In last week’s blog, I mentioned John Dewey’s concept of the Lost Individual. All I wrote at the time was that the Lost Individual was someone who sensed a problem with American democracy, but did not know what to do about it. Today I want to offer a bit more detail. Dewey described the heart of the problem as Americans romanticizing the image of the rugged individual beyond its period of usefulness. When European Americans moved from the East Coast into the wilderness, frontiersmen and settlers practiced extreme individualism without worrying about the needs of others. This was appropriate, as the physical distance between people was significant, and independence and self-sufficiency were necessary for survival. One person’s actions had very little impact upon those living miles away.

When the center of American life shifted from the countryside to the city (and from the farm to the factory), unrestrained individualism no longer worked well. The actions of one person very much affected the lives of others, so individualism needed to be tempered with a sense of community. Balance was the key. Individualism without a sense of community led to self-serving actions without regard to the needs of others. Commitment to a community without independent thought led to adherence to norms without ever questioning whether those norms were ethical, fair, and equitable. Both perspectives were vital. 

According to Dewey, education is the best institution for bringing individualism and a sense of community together. He, however, refused to offer a clearly defined set of ground rules for teachers to follow in order to make this happen. He felt that each community was unique, and any attempts at one-size-fits-all solutions would promote an inflexible sameness that served neither the students nor the local community. Instead of concrete suggestions, he provided a series of questions individual teachers should ask themselves as they devise a curriculum to promote democratic principles for their particular community. For example:

“Should criticism of the existing social order be permitted?  If so, in what ways?”  

“It has been stated that the individuality and freedom of the classroom teacher are lessening; that the teacher is becoming more and more of a cog in a vast impersonal machine. How far is this statement correct?”

“Can the power of independent and critical thinking, said to be an objective, be attained when the field of thought is restricted by exclusion of whatever relates to controverted social questions?”  

“What are the concrete handicaps to development of desire and ability for democratic social cooperation?”

Dewey asked these questions in 1930, and nearly a hundred years later thoughtful teachers are losing their jobs for answering them and then teaching in ways that contradict the wishes of school boards, principals, and parents.

My favorite Dewey passages about democracy do not come from his books. They also do not come from his academic writing, which I find hard to understand. If someone wanted to read a few short pieces by Dewey about educating for democracy, I would recommend starting with some of his popular articles from the 1920s and 30s. The source material for this blog came from “The Duties and Responsibilities of the Teaching Profession” in School and Society (1930) and a series of articles in the New Republic titled “Individualism, Old and New” (1929-1930). Most university libraries and some public libraries have in their collections The Collected Works of John Dewey. These essays can be found there. 

Steven Simpson