John Dewey and the Philosophy and Practice of Hope
reviewed by Jim Garrison - February 22, 2008
Title: John Dewey and the Philosophy and Practice of Hope
Author(s): Stephen M. Fishman and Lucille McCarthy
Publisher: University of Illinois Press, Urbana-Champaign
ISBN: 0252032004 , Pages: 248, Year: 2007
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Those who have enjoyed Fishman and McCarthys earlier collaborations that stir fine philosophy, serious classroom practice, and careful empirical study into a savory stew will find their latest offering to their taste. I also recommend this most recent work to those who have not yet had the pleasure.
The book is not full of the kind of gushy optimism we often associate with the idea and ideal of hope, especially as we find it in capitalistic boosterism, American triumphantalism, or the gospel of greed. The opening sentence acknowledges: Hope has come on hard times these days (p. xv). Steve Fishman opens up his part of the prologue by admitting: My own despair surprises me, (p. xvi) while Lucille McCarthy confesses despair about the ecological suicide that we humans are engaged in committing, the ever increasing gaps between rich and poor, and seemingly endless procession of ethnic and national conflicts, fueled in part by my own countrys greed and reliance on force (p. xxi). Some critics claim Dewey was naively optimistic. Fishman and McCarthy show instead that he is a source of mature and intelligent hope. Theirs is a book for our time with lessons that will stand for many other times and places.
Steve Fishman authors Part I, The Philosophy of Hope. The first chapter constructs an original theory of hope from the various hints and clues that Dewey offers (p. 3). Neither Dewey nor Fishman proffer ontotheological hope. Instead, they give us something much more modest, but also something more able to intervene in events rather than simply supervene. The first component to hope that Fishman derives from Dewey is gratitude. Such gratitude realizes that we exist by grace. We remain connected to all that brought us into existence and all that continues to sustain us. Further, we remain connected to everything yet to come. The result is natural and social piety, as Fishman puts it (p. 7). The second component is intelligent wholeheartedness, which involves claiming and being claimed by an ideal and working to realize that ideal (p. 9). Fishman cites the following passage from Dewey as most critical to his own construction of a theory of hope:
Fidelity to the nature to which we belong, as parts however weak, demands that we cherish our desires and ideals til we have converted them into intelligence . . . . [W]e know that though the universe slay us still we may trust, for our lot is one with whatever is good in existence. (p. 9)
The echoing of the Old Testament book of Job matters. While we may feel ourselves afflicted, we may nonetheless maintain our ways before even the greatest of powers. The last component is enriched present experience. The only place we may take ameliorative action is the present. It is in the present moment that we may initiate or continue mediating instrumental action as well as experience immediate consummatory joy. Through immediate engrossment, we may recover the past into a present that may anticipate a better future, thereby overcoming excessive regret about the past that is beyond our influence and anxiety about the future that we are yet to engage.
Fishman places Dewey in dialogue with three other mavens of hope, Gabriel Marcel, Paulo Freire, and C. R. Snyder and the movement called positive psychology. Marcel believed we become hopeless because the society in which we live neglects the transcendent, spiritual potential of human existence (p. 33). Although Marcel is a theist who embraces metaphysical hope and Dewey is a naturalist who eschews it, Fishman shows that both agree that excessive competition, selfish individualism, and greed are symptoms of hopelessness. Both also emphasize communion with the larger whole, a sense of purpose, and the legitimacy of our ineffable and indescribable experiences of belonging to a world wherein our works matter as grounds for hope.
Fishman remembers what many forget: Freire too had commitments to Christian-existentialist terms like love, humanization, salvation, and rebirth (p. 56). Nonetheless, both pin their ultimate hope on democracy and education. Fishman recognizes that Freires third world perspective leads him to a more politically charged and a revolutionary version of the role of education in political reform, while Dewey remains a moderate gradualist. Both share a strong critique of capitalism as disabling the democratic hope. Fishman rightly reads Freire as closing gaps in Deweys educational thinking that supplement Fishmans construction of a Deweyan theory of hope.
Snyder and the positive psychologists seek to articulate an empirically grounded vision of the good life that is not, like much of the work in the social sciences, politically naïve or morally neutral. Snyders particular theory of hope has three basic components: willpower, waypower, and clear goals. His study of more than ten thousand people shows that those who are very specific about their goals are higher in willpower and waypower than those whose goals are vague or poorly defined (p. 81). Sharply defined goals seem to stimulate greater motivation and the search for ways to obtain our ends. Fishman further notes that Snyder has little to say about despair, whereas for Dewey, hope emerges in the anxiety that occurs when our habitual way of doing things fails. Fishman finds few signs of ultimate hope, democratic or ontotheological, in positive psychology and so he finds it a bit confining and technical. Because he also finds it quite valuable, Fishman offers some suggestions about how an emphasis on democratic social reform might insert elements of ultimate hope into positive psychology.
Fishman concludes his dialogue with Dewey, Marcel, Freire, and Snyder by weaving a wise, connection between hope, climbing mountains, and creativity. Fishman recalls the story, told by Max Otto, that Dewey once advised a young physician: When you are no longer interested in climbing mountains to see the other mountains to climb, life is over (p. xviii). Fishman feels this image captures Deweys belief that the exhilarating and joyous experience of creatively meeting our inevitable disturbances takes some of the sting from death (p. 101). It is the glorious YES to life that calls forth creative response to even the worst of times and circumstances.
Fishman taught Dewey, Marcel, Freire, and Snyder in an undergraduate college course on hope. In the considerably shorter Part II of the book, The Practice of Hope, Lucille McCarthy uses empirical methods to look at each of the ten students in the class, the teacher, and their interactions. The result is the kind of open, vulnerable, realistic portrayal of teaching for which McCarthy is well known in her collaborations with Fishman, with others, and independently. She examines the teachers goals for the course, including co-inquiry and constructed knowing. She examines both the students and teachers history with the processes leading to these goals. She also inspects the various writing assignments, class discussion approaches, and such. As with other work in their collaboration, failures are exposed, successes recorded, and uncertainties acknowledged. McCarthys work always has verisimilitude. It looks and feels like youre teaching, when you are honestly reflecting on it. The word teach is an intentional act verb subject to all the vicissitudes of human intentions, comic, tragic, sometimes boring, and sometimes exhilarating.
McCarthy looks at five students who enrolled because they needed more hope, only one of which had a strong academic record. These students found the course very challenging, but McCarthy was impressed that they felt their needs were met while also acquiring considerable content understanding. She attributes this to Fishmans success in engaging them in nondirective, constructive co-inquiry in which they felt safe to explore their own thoughts and feelings. McCarthy also looks at five more students that simply showed up. This group was less successful. For three of these students not much happened. They got their ticket punched on the train to graduation, although she wisely notes that we can never tell for sure about the long-term consequences of our teaching. These students simply did not engage in constructive co-inquiry. The remaining two students did seem to derive something substantial from the course. McCarthy notes that these two students seemed to develop some personal involvement with the course material.
Theory without practical content is empty speculation. McCarthys section is essential to the success of this book. It allows us to see concretely the ambiguity, ambivalence, and difficulty of teaching hope, and for hope, in our classrooms.
In their final reflections, Fishman finds that he feels he has a better understanding of the idea and issues of hope and his struggles with it. He better appreciates how the natural world will cooperate with his efforts, and is grateful that most of his students got something from his course. McCarthy finds that while she started rather exhausted by their collaboration, she became more hopeful as a researcher and more appreciative of the importance of seeking out the enduring residues of teaching. She also finds that I am more hopeful as a result of watching these undergraduates seriousness (p. 166). She acknowledges that she gets to know most of the students she researches better than most of those she teaches herself, which might be one reason to engage in certain kinds of action research in every classroom. McCarthy also comes away with hope that I can, in the future, overcome obstacles similar to the ones I overcame in this research and experience similar joys (p. 167). So did I.