My older brother, Brad, has just retired after a life-long career in secondary education. He was a legendary AP US History teacher, vice principal and principal of large public high schools in southern California, and retired as Asst. Superintendent of San Marcos School District. He and I have been discussing what we all now call transformative education since the early 1980’s. The following are thoughts that he shared with me after one of our recent conversations when I raised issues of grit, slack, and self-evolved learning. He explores the deep meaning of learning and asks us to ask and answer one simple question: what is our goal? I have invited my wiser brother to share more with us in the near future.
Thank you for the healthy conversation the other day. We agree about so much when it comes to how our young people learn. When our dialogue turned to the oft-repeated mission of creating life long learners or a similar goal, I raised a question or two and you asked if I would put my thoughts in writing.
Almost coincidentally, I ran across the following remark and quote the next day in a Washington Post book review. Which led me to the thoughts that follow.
Philosopher John Dewey further contended that continual “growth itself is the only moral end,” that self-creation or self-realization should be our aim during our earthly existence. On our deathbeds, we want to look back on our lives and be reasonably content with what we have made of them. Till then, we should strive to charge our days with intensity.
First, I haven’t verified the quote.
Second, I owe a great deal to John Dewey (as does the vast framework of 20th century American public education). His philosophies and understandings of how we learn laid the cornerstone for my teaching and school leadership. His perspective that we are “subjects” and not “objects” fostered development of critical thinking and experience-based learning and empowered generations of young people to break away from reliance upon dogma without reflection in a search for a limitless future. In my mind, he joined Piaget, Erikson, Kohlberg and other developmental psychologists that saw life as a progression from shallow and undeveloped to full and developed. This flowed naturally from the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. It fits neatly with evolutionary theory. It does a great job of glorifying (a carefully chosen word) human progress. It’s the perfect match with so many educational mission statements that tout the value of “life long learning” and its various corollaries.
While the quote is just a snippet, it speaks to my question and concern. It’s interesting that the above piece mentions looking back at one’s life as well as clearly stating an absolute moral good. The trick is resolving the apparent conflict that progressives/modern pragmatists (many western intellectuals, most of contemporary academia) find when they decry absolutes but manufacture them, nevertheless. Dewey clearly does this when he says the “only” moral (good) end is growth. Since growth is relative, this sets up the conflict and my reason for critiquing his position after my 36 years as a teacher and educational leader.
You see, growth has a really good name. In today’s contemporary western mindset, it has replaced God, for instance, which was a staple for societies, pre-Enlightenment, and before the western humanist inclination. Presumably (if we take the quote at face value), one looks back on one’s life and says, “I gave it everything I had and I’m a much better (wiser, nicer, more productive … whatever) person than I used to be.” Period. Death.
Extrapolating, we pass this perspective to successive generations via education with growth as the guiding principle or lodestar. Since we have to be grounded in something, we use science in all of its fields: Evolutionary Biology, Psychology, Physics, etc,.. as our engine. And, when these two combine as our end and means, our perspective and educational pedagogy adjusts accordingly. A philosophical perspective that identifies a lodestar such as “growth” or “progress” then creates conditions to ensure those exist and it’s wonderfully circular. “My target is growth. I’m growing.” That’s good. “I worked hard at growing and helping others to grow.” That’s great. “I’ve realized my capacity to grow, therefore I’m self-actualized. I’ve achieved growth.” Or, something to that effect.
But, what’s the point? (We’ll get to self actualization in a moment.) Is it something like being a “productive member of society?” Is it to be happy and content?
For the sake of transparency, Dewey believed strongly that the scientific method, applied appropriately and via experience and coupled with a belief in the inherent goodness of humans, would promote social justice and foster the common good. (Nod to Rousseau.)
As I mentioned in our conversation, I’ve nothing against growth or progress and I’ve spent most of my life seeking to promote social justice. I’m a big fan and tireless advocate, as you know. (Unfortunately, social “justice” can conflict with human liberty. Both can be noble and desirable outcomes but both carry the seeds of terrible slippery slopes.)
Anyway, back to the quote and my conflict with its message.
Growth is not the end, it’s the means. Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum posits that thinking and being are synonymous, which is just not true. If it were, it’s not difficult to see how growth then becomes the only moral end and some kind of “self-realization” is our individual target. I should be all about creating myself. “You can be anything you want.”
Granted, for those with no or limited self worth, the downtrodden, the forsaken, the dispossessed and disenfranchised, providing means and resources to help them be “anything they want” can be a really good thing. But not necessarily.
Are we teaching a moral absolute that what’s most important is being in control? Control of myself and the conditions for my own fulfillment? Actualizing of the self is mostly about this goal, however it’s couched in secular or religious terms.
I’m so over self actualization.
Some very bad people are self actualized. Otherwise decent people with a warped sense of priorities are self actualized. All have “grown.” Many have worked “intensely.”
So is the epitaph we want for ourselves and our children something like, “There lies ‘insert name’. He left us content with what he’d made of his life.” By the way, who cares? What is the value of my life? That I knew more than before? That I’d acquired more skills? Had become better at producing some set of goods and services? That I’d chased happiness with mixed results?
As you can see, life long learning or its various synonymous phrases, is not a lodestar. It’s more of a magnet with no fixed point. Consequently, there is no such thing as an overarching morality, other than situational, which even Dewey would disagree with, ultimately. (We’re not talking here the Jean Valjean kind of morality).
It’s a non-lodestar magnet that can easily lead to a Steve Jobs (gifted businessman, transformational social figure … who was just a plain bad person by most accounts) or to any number of tyrants. By the way, Marx was very big on self actualization. He got it from Hegel who said humans progress from ignorance to self-understanding. Marx said we progress from alienation to self determination and self understanding. And, I haven’t got time to talk about how Mao fits in.
Why do you think totalitarian regimes had re-education camps that would spend years trying to help people “grow” into a fuller understanding of their place in life?
Of course Dewey and the western Democracies want people to grow towards things like liberty, the common good, and pursuit of happiness. Some add equality. Or, now we need to grow into “tolerance” of all things as each individual and society has the inalienable right to self determination and to state what’s true (principally, that there’s no such thing as absolute truth outside of particles and progress).
Again, what’s the point? As educators, we want life long learners to learn what in order to do be what? Growth to what end? And, what do we do with “meaning?” Do I look back at my life, nod my head and say, “I was intensely committed to my self actualization.” Good, then I can die in peace. Oh, wait, let’s throw some altruism in there. “I was intensely committed to my own self actualization and the self actualization of others.” Now, I can die in peace. Oh, maybe it should be “I was intensely committed to my own self actualization which made me very productive and happy and, on top of that, I helped many others actualize themselves and be productive and happy.” Now I can die in peace.
So, what is self-actualization? If this is the point or some variation, what does that mean? Is that the overarching goal? A few of the world’s (non monotheistic) faiths would say yes. They share that with communism as well as democracy, new age spiritualism, and atheism. Doesn’t give me confidence that we have the answer.
Enough for now. Sorry for the unpolished ramble. To summarize, I believe those of us in positions of helping people to learn should be grounded in something greater than what is attributed to John Dewey above and to missions of creating life long learners and productive citizens of a democratic society. While growth can be absolutely good, growth without the appropriate target is not.