A postmodern reading of John Dewey's Education and Experience
by Azly Rahman
One of the most challenging exercises in analysis and reflection of and upon a monumental educational philosophical text such as John Dewey’s Education and Experience is to look at what education means within the contemporary perspective of post modernism which forces one to look at issues such as freedom, intelligence, knowledge, power, class, control ideology, and human destiny. The challenge comes from allying with Dewey’s “process philosophy” paradigm which attempts to mediate cultural continuity and futurism on the one hand and to deconstruct entirely the meaning of education on the other so that process philosophy may no longer become tenable in this era of “change, complexity, competition and chaos.”
It is to be remembered that Deweyian “pragmatism” is an evolution of the idea championed by William James and Charles Sanders Pierce and essentially American in character as opposed to the transcendentalism of the European and Continental philosophy of Immanuel Kant, Hegel and the like which has different perspectives on what education should be like. The great debate between Dewey and Leon Trotsky in Their Morality and Ours, an ideological documentation of the Mexico trial in the 1930s perhaps illustrate the contending viewpoint of how democracy can be conceived and correlated to education within the context of political socialization and citizenship education. In Experience and Education John Dewey argued that education is not a “banking concept” of the transfer of knowledge solely for cultural continuity nor it is a process of “experiencing” without clear and goal-oriented organization; that schooling is a process of producing “good citizens” and not merely “good workers” who would live by participatory rather than protectionist democratic principles; that in order to achieve the level of “freedom with responsibility”, schooling must be organized along the lines of experiential learning which are educative and promotes “growth” with the criteria of experience specifically geared towards generating more “child-centered” learning so that knowledge and learning can continue to progress in a scientific mode.
Educational philosophy, thus for Dewey is not a question of Either/Or between so-called traditional and progressive philosophies, but essentially of democratic living, and being and becoming which should be translated within the domain of cultural continuity and scientific rationality. The participatory ideal in Dewey’s concept of democracy, at least in this post modernity of corporate America is problematic to be accepted. Dewey’s concept of knowledge did not analyze its politics and philosophy, the question of who owns knowledge; his idea of scientific nationalism in educational thought masks the direction science is taking us in this modern era plagued with the question of control in Computer Revolution; the source of “experience” of the individual in school may fail the scrutiny of the epistemology, ontology and axiology of it in this age of alienation, Simulacra and technophilia and hyper-reality; the question of freedom is devoid of distinction between “freedom” and “liberation” as proposed by liberation theologists such as Gustavo Guttierez and Denis Goulet and many a transcendental and postmodern philosophical thinkers such as Martin Buber, Radhakrishnan, and Jacques Derrida and those in one way or another championing deconstructionism in our conception of human nature and human freedom. And last but not least, the concept of producing “good citizens” through schooling will fail to look at the issue of global capitalism as a tightly-knit system of systematic mental and ideological oppression masked under the shibboleth of free trade and liberalism.
In short, Dewey’s democracy is democracy for the many the Deconstructivist Age democracy of our times is for the few evolvingly creating, in the sense talked about by Herbert Marcuse, “one-dimensional human beings” unable to perceive the contradictions he/she is in. What can possibly be an agenda in the reconstructing of Dewey’s philosophy; in the noble ideals he attempts to mediate in the Essentialist and Progressivist traditions? It can be argued that there are indeed standards of post modernity in Dewey’s Experience and Education and this perspective can be illustrated from Maxine Greene’s writing particularly in The Dialectic of Freedom wherein Dewey lamented upon education, schooling and learning being preyed upon by the cult of creating mass consumers of which the most obvious benefactors would be the financiers, the bankers and corporate capitalists in general.
Dewey’s participatory democratic ideals can be explored to its existential libertarian limit and in fact can also move towards creative anarchism. How would educators committed to the dismantling of protectionist, Republican-Democrat type of “mass deceptive” democracy extend the Deweyian dialogue into the spheres of millennial issues such as alienation, environmental degradation, structural violence, one-dimensionality in thinking, and analysis of the pervasive British inspired oligarchic monopoly capitalism which has pervaded American economy since Hamilton and Jefferson days, much to the opposition of the ideals of the American revolution which had chartered an egalitarian brand of American political economy?
How do we make dominant the people’s history of the United States – of the struggle of the common people marginalized by crypto-crony corporate capitalism? How do we bring in dialogues brought about by Thomas Paine, Norman Thomas, the IWW and Noam Chomsky in the teacher education so that the growth of America can carry the banner of international and economic, social and political justice alongside with youths of other nations which must also be radicalized into dismantling international capitalism. If schools can be (and loved to be) blamed for all the ills of today, can we teachers use this avenue to turn the tide and channel our energy into one powerful international social movement? How then must we teach? must be the quintessential question. Herein lies the possibility in a postmodern reading and praxis of Dewey’s ideas circa Millenium.