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February 26, 2008

Dewey's lost chance

(Dayton, OH) On my way to a meeting with two of its authors (and others), I read Dewey's Dream: Universities and Democracies in an Age of Education Reform (Temple, 2007), by Lee Benson, Ira Harkavy, and John Puckett. It's a manifesto for reform, which I would like to write about on another occasion. It also tells a story about the great progressive thinker/activist John Dewey, as a kind of "near-miss" (my phrase, not the authors'). In their view, Dewey almost opened a path to deep democratic renewal but made fatal errors. This is the outline:

1888 or earlier: John Dewey, a philosophy professor, decides that philosophical problems can only be addressed experientially and collaboratively. He begins to define "democracy" as a culture and a set of institutions optimally designed for learning. Achieving real democracy (in this sense) requires reform.

1888-92: Thinking strategically about reform, Dewey identifies the news media as the best lever of change. He tries to create a democratic newspaper, Thought News, to achieve "socialism of the intelligence and the spirit." It is a complete practical failure. (Although it fails, this experiment foreshadows modern uses of innovative media for democratic reform.)

1894: Dewey comes to Chicago and, because of agendas within the University, he is recruited to study education. He decides that schools, not communications media, provide the best levers for democratic change. He creates the Chicago Laboratory School. Its curriculum is experiential and collaborative but completely artificial and driven by Dewey, not by the community. It is a flawed conception, although it could have evolved in better directions.

By 1902, Dewey has spent considerable time at Hull-House, Jane Addams' great community-based institution for learning, culture, and reform. Having learned from this example, Dewey writes the "School as Social Center," a manifesto for public schools as hubs of learning deeply embedded in, and owned by, communities. The Lab School could have turned into such an institution, but ...

1904: Dewey leaves Chicago for New York where he retreats from full engagement. He focuses on reforming philosophy and deprecates schools as venues for learning and reform. He becomes interested again in the news media but has very vague ideas about it.

ca. 1912-ca. 1939: American schools are deeply influenced by Dewey, but his ideals are often watered down and distorted. Experiential learning becomes a means of accommodating kids to existing social institutions, not a spur to social reform. But there are a few excellent examples, such as the rural schools founded by Dewey's student Elsie Clapp.

1939: Dewey praises Clapp's schools but claims that they only work because they are located in rural communities that still embody preindustrial values. He has abandoned the idea that community schools might transform mainstream American society.

February 26, 2008 8:54 PM | category: none


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