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  • The Gleam of Light: Moral Perfectionism and Education in Dewey and Emerson
  • Gregory M. Fahy
The Gleam of Light: Moral Perfectionism and Education in Dewey and Emerson. Naoko Saito. American Philosophy Series, No. 16. New York: Fordham University Press, 2005. Pp. xiv + 210. $65.00 h.c. 0-8232-2462-7; $20.00 pbk. 0-8322-2463-5.

The Gleam of Light begins with the claim that educational institutions in postindustrial societies produce nihilistic and cynical students. Naoko Saito argues that this is partly because these institutions lack an internally determined pedagogical telos beyond growth itself. It is also attributable to a countervailing effort to impose external moral and educational standards upon these institutions. Her first two chapters discuss the damaging effects of this dialectic in contemporary education in light of a parallel philosophical dialectic between relativism and absolutism. Saito argues that placing Dewey's philosophical work in dialogue with Emerson's will help recover the spiritual and aesthetic sides of Dewey's philosophy, enabling our schools and societies to move beyond the impediments of contemporary pedagogical and philosophical discourse.

In chapters 3–5, Saito presents Emersonian Moral Perfectionism (or EMP; the term is Cavell's) as an antidote to the totalizing dialectic of absolutism and relativism. For Emerson, perfection, or perfecting, is grounded in lived experiences without fixed external ends. EMP is a social ideal, anchored in American democracy. As such it implies a friendship of civic engagement, but also an element of nonconformity. Saito identifies parallels between EMP and Dewey's philosophical perspective. Shame plays a central role in EMP as well as in Dewey's discussion of the lost individual and the eclipse of the public. Dewey's ideal of growth and his view of means and ends parallel Emerson's grounding of perfection in lived experience. This makes the relevant question not growth toward what, but how we should grow. These chapters reflect, but do not add significantly to, scholarship on Dewey's idea of growth and the means-end relationship.

Her sixth chapter raises criticisms of Dewey's approach to education. First, she criticizes Dewey as an Enlightenment pedagogical thinker, preferring traits of clarity, organization, and stability over the invisible, infinite, and imperfect. These preferences can easily support quantitative universal standards of assessment for schools. Second, Dewey's later educational writings suggest that it is sometimes appropriate to use conventional and fixed ends to address recalcitrant students. According to Saito, Dewey has a limited tolerance for deviancy. Last, the influence of totalizing narratives creeps into Dewey's pedagogical language. He speaks in generalities, rarely addressing his prose to the particular, concrete [End Page 320] child. Saito argues that Dewey should have realized that his linguistic means fail to serve his broader educational and democratic ends.

Chapter 7 uses Emerson's metaphor of the gleam of light to overcome these deficiencies in Dewey's position. The gleam of light is an intuitive, spiritual whim, a force of discontinuity that moves us beyond our habitual patterns of experience. Saito compares this gleam of light to Dewey's characterization of impulse, a force that permeates an entire experience, even reaching the intellectual phase. By remaining attentive to the original impulse, the gleam of light, our horizons can expand beyond intellectual delimitations.

Saito then turns to a discussion of tragedy in chapter 8. She defends Dewey against those who charge that he lacks an understanding of the tragic. Her careful analysis delineates several senses of tragedy, as mere conflict among goods, as a struggle against nihilism, and as limitations inherent in things within experience. She argues that Dewey does have a double-barreled sense of tragedy. This is found in his description of a lost individual as isolated and lacking meaning in life, but also in the tragedy that the public fails to recognize serious problems inherent in our current social organization.

Saito's final chapter reiterates many of her main themes. But she also discusses the importance of otherness in translation and dialogue. Insofar as we take the standpoint of the other, we can move beyond conventional confines of experience. In addition, she discusses poetry as a "forum for a mutual finding of inner light, through...


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