- The Gleam of Light: Moral Perfectionism and Education in Dewey and Emerson
In The Gleam of Light, Naoko Saito argues that educational thinking is at an impasse. On the one hand, there are educational thinkers who deny the very possibility of finding a common foundation upon which to generate shared concepts that can guide educational practice. Taken to an extreme, this type of thinking can lead to the brink of nihilism. On the other hand, there are educational thinkers who assert that the only route to improved practice is through a return to foundational works from the past. This way of thinking leads to arrested development and a premature closing of educational possibilities. To find our way out of this impasse, Saito urges us to reconsider—and so reconstruct—John Dewey's notion of growth. A reconstructed understanding of growth will avoid "antifoundationalism or a reactionary turn to absolutism and the quest for certainty in democracy and education" (9).
Before launching into this project, Saito offers an overview of how Dewey's notion of growth has been interpreted. This chapter persuasively argues that ways of interpreting growth have been unhelpfully dominated by an overly scientific reading of intelligence. By reading intelligence this way, interpreters have prematurely narrowed Dewey's philosophy of education. These interpreters have located Dewey's thought between the totalizing explanatory frameworks of Hegel and Darwin. As such, they keep Dewey's philosophy of education within the strict confines of the either/or of foundationalism/antifoundationalism. Saito urges us to see our way out of this either/or and towards a more expansive view of growth. [End Page 66]
A way out of this either/or, so Saito argues, is to place Dewey's notion of growth in conversation with the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in particular, with Stanley Cavell's reading of Emerson. Saito introduces Cavell's Emerson through Cavell's idea of Emersonian moral perfectionism (EMP). EMP, as Saito understands it, is a framework that leads to self-transformation. Given this understanding, Saito focuses on Emerson's idea of the attained and unattained/unattainable self. As Saito understands it, Emerson's idea can be understood as follows: The self as it is realizes, through an encounter with a friend, a "friendly text," that it is not the self that it could be, feels a sense of shame at its current constitution. This sense of shame then compels the self to undertake an education that leads to growth and development. This growth is not bound to a fixed end state; rather the self's idea(l) of growth changes at every stage of its development. Having established that this is growth in EMP, Saito begins reading Dewey's understanding of growth from this perspective. She places excerpts from Dewey's writing next to excerpts from Emerson's writing in order to establish a conversation. While doing this Saito also contests Cavell's reluctance to place Dewey in conversation with Emerson. Cavell's reluctance is motivated by his sense that in this conversation Dewey always gains and Emerson always loses. Saito is convinced that she can have this conversation without repressing Emerson's unique voice. She is tenacious in her commitment to this conversation, and what she achieves through it is notable. Not only does she reconstruct Dewey's notion of growth, pointing a way out of the impasse described above, but Saito also clearly shows the importance of Emerson in Dewey's thought. Her analysis challenges and inspires—Emerson would say provokes—educational thinkers to revisit Emerson as a serious and powerful educational thinker. Finally, Saito is a champion for Stanley Cavell's work, and I see this as particularly promising. Cavell's potential for educational thinking is staggering. Unfortunately, I think Cavell's potential—and by extension Emerson's—for education remains under-explored by Saito's current book.
Although Ralph Waldo Emerson is clearly a forerunner to Dewey's progressive thought, and although bringing the thought of these thinkers...