Democracy and Education
The Free Press
(Originally published in 1916.)
The rallies during Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign feature exuberant call-and-response exchanges. Denouncing immigrants from south of the border, Trump shouts, “We’re going to build a wall.” He pauses to let the crowd’s emotions storm up. Then he asks, “And, by the way, who’s going to pay for that wall?” The crowd roars back, “Mexico.” Happily to the rally-goers, these words simplify our pluralistic world into two warring blocs: the good Trumpeteers and the bad Others.
With liberal notions of communication and tolerance subjected to this violence, I have turned to the ideas of a Vermonter, although one who passed away in 1952, John Dewey, for their defense. Dewey’s Democracy and Education is a firm rebuke to today’s hate-filled campaign, even 100 years after its publication.1 Grafting political, social, and pedagogical issues to the pragmatism he had helped to pioneer, Democracy and Education is written for a general audience that Dewey hoped to move to thought and action. At once logical, deeply informed, committed to justice, and unafraid of showing a decent heart, Dewey gives his readers an enduring democratic inspiration.
Nationally and globally, Dewey was a towering public intellectual, a source of modern psychology, philosophy, politics, and educational theory. He taught at the University of Michigan; the University of Chicago, where he started the legendary “Lab School”; and Teachers College and Columbia University. Democracy and Education was admired. One reviewer, the leading Pragmatist Addison W. Moore, declared, “The thinking world has long since learned to expect from Professor Dewey matters of prime importance … this volume … is the most important of Professor Dewey’s productions thus far.”2 Prolific until death, Dewey produced much more. His collected works run to 37 volumes.
Moreover, Dewey’s causes comprise a history of 20th-century liberal and progressive activity: a friend of Jane Addams and Hull House, a campaigner for women’s suffrage, an early member of the NAACP, the first president of the American Association of University Professors, a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union, a supporter of labor movements, and, during World War II, an opponent of internment camps for Japanese Americans. His 1952 obituary in the New York Times stated that he had “the courage of a crusader … willing to lend his name and reputation to causes that were frowned upon by staid society.” He is now buried in his home state at the University of Vermont.
Since 2016 marks Democracy and Education’s centenary, I decided to “really” read it for the first time, despite my baseless fear that it would seem old-fashioned. Initially, it did evoke some nostalgia. As a child in Bellingham, WA, I had attended a primary school staffed by an outpost of Deweyites. I fondly remembered learning arithmetic by building a footstool, and learning writing by typing in classes with both boys and girls. I also revisited the “culture wars” of the last 40 years, in which Dewey has been both a benign influence and a piñata. On the one hand, liberal philosopher Martha Nussbaum has adhered to Dewey, among others, as she advanced her ideas about a democratic education. On the other, in The Closing of the American Mind (1987), the conservative philosopher Allan Bloom scalded Dewey for destroying educational standards and values, a scolding that Dewey might have thought to be itself the mark of a closed mind.
Democracy and Education is a crusading guide toward a possible democracy, but to approach it, Dewey warns, we must first tear up “habits” of mind and behavior that are choking us. Too easily hardening into prejudice, habits destroy any interest in progress, in the novel, the fresh, the original, the liberating, and the uncertain. He writes, “Fixity of habit may mean that something has a fixed hold upon us, instead of our having a free hold upon things.”
Among the habits Dewey most fiercely disdains is binary thinking, the reduction of our pluralistic world to dualities that we then obsessively rank into hierarchies, a process the Trump rallies exemplify. Like many contemporary theoreticians, he despises the separation of thinking and doing, mind and body, theory and practice, the fine and industrial arts, leisure and labor, “us” and “them.” He accuses Aristotle of disastrously instructing intellectuals to assign the joys of reason to the elite classes and the toil of serving elites to far less-lettered women, artisans, and slaves.
Socially embedded, the habit of dualism has created morally and pedagogically bankrupt educational systems, over which the School Master reigns. Today, the prescient Dewey might evoke still other distressing figures. One would be the Test Master, who reduces all educational “outcomes” to test scores. Another would be the STEM Master, who cannot see beyond the STEM disciplines, crucial though they are. Still another would be the Vocational Ed Master, who supports education only if it has direct economic application (for example, the erstwhile presidential candidate who declared that the United States needs welders, not philosophers). Dewey would respond sharply that the welder should know philosophy, the philosopher welding. They enliven each other.
All four of these figures offer, at best, liberal arts for the few and a utilitarian education for the many. Dewey despised tracking, which slots members of this majority into “definite industrial callings.” At once realistic and prophetic, he anticipated current defenders of liberal arts education, who warn that the modern economy changes so quickly that all students should be liberally educated in order to become adaptive, nimble, critical thinkers. They will thrive far better than students trained for a limited, limiting job. “New industries spring up,” he writes tartly, “and old ones are revolutionized.”
This critical thinking, adaptive and nimble, is self-regulating. That is, it enables us to start on a course of action and then intelligently change direction if the emerging facts on the ground so dictate. This requires a connection between thinking and doing as organic as that between grass and soil. A farmer, a sailor, and an experimental scientist in a lab all know this. The rigid School Masters, Test Masters, STEM Masters, and Vocational Ed Masters do not.
Thinking starts from “doubt or uncertainty … [and] an inquiring, hunting, searching attitude.” We then build useful knowledge, but the test of usefulness is what happens tomorrow and the days that follow. For, he writes, “we live not in a settled and finished world, but in one which is going on, and where our main task is prospective, and where retrospect—and all knowledge as distinct from thought is retrospect—is of value in the solidity, security, and fertility it affords our dealings with the future.” Not surprisingly, Dewey owned books by Gertrude Stein, the student of his fellow pragmatist William James, with her injunctions to reboot cognition and perception again and again.
Yet, Dewey insists, we are more than chilly thinking/doing machines. We have imagination. At once affective, empathetic, and sensuous, it richly connects us to experience. It is “the medium of appreciation in every field. The engagement of the imagination is the only thing that makes any activity more than mechanical. … [It is] a warm and intimate taking in of the full scope of a situation.” This “taking in” helps us to be as virtuous as Democracy and Education would have us be: compassionate, kind, generous, and conscientious, having a regard for others, including the “losers” at our door and at our borders.
Joining thinking and imagining in the democratic project is a third crucial activity, association and communication with others. In the grand theory of Democracy and Education, communication must include everyone, all voices, all networks—from populous cities to sparsely populated plains. Dewey would surely have welcomed social media as an expansion of platforms for individuals and of the circuits of communication among them. No matter how unsettling it might be, we must consciously communicate with others; share our “many interests”; construct “varied and free points of contact.”
This connectivity is more than talking and listening across the brick homes and felt yurts, which might be built in progressive elementary schools. It is a constitutive condition of democratic survival, that noncommercial, equitable exchange. Dewey states, “Society not only continues to exist by transmission, by communication, but … in transmission, in communication.” Later Dewey writes that democracy is “more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.”
Such conjoint communication is a matter of life and death.3 In 1915, when Dewey finished the manuscript of Democracy and Education, the United States was arguing about whether to join the European allies and fight in World War I. For complicated reasons, Dewey hoped that it would, but Democracy and Education is an urgent plea for a global pedagogy for peace. This entails the sharing of experience that would teach the “horrors of war and [how] to avoid everything that would stimulate international jealousy and animosity.” Even more, it would stimulate solidarity, “whatever binds people together in cooperative human pursuits and results.” This solidarity serves Eros, not Thanatos.
Dewey was instrumental in founding modern institutions and shaping modern ideas, but the lonely ache of modernism, the blarings and bleatings and sorrowings of the isolated ego, was not for him. We may treasure the individual, but we journey together. Being good means giving and getting with others. Two great functions of the schools are to provide a source of mobility and to model communication in a pluralistic world for a democratic future. Without turning students into a monolingual blob, the classroom steadies and integrates our differences. Democracy and Education does not suggest political mechanisms—such as caucuses and primaries and parties—that might channel communication into decisions about governance. Instead, it optimistically offers the schools as a collaboratory in the creation of democratic citizens.
Of course, schools must also teach something beyond social processes. They must have a curriculum. Democracy and Education focuses on science, geography, and history. The study of the past must be usable without being crudely utilitarian. We interact with the past not by wallowing in nostalgia, nor by swallowing it as the liquor of all wisdom, but by asking what it does in and for the future. How it might liberate “human intelligence and human sympathy.” Dewey’s curriculum is farsighted. Geography, for example, anticipates global environmental studies.
Yet, this great book can be saddening and maddening. It subscribes to a misbegotten evolutionary narrative in which mankind grew cognitively, albeit with struggle, from caprice to superstition to “intellectual self-possession,” or rationality. Even more distressingly, Democracy and Education speaks plainly about differences but is comparatively quiet about race. Dewey can write incisively about the growth of pluralism. “In many modern states and in some ancient,” he states, “there is a great diversity of populations, of varying languages, religions, moral codes, and traditions.” These populations are more and more in touch with each other—because of migration, new modes of transportation, modern commerce, and war. This entails more communication and interdependence. Yet, as critics have shown, Dewey was slow to understand systemic racial prejudice. He also fails to distinguish between “voluntary immigrants and people incorporated by slavery or conquest.”4 Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., who published In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America in 2007, mourns Dewey’s inattentiveness to racism in his big philosophical work. However, he goes on to show, persuasively and eloquently, how we can nevertheless use pragmatism and Dewey in the shaping of black politics, our sense of tragedy, and the deployment of critical intelligence in the risky striving for democracy.
I grew up in a United States that romanticized “home” but now longs for a walled-in “homeland.” As a child, my classmates, family, and I routinely sang an anthem of American civil society. Its signature lines are: “Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam / Where the deer and the antelope play. / Where seldom is heard a discouraging word / And the skies are not cloudy all day.” As a little white child, I had to learn, from my family and those Deweyite teachers, about the brutal dislocations of indigenous nomads on the American continent that were taking place even as such pastoral visions were being strummed and hummed. The aftershock of such lessons was a resolve never to become cozily sentimental about my “homeland.” An aftershock of reading Democracy and Education is yet another cataract of cautions about the dangers of racial myopia for the benignly progressive.
Yet, I wish Dewey were alive today to encourage us to have the strength to work toward a more democratic and borderless future—to unsettle our habitual ideas, widen and deepen our conscious life and imagination, revitalize our schools, act in concert with each other, and aim to discover “a more intense, disciplined, and expanding realization of meanings. […] a continual beginning afresh.”
1. The edition I am using is John Dewey, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (The Free Press,  1944).
2. Addison W. Moore, “Book Reviews. Democracy and Education,” International Journal of Ethics, vol. 26, no. 4, p. 547. Moore (1866–1930) had been a colleague of Dewey’s at the University of Chicago.
3. David T. Hansen, “Dewey and Cosmopolitanism,” Education and Culture, vol. 25, no. 2 (2009), argues that Democracy and Education is a cosmopolitan text that insists communication must transcend the nation-state.
4. Leonard J. Waks, “Rereading Democracy and Education Today: John Dewey on Globalization, Multiculturalism, and Democratic Education,” Culture and Education, vol. 23, no.1 (2007). Sam F. Stack, Jr. “John Dewey and the Question of Race: The Fight for Odell Waller,” Education and Culture, vol. 25, no. 1 (2009), is a balanced account of Dewey and race.
Catharine R. Stimpson is University Professor at New York University and Dean Emerita of its Graduate School of Arts and Science. Her most recent book is Critical Terms for the Study of Gender, edited with Gilbert Herdt, UChicago Press, 2014.