Sunday, September 4, 2011

Nothing New under the Sun: Dewey's Popular Essays

I'm reading Characters and Events, a collection of John Dewey's articles written for magazines such as The New Republic, and am struck by two things.  First, he writes much better in these "popular" essays than he does in his philosophical works, which I must admit is a relief--and also interesting in its own right.  Second, that much of what he wrote many decades ago is sadly familiar.  Very sadly, in fact.

He writes, for example, of the influence of fundamentalism in American society, and how the conflict of religion and science in the United States is a subject of wonder and amusement in Europe.  In Dewey's time, of course, the greatest conflict was over Darwin's theory of evolution.

He writes also of concerns over the vast number of immigrants entering the nation through Ellis Island, and how they are to be assimilated into American society.  Apparently, General Woods and others were proposing that this be achieved through a system of universal conscription.  All would be assimilated through military service, though there was, at the time, no war to be fought.  A war would be provided soon enough, of course.  Dewey was concerned about American society becoming militarized along the European model, and not unsurprisingly felt that if assimilation was to be achieved, or imposed, through the federal government it would be better achieved through a system of national education.

We haven't come very far, it seems.  We have the same concerns now, and are debating the same debates.  So little have we learned, apparently, that the players may as well be the same.  We may as well have William Jennings Bryan thundering away portentously.  As for General Woods, I haven't heard much about universal conscription as the cure for the "disease" of immigration, but perhaps that is because our military is already rather busy at this time; busy enough not to take on the additional burden of assimilation.

Our system of national education hasn't done much to to alleviate such concerns.  Dewey might be inclined to blame this on the fact that our system remains in many respects localized.  Our school districts are locally controlled, with school boards being selected through local elections.  So we have some boards in some states insisting that schools teach what is deemed appropriate by local electors, and certain local electors, or those actually interested in voting for members of school boards in some cases, continue to have doubts as their ancestors had doubts regarding evolution, and perhaps immigrants as well.

What accounts for this?  Why is it that we are, apparently, incapable of learning, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say inclined to conduct ourselves as we have always conducted ourselves regardless of what is learned?

We may simply be creatures of habit and routine so entirely that we will not think intelligently unless compelled to do so.  We feel compelled to do so when we perceive there will be an immediate benefit to us, or when the failure to do so will result in a direct harm.  When we are relatively content, we prefer not to think at all, thinking being difficult.

There is a problem, though, and that is that thinking is so difficult we resort to it only when other options have been exhausted.  If we are seriously discontent, we may prefer to act without thinking if it seems that by acting we will achieve what might be achieved by thinking.

If we are creatures of habit, one wonders if it would be possible to develop a habit of thinking.  I think this is one of the things Dewey sought to propose in his works on education.  But thinking often demonstrates that habits are bad, and perhaps we would rather maintain those habits we have than develop new ones.

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