In my Modern and Postmodern class this week, we are reading thinkers who offered deep criticism of the West’s narrative of progress. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, on the one hand, and Michel Foucault on the other, re-describe modernity as a “triumphant calamity,” in which apparent reductions in cruelty turn out to be subtle, strong mechanisms of oppression. The work of these critical theorists has certainly inspired strong currents of activism, but it has also led some to cultivate a sophisticated pessimism, or to adopt a knowing ironic posture in relation to the public sphere.
After spending time with these European theorists, I’ve found myself returning to John Dewey, the great American pragmatist philosopher. Dewey was no friend of the status quo, and, as I emphasized in an op-ed at the beginning of the semester, he identified education as freedom. He did not, though, think of freedom as individual autonomy — he did not believe we could get smart on our own. The goal of education wasn’t just self-reliance; personal autonomy could actually be quite destructive: “There is always a danger that increased personal independence will decrease the social capacity of an individual. In making him more self-reliant, it may make him more self-sufficient; it may lead to aloofness and indifference. It often makes an individual so insensitive in his relations to others as to develop an illusion of being really able to stand and act alone — an unnamed form of insanity which is responsible for a large part of the remediable suffering of the world.”
Critical theorists do help us expose hypocrisy and the persistence of domination, but I find Dewey a salutary complement to their powerful example of education as disillusionment. Surely we want more from education than to test our beliefs and affections; we want more than to lose our illusions. We want to be able to carry with us traces of experience that allow us more freedom in the future. Dewey put it this way: Human plasticity is essentially the ability to learn from experience; the power to retain from one experience something which is of avail in coping with the difficulties of a later situation. The goal of inquiry isn’t Truth with a capital “T;” it is more inquiry. The goal of liberal learning is more learning. We hold onto our “plasticity” by holding onto our ability to be affected by others — to learn from experience in context.
Rather than just enabling the strong individual, liberal education aims to create (and is enhanced by) a robust sociability. Community building is no simple matter, as we saw this week in our forum on diversity university. But it would be a mistake to think that “community” is just an extra-curricular appendage to a liberal arts education. The forms of solidarity and dissent that we create in our residential university are at the heart and soul of our educational mission — and core to our curriculum of life-long learning.