Saturday, July 14, 2012

John Dewey and His Continued Relevance

I have a new book out this month and after having the manuscript out of my hands with the publisher for a while now, I sat down to flip through it. The book is about how to develop good citizenship skills in school children, especially the ability to speak out in political dissent, given recent shifts in American democratic practice following open protests in our streets promoted most notably by the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. When looking back at the book, I was reminded at the outset of chapter 1 of a debate I had with myself about John Dewey and his relevance today.

Like many other authors, I decided to start the book with a quote. I had an array of suitable lines at the ready, most by political leaders. Yet I found myself coming back again and again to a quote by Dewey. Despite being from 1922, I was surprised at its continued pertinence to life in US schools and society. Ringing in the back of my mind were words spoken partially in jest and partially in sincerity by a dear member of my doctoral committee when I decided to write my dissertation on Dewey several years ago: “get over Dewey.” While herself enamored with many of Dewey’s ideas, I had wondered if perhaps she was right; maybe it was time to move on to someone new or different. Yet I just can’t seem to do it. I continue to find such rich insight in Dewey, such careful assessment of context that, though many things have changed in our contemporary age, still serves as a model for how to analyze educational contexts today and still rings true in many cases. So, like many others, Dewey opens my book and I’m sure that many others in the future will use his words as well.

And for those who are wondering what those words might be:

“What will happen if teachers become sufficiently courageous and emancipated to insist that education means the creation of a discriminating mind, a mind that prefers not to dupe itself or to be the dupe of others? Clearly they will have to cultivate the habit of suspended judgment, of scepticism, of desire for evidence, of appeal to observation rather than sentiment, discussion rather than bias, inquiry rather than conventional idealizations. When this happens schools will be the dangerous outposts of a humane civilization. But they will also begin to be supremely interesting places. For it will then have come about that education and politics are one and the same thing because politics will have to be in fact what it now pretends to be, the intelligent management of social affairs.” Education as Politics, 1922, p. 141

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