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

Posted in Uncategorized by dilettanteventures 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.

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