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Since its publication in 1916, John Dewey’s Democracy and Education has been a classic in the philosophy of education. Democracy and Education’s enduring strength lies in Dewey’s extraordinary ability to instill the dynamics of a changing nation and world into his Experimentalist philosophy. Not only did the book examine education in a changing world but it analyzed the relationships between society and education. During the span of John Dewey's long life, from l859 to l952, American politics, economics, and education experienced a cultural revolution as the United States was transformed from a rural and agricultural nation into an industrial and technological society. Dewey seized on this transformation as a challenging opportunity to bridge and integrate the larger world context with the smaller setting of changing communities, neighborhoods, and schools. Dewey’s title, Democracy and Education, proclaims his abiding commitment to democratic processes. While undoubtedly shaped by his life and education in the United States, Dewey’s concept of democracy was broader than American political institutions. Democracy, for him, as a pragmatic way of life was free of the often-proclaimed eternal verities and absolutes that impeded open-ended experimental inquiry. No subject, custom, or value was so sacrosanct that it could not be thought about, reflected on, and reconstructed, if necessary.
John Dewey (l859‑l952) remains one of America's most influential philosophers and educators. The ninety‑three years of Dewey's life spanned a series of momentous events that shaped modern thought. Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859, the year of Dewey's birth, and shaped his view of life as the transaction of the human organism with an ever-changing environment. The human organism, Dewey reasoned, was not locked into a predestined fate but instead could conjecture the consequences of a projected action and create plans for future life-enhancing activities. Born on the eve of the Civil War, Dewey would later experience his nation's involvement in two world wars. Consistently a liberal, he was an active participant and commentator on the major events that took place during his lifetime--the progressive movement, the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the war against Fascism and Nazism. Near the end of his life, the United States and the Soviet Union confronted each other in the Cold War and humankind had entered the age of nuclear weapons and energy and space exploration. The themes of life as a transactive process, of human beings in an ever-changing reality, and of the problems of building community in a technological society resonate throughout Dewey’s Democracy and Education.
Democracy and Education can be interpreted not only in terms of the larger international and national events and movements that had an impact on Dewey but also through the microcosmic events of his life and career. Born in Burlington, Vermont, on October 20, l859, John Dewey was the son of Archibald Sprague and Lucina Artemisia Rich Dewey, proprietors of a local, family‑owned grocery store. As a social theorist, Dewey cherished a vision of the close-knit New England community of his childhood. However, his concept of community was not a sentimental nostalgia for a gone yesterday. For Dewey, a renascent democratic community would arise as its members solved their mutual problems by using a shared, experimentally-based, social intelligence. Although industrialization, technology, urbanization and other irresistible forces of modernization had eroded the older version of small-town American neighborhoods, Dewey sought to fashion a revitalized sense of community that would function in the context of an interdependent technological society. For him, the school, as a miniature society, would be the catalyst for generating the revitalized democratic community. Democracy and Education, the book Dewey believed “most fully expounded” his philosophy, appeared midpoint in his long career as a professor of philosophy. His own education shaped his ideas about philosophy of education. Dewey had attended Burlington’s public elementary and secondary schools and received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Vermont in l879. After teaching high school for two years, he returned to the University of Vermont and was awarded his masters degree in philosophy in 1881. In l882, Dewey entered Johns Hopkins University, a new institution based on the German research model, for doctoral study in philosophy. Dewey worked under the direction of Professor George Sylvester Morris, a recognized interpreter of the German Idealist philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Hegel. Dewey would later abandon Hegel’s abstract Idealist metaphysics and become a major contributor to the emerging American philosophy known as Pragmatism. Among Dewey’s other professors were G. Stanley Hall, a leading pioneer in child and adolescent psychology and Charles S. Peirce, whose new method of philosophy called "Pragmaticism" emphasized the role of probability in framing hypotheses of action. Democracy and Education as well as many of Dewey’s other books featured the integration of philosophy and psychology, two disciplines he had studied at Johns Hopkins.
Philosophically, Dewey, with Charles S. Peirce, William James, and George H. Mead, was a founder of Pragmatism. Abandoning metaphysical speculation, the Pragmatists argued that philosophy’s genuine concern was to solve human problems in the real world of experience. Rather than grounded in metaphysical certainty, the Pragmatists saw "truth" as a tentative "warranted assertion" that arose in ongoing human experience. For them, ideas needed to be tested and verified by acting on them and determining if their consequences resolved a particular problem or satisfied a particular need. Paralleling the progressive historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis of the frontier’s impact on American character, the Pragmatists saw human experience as arising from ongoing interaction with changing environmental conditions. Just as experience was constantly being reshaped, “truth,” too, was relative to life’s changing conditions, contexts, and circumstances.
In l884, Dewey’s academic career began as a member of the philosophy department at the University of Michigan. At Ann Arbor, Dewey courted and, in 1886, married Harriet Alice Chipman, a student, who shared his interests in education and philosophy. Like other ambitious young professors, Dewey moved frequently in his early career. In l888, Dewey went to the University of Minnesota as Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy and then, in 1889, returned to the University of Michigan to chair its philosophy department. In l894, Dewey accepted an appointment as Chairman of the Department of Philosophy, Psychology, and Pedagogy at the University of Chicago. Dewey’s Chicago decade, from 1894 to 1904, was an exciting and powerful formative period in his professional and intellectual life. The three disciplines—philosophy, psychology, and pedagogy--found in Dewey’s academic department would provide the content of Democracy and Education. In Chicago, Dewey lectured at Hull House and worked with its founder, Jane Addams. He cooperated with Francis Parker, one of the country’s leading progressive educators, at the Cook County Normal School.
A highly formative influence on Dewey’s philosophy of education was his experience at the University of Chicago Laboratory School, an experimental school he founded that enrolled children from ages six to sixteen. Opposed to separating educational theory from practice, Dewey conceived of the Laboratory School as an experimental school to test his educational ideas. If validated in the actual experience of teaching and learning, his theories then would be disseminated to a larger educational audience. Dewey described his school as a "miniature society" and an "embryonic community" in which children learned by working together to solve problems. Dewey's school gained national attention of educators during the years of its operation, from l896 to l904, and his work there continues to intrigue educational historians, philosophers, and educators. Disagreements between Dewey and William Rainey Harper, the University of Chicago’s President, about the Laboratory School’s administration led to Dewey’s resignation in l904.
In 1905, Dewey became a professor of philosophy at Columbia University, a position he held until retiring in l930. At Columbia, Dewey was closely associated with such professors of education as William Heard Kilpatrick, George S. Counts, and Harold Rugg, who were leading progressive educators. Throughout his career but especially during the economic depression of the l930s, Dewey challenged what he regarded as the myth of "rugged individualism." In his work Individualism: Old and New (1929) he argued that the myth of “rugged individualism” was used by special interests to block needed reform. He called for a socially responsible version of individualism that was compatible with the reality of an interdependent industrial and technological society.
When Dewey wrote Democracy and Education he had made his break with Idealism and was recognized as a pioneering figure in developing his own variety of Pragmatism, known as Instrumentalism or Experimentalism. He had tested his ideas at the Laboratory School and had reached the point where he would bring his philosophy and educational ideas together in a single volume.
Dewey's development as a philosopher and educator coincided with the early twentieth century progressive movement. Democracy and Education expressed the progressive mood and purpose in philosophical and educational terms. The progressive impulse took the form of a general movement for educational as well as political, social, and economic reform. Progressive politicians, journalists, and educators sought to generate a popular consciousness and activism for reform. Progressive procedures, like those Dewey devised for education, affirmed a belief that informed and enlightened citizens were capable of reforming and regulating their lives. While retaining their personal freedom, the progressives envisioned individuals who were eager to cooperate in social, economic, and educational reform for the common good. From these reforms would come a new sense of the American community, no longer defined by geography, but based on an ever-expanding network of human social interrelationships.
Dewey’s Democracy and Education expanded upon themes developed at the Laboratory School and accentuated in his book, The School and Society (1899). Dewey reaffirmed his rejection of dualisms that separated the human being into categories such as mind and body and bifurcated education into theory and practice. In The Child and the Curriculum (1902) and How We Think (19l0), Dewey attacked dualisms that separated the school from society, curriculum from community, and content of education from method. He strongly rejected the doctrine of preparation that defines education as preparing for something in the future, such as the next stage in schooling or a job. For Dewey, childhood is a phase of human life in which a child is to live as a child and not as a premature adult. Working to integrate social life and education in the unifying concept of experience, Dewey saw the school as a setting in which students, actively engaged in solving problems, added to their ongoing experience.
Dewey defined thinking as the solving of problems according to the scientific method. His Complete Act of Thought, developed in his earlier works, and reiterated in Democracy and Education, argued that intelligent educational method, like intelligent thinking, uses the scientific method to solve problems. Experimental problem-solving took the thinker and the student through a sequence of steps that went from being involved in a problematic situation, to defining the problem, to researching and surveying, to constructing tentative hypotheses of action, and to testing the selected hypothesis by acting upon and validating it through its consequences. This method of empirically reflective intelligence, Dewey believed, connected the child’s interests and needs with the cultural heritage, the accumulated knowledge of adults. Importantly, it provided the method of testing experience in terms of its personal and social consequences.
Dewey’s analysis of his title’s terms “Democracy” and “Education” illuminates his concerted effort to explore the relationships between society and education. Democracy, for Dewey, arises from human association based on commonly shared experiences, communication about these shared experiences, and the sense of community that results from this. In a genuinely democratic society, shared beliefs and values do not produce conformity but are the means by which individuals participate in a socially and culturally enriching diversity and pluralism. The educational, social, and political processes of Dewey’s version of democracy are experimental in that they are free from impediments to inquiry, especially those resulting from antecedent absolutist or a priori assumptions. Such a democratic society rests on a public consensus to use open-ended, inquiry-based processes to resolve disputes within a communitarian framework. Valuing the culturally enriching milieu of democratic association, Dewey rejected impediments to group interaction and any form of exploitation that makes the society exclusive rather than inclusive. A democracy is a society that is rich in shared activity, mutuality of interests, and willingness to engage in experimentation. Dewey’s ideal of democracy resonates well with contemporary multiculturalism, the revival of the communitarian ideal, and with education that is inclusive of groups--such as African Americans or persons with handicaps--who were excluded in the past.
Education, for Dewey, refers, in the broad sense, to experiences that shape, transform, and broaden human beliefs and attitudes. In a more specific institutional sense, it refers to schooling, where more particular educative experiences take place in the school’s specialized environment. Education and schooling exercise both a conservative and reconstructive function in society. The conservative role occurs as the group reproduces itself culturally by transmitting skills, knowledge, and values from its socially and culturally mature members, adults, to its immature members, children and youth. However, for Dewey, schooling involves more than cultural transmission. The experience-based school, operating on experimental processes, is an agency that develops the social intelligence that makes it possible to direct the course of personal and social change. In an ever-changing world, the school encourages children and youth to learn how to solve problems and reconstruct their experience. A democratic education leads to growth, that reconstruction of experience that adds to the meaning of and directs the course of future experience.
Dewey integrated democracy and education in his discussion of how individuals construct a community. He believed that a genuine sense of community arises through three interrelated stages: a common sharing, communication, and community itself. In the first stage, the group’s sharing of common objects, engagement in common activities, and use of common instruments generate a sense of "we feeling" or group identification. Because they use shared instruments to attain common goals, the group’s members develop ways of communicating about their common endeavors. This sense of mutuality and of reciprocity in sharing activities and solving problems leads to community itself. The mutually shared activity of group problem solving reduces the isolation of the individual from others and generates an enriched form of social intelligence. The development of the larger sense of community could be replicated in the school’s smaller and more intimate setting and then diffused throughout the larger society.
Dewey's conception of the school curriculum integrated both the experimental qualities of the scientific method and the educative role of the social group. Unlike the conventional curriculum organized around tool skills such as reading, writing, and arithmetic and academic subject matter disciplines such as history, mathematics, and chemistry, Dewey structured the school's program around three broad focusing sets of activities: making and doing, history and geography, and science. Making and doing referred to activities in children’s early years of schooling, the primary grades. So as not to break continuity in the child’s experience between the home and the school, children engaged in activities that grew out of familiar home experiences and then led to the larger society’s activities and occupations. Making and doing was followed by history and geography, not taught as conventional school subjects, but designed to expand children's perspectives into time and space. The curriculum’s third stage, science, broadly meant the investigation of the various subject matter disciplines, not in isolation from each other, but for their instrumental use in solving problems.
By having students solve problems using the scientific method in collaborative group settings, Dewey believed they would develop the skills of reflective inquiry and practical intelligence. In addition to these skills, Dewey's Experimentalism carried the values that would underlie the new but still undefined reconstructed American community. Those who experienced an Experimentalist education would be flexible in their attitudes and dispositions, willing to experiment and disposed to question inherited traditions and values. Socially involved and tolerant of others, they would be active participants in formulating a broad, progressive, and democratic social consensus.
In the years after Democracy and Education’s publication, Dewey enjoyed an international reputation as a distinguished philosopher and educator. From 19l9 to 1921, he lectured in Japan and China. In 1928, he visited the former Soviet Union where his ideas were then popular among Soviet educators seeking new patterns of education. When he spoke out against Stalinism, Dewey’s books were banned in the Soviet Union. For twenty‑two years, after his retirement from Columbia University until his death in l952, Dewey continued to be a voice for social and educational reform and renewal.
John Dewey's Experimentalism has had a pervasive influence on American society and education. His philosophy contributed to a sense of inquiry that examined institutions and values in terms of their response to the changing circumstances of American life. In education and in schools, Dewey's impact was broad and significant. Especially in teacher education, Dewey’s followers informed teachers about the social significance of collaborative group projects and inquiry-based, experimental methods. Dewey had successfully argued that education was so powerful and so potent a force that it could not be limited to the school’s four walls. As a great cultural force, it had the possibility of creating a revitalized paideia, the great society of American democracy.
Gerald L. Gutek is a professor emeritus of education at Loyola University, Chicago. The author of twenty books in the history and philosophy of education, his most recent publications are Philosophical and Ideological Voices in Education (2003) and Historical and Philosophical Foundations of Education: A Biographical Introduction (2005).
Posted May 16, 2009
I was pleased with the purchase of this book. I used it for a research paper and it had all the information that I needed for the paper. Although not an abridged version, it lacks more information in terms of the table of contents and the ability to look for topics in an index, which sometimes proves helpful, especially in research endeavors. The book is all Dewey, however, and it is a very good read for people truly interested in educational philosophy. It is a very good deal pricewise.
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Posted January 27, 2011
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Posted January 3, 2010
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