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Three Lessons from Dewey

by Richard M. Gummere, Jr.

Frank Pierce Jones remarked that John Dewey learned a lot from F. Matthias Alexander but Alexander learned nothing from Dewey. Well, F.M. is gone, like a great meteor. But if the rest of us turned to Dewey, what might we learn? I suggest study of three of his major concepts.

One: a ding dong ideological battle between two parties, he warned, may distract both from more urgent responsibilities. Two, an idea will always be skewed by the culture of the society where it's applied. Three, the world won't progress unless a lot more of us become philosophers.

For the first lesson let's start from Gulliver's Travels, where Swift satirized certain enthusiasts of his time in England with the story of the "Big Enders" squared off against the "Little Enders." They argued forever, hotly, over one issue—whether you should open your egg at the big or the little end.

In Experience and Education John Dewey taught how to read a controversy regarding two such apparently incompatible views. If the partisans approached each other generously, they could find that the ruckus probably masks a large problem not being faced by either. Dewey was writing particularly about the hostility between the traditionalists and the progressives in American education of the 1930's. Too many on both sides were tempted to put their best energy into defense of their own position rather than into helping young people grow. Dewey urged both parties to get together not for an ecumenical trade-off of their practices but for a fundamental exploration of their common purpose, that is—as he put it—Education. To date, America has not tried what Dewey urged.

Could F.M. Alexander's followers profit from deeper self-study? We, too, carry on heated controversy over application of his technique. We'd have to ask ourselves how hard we try to distinguish the transient elements in our pedagogy from the permanent. In 1913, writing of the fruitful inventions of Maria Montessori,(note1) Dewey expressed a fear that teachers would "reduce them to isolated mechanical exercises, a tendency unfortunately attendant upon the spread of every definitely formulated system." Take current issues such as the teaching of the Alexander Technique in groups, or one-on-one: lying on a table, or upright; in normal activities, or getting in and out of a chair; with or without "the orders." Has the debate over these practices been free enough of guarded professionalism to be guided by F.M. Alexander's fundamental thinking, which is as reliable a guide as the North Star?

Another important area to explore together, beyond where we've gotten so far, is the assessment of psycho-physical growth. Dewey's favorite criterion was behavior. He said he found the most convincing evidence of the worth of the Technique to be the change he saw in the Alexander brothers over the long time he knew them. An assessment of Dewey's way would require further interest in Alexander's meaning when he described the reeducation he offered as not only mental and physical but—always—moral. Did this great heretic really mean that the choice of my manner of use as I get up to answer the phone tests my morality as severely as when I decide whether to report my whole income to the Internal Revenue Service?

We could also counteract unhealthy partisanship in considering together how to profit from two models: the few adult primitives and the millions of small infants still with natural coordination. Presumably neither group knows F.M.'s constructive conscious control but both exemplify his good use. I have seen on film(note2) a dozen or so aborigines paddling a long canoe as narrow and tippable as a modern one-oar shell—all standing erect! Could anthropology help us find more clues to their psycho-physical and social ease?

We also might explore together, for example, the naive sense of identity with the world around them of African bushmen, Australian natives, and American Indians. This perception was natural enough for prehistoric humanity as they are described by Julian Jaynes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. According to Jaynes, however, after the race had developed an ego, or sense of self, their left brain—locus of logic, then submerged the right—locus of intuition. But might not more careful study of societies where the old balance survives help us recapture pristine human psychophysical coordination while continuing to enjoy our modern ego and intellectual culture?

Frank Pierce Jones described that new sensibility, which he achieved through Alexander's principles: "It was just as easy, I found, instead of setting up two fields—one for the self (introspection) and another for the environment (extraspection)—to establish a single integrated field in which both the environment and the self could be viewed simultaneously."

And the infants! This bewitching host waits ready to grow by the million retaining their free aboriginal response to all stimuli. Who can watch without embarrassment examples in any playground of the very coordination we adult students of Alexander's ideas struggle to learn? Don't the children challenge us to advance his work better not as solemn Big Enders against Little Enders but with the debonair spirit of these small fry?

And in the end, do we all continue to pay close enough attention to Alexander's principles not only for our own and our pupils' growth but to keep the Alexander community dynamic? In our present striving for professional order do we hold sufficiently well in mind the core of F.M.'s work, that is, Change? I imagine him suffering nightmares in which his epoch-making innovation succumbs to routine. "What a terrible thing it is," he lamented in his Bedford Lecture, "to have fixed institutions and constitutions. They cannot hold truth."

The second lesson out of Dewey calling for study by all hands comes in his frequent warnings that any major new idea is bound to take on some of the characteristics of its host society. The Western world is heavily materialistic. Could this bias explain the tendency of Alexander teachers to present the Technique mainly as a way of strengthening people's professional and technical skills and relieving their physical and mental stress?

I've heard teachers explain that they must take new pupils where they are, however limited and specific their wants, and go on from there. Eminently sensible. But I see the possibility of a widespread, expedient narrowing of view to concentrate on the problems of the body. I have collected numerous leaflets announcing conferences, workshops, and courses. The modesty and infrequency of their promise of heightened creativity, too, let alone of a new consciousness, seems to reflect only reluctant attention to F.M. Alexander's psychophysical and moral concept. This surrender could subtly distract our profession away from his larger mission, the elevation of the human race.

So—must humanity wait for a major evolution of its culture before we can unleash the whole new power Alexander discovered in the unity of mind, muscle, and spirit? John Dewey felt heavily challenged by the brute force of our capitalist economy and politics, yet during the Great Depression of the 1930's, with world war imminent, he insisted that the prospect of a saner society looked bleak but far from hopeless.(note3)

In the three decades since his death, how far have events justified Dewey's and Alexander's vision of a more open world? In The Aquarian Conspiracy, Personal and Social Transformation in the 1980's, Marilyn Ferguson describes enough liberating programs and influences to suggest that the opening may have begun, though her title implies it is still work for radicals. She devotes far more pages to Ilya Prigogine than to anyone else. The Belgian Nobel Laureate has disproven entropy, the scientific dogma that the universe is running down.

Marilyn Ferguson makes the best recent clarion call I've heard to all conspirators engaged in the modern plot to raise human consciousness. "We are in the early morning of understanding our place in the universe and our spectacular latent power, the flexibility and transcendence of which we are capable." The words could be Alexander's. The Philistines may not be about to turn and run, Ferguson concedes. But their trumpet gives out an uncertain sound.

So much for the first two lessons chosen from Dewey's stock of wisdom his call, first, to rise above contentious professionalism and his warning, second, of the dangerous weight of socialization. Third and last comes Dewey's scary appeal for more good philosophy—the candid facing of large problems concealed in the hurly-burly of life and work.

Felix Morrow, in his speech to the First International Congress of Alexander Teachers at Stonybrook two years ago, berated his audience for our un-Promethean lack of nerve. Indignant, like Jesus of old, over our indifference to Alexander's great charge to his disciples, Mr. Morrow virtually branded us as "a generation of vipers." He thinks serious students of Alexander's work should be philosophers—like F.M. himself.

Now F.M. Alexander read a lot as a young man. Dewey once told me he assumed this reading had included much Herbert Spencer. That Victorian English thinker, a champion of Evolution before Darwin, thought he saw a mighty drive inherent in the world advancing the human race in its progress. The optimism of this weighty but popular philosopher helped nerve the frustrated young actor for his venture into the unknown. For philosophical support the Alexander constituency today can improve on Spencer—we can turn to Dewey. The independent Yankee deplored reliance on any idealist's notion of an Unseen Hand, of a Grand Design. He felt sure the whole responsibility for human improvement fell to us, Here Below, and our only resource was intelligence. The ability to use that power more imaginatively is the gift to which F.M. Alexander referred in the title of his book, Man's Supreme Inheritance.

Dewey's credo—trust in human initiative—is a revolt against the main philosophic schools since the Greeks—almost all broadly classified as idealists, or rationalists. Like Spencer they have imagined, if not an omnipotent being, then a force, or law, presiding over or underlying the precarious flux of the world. Dewey exhorted us to ride the flux and make the ride as constructive as we can, guided by our own wits—"Do it yourself." In Alexander's terms the idealists, focused on a remote goal, are end-gainers; the pragmatists, attending imaginatively to the ado around them, are advocates of the meanswhereby.

Now is the time, therefore, for Alexander's disciples to wax more philosophical. A few decades ago, John Dewey was put on the shelf when the analysts, with their narrow interest in language, captured many of America's philosophy departments. Like the idealists, they preferred rarified pedantry to the study of life. But recently, the journals of philosophy have been turning out far more articles than usual on Dewey. If philosophy, like art, signals the direction in which human culture moves, we may take this sign to heart. The American professoriate is reviving its interest in pragmatism and they've taken Dewey off the shelf. They are examining his argument that you judge an idea not by its abstract plausibility but by what happens when you actually use it.

Not that Alexandrians should therefore dash to the library for the current issue of the Journal of Philosphy. Better go back to Dewey's Human Nature and Conduct and open to the chapter which explicitly features F.M. giving him a lesson. It is in a section, "Habit and Will," where Dewey demonstrates that life depends entirely on habit but that creative living can become a habit. The whole book supports the assumption that great energy comes from both the resistance to creative habits by stable habits and from the challenge to the stable by the creative—a constant confrontation of the old and the new, a noble tension.

To my knowledge those insurgent neo-pragmatists haven't yet discovered John Dewey's fateful contact with F.M. Alexander and imagined the mutual fertilization of their philosophy and Alexander's education that could continue to strengthen all philosophers and educators.

The prospect is clear in Dewey's own summary. When his daughters had asked him to describe the highlights of his professional career for a short biography, he responded with these words:(note4)

"I reached fairly early in the growth of my ideas a belief in the intimate and indissoluble connection of means and ends. My theories of mind-body, of the coordination of the active elements of the self, and of the place of ideas in inhibition and control of overt action required contact with the work of F.M. Alexander and in later years his brother A.R. to transform them into realities."

The transformation can go both ways. If today's academic pragmatists would profit, as Dewey did, from our knowledge of the power of intelligence, of the primary control, and of accurate kinesthesia, perhaps these progressive philosophers could help us see our own work in a broader scope. We might then steer more surely through the shoals on our voyage towards the Aquarian consciousness F. Matthias Alexander discovered.

About The Writer

Richard M. Gummere, Jr., Richard M. Gummere, Jr., studied with A.R. and F.M.Alexander in the 1940s. Certified to teach by F.M.Alexander in 1944. Studied with Marjorie Barstow from 1941 on. Has published numerous articles mostly about education and in 1971 a book, How to Survive Education. Served as adviser to Bruce and Martha Fertman's Alexander school in Philadelphia. Taught Latin in his youth and was Director of Admissions at Bard College for 10 years and a career counselor at Columbia University for 19. His self described occupation in retirement was that of cracker barrel philosopher (philosophe campagnard) in Northerrn Dutchess County, NY, USA.

Richard M. Gummere, Jr (1912-2007)

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Note1 -- Interest & Efforts in Education 1913, Cambridge University Press. go back to text

Note2 -- The Sky Above, the Mud Below. go back to text

Note3 -- "The Future of Society" a chapter in Intelligence in the Modern World. go back to text

Note4 -- The Philosophy of John Dewey, Paul Schilpp, editor. go back to text


2006 Alexander Technique International (except where noted)