Professing Education


Professing Bildung

Jim Garrison

Virginia Tech

In his recent book, A Search for Unity in Diversity: The "Permanent Hegelian Deposit" in the Philosophy of John Dewey, James A. Good makes much of what he calls "the lost Bildung tradition in American philosophy." Good places Dewey in that tradition. In doing so, he gives us a new, yet familiar way of looking not only at Dewey, but at the very idea of professing education.

For Hegel, Bildung is a crucial concept that unifies issues of development, education, and form, including logical, aesthetic, and ethical forms. The idea of Bildung expresses the emergent formative development of the natural biological individual by the institutions and practices of culture, including, but not limited to, explicitly educational institutions and their agents (e.g., professors), along with the development of culture by individuals. It is connected to the idea that every individual has unique potential and it is the task of education to form that potential so that every individual can make their unique contribution to the culture that originally shaped them. Those who know Dewey well can readily recognize these themes in his educational writings.

Hegel was a member of the first full generation of German artists and intellectuals (including Herder, Goethe, and later Novalis) who reacted against the excesses of the Enlightenment. Hölderlin, one of the greatest and most philosophical of all German poets, was his close friend. What all these Romantics (or perhaps more accurately neo-humanists) had in common was a concern with unifying the ideals of the radical freedom of the subject with the subject's expressive richness. The highest achievement was to exercise one's freedom in such a way as to creatively express oneself as a unique work of art. The narrative of self-creation, the Bildungsroman, was an especially popular expression of this ideal. The German Romantics tended to work out freedom and expressiveness within the narrative of the larger culture that initially shaped them and that they then reshaped in the course of their personal self-creation. Those who sense undercurrents of Romanticism and other than Enlightenment thinking in Dewey are correct (see Goodman, 1990 and Haskins, 1999).

Hegel (1807/1977) insists that "an individual cannot know what he is until he has made himself a reality through action" (section 401). This making is Bildung, and for Hegel that involves the use of tools and language that emerges in organized labor. As Alexandre Kojève (1969) writes: "Work is Bildung, in the double meaning of the word: on the one hand, it forms, transforms the World, humanizes it by making it more adapted to Man; on the other, it transforms, forms, educates man, it humanizes him" (p. 52). The transformative activity of socially organized labor is crucial for Dewey who sees labor as transforming the self as the self transforms the world. I wish to emphasize this aspect of Hegel's influence on Dewey. This influence not only leads Dewey (1916/1980) to write a chapter in Democracy and Education titled "Vocational Aspects of Education," but to say in it: "An occupation is a continuous activity having a purpose. Education through occupations consequently combines within itself more of the factors conducive to learning than any other method (p. 319). Dewey's emphasis on "through" here is crucial. He did not mean for an occupation, but the formative development that occurs through participating in the various occupations of a culture.

I want to look at the occupation of professing education. I am especially interested in how it educates those who occupy that social role. I will only look at one facet of the occupation of professing education, the one where the proper professing of education is inseparable from the proper receiving of education. This is the place where Bildung implicates the professor, the professed (subject matter), and the recipient of the profession. Consider Dewey's (1916/1980) following comment regarding communication:

Not only is social life identical with communication, but all communication (and hence all genuine social life) is educative. To be the recipient of a communication is to have an enlarged and changed experience . . . Nor is the one who communicates left unaffected. Try the experiment of communicating with fullness and accuracy, some experience to another, especially if it be somewhat complicated, and you will find your own attitude toward your experience changing... The experience has to be formulated in order to be communicated. To formulate requires getting outside of it, seeing it as another would see it, considering what points of contact it has with the life of another so that it may be got into such form that he can appreciate its meaning. (p. 8)

The foregoing comment is, however, thickly layered; let us explore three layers as they pertain to the recipient of an educative communication, the conveyer of communication, and what is communicated.

If Good is right that Dewey is in the Bildung tradition, then the most educative communication should assist the recipient, let us say a student, to realize their unique potential and, thereby, become a truly unique individual capable of making creative contributions to the community (including, for instance, the classroom community). Now let us turn to the conveyer of communication; for example, one who professes education. The professing of education is communicative; hence, if Dewey is correct, educative. The best professors of education help students realize the Romantic ideal of developing their own narrative of creative self-expression. Notice, however, that if Dewey is correct, the act of professing should also allow professors to develop their own narrative. Communication, hence, education, is transactionally transformative for Dewey. Finally, notice that it is necessary to reformulate the structure of what is being communicated; for instance, the subject matter. Sometimes, restructuring the subject matter leads not only to better understanding, but to genuinely novel creation. In this way not only are individuals transformed, but so also are cultural artifacts. I have only examined three layers, but suspect there are more. I do not think the three "layers" form a hierarchy, but they are actually organically related. They are simply three subfunctions of the larger function of educating (or communicating). Exploring the emergent relations of communicative education poses an exciting possibility, but I leave that for another occasion, though the readers might enjoy coming up with their own, perhaps different, ideas. Instead, I want to draw a somewhat surprising conclusion.

My computer comes equipped with an electronic version of the Oxford American Dictionary, which allows lazy people like me to quickly look up words like "professing." When I did, I got "profess":

profess: verb [ trans. ]

1 claim openly but often falsely that one has (a quality or feeling): he had professed his love for her | [with infinitive] I don't profess to be an expert | [with complement] (profess oneself) he professed himself amazed at the boy's ability.

2 affirm one's faith in or allegiance to (a religion or set of beliefs): a people professing Christianity.

• (be professed) be received into a religious order under vows: she entered St. Margaret's Convent, and was professed in 1943.

3 dated or humorous teach (a subject) as a professor: a professor—what does he profess?

4 archaic have or claim knowledge or skill in (a subject or accomplishment).

ORIGIN Middle English (as be professed [be received into a religious order]): from Latin profess- `declared publicly,' from the verb profiteri, from pro- `before' + fateri `confess.'

Not being ridiculously lazy, I found that other dictionaries provide similar definitions. If we are to properly profess education then it is best we receive an education when engaging in the occupation. My conclusion is this: if by "professing education" we mean professing Deweyan Bildung, we can define ourselves in much better ways than some other authoritative sources in society would define us, and I am not just thinking about dictionaries.



Dewey, J. (1916/1980). Democracy and education. In Jo Ann Boydston (ed.), John Dewey: The Middle Works, Volume 9. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Good, James A. (2006). A search for unity in diversity: The "permanent Hegelian deposit" in the philosophy of John Dewey. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Goodman, R. B. (1990). American philosophy and the Romantic tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Haskins, C. (1999). "Dewey's Romanticism." In Casey Haskins and David I. Seiple (eds.), Dewey: Reconfigured essays on Deweyan pragmatism. Albany: State University of New Your Press (97-131).

Hegel, G. W. F. (1807/1977). The phenomenology of spirit. A. V. Miller (trans.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kojève, Alexandre (1969). Introduction to the reading of Hegel. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.


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