OT 4: Knowledge and Religion: Dewey and Education

Personal Reflection: Historical Background

In other sections of this blog it is written that religion is “what we bow down to or what we look up to”. It is written that the world religion moving forward is and will be technology as it is technology that determines and will determine our way of being in the world in a global context and this will determine who and what we are as human beings within this technological future. It is a fate to which we have chosen to consign ourselves as human beings. The grounding of this technological world-view is the metaphysics that arose in the West and found its flowering in Western European sciences. It was and is through the application of those mastering sciences that the current political powers of the world achieve their positions of power: communism, fascism and capitalism are predicates of the subject technology. Their world-pictures are embraced within and by the technological world-view that has come to be our fate for those who are from the West, and it will soon become the world’s fate.

John Dewey

As someone who grew up in North America, learning the techniques that were made possible through the application of those mastering European sciences dominated the educational system. Though the façade of the North American education is different, the essence of the education is much the same in the IB Diploma program. The flavour of the month in terms of a philosophy of education in my youth came from the American philosopher John Dewey, and the movement of the thinking that established the paradigm for what education was thought to be was Deweyism. Through Dewey it was believed that technology, science and democracy could come together in an ever-widening horizon of progress thought within the evolutionary principles of Darwinism. His first principles rest in the faith and belief that all modification is progress toward the better. Two questions that arise within this faith and belief are whether technology and democracy are compatible? Is Darwinism and democracy compatible?

My personal education was an attempt to overcome the paradigm of education given to me in Deweyism having been brought up under the principles that were presented to me in Roman Catholicism: but, as the Spanish proverb says, a scavenging mongrel in a famine claims no merit in scenting food (if any food has, in fact, been scented here).  I will attempt to make some points about what occurs when the curriculum in education is based on a false metaphysics and will do so under the rubric of knowledge and religion for the understanding of both is that they are ‘religions’ as understood in these writings.

Whatever else may be said about “religious knowledge systems”, they may be defined as the search by human beings for their being-in-the-world as “a good soul”. What is the height for being human? What is the good life and how does one lead it? Plato in Book IX of his Republic describes the decline of the society and of the soul in a democracy. Prior to Book IX he had described the good society and the good soul; in Book IX he describes the despot and despotism as the bad soul and the bad society. Neither the ideally good nor the ideally bad society are possible in this world: for Plato, these ideally bad and good politeia are ethical principles of attraction and repulsion: they are matters of choice from which, in our freedom, our actions may be chosen. Just as Macbeth has a choice in determining the manner in which he will become the king he appears to be fated to be, the choices that individuals appear to have seem to rest in the virtues of the individual soul.  In the scale of ranking societies and of the individuals within those societies, Plato places democratic society and the democratic soul very low, next to despotism, in fact. Now why does he do this?

Much silly ink has been spilt criticizing Plato’s low view of democracy, not the least of which are Karl Popper’s comments on Plato in The Open Society and Its Enemies. To claim, as Popper does, that Plato does not hold freedom very highly is not to have read Republic very carefully. Why does Plato view the democratic society as just a few steps before despotism? Plato describes democracy as that state in which the lowest common denominator of desire (the appetites) rules and every institution is dominated by this lowest common denominator within the demos, or the people. By lowest common denominator Plato means that the desires arising from the appetites have taken over the person and have become the ruling principle within the person. Reason is dethroned (to use a Shakespearean analogy that, in one way or another, involves all of his tragic characters), or reason is used simply as instrument to simply achieve personal ends. Because of this, according to Plato, democracy must destroy itself because it will degenerate into chaos; people will give themselves over to the immediate claims of appetite; democracy’s full realization is in the culture of mass consumerism.  Such consumerism is shown in its flowering in many of the advanced industrial economies of our present age.

The criticisms of Plato with regard to democracy have been based on a misunderstanding/misreading of his understanding of the relation of freedom to liberation. Education and schools have become the servants of expanding economies understood as progress in production and consumption through the keeping of technology dynamic and novel within those societies. These expanding economies are dominated by the institution that is called ‘the corporation’. The schools are the places where the young go to be taught techniques that will allow them to enter or remain in the more prosperous parts of their societies, to become what we have viewed in Plato’s cave as ‘the keepers of the fire’. Science only has value in so far as it can be applied and “useful” in its service to human beings. The educational institutions are largely servants of that appetite which is dominant among the clever in that part of our society—namely, greed. This observation is as ubiquitous as to be viewed as common sense.

The future of democracy under the ‘technology of the helmsmen’ brings to light a knowledge problem for thought and action that is difficult to reconcile: how does one reconcile a deep loyalty to the traditions of democracy with the debasement of education that occurs within democracy? Why do I use the negative word ‘debasement’ here?

John Dewey’s philosophy of education received an enthusiastic reception in North America. The society that accepts a very low view of human nature, of what human beings are and their destiny, or that accepts the view of human existence and the purpose of education as the worship of the appetites which Plato describes cannot, or will choose not to, provide the environment in which a true education can flourish. Education ceases to be a “leading out” and becomes an organizing within. I have seen this in my lifetime through the evolution of the schools of which I have been a member.

A similar environment to North America’s flourished in Britain through the influences of logical positivism and its evolution within British educational systems; Oxford, for example, is the home and birthplace of analytical philosophy, a philosophy grounded in the principle of reason which we have come to understand as the essence of technology. This past influence continues to this day: Britain has recognized and understood its place in the Western empire as handmaid to the master, the USA. This has occurred because North Americans speak (for the most part) English.

Not to recognize this paradox of democracy and true education is simply not to know where one is at, both on the political level (social) and in relation to one’s own self. A solution to the paradox is to eliminate one of its difficulties: one can ignore the tendencies towards debasement or this attention to the appetites and embrace the religion of progress and this is what most of us have chosen to do. We jump on the bandwagon of vulgarity and ride it with varying degrees of success i.e. we become the keepers of the fire in Plato’s analogy of the Cave. One can, possibly, discard all faith in a democratic education: for those of us within the “traditional” religious traditions this is wrong in principle because it commits us to practical action that eliminates the mystery of our religions and ultimately finds expression in will to power (empowerment) and a retreat from the modern world. Of this retreat (and I can speak of this with some confidence at my age), I can only say that we may dislike the world and the human beings in it, but it’s the only one we’ve got—and it is the world in which we are called to act. The only alternative, it seems to me, is that to escape the paradox we must learn to live within its tension.

One can view this tension when one looks at the curriculum and the Learner Profile of the IB. One of the questions that arises when viewing the IB Curriculum and its ordering (hierarchy) along with the Learner Profile as the outcomes of the core learning is that the Learner Profile or the student learner outcomes are divorced from reality. One simply has to listen to the young and their parents to realize what they think education is for and what studies should be undertaken. It is a partaking of the dominant view of what reality is understood as.

It is a sad, miserable sight to look into the eyes of parents when they realize that Johnny is not going to become a doctor because Johnny cannot handle Higher Level Math or Biology. The irony, of course, is that our educational systems, for the most part, are producing the very kind of doctors that we do not want. In the schools where the grounding of the teaching or the ultimate reality is that human beings can be totally understood as animals, where theory is not taught as theory, an hypothesis, a possibility, we are appalled when one of our students cheat  in order to meet the standards we require of our doctors; and we stridently try to push the morality or ‘values’ inherent in the Learner Profile.  Or we become offended when in our societies we see old medical ethics break down before the growing love of money among our doctors. But should we be? If human beings are simply animals and morality is merely an illusion (the grounds of the metaphysics of Deweyism), then why shouldn’t students cheat; why shouldn’t one try to become an alpha squirrel and amass more nuts than the other squirrels? Why be moral at all? (These are general statements and are not directed at those wonderful human beings involved in Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders, many of whom are former IB graduates). The current President of the USA, for example, is not the cause of the disease within American society but one of its flowerings or outcomes.

Within Deweyism, the purpose of education is successful living in this world, the Lockean principle of comfortable self-preservation; there is no transcendent end to education (I am not attacking the principle of comfortable self-preservation: there is much to be said for it!). This grounding of the purpose of education does not seem to change much (it appears to me) when ‘successful living’ becomes the ‘empowerment of the self’; this self-empowerment is simply ensuring that one is holding the ‘pointy end of the stick’, and that one is able to fulfill the desires that arise from the appetites and enhance one’s ‘quality of life’. These terms all had their first appearance as concepts in the thinking of the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. Here I am speaking of those societies where capitalism has reached the advanced stage: those states that see themselves as the ‘mental health states’. I have come to realize that in schools where the best teachers understand that the real is the world of a materialism that is apprehended in space and time, it is foolish to try to impose a set of values which come from a different view of reality. All you do is produce chaos: the clever children see the inconsistency and the stupid are meanly tricked.

The IB Learner Profile says that ‘brotherhood’ matters in the world; we have updated this antiquated term to ‘international-mindedness’. But when the young go out into the world, they learn that ‘brotherhood’ does not bring success in worldly terms (‘networking’ might, but networking is the use of people as means, not ends; and it is certainly not brotherhood/sisterhood, but it could be ‘international mindedness’ in the new glossary) and that if they attempt to put the IB Learner Profile attributes into practice they just get ‘hosed’. The Learner Profile is quietly understood as just pious nonsense that IB schools put forward, but which no one takes seriously as the grounding for practical action in the world, and it rests on the belief that theory and practice are separate entities. This is the tension which is spoken of here.

Within the framework of knowledge and religion, the tsunami that is the new world religion (technology) moves inexorably to cover the world in a profound irrationalism. How is this so? How can something which is based on the principle of reason be irrational at its core? The understanding is that the natural and human sciences are the way we find out what is real (science, after all, is “the theory of the real”) while religion and ‘values’ are concerned with subjective preferences arising largely from emotions. Religion is thought of as a kind of emotional certainty; and faith as a way of knowing is seen as a commitment of the will, or resolute decision. Values, in one of the many understandings of that term, are thought of as the right emotional attitudes the democratic society wants to inculcate and these are captured in a recent catch-phrase from the 1990s “emotional intelligence”. Reality is seen as the sensuous world of space and time and truth is the accumulation of “facts” that are transformed into data which become information through the application of the sciences. Historically reason, both practical and theoretical, was seen as that which apprehends ultimate reality or that reality beyond the merely sensible, the permanent as contrasted with those things that are in motion. Today, the assumption throughout is that values and religion are matters of opinion based on personal preferences and taste and not matters where truth can be discovered by the proper use of the mind. But this begs the question: what is the proper use of the mind?

Author: theoryofknowledgeanalternativeapproach


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Theory of Knowledge: An Alternative Approach

Why is an alternative approach necessary?

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