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Stanley Cavell and the Education of Grownups

reviewed by William Cahill - May 10, 2013

coverTitle: Stanley Cavell and the Education of Grownups
Author(s): Naoko Saito & Paul Standish (eds.)
Publisher: Fordham University Press, New York
ISBN: 0823234746, Pages: 274, Year: 2012
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This is a book about a paragraph; more particularly, it is a collection of pieces by nine authors, including Stanley Cavell, writing about the conclusion of a paragraph in a book by Cavell.  The paragraph in question is the one in The Claim of Reason where Cavell writes the phrase “the education of grownups” to conceptualize what philosophy, or the kind of philosophy he is interested in, is.  

Such philosophy takes up questions about life that our usual rationalizations cannot adequately answer; and it does so by reinventing word meanings with new coherences that disturb our confidence that our usual language tells us the meaning of our experience.  Reading such philosophy, we become like children.  Cavell is all the more convinced of this because this way of doing philosophy matches most adults’ actual problematic relation to childhood, epitomized in a child questioning a grownup about things the grownup’s usual language cannot answer truthfully: “Why do we eat animals?”  “What is God?”  “Do you love black people as much as white people?”  “Who owns the land?” etc.

Adults’ answers to these questions can sound startlingly inadequate when all they reveal is partiality, compromises with social order, rationalizations offered to settle the child into accepting the world as adults usually do.  A person who takes this dissonance seriously will be ready to think philosophically, which means to give a more truthful account of oneself and one’s experience through what Cavell calls “responsive reading.” The inventive reasoning in the language of a philosophical text challenges the reader to compare their experience with it and to think their way through the possible discoveries this kind of reading offers.  Philosophical reading can give the sense that “there is always someone ahead of you,” a friend or guide, to help, challenging the reader to make their experience “transparent.”  This prompts the “turnaround that characterizes human adulthood,” Cavell says here.

The discussion of these ideas in Stanley Cavell and the Education of Grownups, subtler and complex than this brief summary, makes the book well worth reading.  

Russell Goodman and Steve Odin see Cavell’s thought as a way of “bringing the world back, as to life” (Goodman), though they reach this conclusion from different sources.  Goodman, who has been a Cavell protégé, offers an autobiographical essay attempting to sort out similarities and differences in his influences from Cavell and his Pragmatist suspicion of philosophical reliance on meaning in language.  Odin interprets Cavell’s interest in ordinary language philosophy in terms of Zen and other Asian philosophical traditions.  He compares ordinary language philosophy’s expectation that insights have to be statable in the living language, which is the only language we have, with Eastern views of meditative experience as a departure from the ordinary that inspires truer uses of ordinary things in the return to cultural experience.   

Similarly, René Arcilla focuses on Cavell’s thought as a philosophy for the moments when people feel disengaged from society (“the times we fall out of society,” when “our inner lives become opaque to us,” when we must face “our obscurity to ourselves” – Arcilla’s words for such moments).  Vincent Colapietro, focusing on Cavell’s early jazz experience (as a teenager, Cavell played in an otherwise all-black, all-adult professional jazz band in California), picks up this theme differently, relating it to the idea of “slippage” in Cavell’s conception of skepticism.  Personal acknowledgement of limitations and the creative discovery of a personal “voice” in life experiences, which are important to Cavell’s philosophy, are, Colapietro says, like the work of improvisation and keeping up in jazz performances.

The two Cavell interpretations that stay closest to educational thought are by the book’s editors, Naoko Saito and Paul Standish.  Saito, pointing up the profound respect for childhood and for reading in Cavell’s philosophy, takes Cavell’s thought as a lesson in rethinking social initiation through language.  The work of education, she explains, is in acknowledging how unfamiliar language might teach us more than the familiar meanings we have been initiated into.  Saito equates this with “Emersonian moral perfectionism,” a key theme in Cavell, which he construes as “the moral necessity of making oneself intelligible.”

Paul Standish, taking on the shibboleth of “ownership” in contemporary educational policy, interprets Cavell’s work as a philosophy of skeptical assent, the duty of a grown-up to acknowledge that things are “owned” in the world only by acts of judgment, for which the person making them is responsible to others.  Standish uses Cavell’s skepticism to theorize “the possibility of a non consumptive relation to knowledge.”  Education for “ownership,” he says, is really about belonging (to a polis}, not about possessing anything.  It is about learning that criteria are grown-up ideas for which people have to take responsibility, which requires a stance of “skeptical assent.”

The two writers who demur most saliently here are Arcilla and Gordon Bearn.  Arcilla wants to reconcile Cavell’s ideas with liberal education; Bearn, with “sensuous schooling,” which he derives from Alfred North Whitehead.  While appreciative of Cavell, Bearn, critical of formalism, thinks his conception of education misses the personal responsiveness of learning Whitehead described as “romance.”  But Bearn’s idea misses Cavell’s originality and inventiveness.  Even Whitehead’s “romance of learning” is a phase or aspect of the “rhythm of education,” which is a form; and Cavell’s salient interests in music and personal memory miss nothing of Whitehead’s “romance.”

Hilary Putnam’s essay is a defense against the charge that Cavell hasn’t been a professional philosopher.  In Putnam’s view, Cavell’s way of seeing philosophical schools in their possible relations to one another is the essential work of enlightenment and the teaching of philosophy.  The philosopher as teacher educates, Putnam says, by making connections.  

Besides providing the book’s opening gambit, Cavell contributes two brief new essays to the volume and additional comments about philosophy and education in the “Remarks from Discussion” the editors have collected from their meetings with him.  These include comments about teaching – even high school teaching.  For instance, Cavell mentions his distrust for “spellbinding teachers” and thinks the true teacher should be a philosophical friend “always ahead of us” in our quest for understanding.  He remarks on the accidental nature of learning philosophy, saying it might come from something like a “getting your head broken early” (an autobiographical figure, since Cavell was knocked unconscious by a car at age six).  Philosophy should be taught in high school and it doesn’t matter, Cavell suggests, who teaches it there, as long as it is taught by someone who feels “they know why they have studied it”; if that is the case, they should be allowed to try.  Education should demand change from students, but the teacher has to worry about “the politics of interpretation.”  Education should “hurt” in a certain sense (if it is to be philosophical), but the teacher should be part of this “politics of interpretation” only when it is clear that the text being studied “assaults us.”  Aphoristic remarks like these (key, along with autobiography, to Cavell’s technique), challenging teaching’s social responsibility, are exercises in “the education of grownups.”  Cavell’s pages in this book are replete with them.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 10, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17118, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 10:32:46 PM

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About the Author
  • William Cahill
    Rutgers University
    E-mail Author
    WILLIAM CAHILL Ed.D., a retired teacher, is a part-time lecturer in the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University.
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