the necessity of the humanities

According to this article, the University of Wisconsin at Madison has received a $20 million grant to fund their humanities programs (including $2.5 million for a chair in Ancient Greek philosophy!). Half of the cash is from the Mellon foundation; the other half is from the state itself. This is an unlikely award these days, as the article points out (and we in the humanities are reminded every day). The article closes with a paragraph that pithily summarizes the value of the humanities:

In prepared remarks delivered Monday, [Biddy] Martin [chancellor of UW-Madison] likened an education without the humanities to living without the benefit of memory, or of imagination. “We are, by nature, cultural beings. We are learners. Our cultural environment shapes us,” she said. “If we fail to understand how it shapes us, we forfeit our freedom and our responsibility to think about what we learn and who we are.”


oh, grow up

Education is about growth. Meaning what? The movement is from immaturity to maturity in thinking, analytical skill, problem management, intellectual ability, and so forth. But education is not about the fulfillment of an intellectual destiny, at least not for Dewey. Immaturity certainly has negative connotations, implying as it does the absence of maturity and all of the ideological and cultural significance wrapped up in that term. Dewey interprets immaturity in a positive sense, as a capacity or power. Just as Merleau-Ponty will argue that the indeterminate is not a negative state, but a positive phenomenon, Dewey argues that immaturity harbors its own internal force. He affirms the productive logic of the immature. This is in Democracy and Education, chapter 4, and it ties into my earlier post about what a child can do.

‘Taken absolutely, instead of comparatively, immaturity designates a positive force or ability–the power to grow’. Immaturity has two primary components, dependence and plasticity, both of which are powers. Note that plasticity is not interpreted here as flexibility or malleability. The child is decidedly neither a parasite nor a repository. He or she is a producer, the product is the force of thought. We can speak of their growth as a form of metabolization of knowledge and skill, which is acquired from the educational environment and converted into intellectual energy. This is not mere coping or consumption. (Following Foucault, we could conceive the disciplined body as a site of growth.)

Dewey defines the plasticity of the child as something like ‘pliable elasticity’, suggesting that it is like how ‘some persons take on the color of their surroundings while retaining their own bent’. ‘But’, he adds, ‘it is something deeper than this’. Deeper: plasticity is more substantial than indeterminate adaptability. It denotes a real property of the child’s constitution; it is an ontological structure, as we can discern from the following passage: ‘[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. This means power to modify actions on the basis of the results of prior experiences, the power to develop dispositions. Without it, the acquisition of habits is impossible’. Dewey is here echoing the ‘Habit’ chapter of James’s Principles, wherein James speaks about the plasticity of the brain. Habits are like the fundamental mechanism of the body. Dewey seems to want to stress again the reality of the body’s plasticity, so as to account for how it is possible for body’s to take on the mechanism of habit.

This interpretation of the body is decidedly nonreductive because it takes instinct and the responsiveness proper to instinct as essentially learned action. Reactions and instincts are all habitual and result from trial and error. This means that experimentation, especially at an early age, is crucial to the growth of the child. The child’s plasticity enables them to develop a wide range of instincts and responses: their childhood is a powerful, explosive laboratory. The possibility of variations in the instinctual armature is immense, which means that the basis for and results of evolution (taken in a broad sense) are powerfully indeterminate. This indeterminacy is influenced and acted upon by the social network in which the child is physically situated. Aristotle, in the Ethics, recognized that this social milieu has a grand impact on the ‘original’ disposition of the child, and that beyond a certain threshold of moral development the child’s character becomes almost irremediably set. Dewey and James follow up with material base of this capacity for dispositional metamorphosis, and it is quite interesting to consider the ontological status of both this material base (plasticity) and dispositionality itself.

To close, Dewey notes that habits become methods. A method is like a generalized habit, applicable to a range of similar situations. What is key for the child is that he or she acquires the habit of learning. The child ‘learns to learn’. The educational evolution of the child will depend upon the reach and intensity of their time in the laboratory of learning, that is, in immaturity and dependence. Which is simply to say that the power of the child is directly proportional to the diversity of their experimental milieu. This does not imply a rejection of discipline, but rather the importance of a disciplined method.