I have taken it upon myself to read Dewey after many years’ hiatus from his remarkably clear prose and his fervent support of free, equal, and accessible education for all. The essays in his Philosophy of Education (Problems of Men) were written between 1935 and 1945 and yet in many ways are relevant to 2014: In his era, technology has led to enormous social changes, as have global conflicts; school districts are under pressure to conform to top-down management and are feeling the pinch as politicians cry for school-tax cuts; more young people than ever graduate from high school and college, only to find that jobs are not available for them; an economically-advantaged elite dis-empowers the middle- and working-classes by using class, money, and networking to subvert or gut the democratic system. What is the philosophical, patriotic pragmatist of 1940 to do? Urge people to exert themselves into action, of course.
Dewey’s passion for education and his pragmatism appeal to me even when I do not wholeheartedly agree with his premises, proposals, or–alas–his optimism. Right from the introduction of this series of essays, he sets out such sensible observations about culture, society, and government that it is hard to disagree with him; his works always begin with a straightforward clarity that is refreshing among philosophers. One of the most trenchant observations he makes, over and again, is that the education of the citizenry must change as social developments occur; education must not remain in stasis and, he insists, democracy must also be flexible and living, always moving with the current times:
“I find myself resentful and really feeling sad when, in relation to present social, economic and political problems, people point simply backward as if somewhere in the past there were a model for what we should do today…We have a great and precious heritage from the past, but to be realized, to be translated from an idea and an emotion, this tradition has to be embodied by active effort into social relations…It is because conditions of life change that the problem of maintaining a democracy becomes new, and the burden that is put upon the school, upon the educational system is not that of merely stating the ideas of the men who made this country…but of teaching what a democratic society means under existing conditions.”
My italics in the passage above are there to indicate what I feel is Dewey’s most enduringly important recognition–that social conditions change, and, to stay vital, the foundations of a society need to be resilient enough to be adapted to existing conditions. Tradition has considerable value, but a too-conservative approach to law or education or any other abstract, social construct will fail in time, Dewey says. There is “an inherent, vital and organic relation” between democracy and education that reflects democracy’s recognition of “dignity and the worth of the individual.” As a person who engages in the task of educating others, and who finds she frequently has to change the curriculum to keep up with the technology and the changing mood and environment surrounding her students, I’m glad to be reminded of that organic relationship. It’s important to me that each individual I instruct, advise, and (in turn) learn from feels that he or she embodies dignity and worthiness.
Much as I enjoy reading and thinking about philosophy, it seldom gives me a “warm feeling” the way Dewey’s well-considered, thoughtful words do. He saw the need for balance and for growth–human growth, interpersonal and social growth–which he posited could be achieved through the conscious, considered, informed actions of well-meaning people in community. Educators are, by such lights, among the foremost in the endeavor. Certainly Dewey thought they were.