Linking Dewey's Logic To His Concept of
Growth: A Personal Encounter
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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(Retrieved, January 2, 2004).
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profiles in a Deweyan vein. Adult Basic Education,
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education: In Quest of a U.S. democratic politics of literacy.
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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: