Lebenskünstler

Human Nature, Education, Ecology – Dewey, Darwin, Midgley, Kropotkin [Part II]

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/26/2012

At Home in the World: Human Nature, Ecological Thought, and Education after Darwin – Eilon Schwartz

Midgley’s philosophy sees human emotions and not reason as defining the human essence…For Midgley, there is no contemplation without the emotions which shape and direct our reasoning. Those emotions, many of which are found in other social species, are central goods for humans, regardless of whether they are unique. It is an argument which we have seen by Darwin, relying on Hume, and continuing through Kropotkin and Dewey.

Emotions are what give direction to human actions. Without them, human life loses it motivation and its compass. Whereas the rationalist model sees the direction of human life through an emotion-less or emotion-served reason, Midgley contends that our emotions give structure and meaning to our actions. A life without emotions is one that lacks a meaningful structure from which to apply reason. In such a situation reason becomes lost at best, and dangerous at worst. Midgley’s definition of wickedness, and Darwin’s and Dewey’s too, is based on the absence of emotions, not their presence.

…Our emotions, therefore, are central to the educational process of clarifying and pursuing the ends of human life.

The moral life is the life that is lived in pursuit of the good life, that is, the life that a human being is meant to live. Education is about helping the individual identify the good and moral life, and offering tools to pursue it. The good life is not discovered outside of the emotional life, as the rationalist model would suggest, but rather through its cultivation. Emotions therefore, are both ends and means.

…The fact that emotional education is so consciously absent from school curriculums, for example, particularly as one advances in age, is a dangerous mistake of schooling, when looking at education through Darwin’s eyes.

Emotional education, therefore, should not be seen as being opposed to rational education, but rather as an integrated view of reason made up of emotions, and emotions shaped through reason.

The Darwinian perspective sits at the crossroads between the essentialist and constructivst position. Accepting human beings as social beings, it recognizes that meaning is mediated and emerges from the social world. However, claiming that there is a strong human nature, inherited at birth, it maintains that socialization takes place in interaction with an innate nature which is always present and active.

Kropotkin, Dewey, and Midgley all contend that our innate human natures offer a moral instinct which allows us to resist culture when it moves to forms that are dehumanizing, that is, against our nature. Strongest in our childhood, before socialization has overwhelmed it, ideally it is fostered and developed by culture but also remains as a wellspring from which to oppose culture, if necessary.

Darwin’s worldview, of course, was not an objective fact of the world, but rather an organizing metaphor, capable of changing when challenged with discrepancy from the empirical information which justifies it. Being well read, attending to the larger picture, and examining competing versions of the larger picture were all necessary steps to Darwin’s theory of evolution, according to Midgley. Science exists within a culture, not separate from it. Studying the worldview, therefore, and building one’s own, is central to being able to navigate the path to a truly human life, is the goal of education. One cannot do without a worldview; it is only a question of whether one critically attends to it or not. The humanities are central to this purpose.

Midgley is very clear about the usefulness of uselessness in the curriculum…Midgley’s curriculum, therefore, puts a tremendous emphasis on exactly those subjects that in an instrumentally driven curriculum would have little place. It is exactly because they are useless – that is, an ends and not a means – that they are most valuable. As she attacks the instrumental “use” of education, she argues that when education focuses solely on training for employment, without tending to human life and its manifold needs as ends, one will find despair, alienation, depression, and with their concomitant failure in the workplace. An ends-driven “useless” education might also be the most useful of educations, nurturing meaning and motivation.

[quoting Roland Martin] One finds repeated demands for proficiency in the three Rs, for clear, logical thinking, and for higher standards of achievement in science, mathematics, history, literature, and the like. one searches in vain for discussions of love or calls for mastery of the three Cs of care, concern, and connection.

Beck and Kosnick structure the emotionally rich class and school community into three clusters that need to be nurtured: a community of rich conversation; a community of celebration, joy and openness; and a community of tenderness, security, friendship and mutuality. Furthermore they argue that “emotional education” should not be defined as a separate subject, but rather should be woven into the very heart of a school’s culture.

…it is not the subject matter on its own which brings the message, but rather a particular attitude to life which must pervade the teaching. It is not only what we teach, but how we teach. Without love, for example, science is curiosity without values; with it, science becomes a “reverent understanding of the universe.”

Darwinism has been perceived as an anti-religious worldview. But if we define religiosity as understanding that we are part of a larger whole which gives us meaning, and the experience of transcendence in our lives, then Darwinism surely advocates a religious worldview. Science does not stand in opposition to religion, nor independent of it, but as a central tool in teaching wonder, awe, and reverence, and approaching the world with wonder is a necessary ingredient in true scientific pursuit.

Human Nature, Education, Ecology – Dewey, Darwin, Midgley, Kropotkin [Part I]

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/22/2012

At Home in the World: Human Nature, Ecological Thought, and Education after Darwin – Eilon Schwartz

For Kropotkin, it meant no less learning with, from and for others. A return to nature’s laws meant a return to the human being as primarily a social being. Education takes place in social settings, and aims to reinforce our natural connections with one another. Our humanity is not expressed through developing our individual talents and abilities, but by building bonds outward into the world…

Dewey is arguing for a view of morality which emerges from the evolutionary story. Humans are not at war with their natures, trying to suppress the less desirable elements. They need to cultivate a balanced sense of their  multiple characteristics in order to live a richly human life. The good for the human species, like all species, emerges from within the evolutionary story, and is not independent or opposed to it.

While education needs to foster growth, it also needs to help celebrate the meaning of the moment. Schooling, therefore, should not only be directed to the further development of the child, but should also allow the child to be who s/he is. Human nature is not only about becoming, but also about who the child already is. Dewey’s extremely difficult pedagogic task was to allow the child to at once delight in his/her own being, in the nonreflective joy of the moment, and simultaneously to nudge the child to see within the moment the potential for further growth…

[quoting Midgley] The notion that we “have a nature,” far from threatening the concept of freedom, is absolutely essential to it. If we were genuinely plastic and indeterminate at birth, there could be no reason why society should not stamp us into any shape that might suit it. The reason people view suggestions about inborn tendencies with such indiscriminate horror seems to be that they think exclusively of one particular way in which the idea of such tendencies have been misused, namely, that where conservative theorists invoke them uncritically to resist reform. But liberal theorists who combat such resistance need them just as much, and indeed usually more…

Human beings, therefore, share a common nature, which forms the substrate on which meaningful human life is based. Attempts to deny that humanity, to place upon it a life for which it is unsuited, we call dehumanization. The very idea of dehumanization is predicated on the idea that there is a human essence which has, in some fundamental sense, been degraded. Restoring our humanity presupposes that there is some essential humanity which needs to be restored. Furthermore, according to Midgley, that essence is where humanity finds resources with which to resist socialization.

Midgley tries to disconnect equality from a disembodied sameness, and instead advocate for equality in its embodied context: “…equality is not sameness. A belief in sameness here is both irrelevant to the struggle for equal rights and inconsistent with the facts. It ignores massive evidence of sex differences in brain and nerve structure occurring long before birth, and also of behavioural differences which are evidently independent of culture and sometimes contrary to it. It amounts to an extraordinary notion – evidently held on moral grounds – of the original human being as something neutral, sexless and indeterminate, something wholly detached from the brain and nervous system.”

[quoting Midgley on secular humanism] We need the vast world, and it must be a world that does not need us; a world constantly capable of surprising us, a world we did not program, since only such a world is the proper object of wonder. Any kind of  Humanism which deprives us of this, which insists on treating the universe as a mere projection screen for showing off human capacities, cripples and curtails humanity. “Humanists” often do this, because where there is wonder they think they smell religion, and they move hastily in to crush that unclean thing. But things much more unclean than traditional religion will follow the death of wonder.

Wonder is not simply curiosity. Curiosity is wonder without awe and reverence. It has lost the wider context. The object of our curiosity is in danger of becoming something without value, our relationship to it that of having knowledge devoid of wisdom. For Midgley, there is a paradox in the relationship with others around us – people, animals, plants, mountains, and rivers as examples. On the one hand, we experience wonder as we ponder something which is separate from us, something fundamentally different from us, with an evolutionary story and purpose of its own. And yet, simultaneously, we recognize that its meaning comes from the same story that human meaning comes from, and that our life’s purpose is intimately connected to the same source. Children, poets and scientists – that is, human beings who relate to life with a sense of humility and awe – have a particular prescience for wonder.

Kant didn’t just screw us with aesthetics, but ethics as well – Wisdom and the particular vs. Knowledge and the universal

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 02/21/2013

Godless yet good – Troy Jollimore [I am happy to see Murdoch get some well deserved attention, but surprised that her friend and colleague, Mary Midgley ‘s work isn’t mentioned. See this for example. And what about Nel Noddings?]

This emphasis on being attentive to concrete reality tallies with the idea that it is the emotions (compassion and sympathy in particular), rather than abstract rational principles, that are doing the motivating when it comes to ethical behaviour. Together they embody a critique of moral views, such as Kant’s, which rely on inflexible ethical principles allegedly derived from logic itself. In the work of McDowell, this critique is developed into a position called ‘moral particularism’, which rejects altogether the idea that we might one day compose or possess an ethical rulebook that would define the right thing to do in any conceivable situation. After all, what can count as a moral reason in one context might fail to be a reason in another, or might even be, in certain contexts, a reason pointing in the other direction.

…However, more recent investigators tend to prefer a picture in which several distinct and perhaps incommensurable factors make contributions to a person’s happiness. This fits in well with the particularists’ view that evaluation is always a holistic matter. It is worth remembering, too, that Aristotle understood eudaimonia, which is frequently translated into English as ‘happiness’, as something considerably broader and less subjective than pleasure or momentary satisfaction. Instead, it has to do with the general quality of one’s life as a whole.

For particularists, then, individual perception and judgment are always necessary to decide difficult ethical questions: there is no theoretical ethical system that can do the work for us. Principles are useful, perhaps, but only as rules of thumb, practical guidelines that hold for the most part, but to which there will always be exceptions. At the foundational level, ethics is built not on a system of rules, but on individual human beings who possess character, judgment, and wisdom.

Particularism re-opens the door to the idea of wisdom. It is an idea that Kantian and utilitarian ethics — and, for that matter, the modern world in general — have great trouble taking seriously. Wisdom, as opposed to knowledge, might seem a somewhat quaint notion in the contemporary world. (Indeed at this point even the word ‘knowledge’ sounds quaint to many people, who prefer to talk about ‘data’ or ‘information.’) The modern desire to replace individual wisdom and judgment with more objective, scientific methods of decision-making and evaluation has had profound effects on many aspects of our lives. In the field of education, where I work, it has led to ever-increasingly complex systems of rules and standards for professional conduct, for assessing teaching effectiveness, for making promotion decisions, even for designing courses and course curricula. The prevailing attitude is that we need a system of rules and principles to make and justify every decision, because we cannot trust the individuals involved enough to leave it up to their good judgment — even when the individuals involved are highly trained experts and just the sort of people capable of discerning how rules and principles should be implemented, and when they should be ignored or adapted. Similarly, the current plague of standardised testing inflicted on students leads to the slighting of skills and traits that are difficult to quantify: artistic talents, creativity, and moral attributes, among many others. This prevailing attitude is one that many Kantians and utilitarians would applaud, and one that Aristotle would deplore.

 

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