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John Dewey, Robert Pirsig, and the Art of Living: Revisioning Aesthetic Education

reviewed by Douglas J. Simpson - September 12, 2007

coverTitle: John Dewey, Robert Pirsig, and the Art of Living: Revisioning Aesthetic Education
Author(s): David A. Granger
Publisher: Palgrave/MacMillan, New York
ISBN: 1403974020, Pages: 307, Year: 2006
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Those who are students of John Dewey and Robert Pirsig will want to read if not purchase this volume. This laudatory comment, of course, does not mean that David Granger’s title will immediately resonate with everyone, especially those who are unfamiliar with Dewey or Pirsig. For example, it will be easy to anticipate the question of someone who is only vaguely familiar with Dewey and Pirsig: What does philosophy of education have to do with motorcycle maintenance? Granger would have no difficulty answering questions of this kind. In fact, he does so only obliquely in the book by raising and answering four questions of his own, queries that guide much of what he includes in the volume. These four questions— (1) What sort of world is it that makes art as experience possible? (2) What is the general nature of aesthetic experience and how might it serve to nurture the human erōs? (3) How might art as experience contribute to an everyday poetics of living? (4) What kinds of learning environments—formal and informal—help to foster art as experience?—are answered throughout the volume, largely in sets of two chapters per question, with the exception of the fourth question that is basically approached in chapter 7 along with a brief revisiting and blending of the prior three questions and their answers.

Although asking how a particular topic will help educators in a school often reflects a raw instrumentalism, such questions frequently provide important information. So, this review begins with Granger’s fourth question: “What kinds of learning environments—formal and informal—help to foster art as experience?” In Chapter 7 Learning and Teaching Art as Experience, we find a pursuit of this and related questions.  In an interesting illustration of the desirable, Granger employs Pirsig’s ideas to illustrate how a Deweyan class or school and related learning environments might look.  At first, Pirsig’s ideas appear in the foreground and Dewey’s in the background and, later, Dewey’s thought seems in the foreground and Pirsig’s in the background. Upon reflection, neither of these scenarios may be sufficiently accurate; for, Granger may be using Pirsig’s details to fill in some of the particulars of Dewey’s theoretical statements. Whatever the reasons for the approach and his extensive use of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, this chapter may be an invaluable read for educators who are studying Dewey’s educational and aesthetic theories and who want to understand how these theories might be operationalized in a classroom, which is—or ideally will become—a part of the more general experience of the art of living. Of course, reading the chapter also provides a rich Deweyan theoretical context for understanding Pirsig’s insightful illustrations.

Granger is adept at answering his remaining three questions, too. In chapters 1-2, he moves into the realm of Deweyan and Pirsigian metaphysics, a term that for Dewey provided no particular pleasure. Unavoidably, perhaps, Granger moves beyond metaphysics and discusses epistemic issues, cultural contexts, qualitative experiences, empirical inquiry, practical inquiry, and evaluative judgments while seeking to determine what kind of world makes art as experience possible.  His conclusion, rooted in as well as echoing both Pirsig and Dewey, is that both a dynamic and stable world is needed in order to enhance the flourishing of artful living, a world that is characterized by inquiry, freedom, imagination, creativity, and aesthetic experiences. Of course, his conclusion results in the rejection of any world that is seen as basically static, finished, unchanging, or prescribed.

In chapters 3-4, we are introduced to Dewey and Pirsig’s aesthetics. With significant precision, Granger clarifies Dewey’s notions of an experience and aesthetic experience, noting both the cognitive and non-cognitive elements as appropriate. Similarly, the differences between artistic and mechanical approaches to motorcycle maintenance are examined, with the outcome being that one would rarely prefer the mechanical approach over the artistic one. In the context of Romanticism, especially the naturalistic supernaturalism of Wordsworth, Granger argues against the dogma that reason must invariably belittle chiefly or appreciably non-cognitive forms of experience and acquiring meaning, e.g., the aesthetic and religious. One might add that the reverse is true, too: that an emphasis on the aesthetic in Dewey’s writings need not result in underemphasizing the importance of inquiry, knowing, and warranted assertions in his works.

Renewal, both cultural and personal, is the general theme of chapters 5-6. Granger immediately explores the concept of radical skepticism and explains why the impulse to be a thoroughgoing skeptic is detrimental to the art of living. The skeptic who, for example, insists upon absolutely certain knowledge in all realms of inquiry and meaning-making deprives her- or himself of the more meaningful living that can be experienced even in the presence of partial knowledge and doubt. Cultural and personal renewal, then, is based in part on individuals and society understanding what Aristotle long ago advised: we should not ask for a degree of certainty that a form of inquiry or meaning-making cannot provide. Personal renewal is also enhanced by a person or self becoming more unified as a partial consequence of learning from and enjoying various forms of inquiry and aesthetic experience. A self-absorbed skepticism and a one-sided cognitive approach to life lack the power to contribute appreciably to the unity of the self.

Pause for a moment to recall our cursory discussion of chapter 7 Learning and Teaching Art as Experience. Now, it seems appropriate to revisit the question of how schools—and society, too—can be enhanced by Dewey and Pirsig’s reflections. In an overly succinct summation, it can be hypothesized that when imaginative educators collaborate to create environments that nurture the scope of Dewey’s emphases on the aesthetic potential of inquiry and thinking and other aesthetic experiences, a significant step will be made toward Deweyan schools. When his emphasis on educative experiences is drawn from Experience and Education and related works and added to his views of inquiry and aesthetics, he gives us a model of teaching and learning that includes the whole person in a democratic society in pursuit of the entire continuum of cognitive-non-cognitive experiences, experiences that are intellectually and emotionally satisfying and which leave us with positive images of these overlapping and commingling realms of understanding and meaning making.  Thus in his revised edition of Ethics, Dewey claims that the final test of institutions, among other entities, is “what they do to awaken curiosity and inquiry in worthy directions; what they do to render men and women more sensitive to beauty and truth; more disposed to act in creative ways; more skilled in voluntary cooperation.” Happily, Granger’s John Dewey, Robert Pirsig, and the Art of Living: Revisioning Aesthetic Education opens the door wider so that we can more clearly and readily enter and reconstruct our schools in order to meet this “final test.”

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 12, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14607, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 2:49:03 AM

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About the Author
  • Douglas Simpson
    Texas Tech University
    E-mail Author
    DOUGLAS J. SIMPSON is professor of education and occupies the Helen DeVitt Jones Chair in Teacher Education, Texas Tech University, where he coordinates the M. Ed. and Ph. D. Programs in Curriculum and Instruction. He edits the Journal of Thought: A Journal of Critical Reflection on Educational Issues and is the author or co-author of a number of books, including The Pedagodfathers: The Lords of Education, John Dewey and the Art of Teaching, John Dewey Primer, and Educational Reform: A Deweyan Perspective. Presently, he is working with others on two volumes, the first on educational leadership and ethics and the second on Dewey and contemporary educational issues.
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