Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Philosophy of Education, Education as Philosophy, and Education for Democracy (Part 1)

“In The Claim of Reason [Oxford University Press, 1979: 125], Stanley Cavell imagines that a child ‘little or big, asks me Why do we eat animals? or Why are some people poor and others rich? or What is God? or Why do I have to go to school? or Do you love black people as much as white people? or Who owns the land? or Why is there anything at all? or How did God get here?’ and he goes on to describe confronting such questions—confronting them in a thoughtful way, as opposed to repeating ‘forgone conclusions’—as ‘a task that warrants the name of philosophy.’ ‘It is also the description of something we might call education,’ he adds.

John Dewey would have certainly have applauded these words. Indeed, writing in 1915, he anticipated Cavell’s identification of philosophy with education, writing, ‘If a theory makes no difference in educational endeavor, it must be artificial. The educational point of view enables one to envisage the philosophical problems where they arise and thrive, where they are at home, and where acceptance or rejection makes a difference in practice. If we are willing to conceive education as the process of forming fundamental dispositions, intellectual and emotional, philosophy may even be defined as the general theory of education.”

[….] If one wishes to pursue just about any topic in Dewey’s thought, it is … necessary to keep Dewey’s thoroughgoing radicalism in mind at all times. Although Dewey was not an economic determinist (or, indeed, a determinist of any kind), he did see philosophical ideas and their conflicts as products of the conflicts and difficulties of social life. Members of a privileged ruling class cannot be expected to see the world in the way it is perceived by those having to struggle for their bare existence. A commercial and manufacturing society cannot be expected to see ‘the needs and possibilities of life’ as they would be seen by a feudal society or a society like that of ancient Athens, and a society which has experienced a series of crises and upheavals cannot be expected to see them in the same way as a society whose conditions have been static for a long time. In particular, Dewey suggests that the prevalence of various dualism in the theory of knowledge is the product of the hard and fast walls which mark off social groups and classes within a group, for example, rich and poor, men and women, nobles and base-born, ruler and ruled. Dewey’s argument is that such barriers mean the absence of fluent and free intercourse, and that this absence results in a kind of sealing off of different types of life experiences from one another,* ‘each with isolated subject matter, aim, and standard of values. Every such social condition must be formulated in a dualistic philosophy, if philosophy is to be a sincere account of experience. Among the dualisms that Dewey wished to account for in this way are the dualisms of inner and outer, mind and body, reason and emotion, action guided by self-interest and action guided by principle, and still others.” — Hilary Putnam and Ruth Anna Putnam, “Education for Democracy,” in Hilary Putnam (James Conant, ed.) Words and Life (Harvard University Press, 1994): 223-224. 

* For a contemporary work on democratic theory and praxis that takes seriously the reality and consequences, as well as the prospects for overcoming the “sealing off of different types of life experiences from one another” in contemporary democratic societies (such as they are), please see Robert E. Goodin’s Reflective Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2003), a taste from which follows:

“Here I shall be attempting to identify deliberative democratic methods for evoking more reflective preferences as inputs into the political process. Properly crafted deliberative processes can produce preferences which are more reflective, in the sense of being:
  • more empathetic with the plight of others;
  • more considered, and hence both better informed and more stable; and
  • more far-reaching in both time and space, taking fuller account of distant periods, distant peoples and different interests.
The key innovation I shall be offering is, in the first instance, a theoretical one. What is required is a new way of conceptualizing democratic deliberation—as something which occurs internally, within each individual’s head, and not exclusively or even primarily in an interpersonal setting. It happens in interpersonal settings, too, of course. Indeed, that is a central plank in my argument on this score. The philosophy of mind and language teaches us that, even in face-to-face conversation, much of the making sense of what the other is saying to you goes on inside your own head. You have to imagine yourself in the place of the other in trying to decode what she seems to be trying to tell you. If that is what goes on in ordinary interpersonal discussion, the same sort of mentally imagining oneself in the place of others might well occur in the absence of any actual other. A suitably informed imaginary might serve the same internal-discursive purpose.”

Goodin proceeds to draw several inferences from the above, including the proposition that “cultural institutions and policies matter;” that “policies and institutions that facilitate social mixing—having people whose social circumstances are radically unlike your own living nearby or, going to school with you or your children, riding public transportation alongside you—can again serve as an aid to the political imaginary; and that “consultative procedures [e.g., study circles], even of an apparently toothless sort, could also actually have far more democratic bite than we might ordinarily suppose.”

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