
political order must be educated for citizenship. A competent citizenry is
one that has received a certain kind of political training, that has acquired
particular habits of thought and action, as well as one that possesses an
important measure of knowledge. If Plato’s classic discussion of the kind of
education that the guardians and the philosopher-king would receive in his
ideal state is the best known example of this in the ancient world, it is also an
idea that threads its way throughout much of the modern history of political
theory and the philosophy of education. It is no coincidence that until
relatively recent times the great political thinkers of the modern age have
been advocates of educational reform as well. How one conceives of a just
society inevitably raises questions regarding the character of the citizens it
comprises and how that character may be educated to assume its role in
public life. One might even critique political philosophies from the point of
view of the conception of education that they make both possible and
necessary, from Plato’s austere and highly regimented view of the guardians’
education to modern liberal conceptions, including Dewey’s, of education as
a training for democratic citizenship.
Among the aims inherent to the learning process, Dewey maintained, are
both the kind of moral education already discussed and a related form of
political training. Democracy and education, as well as forming the title of
one of his principal works in this field, are themes that Dewey always insisted
on theorizing together. While other political doctrines can of course be
taught and learned in an educational environment, what distinguishes
democracy from other such doctrines is that it need not be instilled in
students’ minds in the fashion of an external imposition but is rather
immanent to the practice of education itself. A training in democratic citiz-
enship in no way resembles the kind of political training or indoctrination
that Dewey observed first hand in communist nations, where from an early
age students would be inculcated with state-sanctioned ideology. The kind of
democratic education that Dewey advocated involves no direct instilling
of political commitments in the minds of the young but very nearly the

234 Education in the Human Sciences

antithesis: a training in habits of intellectual independence and experimen-

tal intelligence of the kind that make political and all other forms of indoc-
trination impossible. It is under democratic conditions that the people in
general are called upon to participate actively in the political life of the
nation and to put forward ideas aimed at creating a more just order. A high
level of public participation is a mark of a well-functioning democracy,
Dewey held, while indicators of its decline include a susceptibility of the
people to state propaganda, a low level of political involvement, and public
apathy in the face of the encroachment into politics of commercial interests
– all conditions that Dewey observed and lamented in the first half of the
twentieth century. The way forward for democracy, then, is a citizenry that is
educated not only for political deliberation but more generally in intellec-
tual and moral dispositions that enrich the political life of the society.
The line of questioning that this raises for Dewey and for ourselves regard-
ing the political dimension of education concerns, first, from the point of
view of politics, what kind of training for citizenship democracy requires –
the general answer to which has been intimated in previous chapters – and,
second, from the point of view of education, what overriding aims belong to
the teaching of politics, be it political history, political science, public policy,
or political philosophy? What ends, for example, ultimately govern the
teaching and learning of political theory in the university? In what sense are
students in the primary school to be educated for democracy? The argument
of previous chapters suggests the broad outline of an answer: the mind that
is educated for democratic participation is the mind that is educated
simpliciter. The educated mind possesses habits of thought and conduct that
incline it toward reflectiveness and an intelligence that is at once scientific,
pragmatic, and social, habits therefore readily applicable to the domain of
politics. This chapter endeavors to spell out in more detail this basic
Deweyan hypothesis and, following the structure of previous chapters, to
bring this argument into contact with some more recent views on the subject
of political education.
It will be immediately evident from the course of the argument to this
point in our study that a political education emphatically does not consist in
any kind of indoctrination in the sense of a direct instilling of contestable
political convictions in the minds of the young. Educators are not preachers,
Dewey would always insist, and the university professor’s lectern is not a
pulpit. While the democratic tradition persists, as with any tradition, in the
process of transmission from one generation to the next, educators must be
very circumspect in observing their role within this process. Democracy, at
the most fundamental level of analysis, is a way of life rather than an ideology
or a creed; it refers not only to a body of institutions and procedures but
more essentially to the spirit of public life that prevails in a society in which
Teaching Politics: Training for Democratic Citizenship 235

the people govern themselves. As an ethos, it calls for the widest possible
participation in public life rather than deference to political elites. It calls
upon citizens to rule and be ruled in turn, as the Greek ideal had it, and to
put forth creative ideas aimed at resolving the social ills of the times. For
educators this entails a form of restraint directly comparable to that
described in previous chapters regarding controversial philosophical, reli-
gious, and moral doctrines.
Dewey remarked in an essay from 1924 on the topic of the liberal arts
college in what sense an education at the post-secondary level may be said to
be genuinely liberal or democratic, and faulted many ostensibly liberal
educators for presuming to know in advance of inquiry exactly what com-
mitments and values characterize the properly educated mind:

It is held to be certain in advance just what beliefs a truly liberal mind will
hold. It is therefore established that the way to create the liberal mind is
to instill these beliefs. Quarrel concerns just what set of studies, what
‘curriculum’, methods and beliefs are characteristic of the liberal mind,
and are to be employed and inculcated. Now such direct effort to gain
specific ends is itself proof of the operation of the illiberal mind.

A liberal, also a democratic, education is not characterized by the fact that it

instills doctrines of freedom or majority rule in students’ heads rather than
a rival political creed but rather by its refusal to instill any doctrines at all. It
is not what beliefs students hold that ultimately matters but their ability to
fashion rational beliefs independently. As Dewey wrote in the same context,
‘even if these [liberal democratic] views are sound, the mark of a liberal
mind is not that they are held, but is the way in which they are reached and
accepted’.1 They are to be reached and accepted on the basis of co-operative,
experimental inquiry if they are to be accepted at all. This includes, of
course, the idea of democracy itself. Like all ideas, it is to be treated as a
working hypothesis and not a dogma.
This proscription of indoctrination applies across the board for Dewey; it
applies to controversial doctrines of all kinds and at all educational levels,
from the primary grades to the university. If ‘science’, in the pragmatic sense
of the term, is indeed ‘the sole universal method of dealing intellectually
with all problems’, this quite obviously includes the political issues of the day
and directly challenges teachers and professors who regard their role when
the subject matter is political as deciding which political views are most
deserving of belief and urging or manipulating students into thinking
likewise.2 The latter view of the educator’s role, however widespread in
Dewey’s time and our own, is a temptation that must be refused on grounds
of the miseducative effects of intellectual ‘conscription’ in general and to
236 Education in the Human Sciences

‘the gratuitous stupidity of measures that defeat their own ends’. When the
end in question is ‘social solidarity’ or a democratic way of life, this is not
achieved but undermined by fostering habits of ‘intellectual inertness’ and
deference to authority. ‘Absence of thought,’ Dewey wrote, ‘apathy of intel-
ligence, is the chief enemy to freedom of mind’, while freedom of mind is
the very lifeblood of a democracy.3 As with ideas of a non-political nature,
Dewey was not urging educators to refrain from any and all expression of
personal convictions. It is again the manner or spirit in which such convic-
tions are expressed in an educational setting that is all important – whether
they are expressed with the overt or covert expectation that students will
come into agreement with the educator’s opinions or whether they are put
forward as hypotheses to be debated on their merits.
If the aims of a political education do not include a direct instilling of
debatable beliefs deemed valid by an educator, neither are they limited to
the narrowly empirical or informational. A great deal of the curriculum in
political science consists of empirical information regarding political
behavior, the workings of institutions, political economy, and what have you.
This is all for the good, of course; not for a moment did Dewey entertain the
possibility of striking such informational knowledge from the curriculum in
courses in political science or political philosophy. His point is that an edu-
cation in politics or in anything must go beyond the acquisition of purely
informational knowledge to include, as in all education that is worthy of the
name, the capacity for intelligent reflection. Informational learning in any
discipline, in Dewey’s view, is at once indispensable and non-ultimate; it is a
means to an end. Regarding information in education generally, Dewey

I do not mean, of course, that students are not expected to get a certain
amount of information. They must cover a certain amount of ground and
learn a certain number of facts in order to get hold of the data on which
to work. But after all that aside – the side of pure knowledge – ought, in
my opinion, to be secondary to developing the child’s [and the adult
student’s] sense of ends and aims which are valuable, and to developing
his judgment and strength in adapting and adjusting means in order to
reach those ends.

The possession of information neither constitutes nor leads by any direct

path to the kind of knowledge at which a political education properly aims.
It is an important preliminary to thought, but thought itself it is not. ‘[A]fter
all,’ he continued, ‘the scientist [political or otherwise] is not made by the
amount of information he has acquired, but by his ability to use old truths
and find out new truths.’4
Teaching Politics: Training for Democratic Citizenship 237

Were it the case that political wisdom, good judgment, or social imagin-
ation followed automatically upon the accumulation of political facts, then it
would stand to reason that the student of politics ought to busy him- or
herself in the still conventional way with amassing as much of such informa-
tion as possible, yet it is plainly evident that the mere possession of facts falls
well short of the ability to think or to learn the higher order of cognition
that for Dewey is the mark of an educated mind. Indeed, the possession of
information may even be counterproductive in this regard; the capacity of
intelligent reflection, on political or any other subject matter, ‘is smothered’,
Dewey maintained, ‘by accumulation of miscellaneous ill-digested inform-
ation’.5 Consider, for instance, the undergraduate student majoring in polit-
ical science whose university education consists mainly or even exclusively in
accumulating enormous quantities of facts regarding political forces and
behavior, institutional functionings, economic dynamics, and so on, supple-
mented by additional information regarding the views of particular political
theorists. Such a student may excel in his or her studies without ever learning
how to critique political ideas or, still less perhaps, to fashion his or her own.
The ability to think is ‘smothered’ by too much information in the sense that
it is never formed by the student into any kind of meaningful configuration
or larger picture of political life, the very quality that makes possible a
deeper, contextual understanding of politics. One does not understand a
mountain of data without arranging it into some semblance of order or an
intelligent frame that allows students to comprehend their meaning and the
uses to which they may be put. The educational significance of information
is that it is a means to an end, where the end is roughly describable as social
intelligence or the possession of good judgment regarding political life. Too
often, however, as in so many fields of study, the students’ reflective capacity
is underemphasized or even confused by educators themselves with the pos-
session of an array of facts and figures or with what is loosely called being
‘informed’. It is not impossible, nor even unusual, to be very well informed
indeed regarding politics and nonetheless incapable of rationally justifying
one’s political stance or fashioning and assessing hypotheses for remedying
the social ills of our time. The isolation of statistics and factual observations
from a larger context of reflective inquiry mistakes a means for an end and
so renders that end ever more elusive.
The depreciation of the theoretical and reflective in favor of strictly
empirical or informational approaches to the study of politics is as inade-
quate on Dewey’s view as approaches at the opposite end of the spectrum
which apply a highly formalized analysis to political life at the expense of any
pragmatic sensibility at all. So accustomed have we become to the separation
of theory and practice, formal analysis and empirical observation, that
educators in the field (or fields) of politics readily fall into one or the other
238 Education in the Human Sciences

side of a dichotomy: either the aim is to ‘inform’ students with an array of

facts and figures or to impart a vocabulary of formal, theoretical categories
that never quite touch down to the real world of politics. The latter
approach, of course, is especially popular among professors of political
philosophy who, like educators in other branches of philosophical study,
concentrate more or less exclusively on theoretical matters – the thought of
a few historical or contemporary political theorists combined with a critique
of the logic of their arguments, with perhaps a brief discussion from time to
time of the policy implications of certain theoretical principles. Whereas the
first approach is strictly empirical, this second approach is decidedly formal
and a priori, as it were, and typically provides students with an impressive
technical vocabulary which for many represents the true mark of intellectual
sophistication and of the well-educated mind.
Dewey’s assessment of the latter approach reflects both his conception of
political theory and his view of the theory–practice relation. His voluminous
political writings are consistently written in a pragmatic spirit, in the sense
that theoretical reflection invariably is placed in the service of practice and
of resolving ‘the problems of men’ rather than constituting highly formal-
ized analyses of the kind that we often find today in political philosophy. It is
the bearing that abstract ideas have upon social issues and the reciprocity of
theory and practice that orient Dewey’s own approach to the study of
politics, and it is this approach that he favors as well in educational settings.
His critique of formalist political analysis in the classroom includes a similar
line of argument to what we have seen in previous chapters regarding overly
technical and scholastic thought in general – that it is almost wilfully dis-
connected from the realm of practical life, that it produces a class of over-
specialized thinkers ill equipped to move the conversation of democracy
forward, and so on. The sole relevance of political, or any, theory is its
capacity to help us negotiate problematic situations, and must not lose con-
nection with the practical ground from which it emerges. Yet lose connec-
tion with the experiential and pragmatic is precisely what political theory
and political education alike very often affect, creating once again a class of
thinkers whose formal categories have only the remotest connection with
and implications for resolving the injustices of this world. As Dewey would
write toward the end of his life in Knowing and the Known,

It is, I submit, the growing tendency of ‘philosophy’ [political philosophy

not least] to get so far away from vital issues which render its problems not
only technical (to some extent a necessity) but such that the more they are
discussed the more controversial are they and the further apart are
philosophers among themselves: – a pretty sure sign that somewhere on
the route a compass has been lost and a chart thrown away.6
Teaching Politics: Training for Democratic Citizenship 239

This, as we have seen, is a charge that Dewey throughout his long career
leveled against theorists in a great many disciplines, and none more so than
philosophy. Political philosophers, political scientists, and others inevitably
import into their educational practices basic assumptions regarding the
theory–practice relation, the nature of political knowledge, methods of
analysis, and so on which orient the learning process and often direct it
down avenues that show no signs of returning to the realm of political
Among the errors of formalist approaches is the conception of political
reason itself as ‘something laid from above upon experience’ rather than as
arising from experience and tested by returning to it and providing a better
arrangement of the particulars that comprise social reality.7 Formal analysis
rejects experimental reasoning in favor of a top-down application of techni-
cal categories ranging from the Hobbesian to the Marxian, as if theoretical
vocabularies of self-interest or class struggle allow for a simple filing of social
phenomena into pigeonholes conceived in advance of inquiry into a given
issue or that substitute for inquiry itself. Classifying social realities into con-
ceptual structures originally formulated in an empirical spirit but that in
time deteriorate into inflexible dogmas falls into the same error as all forms
of rationalism: to separate reason from experience, theory from practice,
and to denigrate the latter in favor of a conception of reason that is self-
sufficient and requires no corroboration from experience. For Dewey, all
inquiry that consists in a ‘search for forms simply as forms’, be it political or
otherwise, is empty and at best results only in the ‘acquisition of merely tech-
nical skill’ instead of the kind of knowledge that an education in politics
might bring about.8
What sort of knowledge, accordingly, might a political education provide?
If the aims of education always include a certain kind of knowledge, what
knowledge is it that a political education imparts, and where the answer must
take up a kind of intermediate position or perhaps constitute a higher syn-
thesis between the narrowly empirical and the rationalistic? Not surprisingly,
Dewey insisted that knowledge here as well must have its roots in our lived
experience of social life and that the subject matter of political inquiry must
draw upon the out-of-school experience of the students themselves. Instead
of the political analysis that searches for cut-and-dried definitions of terms
and that ‘substitute[s] a bookish, a pseudo-intellectual spirit for a social
spirit’, Dewey called for an experimental conception of political reason
which rejects the binary oppositions of theory and practice, reason and expe-
rience, and so on.9 Experience, in the pragmatic or experimentalist sense of
the term, and the existing interests of students, form the ground on which
the learning process proceeds, in political and all other areas of education.
An experiential and experimental knowledge in the field of politics is in all
240 Education in the Human Sciences

essential respects consistent with that found in a philosophical and a moral

education: it enables the student to ‘utilize the experiences he gets outside
the school’ rather than isolating the curriculum from the political issues of
the day with which students are likely to be concerned; it cultivates the
students’ ‘ability to learn from experience’ or ‘power to retain from one
experience something which is of avail in coping with the difficulties of a
later situation’.10 The reason or reasoning that it brings to bear extracts
meaning from the problematic situations that it takes up and aims in the
manner of all experimental reasoning to formulate and test hypotheses for
resolving such situations. Such reasoning involves the application not of a
formal technique such as the utilitarian or contractarian calculus but of a
larger set of intellectual capacities and habits of the kind discussed in
previous chapters.
These capacities and habits include much the same intellectual virtues
previously discussed. Open-mindedness, flexibility, persistence, curiosity,
reflectiveness, creativity, imagination, intellectual rigor, and so on are of no
less relevance to the study of politics than any other branch of investigation.
An education in this field, then, aims at once to impart information of the
kind familiar to students of political science and political philosophy and,
beyond this, to broaden horizons and cultivate the students’ own intellectual
powers as they bear upon political questions. It does not prescribe what polit-
ical convictions they are to accept but gives them the wherewithal to form and
apply their own. If it is true, as Dewey maintained, that ‘we are living in a
period of applied science’, then the scientific approach to the study of politics
must follow the same procedure of experimental inquiry as what we
encounter in other fields.11 Political education as inquiry begins with an expe-
rienced difficulty or problematic situation that arises in the course of social
life (in contrast to the view that political questions are perennial or simply fall
from the sky as soon as the human mind turns its attention to politics); this is
likely to include either a specific injustice or social ill that requires political
remedy or the realization of a general aspiration such as equal rights or a
more participatory democracy. In either case, there is a problem to be
resolved, and the business of inquiry is to find a possible solution. As the con-
versation unfolds, alternative hypotheses are suggested, debated, and tested
in imagination for the consequences they can be anticipated to bring about
and whether a given hypothesis can be expected, by following in imagination
its foreseeable course, to resolve the original difficulty more satisfactorily than
its alternatives and without simply replacing one social ill with a new and
potentially greater one. This ‘method of observation, theory as hypothesis,
and experimental test’ is what Dewey meant by ‘intelligence’ in general, be it
the social intelligence that is in play in the study of politics and ethics or the
form of experimentation undertaken in the natural sciences.12
Teaching Politics: Training for Democratic Citizenship 241

For Dewey, all political judgments have the status of revisable hypotheses
and never attain the kind of formal certainty that modern political theorists
have often thought possible and necessary if we are to transcend the fray of
everyday political conversation and rhetoric. The experimentalist is never
above the fray in this sense, is never an expert to whom ordinary political
agents properly defer, but is at best an intelligent voice in the conversation
that a liberal democracy represents. Accordingly, if good political judgment
is one of the intellectual skills that an education in this field seeks to bring
about, it will be a judgment that cultivates a sense of its own fallibility rather
than insisting on the truth of its convictions. Good judgment, in politics as
in ethics, Dewey defined as the ability to determine the relative value of
things, to estimate degrees of worth and importance without being inflexible
or a slave to convention. Should educators wish to instill this capacity in their
students – surely no easy task – they must do far more than impart facts of
one kind or another but allow students the opportunity to work such facts up
into arguments and principles that make up a larger perspective on political
life which includes a developed sense of what is important. The student of
politics, or of anything, as Dewey expressed it, ‘cannot get power of
judgment excepting as he is continually exercised in forming and testing
judgments. He must have an opportunity to select for himself, and to
attempt to put his selections into execution, that he may submit them to the
final test, that of action.’13 The reason why students of politics so often fail to
develop this capacity is not that they are ‘uninformed’ but that they are often
given too little opportunity to think for themselves and to have their own
political stance subjected to critical scrutiny. When students are not invited
or obliged to test their convictions in class discussion, for instance, or in
written work, their thinking may be very well informed indeed and yet un-
developed in the sense that it cannot defend itself against criticism or rival
hypotheses. Like any intellectual capacity, political judgment is acquired
through use and is set in motion by the requirements of particular situations
or social ills that require political remedy.
A political education also calls forth habits of reflectiveness and imagin-
ation of the kind discussed in previous chapters. Reflective thinking, for
instance, is a search for the philosophical grounds of our convictions and
involves ‘(1) a state of doubt, hesitation, perplexity, mental difficulty, in
which thinking originates, and (2) an act of searching, hunting, inquiring,
to find material that will resolve the doubt, settle and dispose of the per-
plexity.’14 Because this is not accomplished in a vacuum or solely in the
privacy of one’s thought it requires the practice that a social environment
affords, a shared inquiry into the basis of our convictions and a questioning
of received values. A training for citizenship requires an active and critical
mind, an education that ‘develops the power of observation, analysis, and
242 Education in the Human Sciences

inference with respect to what makes up a social situation and agencies

through which it is modified’.15 In their concentration upon reflectiveness,
the cultivation of judgment and imagination, and the analysis of social situa-
tions, an education in politics and in ethics are ultimately inseparable. While
the problematic situations that ethics and politics confront are more or less
distinct, the intellectual capacities and methods that they call forth are much
the same. Because of this, Dewey could well say of the study of politics exactly
what he said of ethics:

Ethics, rightly conceived, is the statement of human relationships in

action. In any right study of ethics, then, the pupil is not studying hard
and fast rules for conduct; he is studying the ways in which men are bound
together in the complex relations of their interactions. He is not studying,
in an introspective way, his own sentiments and moral attitudes; he is
studying facts as objective as those of hydrostatics or of the action of

Like ethics, politics as a branch of academic study aims at developing a com-

prehensive understanding of social life, one that includes both a knowledge
of how social relations are fundamentally structured and the forces and
circumstances that come to bear upon them as well as an ability to think
creatively and critically about how our political institutions might be better
While Dewey always cautioned against conceiving either a moral or a
political education as involving the direct instilling of particular opinions or
values espoused by educators themselves, one possible exception to this is
the belief in democracy itself. As we have seen, Dewey insisted that we under-
stand the educative process together not only with experience but with the
explicitly political theme of democracy, while his writings on education are
rife with references to democracy and the training for democratic citizenship
that is a vital part of political, and all, education. On the face of it, it is a
strange contention that teachers and professors must not seek to instill par-
ticular political views, yet with one prominent exception. Why this exception
rather than, for instance, freedom, equality, or human rights generally? If we
can theorize education apart from human rights, why not apart from democ-
racy? Is this one political commitment immune from inquiry or criticism
while the others are not? What is special about democracy among political
values, on Dewey’s view, is that the spirit of a democratic polity is identical to
the spirit of education as he conceived of it, and accordingly is not imposed
on the learning process from without, in the manner of all indoctrination,
but is instead immanent to the process itself. Education as a ‘process of mental
development is essentially a social process, a process of participation’ – and
Teaching Politics: Training for Democratic Citizenship 243

a participation no different in kind from political participation in a liberal

democracy. The Deweyan school is a ‘community-centered’ institution that
requires from students far more engagement in co-operative activity than the
traditional school prescribes or indeed permits, while also drawing young
people from all social classes and backgrounds into a small-scale commun-
ity.17 Unlike the conventional school, it is not set apart from the rest of the
community and conceived as a place in which lessons are taught and learned
in isolation from social life and experience but the veritable opposite of this.
The school is a nascent democracy – not, obviously, in the sense that students
get a vote on whether to learn or not to learn, but in the sense that the mode
of participation in shared undertakings and intellectual work that is called
forth anticipates the properly political participation that democratic citizen-
ship enjoins.
By democracy Dewey intended far more than a particular doctrine regard-
ing the state or a set of political procedures; ‘it is primarily a mode of
associated living, of conjoint communicated experience’.18 As he would
argue in his more explicitly political writings, democracy is a way of life that
prevails in a society characterized by free and broad participation in public
life, and not only by a set of political procedures and institutions. It is this
same way of life that prevails when academic subject matters are taught and
learned, as Dewey put it, ‘as methods of living and learning, not as distinct
studies’.19 As a way of living, education is a fundamentally social undertaking,
not one that in its ideal form would be essentially individualistic, consisting
ideally of an individual student receiving knowledge at the feet of the master,
but which for practical reasons must include other students in the classroom.
It is only in a social environment that moral and intellectual habits alike are
formed, by students of whatever age participating in shared undertakings
and debating ideas, in much the same spirit as public policy (ideally) is
debated in a democratic community. When Dewey maintained, then, that
democracy and education are ultimately inseparable, he was not creating an
exception to a general proscription on political indoctrination. He was
advocating not that students be force-fed a debatable political philosophy or
be made to believe in the principle of popular sovereignty but that the
intellectual training that they receive ought to partake of the same social
spirit as that which characterizes a well-functioning democracy. Training for
citizenship requires no inculcation of political beliefs but habituation to a
mode of participation with one’s peers in matters of common concern.
In this connection Dewey would also defend the ideal of the public
education system as a meeting ground for all the socio-economic classes and
identity groups that comprise a democratic society. Since, as he maintained,
‘[e]very expansive era in the history of mankind has coincided with the oper-
ation of factors which have tended to eliminate distance between peoples
244 Education in the Human Sciences

and classes previously hemmed off from one another’, and since as well the
very idea of democracy includes the notion that persons of all descriptions
and backgrounds must converse together on issues of public concern, it is
important that a democratic education bring together students from every
background and social class.20 The public school is thus conceivable as a
small-scale democratic polity in which the kind of social participation noted
above comes about in addition, as an indirect but important consequence,
to several of the attitudes essential to a moral education. Attitudes of toler-
ation and respect, civility and equality, and so on may be fostered without any
need for direct inculcation or sermonizing by bringing students from differ-
ing backgrounds into common association, broadening their horizons and
experiences of difference, and by this means removing the provinciality and
sectarianism that so often give rise to social tensions. The best hope we have
of overcoming racial, religious, and other forms of bigotry, Dewey asserted,
and so of creating a more civil democracy, is for public schools to admit a
diverse student population so that existing social divisions will give way, in
part at least, to mutual understanding and good will. It may be hoped that
bringing young people into a form of association that is rooted in the
achievement of shared tasks will go some way toward eliminating the condi-
tions that give rise to intolerance and enmity.
Dewey applied this principle broadly along lines of class, race, religion,
age, and also gender. Coeducation, for instance, from the primary grades to
the university, is an ideal that Dewey would defend from his very earliest edu-
cational writings and throughout his career and on both ethical and intel-
lectual grounds. Educating males and females together along with students
of different races, classes, and so on cultivates ‘not merely passive toleration
that will put up with people of different racial birth or different colored
skin’, but the ‘understanding and goodwill which are essential to democratic
society’.21 The racial intolerance that had enveloped Germany and Italy at
the time Dewey wrote these words (1938), and which was not unknown on
this side of the Atlantic as well, are the undoing of democracy, as are sharp
divisions of social class and identity. The remedy to this is the public school
that teaches values of respect and equality less through direct instruction
than through the indirect but ultimately more effective means of mutual
association from an early age. The advantages of this are likewise ethical and
intellectual, Dewey maintained. If the moral advantages of overcoming
bigotry and a variety of other social ills are evident, the intellectual purpose
that is served in bringing together students of diverse descriptions consists in
the broadening of horizons and experience and the opportunities for intel-
lectual exchange that it makes possible. The elementary principle of respect
for differences is difficult to impart in the absence of real differences of race,
gender, or class, or purely intellectual differences of belief. In each case it is
Teaching Politics: Training for Democratic Citizenship 245

exposure to what is unfamiliar and the give and take of common association
that leads to an expanding of horizons and an enlarging of experience.
Dewey further argued that the curriculum itself may serve a democratic
purpose, and again without any need for direct inculcation of political
beliefs. American history, for instance, may be taught in ways that draw atten-
tion to the waves of migration that led over time to the settling and present
composition of a nation as well as the contributions that immigrants have
made in various dimensions of American life. It may highlight the struggles
for emancipation and equal rights that African Americans, women, and
other subaltern groups have had to take up, again for purposes not only of
conveying knowledge about the nation’s past but of teaching respect,
equality, and related values of civil association. The combination of curric-
ulum and diversity of the student population, Dewey hoped, might well
succeed in ‘subordinating a local, provincial, sectarian and partisan spirit of
mind to aims and interests which are common to all the men and women of
the country’.22 Such, in short, is the social mission of public education
institutions and the kind of political training that it provides.

Education for liberation

That the members of a democratic order must be educated for citizenship is
not a view that is unique to Dewey, of course. It is a position that political and
educational theorists have often maintained and interpreted in a great many
ways, including perhaps the most influential educator of the second half of
the twentieth century, Paulo Freire. The growing literature in critical
pedagogy that Freire helped to inspire shows interesting affinities with
Dewey in some respects. While their political positions diverge notably –
Freire being far more indebted to Marx than Dewey ever was – both figures
advanced virtually identical critiques of what Freire termed the banking
concept of education and sought to replace it with a problem-solving model
that would at once cultivate habits of critical reflection and provide a
training in democracy. Many of the same moral-political passions that
inspired Dewey and the progressives would later find expression in the
movement of critical or emancipatory pedagogy that has followed Freire.
Such movements are always difficult to characterize in general terms, but
despite the variety of opinions these two movements incorporate it can be
said that both locate themselves on the political left while the more contem-
porary movement gravitates rather more toward Freire’s Marxism than
Dewey’s liberalism. Indeed for many critical educational theorists and for
Freire himself, liberalism or ‘neoliberalism’ – a term often used and seldom
defined – has come to represent the very phenomenon from which liber-
ation is ostensibly required. Neoliberalism is a singularly unhelpful term,
246 Education in the Human Sciences

having little to do either with the conception of liberal democracy that

Dewey defended or with older or, still less, contemporary conceptions of
liberalism. Corporate conservatism is a more accurate term, and it is a stance
that most liberals themselves, including Dewey, categorically reject.
Nonetheless, ‘neoliberalism’ can be understood very loosely as the politi-
cal philosophy of Reagan–Bush (senior and junior), its guiding themes
being capitalism, Judeo-Christian morality, and a decidedly dated form of
individualism. Its social conservatism logically accords with the traditional
education that Dewey criticized as well as its contemporary analogues:
cultural literacy and the larger movement toward standardization, positivism,
and performativity. Ultimately, on such views students are being trained to
enter the workforce while preserving tradition in essentially unaltered form.
Freire would term this the banking model of education, where teachers are
trained as a certain kind of technician and students as the passive recipients
of information. Education here ‘becomes an act of depositing, in which the
students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor’, as Freire
wrote. ‘Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and
makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat.
. . . [T]he scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as
receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.’ Little intellectual agency is called
for on this view of education, and in the end ‘it is the people themselves who
are filed away through the lack of maturity, transformation, and knowledge
in this (at best) misguided system’.23 The banking concept calls for little
agency on the part of educators as well, who are essentially reduced to
providers of pre-packaged material. Teaching becomes a technical matter of
optimizing efficiency in the transmission of information while educators
themselves are mere ‘bureaucrats of the mind ’.24 The conservative banking
model regards educators as being in the know and students as ignoramuses
or blank slates upon which the former straightforwardly inscribe knowledge.
Like Dewey, Freire wished to conceive of the teaching process on a model
of inquiry or problem-solving rather than a simple accumulation of
information, and with a strong accent on critical reflection of a kind readily
transferable to democratic politics. Since on both views education is always
already political, the kind of political education that is the topic of this
chapter must involve carrying such reflection to a higher order of explicit-
ness and sophistication. The student of political science or political philoso-
phy will be a critical thinker of a kind and an inquirer into the social
conditions and ills of the times. Where Freire departs from Dewey is in his
conception of critical inquiry itself. Whether Freire’s Marxian view repre-
sents an advance over Dewey remains to be seen. It is a view that regards such
inquiry as a reciprocal dialogue between the educator and the students.
Freire’s initial premise is that students are oppressed more or less as Marx
Teaching Politics: Training for Democratic Citizenship 247

had described, victims of a false consciousness imposed by the powerful

upon the powerless. Writing in the context of his native Brazil, critical peda-
gogues quickly extended Freire’s basic problematic to the North American
setting, a strategy of which the latter readily approved. Capitalism, to this way
of thinking, constitutes a scientifically false ideology that blinds the
oppressed to the truth of their condition at the bottom of the social order
while leaving them ignorant, poor, and uncritical of the system that
oppresses them. The ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’ therefore requires an
awakening to critical reflection or conscientização which the banking model
essentially forbade, a model that itself works to reinforce students’ unfree-
dom. It falls to the educator to become a political militant of sorts, awaken-
ing students to the truth about the social order and their plight within it.
Problem-posing and problem-solving education ‘unveils reality’ or sees
through the subterfuge that a capitalist order creates.25
This much is not surprising given Freire’s Marxian commitments. More
interesting perhaps is his turn toward dialogue as a conception of critical
inquiry. Dialogue in this sense is not synonymous with Dewey’s experimental
inquiry, although the similarities are sufficient to bring the two into fruitful
association. While Dewey would always look to science as an exemplar of
rational investigation, Freire looked to social criticism that harks back to
Marx while also imparting a notion of Christian love and with a strong accent
on dialogical reciprocity. Critical inquiry requires a loving and explicitly
egalitarian relationship between educator and students, Freire maintained.
In his words,

The struggle begins with men’s recognition that they have been
destroyed. Propaganda, management, manipulation – all arms of domin-
ation – cannot be the instruments of their rehumanization. The only
effective instrument is a humanizing pedagogy in which the revolutionary
leadership establishes a permanent relationship of dialogue with the
oppressed. In a humanizing pedagogy the method ceases to be an in-
strument by which the teachers (in this instance, the revolutionary
leadership) can manipulate the students (in this instance, the oppressed)
because it expresses the consciousness of the students themselves.

Emancipatory educators lead the students into non-authoritarian conver-

sation regarding a particular problem or reality in which the students can
readily take an interest. Being oppressed, their consciousness of this reality
will be uncritical and clouded by the ideology that a capitalist order creates.
The educator therefore leads the conversation in a critical direction, but
without forcing the students into adopting any particular beliefs or values.
Any direct inculcation of beliefs would constitute yet another deposit in
248 Education in the Human Sciences

students’ minds, as the banking concept had it, while ‘[a]uthentic liberation
. . . is a praxis: The action and reflection of men and women upon their
world in order to transform it.’26 It is not only the world that is thus trans-
formed but the students’ consciousness as well. They are raised to a freer
humanity and critical awareness in the same dialogical process that seeks a
resolution of whatever problems they take up.
A political education, then, must be conceived within a vocabulary of
domination and oppression, resistance and emancipation, humanization
and radical critique, and as an overcoming of false consciousness through
the power of dialogue. To an extent this is textbook Marxism of a kind that
is surprising given the efforts in recent years by many on the political left to
overhaul Marxism, or post-Marxism, in ways far more sophisticated than
what Freire has accomplished. Freire’s originality lies far less (indeed not at
all) within political theory than in applying it to education, an extension that
requires educators to be more egalitarian in their communication with
students than his undeconstructed Marxism might lead us to expect. Such
dialogue requires the kind of environment that Dewey had also insisted
upon, one that avoids the old dichotomization of educator and student,
knowledge and ignorance, and that draws teacher and students alike into
shared inquiry. Despite the language of ‘revolutionary leadership’ and ‘the
oppressed’, Freire sought to downplay or replace this old Marxian
dichotomy with an ostensibly egalitarian ethos of loving conversation. Accord-
ingly, he would speak of dialogue as a ‘[r]elation of “empathy” between two
“poles” who are engaged in a joint search’, and as at once ‘[l]oving, humble,
hopeful, trusting, [and above all] critical’. By contrast, ‘anti-dialogue’ asso-
ciated with the banking model ‘involves vertical relationships between
persons. It lacks love, is therefore acritical, and cannot create a critical
attitude. . . . In anti-dialogue the relation of empathy between the “poles” is
broken. Thus, anti-dialogue does not communicate, but rather issues com-
muniques.’27 The distinction between the horizontal and the vertical is
important in separating genuine dialogue from its counterfeit forms which
only reproduce the very relations of power that education should strive to
overcome. The related distinction between communication and the issuing
of communiques is also intended as a limited critique of Soviet-style
Marxism, which Freire would at times criticize for its dogmatism and
‘sloganizing’. ‘The commitment of the revolutionary leaders to the
oppressed’, as he expressed it, ‘is at the same time a commitment to
freedom. And because of that commitment, the leaders cannot attempt to
conquer the oppressed, but must achieve their adherence to liberation.’
Achieving this adherence must not happen by force or manipulation of the
kind that Marxists of the old school have often practiced on the conviction
that the masses are not only victims of false consciousness but ignorant and
Teaching Politics: Training for Democratic Citizenship 249

backward as well. ‘It is not our role’, Freire would argue, ‘to speak to the
people about our own view of the world, nor to attempt to impose that view
on them, but rather to dialogue with the people about their view and ours.’
The people’s, and the students’, beliefs about their social world are a
consequence of their position within that world. Bringing them to critical
awareness does not involve forcing them to become Marxian revolutionists
but more gently awakening them to the truth of their plight. It is ‘a critical
perception of the world’ that a political, or any, education properly instills,
not the educator’s values or political stance.28
Freire would often repeat this point, presumably in order to counteract
the long-standing tendency of Marxism to seek to impose itself in doctrinaire
fashion on the ideologically duped masses, where the assumption was that
the latter lacked the intellectual wherewithal to achieve liberation by more
peaceable means. ‘Scientific and humanistic revolutionary leaders’, Freire
asserted, ‘cannot believe in the myth of the ignorance of the people’,
whether such leaders be educators, politicians, or what have you. The people
possess knowledge indeed, he argued, although it is a knowledge that is
‘empirical’ rather than ‘critical’.29 For critical knowledge they must look to
an education that is enlightened and emancipatory without the ‘inflexibility’
and ‘dogmatism of authoritarian socialism’.30 There is no doubt that the
kind of dialogue between educator and students for which Freire called is
animated by an egalitarianism more thoroughgoing than what orthodox
Marxism allowed, yet that important traces of such orthodoxy remain visible
in Freire’s account is equally difficult to doubt.
These traces are apparent in the basic problematic that Freire fashioned,
and it is important to point them out. While speaking of students as ‘no
longer docile listeners’ but ‘searchers’ whose ‘ontological vocation is human-
ization’ and who gradually become ‘critical co-investigators in dialogue with
the teacher’, it remains that dialogue so conceived is rather less egalitarian
and reciprocal than Freire often claimed.31 The educational consequences of
oppression include the students’ false consciousness, where this means not
merely that they are beset by a certain number of false opinions or prejudices
but something far more dramatic. They are systematically deceived by their
oppressors into misperceiving reality, at least at the outset of emancipatory
education. ‘The dominant ideology veils reality; it makes us myopic and
prevents us from seeing reality clearly.’32 It encloses minds in a fog that
causes them to submit to their own oppression. ‘The dominated conscious-
ness is dual, ambiguous, full of fear and mistrust.’33 It must be brought round
to perceiving the truth and ‘develop[ing] a kind of critical reading or critical
understanding of society, even in the face of resistance by students and by
the dominant class’.34 It is of course the educator, not the students, who
possesses this radical knowledge, a knowledge that the latter gradually take
250 Education in the Human Sciences

up if the operation is successful. Should the dialogue arrive at the conclusion

that capitalism is not such a bad idea, it would of course fall to the emanci-
patory educator to instruct the students, albeit gently, in the error of their
Dialogical competence is thus something at which the students gradually
arrive, on Freire’s account, and at about the same time that they adopt a
far-left political stance. In reading Freire’s texts and the body of literature
that his work has inspired, it does rather seem as if students (and not only
them) who adopt any other stance must be either oppressors themselves or
educational failures who have never adopted a critical posture of any kind.
This never becomes explicit, of course, but it is never far from the surface.
Should a classroom discussion inquire into a particular social problem and
generate a consensus that is at odds with the educator’s ostensibly radical
knowledge, the possibility is there that the students have it right while the
educator does not, yet it is a singularly unlikely proposition. When it is
genuine, dialogue requires a renunciation of the claim to expertise or to
have a privileged knowledge to which our interlocutors do not have access;
it requires an open-minded hospitality to others’ ideas and especially to
those that clash with our own. The equality and reciprocity of which Freire
spoke are rather more limited than this, and they are limitations that are
already implicit in the vocabulary of oppression, domination, false con-
sciousness, and radical knowledge. It is the educator who knows the truth
and the students who have had the wool pulled down, not the reverse, and
not only before the learning process begins.
There are two antithetical strains that run through all of Freire’s texts.
One speaks of dialogue and equality, of teacher–students and student–
teachers and the evils of authoritarianism in all its forms. The other perpet-
uates the standard Marxian line: it is the masses who have had their faculties
systematically impaired by their oppression, not the revolutionary leaders; it
is the leaders who possess critical knowledge about reality and social affairs,
not the masses. Freire would do an admirable job of bringing these strains
into seeming equilibrium but they remain logically incompatible. When
Freire spoke of the antithesis between dialogue and domination, he meant
something quite specific by domination or manipulation:

Domination is when I say you must believe this because I say it. Manipula-
tion is dominating the students. Manipulating culture makes myths about
reality. It denies reality, falsifies reality. Manipulation is when I try to
convince you that a table is a chair, when the curriculum makes reality
opaque, when school and society present the system of monopoly capital-
ism as ‘free enterprise’.
Teaching Politics: Training for Democratic Citizenship 251

The examples are telling; teaching politics without causing students to see
capitalism as ‘the root of domination’ reinforces their oppression and
falsifies reality as one would misperceive a piece of furniture.35 The absurd-
ity of this is as clear as it is that there is far more to manipulation than
outright demanding that others agree with one based on false authority. Let
us suppose that in a class in political theory the philosophy of a John Locke
or a Friedrich A. Hayek, or for that matter a John Dewey, were to meet with
the general approval of students and their educator, or for that matter any
stance that is less far to the left than what Freire prefers. Let us suppose that
this stance has been adopted not because the educator has demanded its
uncritical acceptance but as a result of unforced dialogue. Freire’s analysis of
this must be that this is an a priori impossibility; the non-Marxian consensus
can only be a consequence of subterfuge, manipulation, and oppression.
The critical pedagogue knows which political conclusions a dialogue may
arrive at and which it may not, having beheld reality in its true dimension
and having read a good deal of Marx. This form of dogmatism is more
muted than what orthodox Marxism exhibited but it is equally objectionable.
Morally-politically, the participants in Freire’s dialogical classroom are equal;
epistemologically, they are far from it.
The antithesis – or at least the distinction – between dialogue and domin-
ation is genuine and important, and the ideal of dialogical education is an
attractive one which in some ways can be regarded as an advance over or
perhaps a further refinement of Dewey’s pragmatic inquiry, yet how we
understand dialogue is no less important. When Freire referred to ‘Fidel
Castro and his comrades’ as ‘an eminently dialogical leadership group’, we
can suspect that dialogue has been misconceived.36 When dialogical educa-
tion is politicized in the specific and strident way that he advocated, we are
compelled to re-examine the conditions that make dialogue the kind of
practice that it is or might be, and when domination is reduced to capitalism
and its consequences, we have missed the mark. Domination includes efforts
by educators, be they on the right or the left, to inculcate their political views
in the minds of their students whether overtly or, more likely, covertly.
Dialogue requires the freedom to discuss all views openly and to weigh the
arguments pro and con without anyone putting themselves above the fray of
argumentation or claiming special competence. The latter claim effectively
brings dialogue to an end, and while it is not one that Freire explicitly made,
it is implicit to his account and hoists that account with its own petard.
Declaring one’s interlocutors not only mistaken in their beliefs but victims of
a false consciousness from which one does not oneself suffer is dialogical bad
faith. It declares one’s interlocutors incompetent until such time as they are
critical and radicalized, which means until they come to believe what their
educators believe.
252 Education in the Human Sciences

Freire downplayed this and denied its implications, yet he was unequiv-
ocal on the question of politicizing education. Students ‘must perceive the
reality of oppression’, whether we are speaking of his native Brazil or North
America. Students’ ‘perception of themselves as oppressed is impaired by
their submersion in the reality of oppression’.37 Their perception must there-
fore be corrected by those whose faculties are not impaired. Students’ resist-
ance to this must be overcome, and they must not only change their views in
a great many ways but act to transform their society in accordance with the
radical knowledge they acquire. To bring this about, educators must awaken
students to class consciousness, which is a gentle way of saying they must
interpret social reality through a Marxian lens, and until they do they are not
only mistaken but intellectually impaired. They are not, it is true, the
complete ignoramuses and ideological dupes that authoritarian socialism
regarded them as, but almost. Educators must therefore be ‘political mili-
tants’, and precisely ‘because we are teachers’.38 The imperative of militancy
in the classroom is a frequent theme in Freire’s texts. Education, he insisted,
quite simply ‘is politics’, and is not a mere aspect of it.39 Educators are not
only radical (meaning Marxian) social critics but revolutionary leaders who
somehow are not propagandists. How one can square this circle is an utter
mystery, although Freire did manage to deflect attention from it by speaking
the language of empowerment, resistance, and so on.
As mentioned, he also made frequent appeal to the notion of Christian
love, further glossing over the dogmatic implications of his argument.
‘Dialogue cannot exist’, he would write, ‘. . . in the absence of a profound
love for the world and for people. . . . Love is at the same time the found-
ation of dialogue and dialogue itself.’ Such love ‘cannot exist in a relation of
domination’.40 Love can indeed co-mingle with domination or manipula-
tion, in an educational or non-educational context, as ordinary experience
well testifies. When it is thoroughly politicized it is even more likely to do so.
What Freire failed to see is that a certain amount of propagandizing is in-
dispensable to his account, that propagandizing in a Marxian vein readily
shades into indoctrination – necessarily so when one’s interlocutors’ facul-
ties are declared to be impaired – and that doing so with love in one’s heart
does not change that fact. The equality and reciprocity that are indeed indis-
pensable conditions of dialogue are conditions that Freire did and did not
believe in, in about equal measure.
Freire may be commended for placing dialogue at the center of his con-
ception of educative experience. The relevance of this ideal to a political
education is especially important given that training in democratic citizen-
ship crucially involves the ability to justify one’s views in dialogical inter-
actions with others whose ideals or identity are different from one’s own.
Ordinary conversation is the lifeblood of a democracy, as Dewey and Freire
Teaching Politics: Training for Democratic Citizenship 253

both reminded us, and where it is genuine it involves a renunciation of

absolutism and an open-ended quality that the notion of dialogue well
captures. Once divested of false certainty and claims of special competence,
dialogue better captures the open-ended and processual quality of educative
experience than Dewey’s more solution-oriented view. It is process that
matters most in education, not outcomes. While Dewey also maintained this,
the model of problem-solving captures this somewhat less adequately than
the concept of dialogue. Phenomenologically, dialogue indeed involves a
search for the answer to a question or the resolution of a problem, but we
know from experience that conversation can shed light and awaken the
mind without quite solving the problem. The judgments and agreements at
which it arrives are never final, but temporary resting places only.
The concept of dialogical education recognizes the value of uncertainty
and processes of fallibilist interpretation that largely define us as rational
beings. Quite apart from the acquisition of factual knowledge, a mark of
educational success is the cultivation of intellectual capacities that may or
may not produce some determinate results. In the case of a political educa-
tion these capacities include the power of judgment and a sense of justice,
neither of which is a measurable learning outcome. Whether such an edu-
cation produces emancipation in Freire’s sense is eminently questionable,
yet it does give expression to aspirations of a more egalitarian kind than what
is implicit to the traditional dichotomization of teacher and student. If it
does not eliminate all vestiges of power whatever – and indeed it does not –
it does strive for an ethos that at the very least approximates democratic forms
of inquiry. It is unfortunate that the current trend that speaks of empower-
ment and anti-oppression which owes so much to Freire often deteriorates
into political correctness. This form of absolutism also makes frequent ref-
erence to dialogue, failing to note the fundamental antithesis between the
politics of the absolute – be it of the right or the left – and the practice of
undogmatic communication, the animating spirit of which is not only egali-
tarian but fallibilist, non-militant, and intellectually modest. As Dewey’s texts
remind us, intelligent inquiry of all kinds is experimental, and the know-
ledge that it creates, no matter how radical we take it to be, remains contin-
gent on ongoing processes of investigation. No orthodoxy is possible to
genuinely dialogical ways of thinking, rendering problematic the habit of
some ostensibly dialogical or critical pedagogues of claiming false authority
regarding truth or justice. None of us is above the fray of dialogical inter-
pretation, including those who wish to characterize themselves as critical.
Freire and many others for whom the catchwords of oppression and libera-
tion, empowerment and critique, and so on, have resonance must tell us
from what standpoint the radical educator grasps the truth of the students’
essentially political condition. The diagnosis of oppression and false
254 Education in the Human Sciences

consciousness is pronouncable from the vantage point of truth alone, and a

truth to which the educator has special access. The reality of course is that
the educator is importing his or her political judgments into the diagnosis
and that such judgments are no more or less immune to challenge than any
If we would teach our students to think critically, as much of the current
thinking has it, or indeed to set them free from whatever bondage we believe
holds the minds of the young captive, we must train them as active partici-
pants in the intellectual and political life of their culture. Dewey would say
that education at all levels must initiate the young into the way of life of a
democratic society, an initiation that is social both epistemologically – in
training students in the practice of experimental inquiry – and politically –
in rendering them competent to engage with their peers in debate over the
issues of the day. An important indication of success is that one is a politically
engaged citizen capable of forming judgments in an intellectually responsi-
ble fashion. A political education initiates students into the dialogue that is
our culture or tradition, and has far less to do with the content of students’
beliefs (whether they are Marxists or ‘neoliberals’) than with their ability to
form their own and to participate as equals in the conversation that a demo-
cratic society aims to be. Whatever emancipation or empowerment means in
the context of education, it does not mean instilling the political stance of
an educator in the minds of the young. If these concepts are to hold any
meaning at all, rather than continue to deteriorate into slogans and clichés,
they can only signify the capacity of students to participate in dialogical
practices on their own terms. It is not uncommon for students or anyone else
to be afflicted with blinding prejudices of one kind or another, and the work
of education surely involves leading students to see how their apparent
certainties are in fact interpretations and judgments that might have been
otherwise. The best way this is accomplished is still to expose students to
others’ ideas since it is in dialogical encounters with others that one’s preju-
dices are called into play and can become an object of awareness. These
others might be theorists and their texts or one’s fellow students; this much
matters little. What matters more is that one risk one’s point of view and
often one’s parochialism in encountering unfamiliar ideas. This is how our
prejudices are brought to light and potentially seen through, not through an
expertocratic bestowing of enlightenment on the part of the educator.
Freire may be commended as well for rejecting the trend that finds edu-
cators increasingly in the role of technicians and non-professionals of a kind,
workers whose role is limited to preparing students to write standardized
examinations and administering pre-packaged and ‘teacher-proof’ materials.
Dialogical education rehabilitates the notion of the teacher as an educator,
meaning a professional who is called upon to exercise judgment in choosing
Teaching Politics: Training for Democratic Citizenship 255

subject matters and tailoring them to students’ interests, in determining

methods of education, and so on. When judgment is diminished to the
vanishing point, be it in the name of ‘accountability’, rationality, or what
have you, one is no longer a professional but a worker of another kind. If
university professors remain relatively autonomous in this respect, bureau-
crats of the mind are what too many teachers at the primary and secondary
level are becoming under the influence of extraneous economic and politi-
cal imperatives.
So long as the learning process aims at the gradual attainment of intel-
lectual maturity, indications of its success will be found in the cultivation of
habits and capacities of mind of the kind that are called forth in dialogue.
These are largely intangible and qualitative matters of a kind with which
policy-makers are often ill at ease or regard as an impractical accessory, yet it
is these that enable the young to enter into the intellectual and political life
of their society. Becoming competent interlocutors requires practice at all
stages of the learning process. One learns to judge, as Aristotle remarked, by
judging, and one learns to participate in dialogical inquiry by participating,
not only by being informed of whatever consensus or discoveries at which
others have arrived. It is an important prerequisite of such participation that
one know the history of the conversation to which one will offer a contribu-
tion, but it is a prerequisite nonetheless and not an end in itself.
It is important as well that dialogue not deteriorate into a platitude, an
all-purpose word, or worse, a veil for a certain kind of politicization of which
political correctness provides the most egregious, but not the only, example.
Whatever falsehoods we believe our students are afflicted by, educators are
not crusaders but interlocutors. As such, they are wise to practice a degree of
restraint in expressing their views in the classroom and in allowing students
to develop their own, including when those views are political and not
shared by the professor. In order that dialogical education not become a
veneer for something that it manifestly is not, we might well recall Deweyan
themes of experimentation, fallibility, and intellectual humility in order to
correct the dogmatic excesses of critical pedagogy, even while the latter can
indeed be described as an advance of sorts.

1. Dewey, ‘The Prospects of the Liberal College’ (1924). MW 15: 201–2, 203.
2. Dewey, ‘Unity of Science as a Social Problem’ (1938). LW 13: 279.
3. Dewey, ‘Conscription of Thought’ (1917). MW 10: 279.
4. Dewey, ‘Period of Technic’, Educational Lectures Before Brigham Young Academy
(1902). LW 17: 294.
5. Dewey, Experience and Education (1938). LW 13: 57.
6. Dewey, Knowing and the Known (1949). LW 16: 249–50.
256 Education in the Human Sciences

7. Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920). MW 12: 134.

8. Dewey, ‘Has Philosophy a Future?’ (1949). LW 16: 361.
9. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 44.
10. Dewey, The School and Society (1900). MW 1: 46. Democracy and Education (1916).
MW 9: 49.
11. Dewey, The Educational Situation (1901). MW 1: 310.
12. Dewey, ‘Introduction: Reconstruction as Seen Twenty-Five Years Later’ (1948).
MW 12: 258.
13. Dewey, Moral Principles in Education (1908). MW 4: 290.
14. Dewey, How We Think (rev. edn, 1933). LW 8: 121.
15. Dewey, ‘Ethical Principles Underlying Education’ (1897). EW 5: 73.
16. Dewey, ‘Teaching Ethics in the High School’ (1893). EW 4: 56.
17. Dewey, ‘The Dewey School: Appendix 2’ (1936). LW 11: 206.
18. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 93.
19. Dewey, The School and Society (1900). MW 1: 10.
20. Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). MW 9: 92.
21. Dewey, ‘Democracy and Education in the World of Today’ (1938). LW 13: 301.
22. Dewey, ‘Nationalizing Education’ (1916). MW 10: 203.
23. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. M. B. Ramos (New York: Continuum,
2004), 72.
24. Freire, Teachers as Cultural Workers, trans. D. Macedo, D. Koike and A. Oliveira
(Boulder: Westview, 1998), 17.
25. Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 83.
26. Ibid., 68–9, 79.
27. Freire, Education for Critical Consciousness (New York: Continuum, 1973), 45, 46.
28. Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 168, 96, 111.
29. Ibid., 134.
30. Freire, Pedagogy of the Heart, trans. D. Macedo and A. Oliveira (New York: Continuum,
2004), 48.
31. Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 81, 75.
32. Freire, Teachers as Cultural Workers, 6.
33. Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 166.
34. Freire and Ira Shor, A Pedagogy for Liberation (South Hadley, MA: Bergin and Garvey,
1987), 45.
35. Ibid., 172, 47.
36. Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 164.
37. Ibid., 49, 45.
38. Freire, Teachers as Cultural Workers, 58.
39. Freire and Shor, A Pedagogy for Liberation, 61.
40. Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 89.
Chapter 8

Teaching History:
The Past and the Present

According to an old caricature, Dewey regarded an historical education as an

unpragmatic irrelevance, something that belonged to an age of aristocracy.1
Only an Old World man of leisure could concern himself seriously with the
past, while in the New World it is the present and its practical problems that
command our attention. History can therefore be stricken from the curricu-
lum along with the classics and perhaps the entire Western canon. Nowhere
did Dewey write this, of course, although he did have a fondness for saying
‘The past is the past, and the dead may be safely left to bury its dead.’2 Dewey
wished the focus of inquiry to be the present and the ‘problems of men’, sure
enough, but the popular caricature takes this to be the end of the story.
Naturally it is not. Eliminating history from the curriculum for Dewey was an
absurdity. The question is not whether history ought to be taught but how
and for what reasons. The former question Dewey neither raised nor
answered because it answers itself; indeed history ought to be taught and
learned, and a good deal of it, but in the right way and with certain aims in
view and not others. What the aims of an historical education are is the
question that Dewey would have us ask: is a knowledge of our historical past
an end in itself or a means toward some more ultimate end?
As Dewey wrote in the same paragraph as the sentence just cited,

If history be regarded as just the record of the past, it is hard to see any
grounds for claiming that it should play any large role in the curriculum
of elementary education. . . . There are too many urgent demands in the
present, too many calls over the threshold of the future, to permit the
child to become deeply immersed in what is forever gone by.3

The first thing to note here is that he was speaking of elementary school edu-
cation. Students at more advanced levels may regard such knowledge as an
end in itself – in the way that students of mathematics may develop a theo-
retical interest that surpasses its practical origin – but here he was referring
to the beginning of the learning process. How is an interest in history origi-
nally awakened, one that will supply the level of attention necessary for
sustained inquiry? The second point is the conditional tense of the first

258 Education in the Human Sciences

sentence cited: if by history we mean so much informational knowledge

about names and dates, facts and figures, wars and treaties, which is
bestowed upon students as an end in itself, then indeed the value of such an
education is eminently questionable. This of course is often what an educa-
tion in this field becomes. Dewey’s point is not that information of this kind
is of no value but that it serves a higher purpose and that it behooves theo-
rists to identify what that purpose is. The question of ends is important in
every field of study, but in the case of history it may well assume special
importance due to the ingrained habit of not looking up from the particu-
larities of events to gain a larger understanding of history and our own place
in it. History is something that we stand within; it is not merely the sum of
events that are over and done with but a vital presence in our experience. We
must understand how this is so if we wish to answer the question of ends.
According to the same caricature, Dewey believed history to be ‘develop-
mentally inappropriate’ at the elementary school level, something again to
be eliminated from the curriculum but on psychological rather than prag-
matic grounds. Later progressive and many other educators would take this
view, sometimes citing Dewey as an authority, but again this was never his
belief. A popular view for many years now has been that ‘social studies’
should replace history as the former relates more directly to students’ expe-
rience and is more contemporary and local in its orientation. The Deweyan
reply to this is that such a policy reduces the students’ understanding not
only of the historical past but, more important, of the present. Contem-
porary social reality, he argued, ‘is both too complex and too close to the
child to be studied’, or studied directly. ‘He finds no clues in its labyrinth of
detail and can mount no eminence whence to get a perspective of arrange-
ment.’4 If our goal is to understand present social life in more than a
superficial way, then it is the past that affords the best point of view from
which to do this. The present may best be studied indirectly, by relating his-
torical narratives on how it came to be and the ideas and forces that underlie
our present ways of living. Piling detail upon detail without an arrangement
or comprehensive view of some kind defies thinking.
Setting the caricatures aside, what Dewey was opposed to in the study of
history are approaches that present essentially a chronicle of factual infor-
mation with no interpretive arrangement or significant attempt to relate
what happened in the past to the present state of the world. Minds that are
culturally literate in Hirsch’s sense may still lack an ability to reflect upon
history in the sense of gaining insight into its meaning and learning the
lessons that the past teaches. Information alone does not give rise to thought
or any of the intellectual virtues that Dewey prized. No matter how skilfully
presented, it does not constitute inquiry unless certain conditions are
present. He was opposed as well to the same kind of scholasticism in the
Teaching History: The Past and the Present 259

study of history that so often characterizes philosophical, religious, and many

other areas of discourse. The scholastic here as well is defined by disconnec-
tion from worldly concerns and theoretical disputes that do not touch down
sooner or later to the realm of experience. As Dewey would so often point
out, ‘[s]cholastic specialization and the departmentalization of knowledge
breed indifference to larger social issues and objects’. Overspecialization is
‘the great enemy’ of pragmatic inquiry, whether our interest lies in the
theoretical, political, or more factual dimension of history.5 As for historical
learning itself, however, Dewey regarded it as of the highest importance. As
one scholar has noted,

He valued mankind’s accumulated knowledge as much as the most hide-

bound traditionalist, and he intended that the children in his elementary
school be introduced to the riches of science, history, and the arts; here
his goals were rather conventional. . . . Only his methods were innovative
and radical.6

This last sentence may be overstated. The methods of historical instruction

that he advocated were innovative but his view of the ends such methods
serve was at least unusual. These ends are neither to preserve tradition nor
to stockpile information for their own sake but to provide a perspective on
the present. History as Dewey understood it is a kind of ‘concrete sociology’;
the ‘immense significance’ of the facts that it studies ‘lies in the insights they
give us into the mechanism of human behavior and its functioning under the
most diverse conditions!’ As a record of the past, such facts possess little
educational value, yet as an interpretive guide for the current ‘structure and
functioning of the social mechanism’ they are of supreme importance. While
their ‘“past” quality is of no interest’, it remains that ‘so many facts in the past
belong not only to the past!’7 They belong to the present in the sense that
they shed light on contemporary realities that do not fundamentally differ
from past realities. This point is expressed numerous times in Dewey’s
writings, including in the following passage from Democracy and Education:

But knowledge of the past is the key to understanding the present. History
deals with the past, but this past is the history of the present. An intelli-
gent study of the discovery, explorations, colonization of America, of the
pioneer movement westward, of immigration, etc., should be a study of
the United States as it is to-day: of the country we now live in. Studying it
in process of formation makes much that is too complex to be directly
grasped open to comprehension.8
260 Education in the Human Sciences

That historical investigation is properly a ‘history of the present’ is about as

innovative and radical an assertion as Michel Foucault’s similar claim
expressed several decades later in the same words. I shall return to this point
in due course.
In what sense is history a ‘concrete sociology’ or a matter that is appro-
priately ‘presented from the sociological standpoint’?9 If it is sociology that
we would understand, why not study it directly rather than via the long
detour of history? His answer is that social reality in its current state is simply
too complex to understand directly, at least by the youthful mind. If it is a
deeper understanding that we seek, or one that is profound enough to be
educational, we must view present conditions as having been brought about
by conditions of the past. The present is essentially an effect of the past, a
consequence of factors easily forgotten and extending decades or centuries
back in time. History therefore is not merely a record of what has been but
an arrangement that differs little from the world in which we now live. It is
concrete in the sense that it is ‘a practical study of the structure and func-
tioning of the social mechanism. In teaching us about relatively simple social
situations, it leads us to understand better the more complex present.’10
Even when circumstances of the present are not inherently more complex
than the past, studying the latter is a simpler matter given temporal distance
and less cluttered information, both of which make for a more ordered
arrangement of facts. It is far easier to look beneath surfaces of the past than
the present, to cut through the details of social reality to grasp its underlying
dynamics. Should we wish to understand the nature of war, for example, it is
a far simpler matter to study wars of the past than of the present and to
derive an understanding of the forces that lead to war and that prevent it.
Sociological history brings to light the basic ‘structure and working of
society’, not merely what happened in the past but its present and human
significance. Past and present are continuous when regarded in these terms.
The ‘methods of social progress’, for instance, do not fundamentally change,
in Dewey’s view. The forms that progress takes may change but the methods
or ‘fundamental forces’ that underlie it do not.11 Human motivations and
forms of social life are largely constant, as is ‘the play of forces which make
human life what it is’. Those who look upon history as so many disparate
epochs are not looking deeply enough into human affairs, Dewey held. From
an educational standpoint, ‘If we can make of history a sort of moral tele-
scope through which to view the conditions of past social life, we really make
it part of the present, since through what has been we become the better
able to understand what is.’12 Dewey always insisted that education must be
integrated into the students’ experience no matter what the subject matter,
and in the case of history this means drawing connections between past and
present experiences of social life. These connections are not difficult to
Teaching History: The Past and the Present 261

draw, provided that we are not skimming surfaces but inquiring more deeply
into the meanings, motivations, and consequences of historical events. When
the mind grasps not only what happened and when but what it signified,
including especially its implications for today, then its perspective is trans-
formed and a light is shed that is difficult to effect by more direct means.
Ultimately what the student of history wants to know is not what happened
in the past but what is happening today. Many have said that the present era
in history is a time of transition of some ambiguous kind. Determining what
kind is again very difficult to do, given the bewildering complexity of our
times. What is needed is a distanced perspective on the present, the stand-
point of a past age that resembles our own in some important respects. As
Dewey remarked in 1947,

. . . we are at the end of one historical epoch and at the beginning of

another. The teacher and student should attempt to tell what sort of
change is taking place. . . . [W]e are undergoing the same kind of change,
as a change, that happened when the medieval period lost its hold on the
people’s beliefs and activities. We recognize this now as the beginning of
a new epoch. This new epoch is largely the consequence of the new
natural science, which began about the sixteenth century with Galileo and
Newton, as the applications of that science revolutionized men’s ways of
living and their relations to each other. These have created the character-
istics of modern culture and its essential problems.13

Understanding the nature of the transition we are presently witnessing is

informed by placing it in historical context, and especially by drawing con-
nections with earlier periods of transformation such as that which followed
the long period of the Middle Ages. Whether the twentieth century, or the
twenty-first, constitutes an altogether new epoch or something short of this –
a further working through of the implications of Enlightenment modernity
– requires a great deal of inquiry into the continuities and discontinuities
between eras as they pertain to social relations and practices, beliefs and
values, and other factors. This is the kind of inquiry that Dewey would have
students of history undertake, again with a view to understanding the present
state of things.
Another aim of an historical education is to develop a critical perspective
on the present. Critique always requires a degree of distance from its object,
and historical distance is an important factor in perceiving conditions of the
present day in an alternative light. Critique often involves seeing how such
conditions came into being, thus dissolving the seeming naturalness of
present ways of thinking and acting. Issues of politics and economics, to take
Dewey’s example, ‘cannot be understood save as we know how they came
262 Education in the Human Sciences

about’.14 Should we wish to critique a given social ill, we must know some-
thing of its history – what its causes were or its conditions of possibility –
before we are in a position to debate solutions. Resolving such problems in
an historical vacuum or on the basis of what we perceive today alone is likely
to fail.
An illustration of this can be found in Dewey’s own historical reflections.
‘The simple fact’, as he remarked in 1902, ‘is that we are living in an age of
applied science. It is impossible to escape the influence, direct and indirect,
of the applications.’15 As we have seen, Dewey regarded this primarily as a
positive development although he was never inclined toward the kind of
scientism to which the positivists of his time subscribed. Science, suitably
understood, was a model for intelligent thinking in general, yet he also main-
tained that the idolatry of science and technology was a grievous error into
which a great deal of twentieth-century culture had fallen. Contemporary
conceptions of education, for instance, that are utterly wedded to technol-
ogy and to notions of efficiency and performativity, find no support in
Dewey’s writings. The ‘movement for introducing scales, standards, and
methods of measurement into teaching and administration’ and the
‘seeping into education of “efficiency” concepts and methods which modern
life is making inevitable’, as he noted in 1917, is inevitable only in part.16 Had
he lived to see the trend continue as it has, to the point that education is
regarded no longer as an art but as a kind of applied science, his reply would
be to remind us of the limits of scientific knowledge. Advancing this critique
would require some historical reflection on how this trend came into being
and the forces that propelled it into its current form. Corporate scientism in
education is for many an inevitable consequence of modernity along with
the ethos of technology, instrumental rationality, and performativity. It is a
symptom of an underlying historical phenomenon, and to gain a critical
understanding of it requires precisely this kind of reflection. When technol-
ogy becomes an all-pervasive way of thinking, one to which all social practices
must give an accounting, it has become a dogma that must be placed in
historical perspective.
A critical understanding of the present also involves learning the innu-
merable lessons that history teaches. Nothing educates our experience as
well as past experience, whether we are speaking of our personal past or of
past generations and epochs. As every student of history knows, human
experience repeats itself constantly. Beneath the superficial differences,
particularities, and appearances, human existence of the past and present
revolves around recurring themes of love and hate, joy and suffering,
ingenuity and avarice; it involves the playing out of themes in infinite varia-
tion. One with an interest in the history of war, for instance, will find behind
outward differences of strategy and technology recurrent patterns of moti-
Teaching History: The Past and the Present 263

vation, greed, and power seeking. One finds similar motivations meeting
similar consequences and the same mistakes regularly repeated. The history
of religion finds similar patterns of love for the impossible co-existing with
legitimation, hatred, and again power seeking. The history of government
finds the same passion for justice inseparably linked with intrigue, overstep-
ping, and of course power seeking. Whether we are speaking of the ancient
world or the moderns, foreign cultures or our own, history recurs. For this
reason it also teaches as the discoveries and errors of the past make up a
wealth of historical experience that never loses its relevance.
The lessons of history may be positive or negative, consisting of the
achievements of human intelligence or the blunders, but it is these lessons
and our capacity to learn from them on which progress relies. History is
always contemporary. The experience with which it provides us is vicarious,
oblique, and obscured by time, but its value transc