Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A little pragmatism may go a long way


In Pragmatism,William James writes,
"There can BE no difference anywhere that doesn't MAKE a difference elsewhere - no difference in abstract truth that doesn't express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequence upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere and somewhen."
For James, this is the basis of the pragmatic method used to settle metaphysical disputes.  James also writes,
" The pragmatic method...interpret(s) each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences.  What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true?  If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle.  Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other's being right."
There are any number of issues faced by educators in the quest to "make a difference."  Is it practical to emply the pragmatic method to these issues?  If so, then what are the results of that application?

Most decisions about programs are based on an empirical philosophy.  This implies a "fact" based opinion with an underlying tones such as sensationalism, materialism, pessimism, fatalism, and skepticism.  The explanation of these decisions usually is accompanied by statements such as: "research suggests", "studies show", "teaches using this method demonstrated..."

There is nothing inherently wrong with this philosophical position, but it only addresses areas that can be measured and empirically studied.  The challenge is that education is about more than empirical elements.  It also involved the devleopment of areas less evident to empirical designs.

This opens the door to the opposite philosophical view, the rationalistic view.  Rationalistic philosophy is based on "principles."  The underlying tone of the rationialists includes intellectualism, idealism, optimism, and free willism.  Advocates of the rationialistic philosophy may employ less tangible methods and explain these methods by dismissing data and relying on instinct and feelings such as:
"Regarldless of the testing data, I know our students are making improvements.  They are happier, more engaged, and are generally more interested in learning." 
The challenge with a purely rationalistic philosophy is that while optimism, choice, and ideals are all important, there is a real need to measure and gather the results of our efforts to gage and relfect on our pedagogy.  In other words, there is a need for cold hard facts as well.

I believe that in matters concerning educational philosophy, we need an approach that allows for "intellectual abstraction" and also "makes some positive connection with the actual world of finite human lives."  This is what James considers pragmatisms role to be.  Pragmatism satisfies both demands.
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