The typical impression Chemistry books and courses give (me at least) is that all will be known in the behavior of elements, that can be known—it is just a matter of time. Drops of facts are filling up the ocean of knowledge. The rate of knowledge is piling up faster by the second as intemet brings global computers into a single storage system. Each fact is authoritative and the more we know the greater an authority we become. In the practical world of technology, however, what is here today is gone tomorrow. All those neat industrial and chemical processes once so important and upon which were spent so much heart achce and head ache learning were wasted efforts. We need a stoic approach to learning and think of career, financial or grade rewards.
Dewey attacked both conceptions as misguided. We have alluded above to the status of knowledge in science (or any subject). Experience is greater than any abstraction and our abstractions are always only true within a given instrumental context. Thought is a problem solving process. Laws give us connections like signs on a map. They are indicative of reality but always symbolic and partial. More fundamentally the point for Dewey is that science is a bulwark against authoritarianism. It is science that sets minds free. Science turns all certainties into a journey or quest that remains always open-ended. Science does not appeal to any authority except experience open to public scrutiny—not to any person as an authority or tradition
. There cannot be a bank of truths getting larger everyday but there can be universes of discourse that expand through internet.
The misplaced feeling or wasted effort or sentiment for outdated processes comes from a general problem of learning for the wrong reasons. Learning is not for some future world that may or may not be there when we graduate. Learning is for now—for a process of problem resolution in which the outcome is important to us. In this Dewey antedates Constructivism and is united with it. If education is about reified facts then when they are not needed, the students feels cheated—its been wasted effort and time, but if education rests on a process of thinking within present experiences that are immediate then education is its own reward. However Dewey yet again enables us to go beyond Constructivism because in his philosophy he can explore the nature of experience and everyday life, its tragedies, uncertainties and unresolvable problems. His interests go beyond psychology. The purpose of chemistry too is not merely about solving problems or describing behaviors. Chemistry is a philosophy of the elements—a subject that embraces a gamut of interests from the quest for the ultimately real, the constitution and processes of life, a quest for a free and ethical mind and the present, past and future of technology in the service of human need and desires, (such as the automobile).
Dewey’s philosophy pushes Chemistry out of its comfortable certainties and nice ivory tower theses. Dewey’s championship of the sciences, chemistry included, was in part to get scientists to see themselves as a major player in the movement for freedom against all faces of insiduous authoritarianism. Chemistry, as noted above, has all too often de facto contradicted itself by confusing its theories with absolutes. It has reified knowledge into gobs of real data to be leaned. It has dismissed philosophy and morality as belonging to the arts—something tagged on to reality, not intrinsic to it. It has made experiments exemples of theory, not theory as tentative maps to problems posed by experiments, even though it may pay lip service to its relativistic status in introductory texts.
For Dewey, democracy is not about the institutions of govemment so much as a way of relating in all institutions of society—the classroom, school and academia included. It is a social way of thinking that is intrinsic to the community of science that needs to be universally generalized and most particularly to the relationship of teacher to student. Constructivisvn is agreed too but notice Dewey’s broader philosophical context.
To understand Dewey’s sense of freedom and open-endedness of knowledge requires more than this paper can do justice. However an analogy proposed by Boisvert, quoting Burbank, in his conclusion to “Dewey’s Metaphysics”, makes both an excellent summary to his theory of what the foundation of knowledge, and also illustrates how Dewey conscieves of scientific knowiedge as something changing, time bound, fulfilling, indexical of the real, instrumental, human, transformative and visionary
The Burbank citation concerns a contemporary of Dewey, a plant breeder, who described how some of his “most important and valuable work” was with plums. At that time, the plum, though consumed and enioyed, was prior to his breeding experiments, “small, usually acidic, generally unfit for shipping, often with a large stone.”
I wanted to get a plum that would ship. . .a plum that would be beautiful and delicious, a plum that would be large, a plum for canning, a plum with a small pit or none at all, and so on. My designs were pretty carefully worked out. For instance, as regards the shipping plum. The plum developed to be picked from the tree and eaten right there, or within a few hours in the house was quite a different thing from the plum that could be picked, packed, shipped, delivered may be thousands of miles away, unpacked, sold, carned home, and finally eaten fresh. . . .And this couldn’t be acquired by accident or chance-it had to be studied and the specifications pretty carefully written
The experience of the plum was in the first place a matter of the senses greater and larger than the cognitive reflections. Actively reflecting within the experience, the mind started wondering about possibilities. A number of questions were posed by that experience. A future objective was posited that would ultimately provide a conclusion to a rational study. Thought was future oriented, visionary and a sociai enterprise. Truth and values were relative to the inquiry from the outset to the consununation of the experiment. Truth gained will not be about eternal forms but a creation of new forms within a certain context that, in turn, provided a new situation for the acquisition of future knowledge. “There is only one sure way of deciding whether a plum can travei a thousand miles, be stored on a grocery shelf, brougnt home, and remain not merely edible but tasteful: send some of the new varieties on just such a journey. The problematic situation arose within a context, and the success or failure in resolving it will be judged by a return to that context. . . . . .Success in inquiry is inextricably connected to interactions between humans and their environments. No theory which severs this connection can claim Dewev as one of its adherents.’’