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Education, Modernity, and Fractured Meaning: Toward a Process of Theory and Learning

reviewed by William E. Doll, Jr. - 1990

coverTitle: Education, Modernity, and Fractured Meaning: Toward a Process of Theory and Learning
Author(s): Donald W. Oliver, Kathleen Waldron Gershman
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 0887069428, Pages: , Year: 1989
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Many readers will find this to be two books in one-the first defined by the book’s overall title, Education, Modernity, and Fractured Meaning; the other defined by the book’s fifth chapter, “Cosmology as Curriculum,” each evoking different feelings.

In dealing with the concept of modernity and its fracturing of our views about both meaning and education, Oliver and Gershman have entered the modernist-postmodernist debate. This debate assumes, correctly I believe, that we have come to “the end of an age” and are (for better or worse) embarked on a new “post” age: postindustrial, poststructural, postideological. In dealing with the concept of cosmology as curriculum, Oliver and Gershman have undertaken the task of proposing curricular considerations for this post age, considerations that take a radically different approach to both meaning and education—namely, a Whiteheadian process approach.

Modernity, defined as a way of knowing (technical-rational) dominant within a particular time period (late sixteenth to early-mid twentieth century), has encouraged us to see our universe and its reality in mechanical and atomistic terms—as individual “bits” that can be taken apart, combined, analyzed separately. Knowledge in this model is what we find on quiz shows and standardized tests, the accumulation of “bits of information relating to discrete problems” (p. 8). Such knowledge lies outside us and our relations; it has little if anything to do with our being. Grounded outside us, not within, it is “technical knowledge,” not “ontological knowledge” (pp. 15ff.).

The modernist view that reality can be fragmented means—for Oliver and Gershman—that “the whole creative process of ideation” (and of generating metaphors, of abstracting) is transformed from “an adventure in understanding to a set of technical tasks”—limited, highly do-able tasks (p. 18). The authors want to soar beyond, and believe humans have the potential to soar beyond, the limitations of this view. They want to recapture the adventure of understanding. This adventure, fraught with perils and possibilities, lies, they feel, at the very heart of living a meaningful life. It is an adventure that can be experienced only through the use of the whole body and the capabilities our bodies have to express themselves in artistic and moral terms, as well as in intellectual terms. Again, the technical-rational mode of representation and knowing has dwarfed our sense of being, our ontology.

For this sense of a fuller self, Oliver and Gershman turn to Alfred North Whitehead’s idea of cosmology and the concept of process it generates. At this point the second book emerges—a theoretically fascinating, personally provocative, and intellectually problematic book. It is true that our post age is a process age just as our modernist-industrial age was a product age. A process age sees change as fundamental, even necessary and protean; a product age wishes to stabilize change, to control it in order to provide a uniform product. The question is not whether process should be central—it should. The question is whether process should be based on Whitehead’s (mystical and metaphysical) cosmology. This is the provocative and problematic assumption Oliver and Gershman have made.

Others who have dealt with process and its implications for meaning (but not for education), notably Richard Bernstein and Richard Rorty,1 have rejected Whitehead’s metaphysics as too mystical and emotive. Rorty, in fact, wishes to dismiss metaphysics altogether and uses Hans-Georg Gadamer’s concept of conversation as the basis for process. That is, process has no basis other than itself. The intent is to keep the dialogue open, to solve practical problems, not to develop an overarching theoretical structure within which to place those problems. This neo-pragmatic approach, combining the pragmatism of American philosophy with the hermeneutics of continental philosophy, is being adapted by a number of others, some in education, some in artificial intelligence.

To wish that Oliver and Gershman had included this trend in their book, and to hope they will do so in future writings, is not to negate Whitehead’s contribution to the concept of process. His cosmology, defined by the authors as combining “metaphysics, science, religious intuition, the arts, and history” (p. 55) within the “framework of a meaningful story” (p. 156), does have much to offer. Whitehead based his philosophy on quantum physics. He was one of the first to realize that change, unpredictability, and indeterminancy must be considered essential to any theory of meaning. For him, reality does not lie fixed “out there,” to be discovered or mirrored. It lies in present moment relations. As the title of his famous work Process and Reality implies, reality is relationships, relationships we “prehend” or sense before we analyze. Emphasizing a sense of feeling as the basis for (later) logical analysis carries at least two educational messages: (1) Education is a transformative process, from the feeling of intuitions to the general abstraction of principles; (2) the methods we use to express this transformation need not be limited to the symbols of quantification. Expressions of dance, art, drama, storytelling (with its rich use of metaphors), are just as powerful and maybe even more transformative. Further, in these other forms, with their emphasis on spontaneous and self-directed creativity, we see more clearly and distinctly our “participation in our own becoming” (p. 193). Meaning is not something we discover or have infused in us from outside; it is the essence of our experiences, our becomings, as we act out, reflect on, and abstract these experiences, becomings. The pedagogical, social, political, and philosophical implications of this process view are enormous. Oliver and Gershman have given us a book that both challenges our modernist conception of education and lays a groundwork (at least partially) for a postmodern conception.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 92 Number 1, 1990, p. 156-158
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 365, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 4:17:40 PM

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