A Statement for the John Dewey Society
Kathleen Knight Abowitz, Harry C. Boyte, by Deborah Meier
“It is the main business of the family and the school to influence directly the formation and growth of attitudes and dispositions, emotional, intellectual and moral. Whether this educative process is carried on in a predominantly democratic or non-democratic way becomes…a question of transcendent importance not only for education itself but for…the democratic way of life.” John Dewey, Democracy in the Schools
We face an avalanche of privatization of education at every level, tied to narrowing views which
radically shrink the meaning of democracy and of education. This avalanche increasingly
renders education as a ticket for individual advancement, not public purpose. Education is more
segregated by race and class than in the time of Brown v. Board of Education. Educators feel
increasingly powerless. At the same time education is under widespread attack, with efforts to
shape both K-12 and higher education by outside interests and policy makers, both liberal and
conservative, using marketplace and technocratic rationales. State government in many states
are defunding public post-secondary education. Costs put many schools out of the reach of poor
and working classes. All this contributes to the disempowerment of educators and students.
Internal changes as well as external forces erode the agency of educators and students.
Studies such as American Academic Culture in Transformation, edited by Thomas Bender and
Carl Schorske have demonstrated that research cultures have become increasingly detached
from community and the public culture in many fields in recent decades. Rankings fuel what
Lani Guinier calls the “testocracy,” narrow, individualist understands of merit and achievement
and erode earlier norms of cooperative and democratic excellence in both K-12 and higher
education (The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education). Colleges today,
ranked by how many students are denied admission, often game the system by increasing
applications. Prestige goes to institutions which place students in jobs with the highest pay and
prestige, regardless of public contribution. Sustained, deep attention to skills and habits of
agentic action crucial to a democratic way of life has been sidelined.
It is worth recalling how much agency - the human capacity to act with others to shape the world
around us - was central both to the original meaning of democracy and also to the concerns of
John Dewey. As Josiah Ober, the classicist and political theorist, has shown in a detailed
etymological study of classical regime types (“The Original Meaning of ‘Democracy’: Capacity to
Do Things, Not Majority Rule,” Constellations 2008, 7), democracy for the Greeks did not mean
rule by the majority. “Rather it means, more capaciously, ‘the empowered demos … the
collective strength and ability to act...and indeed to reconstitute the public realm through action.”
Though Dewey rarely used the term “agency,” it is worth recalling the close connection between
agency, individual and civic, and his view of democracy as an empowering way of life. In
Democracy and Education, he proposed that education involves cultivating “initiative and
adaptability” (MW 9, 93-94). Following Jane Addams’ call for educators to “free the powers,”
Dewey advanced the idea that democracy’s diversity of stimuli “secure a liberation of powers”
(Jane Addams, On Education, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1994, 98; Dewey, MW 9, 93)
Emphasizing the relational qualities of development against atomizing intellectual trends, he
argued that “the new individualism was interpreted philosophically not as meaning development of agencies for revising and transforming previously accepted beliefs, but as an assertion that
each individual’s mind was complete in isolation from everything else” (MW 9, 315).
Drawing on the Deweyan tradition, many educators and scholars have begun to fight back and
also to re-articulate why the public matters in education and why education’s deepest purpose is
preparing students for a democratic society. In K-12 education, new programs help educators
to build students and their own civic agency and capacity. Deliberating in a Democracy helps
educators and students design lessons for deliberating difficult issues. The Discovering Justice
program helps elementary and middle school students explore meanings of justice and the law.
The Freechild Project help young people to learn skills of effective civic action in schools and
communities, including learning and research about problems, everyday political skills, and
tie learning to real world community projects and problems. The Coalition for Essential Schools
emphasizes democratic principles, as well as the “student as worker and the teacher as coach,”
shifting from education as something delivered.
At the post-secondary level, recent associations such as Campus Compact, Imagining America,
the American Democracy Project, The Democracy Challenge and AAC&U, are developing a
new emphasis on higher education’s role in democracy as well as innovative approaches to
education for student agency. The Kettering Foundation’s Campus Conversations on
Democracy brings together presidents to recover their leadership as public philosophers of
education and democracy. Two national deliberations of the National Issues Forums growing
out of the American Commonwealth Partnership in 2012, celebrating the 150 anniversary of
land grant colleges, Shaping Our Future: How Can Higher Education Help Us Create the
Education?, have involved several thousand citizens in every region of the country. These have
surfaced deep public concerns about higher education’s future and loss of public purposes.
Deweyan concerns with agency also form one inspiration for the new transdisciplinary field
called “civic studies,” founded by a group of seven engaged political theorists. The group,
including Elinor Ostrom, past present of the American Political Science Association and 2009
Nobel Prize winner, and future APSA president Jane Mansbridge, is organized as a framework
for civic engagement focused on themes of agency and citizens as co-creators of communities
at different scales. Tufts University hosts the website and an annual international institute. The
Civic Studies journal is The Good Society.
All these are foundations to build on. Yet the dynamic trends of privatization and technocracy
continue to gather momentum on campuses, in curriculum and in educational policy. How can
we reimagine a public educational ecosystem with revitalized democratic aims, and effectively
work to enact it in practice, policy, and law?
We are convinced that this is the time to work with others in organizing a democracy movement
of K-16 educators and students and our allies, reimagining education as crucial to a democratic
way of life for ourselves and for future generations, advancing policies that support democracy
education, and creating strategies to build broad publics. Here are several potential elements:
- Strategy, grounded in local, grassroots effort, needs to include state and national prongs of action, across educational sectors and in diverse coalitions of community and civic organizations. Many tools will be necessary for this work, including public deliberation, organizing, experimentation, research, and a robust strategy of what can be called “cultural organizing, stimulating wide public discussion in many media settings.
- Deliberations and organizing efforts need to be informed by research and scholarship that is transdisciplinary not simply interdisciplinary. This means recognizing that while academic scholars are creating new knowledge of great value we also need new patterns of collaborative knowledge-creation and infrastructures and reward systems which support them, recognizing the multiple kinds of knowledge needed for effective political democratic change.
- At local and regional levels, we need new strategies for deliberation and organizing action for change that builds new, deeper, more reciprocal relationships with scholars and schools, students, parents and families, civic groups and local governments, asking “why” and “so what” questions with new forcefulness.
- At the state level where much education policy is established, we need to “bring the public in,” creating citizen-based deliberations about the purposes of education at every level. Representatives and participants from schools, teachers unions, families, businesses, religious and civic groups, and community organizations as well as local governments will need to be involved.
- We also need ways to bring findings of public deliberations to new levels of public visibility through new media tools and through partnerships with sympathetic journalists and opinion-makers in the mainstream media. This will be essential to effect a significant shift from the narrow test-based accountability that lawmakers and others have devised in the last two decades.
- At the federal level, we need a variety of strategies to engage a new administration with the Deweyan vision of democracy as a way of life and education as its midwife.
A democratic education vision for K-16 publicly supported education in the U.S. and for policies
that strengthen the democratic purposes of private and liberal arts education will require
leadership in all sectors, from all corners of educational practice, policy, and research. How to
develop such leadership will require discussion and thought about what is the appropriate
organizing form and structure for such work. But the need seems unmistakable.
In our history, democracy had overtones of immensity. "A word the real gist of which still sleeps,
quite unawakened...a great word, whose history remains unwritten," as Walt Whitman put it in
It is time to awaken the possibilities of the word.