John Dewey: Liberty and the Pedagogy of Disposition, written by John Baldacchino

In: Contemporary Pragmatism
Author: Tess Varner1
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New York: Springer, 2014. 111 pages. isbn 978-94-007-7847-4 $29.99 (eBook). isbn 978-94-007-7846-7 $49.95 (Softcover).

Education is not a system of schools and institutions but is a way of living in the world. This claim, although uncontroversial to many, is rightly supported and developed using the resources of John Dewey’s education and political philosophy in John Baldacchino’s book John Dewey: Liberty and the Pedagogy of Disposition. In this short and insightful work of about one hundred pages, Baldacchino presents the reader with both a reading of Dewey and a conversation with Dewey, highlighting the radical liberatory potential of Dewey’s work through habits and dispositions that take into account the “contingent character of the world” (p. ix).

The book comprises eight essays, each with a different emphasis. Baldacchino begins by giving the reader background on Dewey’s life and influences, aiming to show how his life experiences contributed to the philosophy of openness that emerges from his work. In the first chapter, “What’s Deweyan?” the provocative question is whether or not Dewey is a Deweyan. Can we properly think of Dewey as being a Deweyan, in the same sense we might ask whether Marx was a Marxist or Freud was a Freudian? Dewey’s case is different, he suggests, and we must understand Dewey to be a Deweyan, not in the sense of creedal or absolutist adherence to a movement or religious order, but in the sense that a Deweyan is committed to radical diversity such that “there cannot be one solid idea which excludes everything else” (p. 5). Thus, Baldacchino asserts, Dewey can only be understood as a Deweyan. A Deweyan reading of Dewey does not hold the reader hostage to “fixed forms of thinking and doing” (p. 5) but, rather, requires the reader to adopt an attitude of openness and to continually reject fixedness. This distinction is critical to the first chapter, as well as Baldacchino’s overall project, setting the groundwork for the educational component of the book. Learning, he argues, “is a disposition towards the world that is open to continuous transformation which is neither benign nor straightforward” (p. 11). Dewey’s pedagogy of disposition creates the conditions for liberty and freedom—freedom which goes beyond the political realm into the realm of everyday living.

Baldacchino positions Dewey as a philosopher in the context of liberalism and situates Dewey’s understanding of freedom with respect to education in his second chapter, “Liberty’s Practice.” He suggests that Dewey’s liberalism, unlike the modernist liberalism of the time—and, arguably, of today’s time as well—is a positive liberty. It is neither egoistical nor closed and breaks down the troubling distinctions between individual interests and the interests of the collective in a “new individualism” (p. 18). The new individualism, positioned in opposition to neoliberalism, requires us to rethink and to rebuild the vocabulary through which we pursue radical democratic thinking in educational and political terms.

In the third chapter, “Open Philosophy,” Baldacchino considers education as the space where the tensions between liberty, on the one hand, and what he calls “unfreedom,” on the other hand, play out. Because of this, our educative practices ought to be aimed at the development of the habits and dispositions of radical openness. This philosophical disposition of openness is a form of empowerment, according to Baldacchino, reinforcing the responsibilities we have to one another, as we continually strive to revise and renew our commitments to “those possibilities that are yet to come” (p. 31). Baldacchino highlights the importance of the affective in pedagogical practices and what he calls the “with-ness” of pedagogy, which he sees skillfully practiced through Dewey’s educational philosophy: “Far from instructing or imparting knowledge on others, the teacher learns by seeing, hearing, feeling, doing, and thinking with others. Dewey ‘teaches’ us by doing philosophy with us and we are in turn invited to understand the world with him” (p. 33).

Baldacchino offers an analysis of the epistemological implications of the disposition of openness in the fourth chapter, “Knower Makers.” Knowledge is a transactional and cooperative project. Baldacchino explains: “What is known is not what we (you and I) know, but what is known by all of us together” (p. 45). Education, thus, is not aimed at transmitting a fixed body of knowledge from one person to another but is a process of sharing our own experiences with one another such that our lives together are made richer.

The fifth chapter, “Growing Socially,” develops the claims made elsewhere in the book about the importance of education to Dewey and the nuanced account of education that we inherited from Dewey. Dewey’s commitment to education is his commitment to philosophy, because education is what makes the activity of philosophy possible. Baldacchino writes: “Education is one of philosophy’s major critical forms of agency that provides a place where we can do philosophy” (p. 49). Education is neither the beginning nor the end of philosophy, but the space in which it takes place. In order to clarify what he means by education, in this context, Baldacchino offers an account of the Hegelian concept of bildung, the lineage of which is evident in Dewey’s radical proposition.

In chapter six, “Education’s Art,” Baldacchino discusses the experimental character of education in Dewey’s work, making critical connections with Dewey’s aesthetics. The arts are related to doing and making, and these, too, are the tasks of education. Dewey wishes to reclaim education as a “ground for experimentation” (p. 62). The chapter provides an extended discussion of the relevance of Dewey’s aesthetics for education. Employing Dewey’s theory of instrumentality, Baldacchino reminds the reader that Dewey’s experimentalism is opposed to the idea of knowledge as merely an end, thus reaffirming the necessity of openness in educational practices.

Chapter seven, “Schooled Quandaries,” is a defense of democracy as the proper—and, in fact, the only—frame of reference through which to understand the relationship of the school to society. Schools and society, as Baldacchino has expressed throughout the book, must not be understood as separate, unrelated entities. Instead, they must be understood to be thoroughly interwoven. Education, like democracy, must work to establish and preserve an open-ended character. The structures of education must be fluid and malleable. The fluid and open character is the structure of the school, in this view. Social change is characteristic of our lives and ought also to be characteristic of our educational programs, as risky as that might be.

Chapter eight, “Learning to Be,” is the chapter that most straightforwardly addresses Dewey’s work in philosophy of education, tying it in to the disposition of openness described throughout the text. Baldacchino uses Dewey’s work with Black Mountain College as an example of the decentering of education and of the proper relationship of pedagogical practices to daily living. As he had acknowledged earlier, the decentering of education leaves institutions vulnerable, yet, on his account, Black Mountain College was not a failure but embodied the radical openness Dewey envisioned. Although it was ultimately unsustainable as an institution, it captured “the fullness of associated living by which everyone who is engaged in education—students and educators alike—form part of the experimental adventures of knowing, being, and doing” (p. 92).

Through the eight essays that comprise John Dewey: Liberty and the Pedagogy of Disposition, Baldacchino presents a sympathetic and supportive reading of Dewey’s radical philosophy of education—a philosophy which addresses much more than schools and students, reaching widely into the world. One concern I have is that Baldacchino’s sympathetic reading of Dewey leaves some important questions unaddressed. For example, in chapter two, he claims that “Dewey’s work breaks all imaginable barriers. His voice transcends gender in an age where the distinction was still clearly engineered by prejudice and ignorance” (p.19). While I am inclined to agree that Dewey’s political philosophy can transcend gender (and other lenses of oppression), I am not convinced that it does this on its own without additional resources, such as those found in pragmatist-feminism, decolonial philosophies, or even recent insurrectionist philosophies. Baldacchino would have done well to address some of the limitations that radical politics and pedagogy can encounter in an age that continues to face prejudice and ignorance. Nevertheless, this book will be a good addition to the collections of those who work in philosophy of education, as well as those working in areas outside the Classical American tradition who have had little exposure to Dewey. Baldacchino makes use of thinkers that often do not get extended attention with respect to Dewey, from Marx and Adorno to Giambattista Vico, offering an important contribution to the body of literature. However, the volume itself lacks coherence. A unifying thread tying each chapter to the next or to the project as a whole is missing. The book could have benefitted from a more heavy-handed editor, who might have helped make any unifying thread more evident. Nevertheless, Baldacchino’s book is a useful text for those thinking about how Dewey’s philosophies of education and political philosophy are mutually reinforcing.

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