A seminal work, Dewey’s Democracy and Education is a must read for all those interested in the field of education.

In my previous post On Education, I lauded John Dewey’s Democracy and Education as an important and seminal work. Originally published in 1916, his work still stands the test of time close to a hundred years later. His thinking is so far advanced it almost seems timeless. Democracy and Education is a dense work. At over 400 pages, it is quite a lot to get through. Moreover, this work emerges from a period of time where it was common to “over flourish” one’s writings so that two things could occur to the reader: 1) you could potentially miss a nugget of gold in all the words and perhaps miss altogether a finer point detailed in a paragraph or a sentence or 2) you could completely misunderstand and even misinterpret what the author intended to convey in their verbose writings. I am susceptible to both these faults. Reading Dewey once is unlikely to ever be helpful and this work would certainly require multiple readings. I’m sure his will be a work that I will return to time and time again. For now, these are my impressions based on my first reading, but who knows whether based on a second reading of his work they would still stand. That is the hermeneutic struggle.

Of the 400 plus pages, I want to focus specifically on passages that relate to what Dewey calls “The Democratic Ideal” and have selected passages from this portion of his text.

A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. The extension in space of the number of individuals who participate in an interest so that each has to refer his own action to that of others, and to consider the action of others to give point and direction to his own, is equivalent to the breaking down of those barriers of class, race, and national territory which kept men from perceiving the full import of their activity.

Our schools are where children associate with others. As students interact with others, their actions (beliefs, ideas, hopes, etc) are understood in relation to those around them. In communicating our experiences with those around us, we are able to provide others with an understanding of who we are. It is through this discloser that we are able to live authentically as beings within a shared community. By being able to express our hopes and desires, beliefs and values, we give rise to the breakdown of conceived barriers. I strongly believe that these barriers that Dewey speaks of our born out of the ignorance that we have of others. This is a belief that is shared by many others. When we share with others, our ignorance is mitigated and our understanding flourishes.

If students are able to understand who they are in relationship with others, this would lead to the “breaking down of those barriers of class, race, and national territory.” Education according to Dewey also allows for the “recognition of mutual interests” and “freer interaction between social groups,” two elements necessary for prosperous democracies. We live in contact with others. Dewey recognized that:

“travel, economic and commercial tendencies, have at present gone far to break down external barriers; to bring peoples and classes into closer and more perceptible connection with one another. It remains for the most part to secure the intellectual and emotional significance of this physical annihilation of space.”

Our schools should face this reality by allowing us to understand the “intellectual and emotional significance” of this era of increasing migration, travel, access to news and rapid telecommunications technology. We will increasingly be in contact with others throughout our lives and should we wish to have positive encounters with them, we must first create a sense of reflective curiosity satiated by respectful dialogue.

Dewey goes on to express how “the intermingling in the school of youth of different races, differing religions, and unlike customs creates for all a new and broader environment.” This environment found within the school is a microcosm of the environment outside the school. The demographics of our schools, with the variety of students, teachers and administrators from around the world is a mirror image of our societies at large. It is in the “intermingling” of this diversity that a new broader environment is created. It is important that within our schools we give students, and those invested in students’ long-term success, the tools to understand and engage with this “new and broader environment.” As Dewey further observed, “in many modern states and in some ancient, there is great diversity of populations, of varying languages, religions, moral codes, and traditions.”

“In order to have a large number of values in common,” Dewey states, “all the members of the group must have an equable opportunity to receive and to take from others. There must be a large variety of shared undertakings and experiences.” If the adage E Pluribus Unum is to have any meaning in these contemporary times, then the unity that we desire from our plurality must be born out of a deeper understanding and engagement with our diversity. We must determine, through shared discourse in a space that is safe from judgement and harm, what is it that unifies us. While we may differ on some matters, what substantive traits bind us? The nature of these words were a testament to the founding principles of the United States and ring true for many other countries, their continued meaning can only be established through a deeper reflection on our present condition and certainly, through a deeper reflection on the systems that educate our youth and the future citizens of our countries. Dewey is a great place to start as we imagine and engage in the building of new systems of knowledge and fields of studies in our schools.


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