Professing Education


Linking Dewey's Logic To His Concept of
Growth: A Personal Encounter

George Demetrion

Director of Basic Literacy Programming
Literacy Volunteers of Greater Hartford

The philosopher of science, Karl Popper (1960 cited in Miller, 1985) observes, rather than progressing "from theory to theory," science might be better "visualized as progressing from problems to problems (original italics)—to problems of ever increasing depth" (p. 179). This position is similar to that of Dewey (1929/1958), who argues that problems burst forth from long-seated habitudes into consciousness, which then evoke a quest for resolution. Thus, for Dewey, "the starting point is" what is experienced as "the actually problematic" (original italics) (p. 67) in any given situation. Inquiry, more broadly, learning, is the primary method Dewey draws upon in the systematic effort of working from problems identified to "warranted resolutions" in any given situation. The recursive stages of inquiry progress via what Dewey refers to as a "means-ends" continuum in successive phases of hypothesis formation, data analysis, and experimentation in the leading toward the desired solution of the problem at hand.

For Dewey as with Popper, it is not typically theory that first stimulates a serious investigation. It is, rather, some perplexity that arouses doubt in an existing pattern of living or thought that then requires an investigation. The process includes provisional hypothesis (and eventual theory) formation along with the collection of and analysis of data in the careful working through of the various stages of an investigative process. Dewey (1938/1991) articulates this procedure most programmatically in his key chapter, "The Pattern of Inquiry" in Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (pp. 105-122). The object of such investigation is not the acquisition of knowledge, which for Dewey is a means. It is, rather, the resolution of the problem, to which knowledge contributes into the formation of a unified reconstruction. New challenges and problems emerge, but the result of a successful inquiry process is a proximate "close" to the earlier quandary. As Dewey expresses it in a classic statement:

Inquiry is the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one that is so determinate in its constituent distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the original situation into a unified whole. (original italics) (p. 108)

Dewey's logic shares close symmetries to his concept of growth as the enhancement of experience through critical thought and deliberate action through the operation of the means-ends continuum in the movement toward a satisfactory learning occurrence.

It is as a well-read field practitioner that I "discovered" Dewey's concept of growth in the early 1990s through an indirect route of reading Richard J. Bernstein's (1983) neo-pragmatic text Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Reflecting on my study of republican political ideology as a Ph.D. student in the field of U.S. history, I experienced a sense of connection, particularly with Bernstein's discussion of Gadamarian hermeneutics. I derived from that the prospect that this fruitful concept could serve as a vehicle through which to reconstruct a historical tradition, namely, the U.S. political culture on its founding republican, democratic and constitutional grounds. Through the impetus of Bernstein, I moved directly into the primary resources of the intellectual tradition and moral and political value center of the American pragmatic tradition through an engagement of Dewey's philosophy. Taking his concept of growth as an operating springboard, I concentrated on those aspects of his vast work that appealed to me or that I could readily understand, with the prospect that this would serve as a scaffold through which I could deepen my understanding of Dewey's philosophy and its possible applications to adult literacy education. The process that I described in that preceding sentence is itself an explanation of what Dewey means by growth, in short, progressive learning through continuity of development and engagement.

I experienced this systematic working through of Dewey's writing based on my own growing center of interest and knowledge. That is, my experience shifted from that of relative novice to emergent specialist as a result of a deliberate process of taking this effort on. This was stimulated by what Dewey (1934/1989) refers to as "an impulsion" of motivational energy that the task offered the prospect of a sense of direction and coherence that I sought to attain. In terms of Dewey's logic, that was a tentative hypothesis that pushed the experiment forward which would require considerable experimentation, analysis and refinement to prove its mettle in my living experience as an adult literacy educator. This gradual shift from novice to specialist emerged as a felt accomplishment in the expansion of my understanding as I began to reflect upon and shape my practice based on what I came to understand and experience. That is, as I worked through this framework in my practice as an adult literacy practitioner and in my more formal academic thinking about the subject, my understanding of the nuances of Deweyan philosophy grew.

The insight that that single word "growth" unleashed has taken on symbolic proportions which, admittedly moves toward the iconic. This is guarded against by a sense of skepticism that a metaphor can serve as an adequate representation of reality. The additional factor is an awareness of the profusion of problems that face the field of adult literacy education in the working toward any proximate resolution that proposes a coherent source of direction. Nonetheless, as a metaphor, a poetic way of thinking, and as a heuristic, I have found Dewey's concept of growth a fruitful one. In my early thinking with this concept, it evoked an imaginative resolution to the problem that I encountered in thinking about adult literacy education through the dominant paradigms of, respectively, functional and critical literacy, neither of which seemed to have gotten to the core of what I observed on site. There needed to be a middle way between these poles, I sensed. Yet, the resolution remained vague until I happened on Dewey's axial concept of growth that opened up the prospect of working out the problem of a viable definition of literacy that had perplexed me.

Initially, this concept served less as a formal intellectual framework than as a creative explanation of what I concretely experienced as a program manager of an adult literacy program in Hartford, Connecticut. It was not that I discovered Dewey's writing, but that his concept of growth that I adapted from his work seemed to have fit my situation. It was through this internalization of this core idea that I then sought to organize my activities in program, instructional, and curriculum development. As I continued to work with this concept, I increasingly sought to explore the various theoretical underpinnings that underlay Dewey's notion of growth even while persisting with what might be viewed as only a partially successful effort of developing a viable praxis through it in the literacy program I operated (Demetrion, 2000). I began to characterize this Deweyan space, based on the tradition of philosophical pragmatism, as a "middle ground" that was congruent with a distinctively American politics and pedagogy. The working through and the testing of this core idea, has consumed much of my practice and academic writing for the past decade (Demetrion, 2001, 2002, 2004).

Progress might have served as a less evocative term in the capturing of much of what I sought in the imagery unleashed in my mind by the term growth. This particular term, however, has the benefit of a specific philosophy of education articulated by Dewey (1916/1944, 1938/1963) and elaborated upon by contemporary Deweyan educational scholars (Garrison, 1997, 1998). It is this concept of growth that underpins Dewey's (1938/1963) quest for an "intellectual organization that can be worked out on the ground of experience" (p. 85) that I find so potentially fruitful for the field of adult literacy education even if only as an imaginative heuristic. Dewey defines growth in a variety of ways. The following, an apt summary of the entire concept, provides a useful introduction:

[G]rowth depends upon the presence of a difficulty to be overcome by the exercise of intelligence…[I]t is part of the educator's responsibility to see equally to two things: First, that the problem grows out of the conditions of the experience being had in the present, and that it is within the range of the capacities of students; and secondly, that it is such that it arouses in the learner an active quest for information and for production of new ideas. The new facts and the new ideas become the ground for further experiences in which new problems are presented. The process is a continuous cycle. (p. 79)

Dewey's concept of growth permeates his key book, Democracy and Education (1916/1944). It is invariably linked with the optimistic imagery of the vision of American democracy that he held, notwithstanding skepticism toward any easy hope. As Dewey (1917) expresses it: "Faith in the power of intelligence to imagine a future which is the projection of the desirable in the present, and to invent the instrumentalities of its realization is our salvation" (p. 69). It is this faith that Dewey tied to an American vision of a progressive culture and society in which the growth of individuals is the expression itself of the nation's foremost ideals in an increasingly humane and democratic political culture.

As Dewey (1927) elsewhere put it about the "New World" civilization, at the heart of the American experiment is "[t]he liberation of individual potentialities" through "the evocation of personal and voluntary associated energies. " That is, the nurturing of "individuals and their potentialities" (p. 322) depends upon communities that both foster and depend upon what Dewey (1927/1954) elsewhere describes as the Great Community. This is an elusive ideal, but one grounded in the peculiarity of the American imagination, which holds the promise of unleashing potentialities of a better society and culture through progressively realized selves. This, in a nutshell, is what Dewey means by growth in which for him education would serve as a primary pathway for its unfolding. I have richly drawn on this concept in a decade's worth of work in the field of adult literacy education.


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The ideas expressed in this article are elaborated upon in the tenth chapter of George Demetrion's book, Conflicting Paradigms in Adult Literacy Education: In Quest of a U.S. Democratic Politics of Literacy. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004. An overview of the book can be accessed at: