Dewey And Habermas On Educational Binarisms
Jun 3, 2011 Other 2844 Views
My interests in the relations obtaining between personal desires and the engagement with learning are traceable to my own experiences of returning to education as an adult. After leaving school at 16, with no expectation that I would ever go to university, I worked for 12 years in industry. I returned to education and enrolled at a university after becoming unemployed during the economic downturn of the early 1990s. I well remember the clear sense I had of wishing to study a particular kind of subject; something in no way related to my past career; and which would ideally be utterly lacking, for me at least, in any sense of being work-related. This was the means through which I would strive to change the trajectory of my life. However, with hindsight and an enhanced capacity for reflexive analysis, I am now acutely aware that my decision to study the subjects that I did - and for 'their own sake' - was underpinned by these very concrete, personal, objectives.
In the event, I was fortunate. I secured a good degree, a teaching qualification, and a masters degree. After teaching at an independent college, I again returned to university to teach and to research for a Ph.D., and sought to apply the skills and knowledge I had accumulated, together with the insights afforded through my own experiences, to furthering my understanding of the experiences of adult learners. During my research, and in conversations with my informants, I took the opportunity to explore the nature of the relationship between desire, motivation, and the engagement with learning, and to review how educational theorists typically approach this question. Among the thinkers who have considered the relations obtaining between particular conceptions of 'what education is for', John Dewey and JÜrgen Habermas are worth attention.
Dewey and Habermas strive to synthesise the academy's 'pure' and 'practical' ends, though both also recognise that the ultimate justification for our system of education (again, here, the academy) should, and indeed does, amount to more than the sum of these two social purposes. For Dewey, a principle concern is that education fosters democracy, in the broadest sense, and that the academy is thus characterised by democratic relationships. Habermas, too, regards issues of democracy as fundamental, for it is democracy that facilitates universities as "communities of reason" in which "values are always under discussion".[i] What emerges in the ideas of Dewey and Habermas is a picture of the academy in which its raison d'être is not construed as a simple choice between the 'pure' and the 'practical', but one in which these aims are melded, and are pursued and combined within a community, the denizens of which are encouraged go beyond this simple binarism and to develop and to apply democratically the faculty of reason.
Despite the force of Dewey's and Habermas's arguments, Ostovich demonstrates that the essentially binary conception of education with which they take issue, and which is deeply rooted in antiquity, remains in broad circulation. Moreover, versions of this binarism are apparent not only in discussions of the relations between education and wider society, but also in analyses of individuals' motivations in engaging with learning. In an article written in 1973, W.K. Frankena clearly seeks to establish a 'pure' versus 'practical' binary distinction at both the societal and individual levels, despite confusedly imbuing each of the categories he identifies with a broadly instrumental tenor. Frankena notes that education has been traditionally construed as having four purposes. The first and third of these, as he recounts them, consist of the material advancement of the individual or of wider society, whilst the second and fourth consist of the moral and virtuous advancement of society and of the individual, respectively.[ii] Whilst Frankena makes the common error of confusing one form of instrumentalism with another, it is clear from his subsequent remarks that his intention is to draw a distinction between broadly Sophist and Platonic conceptions of education. He therefore continues in a vein that is prescient of much in current discourse:
"(This debate) is still with us in the question whether the emphasis in education should be on method or skill, or on knowledge and truth... At any rate, many 'consumers', if not thinkers about education, seem to conceive of it as a tool or toy, much as the Sophists did."[iii]
i Steven T. Ostovich 'Dewey, Habermas, and the university in society', in Educational theory, Fall 1995, Vol. 45, No.4 ii Ibid. 8-10
iii Frankena W.K., 'Education', in Dictionary of the history of ideas, 1973, Weiner P.P. (ed. in chief), Charles Scribners Sons, USA, 79