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Higher Education in the Making

Pragmatism, Whitehead, and the Canon

George Allan

Publication Year: 2004

George Allan argues that the so-called “culture wars” in higher education are the result of the dogmatic and unyielding certainty that both canonists and anti-canonists bring to any discussion of how best to organize an undergraduate curriculum. He then proposes a middle way. Drawing from William James, John Dewey, and Alfred North Whitehead, he contrasts the absolutist claims of both canonists and anti-canonists with a fallibilist approach and argues for a more pragmatic canon that is normative and always in need of renovation. A wide variety of voices are heard in Allan’s conversation about the nature and meaning of an education canon, including philosophers Aristotle, Descartes, Arthur Lovejoy, Hannah Arendt, Spengler, Emerson, Lyotard, and Rorty. Contemporary voices include Eva Brann, Charles Anderson, Francis Oakley, Martha Nussbaum, Gerald Graff, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Bill Readings.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Series: SUNY series in Constructive Postmodern Thought (discontinued)

Higher Education in the Making

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pp. iii


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

Chapters 1–8 are genealogically connected to three essays published long ago. However, those earlier ideas have been greatly transformed—rethought, extended, extruded, modified, melded, cantilevered, tempered, deepened, and distributed in and amongst newer ideas—and so their presence is not always detectable. Nonetheless, these essays deserve mention since they set me on the...

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Introduction to SUNY Series in Constructive Postmodern Thought

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pp. xi-xv

The rapid spread of the term postmodern in recent years witnesses to a growing dissatisfaction with modernity and to an increasing sense that the modern age not only had a beginning but can have an end as well. Whereas the word modern was almost always used until quite recently as a word of praise and as a synonym for contemporary, a growing sense is now evidenced that...

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1. Crumbling Cathedrals

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pp. 1-15

The majestic towers of English cathedrals, because of their height and thus their unusual weight, have become a serious problem. As they sink steadily, persistently, into the marshy soil of the sceptered isle at a faster rate than the buildings they adorn, important structural cracks and stresses have begun to appear. In some cases, such as at York, significant emergency repair to the...

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2. Content Canonists

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pp. 17-33

These arguments about what should be taught, about what it is important for every student to learn, are not merely cat fights between those enamored by the new and those who prefer the tried and true. The dispute is over two claims about reality, one contending that it is ordered hierarchically into essential and accidental elements, one insisting that it is not. If some aspects...

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3. Procedural Canonists

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pp. 35-52

The medieval synthesis of the thirteenth century brought closure to a long-standing conflict among authorities in the Western world with regard to scientific, societal, and moral truths. The remarkable coherence of the notion of a Great Chain of Being is based on a series of reconciliations. Reason and revelation, it was finally agreed, were not incommensurable faculties for...

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4. Anti-Canonists

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pp. 53-69

Foundationalism and methodism today are everywhere in disarray. Whether we look to particular academic disciplines or to common sense, the confidence is dissipating that some contents or procedures are beyond dispute. Our cultural and intellectual tradition, in the lingo of its Jacobin detractors, is being deconstructed. What the revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth...

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5. Relative Canonists

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pp. 71-88

The anti-canonists overstate their case. By rejecting the claim that all things are elements of one overarching system, understandable ultimately in terms of a Unified Theory of Everything governed by a single normative method of inquiry, we are not compelled to reject a belief in systems or unified theories or normative methods. “All” and “none” are logical contraries: both are denied...

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6. Canonical Dynamics

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pp. 89-105

Relativism turns out to be foundationalism or methodism with the essential taken as temporal and particular rather than timeless and universal. Contemporary canonists locate that essence in the present, progressivists locate it in the future, ethnic relativists limit it to the history of a tribe or a people. Because they have restricted the scope of the community for which certain...

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7. Canonical Dialectics

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pp. 107-125

The purpose of a canon for education is that it be able to define what must be done in order for a society to teach its members the cultural cosmology that frames it and makes it work. When a society is functioning properly, commonsense beliefs are taught in family and peer group interactions, imbibed inthe language and attitudes of the people, in the taken-for-granted everyday...

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8. Pragmatic Canonists

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pp. 127-143

Santayana argued that the Genteel tradition, in both its objectivist and subjectivist forms, provided a grammar of interpretation inadequate to the novel character of the American experience. He contrasted its closed and cramped systems of understanding with the pragmatism of William James, First of all, because James had a generous, inclusive heart and mind, he...

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9. Education for a Democracy

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pp. 145-164

John Dewey was an enthusiast for the scientific method, an apologist for democracy, and an advocate of educational reform. He thought that the three—science, democracy, and education—if properly linked could unleash powers of human creativity that would promote “the general social welfare and the full development of human beings as individuals” (1946: 58). As...

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10. Religious Education

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pp. 165-182

In a 1908 essay, “Religion and Our Schools,” Dewey assails a proposal that religion be taught as part of the public school curriculum. Proponents see it as a way to instill in students the moral character prerequisite to good citizenship, but Dewey thinks “education in religion” is an oxymoron, the didactic promulgation of parochial irrationalisms. American education is already...

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11. Education for Our Common Good

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pp. 183-198

Whitehead, in a 1917 talk on “technical education,” claims that the future of our civilization hinges on teaching “handcraft” to students, teaching them to work with their hands. He deplores what he calls the “brain lethargy” of our leaders in both the private and public sphere: in business and industry, government, education. Having no manual dexterity except the ability to write...

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12. Cathedral Ruins

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pp. 199-213

Bill Readings argues that the University “has lost its historical raison d’être” (19). It is a creature of the modern Western nation-state, its medieval antecedents reshaped to serve as instruments for “the production of sovereign subjects” (154), for the fashioning of good citizens able to contribute effectively to the nation’s well-being. This purpose, says Readings, is no...

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13. Constructive Pragmatics

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pp. 215-231

So we have work to do, here amid the crumbling cathedrals where we have chosen to live. The times are tough, the aims of higher education are in disarray, the ruins of so much that we have achieved and dreamed of achieving are scattered everywhere. Yet we have obligations to explore and the diversity of our common good to promote, for the cash value of an educational...

Works Cited

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pp. 233-238

Note on Supporting Center

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pp. 239


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pp. 241-244

SUNY series in Constructive Postmodern Thought

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pp. 245-246

E-ISBN-13: 9780791485552
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791459898
Print-ISBN-10: 0791459896

Page Count: 246
Publication Year: 2004

Series Title: SUNY series in Constructive Postmodern Thought (discontinued)

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Pragmatism.
  • Canon (Literature).
  • Postmodernism and education -- United States.
  • Education, Higher -- Curricula -- United States.
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