Democracy and Education : John Dewey Now


‘Democracy and Education’ was written in 1916, as the fourth of his works on the subject of education. Its core theme is the integration of the curriculum within the social context, which, in the case of a democracy, means the breaking down of the dualistic barriers which defined the school system in his time (and, arguably, still do today). Dewey argues forcefully that the public education system in western democracies was actually constructed from a long heritage of classist societies, in which the lower classes were expected to work while the upper classes led a life of leisure. School divides the mind from the body, work from play, the student from society, science from humanities, experience from knowledge, subject matter from method etc… In a democracy, he submits, the education system should give each individual the opportunity to enjoy an equal share of labour and leisure, and to pursue activities for which he/she has a genuine interest. Education is about continuity and self-construction, not division – Dewey therefore calls for the integration of the curriculum, so that subject matters are taught in equal measure, such as to make them relevant to one another, and that the physical and experiential components of learning are given their true place in the classroom.

Dewey concludes that if people are able to pursue their life’s interest, there will be less need for the external imposition of rules of all kinds, but particularly, exogenous rules of morality. Therefore, Dewey argues, education is not a narrowly tailored training programme for a specific profession, and neither is it a mere preparation for adulthood. Education is, for Dewey, a way of life, rather than a means to a good life, and should be appreciated as such at every stage of life.

I’m not sure whether it should be applauded or deplored that Dewey’s work is still so critically relevant in 2012.  byVirginie Servant


 Education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.  

John Dewey

There are two schools of social reform. One bases itself upon the notion of a morality which springs from an inner freedom, something mysteriously cooped up within personality. It asserts that the only way to change institutions is for men to purify their own hearts, and that when this has been accomplished, change of institutions will follow of itself. The other school denies the existence of any such inner power, and in some doing, conceives that it has denied all moral freedom. It says that men are made what they are by the forces of their environment, that human nature is purely malleable, and that until institutions are changed, nothing can be done. Clearly this leaves the outcome as hopeless as does an appeal to inner rectitude and benevolence. For it provides no leverage to change the environment. . . . There is an alternative . . . We can recognize that all conduct is an interaction between elements of human nature and the environment, natural and social

(Dewey 1988/1922: 9-10)


Ends and means

In working to change their habits, people assume they must formulate an end (to change the habit), and then seek the means to that end. However, this ordinary understanding of the relationship between ends and means easily misleads us. Most people think ends are fixed goals motivating activity, and means are the routes to achieving those ends. If Susan says she wants to become a lawyer, then her goal – her desired end point – is to be a lawyer. Given that she has this end, she must now decide how to achieve that end, she must find the means to employ. These means will have no value in themselves; they are merely the route to the desired end.

This is a skewed account of the relation between ends and means, an account that, once incorporated into folk psychology, distorts our understanding of deliberation, human action, and morality. Means and ends are not fundamentally different. Rather they are “two names for the same reality. The terms denote not a division in reality, but a distinction in judgement. . . . The `end’ is merely a series of acts views at a removed state; and a means is merely the series viewed at an earlier time . . . “

(Dewey 1988/1922: 27-8)

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