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March 23, 2006

democracy as education, education for democracy

I've been commissioned to write an article about John Dewey's 1927 book, The Public and its Problems, and what it implies for contemporary democratic practice. Given my own interests, I have focused on its implications for public deliberation and civic education. My whole first draft is pasted "below the fold" for anyone who's interested in Dewey or the philosophy of democratic education.

For John Dewey, the link between democracy and learning was profound and reciprocal. Dewey defined "democracy" as any process by which a community collectively learns, and "education" as any process that enhances individuals' capacity to participate in a democracy. Although these definitions pose difficulties, they constitute an insightful and original theory that remains relevant 80 years after Dewey wrote The Public and its Problems. His theory is especially illuminating for those concerned about public deliberation and civic education.

On a conventional definition of "democracy," it as a system of government that honors equity and freedom. In a democracy—-or so we are taught—-every adult has one vote, and all may speak freely. For Dewey, however, such rules were merely tools that happened to be in current use. No institution (including free elections and civil rights) could claim "inherent sanctity." There were no general principles, no "antecedent universal propositions," that distinguished just institutions from unjust ones. The nature of the good society was "something to be critically and experimentally determined." [1927, p. 74]

As described so far, Dewey's theory of democracy gives no guidance and makes no distinctions. If we reject all "antecedent universal propositions," then we cannot know that a system of free elections is better than an tyranny. However, Dewey had one profound commitment, to collective learning. Thus he valued the American constitutional system, not because all human beings were truly created equal, and not because elections would generate fair or efficient outcomes, but because democracy promoted discussion, and discussion was educative. "The strongest point to be made in behalf of even such rudimentary political forms as democracy has already attained, popular voting, majority rule and so on, is that to some extent they involve a consultation and discussion which uncover social needs and troubles."[1927, p. 206]

If learning is our goal, then we could spend our time reading books or observing nature. However, the kind of learning that Dewey valued most was social and experiential. A democracy was a form of social organization in which people realized that they were interconnected and learned by working together. "Wherever there is conjoint activity whose consequences are appreciated as good by all singular persons who take part in it, and where the realization of the good is such as to effect an energetic desire and effort to sustain it in being just because it is a good shared by all, there is in so far a community. The clear consciousness of a communal life, in all its implications, constitutes the idea of democracy." [1927, p. 149]

It might seem strange to evaluate societies and institutions largely as opportunities for collective education. But that approach emerged from Dewey’s beliefs about the purpose of life itself. In Democracy and Education (1916), he argued that individual life had value as experience; and the richer the experience, the better. The value of a society was to permit individuals to share and enlarge their experiences by communicating. "The ulterior significance of every mode of human association," he wrote, is "the contribution which it makes to the improvement of the quality of experience." [1916, p. 12] It followed that a "democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communal experience." [1916, p. 93]

I think that Dewey's rejection of universal propositions in favor of continuous collective learning was problematic. As he noted, "every social institution is educative in effect." [1916, p. 12] However, not every educative institution is democratic. Consider science, which Dewey valued very highly. Science is a collective enterprise and an excellent means of learning. However, when it works as advertised, it is meritocratic, not democratic. If we equate democracy with collective learning, then we may weaken our commitment to equality and try to organize the government on the same principles as science (as Dewey recommended in Liberalism and Social Action, 1935), or we may try to democratize scientific research. Both reforms are mistakes, in my view.

Or consider any society in which some oppress others and deprive them of rights. Such arrangements are consistent with "learning": the oppressors learn to dominate, and the oppressed learn to manage. Indeed, the two classes learn together, and they may learn continuously. I would deny that such a system is democratic, because it violates antecedent principles of equality. But Dewey's deep pragmatism prevented him from endorsing such external principles.

In Democracy and Education, Dewey recognized that "in any social group whatever, even in a gang of thieves, we find some interest held in common, and we find a certain amount of interaction and cooperative intercourse with other groups. From these two traits we derive our standard. How numerous and varied are the interests which are consciously shared? How full and free is the interplay with other forms of association?" In a "criminal band," Dewey thought, the shared interests must be narrow ("reducible almost to a common interest in plunder") and the group must isolate itself from outsiders. [1916, p. 89]. In a good society, by contrast, everyone has everyone else's full range of interests at heart and there are dense networks connecting all sectors.

This ideal seems more satisfactory than a simple commitment to "learning," but it relies on the kind of abstract moral principles that Dewey elsewhere rejects. For example, concern for the holistic wellbeing of all fellow human beings is a strong moral commitment, characteristic of Kantianism. It does not derive logically from the concept of communal learning, but is a separate principle. It is not clear to me how a Deweyan pragmatist can embrace it.

Notwithstanding this qualification, there is much of value in Dewey's theory. For those who promote concrete experiments in public deliberation, a theory of democracy-as-learning is inspirational. It explains why adults should be, and are, motivated to gather and discuss public problems: discussion is virtually the purpose of human life. Dewey's theory also provides a response to those who say that small-scale public deliberation is "just talk," that it lacks sufficient impact on votes and policies. Dewey would reply that the heart of democracy is not an election or the passage of a law, but personal growth through communication. "There is no liberal expansion and confirmation of limited personal intellectual endowment which may not proceed from the flow of social intelligence when that circulates by word of mouth from one to another in the communication of the local community." [1927, p. 219]

Dewey's endorsement of verbal communication does not mean, however, that speech should be disconnected from action. "Mind," he thought "is not a name for something complete by itself; it is a name for a course of action in so far as that is intelligently directed." [1916, p. 139] Likewise, deliberation (which is thinking by groups) should be linked to concrete experimentation. Public deliberation is most satisfying and motivating-—and most informed and disciplined—-when the people who talk also act: when they argue from personal, practical experience and when their decisions have consequences for their individual and collective behavior.

Dewey was a developmental thinker: he understood that human beings change over the course of the lifecycles and that a society needs different contributions from each generation. For adults, learning must be collective and voluntary. Adults cannot be given reading assignments on government or public affairs. The forms of adult learning that most interested Dewey were face-to-face adult deliberations, membership in voluntary associations, and communication via the mass media (in his day, newspapers and radio).

However, in a complex society, he thought, children have too much to learn in too short a time for them to be allowed simply to experience discussions and associations. For them, "the need of training is too evident; the pressure to accomplish a change in their attitude and habits is too urgent. ... Since our chief business with them is to enable them to share in a common life we cannot help considering whether or no we are forming the powers which will secure this ability." Thus the need for a "more formal kind of education": in other words, "direct tuition or schooling." [1916, p. 10] Note again that the purpose of education is to prepare students to "share in a common life" of continual learning.

Contrary to what some critics of Dewey claim, he favored "direct tuition" as an efficient means of transmitting accumulated knowledge to children so that they could become competent citizens within a reasonable amount of time. However, he recognized that merely imparting information was not good pedagogy. "Formal instruction ... easily becomes remote and dead-—abstract and bookish, to use the ordinary words of depreciation." [1916, p. 11] Besides, the most profound effects of education (for better or worse) came from the way schools operated as mini-societies, not from the formal curriculum. "The development within the young of the attitudes and dispositions necessary to the continuous and progressive life of a society cannot take place by direct conveyance of beliefs, emotions, and knowledge. It takes place through the intermediary of the environment." [1916, p. 26] In other words, what adults demonstrated by how they organized schools was more important than what they told their students in lectures and textbooks.

Dewey argued that young people were more "plastic" than their elders, more susceptible to being deliberately educated. Recent research bears him out. There is ample evidence that civic experiences in adolescence have lasting effects. For example, in an ongoing longitudinal study of the high school class of 1965, Kent Jennings and his colleagues have found that participation in student government and other civic extracurricular activities has a positive effect on people's participation in civil society almost forty years later. More than a dozen longitudinal studies of adolescent participation in community service have found positive effects as much as ten years later. And Doug McAdam's rigorous study of the Freedom Summer voting-rights campaign shows that the activists' experience in Mississippi (admittedly, an intense one) permanently transformed them.

In contrast, few studies of deliberately educative civic experiences find lasting effects on adult participants. We can explain the difference as follows. Young people must form some opinion about politics, social issues, and civil society when they first encounter those issues in adolescence. Their opinion may be the default one (disinterest) or it may be critical engagement, enthusiastic support, or some other response. Once they have formed a basic orientation, it would take effort and perhaps some psychological distress to change their minds. Therefore, most young adults settle into a pattern of behavior and attitudes in relation to politics that lasts for the rest of their lives, unless some major shock (such as a war or revolution) forces them to reconsider. In a country like the United States, when adults change their political identities, the change results from voluntary experiences, not from exhortations or any form of mandatory civic education.

It would be immoral to write off adults because they are much less "plastic" than adolescents and less susceptible to deliberate civic education. But it is crucial to invest in the democratic education of young people, since they will be permanently shaped by the way they first experience politics, social issues, and civil society. Civic education, as Dewey recommended, must include not only formal instruction but also concrete experiences and the whole "environment" of schools. Indeed, "one of the weightiest problems with which the philosophy of education has to cope is the method of keeping a proper balance between the informal and the formal, the incidental and intentional, modes of education." [1916, p. 12]

Dewey and some of his contemporaries tried to "reorganize" American education "so that learning takes place in connection with the intelligent carrying forward of purposeful activities." [1916, p. 144]. Dewey called this reorganization "slow work," and it did encounter many frustrations. Nevertheless, he and his fellow educational Progressives achieved some striking reforms.

First, to give students opportunities for purposeful civic activities, the Progressives founded student governments and school newspapers. Evaluations find that these activities have lasting positive effects on students' civic engagement, yet the percentage of American students who participate has declined by 50 percent since the 1960s, in large part because high schools have been consolidated. (Fewer schools means fewer school governments and newspapers.)

The Progressives also created the first courses on "civics" and "social studies." These subjects grew at the partial expense of history, which followers of Dewey saw (mistakenly, in my opinion) as an overly "academic" discipline. In 1915, the US Bureau of Education formally endorsed a movement for "community civics" that was by then quite widespread. Its aim was "to help the child know his community—not merely a lot about it, but the meaning of community life, what it does for him and how it does it, what the community has a right to expect from him, and how he may fulfill his obligations, meanwhile cultivating in him the essential qualities and habits of good citizenship."

In 1928-9, according to federal statistics, more than half of all American ninth-graders took "civics." That percentage had fallen to 13.4 by the early 1970s. In 1948-9, 41.5 percent of American high school students took "problems of democracy," another Progressive innovation, which typically involved reading and debating stories from the daily newspaper. By the early 1970s, that percentage was down to 8.9.

Nevertheless, the percentage of high school students who have taken any government course has been basically steady since 1915-1916. Although the historical data have gaps, it appears most likely that "civics" and "problems of democracy" have disappeared since 1970, while American history, world history, and American government have either stayed constant or grew. As Nathaniel Schwartz notes, the old civics and problems of democracy textbooks addressed their readers as "you" and advocated various forms of participation. Today's American government texts discuss the topics of first-year college political science: how a bill becomes a law, how interest groups form, how courts operate. Social studies arose during the Progressive Era, when philosophical pragmatists argued for a curriculum of practical relevance to democracy. Social studies and civics seem to be waning at a time when academic rigor is the first priority and high schools take their cues from colleges.

Finally, Dewey and his allies were interested in the overall design of schools: their location, physical architecture, bureaucratic structure, and rules of admission and graduation. They sought to integrate schools into the broader community and to make them into democratic spaces in which young people and adults would practice citizenship by working together on common tasks.

Today, however, many students attend large, incoherent, "shopping mall" high schools that offer long lists of courses and activities, as well as numerous cliques and social networks. Students who enter on a very good track or who have positive support from peers and family may make wise choices about their courses, friends, co-curricular activities, and next steps after graduation. They can obtain useful civic skills and habits by choosing demanding courses in history and social studies, by joining the student newspaper or serving in the community, and by interacting with administrators. However, relatively few students—usually those on a path to college—can fill these roles in a typical high school. Other students who are steered (or who steer themselves) into undemanding courses and away from student activities will pay a price for the rest of their lives. Serious and lasting consequences follow from choices made in early adolescence, often under severe constraints.

Typical large high schools also tend to have frequent discipline problems, a general atmosphere of alienation, and internal segregation by race, class, and subculture. Often, they occupy suburban-style campuses, set far apart from the adult community of work, family, religion, and politics. Even worse, some of these huge schools occupy prison-like urban blocks, secured with gates and bars. Parents and other adults in the community have little impact on these big, bureaucratic institutions. Therefore, schools are rarely models of community participation, nor do they create paths for youth to participate in the broader world.

Although large high schools offer opportunities for self-selected students to be active citizens—running for the student government, creating video broadcast programs, and engaging in community service—most of their fellow students have no interest in their work. Why pay attention to the student government, or watch a positive hip-hop video that your peers have produced, if you do not share a community with them? Commercial products are more impressive and entertaining.

Since the 1960s, one of the most consistent findings in the research on civic development is the following: Students who feel that they and their peers can have an impact on the governance of their own schools tend to be confident in their ability to participate in their communities and interested in public affairs. However, it is impossible for anyone to influence the overall atmosphere and structure of a huge school that offers a wide but incoherent range of choices and views its student population merely as consumers. To make matters worse, school districts have been consolidated since Dewey’s time, so that there are dramatically fewer opportunities for parents and other adults to govern their own public schools. According to data collected by Elinor Ostrom, the number of elected school board seats has shrunk by 86% since 1930, even as the population has more than doubled.

Those with the most education (relative to their contemporaries) are by far the most likely to participate in democracy—which suggests that education prepares people for citizenship. During the course of the twentieth century, each generation of Americans attained, on average, a higher level of education than those before. Educational outcomes also became substantially more equal. When we put these facts together, we might assume that participation must have increased steadily during the 1900s. On the contrary, voting rates are considerably lower than they were a century ago; levels of political knowledge are flat; membership in most forms of civic association is down; and people are less likely to say that they can make a difference in their communities.

Although many causes have been suggested for these declines, part of the problem is surely a decline in the quality of civic education. People are spending many more years in school, but getting less education for democracy. What we need is just what Dewey and his allies championed-—not merely government classes (although they have positive effects and are in danger of being cut), but also community-service opportunities that are connected to the academic curriculum, student governments and student media work, and the restructuring of schools so that they become coherent communities reconnected to the adult world.


Dewey, John, Democracy and Education, 1916 (Carbondale and Evansville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985).

----------------, The Public and Its Problems (New York: Henry Holt, 1927)

Posted by peterlevine at March 23, 2006 08:34 AM


From Tom Hilde, via email:

I'm really pleased you're doing an essay on Dewey. I was raised philosophically through Dewey, and have been writing on him and teaching his work (at MSPP!) for years. A few meandering thoughts about your essay:

1. The definition of democracy for Dewey. A full understanding requires not only the Public and Its Problems and Democracy and Education, but also The Philosophy of Democracy, his later essay Democracy as a Way of Life, and his moral psychology in Human Nature and Conduct for starters. The Theory of the Moral Life (the middle portion of the 1908 Ethics (with Tufts)) helps round this out. Even his Logic: The Theory of Inquiry. It's a difficult thing to grasp the richness of D's notion of democracy by focusing on the two big books: PP and DE, which most people do when discussing his views on democracy.

One question that bugged Dewey was how we get to the necessary antecedent principles regarding which you criticize Dewey. I see this problem in most of the current deliberative democracy literature, and it leads that literature back into the typical philosophical move of elaborating various sets of principles - typically Kantian or utilitarian - justified through non-deliberative means prior to the process of the democratic portion of deliberation. It sets the framework for deliberation and constricts the bounds of deliberation. If we want DD to be a form of discussion already embedded in pre-set institutions,imperfections and all, then I have a difficult time seeing where DD is an advance at all - what Dewey called the problem of the "benevolent despot." But if those institutions are up for grabs as well, if deliberation opens the possibility of rewriting the books, then we're getting somewhere towards the ideals that motivate DD. That's what Dewey was working on and part of the reason why he worried about a priori principles. I often find DD to be closer to Lippmann's view than Dewey's - their arguments about the role of experts. Dewey's quote of Plutarch's shoe pinching example sets the scene there. Dewey (and Royce) had a deep trust in the capacity of any human being to engage in inquiry as experts of a sort - knowing where the shoe pinches. So...

2. The focus on science. D is often accused of "scientism." His emphasis on science is an emphasis on method, contingency, and evolution. He always said, it's the best we've got for figuring out matters of truth and as a general model for inquiry. If another method comes along that's better, so be it. The same goes for democracy as a method of intelligent inquiry. The point is not to democratize science or the inverse. The lesson to be drawn from science, ideally, is its fallibilism and pluralism as a mode of inquiry. This is what he extends to democracy and to his ethics. The problems of people in general and the problems of a group of pure physicists working out a problem are not the same thing. The latter is a matter for experts, best done perhaps through fallibilistic scientific inquiry, but not needing some kind of "democratization" so that their inquiry is somehow remolded to serve the interests of the collective. This is how it seems to me you're taking Dewey. I think it's mistaken. The former however, the people, might engage in inquiry more or less intelligently, which in the end means dealing with problems that interest them and affect them, whether as a collective or as individuals, as a process of social inquiry without preset formulae. For Dewey, "problems" of the public are ethical problems, and he viewed ethical problems as not at all merely the domain of the ethics expert, the philosopher. This is a crucial point to pragmatism in general. Many DD practitioners, it seems to me, want to hold onto their expertise. D would have them toss it in the trashbin if it doesn't contribute to democratic inquiry. One way it might not contribute is by holding up a priori philosophical principles as necessary conditions for inquiry and thus blocking the route to inquiry. Inquiry is always contingent, yes, but philosophers often come with predefined and predebated sets of methods and principles that can easily serve to bolster participants' own prejudices and a priori biases by providing them with philosophical legitimacy, so to speak ("why... I'm a Kantian on this water resource issue, it turns out!"). This can operate entirely conversely to the Deweyan project of building community, and it does in practice. Remember, community and democracy are things to be achieved - meta-ends-in-view, in a sense - and not final ends or already-accomplished achievements. The latter assessment is on of the great undemocratic errors of extant political democracies, in Dewey's view.

3. The key issue is not simply collective learning. I think that misses much of what D is after. Yes, "learning" can take place in a prison cell while being tortured - you learn about the cruelty of human beings or about your own guilt or whatever. Let's say you engage in this "learning" along with the prison guards, torturers, and the institutional structures which have placed you in the prison cell. Collective learning. Your focus on collective learning overlooks what is important for Dewey. The point is not somehow to holistically understand the sympathies of others (although this may very well be a byproduct). It is, rather, the pragmatic claim that decent societies are ones in which democratic organization yields intelligent solutions to problems faced collectively and individually. Democracy has a pragmatic justification. Kantians and utilitarians have an extremely difficult time wrapping their minds around this concept and thus often demand of Deweyan pragmatists something more than what he's claiming, and on their own terms. But this is another instance of wanting to show whatever (and whomever) is basic, foundational, essential, etc. prior to inquiry.

4. The part of your essay on education is really good. To underscore your points and the transition between the democracy discussion and the education discussion, you might look up the early debates about vocational education that Dewey was involved in after a study in Massachusetts found an incredibly low high-school graduation rate. Much of his practical thinking about democracy and education is tied up in this concrete example. See D's various essays from the early to mid 1910s (The Middle Works), as well as Westbrook's discussion in the pp. 170s. D's essays here are a bit anachronistic, but they provide insight into the historical intellectual context of his developing views that culminated in Dem and Education.


Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 23, 2006 08:20 PM

From David Airth, via email:

Great subject Peter because it deals with two things dear to my heart, democracy and change. Dewey thought education was the best way to cope with the disequilibrium brought on by the changing world. Each new generation has to be educated to the ways of democracy. Democracy also, to be democracy, has to constantly adapt itself to changing circumstances and additional elements and their demands and aspirations, like the elements of feminism, gay life, immigrants and other social upheavals. Education is the best coping mechanism of change, making one more accepting of it and agile in implementing it.

It is appropriate that pragmatism was invented in America, the most changing country on earth. Without Dewey's pragmatism America could not respectfully deal with the change it generates and has to deal with.

Pragmatism requires nuancing which is really only possible if one has fair education. Without pragmatism we could not have democracy, not a lasting one. The more people educated the better democracy works. And we are still learning that?

I have to study this more. Thanks for the opening.

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 24, 2006 11:08 AM

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