Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Pragmatism in the blogs

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by Wiz

This isn’t much of a post, but I wanted to draw everyone’s attention to the anti-empricist, pragmatic kick that the good folks over at Openleft have been on.

First there is Paul Rosenberg’s tour de force, which contrasts the Pragmatism of Chinese development, against the neo-liberal absolutism of Russia “development.” Yes, yes, James Kloppenberg has already done it. But its good to see the connection between pragmatism and rejection of capitalist orthodoxy in the blogs.

As Rosenberg accurately points out, the cautious centrism of Obama owes next to nothing to the actual philosophic tradition of pragmatism. Actual pragmatism, as developed by Pierce, James, and Dewey, is an epistemology based on a constant re-evaluation of evidence and conclusion. A crucial aspect is that you take seriously differing forms of evidence. (Since truth is plural, not unitary). Thus William James, for instance, took seriously the religious experiences of spiritualists and Christian scientists, and didn’t presume they were loony. The health care debate, where Obama and allies literally prevented single payer advocates from testifying, is the exact opposite model of truth.

Next, Jeffbinc, shows the consequence of the naive faith in numbers and evaluation that drives Obama’s education model. He quotes education expert Yong Zhao that the new “race to the top” makes a god out of data.

This as well is a mockery of the pragmatic ideal. Just like neo-liberal economics tries to reduce the complicated world into a set of fungible discrete atoms that can be mapped and manipulated with mathematical formulas, so this education model tries to come up with a set of quantifiable standards that can be reproduced in any place and circumstance. As they’ve shown over at Baseline Scenario, a fair and accurate measurement of teacher performance is next to impossible.

John Dewey

More to the point, reducing education to the ability to master a set of multiple choice exams degrades the entire enterprise. For Dewey, education was an active process of citizenship building. It harkened back to the Aristotelean ideal that individuals had to learn the right habits (virtues) in a constant process of mentorship, participation, and trial and error. It is a two way street, as the teacher doesn’t presume that he has all the knowledge that he must simply impart to the students, but rather that in the process of education both teacher and student come to better understandings of the subject. Rote test-taking, the fetishization of numerical progress, and the “one-size-fits-all” curriculum, is anathema to this style of education that seeks to develop meaningful democratic habits and fully realized human agents.

Both models–neoliberal economics and neoliberal education– seem to hold out the naive promise that the individual decision can be taken out of policy choices, that scientific models will simply show what are clearly the best fits. In both cases they fail.

This is all to say, and this point probably deserves another post, but it appears that when Obama and the DC establishment say “pragmatism” they mean: “willing to compromise” or “use any means to get to our end.” And normally it means, don’t listen to any voices on the left who have any opinion that makes Joe Lieberman uncomfortable. This is brainless elitism, a crude justification for selling-out and ignoring the legitimate demands of marginalized groups, not pragmatism.


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

April 26, 2010 at 08:00

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