John Dewey was one of the most important educational philosophers of the 20th century. His work has been cited in scholarly publications over 400,000 times. Dewey’s writings continue to influence discussions on a variety of subjects, including democratic education, which was the focus of Dewey’s famous 1916 book on the subject. In the following Q&A, Nicholas Tampio, a political science professor and editor of a forthcoming 2024 edition of Dewey’s “Democracy and Education,” explains why Dewey’s work remains relevant to this day.
Why revisit John Dewey’s philosophy on education and democracy now?
I think it is time to revisit Dewey’s philosophy about the value of field trips, classroom experiments, music instruction and children playing together on playgrounds. This is especially true after the pandemic when children spent significantly more time in front of screens rather than having whole body experiences.
Dewey’s philosophy of education was that children “learn by doing.” Dewey argued that children learn from using their entire bodies in meaningful experiences. That is why, in his 1916 text, “Democracy and Education,” Dewey called for schools to be “equipped with laboratories, shops, and gardens.”
Dewey argued that planting seeds, measuring the relationship between Sun, soil, water and plant growth, and then tasting fresh peas made for a seamless transition between childhood curiosity and the scientific way of looking at things. Dewey also encouraged schools to create time for “dramatizations, plays, and games.”
In his 2014 book, “An Education in Politics: The Origin and Evolution of No Child Left Behind,” the political scientist Jesse H. Rhodes shows how business groups and certain civil rights groups advocated federal laws that required states to administer high-stakes tests. This focus on tested subjects means that public school students in places such as Texas have less time for arts education.
What role did Dewey see for public schools in preserving democracy?
For Dewey, modern societies can use schools to impart democratic habits in young people from an early age. He argued that the “intermingling in the school of youth of different races, differing religions, and unlike customs creates for all a new and broader environment.” Dewey was writing as millions of European immigrants were arriving in the United States between 1900 and 1915. Dewey believed that schools could teach immigrants what it means to be a citizen and incorporate their experiences into American culture.
Dewey’s view of the schools remains relevant today. In the 2020-21 school year, more than a third of the country’s children attended schools where 75% of the student body is the same race or ethnicity – hardly the ideal conditions for Dewey’s vision of democracy.
Dewey opposed “racial, color, or other class prejudice.” Segregated schools violate Dewey’s ideal of treating all students as possessing intrinsic worth and dignity. Dewey believed that democracy means “that every human being, independent of the quantity or range of his personal endowment, has the right to equal opportunity with every other person for development of whatever gifts he has.” Democratic schools, for Dewey, empower every child to develop their gifts in ways that benefit the community.