We've seen that our wrong turns began innocently enough with misguided calls for education reform amongst our Founders era, and became progressively worse with each new generation of reformers, but it wasn't until that point in time where we began taking directions from the exponent of pragmatism, and 'progressive education', John Dewey, that we entered into the dark wood we find ourselves in today, having lost sight of all recognizable landmarks. If we're to find our way back, it's important to recognize that how we got here has to do with a great deal more than simply having had particular teaching methods, textbooks, and class offerings introduced into our schools - we need to learn to recognize the real foundational shifts that were made in the direction of what we believe and how we think, which were introduced into our entire society, and are actively being followed to this day, and that simply attempting to go back to before this or that change in the direction of our educational policies, will be too little to put even our schools back on track, let alone our society. We've got to zoom out and see the entire landscape, if we're to have a chance of undoing all of the missteps needed before getting back on track once again.
Religious being pastors and the like, and Moralist being the likes of Noah Webster, Ben Franklin, etc.,) did not seem to realize the radical change involved in having allowed the debate to be shifted from being one over how best to educate a child for the primary benefit of that child (which only incidentally was also good for the community), to a political contest over guiding the content of that student's education for the primary purpose of serving the community, which is what the school's new purpose became. That newly politicized nature of 'education' naturally led to their lessons and textbooks shifting towards one of ideologically reforming students to benefit the community in its [now more important] purpose of aiding the [insert political hot topic of the day here: economy, culture, politics, science, agriculture, beat the foreign enemy, etc., etc., etc.], and their misreading of the landscape enabled them to become irrelevant to the political process, though it would continue operating in their name for some time to come.
|'What Happened to Religious Education?'|
William Kailer Dunn
For those naive enough to think that it's a positive development that textbooks were no longer filled with traditional religious and moralist views within a shared philosophy of Greco/Roman-Judeo/Christian culture, you're likely laboring under a misconception that NO religious, moralist, philosophic, or cultural views were then being used to mold the content of students minds and character, and it would be difficult to be more consequentially wrong than that. No human being, no matter how savage or tenured, can live without religious, moral, and philosophic views to guide their lives - their only choice is whether those views are to be consciously held or not, and whether they will be clearly upheld and understood and reinforced in alignment with their culture, or to follow the conflicting urges and feelings of the moment down into a confused muddle of virtue-less virtue signaling. While their textbook's content was no longer being guided by views which reflected the more widely held beliefs of the public, they were swiftly being replaced by the philosophies of those who either disagreed with, dismissed, or opposed the religious and moral views commonly held by the public they 'served' ('medium-rare or well-done?'), so that the new lesson plans, textbooks, and classes, were increasingly conveying the anti-religious and amoral beliefs which were then being popularized in what we now know of as 'Progressive' politics, and together they marched arm in arm through the wider societal turmoil of the time, predominantly fed by the 'new!' philosophy of Pragmatism.
Pragmatism is a philosophy that was devised in America primarily by C. S. Peirce, William James, and then John Dewey, in the late 1800s, but although it solidified views that had been circulating in America for decades, it would, IMHO, be a mistake to call it an American Philosophy, as its core premises undermine or oppose the very ideas and culture that America was formed from and founded upon. The first to formulate it in print, and the most technically minded of the three, was Peirce (who, BTW, was a dissatisfied student of Professor Charles W. Elliott, mentioned here previously, and who'd later bring the (disastrous) idea of 'Elective Classes' to American colleges through his work as president of Harvard), followed by Peirce's classmate at Harvard, William James, who would become America's first Psychologist, and whose lectures lured in the thinking of progressive educational reformer, John Dewey, and drew him away from Hegel, and into their new philosophy of Pragmatism. Through their private and public conversations, commentary, lectures given and published, and the involvement of a number of others, such as the future 'Progressive' Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and historian George "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" Santayana, their speculations put Pragmatism prominently into the current of the academic and popular press of the day, where it fit in well with that new positivist 'science' for managing society under the advisement of experts, Economics.
Now, especially if you've become accustomed to thinking pragmatically, you might be thinking to yourself: 'Does any of this really matter?', and the answer, as you'll see shortly, is 'Oh Hell yes this matters!', but we'll need a brief review of the basics first, for that to be able to become as obvious as it should be.
Pragmatism came about, because its three primary founders had become uncomfortable with the philosophies of the German Idealists of the day, Kant, Fichte, and Hegel, which they had initially been big fans of (Dewey published his first philosophical paper with the St. Louis Hegelian Society). The reasons for that was only partly related to Nietzsche's criticism of the idealists, that 'they muddy the waters to make them appear deep', in that for the pragmatists, muddying still (evidently) had some appeal, but it was what 'deep' referred to, that they disliked; impenetrable reasoning wrapped up in convoluted language that couldn't easily be explained or passed over, and so wasn't suited to justifying the quick, pragmatic actions which they desired to use in reforming society with. And so, while:
In addition to these problems with the German Idealists, Peirce also saw the folly in Descartes's criteria for determining what is true as being what you '...very clearly and distinctly conceive...' to be true, so long as you yourself felt no doubts about what you yourself had cooked up in your own mind, and as the entire Cartesian "Method of Doubt" depended upon the same likelihood of self-deception, he dismissed that as well (which is one conclusion of his that I agree with). But rather than then taking a closer look at those earlier views which both Descartes and the German Idealists had led Modernity away from, Peirce used Descartes' attempt to find 'reality' through individual introspection, as cause enough to dismiss individualism, and to justify turning a blind eye to all of what had come before him by broad brushing it all away with the cartoonish charge that since the 'schoolmen'/scholastics accepted the authority of the Church to say what the Truth was, then all of what earlier metaphysics had shown to be timelessly true (such as Aristotle's 1st law of thought concerning contradictions, that nothing can both be true, and not be true, in the same context) could be dismissed as well, narrowing the boundaries of our thoughts to the immediate experiences of the moment - in what was essentially denying 'the forest for the trees'.
- ...they were fine with Kant declaring that what is real and true - 'Ding an sich' (“Thing-in-itself”) - is beyond our ability to ever really know (sorry, how do you know that (or anything else) is right, if you can't know what is? I know, shhh...), but the elaborately convoluted reasoning he justified it with, they were less fine with.
- ...they were fine with Fichte's idea of reducing 'reality' to little more than a sandbox to be shaped by a philosophers ideals and used in service to the state, but they were less fine with the extensive depths of impenetrable language that he used to justify those ideals with.
- ...they were fine with Hegel's view that traditional Philosophy's 'love of wisdom' had become unnecessary, and that his History had enabled philosophers to attain 'Absolute Knowledge' for them to reorder and perfect society with (summed up by Glenn Magee as: "...Hegel is not a philosopher. He is no lover or seeker of wisdom — he believes he has found it..."), but they were less fine with the long and winding road of quasi-mystical formulations that his Phenomenology justified them with.
- ...they were fine with Marx's belief that where heretofore "...The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it...", but they were less fine with Marx's absolute materialism - if only because it left no room for them to use their own ideas to redefine society's relationship to material reality with.
The alternative approach that Peirce devised was partly inspired by the Darwinian theory of evolution that had been taking the academic world by storm, with which he evolved a 'new conception of truth' that necessitated taking what we chance to experience in the moment, as a more material basis for "positive observation", and taking a cue from from Kant, he established that starting point as being:
"The central insight of pragmatism is that in philosophy we must start from where we find ourselves", and on that basis, the pragmatists were able to keep what they liked about what the German Idealists' had developed in their Dialectical Process - that of formally structured equivocation which used doubt to tear down existing arguments, and to fabricate new positions on the basis of their doubts (perhaps not how they'd put it, but accurate) - but where the idealists' approach had been to ignore (or deny) what was in reality true by muddying the waters to make them seem unfathomably deep, the pragmatists flipped the script by muddying the waters to make them appear to be so shallow as to be safe enough to experimentally splash about through, without concern for the metaphysical issues of reality, truth, the danger of contradictions, or for any other aspect of that 'old fashioned' Aristotelian logic which refused to permit substituting muddied waters - shallow or deep - for having a reasonable understanding of what actually lay beneath the water's surface.
In short, by accepting the conceptually blinkered observations experienced in the moment as a standpoint that's 'true enough' to start philosophizing from, they were able to sidestep both strict Idealism, and pure Materialism, while also turning a blind eye to the Platonic & Aristotelian traditions of metaphysically rooting our knowledge in what was known to be in reality timelessly true, for being 'old fashioned' concepts that were irrelevant to the needs of modernity, which was scientifically justified on Darwinian grounds. And so having pragmatically freed themselves from worrying about what actually is true, good, and wise, they were now able to focus on bringing about those changes they desired to see (in you), and upon that standpoint, William James' summarized the new Pragmatic conception of 'Truth' as being but one of many tools which needn't be fussed with overmuch, while at the same time keeping it handy for resorting to whenever it might seem useful:
"Whenever such an extra truth becomes practically relevant to one of our emergencies, it passes from cold-storage to do work in the world, and our belief in it grows active. You can say of it then either that ‘it is useful because it is true’ or that ‘it is true because it is useful.’"With what is metaphysically real and true out of their way, the pragmatists proceeded to refashion Philosophy in Science's image, ignoring the fact that they were reversing cause & effect yet again - Science follows from Philosophy, not the other way around (philosophy tells you that something exists which may be measurable, science tells you the details about what it has or hasn't been able to measure), but that's only apparent when concerning yourself with what is real and true across time, which is a perspective that pragmatism's focus upon the experience of the instant, closes its eyes to.
The danger of pragmatism for the unsuspecting then, is that under the cover of the 'common sense' it purports to value, once you accept pragmatism's premises (such as believing that what actually is real and true, is irrelevant, so long as the immediate appearances 'work' for your current purposes), how are you then going to argue against its conclusions, from within that 'understanding'? Are you going to say 'But... that's not really True!'? You see the problem there? Once you accept its premises, your every thought is formed through its lens, and is moving you further away from what is real and true, and wise.
It's exceedingly easy to slip into the pragmatic perspective, as it flatters the ears into nodding along with what you want to hear, assuring you that such agreement was and is helping everyone's thinking to become more scientific, modern, and efficient, a siren song that also lends itself to the oh-so clever sounding ad hominem attacks upon the ideas of the 'old & outmoded' culture of America's Founders, who were, after all, but a 'quaint' agrarian and pre-industrial people who wore such funny clothes and wigs. Dewey published numerous papers and books 'clarifying' his experimental thoughts, and although IMHO his explanations and clarifications amount to little more than slick & clever academic rewordings of: 'Don't worry about what's true, but about what'll work - and because your ends [not theirs] are in society's best interests they do justify the means!', the world tours he went on, including two years of spreading his philosophic seeds in China during the early 1920s, were popular and successful, and helped to make Pragmatism and Progressivism so widely recognized (though poorly understood).
Such views soon began to be felt in education, in business, and in entertainment, enabling the views of 'Progressive Education' reformers to 'go viral'. As the radical (but no-longer radical enough) leftist Princeton Professor of philosophy, Cornel West, puts it in his 'The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism' (1989), pg. 69:
“To put it crudely, if Emerson is the American Vico, and James and Peirce our John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant, then Dewey is the American Hegel and Marx.” (currently available online here, it's awful, but worth being aware of)Dewey rode that popularity to become one of the most influential of 'Progressive' reformers - both in and out of school, and the consequences of that have been dire, for America, and indeed for the entire Western world, and it's from this point that I think you'll begin seeing the 'Oh Hell yes this matters!', mentioned above. Let's start taking a look.
Metaphysical Truth or Consequences
Many other theorists of the time argued for different conclusions and aspirations of course, but the premises of the Positivists, Marxists, and even the German Idealists, fell largely within the same standpoint shared by Pragmatism(that thought precedes reality, and so shapes it), but the pragmatic vision and 'practical' experimentalist approach to improving society through modernity's 'scientific method' was catchier and seemingly safer and less radical (though it establishes a launching pad for the most extreme radicalism), fueled the pragmatists rise into academic respectability. Leading universities began setting up experimental teaching labs under Dewey's guidance, first at the University of Chicago, and then to Columbia College in New York City in 1905, which were emulated in the Teachers Colleges that sprang up across the nation, to satisfy the newly legislated requirements for 'accreditation' of teachers, all of which naturally led to the traditional approaches to education being first sidelined, then discarded, under the dreaded label of 'old fashioned'.
At the time of our Founding Reformers such approaches would almost certainly have been opposed, perhaps even violently (as some efforts to establish industrial & agricultural schools were opposed in 1850s), but in less than a century later, and with decades of the good intentions which our Founding Reformers had helped to legitimize, American schools had become fertile ground for the new reformers reassurances to the public that they would be efficiently and scientifically teaching their students those 'key facts' & 'useful skills' which experts had determined would boost the economy and their kid's place in it, while also giving the immigrants among them a new understanding of what being an American meant, and so forth, and so on, rinse and repeat.
True to the new reform process, the experimental approach to education had led to a great deal of regions and cities announcing their own new experimental plan, such as 'The Dalton Plan', 'The Winnetka Plan', and perhaps most impactful, 'The Gary Plan' in Gary Indiana, and if one approach didn't 'work' with the formative years of one class of students (both young students and budding teachers), well, it was all in the name of 'science!', and without even so much as a 'sorry... best of luck to you...', they moved on to a new experiment with the next class. Unnoticed by most people in that process, was the reality that each experiment left behind ever more of what once had been so highly valued in the educational process, and the new processes spurred on ever more remedies and reforms, normalizing new errors into a new normal that still defines our modern system of 'public education reform' to this day (If you'd like to see how much I'm skipping over, watch or read "Battle for the American Mind: Uprooting a Century of Miseducation Hardcover" by Pete Hegseth & David Goodwin, which leaves me free to cover what most leave out). What has been given far too little attention, are the questions that should've been asked - and answered - before any of the experiments ever began:
Battle for the American Mind - Gary Plan discussed at 17:50
Battle for the American Mind - Gary Plan discussed at 17:50
Those aren't idle questions, as one side effect of following such a philosophy as pragmatism, is that having no principles or truths that a person needs to understand, respect, or follow, the thinking of the 'new man' is transformed into being their own authority and rightful center of the universe (to everyone else), and there are very few theories and desires that people will find themselves unable to be justify with 'I'll bet this'll work!', so long as in their mind it's for 'the greater good'. One of Pragmatism's leading thinkers of the latter 20th Century, mentioned briefly above, was Richard Rorty, who summed that understanding up as:
- What happens if the experiment fails?
- What if millions lose their way in life because of that failure?
- What if millions die because of that failure?
"...To know your desires is to know the criterion of truth..."And while that may have felt freeing for the pragmatically minded, for the rest of us, experimentally 'freeing' yourself from reality, tends to enslave you to the shallowest of appearances that are not actually true - and that doesn't end well, because, well, it 'Kant' end well. They have no Good ends in mind, only many 'ends', ends which are always shifting and changing in order to make things 'work' (this time), for the moment, and with no other concern for the next moment, except in dealing with that in the same way when it comes. As Rorty summed it up in his "Philosophy and The Mirror of Nature (1979), p. 176:
“...the truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with...”The deadly reality of what blooms from such pragmatic seeds such as what Dewey sewed here, and in the USSR, and in China, was expressed much earlier in the 20th Century than Rorty, by Chairman Mao:
"Only social practice can be the criterion of truth. The standpoint of practice is the primary and basic standpoint in the dialectical materialist theory of knowledge.", which is a 'truth' Mao utilized in bringing about the deaths of 60 million people in his experimental Cultural Revolution. His understanding was reasserted later in the deaths of thousands in the Tiananmen Square massacre, in what one of his successors, Deng Xiaoping, expressed with:
"Deng Xiaoping said that "practice is the sole criterion of truth," and believed that only by experimenting with alternative forms of production and entrepreneurial activity would China find the best path for economic development."All of these sentiments have very real roots in the 'American' philosophy of Pragmatism of the 20th Century. As such, it shouldn't be surprising to discover that Pragmatism, and John Dewey, and William James in particular, were highly influential upon the thinking of those whose ideas were behind the founding of Fascism in Italy, such as Georges Sorel, Giovanni Gentile, and Benito Mussolini, as noted by the Encyclopedia Britanica:
"...Another French thinker, Georges Sorel, reformulated Jamesian pragmatism and its emphasis on action into a “useful” doctrine of social criticism. The Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini later cited Sorel and James as two of his philosophical mentors. ...", for 'political philosophers' such as those, who were looking for a means of justifying a political strongman's designs with: 'What the Leader wills is the criterion of truth!', how could Pragmatism not be their favorite 'philosophy'?!
In the 1920s Dewey had spoken quite favorably of the USSR, and the USSR had endorsed and employed his ideas in their educational system (Dewey's 'Democracy and Education' was very popular in the early USSR), and he spoke well of them in his 'Impressions of Soviet Russia and the Revolutionary World', and of their use of their schools:
"...The schools are, in current phrase, the “ideological arm of the Revolution.” In consequence, the activities of the schools dovetail in the most extraordinary way, both in administrative organization and in aim and spirit, into all other social agencies and interests...", while excusing their 'excesses' as being understandable in light of the 'realities' they faced.
As the blood bath that was the USSR became more difficult to deny, and in response to its subjecting Leon Trotsky to a show-trial, Dewey convened the 'Dewey Commission' to investigate the USSR's show trial (ironically, his own commission was stuffed with Trotsky supporters), and concluded that it had been rigged and couldn't be trusted to reach the 'truth' - one can imagine Stalin replying back "Hey, it worked!". Undaunted, Dewey continued to support "little 'c' communism", no doubt convinced that it'd work better next time the experiment is tried.
You might think that when such 'experiments' as those have failed as catastrophically as those have, 'Oops! Keep experimenting and make it work next time!", would seem unwise, but I suspect Dewey would have much the same reply even if he lived to learn about the tens of millions of people murdered by Stalin, Mao, and all the others who've engaged in such experiments, after all, what is there in Pragmatism, that would lead to anything but continuing to tweak the experiment?
Yes, 'this stuff' really does matter, and it does because ideas do have consequences, and we've only begun to see those consequences here. What's more, the consequences become worse, when we turn a blind eye to their causes.
Even without the carnage, it should of course go without saying that taking what you want to see, as being the criterion of truth, is not only unwise, but a thoroughly anti-scientific form of thinking. But to have such concerns, first requires your being concerned with what is true, but that is the standpoint that pragmatism was designed to free the pragmatic thinker from, and so, what had once been a commonplace lesson in grammar school, goes without ever being either said or considered in academia, or by its graduates outside of it. Wisdom involves respecting what is real and true and seeking to understand how best to act in accordance with that, but Pragmatism is not concerned with wisdom, and for the pragmatically minded, having no independent reality to worry about acting unwisely in, why bother learning what the meaning of 'is', is, or how we can know that something is right and true, when wisdom isn't the goal?
Somehow this seems appropriate here:
15 Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.In the next post we'll return to the names mentioned in the previous post of Cattell and Thorndike, from Samuel Blumenfeld's address to Hillsdale College, and their tie, together with Dewey, to America's disastrously pragmatic experiment with the usefulness of teaching illiteracy and ignorance.
16 Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?