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Collateral Damage

Functional Belief

From John Dewey to the Ivory Tower of Babel in Two Easy Steps

by Terrell Clemmons

John Dewey was born in 1859 to an upper­middle-class Burlington, Vermont family. He started adult life as a schoolteacher, but resigned after three trying years. He then earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University and taught for a decade at both the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago. In 1904 he was recruited to head the Teachers College at Columbia University, where he remained for the rest of his long career.

All this while, Dewey formulated and reformulated his educational philosophy. His early, unsuccessful teaching experiences had convinced him that all was not right with education in America and that a new philosophy was in order. It was time to abandon the old conundrums of classical philosophy—questions like "What is truth?" and "Does our thought match reality?" They cannot be answered, he said. We must "get over" them.

According to Dewey, when evaluating an idea, we should not concern ourselves with whether it is true in any absolute sense. Rather, what matters about an idea is "its functional or instrumental use." In other words, "Does it work?" or even, "Does it work for me?" Dewey preferred to call his philosophy "instrumentalism" or "experimentalism," but it came to be known as pragmatism.

Meanwhile, European intellectuals were vigorously debating the philosophical implications of such new developments as ­Darwin's theory of evolution, Freud's theory of psychoanalysis, and Marx's theories about economics and social change. When the Nazis assumed power in 1933, a coterie of German thinkers at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, informally known as the Frankfurt School, needed to find a new base of operations.

Columbia U: Re-Education Central

Dewey's vision of education as an instrument for social change dovetailed smoothly with the Frankfurt School's goal of remaking society, and so the Frankfurt School moved to New York. "John Dewey's sponsorship gave the Institute a lock on Teacher's [sic] College—the foremost educational institution in the U.S.," wrote Ralph de Toledano in Cry Havoc. With Teachers College graduates filling education posts across the country, the synthesized philosophy gradually grew to dominate American education.

Some aspects of Dewey's methods were good. Rich student-teacher interaction and hands-on learning certainly aid assimilation of otherwise rote information into personal, experiential knowledge. But the dismissal of absolutes was bound to effect a withering, rather than a flourishing, of academia. Philosophy, by definition, examines the roots of knowledge—that is, the unchanging, universal truths that underlie the scholarly disciplines. Dewey's philosophy effectively said these roots do not exist.

Clueless Philosophy

But a philosophy based on the premise that absolute truth doesn't exist is absolutely meaningless. That became obvious one sunny afternoon last September, when the Genocide Awareness Project (GAP) visited the University of Maryland. GAP is a traveling photo-mural exhibit that compares two historically recognized forms of genocide—slavery and the Holocaust—to the under-recognized, ongoing genocide of abortion. At Maryland, philosophy professor Dr. Susan Dwyer and several students discussed the disturbing photos (see below) with GAP representative Seth Drayer.

By and by, Dr. Dwyer was able to relate the photos to each other by identifying abortion as a form of "ageism"—discrimination against the very young—and she said, with apparent difficulty, that she thought it "morally impermissible to kill fetuses." But she couldn't give a reason why. "I haven't got a clue what makes killing human beings wrong," she said in all sincerity. To her credit, she didn't suggest that we "get over" the question but that "we need to think more deeply" about it.

Indeed. "Deeply" as in where the roots of knowledge still lie. You see, when we disregard an absolute, it doesn't go away. We just become ignorant of it and then get confused when it confronts us. Professor Mike Adams of the University of North Carolina–Wilmington says that that's where most of academia is today. Some call it multiculturalism. Others call it diversity. "I call it chaos," he wrote in Welcome to the Ivory Tower of Babel, "because everyone seems to be speaking a different language. And, sadly, there is little interest in universal truths or principles in academia today."

Academia needs to reconnect with the roots. Perhaps some philosophy students and their professor are thinking more deeply about that this spring. 

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