Deneen - E D U C AT I O N Strange Bedfellows Allan Bloom...

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E D U C AT I O N The Good Society, Volume 17, No. 2, 2008 · Copyright © 2009 The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 49 The educational theories of Allan Bloom and John Dewey could not apparently be more at odds. Bloom argued on behalf of the aspiration of philosophy to apprehend the truth, even if through a glass darkly. Dewey argued, in contrast, that philoso- phy was best understood as the application of man’s capacity to alter behavior and circumstance in the pragmatic pursuit of soci- etal and individual “growth.” For Dewey, there was no truth that could be considered fixed and final, only provisional and prac- ticable “truths”—and why, in an early work, he argued against “the quest for certainty.” 1 Thus, for Bloom, education necessarily involved engagement with the great texts of philosophy not as the collection of anti- quarian knowledge, but as an entrée into the great and eternal questions that are not subject to alteration or transformation. To this extent, Bloom held that human beings possess a certain nature that is not subject to fundamental change; questions that were true and alive for Socrates remain fundamentally true for us as well, in spite of vast separations of distance and time. By contrast, Dewey held that humanity, like the world itself, was defined above all by “plasticity.” A malleable substance, human- ity no less than the external world was subject to alteration and remaking. The only “permanent” feature of human “nature” was its very alterability, and, in particular, the human ability to actively engage in that alteration. For Dewey, Bloom’s approach (like that of Robert Maynard Hutchins) represented some of the most objectionable assump- tions about education. Dewey was mistrustful of education based in books—a basis that Dewey regarded as too easily becoming tradition-bound. Books, in his view were “the chief representa- tives of the lore and wisdom of the past,” and hence necessarily conservative. 2 Bloom, in turn, criticized Dewey explicitly for his progressive assumptions that blinded him to the wisdom of the past: “Dewey’s pragmatism—the method of science as the method of democracy, individual growth without limits, especially natu- ral limits—saw the past as radically imperfect and regarded our history as irrelevant or as a hindrance to rational analysis of our present.” 3 For Bloom, Dewey’s view of education entailed an optimistic leap of faith about a limitless future and denigrated the wisdom of the past; for Dewey (and Deweyans, such as Benjamin R. Barber), a thinker such as Bloom was inclined to an exclusion- ist elitism that favored the leisured few over the democratic many. 4 For Bloom, the heart of the university and liberal education is the library and the accumulated great texts that are preserved therein; for Dewey, it is the laboratory—that place of experimentation— evinced perhaps most clearly with Dewey’s founding of the “The Laboratory School” at the University of Chicago.
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