A Practical Problem With Pragmatism

In an earlier lengthy post, I pointed to an essay by Dewey as the fulcrum on which education has been moved. The Christian classical tradition, to summarize, is about embodied ideas and incarnate words. In Dewey, the idea is nothing. While the Christian classical tradition emphasized contemplation of ideas as embodied in great works of art and literature, Dewey and pragmatism emphasize experience, production, and the creation of new values.

This has led and continues to lead to a horrific devaluation of the idea in education and that, in turn, has led to an alteration in the way we teach. Now we are about experience, production, and values clarification. When we teach teachers how to teach, we idealize experience. The trouble is that there is no way to measure experience, so Pragmatism or Progressivism can never fulfill its ideals in the public system it has dominated for 100 years because scientific administration and their so-called scientific teaching are not compatible.

Experience, therefore, always gets a lot of play in the teacher’s colleges but a lot less play in the classroom. Instead the classroom is driven by productivity. Teachers are driven mad getting through curricula that they may or may not know and probably don’t like, and students are drained by performing like show ponies for the test takers so they can get to college, play the game for four more years, and then get a well-paying job because they have a certificate that announces they graduated from a fraudulent institution that robbed them of whatever ideals they had when they came in, inflated their grades so as not to hurt their feelings, crippled their usefulness in the economy, and celebrated them as the most educated generation in the history of mankind.

Both experience and productivity are good things. But the unexamined life is not worth living, the unexamined thought is not worth thinking, and the unexamined school is not worth attending.

To the point: by driving the idea out of the classroom, Progressive education empowered charlatans and textbook publishers to replace teachers and undercut the child’s capacity to think for the simple fact that ideas are what children think about and with. Now teachers don’t know what to do if they don’t have a textbook. They don’t know the most rudimentary questions to ask students. They often don’t even realize that you get a person to think by asking them questions and engaging in a dialogue. Teachers tend to be frightened of dialogue with students because the outcomes are not predictable. They need their production and their standardized tests. They need their predictable outcomes. So they give them worksheets and call it critical thinking or fill in the blanks and call it reading.

Until the idea is replaced into the center of the curriculum, we will continue to fail to educate our children. But the Progressive stranglehold on our assumptions makes it impossible to overcome this fundamental metaphysical error and we teachers have been the victims of this shredded and patched philosophy ourselves.

God have mercy and make us serious.

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2 Responses

  1. John,

    Thanks for your link and your comments. You remind me of Chesterton’s quotation (maybe I already quoted it, I’m not sure) that “the trouble with Pragmatism is that it doesn’t work.”

    In ancient Greece they had these air-headed mathematicians wasting everybody’s time on their theoretical math hang-ups, then hundreds and sometimes over a thousand years later some scientist somewhere made some breakthrough discovery because of them. I believe Copernicus is an example, but I’m not sure.

    I was thinking about what I wrote earlier a little more talking with a head of school today and maybe this is a little clearer: pragmatism (progressivism) wants to encourage unregulated experiences on the part of the children. In order to implement their counter-cultural/counter-common sense/counter-intuitive program, they needed to establish a top down, aggressive public education system that would be used to implement their philosophy.

    That adminstrative system was so big that it needed measures for everything that was happening in schools so it could ensure that its vision was being enforced without the interference of those troubling and troublesome teachers. So they needed extensive numerical systems of assessment.

    These systems of assessment undercut the child’s presumed need for individuating experiences.

    Thus we have modern American education – an internal logical contradiction playing itself in the souls of students and in the meltdown of our culture.

    The really great thing, though, is that with a bureaucracy you can never blame anybody!

    It makes a bit of a joke out of the otherwise insightful article in the latest Atlantic that argues that American schools can’t thrive BECAUSE of local control of the school boards.

    Wisdom is what’s needed and wisdom can only grow in communities that recognize the glories and limitations of science and the right relationship between experience and numerical assessments.

    I know I’ve wandered from your point, but I thank you for your input. It’s great to hear from you!

  2. Andrew, it’s interesting how pragmatism appeals to science, and scientists defend their value by appealing to pragmatism, a sort of mutual admiration society. But scientists also insist, and rightly so, that science thrives in an atmosphere of free inquiry, not overly concerned with immediate application. It’s hard to know what is going to be practical, and it’s practical not to think too much about practicality! Here’s a note I wrote along these lines related to my work: http://blog.johndcook.com/2008/01/09/integration-and-pragmatism/

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