“We pride ourselves upon a practical idealism”

This weekend I was re-reading John Dewey’s 1917 essay, “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy,” in which he famously calls for a re-orientation of philosophy away from a focus on general problems of knowledge and toward human problems.  The essay is a pragmatist manifesto, urging us away from knowledge as a spectator sport and toward inquiry as an activist enterprise motivated by social and personal concerns. The goal of our intellectual endeavors should not be to mirror reality accurately, but “to free experience from routine and from caprice.”

As I read Dewey’s essay about recovering philosophy, I found myself substituting “education” for “philosophy” time and time again. Many of his points about pragmatism and inquiry reminded me of how we have been describing a Wesleyan education. As we spoke about civic engagement this year, we have been calling on students and faculty to enhance the relevance of their work. When I have written about the “translational liberal arts,” I have been emphasizing the importance of converting what one is learning in the classroom to what one is doing off campus. The point of a liberal arts education, I stress time and time again, has never been more relevant than it is today because this kind of education develops resources for lifelong learning. That sounds a lot like Dewey’s call to recognize how even our “imaginative recovery of the bygone” is in the service of our current needs.

At the close of his essay, Dewey wrote: “We pride ourselves upon a practical idealism, a lively and easily moved faith in possibilities as yet unrealized, in willingness to make sacrifice for their realization.” “Practical idealism” is a phrase used by a president of Bowdoin College in the early twentieth century as well as by Gandhi a generation later. We’ve used the same words to talk about some of the important ingredients in a Wesleyan education. But Dewey warns us not to get too comfortable with our highfalutin ideals: “all peoples at all times have been narrowly realistic in practice and have then employed idealization to cover up in sentiment and theory their brutalities.”

We must all be careful not to fall prey to merely covering over our brutalities with ideals and sentiment. We must develop the intellectual and moral capacities to imagine a future that is worth striving for, and we must enhance our ability to create the tools for its realization. This is, to paraphrase Dewey one more time, a sufficiently large task for our education.


2 thoughts on ““We pride ourselves upon a practical idealism””

  1. This is a brilliant application of Dewey’s essay to today’s world, and a clear and succinct exposition of what Wesleyan, in particular, strives to do as an institution. I would suggest that you keep this text–and your post– close at hand when you address the incoming Class of 2015 in September. I see that the work in the classroom and the work off-campus have the potential to become a virtuous cycle, where the classroom informs the student’s social action and where that social action, in turn, enhances the classroom upon the student’s return from the off-campus experience, reinvigorating it with the noise and dust of the street. I had that experience at Wesleyan several times, working with the American Friends Service Committee on housing issues in the Dorchester district of Boston, and later studying the Mexican Revolution in Mexico City for my senior honors thesis in CSS. That was about forty years ago. My son will have the good fortune to be at freshman orientation in four months, and to hear about “practical idealism” would surely be an inspiring way to enter the Wesleyan community.

  2. President Roth – as I read your essay, I was reminded of the rational behind a group of us starting Wesleyan Alumni in Philanthropy and Public Service (WAPPS) last April. We all know that word philanthropy is derived from the Greek word for love of mankind and to my mind one of the translational roles of a Wesleyan education is to be a lifelong learner in the service of others! Whether it be the activism of many of us in the “greater Cardinal community off campus”, or the strivings of current “WesTechers on campus” – in part exemplified by the Dell Social Impact award contenders – civic engagement has been and will always be a part of the school’s ethos….let’s just keep getting better at organizing and connecting the pieces!!!!

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