Fifteen years ago when I started writing a book about the educational philosophy of John Dewey, a few trusted colleagues encouraged me to abandon the project.* They believed that Dewey had already been overanalyzed and I’d be better off directing my efforts in a more contemporary and less explored direction. For two reasons I stuck with the project. First of all, most of what had been written about Dewey seemed academic in nature and not any more accessible to a general readership than Dewey’s own essays. Secondly, I wanted to understand Dewey better for myself, and the work was as much to learn as it was to write.
I did come to understand Dewey’s philosophy of experiential education at a much higher level, but I can summarize everything in one short sentence. It is this: the overriding purpose of all education in America is to promote democracy. I might be overstating the man a bit, but not by much. The key point, in Dewey’s own words is, “Democracy has to be born anew with every generation, and education is its midwife.”** If even one age group is not taught about its role in the democratic process, those with the power and the money will use that money and power to bend institutions (e.g., government, religious institutions, the media, education) to their oligarchic ends.
As I sit here in the 2020s worrying about American democracy in ways I’ve never thought possible, I believe that what concerned Dewey over a hundred years ago has come to fruition – and it leaves me with a strong sense of what Dewey called the Lost Individual. Lost individuals are those who see the serious threats to democracy, but have no idea what to do about them.
This blog will have to be a two-parter. Today is a brief summary of a problem that is self-evident. Next week will be an equally brief summary of what Dewey thought educators needed to do to address the problem.
When I started writing this blog nearly five years ago, my plan was 1) to be generally upbeat and 2) to avoid politics. Obviously this blog entry violates both of those tenets, but when a sense of dread seeps into my otherwise wonderful life, it is hard not to write about it.
*The book is Rediscovering Dewey: A Reflection on Independent Thinking. WoodNBarnes Publishing, 2011.
**Dewey, J. 1910. “Science as Subject-Matter and Method.” Science, 31: 121-127.