Beyond Control and Rationality: Wong on Educative Experiences

Last night I finished an article by David Wong, in which he argues that our views in psychology and education have been overly influenced by the “Tradition” (Rorty, 1982) in Western philosophy of the value of rationality and control.  This perspective was promoted by Socrates (the unexamined life is not worth living), and has resulted in “two ideas that have endured till today—the separation of soul and mind from body and the elevation of reason over nature” (p. 193).  Consequent to these ideas are several related concepts:

  • In Western philosophy and religion, man receives an elevated place in the hierarchy of all living things, due to the human capacity for reason and consciousness. (p. 193)
  • Western religions and philosophy have emphasizes the rationality of the universe; indeed, our ability to bring order and control to world saves us from “Schopenhauer’s nihilism” (p. 193).
  • The epitome of valuing reason might be the French Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, for which “reason and knowledge were the keys for gaining responsible control of one’s own existence…” (p. 194).
  • In the sciences, Newton’s laws gave a greater sense of  rationality and coherent laws to the universe.
  • Near the same time, in religion the view became that reasoning individuals would interpret the Bible for themselves (p. 194).

With this philosophical tradition affecting us, it should come as no surprise that we characterize “ideal students as rational and in control of their thinking and actions. The good student is often described as intentional, cognitive, metacognitive, critical, and reflective” (p. 192).  This also affects our views about good instruction: “The core belief that ideal learners are self-motivated, agentic, striving, extending, mastering, and responsible is also central to educators who posit that effective teaching should support intentional, thoughtful, problem-driven, student-centered activity” (p. 196).

Wong finds this tradition to be connected not only to Socrates’s philosophy, but also to the Greek religious worship and idealization of Apollo, who created by structuring, ordering, and reshaping.  Nature was to be acted upon and mastered, and beauty came out of bringing order to chaos, restraint to excess, and rationality to nonrationality.  Yet there was a parallel and overshadowed tradition, Wong argues, stemming from the worship of Dionysus.  This worldview focused on receptivity or surrender to the spirit of Nature in its immediate form, a surrender that was full of blind and passionate energy.

As a scholar interested in “compelling experiences,” Wong wants us to consider, as do “Dewey and other holists…,  that the complete human experience is always the unity of the two” (p.  195) — rationality and inspiration or energy.  My “ears” perked up as I read this, because I have thought that “shared energy” is a critical component in effective teaching (specifically, in instructional conversations).  For Wong, “the inspired qualities of motivation are the necessary complement to agentic qualities” (p. 197, italics mine). He then discusses several topics of research which have focused somewhat more on “the inspired qualities of motivation,” such as Csikszentmihalyi’s (1990) notion of flow experiences (which highlights emotions and immediate experience, and allows for “the disappearance of the self and ego” (p. 197) in compelling learning experiences) and and Bargh’s concept of automaticity (wherein “goal-directed activity, judgment of others, self-regulation, and expert performance—processes thought to exemplify our cognitive/rational nature—are much less under our conscious control than we may wish to believe” (p. 198)).  Wong also discusses theories about interest; person, environment, and situation; and emotion.  I was really struck by one of his lines in the section about emotion:

the emotion of learning at its most powerful is the feeling of increased vitality as we realize our growing capacity to perceive and act. (p. 201)

This connects the idea of shared energy to the idea of becoming.  I do think there is a powerful feeling of vitality, an increased energy, when we realize our capacities have expanded, or we have become more than we were before the experience.

Wong then refers to “Dewey’s aesthetic philosophy, as expressed in Art as Experience, [to] develo[p] the idea that worthwhile experiences require more than just control and rationality” (p. 203).  Dewey suggests the concept of “undergoing”, which seems an aspect of becoming.  Wong argues that active doing and receptive undergoing, become “educative as we grasp the relationship between doing and undergoing” (p. 203). When new meanings emerge for us, through inspiration or insight, they come not from rationality (after all, the Meno paradox questions how, “[i]f learning is only rational, that is, intentional, reasoned, logical, and firmly grounded in what we know, how can truly new ideas ever emerge?” (p. 205)), but from “the construct of aesthetic undergoing and its relation to qualitative [intuitive, felt, immediate] meaning” (p. 205).

Wong now argues that compelling learning experiences are derived from a relationship between the rational and nonrational, found in anticipation.

Anticipation is what transforms an ordinary occurrence into an event saturated with significance and moving forward with dramatic energy. Whether the learner is engaged in reading a story, watching a film, or conducting scientific inquiry, anticipation is what moves us to the edge of our seat so that we may see better and be better prepared for what we might see….  Anticipation is a response to the potential for change…. [T]he experience of anticipation draws on all aspects of human capacity…. In anticipation, we are more fully alive and more fully human. That is what makes these experiences so compelling. (p. 208)

The thought that came to me as I read was this: And anticipation is what drives the reader to stick with Charles Dickens!  Sometimes his prose is so tedious, but his cliffhanger-chapter endings sure compel you to read on and on! 🙂

Wong also write some thoughts about autonomy.  If good learning is learning in which students sometimes cannot control their experience, aren’t we suggesting less student autonomy?  Wong asserts: “transformative learning involves students in the more complex responsibility of judging the meaning and value of their experiences” (p. 213).  I like this concept.  It’s not simply about offering more choices in activities to students. It’s about giving them more responsibility to judge ever more complex meaning and value.  This fits a bit with Richard Williams’s (year?*) argument about agency not as freedom of choice so much as “living truthfully.”

Wong closes by following his own thinking and creating additional “anticipation” in his reader.  He has subtitles such as “value without work,” “suffering is passion,” and “the essential role of faith in education.”  Guess you’ll have to be filled with anticipation until you can read what he thinks on those topics! 🙂


Wong, D. (2007). Beyond Control and Rationality: Dewey, Aesthetics, Motivation, and Educative Experiences. Teachers College Record, 109(1): 192-220.


One thought on “Beyond Control and Rationality: Wong on Educative Experiences

  1. Pingback: Transformative Learning Experience: Wilson & Parrish « Lisa Rampton Halverson

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