Love, Justice, and Education: John Dewey and the Utopians

reviewed by Hansjörg Hohr - April 27, 2010

coverTitle: Love, Justice, and Education: John Dewey and the Utopians
Author(s): William H. Schubert
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1607522381, Pages: 284, Year: 2009
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What a playful, erudite and profoundly religious book on education William H. Schubert has written. The book is an elaboration of an article Dewey published in the New York Times, April 23, 1933 under the title “Dewey outlines utopian Schools.” It contains a report of a fictitious journey to Utopia, undertaken during a day-dream where Dewey had the opportunity to study and discuss a highly advanced system of education. Schubert, in his book, reports a discussion of Dewey’s article among the very same Utopians Dewey had visited 75 years later.

Schubert’s “report” is organized in 30 chapters, each headed by and commenting upon a section of Dewey’s article. The body of the text is framed by a prologue and epilogue in the form of “improvising riffs” which brings me to the extraordinary form of the book. In the prologue, the author tells the reader that the book is not about science education but rather about the mystery of education, and it was this “pondering of the mysterious” that made the writing fun. As the riffs suggest, the book could be read as a kind of jam session. However, the number of playing participants is extraordinary, more precisely there are 426. One is, thus, reminded of Plato’s great dialogues. However, there is no dialogue in any conventional sense of the term, as each participating Utopian only speaks once, some just a few lines, some a little more. Even though some of the contributions mention that the Utopians disagree quite often with each other, there is at most a gentle banter and mild disagreement to detect in the ongoing discourse. There is no polyphony in the sense of Mikhail Bakhtin, and certainly no animated shouting or shaking of fists.

Actually, one could read the book as a lecture of a special kind representing the ideal model of an educational situation. Here, everyone is teacher and student at the same time, everyone has something to contribute and shares generously with the others, all learn from each other.

The discourse is dialogical also in another sense as the individual contributions draw on the thoughts of a multitude of educators and scholars, so much so that Utopian 200 comments jokingly on Schubert’s inclination to “devise litanies of names and citations.” And indeed, I wonder whether these “lapses into the acquisitive” past should have been vigorously restrained by some attentive Utopians. Not only do they burden the ongoing meditation unnecessarily, but they blur the differences and contrasts of thought. However, this drawback is counterbalanced by the extraordinary richness in dialogues with literature securing a constant supply of fresh air.

The book is a quest for love and justice in education and community, and a charge against “acquisitiveness” as the source of all known maladies of society. Once this acquisitiveness is overcome, the interests of the individual and of society are reconciled as the Utopians are able to “shift between individual states and undifferentiated unity a kind of all-ness.” Then diversity is the precondition of unity.

As a European reader, I am sometimes reminded of a certain cultural gap between our perspectives. I am not talking about trifles such as when I meet Friedrich Fröbel as Frederick Froebel and Friedrich Engels as Frederick Engels and start to worry whether I next will meet Karl Marx as Charles Marx, which I do not. But it is rather the author’s lack of concern for societal structure and institution which is conspicuous. I get, for example, startled by the statement that state and church are the “most corrupt institutions” on earth (p. 45). I think hardly any Scandinavian would agree to so apodictic a statement, since the religious community is experienced as one of the historical sources of democracy, and the state as the custodian of equality and justice – although to a modest degree.

A central idea in the book is that a “stream of love” pervades the universe, and we all should add to that stream. I also agree with the author’s criticism that there is far too little talk of love in the academic discourse on education, at least when love is understood as a universal principle for growth and not as a particular relationship. However, love may be the origin and source of justice, but both love and justice cannot do without social structures; and I think that the book does not address that issue sufficiently. There are, though, attempts like the discussion of what a good school should look like. Here, the author warns against Ivan Illich’s suggestion of deschooling and John Holt’s unschooling society as these options would not offer an alternative to the poorest and dispossessed. Instead, Dewey and Schubert propose schools taking on the character of “gatherings” where people are “at home with others, getting to know them more fully, sharing experience, seeking together to understand concerns of the present moment, studying how the present moment has been shaped by past experience and how aspirations and possibilities can be fashioned, acted upon, and their consequences studied as a basis for living lives that are worthwhile, meaningful, and contributory – a home-like community in the making” (p. 37). I concur wholeheartedly, but have to ask: how are these gatherings organized, how are they financed and how are they managed? The lack of structural and institutional analysis reaches even to the core of the educational relationship itself. The vision central to the book is that all learn from each other, the teacher becoming the student and the student becoming the teacher. But it is difficult to see how this would resolve the fundamental asymmetry of the educational relationship, the problem of the utter powerlessness of the infant and the challenge of the asymmetry between the younger and the older generation. Education aims at abolishing these differences, but is as such constituted by them. Moreover, there are differences between the responsibilities of the adult, the parent, the friend, the teacher, despite important commonalities.

I conclude this review with a comment on the choice of genre. The utopian genre is the ultimate, supreme and thus most difficult and challenging form of literature as Friedrich Schiller convincingly has demonstrated in his last philosophical treaty on aesthetics. Schiller called the utopian genre idyll which is supposed to reconcile the factual with the ideal – love, justice, friendship, solidarity. The idyll is no escape from reality. Its office is to show how the ideal can be realized under the most complex conditions of the modern world. Schiller was not able to point to an example of successful idyll in his time, while the examples of failing attempts have nightmarish qualities be this Plato’s Republic, Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun or Thomas Mores’ Utopia. How does the author do in this perspective? I will not pass judgement on that. Instead the question makes me aware that education is a utopian project and based on a projection or anticipation of mastery not yet present. We talk to infants as if they understand what we are saying. They don’t, and then they do.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 27, 2010 ID Number: 15960, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 4:59:10 PM

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