Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Prospective retrospection

In our lecture course on the history of the New School, today was all about why one might care about such a thing. Three of our four readings were from the time when The New School was founded (1916-18), but all were about rethinking the nature of education. My co-teacher J used the original "Proposal for a New School of Social Science" to conjure up the world of American progressivism during the Great War, and presented our understanding of the sorts of concerns driving the founders. Why a new kind of school? Who is it for? What should be taught, and how? In every way, the founders rejected the model of the universities of their time and imagined something new. Good stuff and still resonant.

My task was to discuss John Dewey's Democracy and Education, whose ideas were an important part of the matrix of The New School. There was a problem, though: if ever there was a critic of lectures it was Dewey. Nobody could be expected to learn anything in so passive, so pat a form! Let me try to make the point in Deweyese. One learns only from experience, and experience is both active and passive: engaging the whole learner, it links a "trying" ventured in response to some problem or animating concern to the "undergoing" of the consequences of the try. Intelligence is being reflective about this process, making it iterative. Thinking renders the intelligence explicit, and good teaching makes thinking itself an experience.

Clearly lecturing about this would be worse than self-defeating - like the words which Dewey worried take the place of ideas in the forms of education he challenged, displacing real thought and even making it impossible. So I named the problem, and then hurled a few chunks of our text at the class, chunks chosen to be indigestible. They sound fine until you think about them. What on earth do they mean?

Ungrowth [50]

The educational process has no end beyond itself [59]

All thinking is research [174]

I alternated these with three chunks of text which, I said, were my favorite passages - but they should find their own. Mine (from pages 55, 59, 178) are counterintuitive or at least surprising, and open new vistas - a critique of the delusions of self-reliance, a celebration of childlikeness, and (appropriately for today's classs!) an argument for the benefits of understanding the past for engaging the future:




I'm not sure if this will have worked as a way of making the strangeness and significance of Dewey's ideas interesting enough to the students that they might try to engage them for themselves... I was in any case glad to be able to speak about the value of interdependence, the importance of maintaining childlike sympathetic curiosity, unbiased responsiveness, and openness of mind and the challenges of living in a world not settled or finished - things I suggested New School was set up to try, and things as important as ever in our moment of anthropocene awareness.

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