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Democracy needs democratic educational systems
on April 9, 2004
Dewey always said that his 1916 Democracy and Education was the fullest statement of his philosophy, although many have ignored this claim. One of the major stumbling blocks in reading Dewey is his appropriation of terms that mean something very specific to him, such as democracy, experience, growth, philosophy, and education. In using these terms, he leaves behind all of the classical dualisms between the self and society, mind and subject matter, theory and practice, and others. (For instance, society educates selves and selves constitute and can modify societal practices).
The key to democracy is education (which is much more than just schooling) that promotes criticism, self-education, and constant growth. Philosophy, in the broadest sense, is criticism. Since life is best lived as growth (the unexamined life is not worth living), and democracy is the best way to deal with the constant changes that all societies face, an education that helps children love learning and change is essential to a democratic society. Unfortunately, many societal constructs are educative in a narrow sense, and allow us to be complacently self-satisfied and rigid in our habits (ie we become fundamentalists). Dewey warns against the "business mind" that, since the writing of this book, has thoroughly permeated many institutions, including the university. Children naturally are inquisitive and love growth, but many societal constructs, such as traditional schooling or dogmatic religious practices, dampen this curiosity.
Dewey was a radical thinker, but his prose is plodding and sometimes obscures his revolutionary message. Although Dewey was a trained philosopher and was a Hegelian until he read William James' Principles of Psychology, Dewey is much easier to read than most philosophers. Still, the philosophical content is there for those who need it. For those less philosophically inclined, you won't be missing out on too much. Also, to respond to another reviewer, Dewey was a socialist in the same way that Social Security is socialistic. He merely felt that a truly democratic society must allow equal educational opportunities for all. Finally, the claim that his work was unscientific is ridiculous. He ran the first laboratory school at the University of Chicago with the help of Jane Addams, amongst other reformists, to test his theories. And, his philosophy, like James', is in response to the major scientific advances of his time.
An amazing work for philosophers, educators, and social thinkers alike.