theories and methods
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Better Worlds: Education, Art, and Utopia
Date Reviewed: December 16, 2015
Better Worlds: Education, Art, and Utopia does not immediately relate to theological education. However, it does cover interesting and thought-provoking topics of potential use for those working in the theological school classroom. Yearnings for utopia express a desire akin to awaiting the Kingdom of God. Therefore, looking at ways the trope of utopia is formulated in the fields of education and the arts can provide interesting parallels for the theological school classroom. The core question is what would a better world look like?
Roberts and Freeman-Moir take the reader through a sweeping survey of topics. In one section, John Dewey and William Morris’s utopian philosophies provide a backdrop for the discussion of utopias as places where each person can practice skilled craftsmanship, developing a craft to the point where it becomes artisanal. In chapter 2, visual art as a dystopian tool is regarded as something that can evoke true sympathy. The authors invite readers into various imaginative spaces to consider how imaginative sympathy can propel us into action, or at least into moral discomfort caused by the difference between the present world and imagined utopian dreams. Chapter 4 discusses the role of images, showing their power as pathways to action that open the imagination to craft a space of deciding and reflecting. This is similar to the praxis-theory-praxis loop championed by many theologians and seminary educators.
For the theological educator, perhaps the most à propos chapters are those concerned with the liberation pedagogy of Paulo Freire and the literature of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Hermann Hesse. The chapter on Freire’s liberation framework provides a useful overview of his life and work with a focus on his utopian realism. The chapters on Dostoevsky and Hesse provide interesting analyses of their theologies and philosophies.
I have two main critiques of this text. First, the authors spotlight too few female utopian visionaries. Chapter 3 focuses on writer and philosopher Iris Murdoch, but this is by far the weakest chapter in the book. The authors are clearly aware of feminist (or at least female scholars’) viewpoints in the various fields they describe. The book would have been stronger had they chosen at least one compelling female figure’s utopian or dystopian vision to unpack and describe. My second criticism is that the chapters are fairly disjointed, each chapter representing a different topic and field, and there is no final conclusion that draws all the themes together.
The authors put forth education as “utopian curiosity” (107), where each opportunity for knowledge-building provides entry into a world larger, more spacious, and more creative than the one in which the student previously lived. Allowing these alternate worlds to wash over faculty imagination may provide ways to take critical looks at the contemporary roles of theological educators and to invite questions such as: What are the aims and purposes of theological education and how do they compare to utopian and dystopian visionary aims and purposes? What is the role of the theological educator in this process? What does pedagogy look like if faculty seek to go beyond simple information sharing to something more complex and critically reflective?
Discontinuity in Learning: Dewey, Herbart and Education as Transformation
Date Reviewed: December 16, 2015
Andrea R. English’s Discontinuity in Learning re-links the work of Johann Friedrich Herbart with that of John Dewey. Dewey criticized Herbart’s work, causing, English argues, future critics to separate Dewey’s thought from its European predecessors (xx). English argues for continuity, that both thinkers want to identify and develop ways “for learners to recognize and respond to the other in judgments and actions” (104), through the experience of discontinuity.
English’s excellent analysis of Herbart focuses on discontinuity, offering frameworks to analyze educational theories and practices that ignore discontinuity and reconnecting Anglo-American and Continental philosophies of education (xxiii-xxiv). I cannot do justice to this rich book here. I will focus on its main idea: education as discontinuity.
English examines Herbart’s analysis of the educational possibilities in his contemporary’s (Kant’s) Categorical Imperative. To act so as not to treat others as things and as any other ethical person would act, one engages in moral choice. Herbart argues that educators can work with the experience of the discontinuous that emerges in encounter with the “other,” identifying where a learner already acts out of inner freedom (46) to move that learner to greater freedom, the capacity beyond “self-interested desires,” in recognition of and respect for the other (7).
Discontinuity causes a pause (34) at the limits of one’s abilities and/or knowledge (xxii). This “in-between” (Dewey), “distance” (Herbart 16, 27), or “break” (English, 17) is a site of struggle (59) to transcend a limit. There, the learner can “identify and potentially change” her relation to the other (65). A teacher does not choose for the student, but designs an intellectual experience, to use Donald Finkel’s term, to scaffold the struggle (17), while, simultaneously, being open to improvisation on the design.
Dewey agrees with Herbart: discontinuity is to “undergo or suffer the world” that upsets stable understandings (66), a starting-point for reflection (68). In learning, teacher and student struggle together in ongoing “critical self-relation.” For Dewey, the classroom is not just a site of moral struggle but of democratic action (89). Arriving at the social, as well as personal, “limits of thought and ability” (102), one learns, potentially, to choose for the good of all. Both the classroom and democratic society should support the deep learning that ensures freedom.
For Dewey and Herbart, the goal of learning is right orientation to the other (105) through disorientation and reorientation, guided by the teacher who listens intently and generates dialogue, moving students to greater inner freedom and just action. The skilled teacher deploys “pedagogical tact” (50ff, 126ff.), discerning when to intervene in student learning and when to improvise (129) on the learning design. Neither teaching nor learning, therefore, can be determined as complete in outcomes and measured fully by evaluations. Nowadays we experience such “urgency” (55) about measures that we want to “predetermine” and “guarantee” learning (156). English argues, instead, for cherishing the discontinuous and valuing the improvisational space of the classroom in which teachers “acquaint the next generation” with their present world and prepare them for a “future yet to be discovered” (160).