Professing Education

Book Review 

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

Rebecca Glass

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.