As noted many times on this blog, I work within the philosophic tradition known as American Pragmatism. William James proposed this tradition’s core principle—the pragmatic method– as a way to resolve seemingly intractable “metaphysical questions.” In short, it holds that to know an object, we should examine that object’s effect on other objects. I’ve found that this simple move—tracing the consequences of a belief or statement or action— can prove remarkably useful in clarifying my thoughts. In the following I’d like to demonstrate the pragmatic method in action. Specifically, I want to interrogate a commonplace I often encounter as a college writing teacher: students ≠ kids.
Before we begin, I need to clarify what I mean by “commonplace.” As I understand it, commonplaces are ready-made verbal formulas. They are the bits of distilled wisdom, imparted to us by our various communities, that help guide our actions.
Commonplaces are obviously important. They help us understand and interact with our environment. We therefore become very attached to them. This emotional investment can sometimes blind us to their actual nature. Me and my commonplaces get so close, James would say, that I start to see them as ontologically true. And that’s a problem.
Consider a US Marine, guided by the belief that as a Marine, she is “always faithful” and “first to fight.” These commonplaces shape the Marine’s actions. Hence, they’re important. If the Marine is a pragmatist though, she recognizes that “always faithful,” though it may (seem to) fit her to a T, remains a mere verbal formula. It’s been applied to her from without and therefore remains open to revision (or even rejection). It’s true, sure, but true only because of what it does in context. In other contexts, or for other Marines, it may be false.
Now let’s turn to a pedagogical example. College students are adults, not children (students ≠ kids). This is pretty much a truism among progressive educators, its utterance sure to garner a round of head nods at the conference or faculty meeting. Is it true or false though? Following James, we can find out by tracing its consequences.
So what does students ≠ kids do? Well, first it encourages teachers to “take the training wheels off,” to make students responsible for their own learning. A long line of progressive educators, from Maria Montessori on down, would suggest that this is a positive move.
So our example can do positive work. If we wish to follow James though, we must keep in mind that this statement is in no way ontologically true. We can’t, for example, prove empirically that college students are adults and not children. Instead, we must view this statement for what is it is—a community generated object acting on other objects. Among certain constellations of objects, its consequences may be other than positive.
Consider a common situation faced by writing teachers. It’s near the end of the semester. You’ve worked through a carefully designed syllabus, given your students every opportunity to think critically and learn and grow. Despite this, some students remain mired in bland thought and language, comfortably ensconced in the status quo. This is a frustrating moment. And for some teachers, reminding themselves that their students are NOT fully formed adults may be a potent ameliorative tactic. It can help the teacher read more generously, find new reserves of patience. In short, writing teachers can’t expect college freshman to think and write like Theodor Adorno. Conceptualizing college students as in-process, as plastic, in short, as children, may help teachers come to terms with this fact.
So, here we have a commonplace (students ≠ kids) that in certain contexts does positive work. In other contexts, the inverse (students = kids) does positive work. From a Jamesian perspective, we can therefore say that this commonplace is both true and false. To make this determination we consider the thinker, the context and what the commonplace does for that thinker in that context. In short, we must use the pragmatic method.
Admittedly, such an analysis makes an implicit moral claim. It suggests that it’s better (more logical, more socially useful) to think of our beliefs as tools rather than objective descriptions. As tools, we’re free to change said beliefs as circumstances necessitate. We’re free to view our students as both adults and children, for example. William James makes a strong case that this is the best way to approach our world. It forces us to stay flexible, makes us more generous thinkers. I too think this is a good way to live and to think. Use of James’s pragmatic method can help nudge us in this direction.