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Steven Fesmire discusses his new book, Dewey

In this exclusive interview Steven Fesmire tells us more about his interest in the philosopher John Dewey and gives us a behind the scenes glimpse into his new book.

What first attracted you to Dewey as a subject, and when?

In 1988 I enrolled in a Philosophy of Education course as a junior at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. The professor, who I admired, was especially excited about a book titled Democracy and Education, written by a philosopher whose name had to be differentiated from the library’s Dewey Decimal System. I found the first few chapters tedious, but I remember steeling myself one evening with a resolve to understand what my professor saw in this philosopher. I had never thought of education as a test for a philosophy, but here was Dewey pointing out that Lockean empiricists approach “experience” in a subjective and passive way, as inner receptivity to sensory impressions—the mind as moviegoer. Pragmatically, the Lockean view of experience means students are blank slates to be written upon. It’s a one-directional model of education-as-training, and it’s an anti-democratic model in which the student’s creative action doesn’t matter. It struck me that such a philosophy was false to what I was actually experiencing at that moment. In the coming weeks I grew fond of the bespectacled old man on the front cover of my book, who understood that a student is an active, engaged, and creative participant in who s/he is becoming as well as an active player in the world that s/he is helping to make.

How would you describe your writing style in the book?

I aimed to be concrete, accessible, and engaging, with a tone that’s sympathetic but not uncritical. I wanted Dewey’s questions to be intuitive so that his questions become the reader’s own. The book presents its subject in the historical context of the problems to which he was responding, but it also invites readers to sort through twenty-first century problems with Dewey’s help and critique him in turn.

If Dewey were alive today, what might he make of the American education system?

Dewey rejected education conceived as way to fuel the techno-industrial economy with “skilled labor.” He was a staunch opponent of 20th century educational administrators and policymakers who sought to provide a padded yoke for the industrial workforce. It doesn’t serve the public good to treat teachers as functionaries under the surveillance of an administrative bureaucracy, or to treat students as feudal serfs to the consumer economy. Nonetheless, Dewey’s brand of progressivism was (and is) often misinterpreted – by both disciples and critics - as embracing “a child knows best” attitude. We shouldn’t eschew curriculum in favor of spur-of-the-moment shifts in focus. Dewey argued instead for emphasis on child and curriculum. I should add that Dewey’s theory of learning can be summed up as “learning through action,” but he wasn’t a proponent of “hands-on learning” taken too narrowly. He believed that the head, heart, and hands shouldn’t be divorced in education. When we set education of the head over and against education of the hands, we can end up thinking it fine for a select, elite few to gain access to a liberal cultural education (of the head), while the rest are given a narrow trade education (of the hands). The result is that everyone loses, because students don’t get the tools they need to help intelligently overhaul current practices and create new vocations, institutions, and systems.

What was something you enjoyed in writing an introductory book on Dewey?

There are scholarly debates among specialists that are relevant to almost every page. Some of these debates are pertinent to introducing Dewey to a twenty-first-century audience, but most are too specialized. So I silently took positions and relegated most scholarly references and documentation to endnotes. I also enjoyed bypassing technical philosophical problems that absorbed Dewey but that we have since, in his own words, gotten over.

What are some features of this book not found in prior introductions to Dewey?

It incorporates a major recovered book manuscript from the 1940s, presumed lost for sixty years
and at last published in 2012. This is the first introduction to include that “lost” book. I also tried to offer a selective overview that’s constructive, more than a summary of what Dewey said. Accordingly, the book is filled with contemporary examples – for instance, I give some special emphasis to environmental problems. The book also gains distinctiveness from my specialization in moral philosophy, my insatiable interest in the natural sciences (I began college almost thirty years ago as a physics major), and my background in theories of metaphor and imagination. My passion for literature and aesthetics is also reflected in the book, as it is in all of my philosophical writing.

Why Dewey now?

John Dewey was, and remains, the greatest American philosopher. He offers a powerful alternative today to the anemia of philosophy approached as a form of verbal conquest and scholasticism confined to “timeless” core problems manufactured by a small esoteric class of symbolic technicians.

  • Dewey

    By Steven Fesmire

    John Dewey (1859 - 1952) was the dominant voice in American philosophy through the World Wars, the Great Depression, and the nascent years of the Cold War. With a professional career spanning three generations and a profile that no public intellectual has operated on in the U.S. since, Dewey's…

    Paperback – 2014-11-20
    Routledge
    The Routledge Philosophers

  • Education and Human Values

    Reconciling Talent with an Ethics of Care

    By Michael Slote

    Two of our greatest educational theorists, John Dewey and Nel Noddings, have been reluctant to admit that some students are simply more talented than others. This was no doubt due to their feeling that such an admission was inconsistent with democratic concern for everyone. But there really is such…

    Hardback – 2012-06-25
    Routledge