Posts Tagged ‘John Dewey’

The Good

August 9, 2013

Recollection returns the admiration Dr. Tew expressed for the single, solitary bee during some long ago assembly of Ohio beekeepers. He was awestruck that this individual would exit the colony where there is the support of her fellows, and the safety of numbers, to fly off into the great unknown. I guess it stuck with me by the way he presented it, rather analytically from a scientist’s perspective – someone who has spent his life studying bees. We tend to knee jerk anthropomorphize anything not “like us”. Forgotten is that butterflies, bees and other insects don’t “know” what is out there. Off they go into the very, and always, immediate unknown.
My neighbor is not right. No, not in an argumentative sense, rather he has been unlike his fellows in thought, behavior, and socialization since birth. Today I guess he would be described as challenged, or severely disabled though he gets around and lives alone. Many of us who live around him would describe him as a pain since it is almost impossible to communicate with him. He demands, and if the demand is not met, he curses loudly and vehemently (disabilities are not always as portrayed by Hollywood). Of late he has deemed himself to be our self-appointed evangelist. Have you gone to church? No matter what the response, he condemns you to hell (perhaps he’s lonely?). The latest is asking what is written on a piece of paper in his hand (which the committed do-gooder is more than willing to read for what he believes to be an illiterate. Not!). The scrawl spells “dread”, and of course, a sermon on going to hell with a veritable Whitman’s Sampler of assorted gospel invectives follows.
In The Gleam Of Light: Moral Perfectionism and Education in Dewey and Emerson (2005) Naoko Saito tries to show the close connection between Dewey and Emerson, through some of the writing on this matter by Stanley Cavell (who considers the opposite). Emerson’s influence appears in Dewey’s early work and then in his later writings according to Saito. She addresses a major criticism of Dewey in a chapter entitled The Gleam of Light Lost: Transcending the Tragic with Dewy after Emerson, something both Emerson and Cavell address and wrestle with but Dewey is considered to have elided (all problems can be solved through a sound pragmatic approach). Curious insights that speak to our time arise out of the considerations of these various thinkers that Naoko brings together. Emerson (and then later Dewey) mourns/bemoans the “lost individual”, asleep to the life within/without ( Shades of the unexamined life is not worth living!). The emphasis with Emerson, and later through Saito’s interpretation of Dewey, is on setting forth, struggling to create/achieve meaning, to learn, to grow. Of course, no apparent end is given for all this setting forth, learning and growing. In contemporary times, this has been perverted as “process” – i.e. process art, or “the learning process”, etc. (but not processed food). The “process” has become the end (something Saito points out is NOT the case by referencing the role and place of imagination with morality in both the writings of Emerson and Dewey). Saito works hard to stress the difference between the valorization of today’s “process” and the role or place of struggle, setting forth, growth, etc. with Emerson, et al. She writes: “[T]he good is anything but guaranteed in advance; it is to be created ahead, as “consequences” in the future, or as Cavell says, proven only on the way. Potentiality is not “a category of existence” that is being unfolded. Instead, “potentialities cannot be known till after the interactions have occurred” in terms of “consequences”” (pg. 116).
And so the bee returns to the hive loaded down with pollen and a gut full of nectar after her adventure in the great unknown. Its fellows will be nourished by this contribution achieved with such great effort and peril. The future of the colony will be determined by this struggle with what it knows not. I think this is what Saito is pointing at. The scrawl of today, held up with any considerations of democracy, education or growth (taken in whatever sense), spells out “dread”. Forgotten is that a known outcome, a machine determined inevitability is not exactly how things happen. “The good is anything but guaranteed in advance; it is to be created ahead, as “consequences” in the future, or as Cavell says, proven only on the way.”

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Dewey And Da Bees

May 18, 2013

Pragmatism and Diversity: Dewey in the Context of Late Twentieth Century Debates is a collection of 8 essays, an introduction and a concluding conversation amongst the various authors edited by Judith M. Green, Stefan Neubert, and Kersten Reich (2011). The writings and philosophy of American John Dewey are pretty much de rigueur for undergraduates of private liberal arts colleges. Indeed, the entire philosophy of pragmatism is pretty much embodied within many of these institutions. My bookshelf finds no “Dewey” between “Deleuze” and Freire”. This book did much to help me understand the myth-conception I’ve had about graduates of small, private liberal arts colleges being celebrated for landing their first job with the American Lung Association or R.J. Reynolds. It doesn’t matter which, they would be equally competent, committed and enthusiastic at either. But I guess I was wrong. Interesting insights about cosmopolitanism, pragmatism, and how they are viewed through the perspective of democracy (and education) accompany this reading.

But it ain’t all a bed of roses. Dewey seems to leave that small private liberal arts college enthusiasm slathered all over the place, even second hand, on those reading about him though not directly. Two essays addressed this: William J. Gavin’s The Context of Diversity versus the Problem of Diversity and Jim Garrison’s Dewey and Levinas on Pluralism, the Other, and Democracy. Gavin’s essay substantiates the existence of tragedy and Kafkaesque type scenario’s (a variation of which would be Heller’s Catch 22 scenarios). No amount of “problem solving” or reductionism to help address a problem eliminates these because, quite frankly, they just are, and won’t disappear from life as we know it or be lessened no matter how earnestly we apply pragmatic organization (hence the disjunct of the student gushing over their new job representing the American Lung Association, or R.J. Reynolds. It doesn’t matter which, pragmatism prevails). Garrison’s essay was the more vexing. Admirably, he does take the time to associate Levinas with Dewey primarily on their interest and commitment to diversity and pluralism. Though Levinas is presented accurately enough (good enough is an adequate standard in the comparison of ideas, authors and applications for this writer), Garrison fails to reconstruct his outlook as earnestly and conscientiously as he does Dewey’s. Reconstruction is a cornerstone of Dewey’s pragmatism but applying it with such bias undermines any benefits to be had from this aspect of pragmatism and democracy. It has been said that art is impossible after the Holocaust, or poetry for that matter (or God for some), but what about Dewey’s pragmatism? Reconstructing Levinas within the context of the post-holocaust civilized world (the latter part of the “later” Dewey), would have created a better understanding of inadequacies. Which brings us to – the bees.

Levinas centers on the Other which Garrison translates (or expands) to implicate the Same. One description of Dewey’s pragmatism has it stressing democracy as a way of life made operational through continuing education all founded on the fundamentals of nature, possibility, experience and community. These last four are pretty descriptive of the bees and could be considered almost as a template. An important part of contemporary existence is the place and importance of programming, software, in today’s world. These methodologies (outlooks, dispositions, organizations, whatever) function much as templates in that, like our student with her first job, it doesn’t matter what the application (or “context”). Dewey’s pragmatism can also be considered as a template. But the bees find themselves having to fly, be free and “work” the environment of, sometimes, up to three miles from their hive. Unlike livestock, totally managed and determined, for the bees no freedom means no production. Here Levinas’ Other can be reconstructed much more effectively and informatively than Dewey’s problem solving pragmatism. What the bees encounter in their necessity to be bees, is more like the Other of Levinas than some “problem” able to be solved if we just employ reductionist applications. It is planting time hereabouts , and not wishing to dispel wonderful myths of plowing and seeding most of it is done with a giant tanker truck coming in and spraying herbicide (akin to agent orange) on the field. After everything has died (including the dandelions the bees got drenched working while the spray was being applied), another huge, complicated piece of machinery (with attached tanks for liquid application) comes to inject seed and pesticide into the brown dead field. A couple of weeks from now, perfect rows of corn or beans will appear in this by design wasteland. For the bees, this certainly is the Face. This Monsanto-type methodology is a program, a template for how farming is done/to be done today (with all the protections of intellectual property). But what of the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling and now, within our democracy, having to sit down at the table with Lloyd Blankfein? Will he be just an individual or is he, like our student, there as a representative of Goldman Sachs? Dewey is said to be promoting that there are three at the table. Me, Lloyd and our work. But the Supreme Court says there are really now four (or five, depends how you count). There is me, Lloyd, Goldman Sachs and our work. The corporate structure, much as software, functions as a template, insisting on a specific disposition, outlook and precedence. Stressing education of individuals for the sake of a full and healthy democracy begins to unravel when one notices that the little me is outnumbered two (or three) to one: the corporation, its representative (and its representative as an individual standing to gain enormously if he doesn’t vary from the template). Like the bees who must fly out into an environment that is committed to a specific modus operandi (trespassing insects must be eliminated), our individual at the table finds themselves in a situation better addressed by Levinas than Dewey.