Dewey’s dream and education for social change

Published online 19 May 2008.

This is a book review of Benson, Harkavy, and Puckett’s book of last year,
Dewey’s Dream (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2007), which picks out a moment in John Dewey’s opus in which he is recommending a rather activist model of schooling.  The authors of Dewey’s Dream then criticize Dewey for deserting this vision, largely to be found in Dewey’s (1899) text The School and Society, and suggest that Dewey’s leaving Chicago (and his experimental school) was a disaster.  I agree, and further suggest that there are insights to be found in Dewey that go beyond those to be found in Dewey’s Dream.

(crossposted at Docudharma)

Book review: Benson, Lee, Ira Harkavy, and John Puckett: Dewey’s Dream: Universities and Democracies in an Age of Education Reform.  Philadelphia PA: Temple UP, 2007.

John Dewey (1859-1952) is today revered, in a perfunctory fashion, as the star performer of an American school of philosophy known as “pragmatism,” and as a famous proponent of “progressive education.”  This, of course, is to set aside Dewey’s writing style: repetitive and abstract.  But there is definitely an activist moment in Dewey’s philosophy of education, one which sees education as in some sense saving the world; and this moment is something we will want to revise and extend as we envision world society proceeding into a 21st century of environmental crisis.  Dewey’s Dream identifies and extends the Deweyan high moment.

(John Dewey in the 1890s, from the U of Chicago Archive)


Dewey’s Dream pivots upon Dewey’s “utopian vision of a worldwide, organic ‘great community’ composed of truly participatory, democratic, collaborative, and interdependent societies.”  (ix)  This dream is the basis for what the authors call the “Dewey Problem”: “what specifically is to be done beyond theoretical advocacy to transform American society and other developed societies into participatory democracies capable of helping to transform the world into a ‘Great Community’?” (xiii)

Now, wait a minute, I can hear you object.  Isn’t American society already a participatory democracy?  Well, yes and no.  There is democratic participation, but mostly it consists of voting, in which the real ideas of democracy have been decided beforehand and the voters merely check off preference boxes.  Here’s Dewey’s argument about American democracy, as presented in Dewey’s Dream: “There is no need to beat around the bush in saying that democracy is not in reality what it is in name until it is industrial, as well as civil and political.” (6)  What does that mean?  Well, industrial democracy sounds to me like economic democracy, in which the public has a say in economic decisions.  We don’t have that.  Economic decisions are made by the owners of our society, which is only a tiny fragment of the public.  Looking toward the top 5% of American society which owns more than half of all of America’s wealth would be a closer shot.

But this is to digress into the practical problem of democracy.  The narrative of Dewey’s Dream shifts to an early period in Dewey’s life when he was living in Michigan and associating with a radical journalist named Franklin Ford, who wants to create an “information democracy,” and realizes:

If participatory democracy were ever to be realized, Dewey now theorized, it was mandatory that freedom of inquiry and information exist on an increasingly universal scale and that a practical means be developed to make the necessary “intelligence” easily available to all members of society.  In principle, modern technological changes in communication were making that condition possible.  (11)

Now, even in Dewey’s day they thought this up, and so it’s got to go double for today, with the Internet offering a wonderland of “intelligence” to all.  But wait!  There’s something missing.  Dewey discovers what it is in the next chapter of the narrative of Dewey’s Dream, where he moves to Chicago in 1892 and is hired to be the head of the Department of Pedagogy as well as the head of the combined Departments of Philosophy and Psychology (15).  At this point Dewey starts to argue the necessity of educating people to be democratic citizens.  School, he argues, makes people what they are, because it develops the intelligence, and so we need to reform the schools if we want people to be more democratic.

This leads us up to Dewey’s first major volume on education, The School and Society (1899).  This is the book in which Dewey’s most activist notion of schooling is revealed in full.  Dewey borrows from a romanticized version of the “preindustrial home,” which was ostensibly the center of production, in which “were carried on, or about which were clustered, all the typical forms of industrial occupation.”  (25)  Now, Dewey observed “that as factories replaced households as centers of production and as work became separate and distant from home and neighborhood, children were segregated in formal schools that isolated them from adults (other than teachers) and form participation in community activity.” (26-27) This, then, is a call to incorporate the practical qualities of the education ostensibly gotten by children in the idealized “preindustrial home,” into the modern school of industrialized society.

How Dewey idealized this in The School In Society is not argued in detail in Dewey’s Dream, as its authors proceed to an analysis of the school Dewey created to test his theory: the Laboratory School of the University of Chicago.  Instead of going through with his initial plan, Dewey’s Dream argues, Dewey wanted to “test and develop educational theories,” (29) and so the Laboratory School was not integrated with the society as a whole.

The School In Society, on the other hand, intends the idea school to be “a miniature community, an embryonic society,” (Dewey 1899/1916, 15) in which things are done “in a social and cooperative way” (14) and in which “the typical occupations followed are freed from economic stress.”  This specifies the school as a sort of transitional creature to what some might call a socialist society.  That alone might make such a school illegal; one of the main pretenses of capitalist society is that it is a meritocracy, that it offers the best jobs to the “most well qualified” members.  But this isn’t what capitalism is really about, and if school were to make everyone well qualified for a lot of jobs, and bring the working class together in a “social and cooperative way,” well, that would bring out the dirtiest secret of capitalist society: the class struggle.  Political economy, then as now, is not about offering the best jobs to the best people; it’s about pushing around the workers.

At any rate, Dewey has a specific learning goal in mind with this school, one whose activist importance is not to be overlooked.  Dewey explains:

The aim is not the economic value of the products, but the development of social power and insight.  It is this liberation from narrow utilities, this openness to the possibilities of the human spirit, that makes these practical activities in the school allies of art and centers of science and history.  (16)

So how is this practical, “miniature society” schooling supposed to produce its ideal results?  Dewey explains:

In educational terms, this means that these occupations in the school shall not be mere practical devices of modes of routine employment, the gaining of better technical skill as cooks, seamstresses, or carpenters, but active centers of scientific insight into natural materials and process, points of departure whence children shall be led out into a realization of the historic development of man.  (17)

Now, what this particular learning goal would look like in a school at the turn of the 20th century is continued in Dewey’s illustration.  Dewey tells us that students in his school were “follow(ing) the progress of mankind (sic) in history, getting an insight also into the materials used and the mechanical principles involved,” (18) in classroom activities involving weaving cotton and wool.

Such a lesson might be appropriate to a classroom of that time; but in this era we would wish to focus upon the environmental crisis.  The “history of man” would become a green history of the world, in which students would study environmentally-costly processes (such as operating a gasoline-powered engine) and compare and contrast them with less environmentally-costly processes (such as bicycling).  Our “minature society,” then, would be a 21st century laboratory experiment in the cause of bringing the world toward a democratic, socialist, and ecologically-sustainable world society, the sort of society we would need if the human race is to get out of the 21st century without major civilization-wide collapse.


At any rate, Dewey’s Dream proceeds from its disparaging of the Laboratory School of the University of Chicago to a discussion of another piece Dewey wrote, in 1902 when Dewey was still in Chicago: “The School As Social Center.”  In this piece, Dewey outlines the ideal purpose of the school: the school is to be integrated into the community, to serve the community as the community serves the school.  Schools, moreover, are to train the community in the cause of “preparation for citizenship.”  This takes on a distinct meaning in Dewey:

The content of the term “citizenship” is broadening; it is coming to mean all the relationships of all sorts that are involved in membership in a community.  (Dewey’s Dream 36)

So this means that “citizenship,” for Dewey, is pretty much about social life as a whole, and thus “preparing” people for it means improving social life per se.

Dewey then goes on to analyze the social changes that make his form of schooling especially important: the expansion of transportation and communication, the “relaxation of social discipline and control” in the modern era, the expansion of knowledge in the modern era, and the expanded “demand” for more instruction. (36-37)  All of this suggests to Dewey that schools can play a valuable, expanded, and important role in society.  Dewey hoists this up as progress toward the ideal of the “socialism of the intelligence and of the spirit” (40) which he wishes to promote.  The authors of Dewey’s Dream concur with this vision, and would hope to see it realized.

I don’t think a “socialism of the intelligence and of the spirit” would necessarily be a capitalist world of vast inequity like what we have now.  Dewey saw the unitary sciences as “history and geography,” which he described as the “information studies par excellence of the schools” (Dewey 1916/1966, 210) in Democracy and Education.  A “socialism of the intelligence and of the spirit” would be able to view capitalist history as being directed, from its beginnings, by elites; it would be able to see social institutions, as Foucault did in Discipline and Punish, as implicated in a “microphysics of power” which objectified people for the ends of system controllers.  It would be able to match up historical events with ecological events; the vast expansion of industry, for instance, with the burning of the Earth’s fossil-fuel reserves and the consequent increase in Earth’s atmospheric CO2 levels.  It would be able to see, geographically, why some regions of the world have become “centers of accumulation” and others have become “zones of extraction,” and why the latter will be eventually become depleted into economic non-existence, leaving the former to suffer the eventual ecological consequences.  “A socialism of the intelligence and of the spirit,” in short, would leave everyone with no doubt as to the necessity of social change, and power would have to give way before the might of democratic uprising.


This 1902 essay, however, ends a particular chapter of Dewey’s life, for, soon thereafter, Dewey leaves for a professorship at Columbia University in New York, and becomes a mere philosopher once more.  Sure, later in his life he wrote the classic Democracy and Education (1916), but Democracy and Education does not promote the ideal of radical, community-based schooling (50).  The later Dewey was to imagine “communication,” instead of education, as the vehicle of his idealism.

At this point, after describing the later Dewey, the book Dewey’s Dream changes directions.  The rest of it is about later attempts to enact the Deweyan “community schools” ideal with later schools, and about university-school partnerships.  The authors do not give us a lot of detail as to what goes on in these schools, and so their descriptions do not contribute much more to the book than what is there.  The reader is indeed notified by all this, however, that there is a “community schools” movement in the universities, which he or she can join.


One of the things that Dewey was trying to observe, as his focus moved from education back to philosophy, was the effect of technological change upon educational systems.  He imagined the “community school” as a re-enactment of the (best aspects of the) pre-industrial household, only as a school: when he moved away from this ideal, he was only trying to keep in touch with his times, in which urbanization and the advance of capitalism were dominant and as society moved further and further away from that household ideal.  Today, however, these same urbanization and capital accumulation forces threaten the ecosystem resilience of planet Earth.  If we should go back to Dewey’s dream, we will not just be resurrecting the school as the creator of democratic life through “preparation for citizenship.”  We will be refocusing the minds of planet Earth on the critical study of world society’s means of production, so that social change can be obtained.


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