Reflections on “Democracy and Education”

Published on Thursday, 22 December 2016
Reflections on “Democracy and Education” Credits: Joe Goldberg

The American philosopher, educator, and long-time member of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) John Dewey (1959-1952) wrote “Democracy and Education: A Philosophy of Education” a century ago. 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. He refuses artificial distinctions or conflicts between the individual and the collective, between activity and education, between different subject matters, and between “mental” and “manual” study and work.

Like the Enlightenment thinkers that Dewey often cited, he focused on the development of the mind and the capacity for thought. There was value in enabling students to explore new worlds rather than being limited to the well-trodden path.

Experience was important to discovery, to exploring those new worlds. But Dewey stressed that, “We do not learn from experience... we learn from reflecting on experience.”

To demonstrate the modernity of Dewey, let’s look at a few issues that remain at the centre of quality education.

Education and Rigidities imposed from “without”

“In education, the currency of these externally imposed aims is responsible for the emphasis put upon the notion of preparation for a remote future and for rendering the work of both teacher and pupil mechanical and slavish.”

Dewey also warned of “an undue emphasis upon the training of narrow specialized modes of skill at the expense of initiative, inventiveness, and re-adaptability”. Teaching and learning were seen as creative and exciting activities that, rather than developing limited, non-transferable skills, stressed the ability to continue to learn, reflect and adjust.

The capacity to adapt was already a priority at a time when employment was relatively stable. It is even more important today with rapid changes. However, we are seeing greater outside imposition of standards and methods. Development and implementation from “within” would be much more in tune with students and communities.

Dewey was concerned that education might be affected by the quite different mandates and conceptions of the private economy, but he could never have imagined that after a century of “progress”, private sector management methods and narrow approaches were being imposed on public education. And, in spite of his brilliance and perception, Dewey would had been baffled by the notion of education as a market.

Education should never stop

“The goal of education is to enable individuals to continue their education.”

Dewey saw education as something that was not confined to schools. There was, however, an important relationship between formal education and the rest. Formal education, with highly trained professionals, instilled and developed the capacity and motivation and good habits to think and the independence that goes with that. It is that gift that continues giving through all subsequent informal and independent education.

The value of formal education was not measured in school, but revealed through a lifetime of learning. Limited micro-training for narrow tasks that may disappear is even less useful in the 21st century where jobs are appearing, disappearing, altered by technology or otherwise changing at great speed. If the basic ability to think independently is developed, people will be able to face the future with confidence rather than with fear.

Education and Freedom

“A progressive society counts individual variations as precious since it finds in them the means of its own growth. Hence a democratic society must, in consistency with its ideal, allow for intellectual freedom and the play of diverse gifts and interests in its educational measures.”

Dewey’s concept of education was intimately linked with a vision of society in which liberty would abound, it was fundamental to a healthy society. Interactions and experiences in school and in larger society would help individuals grow and exercise their intellectual freedom. Specific methods were less important than igniting the life of the mind. For Dewey, there was nothing “off-the-shelf” about education. Everything was tailor-made by professionals for human beings.

Sometimes, one has the impression that we are living in societies with attention-deficit disorder. With growing stress and multiple distractions, it is often a struggle to find time for thought, much less create an environment in which it can thrive, grow, and become powerful enough to move the world.

Some may consider that the lessons of Dewey, after a century, have become interesting, but irrelevant footnotes to history. But, wisdom has no “pull date”.

We cannot allow the world to be on “autopilot”, buffeted by market forces. It is not the end of history. And, reform that applies the art of selling products to education will never be the beginning of a bright new future.

Last modified on Tuesday, 03 January 2017

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Fred van Leeuwen

Fred van Leeuwen is the General Secretary of Education International. Education International represents organisations of teachers and other education employees across the globe.
It is the world’s largest federation of unions, representing 30 million education employees in about 400 organisations in 170 countries and territories, across the globe.

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