Posts Tagged 'John Dewey'


John Dewey wrote, “We cannot seek or attain health, wealth, learning, Justice, or kindness in general. Action is always specific, concrete, unique.”

Alexander Saxton wrote, “To move from the particular to the general is an exercise in humility because it forces one to recognize the particulars – even those privileged details one’s own individual existence – remain meaningless and essentially useless to other people unless they can be shown to typify, or illuminate larger streams of human experience.”

For a word that has been chiseled into stone monuments for centuries we could reasonably hope society would by now have the practice and understanding of Justice down cold. However, more often than not, as Justice is experienced personally but spoken of generally we struggle to find understanding in the “larger stream”. Justice is variously defined as being fair and being fair defined as being just and just as being fair and so on. For centuries thinkers and doers have tried to grasp and define Justice in all of its manifestations concretely. This philosophic and semantic project has haunted virtually all societies throughout history. Almost every philosopher from Plato’s argument via Socrates about just persons and a just state to Aristotle and onwards across centuries to John Dewey and Alasdair MacIntyre, Amartya Sen, John Rawls and Alexander Saxton among recent others, has given us a take on Justice.

If, over so many centuries, so many brilliant people have struggled for so long and so hard to arrive at a definitive exegesis of Justice what they have been seeking may not exist, at least not in a form they were hoping for. Justice in all its manifestations seems to be like beauty, living in the hearts and minds of the observers be they beneficiaries or victims. Was the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki just? Only in the eyes of the perpetrators. It seems to me there is no such thing as Justice except as an everlasting quest for justification. In that case Justice will remain always a fluid and beautiful idea, an aspiration at that, but in the end there will be no absolute, it will always be, “ … specific, concrete, unique” to the moment.

First and foremost it is necessary, I believe, to acknowledge that Justice is a construct – a moveable definition which, not unlike a sheen of oil on water, changes century to century, culture to culture, moment to moment, observer to observer. Like belief systems, Justice is fluid, always in motion. There exists no concrete, immutable, definition of Justice – no demonstration you can point to, take to the bank, or teach the young. What is Justice for you can be injustice to your neighbors. It remains, however, the most appealing and illusive of ideas and much like quick-silver, “Liberty and Justice for all … ” slips away at the touch.

A few quick police pistol shots and an unarmed 12 year old named Tamir Rice received an instant irreversible summary Justice not found in a court of law but in a public park. By late 2015, police in the US had summarily shot and executed 1103 “suspects” of whom 161 were unarmed. In the US, police summarily execute people, generally people of color, nearly on a daily basis. Once dead the “suspects” no longer have access to any semblance of Justice. Why then do we pretend Justice for all exists? Because we must. Like Equality, Justice is an essential myth an illusion without which our social contract would be impossible .

Injustice is not only the taking of lives but the diminishing of lives as well given an economic system that systematically concentrates wealth to a very few and harms many. Throughout the United States economic injustice manifests concretely in hunger, access to medical care, education, legal representation, and opportunity often determined by the color of one’s skin. Like any manifestation of inequality, lack of Economic Justice is corrosive disease and eats at the heart and soul of society. In Louisianna the Governor recently removed 31,000 jobless people from receiving food stamps, in Wisconsin that Governor removed 15,000, in Indiana 50,000,  and in Maine 40,000. Whose definition of Economic Justice is this?  Whose definition of morality, humanity, and common sense? Adults, and even more, children who are not well fed and well housed cannot possibly thrive and succeed are thus condemned to a diminished existence and, as a consequence, with what kind of commitment to a social contract? 

In courts of law Justice has fast become the last thing sought – winning is the goal. Prosecutors, with a firm thumb on the scales of Justice, are especially fond of, ex parte proceedings in police shooting cases where no contrary testimony is permitted. I once surveyed a fairly disparate group of lawyers with the question: “At trial what is most important to you – winning or Justice?” Needless to say, I suppose, winning was the winner. So much for Justice. How is this? Well, if you are a lawyer who works for insurance companies, for example, you make your living and your reputation defeating liability claims. It’s a no-brainer. Also, keep in mind that at trial the only participants who do not swear to tell the truth are the lawyers. It’s all about winning not about Truth and certainly not about Justice. It’s about profit.

We live in a time when sociopathy permeates society. The question is not how much worse can it get but how much longer can it go on without a total breakdown of civility and and order? There are, after all, consequences. Alasdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue, put it this way: In a society where there is no longer a shared conception of the community’s  good for man, there can no longer either be any substantial concept of what it is to contribute more or less to the achievement of that good.”  The possibility of a civil society is foreclosed.

What Does It Mean To Educate?

To be motivated to learn requires something to be “out there” that appeals to someone’s “in here” – something that holds promise and that, to achieve, requires interest, effort and personal discipline.

Certainly, among the tasks of public schools is to train children to become successful in the essential skills of reading, writing and arithmetic, but are schools also responsible to motivate children to learn? While some will argue that teachers are the principal source of motivation, this seems to me to be unreasonable and mainly a sloughing off of a responsibility proper to parents.

While the society as a whole certainly has a part, valuing learning is first and foremost a family matter, and children need to come to school with that sense.

I think it cynical, if not irresponsible, to foist onto teachers what is essentially a role of parenting. Parents must understand and agree that they have an essential participatory role in the education of their children.

Time to have a public dialogue about ‘educating’

Once in school, a child’s education does not rest solely upon acquiring the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. To teach only skills is not to educate but to train, and that is an issue schools and society must come to grips with. Education and training are not the same thing, and it is important to know and understand which of the two is going on; it is a matter of definition and of “first principles.”

What do we mean when we say “educate?” What does it mean to be “educated,” as differentiated from being “trained?” If we don’t have clearly defined first principles on this matter, we have no clear intellectual, moral or social compass. And this may explain why public education has been so long susceptible to pillar-to-post oscillations from one new great idea, reform, innovation to another and another over the past century and longer.

In fact, John Dewey raised this same issue in 1896! Perhaps the time has come to have a public dialog that is not about charter schools, vouchers, tax credits, magnet schools, free schools, grading schools and teachers, ending social promotion, corporal punishment, and so on. Perhaps the time has come to stop all of that and talk about what we mean when we say we want to “educate” children.

A contemporary ‘OK Corral’

More people experience public education than don’t in the United States, and its influence on social attitudes is pervasive. Common to that experience is the generally accepted organization and structure of curriculum and instruction that was pretty well laid down in modern times by Ralph Tyler in his widely influential 1950’s book, “Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction.”

According to Tyler, children are in school to be “developed,” teachers are the transmitters of development, and administrators determine if the transmission has taken place. Is this what we want education to mean?

Well, yes, with certain qualifications. This is the training-in-essential-skills component of a child’s education. Essential skills, however, cannot be said to be the whole of a child’s education. For government to prescribe public testing for discrete skill acquisition as its sole measurement of educational achievement is to betray a fundamental responsibility of any civilization worthy of the name – to properly educate, not merely to train, its young.

Today’s emphasis on public testing and grading of schools has no pedagogic justification – its intent is cynically political. When, in self-defense, schools must “teach the test,” the political agenda dehumanizes the educative process and robs it of meaning and any sense of intellectual purpose. And herein lies a contemporary “OK Corral,” where public education meets politics and where teachers and children generally lose.

The moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre put it this way: “If life is to be meaningful, it is necessary for us to be in possession of ourselves and not merely to be the creation of other people’s projects, intentions and desires.” (Alasdair MacIntyre, “After Virtue,” 3rd Ed., University of Notre Dame Press, 2007)

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