Democracy and Education by John Deweyhttp://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/852
If we were to pretend for a moment that we wanted to live in a democracy – that is, a democracy in deed rather than merely in word – what actually would that mean? The word, of course, has become so abused as to effectively mean nothing. Is there a nation on earth now that doesn’t call itself a democracy? There was a joke once that the easiest way to tell if a country was a democracy or not was to see if it had democracy in its name and if it did that was a sure sign it was not. But such jokes are designed to make us feel smug – and if there is one law to the universe it is that whatever makes us feel smug is invariably bad for us.
Democracy means that the people get to rule – but how do we go about making the people worthy of such a responsibility? To Dewey that is the point of education – and not just any kind of education, but one that allows people to think for themselves, that teaches them first and foremost to be inquirers.
This week in the city were I live a video was released on YouTube that has gone viral of some arsehole abusing a French woman for the infinite crime of singing a French song on a bus. In response to the French woman singing a group of passengers started chanting Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi. This is now the Australian national song – notice it has one word followed by a meaningless grunting noise, just enough for the all-too-average Australian to learn nearly by heart (after prompting, obviously). I can understand why the arseholes on that bus became upset with the French woman – imagine her being able to remember the words of a song more than one word long? What a bloody show-off! Two of the men on the bus wanted to cut her with a box cutter, one wanting to cut her breasts off. He also called her a motherfucker. The Freudian nature of this racist rant is hard not to notice.
These are people that have not been served well by our education system, although it would be unfair to blame everything on education. The problem is that we presume that an entire section of society are basically incapable of any meaningful education or if they are capable then they ought to receive an education that will provide them with the best hope of getting a job. So, we focus on things that are easy to test – reading, writing and figuring (as he refers to them here – which made me wonder when ‘the three Rs’ became the thing to say). We don’t really wonder if these are enough to ensure a properly functioning democracy – we don’t really consider the role that education might play in forming a democracy. Education is much more likely to be seen as something related to human economic considerations, rather than our social ones. But Dewey’s arguments have become more urgent with time, rather than less so. When he was writing this his arguments (for ensuring an education that would enable people to think for themselves) were more a ‘moral’ necessity than a literal necessity. Moral in the sense that if you are running a democracy it is questionable to have an education system that is primarily concerned with reproducing social classes – in the ways that the education systems in most of the first world do. Today these arguments have much more than mere moral weight.
The problem is that today it is very hard to know what kinds of jobs are going to be available in ten years time. It is also the case that our world is becoming much more complex – all of the things that the right-wing of politics deny (global warming, ecological crisis, equality crisis) are very likely to become increasingly pressing. The problems we will face in a decade or two are going to need us to be able to think and respond in ways that require much more sensitivity than was displayed by the grunting mob on that Melbourne bus. You know, Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oy, Oy, Vey just isn’t going to cut it anymore.
Dewey’s point is that we need to stop thinking about preparing kids for the future, and think about how to educate them so that when they leave school they don’t see that as the end of their education, but rather that they have been empowered with the tools that will allow them to continue their education for the rest of their lives. It is hard to imagine that this book was first published in 1916. Life-long learning – who’d have thought. But the complexities of living in a democratic society demand being able to respond to change. And change – or development, rather – are good things. For Dewey the point of life is to keep growing and that is only possible if we keep learning. So, the point of education is to encourage people to grow throughout their lives by continuing to be able to learn.
This book is structured so that each chapter ends with a summary paragraph. Really, even just reading over the summary paragraphs is worthwhile in itself. But Dewey writes so clearly and so forcefully that there is really no hardship in reading this. And the force of his arguments make it very hard to argue with him. He is logical, smart and keenly focused on providing the best possible education for people so that they can fully participate in a democratic society and so that we can reap the benefits of their participation. This is an excellent book and one that is well worth reading.
Reflections on the 100th year anniversary of John Dewey’s ‘Democracy and Education’
John Dewey  an influential philosopher, psychologist and educational thinker, published his book on Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education in John Dewey [along with Lev Vigotsky and Jean Piaget ] is often considered as the father of constructivism. He believed that learning is a social, communal process requiring students to construct their own understanding based on personal experience. Dewey emphasised the importance of inquiry as an instructional approach and has become associated with the discovery of learning and child-centred, progressive teaching approaches. While he certainly believed education needs to connect learning to the real world experience of learners and be child-centred, he also emphasised the importance of a rigorous curriculum that developed powerful methodologies and knowledge. Dewey was uncomfortable with some of the more extreme progressive pedagogical approaches that became associated with his name.
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This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, The author died in , so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less., For Dewey, this distinction was largely a false one; like George Herbert Mead and Lev Vygotsky , he viewed the mind and its formation as a communal process. Thus the individual is a meaningful concept only when regarded as an inextricable part of his or her society, and the society has no meaning apart from its realization in the lives of its individual members.
It has been interpreted, re-interpreted and, according to Dewey, misinterpreted many times. I will not fall into that trap, but rather, offer a few reflections based on some of the ideas contained in that important book. It is about democracy, but in a broad sense; about the ethics of democracy and about developing systems of education that prepare young people to live, reflect, analyse, discuss, learn and to continue learning. Dewey stresses that education is both formal and informal and that it is one part of a larger environment. Like the Enlightenment thinkers that Dewey often cited, he focused on the development of the mind and the capacity for thought.