John Dewey – Democracy and Education

My life has been a rebellion against traditional education. I have zig zagged between periods where I was overwhelmed by a desire to make a meaningful difference in the world and others where I simply wanted to study forever. University was never the right place for me because its assignments never aligned with my goals. But as I look back, it was never clear to me what those goals were supposed to have been. There were so many classes where I was a disappointment because my focus was elsewhere.

As a student, I craved a sense of freedom in my studies which was never fully realized. It never came to fruition because as I grew up and was given that freedom I wanted most, I found it was necessary to create my own restrictions and limitations to make any meaningful progress. The habits necessary for meaningful study were not developed until after years of failure throughout my life. And even now, I question whether I have figured out how to study the questions which have preoccupied my mind.

I never earned a PhD. This is a source of great disappointment and relief for me to this day. It is a disappointment because my passion for knowledge never became my career. I am jealous of those whose lives are spent at the intersection of brilliant minds and new ideas. And yet… I am aware academia would have stifled my interest. I traded away academic legitimacy for intellectual freedom.

But I am also self-conscious enough to realize I never lacked an ability to think in the abstract. My writing continues to lack a degree of specificity. I needed experience to shape my thoughts rather than thoughts to shape my experiences. Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether many public intellectuals might have been better served through a career in business before they shared their thoughts. Too often there is a disconnection between the life regular people lead and the public debate.

Maybe I have simply confessed my own ignorance. I live in exile in the American Midwest and have been told things are different in the information capitals like New York, Boston, or San Francisco. Apparently, there are places where a degree from a state university is treated like a high school diploma and an Ivy League education guarantees income security. Alas, I am from a place where experience matters. Indeed, ability is based less on the institutions where someone studies rather than the achievements they deliver.

The style of John Dewey’s Democracy and Education betrays its message. It is written in a dense and dry prose yet makes the case for a more dynamic method of education. Many of his prescriptions have become part of the dominant education philosophy of our time. And yet, its key insights offer lessons for students today. The primary purpose of education for Dewey was the preparation for participation in democratic governance. This contrasts with the popular expectation of education as the preparation for a career. Indeed, many saw education as linked to economics in his own time. Dewey recognizes “the most deep-seated antithesis which has shown itself in educational history is that between education in preparation for useful labor and education for a life of leisure.”

Dewey departs from the traditional conflict in education because he does not consider participation in politics as a form of leisure. Democracy demands a variety of obligations upon its citizens. Alexis de Tocqueville was quick to recognize the difference in culture between the United States and France. He believed the distinct political demands of democracy were a key influence on the behavior of citizens in the United States. Dewey elevates this insight to consider how education can be shaped to produce the citizens able to fulfill these expectations.

Democracy is often considered as a political regime with specific conditions. It is too often diminished into a series of conditions rather than a thicker sense of society. Democracy is idealized as a government of the people. But it is not simply the government which is shaped by its people. Indeed, democracy is a society shaped by its people rather than a people shaped by their society. Dewey is considered one of the great liberal thinkers. Indeed, he implicitly understands liberalism is not a condition set upon democracy, but its most necessary and vital foundation. Liberalism does not establish bounds or limits to prevent the evils of democracy. Rather, it is a precondition to allow for the creation of a people capable to govern itself.

Dewey believes there is a false conflict between the different goals of education. It is not necessary to align industry and education to produce economic growth nor is it necessary to redirect education toward aesthetic ideals through literature and the arts. An education focused on democratic citizenship works to align these goals into a single coherent direction. A thicker form of democracy does not view the problems of industry or business as distinct from society. The skills necessary to thrive in the modern economy are similar to those necessary to govern society. Unlike technocracy, democracy is a team sport. It requires the ability to bring diverse skills and insights to public deliberation.

But more than this it demands a sense of humility. Nobody knows everything. Democracy requires contributions from participants throughout society. This requires the respect of experts but also ordinary workers. Indeed, only recently have the experiences of minorities begun to be taken seriously. These shared experiences are a part of what makes democracy possible. It is not enough to have representation through the ballot. Representation must bleed into the actual governance of the community. Representative voices must influence how society is shaped and molded. Nobody has the final word on any subject, but this does not give license to an ignorant form of sophism where everyone just agrees to disagree. Democratic governance imposes an obligation upon people to learn to work together to solve social problems.

John Dewey did not draw a line between democracy and the economy. This does not lead to a justification of socialism, but rather recognizes the way problems are solved through multiple channels in a democracy. Therefore, education must teach students to recognize and respect these different approaches. The divide between the practical and the academic is an illusion. Dewey understood “the need of overcoming this separation in education if society is to be truly democratic.”

There are moments where I am unsure of my place in the public sphere. It is not clear I am able to elevate my thoughts to the level of the academics I continue to read. There is a conscious divide between their approach and mine. There is a clear difference in my mind between the intellectuals who dominate the public debate and my own pseudo-intellectual approach. I refuse to consider myself an intellectual. There are too many differences. I did not attend an elite university. I did not pursue graduate education. I do not live in the “right” city. I chose a different type of life in a different type of place and it has been the difference.

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