EDST 580—Entry 9: Radicalizing (Utopianizing?) Progressivism in Education, Part 2: Leaving Instrumentalism Behind

A reading of Pinar, W.F. (2005)The Problem with Curriculum and Pedagogy.

I originally selected this paper because I was familiar with Pinar’s work (he is currently a professor in UBC’s Curriculum and Pedagogy Department) and his critical position vis-à-vis instrumentalism—that portion of philosophical pragmatism, which took the firmest hold on the educational system in the United States and had the deepest and most lasting impact there.  In this essay, Pinar provides some detailed expansion on this criticism through a reading of a 1971 essay by Robert McClintock in the Teacher’s College Record, as well as a reading of Alan Block, a Jewish scholar of ethics and curriculum.  Pinar sets up the concept of “study” as a more prophetic and expansive alternative to the stifling instrumentalism of “instruction” as it has been conceived in the mainstream of the curriculum and pedagogy field.  Despite his rejection of instrumentalism, Pinar still relies on a pragmatist ethic, borrowed, if not directly from Dewey than certainly from Rorty.  And the promotion of “study” as Pinar and Block characterize it, may indeed be one way that a pragmatist ethic may be manifest in the educational system without resorting to the too-narrow conception of education as purely a means to some end.

Pinar begins this piece with a discussion of instrumentalism in the philosophy of education.  He traces the origin of this instrumentalism, rightly to the progressive movement in education at the beginning of the 20th century.  But he also links it to even larger political projects that took hold in the United States then, such as the idea of “social engineering,” which was bolstered, as Pinar argues by the United States’ preoccupation with business and religion (p. 1).  The business-mindedness of American culture seeks profit, and the religious aspect of American culture “mangles the present by disavowing it.” (ibid.)  In general terms it is this pie-in-the-sky mentality combined with the profit motive and the prevailing instrumentalism that has led to the brokenness of the present-day educational system in the United States.  Pinar’s arguments against pragmatism stem from the fact that, as he notes, “Pragmatism’s progressive formulation of social engineering has been eclipsed… by conservatism, intent on side-stepping culture and history by focusing on ‘learning technologies’ such as the computer” (p.68).  In the same way that John Dewey relied on the “weakest” form of pragmatism, in his support of the United States’ entry into World War I (mere instrumentalism, according to his famous student detractor, Randolph Bourne), so has the educational system in the United States grown up around certain “scientific” ends in view.  And Pinar sees educational policy in the United States, typified by the No Child Left Behind Act, as the result of these tendencies coupled with instrumentalism.

This essay is in large part a lament that historically Pinar’s field of curriculum studies has come out of an instrumentalist view of education.  Pinar rues the founding of the first Curriculum and Teaching Department at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, where John Dewey was an Emeritus Professor.  Columbia was perhaps the epicenter of Dewey’s influence on the philosophy of education.  Pinar characterizes the founding of this department —“institutionalized social engineering at the site of the teacher” as a major mistake (p. 68).  Pinar is also critical of the centrality of the role of the teacher in education—and argues that this institutionalization of the conjunction of curriculum and teaching “inflated the role of the teacher” (ibid.).  From this point in his essay, Pinar introduces “study” as a new subsidiary concept for curriculum—not necessarily as a replacement for “pedagogy” but as a counterbalance to what has become the overwhelming and disturbing centrality of “teaching” in schools.

For Pinar study stands opposed to teaching which risks being authoritarian.  But study is not just undertaken for the benefit of the individual.  Drawing on Montaigne via McClintock, Pinar—wary of those who would mistake autobiography for narcissism— seems to link the “heightening of consciousness” that study brings to a greater social good.  The highest good that study brings in Pinar’s view is not the aspiration for “control” over one’s circumstances, as McClintock suggests.  Rather, it is study’s “capacity to contest comformity” (p. 69).  Thus, after McClintock, Pinar states, “the student draws upon ‘nature,’ ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ as these speak to his ‘situation,’ enabling him to convert the contingencies of time, place and circumstance into ‘achieved intention,’” lending a “creative, singular and social sense” to study (p. 70).  But Pinar is still skeptical of progressivism’s ability to “teach freedom for creativity, let alone for individuality and autonomy” (ibid.)  Pinar, in a characteristically brilliant turn, points to autobiography as a way forward—the substrate upon which the “mystery” of human capacity for “selection,” “focus” and “judgment” might be borne out.

The question remains however: what is necessary of teachers?  Maybe just modeling study and the intellectual interest that fuels it is sufficient?  On this point, Pinar notes that even critics of progressivism in education acknowledge the role teachers play “in enabling children to discover, articulate, and expand their interests” (p. 74).  Thus, in situations where study (not instruction) is central, teachers work to engage each student’s individual curiosity.

So, study begins to have a certain libertarian flavor to it.  However, I think it is important to note that study, in the terms outlined above, does not come with any institutional requirements.  There are no best practices.  It cannot be engineered.  Indeed study could just as easily succumb to the evils of instrumentalist thinking as pedagogy has.  As a teacher and a student I want to start thinking of the reciprocal of learning not as teaching, but as study.  As Alan Block is quoted in the epigraph to the conclusion of Pinar’s essay:  “Education is a private engagement in a public world for the redemption of both.”

EDST 580—Entry 8: Richard Rorty on Pragmatism and Feminism

A reading of Rorty (1990) Pragmatism & Feminism.  The 1990 Tanner Lecture on Human Values, Delivered at the University of Michigan.

For this post, I will return to the work of Richard Rorty, the philosopher who seems to have been mostly responsible for the revival in interest in pragmatism and the work of John Dewey in the latter decades of the 20th century.  I selected this piece in an effort to further investigate the relevance of pragmatist theory to social justice aims.  And while this piece is not specifically about a theory of education, the recommendations Rorty makes vis-à-vis feminist politics could easily enough be translated into the realm of the politics of education, in part because many of the points he makes in this lecture on feminism stem from larger claims about social justice and how it is (re-) conceptualized.  And so, after a little bit of exposition, I will use this post to think through how Rorty’s bigger pragmatist social justice claims might be applied in the context of education.

In this lecture, Rorty draws on several feminist theorists and activists, starting with and centering on Catherine MacKinnon, but including many others including Frye, Lovibond, and Rich.  As I saw before in the essays of Rorty’s I read previously for this course, his major axe to grind is with universalism—those thinkers (be they on the left or the right of the political spectrum), who, “assume, with Kant, that all the logical space necessary for moral deliberation is now available” (p. 3).  Rorty sees MacKinnon’s work on the side of “historicists like G.W.F. Hegel and John Dewey” who Rorty reads as saying that “moral progress depends upon expanding this space”(p. 4).  Rorty explains that MacKinnon’s criticism of a 1990 sex-discrimination law is based on her rejection of the current linguistic and practical treatment of women within the logical space already prepared for them by the patriarchy.  The law doesn’t know how to treat women as women.  And Rorty’s starting point is here, in MacKinnon’s refusal to be confined by a misogynist moral space.  As Rorty notes, MacKinnon “sees feminists as needing to alter the data of moral theory rather than needing to formulate principles which fit preexistent data better” (p. 5).  In Rorty’s view, this runs contrary to the typical universalist point of view.

Universalist thinkers, Rorty argues typically believe that moral judgements are validated by something out there in the world—a set of norms or laws or scriptures perhaps.  Historicists, (including Deweyan pragmatists) know that humanity is the sum of its shared practices through time.  And so, in a certain sense, the nature of humanity is to remain mysterious, since presumably human practices will continue to change until the last person dies.  The trick, then is not to get bogged down in thinking about those practices which humanity has actualized so far  Sure, misogyny exists, but that’s no reason to privilege it over social practices we have yet to imagine yet.  Substitute misogyny for any historical social practice in that last sentence, and you get, according to Rorty, pragmatist ethics in a nutshell.

Although Rorty admits that whatever importance a philosophy like pragmatism may have will always be eclipsed by politics in a given historical moment, he still argues that pragmatist philosophy might be useful to feminist politics thus:  “Pragmatism redescribes both intellectual and moral progress by substituting metaphors of evolutionary development for metaphors of progressively less distorted perception” (p. 8).  Rorty extends this progressive development concept back into evolutionary history, and notes the similarities in the functions of biological genes and cultural memes as units of meaning (citing Dawkins and Dennett).  But, the key here, lest pragmatism be taken as backsliding towards a sort of social Darwinism, is that “no gene or meme is closer to the purpose of evolution or to the nature of humanity than any other—for evolution has no purpose and humanity no nature” (p. 9).  For Dewey, and Rorty and pragmatists, misogyny is not an intrinsic evil.  Rather it is a “rejected good, rejected on the basis of the greater good which feminism is presently making imaginable” (p. 10).  The ethics of pragmatism is a creative, imaginative force constantly pushing outward against the confines of history and culture.  And insofar as a feminist politics is an instance of such imagination, it is aligned with pragmatist ethics.

I’ll end this portion of my exposition of Rorty’s speech by pointing to his section on Adrienne Rich.  I first learned about Rich through her powerful autobiographical poetry (i.e. “Diving into the Wreck”), and I was intrigued by her lesbian separatism at first for its utter novelty.  I was still in high school when I was exposed to this idea.  But returning to lesbian separatism through Rorty’s pragmatist ethics lens, I have a much fuller appreciation for what Rich was doing by enacting such a radical politics.  When I was 18 I vaguely understood that rich was “pushing the envelope” so to speak.  But pragmatism, as Rorty has described it in this essay gives a much thicker description of “pushing the envelope.”  It goes beyond the predictions (however accurate or inaccurate) of radicalism to a utopianism.  Rorty concludes powerfully:

Pragmatists cannot be radicals, in this sense, but they can be utopians.  They do not see philosophy as providing instruments for radical surgery, or microscopes which make precise diagnosis possible.  Philosophy’s function is rather to clear the road for prophets and poets, to make intellectual life a bit simpler and safer for those who have visions of new communities.

Although I said, I would use the remainder of this essay to relate Rorty’s general point about the relationship between philosophy and politics (theory and practice), I think I’m going to hold off on that in this entry.  Pinar basically takes this up in his 2005 paper, criticising curriculum studies as a discipline.  Indeed he cites Rorty in a couple of places in that paper.  So, rather than repeat myself (and Pinar and Rorty), I will turn to the question of pragmatist philosophy informing utopian educational practice in my next blog post—the final post for this course.



EDST 580—Entry 7: Progressivism and Anti-Racism in Mid-20th Century America

Baker, S. (2011)Pedagogies of Protest: African American Teachers and the History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1940-1963.

This week’s article was a joy to read.  Baker explicitly connects his historiography of African American secondary education with the activist politics of the American Civil Rights Movement AND explicitly connects all of the above with John Dewey’s progressive philosophy of education.  I knew it could be done.  I struggled to connect similar dots when I was writing about Black Mountain College earlier this year.  Baker’s paper is exciting, particularly in that his interviews reveal that there remained a subterranean progressivism, which had not devolved into the instrumentalism that is so rightly reviled today in the form it has taken in mainstream American schooling— a philosophical justification for the hyper-rationalization of curriculum with effects ranging from student tracking, to over-reliance on standardized tests, to the rampant marketization of schools.  Baker’s article reveals that teachers in segregated black southern schools translated Dewey’s cries for Democracy as the truest aim of education into a curriculum for racial justice and African American agency.  What’s more, this transformation of the segregated school curriculum along progressive lines took place even as predominantly white school superintendants were pushing painfully outmoded nominally “progressive” vocational education programs for black segregated schools.

Baker’s research is also important to me for its methods.  He combines a historiography of African American teacher agency in the Civil Rights Movement based on archival research as well as interviews with a brief discussion of Dewey’s philosophy of education and the ways it manifested itself in these segregated schools.  He carefully moves back and forth among a variety of different sources as he traces the progressivism of African American teachers from schoolyards to sit-ins.  And more than any other article I’ve read for this course so far, Baker presents progressivism as a still viable ideology for meaningful change, not only within the boundaries of the education system, but in the whole of society by way of education.

The African American teachers and principals whose work Baker celebrates in this article are at once philosophers and activists.  Despite their working in the belly of a terrible beast—a racist education system that used a perverted version of progressive educational ideology to justify pigeonholing bright young students in vocational training programs—African American teachers used their relative invisibility to their advantage.  In Baker’s words, these teachers and principals were “institution builders,” who were able to stoke the fires of the nascent Civil Rights Movement in the United States by creating safe spaces for their students to be able to challenge the authorities, which demanded their continued subjugation and disenfranchisement.

According to Baker, black teachers in America in this era have gotten a bad rap from high-profile civil rights leaders like Stokley Carmichael who thought black educators had sold out their race “for security and status” (Carmichael & Hamilton, qtd in Baker, p.2778).  But as Baker goes on to point out, so much of this is just rhetoric.  And Baker wields his archival evidence to great effect in refuting such remarks.  One of the most inspiring examples Baker gives to this effect is that of Julia Brogdon (p.2787).  Brogden taught a class at the Burke Industrial School in Charleston, South Carolina called “Problems of Democracy” in which she required her students to apply to (and presumably to be rejected from) the segregated College of Charleston.  I can’t think of a more relevant, challenging, and empowering lesson in social studies.  And it is precisely this type of grassroots curriculum design, informed as it was by progressive educational philosophy that Baker argues helped the American Civil Rights movement grow.

I hope that more brilliant teachers such as Julia Brogden continue to be inspired by a progressive aim for democracy and social justice.  I hope that these individuals are not dissuaded by the efforts of the powerful to continue to use education for enslavement rather than for freedom.  I hope that progressivism in education will never completely harden into a rigid instrumentalism.  But it will take the continual efforts of progressive teachers, like those in Baker’s essay, who are willing to be critical, to struggle in whatever niche they may carve out by their strategic non-compliance to create change and further just causes.  Progressivism in education can at least be a means to those ends.

EDST 580—Entry 6: Radicalizing Progressivism in Education, Part I: Randolph Bourne

Snelgrove (2008)Society, Education, and War: John Dewey and his student Randolph Bourne.

Randolph Bourne, from Wikipedia.

One of the persistent questions I have run into regarding the suitability of a progressivist ideology to education in the present day has been that of its radicalism.  Naturally, as I addressed in my last entry regarding the reading from Waks (2013), it is not sufficient to simply recycle the progressivism of the early 20th century, to re-brand it and plunk it down in present-day schools.  The radical work that John Dewey and others were doing a century ago would not even hold up as progressivism in education today, let alone radical progressivism.  And luckily, Dewey and the other scholars and practitioners of progressivism in education were prescient enough to realize that.  In other words, progressivism can never be an end in itself, but only a means to some other educational end.  Still, this instrumentalism (Sidney Hook’s coinage for the philosophy behind progressivism in education) is insufficient as well.  In a future blog entry I shall take a closer look at a specific critique of instrumentalism.  But today I want to look at a couple of ways that I think progressivism ought to be updated in order to remain a useful set of ideas in the 21st century.  I like to think of this updating as a radicalization—progress for progressivism, if you will.  And my entry point this time will be the history of John Dewey’s relationship with one of his students, Randolph Bourne.

David Snelgrove, of the University of Central Oklahoma, in his 2008 article, “Society, Education and War” gives a detailed look at the relationship between John Dewey and his one-time student at Columbia University, Randolph Bourne.  As Snelgrove notes in the first sentence of his article, Bourne took a different position on the United States entry into World War I than his professor.  Bourne’s position was a pacifist position.  And though his relationship with his beloved teacher became fraught with conflict, Dewey ultimately admitted that Bourne had been right.  Yet, tragically, Bourne died during the influenza epidemic shortly after the War and was never able to make amends with Dewey, who he apparently retained the utmost respect for despite their differing politics.

Bourne’s relationship with Dewey has all the makings of a great Hollywood screenplay.  Bourne, who was deformed from birth due to misuse of a forceps, was a precocious genius, and wrote brilliantly and prolifically throughout his tragically short life.  Only after failing to receive financial aid to Yale and struggling for half a decade in New York City was he admitted to Columbia (on a full scholarship), where he had at least one class with Dewey, who became his mentor.

Bourne was well known in New York activist circles, and at first he uniformly praised pragmatism—the philosophical underpinnings of progressivism in education.  But more than Dewey, I think Bourne understood the dangers of allowing pragmatism (and thus progressivism) to harden into a useless system of dogmas.  So, even when Dewey came out in favor of War, Bourne knew that the right thing to do and what pragmatist and progressivist ideology demanded of him was NOT that he fall in line behind his mentor, but challenge what he saw as a flawed line of thought.  And challenge it he did.

In a series of essays collected as The Radical Will Bourne argued that Dewey’s argument for entry into WWI so as to position the United States to be able to set the terms of the peace, was pragmatism in its weakest form—pragmatism as a mere instrument.  In his essay, “Twilight of Idols,” Bourne questioned, “How could the pragmatist mind accept war without more violent protest?” (qtd. in Snelgrove, p.155).  And as I mentioned above, even Dewey ultimately admitted that Bourne was right.  But I want to argue briefly here, that Dewey’s mistake was not simply a mistake of mere instrumentalism.  His judgement was clearly clouded by his latent Nationalism—or Americanism as he more likely would have understood it.

Snelgrove’s article, brilliantly dissects a series of lectures Dewey delivered on the eve of the United States entry into World War I at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.  This series of lectures is collected in Dewey’s middle works as “German Philosophy and Politics.”  And it is an interesting piece of writing indeed.  I have downloaded it, and plan to read it soon, as it looks like it may shed some light on Dewey’s eschewal of Marxism along with German idealism in general, especially as that idealism related to German nationalism as Dewey saw it.  But rather than rejecting nationalism overall as one of the destructive, evil forces driving Europe and the U.S. into war, Dewey, as Snelgrove describes it, retreats to a competing nationalism.  Dewey imagined that America as a nation, with its mythos of rationality and liberty would somehow be able to induce the other nations of Europe to create a more just peace.  But in fact, this was not the case, and as history showed, the First World War quickly gave way to the rise of Fascism and World War II.

It is baffling to me how Dewey was able to put so much stock in Americanism above all other nations.  This commitment to America’s exceptionality among other nations, is a deep flaw in Dewey’s thought which comes out even in his discussion of the philosophy of education.  As Snelgrove notes, the bulk of Dewey’s longer tracts on the philosophy of education were published around the time of the First World War.  So, it is not a stretch to say that for Dewey “democracy and education” really meant “American democracy and education.”  It is difficult to express my disappointment at Dewey’s persistent mistake thus.  Why was such a well-travelled guy so tied to the superiority of the nation of his birth?  Why wasn’t the arbitrariness of Americanism more obvious?  Perhaps for Dewey it became so after 1945.  But by that time, I’m afraid that the damage to progressivism had been done, and the onset of the Cold War ensured that pragmatism and progressivism in education could have no place in a world politics based on the fear of a nuclear catastrophe.  It is easy to see in the 21st century that Americanism was never a good idea.  Thankfully the Cold War has passed; but it has been replaced by a sort of global police surveillance state.  The good news is that since the evils of Americanism are all the more evident now, it should be easier than ever for teachers to detach their progressivism from the nationalism which has distorted it for nearly a century.  And so hopefully, in the spirit of Randolph Bourne, we can continue to struggle against such broken dogmas as nationalism and further radicalize progressivism in education.


Bourne has a ghost,/ a tiny twisted unscared ghost in a black cloak/hopping along the grimy old brick and brownstone streets/ still left in downtown New York,/ crying out in a shrill soundless giggle;/ War is the health of the state.          John Dos Passos, 1919 quoted in Snelgrove, 2008

EDST 580—Entry 5: John Dewey: Public Intellectual

A micro review of two articlesBiesta, G. & Miedema S. (1996) and Waks, L.J. (2013).

For this week’s readings, I was beginning to think more and more about how the ideas behind progressivism (i.e. pragmatism, and philosophy of education in the early 20th century more generally) impacted the social and political world at that time.  I think the most obvious bridge between a conception of progressivism as a set of ideas or ideologies and progressivism as a social and political structure and force in the world is the lives of philosophers themselves, and the histories of their molding societal institutions on the basis of the ideas that they held so dear.  Thus, my focus this week on two articles which purport to more closely examine the effect of John Dewey’s ideas on the political realities of his time.  Incidentally, what I have just described could be glossed as the intellectual history of progressivism.  And I have written at some length about intellectual history as a specific sub-discipline of the study of the history of education elsewhere.

Leonard Waks approaches the intellectual history of progressivism from the point of view of a specific text—namely John Dewey’s The School and Society (1899), while Biesta and Miedema’s piece is a broader overview, through three case studies, of Dewey’s influence in Europe, where he travelled fairly extensively in the last half of his life.  I want to say right off the bat that I think overall, Biesta and Miedema’s piece was much more comprehensive and useful within the boundaries it set for itself than Waks’.  However, in a sense, this is comparing apples with oranges because these two articles set out to do two very different tasks.

Biesta and Miedema dissected the influence of Dewey’s philosophy of education in three specific contexts in Europe—Russia, Turkey and the Netherlands.  They found that Dewey’s philosophy of education had varying degrees of popularity and success in terms of its adoption.  But the reasons they gave and analysis of these relative successes and failures of Dewey’s philosophical influence abroad, make this piece a most interesting contribution to my understanding of the intellectual history of education.  Biesta and Miedema found that, despite Dewey’s latter day image as a beacon of western (transatlantic, western European and North American) liberalism, that his ideas actually had the most influence in Russia and Turkey where there were major reform efforts (and later a revolution in Russia) underway.  I was surprised to learn that Vladimir Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, who was deputy minister of education in the U.S.S.R. in the 1920s and 1930s, was very much a fan of Dewey’s work.  But it seems that the mainstream opinion of Dewey’s educational philosophy in Soviet Russia began to sour during Stalin’s regime.  This is partly, as Biesta and Miedema suggest, due to Dewey’s support of Trotsky.  Given Dewey’s status as a icon of American liberalism, his relatively close link with the burgeoning soviet education system immediately after the revolution is surprising to say the least.

As they do throughout this piece, Biesta and Miedema brilliantly analyze Dewey’s influence.  As in this case, Dewey’s philosophy could be integrated into the Soviet education system on a practical level internal to pedagogy, with less quibbling about his underlying liberalism, America-centrism or his discomfort with Marxism.  The authors found, perhaps ironically, as they say, that Dewey’s philosophy ended up having the weakest influence in the Netherlands—the jurisdiction they identify as being most similar ideologically to Dewey’s home turf in the United States.  Nevertheless, the possible explanation Biesta and Miedema offer for Dewey’s philosophy’s failure to take hold in that liberal Western European nation still operates along the same lines as their analysis of Dewey’s influence in Turkey and later in Russia.  In short, Biesta and Miedema want to treat Dewey’s philosophy as a multi-faceted thing, complex not only in its origins in Dewey’s biography as a scholar, teacher and activist, but also in its interpretations and indeed misinterpretations around the world.

I’m doing Waks a bit of a disservice by cutting my analysis short here.  But time is of the essence at the moment, so I will leave my criticism at this: where Biesta and Miedema capture a lot of the complexity of the system of ideas and political realites which was progressivism in education in the first quarter of the 20th century, Waks’ picture of this movement and of the philosophy behind it is very flat.  Part of this, as I mentioned at the beginning of this review has to do with how Waks structured his piece—first around a single text of Dewey’s, The School and Society, and then in a sort of diachronic sort of way of analyzing the “then” and the “now” of American education reform.  This diachronic approach, which theoretically emphasizes the changes that occur from one period to another is over-simple, and I think does a disservice to the complexity and importance of the ideas Dewey was struggling with during his lifetime.  That is not to say that the problems of the present day in education are unimportant in light of the past.  However, it makes it a little to easy for an author to use the figure of Dewey as a stand in or booster for some contemporary ideology, which truthfully there is no way of telling whether Dewey would support or not.

So, for example, in Waks’ discussion of “occupations” in education—those “focal points of school learning”—that were so critical to the popular expression of Dewey’s progressivism in American schools (think vocational education), he gets a little carried away by the resonance that these ideas have with current trends in educational practice.  Here Waks gushes that occupations are, “natural bridges linking children as given by Nature to children as enduring educational aims prescribe they should become” (p.75).  Setting aside that Dewey spoke out constantly against prescribing any “enduring educational aims” for children, this is an instance of the oversimplification I’m trying to get at.  It is not enough to simply cut and paste ideas like “occupation” across contexts.  Sure Dewey’s jargon is vague sometimes.  And perhaps because of this vagueness his philosophy invites these kind of cut and paste moves.  But Waks fails to show the complexity of the way terms like occupation would have functioned at the turn the 20th century differ from the way they function in the present.  Indeed, there is a failure on Waks part to note that even over the course of Dewey’s own lifetime his own ideas and the way he talked and wrote about them changed.  Waks is absolutely right to want to bring Dewey’s ideas into the present.  But I think he just needs to be more careful about how he accomplishes this goal.  As it stands, Waks piece betrays a certain ideological conservatism or at least nostalgia for some fixed and enduring educational aims (perhaps “Progressivism in Education,” writ large) that I don’t think Dewey would have suffered lightly.

EDST 580—Entry 3: Richard Rorty’s Pedagogic Creed?

A look at Rorty’s Consequences of Pragmatism (1982) alongside Dewey’s My Pedagogic Creed (1897).

Apologies in advance.  This blog entry will suffer from a lack of specific references to the texts I mention since I am composing this on an airplane flying at 872km/h at an altitude of over 10,000m!  My library books have probably all made it back to their stacks by now (save one, which I forgot at my home in Vancouver and was forced to entrust to a housemate to return).  In any case, I’d like to use this blog post to think through what Richard Rorty’s pedagogic creed might look like, or indeed whether he would have one at all.  And in so doing, I am interested in taking a look at how Rorty’s in some ways more robustly analytical late-20th century pragmatism, benefiting as it has from a paradigm shift away from the logical positivist moment mid-century, which was the demise of late 19th-century pragmatism.

John Dewey’s classic, My Pedagogic Creed (1897) is a sparely written, energetic call to action, and one of Dewey’s earliest complete formulations of his philosophy of education.  It reads like a political manifesto.  And in many ways it was just that, since the major subtext of Dewey’s Pedagogic Creed is an argument for the deeper philosophical understanding of a social and thus political phenomenon—namely education.  My Pedagogic Creed is a statement of a younger, “early” Dewey, the Dewey of the Laboratory School at the University of Chicago and comrade of Jane Addams, founder of Hull House.  In it Dewey gives voice to a burgeoning philosophy, still very much colored by strong religious sentiment.  This is Dewey the activist at his most authentic stage, much freer of the confines of the academy, but also much more idealistic in the technical sense of Dewey’s affinity for Hegelian dialectics.  This is a John Dewey less concerned with his reputation as a philosopher, and much more excited about the possibilities held by cognitive psychology and evolutionary biology than in many of his later works, which take a much more “metaphysical” turn.

Flash forward nearly more than 80 years to Richard Rorty and the historical moment of the publication of his 1981 collection of essays on philosophy, Consequences of Pragmatism (1982).  The philosophical landscape of the 1980s was, as Rorty indicates in the introduction to his book, very different from that of the 1890s.  And in a historical account of this span that includes most of the 20th century, Rorty characterizes the ensuing changes as the gradual decline of Hans Reichenbach’s logical positivism to a much less certain moment when the dual forces of “analytic” and “continental” philosophy are squaring off for an attempt at dominance.  This state of affairs is much more familiar in the present day.  And I think Rorty would argue that there is still a lot of uncertainty about how philosophy will proceed, when it is still so divided into camps of thinkers whose philosophical writing is either more like mathematics or more like literature.

Of course, as Rorty notes, there have been exceptions to this bifurcation trend.  Rorty mentions John Rawls work in ethics as a specific example of a philosopher whose work continues to be incredibly influential, but which doesn’t fit neatly into either camp.  And the question remains:  where does pragmatism fit into this scheme.  Rorty’s argument seems to be that pragmatism is much more like post-structuralism than logical positivism, especially with regard to the question of truth.  Specifically, Rorty as a pragmatist takes up Dewey and Peirce’s insistence that truth is contingent, and only has meaning in terms of strings of observed effects.  He also mentions, in one essay, a kind of existentialist leaning which he observes among the early 20th century pragmatists.  This link between Dewey and Sartre is one that came up at the 2012 AERA conference in a session I attended.  It’s definitely worth further investigation, but honestly I don’t really understand it very well right now.

So, the question is then: based on Rorty’s “updated” pragmatism, what might his pedagogic creed look like if he were to write one?  Or leaving Rorty out of it for a moment, I might pose the question this way:  Is 21st century pragmatism still relevant to the philosophy of education?  And if it is then how so?

Here is the main way that I think it is.  Pragmatism is specifically relevant to the philosophy of education and thus progressive educational practice in its conception of the possible aims of education.  Colleges and universities nowadays, with the demands they make of students, teachers and other university workers have lost sight of (if they ever had sight of it in the first place) how knowledge is created and how it changes over time and in the minds of different individuals.  Colleges and universities, dominated as they are by conservative political ideologies are much more interested in treating knowledge like a material commodity in various ways—from the way students are tested, to the way teachers are required to publish.  Underlying the conservatism of present-day colleges is a demand that knowledge (i.e. truth) be stable.  If progress in any domain of human endeavor, whether in terms of social justice, or science or what have you, is still a desirable goal, then universities (and I’m using the blanket term here to signal those individual actors who actually control the levers of power in these institutions) will have to abandon the conception of knowledge as stabile, or truth as anything other than negotiated subjectivities.

Rorty’s pragmatism is a philosophy, which is utterly free of the positivism, which defined so much of 20th century thought.  I think that Dewey was perhaps too much in thrall of the technological advances that marked his life in the United States—from flight to mass communication to nuclear fission—to ever distance himself completely from the desire to make his philosophy of education more scientific.  And as a consequence, I think what began as progressivism in institutions of higher education has slowly deformed over the course of the 20th century into a system where technological advances (new “instruments,” to use Sidney Hook’s term) are allowed to stand in for learning.  In short, I think that if progressivism is to be revived in higher education, it will be through a revolution in the way colleges and universities treat knowledge.

The change I am imagining here, which might be described by my own contemporary pragmatist pedagogic creed, needs to take place both at deep structural levels (like on the level of colleges are governed), and at the surface (like in the course of individual human interactions between teachers, students, administrators, etc.).  Instead of the dominant pattern of bureaucratic higher education administration, modeled as it has been after industrial capitalism, universities should be much more willing to operate in sustainable fashion with a greater good than just its bottom line.  Instead of the relentless drive towards specialization, students should be encouraged to take more holistic approaches to their educations, free from the coercion that the rapidly inflating cost burden of that education has wrought in the United States and Canada.  And professors and other researchers should be free to write and teach how and what they believe most deserves to be written and taught, without fear of reprisal, but with sensitivity to the needs and desires of their students.

How exactly to realize all of these goals and dreams I have for re-making 21st century higher education in the image of a progressivism that is largely absent now, is an open question.  And it is a question that I hope I never lose sight of as a professional teacher.  I have a hunch that an anarchist politics, coupled with cosmopolitan world-view informing our ethics, are two more pieces of the puzzle that on first glance seem to fit nicely with the epistemological demands of pragmatism.  Perhaps the existentialist piece, which I alluded to above, will fit in somehow as well.  One thing is clear: Rorty was nowhere near as interested in actual educational practice as Dewey was.  But his more analytically robust, unapologetic pragmatism is already a starting point for the fashioning of my own pedagogic creed.


So, this is getting posted a little late, even though I wrote it about a week ago on the plane to Japan.  I’m still figuring out when I’m going to be able to make time for the readings I plan to do for the rest of this course.  I plan to continue at some point this week with a review of an by Gert Biesta and Siebern Miedema article about the international dimensions of progressivism, specifically in Europe.

I’ve been a little self-conscious of my readings thus far avoiding specifically education-relevant discussion.  But hopefully, that will change as I begin to get more into the social history of progressivism rather than the philosophical underpinnings of it, which is what I feel like I’ve been (mostly accidentally) concentrating on lately.

Meanwhile, my week-old son, newly arrived from the hospital is a constant distraction as well as a constant motivation and inspiration for this work.

HaroldBloom – On The Auroras of Autumn by Wallace Stevens – YouTube

HaroldBloom – On The Auroras of Autumn by Wallace Stevens – YouTube.

Extremely quirky physical expression in this performance of literary criticism.  I have tagged this “EDST 580” with this intention of using it as a counterpoint to an short essay about a discussion in a 1970 manuscript detailing the oeuvres of four pragmatist philosophers and opening the introduction to his manuscript from a quotation from another Wallace Stevens poem which originally appeared in publication with “The Auroras of Autumn” (below) in 1950.  I agree with Bloom that this is Stevens at his best– probably Harold Bloom at some of his best too for that matter… but the author, Charles Morris, of the history of philosophy… not so much…  READ ON>> for more context.

EDST 580—Entry 2: The Metaphysics of Pragmatism

A reading of The Metaphysics of Pragmatism by Sidney Hook (1927).

File:Sidney Hook.jpg

Photo of Sidney Hook from Wikimedia Commons.

I completed this reading with a 1927 hard copy published by The Open Court Publishing Company (Chicago & London); although it should be in the public domain by now, so it would not surprise me to be able to find a reproduction of this relatively short (144pp.) book online. I shall post a link to the ebook here if I am able to find one. But I’ll also quote fairly liberally from the text in my analysis in case web access to the book is ultimately restricted.

I first became aware of Sidney Hook by way of Westbrook’s 1992 intellectual history of John Dewey’s career, John Dewey and American Democracy. Westbrook presents Hook as one of many intellectual foils for Dewey. Westbrook’s list of Dewey expanders and detractors includes figures as variously renowned and obscure as Randolph Bourne, Dewey’s student, who opposed the United State’s entry into WWI even as Dewey threw his support behind President Woodrow Wilson, and William James, who was among those Philosophers who wooed Dewey to pragmatism from his early Hegelian idealist days.

Sidney Hook was a student of John Dewey’s at Columbia. Dewey wrote an interesting forward to Hook’s Metaphysics, which anticipates Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Dewey is deferential to the synthesis that the young Hook has wrought between the old guard of “classical philosophy” and the burgeoning pragmatism, which Hook calls “instrumentalism.” In fact, the first third of the book is dedicated to an explanation of the meaning of “the instrument,” and the specific implications of what Hook latches onto as the central metaphor of pragmatism

Pragmatism is, of course, derived from the Greek word for ‘action.’ But Hook, by re-naming it “instrumentalism” emphasizes a different (possibly reciprocal) aspect of human action—namely the “how” of it. Generally speaking, pragmatism proceeds by means of instruments. But going further still, Hook argues that the existence of instruments in the world offers clues to the structure of the world. In his chapter, “The Metaphysics of the Instrument,” Hook demonstrates convincingly that instruments always carry meaning, that they exist either a) in reference to some object, b) for some domain-specific application or c) in respect and because of its form, arrangement or structure.


These references generate a number of relations highly interesting for philosophical analysis. They show that nature instrumentalized is nature, so to speak, grown or brought to self-consciousness (p.19).

He clarifies further:

An instrument is a monument to a felt lack in existence. But it is more. It is a promise of its eventual check and elimination.

This preliminary definition or movement towards (i.e. zur, in German) a definition of the instrument as a category of phenomenon is a very interesting post-structural move for Hook to be making. In this case Hook is sticking close to the letter of Dewey’s conception of aims (for instance in Democracy and Education). Dewey admits as much in the final paragraphs of his introduction to Hook actually:

It is possible for a reader by means of rigid definition of the terms of “metaphysics” and “pragmatism,” laid down inflexibly in advance, to hide his mind from the enlightenment which this book can convey… (p.5)

This is Dewey at his best in my opinion. It is also Dewey at his most post-structural, especially as he pushes his readers towards a metaphysics of pragmatism sous rature (under erasure) or as Jacques Derrida might have it, Dewey’s and Hook’s is a metaphysics of pragmatism.

Hook is definitely most comfortable with the pragmatism of Dewey and Peirce, which he says is more concerned with the social and political world, as opposed to the “personal and consolatory” pragmatism of Schiller or the “nominalistic” pragmatism of James. I frankly have not read enough of these other philosophers to know what Hook means with these epithets. But the political kernel of Dewey’s pragmatism is clearly what Hook is most comfortable with and wants to build from with his metaphysics and the new category, instrumentalism.

Another interesting tangent that appears to link pragmatism (as instrumentalism) with other later-20th century developments in Marxist critical theory is the centrality of language and social construction of meaning (=language) and its study (=linguistics, or semiotics more specifically). This is an area of great interest for me. And an area that I devoted some measure of previous study to as an undergraduate linguistics major.

In particular, Husserl’s claims about how meaning is structured, comes to mind. But also, Chompsky’s theory of a universal grammar, and even Vygotsky’s understanding of the social development of language, come to mind reading Hook’s introduction to the metaphysics of the instrument. Hook writes:

Without instruments there can be no objectified meanings… it follows that the existence of certain structural lineaments which condition the possibility and presence of instruments, condition therefore a range of meanings. Where instruments are inapplicable or useless, there meanings can never be found (p.23).

It seems like Hook might be making a reductio ad absurdum argument here, because I can’t think of a counter-instance of a situation in which meaning is present without instrument.

And Hook’s definition of instrument, as I referenced earlier, is tied directly to its symbolic valence or meaning.

Simply put, “Every tool, appliance or artifice recites a lesson on the nature of the world” (p.24). This maxim of instrumentalism, also interestingly operates in parallel to what I’ve heard called in a documentary on WWII code decryption technology, “the first law of cryptology,” that is: every code has its cipher. It’s also another way of looking at the problem Hook glosses elsewhere as the tautological or necessarily circular nature of any system of knowledge.

This also harkens back to Dewey’s and others’ criticisms of logical positivism, which was in vogue in the first half of the 20th century. But in contrast to positivism’s impossible quest for certainty, Hook writes,

The instrument marks a point at which human interest intersects the natural continuity of the historical process, converting the even flow and existent brutality of natural ends into multiply-implicative foci of rational enterprise. Endings that are natural and causal become ends that are rational and informed (p.26).

Further, Hook explains: “Not only does the instrument pre-suppose continuity, it manifests in its own history a continuity. Having a growth, it has a genealogy too” (ibid.). And most critically:

Instrumentalities can never become transmuted into irrecoverable certainties, for their effective application depends upon definite objective environmental traits as well as upon the passing needs and purposes of those who live and react [interesting choice of words] in that environment (p.30).

For Hook as well as Dewey, all knowledge is contingent, dependent on the experience of the subject, the conditions of the object, and the dialectical (or at least reciprocal—Dewey stayed far away from this Hegelian designation, but Hook, seems less timid if still a little hesitant to provide this bridge between the worlds of Marx and Dewey) relationship between subject and object (or subject and environment). Thus:

Every instrumental operation, whether it be scientific or artistic, industrial or personal, implies an order to which it owes its existence and an order in virtue to which its ends are realized. The instrument enables us, by utilizing these natural processes, arrangements and termini which antecede and provoke its existence, to create new ends which they suggest and sometimes compel; and to regard in moments of exuberance, the mechanics of transformation as the magic of mind” (p.38).

This is how Hook ends his preliminary discussion of the metaphysics of the instrument. The next chapter comprises an extended discussion of an important particular case of instrumentality: mind. Hook’s consideration of mind—that specific instrumentality which pragmatist philosophers (especially Dewey among them, for whom psychology was of prime importance) have come to ascribe to the dialectic of human subjectivity, is important in its treatment of thought as a phenomenon “that goes on among [objective] things and events” (p.48).

But the most important segment of this chapter is a brief discussion of the ethics of the instrument that starts on page 57. Hook writes:

All social reform whether undertaken in the name of god, social engineering or revolution presupposes a belief in the instrumental character of social institutions. Reorganization is easiest and most effective when the direction of the change is in line with the natural unfolding and growth of institutional forces [~hegemony?]. An examination of the instrumentalities of economic production for example, suggests to collectivists [~socialists?] a revision and extension of the social ends of current distribution. These readings in terms of economic forces and resultants distinguish them from the Utopians [yet another name for a 1920s political faction I am unfamiliar with], who like the poor, are always with us and in the eyes of those who pride themselves on their social realism, attempt to transform things nearer their hearts’ desire by the incantation of democratic shibboleths and by philanthropic exhortation rather than by class organization and struggle (p.61).

So, Hook, here is getting on board with Dewey’s conception of pragmatism as political philosophy. But this section also sounds a certain note of criticism of Dewey, especially perhaps his hawkishness a decade earlier during WWI. Dewey’s magic word was always “democracy.” So, perhaps Hook’s barb (no pun intended) here may actually be aimed at least in part at the older generation of pragmatist philosophers.

He continues,

Another example from collectivist theory to show how the desire to widen the interest of a political or social instrument may lead to its abolition, is illustrated in the conception of the state. The state regarded as the executive committee of the ruling class, capitalist or proletarian, will in Engel’s phrase ‘wither away’ when economic classes are abolished and will be replaced by more voluntary forms of organization. So long, then, as ethics pays attention to ways and means, instruments and agencies, it is intimately linked with social philosophy. “Although instruments have often been the means of man’s enslavement, construed as they appear in their social setting they breathe a promise that they will make him free” (ibid.).

Hook, who was avowedly a socialist (or collectivist perhaps) himself, according to Westbrook could not have anticipated the deformed bureaucratic state that would emerge out of Stalinism.

So, it is best perhaps to excuse his faith in Engels’ words as an instrument of revolution, just as Dewey’s earlier exhortations about democracy should be considered as at least in some respects detached from the political realities and contemporaneous rhetoric of the United States as an instrument of “democracy” and its attendant ideologies. Hook’s beliefs about socialism were well informed to say the least, but I think he would argue in retrospect, that his beliefs as well as the realities they were connected to were all contingent.

In other words, whether instrumentalism as a philosophy or any other political philosophy as an instrument sets you free or enslaves you just depends. It depends on you, your beliefs, the environment where you’re doing your believing in, and all of the other things and people which you and your philosophy interact with in that environment. “What then,” Hook wonders in the ensuing chapter, “is certainty in inference?” Hook’s answer on page 87 is this:

The only response that can be made is that certainty is the knowledge that the guiding principles which we have followed in the past, implicitly or not, have given us conclusions about the way in which things hang or hold together that have been verified by experience.”

Hook points to James’ assertion in The Meaning of Truth that “Pragmatism or pluralism has to fall back on a certain ultimate hardihood, a certain willingness to live without assurances or guarantees… on possibilities that are not certainties” (James p.229, quoted in Hook p.87).

Hook concludes this third chapter on what he calls the “leading principles” of instrumentalism by paraphrasing Alfred North Whitehead, another pragmatist philosopher whose Aims of Education I read for this class in week one:

Our knowledge of the structure or order of nature has been born in a shock, strengthened by a guess, and fixed through a habit. The logic of demonstration is the logic of discovery grown cold” (quoted in Hook p.88).

In this way logic itself can become a kind of metaphysics (ibid. p.93). Clarifying, Hook continues:

The metaphysical implication of the pragmatic-realist logic of leading principles is an open universe in which there is an element of radical indetermination, in which physical constants are limits of variation and physical laws summations and prognostications of physical flux” (ibid.).

So, for Hook, Dewey and the other pragmatist-instrumentalists, even hard science demands capitulation to uncertainty. All knowledge is necessarily socially constructed. And so:

A social movement, therefore, must be based not only on a social ideal, although that is a sine qua non, but upon a body of social knowledge. Not only is it true that the world can not be remade in its entirety, it can not even be completely re-thought or re-imagined. If this be questioned, I challenge anyone to see in his mind’s eye a color never beheld in experience before” (pp.99-100).

Hook’s position is not completely skeptical of knowledge, but demands a more comprehensive understanding of its sources and structures.

A fourth chapter here goes into what Hook calls “categorical analysis,” which on first blush appears to be a kind of phenomenology by another name perhaps. This is probably the least important chapter for my understanding of Hook’s philosophy. It is also the most tentative and unresolved.

But in his concluding chapter, “Of Human Freedom,” Hook speaks to a phenomenon that I have previously identified elsewhere as being of central importance to Dewey’s pragmatism and the project of progressivism in education more broadly. Hook begins by paraphrasing Augustine who wrote of the concept of time that, “If no one asks me what it is I know: If I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not” (referencing Augustine’s Confessions XI, xiv). Hook goes on to note decisively that freedom is not a question of psychology, seemingly deflecting some potential criticism from a proto-behaviorist readership.

Rather, Hook makes an interesting move, referencing Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, where Aristotle parses the possible limitations to freedom as 1) the physical compulsion of some external force, or 2) ignorance of the circumstances in which an act is performed. If I’m not mistaken, Dewey makes reference to these limits to freedom in his 1938 lecture that became the book, Experience and Education, which I have analyzed elsewhere for a different course in the “Ignorance Log” portion of this blog.

Again, if I’m not mistaken, both Dewey and Hook want to emphasize this second possible limitation on freedom. Hook writes:

Knowledge, then, of ourselves and of the world without is the key to freedom for it tells us what we are and that we can be no other than what we are. Freedom is the consequence of this knowledge revealed and attested to by our everyday activities” (p.140).

Here Hook with Hegel makes a leap to Adam in Eden, who arguably was not completely free until he ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Finally, Hook concludes:

Although human freedom depends upon a natural order, the natural order does not determine or confer upon itself significance. That is to say, the values which arise in the possession and exercise of freedom can never be derived from the order of the domain in which that freedom is a fact.

So, in similar fashion to the way in which knowledge systems are necessarily tautological, Hook notes that freedom’s existence is its own kind of a self-completing circle.

Just as Thomas Jefferson and the other founders of the political entity that became the United States of America recognized when they wrote that “certain inalienable rights” had been conferred upon all people by God, Hook seems to be saying that freedom is never completely “man-made.” More to the point, it is a similar move to the Audre Lorde epigram that became Arendt’s book title: The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” I’m misquoting or misattributing that somehow I’m sure. But above, all, Hook’s conclusion with the possibility of freedom is true not only to his forebears’ pragmatism, but I think also pushes the envelope on their interpretations. His phenomenology of instruments—if it can be called that— is ingenious. I think I ultimately have to agree with Westbrook’s characterization of Hook’s oeuvre—at least in the case of his Metaphysics—holds true. instrumentalism is a welcome bridge between pragmatism and its underlying dialecticism.


Look for another (probably shorter) entry later on this week, on Dewey and Peirce /pers/ and the social and political directions they took pragmatism (or pragmaticism).



EDST 580— Entry 1: Framing Progressivism in Education

A reading of Hawkes, G. & Hawkes, E. (2013).

This blog entry doesn’t really fit neatly into the weekly scheme I worked out for this course in the syllabus.  But so it goes.  Glenn and Elijah Hawke’s interesting “article” doesn’t fit neatly into the genre of analysis you normally get from a History of Education Quarterly or an Educational Studies paper.  But their somewhat confessional, father-son exchange of seven lengthy letters touches on a variety of ideas I’ve had with regard to HOW and WHAT kind of work (whether teaching, research, or child rearing!) I want to do around Progressivism.  I’ve linked my marked up copy of the reading above.  The piece is called:  “Miracle and monstrosities:  John Dewey and the fate of progressive education.”  And while it does provide a relatively complete narrative of John Dewey’s various contributions to the doomed progressive movement in early 20th century American education, to be honest, what interests me most about the piece is its form.  First, I’ll do a quick exposition of what the article is.

Elijah Hawkes is a middle school teacher, raised in a white, socially conscious, upper-middle-class New England household in the 1970s and ‘80s.  His Father, Glenn was a teacher too, and a political activist.  Both men are also interested in the various iterations that so-called progressivism in education has had in American schools in the last century.  The letters that comprise the piece begin on a melancholic note:  Glenn has just had a major surgery.  And in an effort to connect with his father, and perhaps to distract him during a lengthy convalescence, Elijah initiates an email thread ostensibly to get to the bottom of an academic question:  Why does the elder Hawkes always talk about the progressive movement in education as a failure?

Presumably the younger Hawkes has reason to disagree with his father’s persistent characterization of progressivism in education (or “progressive education,” as they refer to it).   And this inter-generational tension goes to the core of what I like about how this piece frames its conversation about the movement.  First, it’s a literal dialogue between father and son.  This is unusual in academic writing to say the least; though perhaps it is less so in the journal, Schools:  Studies in Education.  In their correspondence, father and son are not particularly self-conscious about this idiosyncrasy.  But it gives the piece an authentic, un-edited feel, which resonates nicely with certain aesthetic considerations underlying progressivism in education—especially John Dewey’s conception of “organic experience.”  At times these letters achieve a kind of rational stream of consciousness—motivated by certain political and philosophical aims.  Especially the younger Hawkes is actively engaged in a dual quest for learning from his father’s experience and his own desire that the story of progressivism in education continue to be told and told better.  I can certainly identify with this latter aim.

It’s encouraging to see other teachers struggling with the idea of progressivism in education, especially when that struggle leads to deeper historical digging.  The elder Hawkes draws on a few lesser-known titles in Dewey’s oeuvre—books I haven’t read yet—one written in the wake of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles aptly titled Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920) and a couple of later works, Individualism Old and New (1930) and A Common Faith (1934).  Hawkes also unearths Dewey’s 1952 New York Times obituary, which is a document I had not considered consulting before.  But aside from pointing to these primary documents, there is not a whole lot of new content to this 40-page piece.  The opening question, about the elder Hawkes characterization of progressivism as a failure in education is ultimately, though vaguely overturned.  And the letters finish on an optimistic note that the authors argue is more fitting to the mood of a movement that lives on—if just below the surface, often obscured, misunderstood or ignored—in American education institutions.  In other words, progressivism in education has not been a failure, but the stories we have been told about it so far will not suffice.

When studies of progressivism in education focus on individual activists—like John Dewey for instance— as case studies in and representatives of the whole, the complexity of the movement is elided.  Myth tends to seep in to the historical narrative and it becomes tempting, and perhaps sometimes more expedient to certain ends to treat the whole affair as a blanket success or failure.  This is the sort of newspaper headline version of history.  “Dr. John Dewey Dead at 92:  Philosopher a Noted Liberal.”  But a history constructed only from newspaper headlines is always incomplete.  The history of progressivism in education also needs to include voices like the Hawkes’ and all the otherwise anonymous teachers, learners, workers, activists, artists.  Furthermore, these letters demonstrate one unusual new (old) way that the history of progressivism in education might be written: as a dialogue, socially constructed, against a backdrop of political struggle, and ultimately with optimism about human beings’ capacity to understand and work towards social justice.

These basic ideas and impulses would have been more than familiar to a John Dewey or a Jane Addams or a W.E.B. Du Bois or a Charles Beard at the turn of the 20th century.  That we are still mulling it all over a hundred years later in our emails and blogs and theses and graduating papers is evidence, if not of success, then certainly of the existence of the proper conditions for continued experimentation and *gasp!* progress in the way the education system in the United States is organized.  These letters illustrate that the possibilities for progressivism in education have not yet been exhausted.  Teachers in the 21st century still have a lot to learn from Dewey and Glenn Hawkes and all of our philosophical and pedagogical forebears.


Next time I’ll be getting into more of the nitty-gritty of pragmatist metaphysics a la Sidney Hook.

EDST 580: Course Blog Introduction

Philosophical origins, historical realities and political consequences of progressivism in American higher education in the last 100 years


As part of my final FINAL reckoning with my UBC graduation requirements as I prepare to move back to Japan to welcome my son into the world, I am going to be devoting part of my blog space over the course of the next twelve weeks or so to discussing some selected readings around progressivism in education in the United States.  I will link the course syllabus and rationale here: FISHER EDST 580 Proposal.  As you can see, I’m a little behind schedule already with the blog posts.  But I aim to be caught up by the end of next week.

I am still not sure exactly what shape this course blog is going to take—how much depth I will go into in my analysis of the articles I am reading.  But, as I discuss in the rationale for the course (linked above) I’ll be reading in the historical, philosophical and other education-centered literature for three broad themes:

1.  What progressivism in higher education meant for its practitioners, promoters and philosophers during its heyday in the first third of the 20th century.

2.  What impacts progressivism has had in higher education in terms of curriculum and other structural changes to institutions.

3.  How progressivism continues to (or fails to) influence the way we think and do higher education in the 21st century.

A few texts kind of exist in the background of my readings for this course, even though I will not be reading them this term.  John Dewey’s Democracy in Education (1916) is one.  Another is Lawrence Cremin’s Transformation of the School (1961).

This quote from a 1954 speech given by Cremin, whose later work on progressivism in education still stands as a benchmark in the history of higher education:

Granted we have gone beyond the reform programs of the last generation, there are still kindergartens that could learn much from Patty Smith Hill, slum schools which could take profitable lessons from Jane Addams, and colleges which still haven’t realized that the natural curiosity of the young can be a magnificent propellant to learning.  The Progressive Education Association is dead; and progressive education itself needs searching reappraisal.  But I think we will find that some of the best of what the progressives tried to teach has yet to be applied in American schools (Cremin 1954, quoted in Reese 2013).

I couldn’t agree more with Cremin’s 1954 appraisal.  And furthermore, I’d be willing to apply most of what he says here to 2014.  As Cremin outlines elsewhere in this speech in some detail, progressivism in education was always in some sense opposed to more conservative American cultural movements.  On this basis, nearly 60 years after Cremin was writing, with neo-conservative elements dominating the education system in the United States again, a return to progressive educational values is long overdue.

In my reading for this week, William J. Reese, in a 2013 History of Education article, gives a good exposition of the history of progressive education in the United States, with emphasis on the Lawrence Cremin’s contribution to the historiography of the movement during its decline in the middle of the 20th Century.  Reese, I think rightly, points out that whatever claims historians like Cremin have made about the dominance of progressivism as a political ideology or otherwise as a social force in American society, adherence to “progressivism” meant many different things to the different actors in American education systems.  So, clearly, as Reese warns, relying on the writings of only a few elite public intellectuals like John Dewey, or Jane Addams as exemplars of progressive voices, elides much of the complexity of the larger movement.  And the work that these early activists, philosophers and teachers started still needs to continue.

Despite the added complexity that Reese wants to add to the history of progressivism in education, he is still comfortable identifying a few overarching ideas that can reliably be glossed as central to the movement.  Reese does not go so far as to deny that progressivism in education exists as a cohesive movement as he says Herbert M. Kliebard has argued.  But the picture of progressivism Reese presents is arguably broader since it includes individual teachers and schools that Cremin excluded in his intellectual history that relied heavily on the writings of influential figures like Dewey and others, who were not always teachers themselves but theorists or in some cases administrators.

I think that overall Reese’s expanded, complexifying historiography of progressivism in education is a good step to take.  But I also think that it continues to be important to return to the authors of the central texts of the movement.  At the beginning of his article, Reese admits that a lot of the dissonant interpretations of the meanings of progressivism in education stem from mis-readings (intentional or not) of primary philosophical texts of the movement.  Dewey is one author who is as well known for misinterpretations of his philosophy as he is for his philosophy itself.  And this is a problem that Reese admits would be helped if more historians, teachers and school administrators actually read Dewey’s writing.  Reese’s reading of Cremin recommends a multi-pronged approach to the historiography of progressivism in education: one that includes the voices of public intellectuals like Dewey, Addams, Freire, and Horton, as well as the voices of teachers and others who were responsible for bringing these well known progressive ideas about education into practice.  This is precisely what I aim to do over the course of the next 12 weeks in my guided reading course, EDST 380.  You will be able to find updates on this blog tagged with the course number, EDST 380, as well as other specific topics from the syllabus as appropriate.  And I will include links to electronic versions of each weeks’ readings as I am able to as well.

Check back later this week for some discussion of more of the philosophical origins of progressivism in education.  Specifically, I’m excited to take a look at philosopher Sidney Hook’s stab at The Metaphysics of Pragmatism.  Hook was a student of John Dewey, and according to Westbrook (1991) was Dewey’s intellectual heir apparent except for his more open affinities with Marxism.  Hook was also briefly considered as a candidate to serve with Dewey on the Advisory Council of Black Mountain College, as some of my research into Dewey’s correspondence with the college indicates.

P.S.  I have cited a lot of other people’s writing here in not particularly clear fashion.  This is partially because I think that the dictates of style manuals like the APA get unwieldy VERY quickly when they are used on the Internet.  Details about most authors and writing I refer to can be found in the syllabus for the course.  I will likely include some bibliographic references in future posts.  But while I am not treating these blog entries as “formal” “peer-reviewed” essays in the same sense as my graduating paper, I do anticipate this writing being reviewed and read by my peers.  To that end, please use the comment space below freely, especially if a source I am using is unclear.

Cremin, L. (1954)

Reese, W.J. (2013)