Full Title: The Gleam of Light: Moral Perfectionism and Education in Dewey and Emerson
Author: Naoko Saito
Forward by: Stanley Cavell
Publisher: Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press
Paperback 200 pages
University of Hawaii-Manoa
Essentially, this book answers the
various critics of John Dewey's educational philosophy
by putting Dewey in critical but fruitful dialogue
with transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.
"Inevitably, Deweyan growth reconstructed in the light
of Emersonian Moral Perfectionism will turn our
eyes into philosophy as education" (p.11), writes
Naoko Saito in her recently released book, The Gleam
of Light; Moral Perfectionism and Education in Dewey and
Emerson. In constructing a hopeful answer to many of today's educational
problems, including the isolation and disenchantment
of students and teachers, Saito creatively goes
beyond both Dewey and Emerson in a way compatible
with both of their philosophies of educational growth.
Neither Dewey nor Emerson separate
the formal project of education from living everyday
life educationally. Open-ended, continually
transforming growth is central to a flourishing human
experience. They also think that this growth takes place both
in private and while we are engaged in society. Dewey's description of the private sphere is
similar to Emerson's characterization of each person as
an individual "gleam of light" (p. 4), while
Dewey's public sphere is similar to Emerson's ideas
about friendship. The dialectic of these two
equally important spheres of individual and community
is iterated both in the classroom and in the
extension of education to life outside the classroom.
However, Saito finds significant disparities in how Dewey and Emerson manage the
intersection of individual and community in education.
She explains that although Dewey frequently
expresses concern for the "tragedy of the lost individual"
(p.1) in modern society, this individual is
sometimes parenthesized when Dewey introduces
"social reconstruction of criteria" (p.81) to determine
the end for continual growth. Saito details
several examples of what she believes is Dewey's
"avoidance of extreme deviance" to the point where
his "attitude towards the `exceptional' individual
seems to become less tolerant, or even inflexible"
(p.88). The most notable of these examples, and for
Saito the greatest challenge to Dewey's philosophy
of education, is the way that Dewey views the
"recalcitrant" child in his chapter on "Social Control"
from Experience and Education (p.88). Although
he does advise teachers to be patient and consider "the causes for the recalcitrant attitudes,"
Dewey still views such attitudes as "unruly" and contrary
to the "normal, proper conditions of control" (pp.
88-89). Because "exceptions rarely prove a rule
or give a clue to what the rule should be," the
"personal will" of the student is secondary to the
"moving spirit of the whole group" (pp. 88-89).
Saito feels that the way that, with this language,
"Dewey speaks about _ and does not speak for _ the recalcitrant child suggests his tendency to muffle
the voice of a single child in the confidence of an
adult" and to "endorse a prevailing conformity" (p.89).
Fortunately, explains Saito, this shortcoming in Dewey's philosophy of education can be
corrected through Dewey's essentially dialogic
attitude. Although Dewey struggles with one part of
his educational dialogue _ the dialogue with the
recalcitrant child _ this cannot be final in light of his
commitment to mutually engaging educational
dialogue. Dewey's commitment to socially revised criteria is
a fundamental insight that provides resources for revising his own account of how such
revision occurs. Saito shows that in Emerson, we find
a dialogic other who influenced Dewey
significantly, and through whom Deweyan educational
philosophy can be now read, both as reinterpretation
and as reconstruction. Emerson's individualistic gleam
of light, his fondness for "whim" (p.103), and
his favourable description of the aimless and
taunting "nonchalant boy" (p.89), all provide a
firmer grounding for considering how the deviant
could contribute to the socially revised criteria.
When Dewey gains Emerson's ideas of friendship and respect for the individual's light, and Emerson
gains Dewey's commitment to a social sphere of
learning, both Dewey and Emerson can be more useful
to educators. Explains Saito, when we read Dewey through Emerson, we learn to value "the
nonconformist within society" (p.88) who has
discovered that "the gleam of light requires the encounter
with the other" (p.159).
Saito also addresses two other concerns that educators frequently have with
Dewey's philosophy. First, critics of Dewey's idea of
education as progressive growth frequently ask
"growth towards what" (p.6)? When readers of Dewey
try to answer this question, they usually answer in
one of two ways: either Dewey is a complete
relativist, who sees no good and bad in growth as long
as there is change, or Dewey is a dogmatic realist
who equates the scientific method with
intelligence. Educators reject absolute relativism because
they are concerned with the real possibility of failure
_ but they also reject dogmatic realism because it does not leave enough room for creativity
or individual values.
Saito argues that Dewey is neither a relativist nor a dogmatic realist. Saito explains that with
his ideal of pluralism, Dewey is exploring "a
third realm of human experience that lies beyond
the either-or choice of metaphysical realism or
relativism." This pluralism meshes well with
Emerson's moral perfectionism, which sees the ideal self
as always both attained and unattainable; the goal
is neither relative nor absolute. Temporal experience
is the key to resolving the dilemma. The goal of education is neither (statically) relative nor
(statically) absolute, but, in Emerson's phrase, "a flying perfect" (p.78). This asymptotic idea of
perfection "around which the hands of man can never meet" (p.78), calls our current lives into question with a
goal, but also develops as we develop, leading us onward with an ever better goal. As Saito explains,
"perfection is perfecting" (p.78) within the interplay of radical individual and friendly community, nourishing
the participatory nonconformist.
Finally, Saito also addresses the final criticism that both Dewey and Emerson are naïvely
optimistic about the ability of human will. Saito disagrees with the claim that as nineteenth-century humanists
neither Dewey nor Emerson understand or address the real tragedy possible in this world. She shows that
in Dewey's "tragedy of the lost individual" and Emerson's "decent, indolent, complaisant" (p.131)
scholar, there is a double sense of the tragic: not only have we lost the gleam of light, but we have forgotten that
it existed and therefore have lost the sense of loss. Saito connects this dilemma with contemporary
educational reforms that ignore whatever cannot be measured. To see education as growth means that one
must see this double sense of the tragic _ but at the same time go beyond awareness of real tragedy to
creating the ground for real hope. Searching for the flying perfect is part of humanity's best chance at developing
a kind of education that truly enables the creative dialogic flourishing of individual and society.
Fittingly, however, Saito's most powerful answer to recent criticisms of Dewey lie in the
motion and product of her writing. She has written a work of educational philosophy that dialogically engages
the ideas of Dewey and Emerson to go beyond both Dewey and Emerson in the kind of progressive
educational growth that Dewey advocated. If the critical reductions were true _ if Dewey advocated
either individualism or socialization, or either relativism or dogmatism _ then Saito's creative, passionate,
and beneficial work would not have been possible.