Experience and the Social:The Pragmatist Current
Shared experience . . . is the greatest of human goods. John Dewey
When Charles Sanders Peirce declared, in his Collected Papers, that “experience is our only teacher” (quoted in Houser & Klousel, 1992, p. xxxiv), he punctuated a particular period in philosophy now known as American Pragmatism. And it is this philosophical tradition that forms the intellectual energy for our next current in experiential education: the social current. It is certainly true that, for Romantics such as Rousseau, Thoreau, and Emerson, experience, too, was the only teacher. So what sets this particular current apart? In order to answer this, we’ll need to wade into some of the central tenets of pragmatic thought, what Richard Bernstein labeled as the “pragmatist ethos” (1992). This will allow us to see the ways in which experience, as constructed in pragmatist theory, can be framed as decidedly social and transactional in orientation. From here, we’ll dive down deep into the writings and work of John Dewey-unquestionably the most significant figure in this current if not in the field of experiential education as a whole. Our trajectory will be somewhat unconventional. Rather than begin with Experience and Education, Dewey’s 1938 classic that is perhaps his most cited and influential work in relation to education, we’ll begin with another, less widely read text, Art as Experience, in an effort to weave the pragmatist ethos into an understanding of Dewey’s particular construction of experience. Finally, we’ll surface and take a look at how this social construction of experience impacts contemporary curriculum projects in experiential education, noting, as we did with the Romantic current, the possibilities and limitations of this particular current of experience.