February 17, 2023
Thanks to James Robertson, HMU student, for today’s blog.
In a poem, Whitman writes “This is no book; who touches this touches a man” (Leaves of Grass). In contrast, Plato has Socrates observe that “writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence” (Phaedrus). This is an unfortunate position for a written character to take! Nevertheless, his author has him add that there may be “another kind of word…graven in the soul of the learner, which can defend itself, and knows when to speak”. This raises a question: how might the words of a written, and therefore static character, enter the reader’s soul and so enrich it?
Dewey may aid in resolving this difficulty. He holds that “engagement of the imagination is the only thing that makes any activity more than mechanical” (Democracy and Education), for “imagination is the medium of appreciation in every field” (Democracy and Education). It is apparent that imagination does not compete with knowledge, but motivates its pursuit. Dewey takes this position because he sees values as imaginative realisations of potential future experiences, grounded upon previous experiences. “The appeal … made … in … personal realization fixes his attitude much more deeply than what he has been taught” (Democracy and Education). Personal experience is, then, decisive in the formation of individual values. Since values enter present experience by way of prospective imagination, such imagination is likewise decisive in the cognition of value.
This element in Dewey’s thought brings out the possibility of internal conflict. He affirms that since “the need of preparation for a continually developing life is great…every energy should be bent to making the present experience as rich and significant as possible” (Democracy and Education). However, he also criticises the subordination of present experience to future activities, holding that it neglects “present possibilities in behalf of preparation” (Democracy and Education). It might appear that Dewey urges two incompatible doctrines, for if he holds that the cognition of value necessarily presupposes some imaginary future experience, and if he holds that present experience should not be subordinate to future experience, it would appear that his educational thought requires commitment to two mutually-exclusive positions, and is, therefore, self-negating. Such a reading certainly identifies tension in Dewey’s thought. However, it also fails to appreciate the fact that the contemplation of value, for Dewey, is itself an element in present experience. That is, future-oriented values influence individuals as part of the total experiential situation of the present, and contribute to, rather than diminish, its intrinsic value.
It is, nevertheless, crucial to recognise that Dewey’s thought is essentially temporal, in the sense that it explicitly relies on the transience of individuals and environments. For Dewey, personal transience is the essential justification for education: “continuity of the life process is not dependent upon the prolongation of the existence of any one individual” (Democracy and Education). Even so, the fleeting present remains the only opportunity for the realisation of value: “To keep the process alive, to keep it alive in ways which make it easier to keep it alive in the future, is the function of educational subject matter. But an individual can live only in the present” (Democracy and Education). Dewey contends, therefore, that although education needs to support the flourishing of future value-laden experiences, it must do so in ways that generate value-laden experiences in the present. And yet, since Dewey regards imagination as the medium of meaning, there is a sense in which the present realisation of value requires the imaginative continuity of the present with some desirable future. Imagination, then, is essential to Dewey’s theory of value.
Dewey’s recognition of individual transience leads into his concern with social transience: “continuity of any experience, through renewing of the social group, is a literal fact. Education…is the means of this social continuity” (Democracy and Education). Education, then, is the factor that enables societies to outlive their individual members, and yet this can only occur if individuals successfully communicate collective capabilities and values to new members: “What they must have in common in order to form a community…are aims, beliefs, aspirations, knowledge” (Democracy and Education). Dewey here identifies the vital relevance and challenge of education for society. Society requires education for its survival, and yet education is not something that society can do by itself, for society is an abstraction from a complex network of relationships among individuals. Communication among individuals is therefore critical.
Regarding communication, Dewey again finds imagination at work. He considers it evident that individuals have only mediate access to one another’s experiences, and yet, if communication is to occur, the experience of one must enter into the experience of another: “To be a recipient of a communication is to have an enlarged and changed experience. One shares in what another has thought and felt” (Democracy and Education). This is possible if one can “assimilate, imaginatively, something of another’s experience in order to tell him intelligently of one’s own experience” (Democracy and Education). For Dewey, the fundamental similarity among humans enables individuals to imaginatively construct the experiences of others, an act of potential communion that allows for the generation of imaginative futures.
If communication, in order to be reliable, rests on the basis of sympathetic imaginative communion, then, to the extent that truths can be expressed, the ability to do so relies on imagination. It follows that education is a subset of communication, involving both experiential sharing, and the selective cultivation of experiences that enable it, with the consequence that, for Dewey, education must be a comprehensively imaginative activity.
Here we see Dewey open the door for both Plato and Whitman – to read a book is not to engage with an object, but to enter a community with the author, their characters and their thoughts, to invite novelties to arise within imagination, and so to enrich both present and future experience.
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