Commentary on Jim Garrison’s "Reflections on Whitman, Dewey, and Educational Reform: "Reclaiming Democratic Vistas."

29th Annual Meeting of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, University of Southern Maine, 8 March 2002.

Patrick K. Dooley  <>
St. Bonaventure University

            I am pleased to be asked to offer commentary on Jim Garrison’s challenging juxtaposition of philosophy and poetry.  I applaud his mixing genres of theorizing and dramatic narrative—and in this, speaking especially for myself, he is preaching to the choir for I, too, see much merit in the cross-fertilization of philosophy and literature.  Like some of my own work Prof. Garrison’s claims are not ones of direct influence of Whitman upon Dewey rather that of a shared agenda—more of that agenda short.  What Garrison asks us to reflect upon are the ways in which Dewey and Whitman illuminate each other.  More carefully put—Garrison shows how Dewey’s strong suit of theory offers a framework upon which Whitman’s powerful poetry can be given dramatic display.  If I might indulge in a bit of philosophy/literature proselytizing, 2002 is the centenary of the birth of John Steinbeck.  In an earlier piece I showed how the seventeenth chapter of The Grapes of Wrath wherein Steinbeck describes how the dust bowl refugee Okies who happened to camp together for a night on their way California became a community of families—powerfully dramatized precisely the mechanism that occupied most of Josiah Royce’s life and philosophical quest to frame a theoretical account of the dynamics of community building.  While neither Steinbeck nor Royce’s accounts stand complete in isolation—reading them together wonderfully enhances both the literature and the philosophy of community.

            So what about the mix of Whitman’s poetry and Dewey’s philosophy on education and democracy?  Here is what I understand to be Garrison’s argument.  In The Public and Its Problems Dewey comments, "when the machine age has thus perfected its machinery it will be a means to life not its despotic master."  Garrison agrees that education in America has indeed become "a means to life" but he, like Whitman (and, of course, Dewey) worries about what sort of life our educational system serves.  The deeper worry is that in a machine age what that education can do with efficiency is to produce, quoting Garrison, "standardized interchangeable parts . . . human beings who run the machinery of production… standardized interchangeable parts of the global labor pool." Or later in his paper, he claims that education can easily provide us with "cadres of docile, unreflective, and unimaginative conformists." Clearly a sort of education in service to a consumer economy.

            But what Whitman, Dewey and Garrison seek is the sort of education that has as its goal something more valuable and, consequently, something more difficult:  fostering of individuality, creativity and uniqueness in service to a spiritual and religious democracy. At this point Garrison turns to Whitman’s "Democratic Vistas" for prophesy, elucidation, elaboration and inspiration. Whitman, he tells us, identifies three stages of democracy: the first two have already been accomplished:  first, the establishment (at least in legal terms) of a broad range of political rights and second, access to material prosperity.  We still need to be at work on the third stage—deciphering the mechanisms that foster original thinking and freeing up the catalysts of individuality.  Sadly, this elusive but all important third stage has been subverted by a counterfeit quest that caters to America’s obsession "with fixed and final hierarchies, norms and standards . . . outputs that technocrats [offer] to assure accountability and quality control."

            While the current fixation with quantative standards takes the economic path of least resistance, the indispensable, qualitative and subtle democratic goals of Whitman and Dewey go begging.  What are these goals? First the poet, then the philosopher. Whitman declares, "democracy, the leveler, the unyielding principle of the average is surely joined with another principle . . .this second principle is individuality, the pride and centripetal isolation of a human being in himself—identity—personalism." Dewey states, "democracy will not be democracy until education makes it its chief concern to release distinctive aptitude in art, thought and companionship.  At present the intellectual obstacle in the way is the habit of classification and quantitative comparisons."

            We have heard Prof. Garrison’s wrestle with how individual freedom, robust individuality, released human potential—Whitman’s notion of "idiocracy" can offer to a dynamic, pluralistic democracy. Quoting Garrison, "moral leveling means we each have a moral right to realize our unique potential so we may make our unique contribution to the democratic community."  While I can see where the trajectory of Garrison’s argument points I long for some specific guidance. At several points Garrison speaks of irony and paradox and it is here that I find Dewey helpful, especially his exploration that while each of us prides ourselves in our uniqueness and specialness, in the concrete what counts most to us is a cluster of interests, passions, skills, beliefs that we share with groups of other like-minded individuals we prefer to associate with.  This sort of pluralism energizes the best of us and offers a variety of vantage points that can critically engage democratic society’s ongoing experiment in intelligence and its attempt to satisfy as many of the genuine and conflicting demands as is possible.

            While Garrison has shown wherein Whitman and Dewey reinforce each other’s belief in the crucial, actually indispensable, role of education in a progressive, ameliorating and liberating democracy, I think it is not the case that this tag-team pair of poet and philosopher subscribe to identical metaphysical platforms.  I refer specifically to each’s concept of the human person. In a quotation noted earlier, Whitman argues that the "second principle [of democracy] is individuality, the pride and centripetal isolation of a human being in himself—identity—personalism." I understand this as stating Whitman’s agreement with the 18th and 19th century Transcendentalists’ theory of personal identity that supposed a pre-existent self, waiting to be discovered in solitude, ideally in nature. Such self-discovery is a private, inward, "centripetal"—recall Whitman’s word—task. Here Dewey (and Mead and Royce) disagree with Whitman when they espouse a contextual, public, process-orientated theory of human personhood.  So the Dewey-Mead-Royce position on self-discovery and self-development needs an outward seeking, centrifugal metaphor. 

            I noted at the beginning that the literary embodiment of a community generated self can be found in narratives of John Steinbeck.  More recently it can also be found in numerous scenes in The River Runs through It both in the 1976 novella by Norman Maclean and in the Richard Friendenberg screen play made into a wonderful film in 1992 by director Robert Redford.  These last comments noting other literary resources are offered more in the spirit of suggesting an addendum than stating a disagreement or criticism with Garrison’s overall thesis concerning the remarkable congruence of Whitman and Dewy on the role of education in democracy.

            I close by offering a much simpler but documental diagnosis of what has gone wrong with education in America. It has been dumbed down! I offer for your consideration a copy of the eighth grade graduation final exam from the Saline County Kansas public school in 1895.  I doubt if we or any of our college graduates could pass the muster.     {Handout distributed—see the September 2001 Harper’s Magazine  (specifically page 80) for a comparison of the 1895 Saline County Kansas with the 2000 Texas Assessment of Academic Skills exam given to eighth graders}


<Dooley’s Comment on Garrison’s essay on Whitman and Dewey> 4 March 2002, 1,249 words.