In this post, we will take a look at pragmatism. This philosophy has played a critical role in shaping ideas about education for a long time. In particular, we will look at the characteristics of pragmatism, its philosophical implications, and how it may manifest it’s self in the classroom.
Pragmatism is a uniquely American 19th century contribution to philosophy with some of the primary influences in this school being such people Charles Perce, William James, and John Dewey. The era in which pragmatism was developed was the industrial revolution and an era of great change. Science was gravitating towards the idea of evolution, which at the time was astounding and even the religious world was in turmoil with people speaking of the end of the world. This environment of rapid change was deeply influencing the thoughts of many people.
With all the chaos swirling throughout the world pragmatism came to the point that there were no ideals or principles to look for. Rather, the focus was on what works and benefits the most than on conforming to an external standard. This position has had a profound impact on education through the work of the progressives as we shall see.
There are no absolutes with a pragmatist. If there is some form of ultimate reality there is no way to know it here. In other words, while Plato bemoaned the cave and Socrates stated that the cave is all there is, a pragmatist may say that the world of forms is possible but since all we know for sure is the cave we should try to make it as nice as comfortable as possible.
One of the sources of argument that pragmatist make about the constant state of change implying a total lack of absolute truth is changes in science. Examples include, moving from a geocentric worldview to a heliocentric one, or moving from a creationist account of life to an evolutionary one. Since these ideas have changed there must not be any absolute truths to hold on to even though the realm of science is notorious for constant changed.
With all the chaos of the world, pragmatist has decided that truth is what works. Knowledge is based on experience. Through trial and error people learn how to deal with various problems. It is this active process of constructing knowledge through experience that knowledge is constructed. Knowledge is not external or outside the person, instead it is created through interaction with the world. This is a major shift in thinking from pass viewpoint and requires that the individual be an active rather than passive learner because they must interact with the world.
There is a separation in the mind of the pragmatist between knowledge and belief. Beliefs are private while knowledge is publicly available., which means it can be observed and verified by others. True knowledge or truth is relative because of the unstable and changing world that we live in.
Since truth is relative morals and values are relative as well. Local societies decide for themselves what is right and wrong and not an external standard. However, this does not mean anything goes. Stealing is disdained in most societies because it does not work as it tends to encourage crime and chaos. The same for murder. This does not mean to the pragmatist that there are universal moral laws, instead it is simply an indication that different groups of people have had similar experiences with stealing and murder and have made the same conclusion that this does not work.
Pragmatism and Education
A unique belief of pragmatism about students is that they need to be active learners. Students need to experience the world around them through learning activities. School is not preparation but is rather part of life it’s self. Therefore, life long learning is to be expected and not just a temporary period of life in which it is needed for studying.
The teacher is an expert guide who helps the students. They are a guide because the world changes too quickly to just dictate material to students. This means that the teacher is learning as well with the advantage of more experience living in a world of flux. Since truth is changing, there is no fix curriculum from yesteryear. Instead, the student’s interests are the center of how the curriculum is built.
With the focus on the environment, the pragmatic teacher is focused heavily on having students impact the world. This means that an emphasis on social action is a part of the pragmatist classroom. In some classroom social change and attaining social goals (ie social justice warrior) is the entire purpose of education. Other philosophies were trying to maintain the status quo but pragmatism is trying to overturn it if it works.
Pragmatism, like most new movements of their time, is simply a reaction to what came before in response to the challenges of the current context. Pragmatist reject absolute truth except for the absolute truth that there is no absolute truth. The world was truly changing quickly when this school of thought was born. However, unlike Plato, who was also experiencing rapid change and decide to search for absolutes in order to find comfort, the pragmatist reject absolute truth for the comfort of constant change. Instead of trying to preserve knowledge it was better to go with the flow as long as it worked.