Experience and Democracy:The Hopeful Current
My focal interest is in human freedom, in the capacity to surpass the given and look at things as if they could be otherwise.
Maxine Greene (1988)
Is it possible, given the conditions of modernity and the current colonization of experience in education to imagine, in Maxine Greene’s words, “things as if they could be otherwise”? Can our river of experience have yet one more currenta hopeful one-that points toward freedom and possibility? I believe that there is. Perhaps it is a current that is “not yet” in that it exists only in our imagination. But if freedom means the ability to surpass the given and imagine again, as Greene reminds us, then even the possibility of such a current points to a more hopeful future. As we draw our exploration to a close, I would like to engage in such an act of freedom-imagining what experiential education might yet come to be, despite the obstacles that might prevent such a vision from coming to fruition. As I mention in Chapter 1, as a pragmatist, I am not inclined to offer a universal, one-size-fits-all, construction of the “true” experiential education. Nor am I interested here in some tight and specific formulation of what is needed to retrieve experiential education out from under hegemonic control. Such a conclusion would fly in the face of the anti-universalism, anti-instrumentalism, and fallibilism that form the basis of the pragmatic orientation. Nonetheless, we cannot withdraw from the choices or the moral consequences that come with knowledge. Not choosing, in the end, is still a choice. I have argued that I see a clear and pressing danger involving the impacts of modernity on the way we talk about (and enact) experience in education today. As Gowin recounts in the foreword
to Greene’s Dialectic of Freedom, “we live in a historic period in which much of our knowledge is a form of technocratic rationality and much of our direct experience is privatized, consumerist experience” (1988, p. x). Such a historical moment demands a response-a vision for how things might be otherwise. To give such a response, as a Deweyian, and as someone writing from the context of the United States, necessitates some engagement with the notion of democratic living. Cornell West (2000) once commented that:
Anyone who has the audacity to adopt a democratic vision cannot be optimistic, though I do not conflate optimism with hope. Why? Because democracies are rare in human history, they are fragile, and historically they tend not to last that long . . . And America has been so privileged because there has always been a prophetic slice across race, region, and class, and gender, and sexual orientation, a progressive slice that says we are not going to give up on this fragile democratic project, it is incomplete and unfinished, but we are not going to give up on it, even against the grain of so much human history.