Code: DP-6


[Discussion Paper]


Abstract for:

Negative Capability and Religious Education


            In light of the recent war in Iraq, with its accompanying crisis in education and an apparently faltering faith in humanity, John Dewey’s aesthetic, education-centered philosophy poses two challenges: 1. Education must be the fundamental method of social progress and reform, and 2. the "Negative Capability" exemplified by Shakespeare (capability of being before uncertainty and mystery) is the philosophy of the aesthetic life and is central to any "religious" attitude. By examining these selected propositions of Dewey, and by drawing on Addams’ Democracy and Social Ethics and Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed for illustrative purposes, I hope to demonstrate that the educative process must embody such "Negative Capability" to be truly reformative, democratic, and virtuous.  A "religious" educator, I contend, is really an exemplar of willing submission to potentiality (i.e., is an exemplary student), admitting to ambiguities in the world, despite and perhaps because of struggles with an oft anesthetized and faithless classroom.















Negative Capability and Religious Education


 "If we concentrate our attention on trying to solve a problem of geometry, and if at the end of an hour we are no nearer to doing so than at the beginning, we have nevertheless been making progress each minute of that hour in another more mysterious dimension. Without our knowing or feeling it, this apparently barren effort has brought more light into the soul."

 –Simone Weil[1]


I.                   Recent Contributions to Darkness

With the recent war that the U.S. waged on Iraq, ironically named "Operation Iraqi Freedom," several disturbing trends in our society have risen to the consciousnesses of those not so easily swayed by patriotic propaganda and the war-time rhetoric of absolute goodness versus absolute evil.  One such trend has been the glorification of the military, at the expense of the educational system in the U.S.  This trade-off has played itself out both economically and morally.  Economically speaking, billions of dollars have been allotted to our armed forces for the deployment of troops and for their use of weapons and fighter jets and so on, while budgets in public schools are being drastically cut, oftentimes in districts across the nation that cannot afford even the slightest reduction.  Morally, the devaluation of education in favor of the military signifies a devaluation of reflection, thoughtfulness, criticism, and creativity in favor of blind obedience, brute force, "security" at any cost, and homogeneity of opinion.

Another recent trend has been the government’s evidential lack of faith in and patience with people, both at home and abroad.  Such impatience and mistrust oftentimes manifests itself as paternalism, the baseless attitude that one knows what is best for others, even despite the others’ protests and attempts at dialogue.  Such an attitude obviously implies an assumption of ignorance and short-sightedness in the masses, an assumption that is unfounded and quite often, uninvestigated. 

In this context of a crisis in education and a faltering faith in humanity, John Dewey’s aesthetic and education-centered philosophy would no doubt fall upon ears not prepared to receive a message made radical by our own narrow and limiting standards for living prosperously.  But challenges to our ways of thinking are the only means by which our thoughts can deepen and widen, and we must, if we are conscientious citizens, be obligated to listen to our perceived opponents.  Dewey made two revolutionary claims that are relevant to our present situation.  First, in "My Pedagogic Creed," Dewey  states boldly that "education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform."[2]  Such a declaration in itself raises many questions regarding the structure of our society and the feasibility of any eventual success, given its currently low prioritization of education.  Second, in his Art as Experience, Dewey writes:

Ultimately there are but two philosophies. One of them accepts life and experience in all its uncertainty, mystery, doubt, and half-knowledge and turns that experience upon itself to deepen and intensify its own qualities—to imagination and art. This is the philosophy of Shakespeare and Keats.[3]


Dewey ends his second chapter of Art as Experience, "Etherial Things," on this note, not telling us what the second philosophy is.  We are to infer, however, from preceding passages in the chapter, that the other philosophy is the one of the rationalists, who embrace only those things which are "proven," and hence, are verifiable, certain, and knowable.  We are also to infer that Dewey locates himself in the camp he mentions—that of being before questions that sometimes have no obvious answers—given his indirect praise of Shakespeare via Keats, the latter of whom wrote in a letter that Shakespeare was a man of enormous "Negative Capability."  By "Negative Capability," Keats was referring to a person who was "capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."[4] 

Such a capability, though characterized as "negative," is absolutely a rarity in our time, if it was not during the time of Dewey’s life.  What "negative capability" practically means, in the manner in which Keats used the term, is possession of a faithful temperament, where one can gaze into the poems of life boldly, seeking beauty as truth and truth as beauty, without concern for the mere shunning of error.  A person who embodies "negative capability" would understand that "every question possess[es] a power that [does] not lie in the answer," and her whole person would be characterized by perseverance and humility, if her questions do not arise out of a sophistic demeanor but from genuine concerns.[5] This temperament extends to an actualized faith in humanity, for it is the interaction of humans that lends perhaps the most uncertainties to our days, but it is also the inspiration for our literature and art.  My own concern at present is this: Could the educative process, for Dewey, embody the "Negative Capability" that Shakespeare exemplified, or  is such an embodiment counterintuitive to his notions of education and learning?  And, might the educative process characterized by "negative capability" be worth examining in light of our own crisis?

My endeavor in this paper will be to answer these questions and to show what, if any, implications follow from the adoption of an educational system qualified by the virtue of faith, and what consequences might follow from its rejection, whether blatant or subtle.  I will offer a couple of criticisms of my hypothesis in conclusion and attempt to answer them sufficiently.  My argument so far stands: The educative process must embody "negative capability," for in education, this capability translates to having faith in humanity (for the educators, having faith in students), which is to be "religious" for Dewey, and on the basis of this faith to allow the possibility for a genuinely democratic education to exist.  In short, as I agree with Dewey that progress consists "in the development of new attitudes towards, and new interests in, experience," I contend that progress can only be achieved with our educational systems when educators adopt "religious" attitudes towards their students, and administrators towards their employees, and when the old paternalistic, militaristic, and authoritarian attitudes are thereby overcome.  Only then can we have a society whose foundation is not one of oppression and rhetoric, but is one of genuine compassion and open dialogue.


II.                Dewey’s Challenge

Taking the first of Dewey’s statements I noted as a challenge to our current context, we discover the need to explicate what Dewey means by education as well as by progress. [6]  Significantly, Dewey explains that education "is a process of living and not a preparation for future living."[7]  In this sense, the school is conceived as being a microcosm of community life wherein the child is taught how to share in the values and resources of the race, and to use her individual abilities for greater social aims.  The education cannot be detached from and irrelevant to the student’s life, else the material will be (or at least will appear to be) dead and arbitrary.  By emphasizing that education is a process of living, and not merely a means to a future and unforeseen end, Dewey has avoided the bifurcation of work into its processes and products, of which Marx was so critical as being the cause of alienation.  For a child, this means that real enjoyment can be had in the process of learning, and that this process is the end as well.   When the learning process becomes an end in itself, it will cease to be objectified and devalued as a means to a grade or diploma, and the cults of efficiency and economy will be exposed for their exacting detractions from an aesthetic life.  As Simone Weil writes, "It does not even matter much whether we succeed in finding the solution or understanding the proof, although it is important to try really hard to do so.  Never in any case whatever is genuine effort of the attention wasted."[8]  The process of struggling with problems is itself priceless, especially for the moral development of the child, as moral dilemmas are never, for Dewey, about good in opposition to evil, but about competing goods.

The educational process has two sides, for Dewey, neither of which can or should exist without the other in education, although one side clearly precedes the other in the initial stages of the process.  The psychological aspect of education must come before the sociological aspect, since it is the child’s own psyche (or abilities and talents) that provides the material for and instigates education in general.  However, the sociological aspect is important for interpreting the child’s abilities in light of social conditions and past events that color the present.  Without such sociological analysis, we would not be able to discern whether and how the child has improved in her educability, nor would we be able to give meaning to any changes she undergoes or creates in the process.  For Dewey, the significant point is that "the psychological and sociological sides are organically related and that education cannot be regarded as a compromise between the two, or a superimposition of one upon the other."[9] 

If there is excess on the side of the psychological, by focusing too exclusively upon the habits of the individual student, there will be a curriculum and educative process that tends to lack unity and does not teach cooperation.  As such, it would cultivate highly solipsistic, arrogant, and self-centered persons.  If there happens to be an excess on the side of the sociological, there will be an educational system that tends toward a mechanistic view of persons, casting them as receptacles awaiting consumption of prejudged selections of information, where external pressure is the sole motivating force for completing assignments.  Thus, each force requires the other, just as the individual and society are integrally related: "If we eliminate the social factor from the child we are left only with an abstraction; if we eliminate the individual factor from society, we are left only with an inert and lifeless mass."[10]  But because it is impossible to predict what society will bear out in the future, educational systems should not make the mistake of beginning with social definitions of learning that enforce expectations on students to "prepare" them for future life; rather, enabling the student to make the best use of her potentials for the present will incidentally prepare her for the future.

A related tension central in Dewey’s educational philosophy is that between the child and the curriculum, or more generally, between the subjective and objective tendencies in education.  In giving preference to the latter term, the standardized curriculum or the objective, material will be presented in a way that does not show its pertinence to the lives of the students.  The content of the material itself may be highly selective, and as it is not translated into a meaningful invitation for students’ reflections, it is too often "directly offered as a substitute for, or an external annex to, the child’s present life."[11]  In cases of this sort, the subject-matter needs to be "psychologized," in order that it not be so abstracted from the "immediate and individual experiencing within which it has its origin and significance."[12]  Here again, there need not be a necessary opposition between the basic elements in education, the child and the curriculum.  For it is the business of the educator to assimilate her accumulated wealth of knowledge about the material she will present in light of her understanding of the sociological conditions surrounding the various students, with the result of determining the environments of the students to the best of her ability and thereby engaging the material in a meaningful and living way with them.  Though the teacher can come to an understanding of the intricacies of the human race-experience, Dewey openly admits that the teacher cannot have intimate knowledge of the child, in the sense that "the teacher knows neither what the present power, capacity, or attitude is, nor yet how it is to be asserted, exercised, and realized."[13]  In other words, the teacher is unable, and thankfully so, to objectify the student as a material of sorts to be deconstructed and analyzed.  The student is a self-actualizing subject, and this view shall not only be cast as an ideal end of education, but shall be enacted as truth in the process of educating.

In "The Aims of Education," Dewey actually points out that education as such has no ideal ends or aims of its own, as education is merely an abstraction from specific individuals.  Only concrete individuals can have aims, but it would be better, he says, for us to regard the educators’ aims as "suggestions…as to how to observe, how to look ahead, and how to choose in liberating and directing the energies of the concrete situations in which they find themselves."[14]  This substitution of "suggestions" for "aims" in education reveals another characteristic about education: its intrinsic democracy.  Dewey’s radical notion of democracy consists in one primary principle: "The ends of freedom and individuality for all can be attained only by means that accord with those ends."[15]  Clearly such a notion of democracy is compatible with a notion of education as being a process of living and not mere preparation for the future, for there is insistence in both cases upon method as (at least temporary) end-in-itself.  Just as democratic means and the attainment of democratic ends are inseparable, so for education "the object is only a mark or sign by which the mind specifies the activity one desires to carry out;"[16] i.e., our doing of a certain thing is the very objective in education, rather than the thing itself, in isolation from the process (like, a specialized discipline, or paper written, or a proof solved, or a degree earned).  Education is also democratic in the sense that its process widens the perspectives of those genuinely engaged, for Dewey believes that education should continue the growth of sociality and morality that has been occurring in the home of the child: "It is the business of the school to deepen and extend [the child’s] sense of the values bound up in his home life."[17]  If it is true that the social life of the child is the basis of concentration in education, then it follows that she should learn virtues necessary for such widening interaction in the educative process.  A school that does not teach children the art of friendship, and enable it and encourage it, for example, through exemplary educators and through texts that engage the imagination is no school at all.  No doubt, there will be virtues such as sympathetic capabilities, compassion, and wisdom to arise out of the various interactions undergone, but one virtue in particular is a prerequisite for the instigation of the democratic educative process, and that virtue is faith.

If education should truly be a microcosm of the larger world of social interactions, then the progression of becoming more educated will not consist in a succession of different disciplines which serve to dissect and compartmentalize life, but the progression shall consist in "the development of new attitudes towards, and new interests in, experience."[18]  The attitude I have proposed that should be developed with regard to educating is most generally the attitude of "Negative Capability," and most specifically, the "religious" attitude, if by "religious," we take Dewey’s definition.[19]  Thus, the second claim of Dewey that I will explicate here is his exhortation of the philosophy of artists characterized by "Negative Capability," in order to discern its impact on his educational philosophy.

Recall, "Negative Capability" was the term Keats used to describe Shakespeare’s temperament, in contrast to Coleridge who could not be satisfied with "half-knowledge."[20]  The capability of existing in uncertainty and mystery without rushing to falsely illuminate the shadows with the first cheap flashlight one finds is certainly an extraordinary quality, generally characteristic of poets and mystics—i.e., people like Shakespeare and Keats.  Dewey paraphrases Keats’ questioning of the faculty of reductive reason: "Does not the reasoner have also to trust to his ‘intuitions,’ to what come upon him in his immediate sensuous and emotional experiences, even against objections that reflection presents to him[?]"[21]  Dewey concludes, with Keats, that no reason, as reason, can reach truth alone, that is, without the imagination and sense.  This statement relies upon the veracity of the traits Dewey attributes to existence, for example, as in his chapter in Experience and Nature entitled "Existence as Precarious and Stable."

In this chapter, Dewey describes the universe as being a place of both regular and unpredictable elements.  It is the latter aspect which is most interesting for the purposes of this paper, however.  As a place that is affirmed to be "hazardous" and "uncertain," the world and its inhabitants should not ever be presumed to be known.  But humans have ways of escaping or ignoring this destabilizing characteristic of existence:

Our magical safeguard against the uncertain character of the world is to deny the existence of chance, to mumble universal and necessary law, the ubiquity of cause and effect, the uniformity of nature, universal progress, and the inherent rationality of the universe…We have heaped up riches and means of comfort between ourselves and the risks of the world.  We have professionalized amusement as an agency of escape and forgetfulness. But when all is said and done, the fundamentally hazardous character of the world is not seriously modified, much less eliminated.[22]


Just as the artist, who Dewey extols in Art as Experience, embraces mystery in all its blessed perplexity, so the "predicament of the inextricable mixture of stability and uncertainty" as described in Experience and Nature, is the true love of the philosopher.[23]  As beings who are "naturally philosophic," as opposed to "coldly scientific," we prize certain knowledge only to the extent that it offers us guidelines for succeeding in attaining goods and shunning evils.[24]  But even in pursuits such as these, we too often miss the more meaningful experiences which nonetheless may not provide us with guarantees for success in our endeavors, but may provide us with the profoundest wisdom.

            When Dewey said that "there are but two philosophies," one of which accepts "life and experience in all its uncertainty, mystery, doubt, and half-knowledge,"[25] this is the same philosophy that ironically accepts the fact that reflective thinking can transform the same mystery, confusion, and uncertainty into illumination and consistency.  However, the denotative (or empirical) method[26] that achieves this transformation originates in that "problematic" phase of life, where primary experience rushes upon the senses in a crude, gross, and undifferentiated manner.  Only later, after reflection, are the indeterminacies translated into meaningful and useful consummations of thought, which are then returned to the primary experiences for reformation and reevaluation whenever those particular conclusions are tested and problematized by our concrete, day-to-day experiences.

            It is significant that the problematic phases of our lives are the starting points for philosophy, for these phases, being characterized by ambiguity, uncertainty, and mystery, also incite us emotionally and lead us to expression, whether that expression be in the form of painting, poetry, or philosophy.  Dewey depicts the problematic phase as "impulsion" thrown into "turmoil":

An impulsion cannot lead to expression save when it is thrown into commotion, turmoil…To generate the indispensable excitement there must be something at stake, something momentous and uncertain—like the outcome of a battle or the prospects of a harvest.  A sure thing does not arouse us emotionally.[27]


The existence of art itself indicates a world at least partially comprised of confusion, pain, hidden features, silent features, dark features, and elusiveness.  Jazz music certainly could not exist without these features; Pablo Neruda’s poetry could not exist without the pains and uncertainties of his love relationships, for he often characterized his beloved, Maltilde Urrutia, as mystery incarnate:

I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,

or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.

I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,

in secret, between the shadow and the soul.


I love you as the plant that never blooms

but carries itself in the light of hidden flowers…[28]


If encounter with the unknown in experience has the potential to manifest itself as various forms of art in various aspects of our lives, then we might conclude that education, as one such aspect of our lives, should be artistic as well.  Needless to say, there are contingencies that abound within the education process.  The material we teach, or are taught, cannot be conceived as fixed and unchanging, for if we are truly empirical, we acknowledge that our understanding of existences is really incomplete.  If, however, there are agreed upon "certainties" (such as mathematical formulas and correct conjugations of verbs), then the educator should not be fooled into believing that there are single and static ways of transmitting this kind of knowledge.  Not only does the content of lectures have the potential to surprise us when it is subjected to reexamination due to unexpected primary experiences, but the other agents with whom we learn and grow are naturally unpredictable and ultimately unknowable as objects.  In short, an experience of education, just as with any experience, is qualified by the risk of non-consummation of contingent factors and misunderstanding (or being misunderstood by) one’s fellows.

            The precarious situation must be met with an attitude that lends a sense of harmony, or else it is an anesthetic experience in which nothing is learned, nothing is taken away, nothing is contributed to the broadening of perspective, and nothing can be construed as meaningful.  There is a certain attitude that can be viewed as artistic expression, since it arises from confounding situations but succeeds in composing and harmonizing the various elements of a being that feels fractured.  According to Dewey, the attitude involves a note of voluntary "submission" that is actually "outgoing," "ready," "glad," and "active."[29]  This attitude is the religious attitude, essentially equivalent to a faith in humanity, and it is comprised of patience, endurance, generosity of spirit, and creativity. 

Unlike a traditional notion of faith as being a mere substitute for knowledge or sight, Dewey’s notion of faith is emotional rather than intellectual in quality; it is truly an attitude or temperament, as opposed to being an excuse for resisting inquiry.  And it is not dependent upon any particular resolution, for as Dewey explains it, "[The religious attitude] is a change of will conceived as the organic plentitude of our being, rather than any special change in will."[30]  In other words, our whole comportment changes in being religious; there is, therefore, an inclusive and far-reaching and deep change in orientation when faith becomes the expression of unresolved turmoil.  As emotionally-qualified, the religious is, as Dewey says, " ‘morality touched by emotion’ only when the ends of moral conviction arouse emotions that are not only intense but are actuated and supported by ends so inclusive that they unify the self."[31]  The totalizing and unifying nature of the religious attitude is indispensable, for it prevents the separation of means from ends in our activities—as well as our own schizophrenic tendencies, in dividing our mental processes from our physical ones—which would be the antithesis of democracy, were the separation to remain.  With regard to education, the effect of the religious attitude would precisely be its unifying and harmonizing manifestation in the classroom.  As qualifying the teaching and learning experience, it would serve as the anima that bridges child to curriculum and individual to community, and permits the student to be also teacher, and the teacher to be simultaneously student.


III.             The Religious Education

As progress consists in developing new attitudes towards, and interests in, experience, having a (Deweyan) religious disposition toward education offers the potential for overcoming obstacles currently being faced in the school systems.  Education that could be universal and moral without falling into dogma or adherence to a specific religion would be a possibility because the religious attitude affords such a function by its "intervening" nature:

…Poetry is called religion when it intervenes in life, and religion, when it merely supervenes upon life, is seen to be nothing but poetry." The difference between intervening in and supervening upon is as important as is the identity set forth.  Imagination may play upon life or it may enter profoundly into it.  As Mr. Santayana puts it, "poetry has a universal and moral function," for "its highest power lies in its relevance to the ideals and purposes of life.[32]


The intervention of poetry, in the case depicted by Santayana, is religious, as is the discovery of the relevance of the material to the self, and of the connection between the self and others.  Dewey continues to quote Santayana, who says that without this sort of intervention, observation will only be "observation of brute fact," and discipline will be "mere repression."[33]  But Dewey retorts that rarely are brute facts observed just for themselves; usually they are in reference to some practical end.  Likewise for him, discipline without some "ideal" end-in-view would be completely sadistic and undesirable; hence, the more dangerous (because subtle) form of repression therein. 

Though he may have distorted the possibilities of externally-coerced lessons, Santayana’s point about the necessity of "poetic" intervention is tenable because the integration of material once perplexing and seemingly irrelevant is the immediate and natural effect of artistic, even religious, presentation.  Made living and problematic, school subjects are tantalizing.[34]  Because the unification of ourselves and the harmonization with others in school, as an ideal of education, must be enacted in the process of educating, an ability to wrestle with ambiguity—as opposed to beating it down, as an obstruction—is required lest we rush preemptively to easy answers that only serve to alienate us from the larger learning experience and from facets of ourselves that have not been allowed to chance the murky waters.

The faithful disposition in education does not depend for assurance upon any fixed laws of the curriculum, nor upon any fixed psychologies of human nature and personal interactions.  By refusing to fall victim to such abstract and oppressive notions, the educator (be she teacher or student, for as we have said, formal teachers are not the only educators in the classroom,) evidences a faith in humanity and supports a form of education that is "problem-posing," rather than a "banking model."[35]  To better understand the implications of these effects of the religious disposition in education, I will briefly examine the ways that this attitude is demonstrated in the writings of  Jane Addams and Paulo Freire, respectively.

In her Democracy and Social Ethics, Jane Addams exemplifies better than anyone else, Dewey’s belief that "education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness; and that the adjustment of individual activity on the basis of this social consciousness is the only sure method of social reconstruction."[36]  She writes, "We are gradually requiring of the educator that he shall free the powers of each man and connect him with the rest of life…[W]e have become convinced that the social order cannot afford to get along without his special contribution."[37]  Addams strongly maintains that the "penalty" of a democracy is that "we are bound to move forward or retrograde together," so that any belief in self-sufficiency and absolute independence from others is illusory within a system that claims to be democratic.[38]  When there is division in society, whether by class, race, gender, etc., where one sect attempts to enforce its ideals on the others, democracy is missing.  Democratic education, then, for Addams, is characterized by active participation in the "larger" life being worked by the masses, and even by sometimes stumbling and falling in the road with these others who are striving together to improve society.  Virtues are thereby socialized not only by a social aim, but by "a social process."[39]

Thus, Addams is skeptical of moral ideals being preached to students (or whomever), for the virtues should arise within interaction and day-to-day living.  The selfish and pseudo-scientific (because not thoroughly comprehensive) moralism perpetuates arrogance, paternalism, and ignorance.  Addams writes, "We are not content to include all men in our hopes, but have become conscious that all men are hoping and are part of the same movement of which we are a part."[40]  So when it came to the charity visitor who sought to educate her beneficiaries on "correct" ways of living, the interaction was characterized by a complete clash of values, and misunderstanding resulted on both sides.  While the visitor preached abstinence from the saloons, the beneficiaries remembered the bartender to be the most generous man in the community; while the visitor preached against child labor, the beneficiaries wondered how they would manage to survive with one less income; when the visitor donated with caution, delay, and investigation, the beneficiaries were confused by her "organized" motivations, as they themselves always gave readily and wholly whenever a neighbor was in need.  What is required is thinking in terms of who our fellows are and who they may become, instead of thinking of who they ought to be.  The latter disposition is not religious, for it is divisive and assumes the self to be on a higher plane of existence, which is always an obstacle in learning.

Paulo Freire, in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, recognized the many violent effects of the absolute division of people in society, which is in all cases oppressive to one group and dehumanizing to both.  Oppressors, recognizing only themselves and those like them as subjects, can name their world, but this naming is imposed upon the oppressed, who are denied the right to name, and condemned to a culture of silence.  While the oppressors are under the assumption that they are practically omniscient, the oppressed, who do not live the life of their oppressors and thus cannot understand the externally-imposed naming, are regarded from without as ignorant and untrustworthy.  Because of this misperception, a certain form of education is created by the oppressors, what Freire terms "the banking concept" of education.[41] 

In the banking model, the students are regarded as receptacles waiting to be filled with objective information which is "deposited" into them.  The students are expected to repeat, memorize, and record this information; such a process obviously precludes any form of dialogue and reciprocal learning.  For Freire, as for Dewey, this oppressive concept of education serves only to anesthetize students such that they are manipulated for the selfish aims of the oppressors.  Dewey contends that it is possible for minds to develop "interest" in routine or mechanical procedures, "if conditions are continually supplied which demand that mode of operation and preclude any other sort."[42]  This interest in memorization and repetition becomes a substitute for original interests in vital reality.  As the oppressors gain power, they can prescribe behavior and thoughts more, and dictate lessons more authoritatively and unreflectively, thereby objectifying the educational content and process, and ultimately the students and even themselves.

Freire asserts that to exist humanly "is to name the world, to change it."[43]  But once named, the world reappears to the namers as a problem and requires of them a reformed naming.  Hence liberation can only consist in dialogue, a naming of the world in cooperation, for "no one can say a true word alone—nor can she say it for another, in a prescriptive act which robs others of their words."[44]  Dialogue itself requires faith, for it is a risk to subject one’s naming to scrutiny, and it requires love in the commitment to others’ liberation.  As Dewey writes:

"[Faith in the possibilities of continued inquiry] trusts that the natural interactions between man and his environment will breed more intelligence and generate more knowledge provided the scientific methods that define intelligence in operation are pushed further into the mysteries of the world, being themselves promoted and improved in the operation.  There is such thing as faith in intelligence becoming religious in quality…[45]


It would seem, then, that dialogue, and the liberating education, demand the religious attitude of educators.


IV.              Too late?

An objection may arise that with regard to the oppressed (or to students who have been indoctrinated under the banking concept of education), it is too late for the faith in their abilities and genuine interests to take effect.  Perhaps they are too attached to their substitutions for living motivations in learning.  Perhaps they prefer external threats to inspire learning to the invitation for the use of the imagination.  Perhaps, as is typical, in the mindset of the oppressed, they fear freedom and want what is only familiar and safe in the classroom. Perhaps they have idealized the coercive and tyrannical teacher, their oppressor, and given the freedom will themselves become sub-oppressors, of their fellow classmates, and perhaps of any reforming educator.  Perhaps it is impossible to have faith in the products of the faithless.

I reply that this endeavor of religious education, an education that embodies the "Negative Capability" of Shakespeare in regard to world and humans, is certainly a risk.  There are no guarantees of the ideal end of liberation.  But we must remember that our aims cannot afford to be detached from their means.  Just as peace will not result from violent methods, we can be assured that a democratic form of education will not emerge from the external imposition of these values, if that even be conceivable.  The values we wish to arouse must be expressed by us

Exemplarity is a vital force, perhaps the strongest one, in education, and it cannot be neglected.  We would do well to hear Addams’ admonition: "Ethics…may be discussed and disseminated among the sophisticated by lectures and printed pages, but to the common people they can only come through example—through a personality which seizes the popular imagination."[46]  Of course, the weakness of this method of exemplarity is that it rarely reaches the masses.  Socrates, Jesus, Addams, Dewey, Freire, King, and other known exemplars knew this, but their faith in humanity contained this wisdom as well: The strength of exemplarity paradoxically rests in that "weakness" of being but one individual and of voluntarily submitting oneself to the potentials of others, i.e., to a real education wherein one is humbled without end. May we then strive to "walk humbly with God," which may mean, as Addams suggests,

to walk for many dreary miles beside the lowliest of His creatures, not even in that peace of mind which the company of the humble is popularly supposed to afford, but rather with the pangs and throes to which the poor human understanding is subjected whenever it attempts to comprehend the meaning of life.[47]


To be this sort of exemplary educator is to embody "negative capability" to its fullest, which may have the practical effect of emptying a person – of pretensions, prejudices, anesthetics, false securities, defenses, charitable claims, and moral pride.  In our increasingly militaristic world, I believe we are in dire need of educators who, though wondering whether they have any effect at all, demonstrate this humility before their students by their admission to mysteries in the world and to their own need of the poets.



















[1] Simone Weil, Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1973), p. 106.

[2] "My Pedagogic Creed," The Essential Dewey Volume I: Pragmatism, Education, Democracy, eds., Larry Hickman and Thomas Alexander (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1998), p. 234.

[3] Art as Experience (New York: Perigee Books, 1980), p. 34.

[4] Ibid., p. 33.

[5] Elie Wiesel, Night (New York: Bantam Books, 1960), p. 2.

[6] "Education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform."

[7] "My Pedagogic Creed," The Essential Dewey Vol. I (hereafter, EDI), p. 230.

[8] "Waiting for God," p. 106.

[9] "My Pedagogic Creed," EDI, p. 230.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Dewey, "The Child and the Curriculum," EDI, p. 243.

[12] Ibid., p. 242.

[13] Ibid., p. 245.

[14] "The Aims of Education," EDI, p. 254.

[15] "Democracy is Radical," EDI, p. 338.

[16] "The Aims of Education," EDI, p. 253.

[17] "My Pedagogic Creed," EDI, p. 231.

[18] Ibid., p. 233.

[19] From "Religion versus the Religious," EDI, p. 408.  This quality will be discussed later in the paper.  Suffice it to say now, for Dewey, the religious is "‘morality touched by emotion’ only when the ends of moral conviction arouse emotions that are not only intense but are actuated and supported by ends so inclusive that they unify the self."

[20] Dewey, Art as Experience, p. 33.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Dewey, Experience and Nature, ed., Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1988), p. 45.

[23] Ibid., p. 46.

[24] Ibid., p. 50.

[25] Dewey, Art as Experience, p. 34.

[26] To more fully explicate the denotative method, it is the empirical method which recognizes that the secondary objects of reflection (which are constructed by the data garnered from the subject-matter of primary experience) are instrumental in giving experience meaning and significance; and they permit us to understand the more gross and crude primary experiences as not so many isolated details, but as the expanded and continuous and explicable content of life.  The method involves the refined objects of reflection in pointing a path back to primary experience so that perplexities may be solved which are created and are insoluble by the crude experiences themselves.  But, the unanalyzed portion of experience is the starting point for reflection.

[27] Dewey, Art as Experience, p. 66.

[28] Pablo Neruda, 100 Love Sonnets, trans., Stephen Tapscott (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1986), p. 39.

[29] "Religion versus the Religious," EDI, p. 406.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid., p. 408.

[32] Quoting Santayana at times, Dewey, "Religion versus the Religious," EDI, p. 407.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Along similar lines as Dewey, Simone Weil writes, "The intelligence can only be led by desire.  For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work…Where it is lacking there are no real students, but only poor caricatures of apprentices who, at the end of their apprenticeship, will not even have a trade." Waiting for God, p. 110.

[35] Paulo Freire, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, contrasts these two modes of education in light of overcoming oppression.  I will explicate these modes at a later point in this paper.

[36] "My Pedagogic Creed," EDI, p. 234.

[37] Jane Addams, Democracy and Social Ethics (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 2002), p. 80.

[38] Ibid., p. 112.

[39] Ibid., p. 33.

[40] Ibid., p. 80.

[41] Paulo Freire, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans., Myra Bergman Ramos (New York: Continuum, 2003), p. 72.

[42] "The Child and the Curriculum," EDI, p. 244.

[43] Pedagogy of the Oppressed, p. 88.

[44] Ibid.

[45] "Religion versus the Religious," EDI, p. 410.

[46] Democracy and Social Ethics, p. 101.

[47] Ibid., p. 34.