Philosophy has been both a big aid and a hindrance to my day-to-day work.

Once I was invited to a literacy conference to speak on a panel about teaching students to find the main idea of a paragraph or a short article. Others presented various studies of the problem and methods to improve teaching. I didn’t reject that but did ask what “main idea” could really mean, how it was affected by the purposes of the author and reader, the context of reading, and more. The more I thought about it, the less I knew what it was.

During my time at BBN, my work broadened from artificial intelligence to include literacy, math and science education, and especially to promote democratic, or progressive education. This drew inspiration from the work of progressive educators and philosophers such as John Dewey and Jane Addams, as well as international work not so well known in the US, such as that of Célestin Freinet in France, Misiones Pedagogicas in Spain, and the Turkish Village Institutes.

In the pragmatist tradition of  C. S. Peirce and William James, I became uneasy with reductionist assumptions, especially when those are deemed sufficient for understanding nature, human behavior, or social relations. Accordingly, I often found himself restless with abstractions that ignore concrete realities but equally with efforts to address practical concerns that fail to question their ground assumptions.

Although I continued to draw ideas and methods from philosophy, it became not so much a key for deciphering life, but a base for grounded work in schools or communities. This leads to ideas such as teaching by listening, cultural funds of knowledge, and communities as intellectual space, and systematically confronting theory with practice and practice with theory.

I gained a lot from group reading and discussion. One Philosophy reading group was organized at the U of Illinois by Wally Feinberg. Another, organized by George Hein at TERC, focused on Dewey.