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The title was prompted by a Sidney Morgenbesser joke. Sidney Morgenbesser was the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, but unlike Dewey he was known for his sense of humor. When asked his opinion of pragmatism, Morgenbesser replied "It's all very well in theory but it doesn't work in practice." (Other Morgenbesser jokes: in response to Heidegger's deep-ontological query "Why is there something rather than nothing?" Morgenbesser answered "Even if there were nothing you'd still be complaining!" When the Oxford ordinary-language philosopher J. L. Austin noted in a lecture at Columbia that in most languages two negatives make an affirmative, but in no language do two affirmatives make a negative, Morgenbesser piped up from the audience with "Yeah, yeah.") Each of these bits of wit expresses an irreverence that seems quite appropriate to our post-postmodern period, when modernist and postmodernist ideologies are scrambling to keep up with unanticipated, if not unprecedented, events -- the most disorienting of which is the possibility of renewed civilizational war.
The idea that pragmatism, America's home-grown contribution to Western philosophy, might not be pragmatic should be of special concern to all of us at Metropolitan College because pragmatism in one form or another permeates our curriculum and pedagogical practices and even occasionally percolates up to our mission and vision statements. Our approach to what we call "Purpose-centered" education has always seemed to follow Dewey's pedagogical recommendations, if often without attribution. The notion of unifying the disciplines, the invocation of experience as somehow fundamental to education, a vaguely left-leaning curriculum, etc. – as Petrick and Quinn would say of managers who may or may not have read ethics, we are "consciously or subliminally" implementing a program that seems remarkably and insistently Deweyian.
Given the present situation, when the College is being encouraged by various constituencies to reign in its progressive impulses, might part of the problem be that our pedagogical philosophy is, indeed, useless except as a theory, which is to say, as a form of philosophical therapy for its own adepts? Is pragmatism as an ideology able to provide even a plausible defense against our rivals, the traditionalists and the technocrats?
Morganbesser's joke about pragmatism reminds me of a remark in Kant's essay "On the Proverb: That May be True in Theory, But is of No Practical Use" (1793). Kant might have been anticipating Morgenbesser when he said:
It is easier to excuse an ignorant person who claims that theory is unnecessary . . . than to excuse a Sophist who concedes its value to the schools . . . but who at the same time maintains that matters are quite different in practice – that as one leaves school to enter the world, one will realize one has been pursuing empty ideals and philosophical dreams – and, in a word, that what sounds good in theory is of no practical use."
I do not know if Morgenbesser would have expanded on his joke in the way Kant does for his Sophist, but making the connection to the role of theory in educational outcomes – graduates' preparedness to enter the world – strikes me as a reasonable way to focus the issue. Conservatives, after all, rationalize the imposition of assessable standards in terms of the eventual utility of skill-building and discipline for entry into business and government. So what is the use of pragmatism, as educational theory? Was the joking Morgenbesser actually a sophist who, for whatever motive, denigrated the practicality of theory? Or is the theory sound and progressive and good but constrained by adverse practices, such as capital accumulation and civilizational warfare?
As Louis Menand observes in his epic of philosophical history The Metaphysical Club (2001), the first pragmatists were profoundly affected by the most adverse circumstance of all, the lethal result of the failure to compromise, civil war. "Holmes, James, Pierce and Dewey wished to bring ideas and principles and beliefs down to a human level because they wished to avoid the violence they saw hidden in abstractions." But abstractions, especially of a religious kind, are as American as apple pie, especially in times of trouble. City on a Hill, Manifest Destiny, War to End War, War on Poverty, Drugs, Terror – pragmatism has certainly never had a chance to work its changes in a neutral environment. As Menand remarks of a not-too-distant period when Dewey's child-centeredness was seen as unrigorous and undisciplined, "The notion that the values of the free society for which the Cold War was waged were contingent, relative, fallible constructions, good for some purposes and not so good for others, was not a notion compatible with the moral imperatives of the age." The same can be said of our present situation. So it may be that pragmatism has simply succumbed, like so many other ideologies, to the enduring influence of American exceptionalism, a unique combination of materialistic self-aggrandizement and foundationalist self-justification. According to Kant, after all, in the case of a failed theory "it was not the fault of the theory if it was of little use in practice, but rather of there being not enough theory."
Unfortunately, more pragmatism, in the form of various postmodernist elaborations (Foucault, feminism, et. al.), has not provided a definitive defense of its utility. I would argue that this is indeed partly because of the American context, but also partly because of inherent contradictions posed by pragmatism's own foundational assumption: that experience is the same as cultural experience.
As Menand points out, in Dewey's meisterwerk Experience and Nature (1925) "experience" is a name for culture. Dewey later wished he had titled it "Culture and Nature." The identification of experience with culture had evidently been on the table at the Metaphysical Club since its inception, and Holmes recognized it as a rhetorical move of his own. "Although Dewey's book is incredibly ill written, it seemed to me . . . to have a feeling of intimacy with the universe." It is crucial to note that what Holmes meant here by "intimacy with the universe" was really intimacy with the universe of culture, which is the meaning of Dewey's use of the term "experience." The original pragmatists intended their efforts to result in a unifying and integrating social system. Yet in practice it opened the way for one of the most important of postmodern developments in education, multiculturalism.
In the earlier "My Pedagogic Creed" (1897), which we include in the Purpose Four Values syllabus, Dewey leads with the statement that "all education proceeds by the participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the race,"
I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child's powers by the demands of the social situation in which he finds himself. Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs.
Dewey the pragmatic pedagogue was primarily interested in schools, but as No Child Left Behind trickles up into higher education, Dewey's reflections on schools seem newly pertinent even for our undergraduate programs. As our new subway ads say, "A Master's is the new Bachelor's." So a bachelor's is the new high school diploma? If so, then we have to consider the implication that Dewey's references to schools and children are not without application to our undergraduates.
In rolling out his creed Dewey makes clear how far he has moved from whatever Platonic and/or Hegelian inspiration may have moved the first pragmatists. Unification is to occur through differentiation, but not of the dialectical kind. Emerging from narrowness does not acquaint us with the universal. "The true center of correlation on the school subjects is not science, nor literature, nor history, nor geography, but the child's own social activities." "Literature is the reflex expression of social experience, history must be controlled by reference to social life," etc. Educational institutions should "simplify existing social life," reducing it to "an embryonic form," so as to effect "a gradual differentiation out of the primitive unconscious unity of social life."
This frank language about simplification points up one practical problem for multicultural educators: because the vast majority of non-mainstream-modern-Western cultures are profoundly monocultural, the only way to integrate them into a multicultural curriculum is indeed to reduce them to a simple, embryo-like form. Example: what I call the costumes and cuisines approach.
But it is the notion of emergence out of the primitive unconscious – the germ of progressivism -- that poses a more serious difficulty, what might be called the pragmatic paradox. Just as relativism commits a performative contradiction, having to adhere to at least one absolute proposition (that all propositions are relative), so too pragmatism is pragmatically self-defeating: its embrace of current cultural practices negates it as a progressive force. By identifying education with experience and experience with current cultural practices, pragmatism cancels itself as an alternative.
To address Kant's "more theory" defense, the more recent contributions of the postmodernists – Foucaultians, feminists, New Leftists and neo-pragmatists – have not been especially helpful. Our students had no problem assimilating the idea that mainstream systems of thought use the appearance of objectivity to hide a will to power, or that patriarchs rule, or that the revolution is to be endlessly deferred, or that one's own home traditions offer the only justifiable foundation for knowledge. Postmodernism added one more conspiracy theory to the already paranoid worldview of the disadvantaged and voiceless.
Multiculturalism has a tendency to devolve into identity politics and separatism, which in the current geopolitical situation can look like a slippery slope to sedition. Unfortunately, pragmatism as an educational philosophy has shown itself to be powerless to prevent this slide. It has not addressed the profound alienation of our minority populations. We all have stories about the persistence of creationism, contempt for ancient history, conspiracy theories, bibliophobia, resistance to the scientific method and abstract thinking in general. We continue to graduate illiterate philistines at far too high a rate.
Just as bad, we reward with tolerance the absolutist points of view embedded in our students' cultural experiences. Indeed, I often ask, and sometimes even beg, my students to present on their "alternative" accounts of biology, history and political theory. I usually get few takers but I have had students who have launched fairly "articulate" defenses of such non-pragmatic points of view as creationism, Islamic law, and the ethics of egoism. My response is accepting, my criticisms mild (except in the case of hate speech, which has thankfully been rare). Everything goes into the liberal mix for the eventual enlightenment of all. The problem is that we wind up producing socially adept hypocrites who live double intellectual lives. This may or may not be a universal syndrome – mainstream society is filled with "tricksters" of various sorts -- but increasing the incidence of cultural duplicity among minority populations seems an odd form of progress. Ironically, pragmatism in practice has managed to transform DuBois' dialectically-inspired "double consciousness" into the multicultural equivalent of cognitive dissonance.
With no foundation except what society demands of us, why should we do anything other than what we're doing already? We hardly have an alternative. Pragmatism cannot work itself out pragmatically, as Dewey advocated – through experimentation, reconstruction and social engineering – because, ultimately, it must refuse that crucial step in planning, the rationale: it must refrain on principle from describing or prescribing an alternative culture with its own definable set of experiences. It denies its own utopian impulse. Therefore it cannot present itself as a plausible alternative to non-pragmatic beliefs and practices. We are left in thrall to the primitive unconscious of unreflective and unprogressive cultural experiences. We cannot escape Edmund Burke's prejudices of the small platoons.
Herodotus, "the father of history" (or, alternatively, "the father of lies"), could also have been the first pragmatist. He concluded from the apparent madness of Cambyses that "Custom is king," meaning that "everyone believes his own native customs." In its essential conservatism, pragmatism may be the perfect philosophy in eras of civilizational war. In embracing the cultural status quo, it allows us to take sides in the global conflict without harm to our idealistic aspirations Pragmatism, judged by its practice, may be the sophistry, rather than the progressive creed, of our times.
- ↑ Steven Cresap (BA, Cornell University; PhD, Cornell University)
For over two decades Dr. Steven Cresap served as faculty and administrator at MCNY. As an assistant professor, his concentrations include values clarification, critical thinking, rhetoric, ethics, and introductory world civilization. He also leads master's seminars in philosophy. Prior to coming to MCNY, Dr. Cresap served as a researcher and role player at the South Street Seaport Museum in New York City, where he created and performed the character "Jonah Fidd", a 19th-century sailor. He has written for numerous publications, specializing in the interaction between aesthetic experience and moral behavior. Recent publications include "Is Lookism Unjust?" for The Journal of Libertarian Studies (2005) and "Hegemonic Visualism" for Radical Pedagogy (2005), both in collaboration with Prof. Louis Tietje. In 1999 Dr. Cresap received an N.E.H. Fellowship for the New Media Classroom ("Crossing Urban Borders") at Borough of Manhattan Community College. Dr. Cresap is currently working on a monograph about the aesthetic value of terror.
- ↑ Chris Bertram. "Morgenbesser anecdotes" on crookentimber.org. 2004.
- ↑ in Kant, Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, tr. T. Humphrey. Hackett, 1983.
- ↑ Louis Menand. The Metaphysical Club. Farrar, 2001.
- ↑ Ibid, p. 437.
- ↑ John Dewey, “My Pedagogic Creed” from The School Journal (1897), in the Purpose Four packet.
- ↑ Herodotus. The Histories. Selincourt trans., Penguin ed. 2003.