positive growth | negative growth

Started to read John Dewey’s Democracy and Education.



JD starts with an idea of what life is. Sentient life that is. Life is a self-renewing process through action upon the environment. But renewal within an individual can’t last indefinitely. We die. Yet the community continues. There are processes of transmission from one generation to the next. But the graded difference in age, the fact that some are born as some die, makes possible through transmission of ideas and practices the constant reweaving of the social fabric. Education can and is part of this.

JD seems all for formal education, over informal varieties, and has what seems to me a colonial attitude but that’s befitting a text published in 1916. Animals are brutes. Civilised groups and modern cities can relapse into barbarism and then into savagery. How quaint to have written this. Probably drafted, or first thought out, before World War One broke out in 1914 and certainly before America’s entrance into that war in April 1917. Unless pains are taken to see that genuine and thorough transmission takes place, the most civilized group will relapse into barbarism and then into savagery. It is not clear whether JD would admit that many a barbaric way of treating people can and are transmitted through our practices, ideas and habits. I would!

Anyways, JD has some really useful stuff on growth, I reckon. Which cuts against his faith in modern progress, opening out possibilities outside of accumulative developmental pathways. Here some passages and my exegesis regards negative and positive difference.

The primary condition of growth is immaturity. This may seem to be a mere truism—saying that a being can develop only in some point in which he is undeveloped. But the prefix "im" of the word immaturity means something positive, not a mere void or lack. It is noteworthy that the terms "capacity" and "potentiality" have a double meaning, one sense being negative, the other positive. Capacity may denote mere receptivity, like the capacity of a quart measure. We may mean by potentiality a merely dormant or quiescent state—a capacity to become something different under external influences. But we also mean by capacity an ability, a power; and by potentiality potency, force. Now when we say that immaturity means the possibility of growth, we are not referring to absence of powers which may exist at a later time; we express a force positively present—the ability to develop.

So JD appears to be saying: children are immature, then need to improve, develop, grow. This is actually the starting point of mainstream schooling which uses this to pitch the children as starting out of a series of accumulative stages of development for which teachers and adults are responsible, as the experts already developed.

But JD proposes that immaturity means something positive, not a mere void or lack. The child has power and force. The possibility of growth. Which is positively present. The question is, in which direction? In the direction pre-ordain, pre-imagined or pre-scribed by those that already exist? Or is there just as much possibility of alternative routes, new forms, unimagined existences, and so on? I think if this positive force and power of growth exists it must exist as a creative possibility that can, and does, go beyond replication.

Attending to something as a positively present force means the abandonment of comparison to fixed standards and predictable segmented pathways.

Our tendency to take immaturity as mere lack, and growth as something which fills up the gap between the immature and the mature is due to regarding childhood comparatively, instead of intrinsically. We treat it simply as a privation because we are measuring it by adulthood as a fixed standard. This fixes attention upon what the child has not, and will not have till he becomes a man. This comparative standpoint is legitimate enough for some purposes, but if we make it final, the question arises whether we are not guilty of an overweening presumption. Children, if they could express themselves articulately and sincerely, would tell a different tale; and there is excellent adult authority for the conviction that for certain moral and intellectual purposes adults must become as little children. The seriousness of the assumption of the negative quality of the possibilities of immaturity is apparent when we reflect that it sets up as an ideal and standard a static end.

JD then shows that if we take a fixed standard as the end point of learning, then this is to arrive at a place of no learning and no more growth. A kind of Ungrowth… But JD says we all deep down what to feel the possibility of continual growth and learning.

The fulfillment of growing is taken to mean an accomplished growth: that is to say, an Ungrowth, something which is no longer growing. The futility of the assumption is seen in the fact that every adult resents the imputation of having no further possibilities of growth; and so far as he finds that they are closed to him mourns the fact as evidence of loss, instead of falling back on the achieved as adequate manifestation of power. Why an unequal measure for child and man?

I want to call up the phrase ‘life long learning’ at this point but the term is so pat, probably because the idea is that it extend school learning afterwards (a conservative path) rather than positing that all humans are already learning throughout their life and thus it is prior to any attempts at formal learning (a more radical approach).

Taken absolutely, instead of comparatively, immaturity designates a positive force or ability,—the power to grow. We do not have to draw out or educe positive activities from a child, as some educational doctrines would have it. Where there is life, there are already eager and impassioned activities. Growth is not something done to them; it is something they do.

Same goes for you.



JD says growth is life. Our net conclusion is life is development, and that developing, growing, is life. And thus, human growth is human life. And this happens as soon as humans starting living, which is to say, when humans start growing, which is also to say, when humans start learning.

JD also says that growth comes out of a basis of immaturity. But this immaturity should not be counted as negative. It is a positive, immediately present force—the potency and capacity to change.

Dependency. And plasticity. They are the two conditions of our immaturity that provide the possibility of growth.

Humans are radically dependent. The human baby is quite helpless. Much more so than most other animals. And our period of infancy is rather extended.

The relative ability of the young of brute animals to adapt themselves fairly well to physical conditions from an early period suggests the fact that their life is not intimately bound up with the life of those about them. They are compelled, so to speak, to have physical gifts because they are lacking in social gifts. Human infants, on the other hand, can get along with physical incapacity just because of their social capacity.

And human babies are more social able then we normally think.

We sometimes talk and think as if they simply happened to be physically in a social environment; as if social forces exclusively existed in the adults who take care of them, they being passive recipients. If it were said that children are themselves marvelously endowed with power to enlist the cooperative attention of others, this would be thought to be a backhanded way of saying that others are marvelously attentive to the needs of children. But observation shows that children are gifted with an equipment of the first order for social intercourse. Few grown-up persons retain all of the flexible and sensitive ability of children to vibrate sympathetically with the attitudes and doings of those about them. Inattention to physical things (going with incapacity to control them) is accompanied by a corresponding intensification of interest and attention as to the doings of people.

Same goes for children. And their social connections can seem egotistical to adults, who don’t have the same connections and focus.

The facts which are cited in support of the alleged pure egoism of children really show the intensity and directness with which they go to their mark. If the ends which form the mark seem narrow and selfish to adults, it is only because adults (by means of a similar engrossment in their day) have mastered these ends, which have consequently ceased to interest them. Most of the remainder of children's alleged native egoism is simply an egoism which runs counter to an adult's egoism. To a grown-up person who is too absorbed in his own affairs to take an interest in children's affairs, children doubtless seem unreasonably engrossed in their own affairs.

What does this hyper dependency give us? The ability to learn in a myriad of ways. This is our special form of plasticity.

The specific adaptability of an immature creature for growth constitutes his plasticity. … It is essentially the ability to learn from experience; the power to retain from one experience something which is of avail in coping with the difficulties of a later situation. This means power to modify actions on the basis of the results of prior experiences, the power to develop dispositions. Without it, the acquisition of habits is impossible.

The speed of mastery in the habits of animals comes with the cost of inflexibility. A chick learns how to pick up things (in this case, seeds) in hours. Human babies can take over six months to pick up anything with their hands. But in trying out so many ways to do this simple task, their capacities are multiple, from the get go.

It is a familiar fact that the young of the higher animals, and especially the human young, have to learn to utilize their instinctive reactions. The human being is born with a greater number of instinctive tendencies than other animals. But the instincts of the lower animals perfect themselves for appropriate action at an early period after birth, while most of those of the human infant are of little account just as they stand. An original specialized power of adjustment secures immediate efficiency, but, like a railway ticket, it is good for one route only. A being who, in order to use his eyes, ears, hands, and legs, has to experiment in making varied combinations of their reactions, achieves a control that is flexible and varied. A chick, for example, pecks accurately at a bit of food in a few hours after hatching. This means that definite coordinations of activities of the eyes in seeing and of the body and head in striking are perfected in a few trials. An infant requires about six months to be able to gauge with approximate accuracy the action in reaching which will coordinate with his visual activities; to be able, that is, to tell whether he can reach a seen object and just how to execute the reaching. As a result, the chick is limited by the relative perfection of its original endowment. The infant has the advantage of the multitude of instinctive tentative reactions and of the experiences that accompany them, even though he is at a temporary disadvantage because they cross one another. In learning an action, instead of having it given ready-made, one of necessity learns to vary its factors, to make varied combinations of them, according to change of circumstances. A possibility of continuing progress is opened up by the fact that in learning one act, methods are developed good for use in other situations. Still more important is the fact that the human being acquires a habit of learning. He learns to learn.

If all life is growth, what place the directed focus upon growth—what place education (if this is something about growth at all)?



More from Democracy and Education, and the chapter on Growth. And more connections to some key terms I’ve been writing about: positive difference over negative difference, thinking of the child outside of them as needing to be filled, and circumstances and consequences to turn too—JD wants us to focus on the consequences of growing which is the growing into and of life, rather than worry about the circumstances too much which are means by never should be thought of as ends.

Again, the full quoting of a passage. And some of my commentary and thoughts later.

The Educational Bearings of the Conception of Development.

We have had so far but little to say in this chapter about education. We have been occupied with the conditions and implications of growth. If our conclusions are justified, they carry with them, however, definite educational consequences. When it is said that education is development, everything depends upon how development is conceived. Our net conclusion is that life is development, and that developing, growing, is life. Translated into its educational equivalents, that means (i) that the educational process has no end beyond itself; it is its own end; and that (ii) the educational process is one of continual reorganizing, reconstructing, transforming.

1. Development when it is interpreted in comparative terms, that is, with respect to the special traits of child and adult life, means the direction of power into special channels: the formation of habits involving executive skill, definiteness of interest, and specific objects of observation and thought. But the comparative view is not final. The child has specific powers; to ignore that fact is to stunt or distort the organs upon which his growth depends. The adult uses his powers to transform his environment, thereby occasioning new stimuli which redirect his powers and keep them developing. Ignoring this fact means arrested development, a passive accommodation. Normal child and normal adult alike, in other words, are engaged in growing. The difference between them is not the difference between growth and no growth, but between the modes of growth appropriate to different conditions. With respect to the development of powers devoted to coping with specific scientific and economic problems we may say the child should be growing in manhood. With respect to sympathetic curiosity, unbiased responsiveness, and openness of mind, we may say that the adult should be growing in childlikeness. One statement is as true as the other.

Three ideas which have been criticized, namely, the merely privative nature of immaturity, static adjustment to a fixed environment, and rigidity of habit, are all connected with a false idea of growth or development,—that it is a movement toward a fixed goal. Growth is regarded as having an end, instead of being an end. The educational counterparts of the three fallacious ideas are first, failure to take account of the instinctive or native powers of the young; secondly, failure to develop initiative in coping with novel situations; thirdly, an undue emphasis upon drill and other devices which secure automatic skill at the expense of personal perception. In all cases, the adult environment is accepted as a standard for the child. He is to be brought up to it.

Natural instincts are either disregarded or treated as nuisances—as obnoxious traits to be suppressed, or at all events to be brought into conformity with external standards. Since conformity is the aim, what is distinctively individual in a young person is brushed aside, or regarded as a source of mischief or anarchy. Conformity is made equivalent to uniformity. Consequently, there are induced lack of interest in the novel, aversion to progress, and dread of the uncertain and the unknown. Since the end of growth is outside of and beyond the process of growing, external agents have to be resorted to to induce movement toward it. Whenever a method of education is stigmatized as mechanical, we may be sure that external pressure is brought to bear to reach an external end.

2. Since in reality there is nothing to which growth is relative save more growth, there is nothing to which education is subordinate save more education. It is a commonplace to say that education should not cease when one leaves school. The point of this commonplace is that the purpose of school education is to insure the continuance of education by organizing the powers that insure growth. The inclination to learn from life itself and to make the conditions of life such that all will learn in the process of living is the finest product of schooling.

When we abandon the attempt to define immaturity by means of fixed comparison with adult accomplishments, we are compelled to give up thinking of it as denoting lack of desired traits. Abandoning this notion, we are also forced to surrender our habit of thinking of instruction as a method of supplying this lack by pouring knowledge into a mental and moral hole which awaits filling. Since life means growth, a living creature lives as truly and positively at one stage as at another, with the same intrinsic fullness and the same absolute claims. Hence education means the enterprise of supplying the conditions which insure growth, or adequacy of life, irrespective of age. We first look with impatience upon immaturity, regarding it as something to be got over as rapidly as possible. Then the adult formed by such educative methods looks back with impatient regret upon childhood and youth as a scene of lost opportunities and wasted powers. This ironical situation will endure till it is recognized that living has its own intrinsic quality and that the business of education is with that quality. Realization that life is growth protects us from that so-called idealizing of childhood which in effect is nothing but lazy indulgence. Life is not to be identified with every superficial act and interest. Even though it is not always easy to tell whether what appears to be mere surface fooling is a sign of some nascent as yet untrained power, we must remember that manifestations are not to be accepted as ends in themselves. They are signs of possible growth. They are to be turned into means of development, of carrying power forward, not indulged or cultivated for their own sake. Excessive attention to surface phenomena (even in the way of rebuke as well as of encouragement) may lead to their fixation and thus to arrested development. What impulses are moving toward, not what they have been, is the important thing for parent and teacher.

The false idea of development is this: movement to a fixed, preset goal. And it has at least three traits: treating immaturity as deficient (something in children, but not in adults) which ignores the positive, existing powers in children; seeking to fit in with an existing, fixed environment (established by adults prior to children) which ignores creative adaptation, and working towards fixed habits (judged by pre-ordained standards, again from the world of adults) which puts rote learning and automatic response above individual perception.



JD goes through three ways to approach education, all of which sound okay, but which he shows up as deficient. Actually, he talks of “the evil consequences which flow” so this is some heavy shit.

The bad eggs are: education as preparation, as unfolding. and as training. So goes his fifth chapter of Democracy and Education. For today, I’m thinking about what he says against preparation.

First up, however, JD does give us his positive conception of what education can be, and should be for him: the educative process is a continuous process of growth, having as its aim at every stage an added capacity of growth. And he says this idea contrasts sharply with existing educational traditions.

Preparation. Getting Ready. What for? The responsibilities and privileges of adult life. Already in this simple idea things are treated with negative difference. Children are not regarded as social members in full and regular standing. They are looked upon as candidates; they are placed on the waiting list. Interestingly, JD reckons adults put themselves on a waiting list when they consider themselves as not having any meaning but for some preparatory probation for ‘another life’. I’m guessing JD is thinking about people living in preparation for heaven or nirvana, but what of all the times that adults live thinking that some future set of circumstances is going to be so much better and activities now are done in some deference to that future goal. The grass is greener as they say.

What’s so bad about education as preparation? Four problems. In the first place it involves loss of impetus… future just as future lacks urgency and body… to get ready for something… is to throw away the leverage that exists, and to seek for motive power in a vague chance. The point is, the already existing motivations of children are replaced with some vague goal which children have no motivation for, and so the natural energies and motivations of children are lost. This leads to the second problem, an abundance of shilly-shallying and procrastination. With the vague future such a long way off, why be in a hurry to get there; plenty of time for other things now before that future comes to pass. The temptation to postpone is much increased because the present offers so many wonderful opportunities and proffers such invitations to adventure. Thirdly, the problem of education as preparation for the future is that the future goal constructed by this education is generic and not at all particular to the individual. Education is preoccupied with a conventional average standard of expectation and requirement instead of being concerned with the specific powers of the individual under instruction.

To sum: it is impossible to overestimate the loss which results from the deflection of attention from the strategic point to a comparatively unproductive point. The strategic point is, of course, not the vague future or generic average, but the particular specific present and person right now.

That being the case, reward and punishment turn up with vengeance. Why? Because the future having no stimulating and directing power when severed from the possibilities of the present requires something must be hitched on to it to make it work. There is an imposed external set of motivations and coercions: promises of reward and theatre of pain. All so that pupils may be fooled into taking something which they do not care for.

But JD is not against preparation all together. He just things that the focus on the future can derail everything. Education as continual growth, which for JD is where it’s at, will progressively realize present possibilities, and thus make individuals better fitted to cope with later requirements. The interesting thing here is how the present and future are joined. Not a vague future that fucks over the particulars of the present. Rather, in diving into the present, our capacities for living and growing bloom and thus our relation with whatever comes next (ie the future) takes care of itself.

The mistake is not in attaching importance to preparation for future need, but in making it the mainspring of present effort. Because the need of preparation for a continually developing life is great, it is imperative that every energy should be bent to making the present experience as rich and significant as possible. Then as the present merges insensibly into the future, the future is taken care of.