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John Dewey: One of the most dangerous men in America

John Dewey: One of the most dangerous men in America

There is a list going around Facebook recently, though the list is quite old published in 2005, of the top 10 most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries from a conservative perspective. Many of the books listed are quite predictable, since anything that challenges capitalism or Christianity is an immediate candidate. But one book that made the top 5 kind of surprised me. There sitting at #5 is John Dewey’s Democracy and Education. I mean this book is at #5, it ranks as more harmful than Marx’s Das Kapital (#6) and Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, where he proclaims that God is Dead (#9). Darwin’s The Origin of the Species and The Decent of Man don’t even make the list (though they get honourable mention). What on earth could be so dangerous about Democracy and Education? Well, lets see what they say:

In Democracy and Education, in pompous and opaque prose, he disparaged schooling that focused on traditional character development and endowing children with hard knowledge, and encouraged the teaching of thinking “skills” instead. His views had great influence on the direction of American education–particularly in public schools–and helped nurture the Clinton generation. (Source: Human Events: Powerful Conservative Voices)

So thinking skills are threatening? I find this passage odd because “hard knowledge” itself comes from the exercise of thinking skills. Dewey does not actually argue against teaching knowledge in Democracy and Education. Instead he argues that while teaching knowledge is important, this ought to be done in the context of examining and questioning the knowledge that is being taught so that students will learn how to create new knowledge and advance our understanding. There would be no new scientific, mathematical, engineering, or other advances in knowledge without exercising thinking skills.  If Einstein had not been curious about physics and spent his time thinking while working in the patent office, then we would still be stuck with only Newtonian physics. In fact, we wouldn’t even have Newtonian physics, since his ideas about gravity and so on were derived from his thinking about apples falling to earth. Dewey on this point:

Dewey on the relation between thinking and knowledge

Dewey notes that knowledge is subordinate to thinking because knowledge cannot progress without thinking. From Democracy and Education, page 146.

Dewey's Democracy and Education: The 5th most harmful book of the 19th and 2th centuries

Dewey’s Democracy and Education: The 5th most harmful book of the 19th and 2th centuries

Second, it is strange to admit that teaching thinking skills leads to voting democratic. Surely if one’s views were worth their salt they should be able to withstand critical scrutiny.

Third, it is frightening to see how this kind of fear of critical thinking finds its way into official Republican policy only a few years later. In the 2012 election season the Republican party of Texas included the following in their educational platform:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority. (Source: The Washington Post)

Of course, it is important to note that the undermining of parental authority does not follow from the development of critical thinking skills that challenge students’ fixed beliefs. For that to follow you would have to make explicit the premise that parental teachings are of a kind that cannot withstand critical scrutiny. If one were truly certain of the knowledge one was imparting to one’s offspring, then one would have no fear of their critical questioning, since the critical examination of true beliefs merely leads one to understand their truth more deeply.

But finally, one of the things that I find most odd about the inclusion of Democracy in Education among the top-five most harmful books is that the very distinction between knowledge and thinking that these conservative fears are based on is a distinction that they seem to be getting from the very work they are afraid of. Here is Dewey’s description of this distinction:

Dewey on Knowledge and Thinking

Dewey Describes knowledge as that which is settled and known, that which is certain, while thinking arises from doubt, questioning, and the unknown. Thinking can also expose false knowledge, according to Dewey. From Democracy and Education page 283.

It seems strange to me to invoke a distinction introduced in a philosophical work in order to describe why that work is harmful when one clearly agrees with the distinction introduced therein. One of the means of evaluating whether philosophy is good or bad as philosophy is on the basis of the distinctions introduced by the philosopher because introducing and elucidating distinctions is part of the work of philosophy. The fear of Dewey’s work seems to have a tension in it because they seem to agree that the distinction between knowledge and thinking is a worthwhile and important distinction (therefore it is good philosophy) but then think that introducing the distinction is harmful because it might encourage thinking which would challenge children to examine their beliefs to discover whether what they have taken to be knowledge (what has been ‘called knowledge’ as Dewey puts it) really deserves the label.

I guess Hannah Arendt was right when she wrote:

There are no dangerous thoughts;
Thinking itself is dangerous (See Discussion on SciForums)

And just for fun, Stephen Colbert’s take on the Texas GOP’s position against thinking: for those in the USA, you can find the clip at this link. For those of you in Canada, you cannot find the clip because the Comedy Network’s website sucks, contrary to what their commercials claim.

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On Sunday July 22, 2012, the Québec Student Strike (grève générale indéfini, #ggi or Indefinite General Strike)  resumed protesting after a brief pause in June to give students some time to rest.

Student Protest on July 22, 2012

Students marching in the streets on July 22, 2012.

The Student Unions that organized the #ggi in Québec used the summer pause to travel to Ontario for a “Solidarity Tour” to help educate Student Unions there about how to organize a successful student strike. The Canadian English media’s coverage of the tour has been astonishingly poor. Take for example Tasha Kheiriddin’s article in The National Post: “We don’t need no solidarity with Quebec students.” Here is an excerpt from her piece:

Rather than inviting Quebec students here to infect them with their protest virus, the Ontario students would be better off going to Quebec, to see the effects of all this mayhem there. I played tourist in Quebec City and Montreal last week with my partner and his teenage children, and we had no trouble getting into any attractions because there were few big crowds. In June, hotels reported that business in Montreal was down by $5.8-million from the May of the previous year, with 5%-10% of bookings cancelled. While it might be great for vacationers who do show up, it is bad news for tourism operators and merchants — and for their employees.

Among those employees, of course, are students working summer jobs to pay their tuition. Between May and June, employment in the hotel and restaurant sector fell by 9% — at a time when it usually increases to serve the high season. Meanwhile, student unemployment overall stands at 16% compared to 14.5% for the same period time last year. And even if they find jobs in July, students have to head back to class in August to recoup class time lost to the strike, precluding them from holding full-time employment for the rest of the summer. (Source: The National Post)

It is not clear to me why Ontario students would be expected to take advice about their solidarity interests from a Whitby-based journalist who is unlikely to share the same interests as them since she is no longer a student.[1]

But even more striking in this quote is the lack of understanding of what a strike is, what a strike is for, and how one might measure the success of a strike: It is even less clear to me why Ontario students should take advice from a journalist, like Kheiriddin, who could not even be bothered to research strike actions and their history before writing about them in a national newspaper.

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In honour of the start of research time:

Sir Reads-A-Lot

Sir Reads-A-Lot

From here.

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Books

Books

Utilitarianism is basically the moral view that in order to judge whether an action is good one should consider the consequences and then evaluate whether the act provides the most good to the greatest number of people. (It is more complex than that, as you can see from the description at this link, but the nuts and bolts are as above).

This summer I began a new job as an assistant professor at a university. I was thinking about which textbook to order, and I applied a kind of utilitarian reasoning to my selection process. I began by reading the texts and I selected only those that I thought would do good by providing educational benefit to the students. After this process there were three texts that were about tied in terms of educational benefit.

Next, I thought about how I could make the students happy, and decided they would like a low-cost text book. So I went on amazon and looked up the price of the three texts. One was around $90 and the other two were around $40. This narrowed it down to two, and the selection between them really would have resulted in probably a more-or-less equal amount of benefit at lowest cost to students, so I selected the one that had a faster shipping time (1-2 days).

I also support local bookstores and so I ordered the text to a local bookstore so the students could have immediate access to the text without having to wait for the shipping time.

In my reasoning I was trying to maximize the good for everyone involved. The publisher would sell a few hundred copies of the book, the local bookstore would have a few hundred sales, and the students would experience educational benefits and cost savings.

Imagine my surprise when my students informed me that the book cost $75 from the local bookstore! I thought:

“What? How is that possible? Why are the textbooks so expensive?”

So I called around to find out what was going on. How could the actual consequences of my action be so different from the consequences I intended?

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One area of epistemology, asks whether it is wrong to hold certain beliefs. William Clifford said:

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.

The “ethics of belief” is often used in intro philosophy classes to begin debates about God’s existence. The following video also provides an example of why one might want to avoid beliefs based on insufficient evidence:

Apparently UFOs, God and whether people go to restroom all have the same evidentiary status according to this guy. I guess he doesn’t know that shit stinks…

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When parents discuss their choices about their children’s education and extracurricular activities they often mention that they want the best for their children:

I just want the best for my kids.

I want my daughter to have all possible advantages.

I want my son to have a head start.

This attitude is usually taken to be unproblematic and perhaps even praiseworthy. Government programs for poor children often echo these types of sentiments in their titles: for example, Head Start. So what could possibly be wrong with this view?

I want the best for my kids: I want them to stand out above yours

I want the best for my kids: I want them to stand out above yours

Well, things like “advantages,” “head starts,” and things that are “the best” are positional goods. This means that in order to have them, others need to be kept from having them. We cannot all be “the best” or have “the best,” otherwise it would stop being the best and would be average. We cannot all have “an advantage,” otherwise it would cease to be “an advantage” and become the average. You can only have a “head start” relative to some baseline that is somewhere behind. So whenever a parent says something like the quotes above, there is an implicit statement about other children:

I want your son to have disadvantages (relative to my daughter).

I want your daughter to start behind my son.

I want what is average for your kids.

I seriously doubt that when parents make statements about wanting “the best” “advantages” or “head starts” for their own children that they are also considering the flip-side of these statements. In fact, I think that if many parents were asked about the implicit statements about other children, they would probably deny them. Nevertheless, the first set of statements does correlate to the implicit second set of statements.

To the extent that we believe in meritocracy (that people should get what they deserve through their hard work and talent) and to the extent that we think people should have equal opportunities (or a level-playing field) then there is something troubling about these often-lauded parental sentiments.

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A picture of a nice, shady tree on a warm summer's day

A picture of a nice, shady tree on a warm summer's day

Today at the writing centre we had several students come in who were taking their first ethics class. I was trying to explain that the task of the assignment was to identify some property (or set of properties) or principle that make the described case morally troublesome.

I did not want to give away what those features might be because the identification was precisely the work involved with completing the assignment, so I tried to be general in my discussion of properties.

Because I remembered and was trying to avoid a similar situation in which a prof had discussed how we perceive some property, P, and ended up discussing P-ness for the entire lecture, I decided to use a different variable. To avoid awkward discussions of P-ness with the student, I decided to pick the first letter other than P that came to mind. That was “A.” Bad choice.

A picture of a ripe peach

A picture of a ripe peach

To avoid talking about P-ness I instead talked about A-ness.

Sometimes philosophy is funny. It is Q-ness from now on.

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