Larry A. Hickman

Dewey, Democracy and Global Citizenship

In this wide-ranging lecture, Dr. Hickman reflects on John Dewey's profound contributions to American philosophy and education, especially as they relate to the realization of living, evolving democracy in the US and throughout the world. He also tackles common misunderstandings of Dewey's pragmatic vision. Dr. Hickman is Director of the Center for Dewey Studies, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. This talk was sponsored by the Center and delivered in New York City in 2002. Photos by Marilyn Humphries.

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Today, June 1, 2002, marks the 50th anniversary of the death of John Dewey. It is especially appropriate that we should commemorate his life and work here, in this particular building and in this particular hall, for it was this building that housed the Rand School of Social Science from the fall of 1917. And it was in this very hall that Dewey lectured on at least seven occasions from 1931 to 1934. In the beautiful new exhibit case you will find documents that testify to the warm relationship between Dewey and the directors of the Rand School.

And now that this historic building has become the home of the New York Community Center of SGI-USA, it is even more appropriate that we be here on this important occasion. For Dewey and SGI founder Tsunesaburo Makiguchi shared a vision of humanistic education as an essential tool for fostering global citizenship.

Both Dewey and Makiguchi gained profound insights into the processes of education as a result of their experiences as schoolteachers and principals. Both men understood that education must extend beyond schoolrooms and schoolyards into ever-wider communities, engendering and fostering perspectives that are global in nature. Both men were committed to a type of experimentation that honors the ability of humanistic education to generate the new ideas and the new values that are required for the growth of individuals and communities.

And even on the difficult and often divisive issue of the nature and function of religious experience, Dewey and Makiguchi held remarkably similar views. As SGI President Daisaku Ikeda has written (in an essay, I'm pleased to report, that's available on the Web site of the Center for Dewey Studies), "[Makiguchi's] refusal to acknowledge 'the sacred' as a self-sufficient value and his insistence that religion has value only to the degree that it concretely advances the human condition is deeply resonant with Dewey's rejection of the supernatural and his understanding of 'the religious' as that which can unify interests and energies [that are] now dispersed."

Larry Hickman at podium

Born in 1859 in Burlington, Vermont, Dewey was by any estimate one of America's greatest philosophers, educators, and public intellectuals. Inside the classroom he trained several generations of public school teachers and administrators. Outside the classroom he worked for social reform in the areas of economic justice, war and peace, racial relations, civil liberties, and perhaps most importantly, the function and politics of the public school.

Dewey was educated at the University of Vermont and Johns Hopkins University. He taught at the Universities of Michigan and Minnesota (1884-1894), the University of Chicago (1894-1904), and Columbia University (1905-1930). During his Chicago years he founded the University Laboratory School (also known as the Dewey School) and served as a member of the board of directors of Jane Addams's Hull House. After his move to Columbia University he was an active participant in the affairs of the New York Teachers' Union, the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and the AAUP (American Association of University Professors).

Dewey was by any measure a global citizen. In addition to his numerous trips to Europe, he spent two years (1919-1921) lecturing in China and Japan. As his reputation as an educator grew, he accepted invitations to visit schools in the U.S.S.R., Turkey, Mexico, and South Africa. In 1937 he traveled to Mexico City as chairman of a commission of inquiry into the charges brought by Stalin against Leon Trotsky.

When Dewey was asked to characterize his own work, he invariably located education at its very center.Despite a heavy schedule of teaching and public lectures, Dewey continued to publish books and articles, both professional and popular, at a remarkable pace. The critical edition of his Collected Works, edited at the Center for Dewey Studies at Southern Illinois University Carbondale between 1961 and 1990, contains 37 volumes – some 8 million words, counting introductory material and appendices. In 1949, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, the New York Times hailed Dewey as "America's Philosopher." Given his commitment to the ideals of democracy and education however, and given the dozens of languages into which his works have been translated, it might have been even more appropriate to have honored Dewey as "the philosopher of global citizenship."

When Dewey was asked to characterize his own work, he invariably located education at its very center. He described his 1916 work, Democracy and Education, for example, as one of his most important books. Nevertheless, his relation to public school education in the United States is perhaps best described as paradoxical. On one side, it can be said that he was probably the single most important educational theorist of the twentieth century. On the other side, it is a notorious fact that many of his ideas have been massively distorted by admirers and critics alike, and that American educators in general have yet to come to terms with his work, in the sense of putting it to rigorous test. Now, as we gain a toe-hold in our new century, his ideas continue to be controversial and tend to be applied only sporadically. It remains to be seen whether his work will have an important influence on the education of the boys and girls who will become the global citizens of our new century.

As a philosopher, Dewey was one of the originating pragmatists, along with C. S. Peirce and William James. He developed his pragmatic accounts of meaning and truth as tools with which to attack the received dogmas of traditional philosophy and metaphysics. He thought it regrettable that so many of his philosophical predecessors had posited fixed intellectual categories, including ethical and aesthetic ideals, which they located within finished, inflexible taxonomic structures. As a part of his reaction to this situation, Dewey wanted to find a way of inviting philosophers to make a fresh start: he wanted to do for philosophy what Charles Darwin had done for the field of population biology. Where Darwin had freed up and functionalized the notion of species, Dewey invited philosophers to functionalize the notion of essences, to recognize that they are what they are only within the context of human inquiry.

Intent on undermining the traditional notion that fixed ideas and ideals operate within static structures, therefore, he argued that ideas should be treated as tools or instruments that can be redesigned as novel situations demand. In his view, the importance of ideas depends less on their pedigree, or their location within a system of thought, and more on what type of work they are able to accomplish.

For Dewey, therefore, means and ends are not separate; they are richly informative of one another. (Applied to social and political issues, this idea distinguishes Dewey's thought from the crude or "straight-line" instrumentalism that has been a feature of Fascism, Nazism, and totalitarian forms of Marxism. These and other similar ideologies, such as most forms of religious fundamentalism, tend to establish inflexible goals that must be attained by any available means.)

This novel view of ideas as tools had important consequences for Dewey's vision of democratic life. It led him to conclude, for example, that democracy cannot be exported. Economic and other conditions favorable to the growth of democracy can be fostered, but as a form of associated living, democracy is always unique to context. Democracy is not a system of government, but a way of living. If it is to flourish, it must grow out of the concrete practices of boys and girls, men and women, as they go about their daily affairs.

As a psychologist, Dewey's efforts produced one of the most famous essays on the theory of learning in the entire history of the discipline: in 1896 he published "The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology." Going against the grain of received doctrine, Dewey argued that a stimulus is not something external to the organism, but a state of the organism within its lived context. One consequence of this important new idea was that the notion of response also had to be reinterpreted; a response, he argued, is not so much directed to a stimulus as it is expressed within a cycle of behavior by means of which a situated organism adjusts to changing conditions.

The consequences of this revolutionary idea for educators can scarcely be underestimated. For Dewey, learning does not occur in fits and starts, as a result of a series of truncated arcs. It is, instead, a living rhythm: the disequilibrium of doubt and confusion alternates with the equilibrium of problems solved. A learner is, therefore, not just a passive recipient of experience – a taker of standardized tests, one might say but, rather, an active player in the ongoing affairs of life. Every learner brings to the educational setting a complex set of behaviors and expectations from past events that must be taken into account if value creation, or growth, is to occur.

In the field of pedagogy, therefore, Dewey wanted to minimize the role of memorization, inflexible, standardized curricula, and norm-based tests as primary pedagogical tools. Applying the results of his "reflex arc" research, he argued that the stimulus to learning is not external to the student, but an organic state of the student in his or her lived context. The interface between child and curriculum must consequently be designed in ways that take into account the social context in which learning occurs, as well as the talents, needs, and interests of the individual learners.

Dewey's children were not merely absorbing facts, but isolating, creating, and relating the data from which they would be able to draw novel conclusions.In other words, Dewey thought that the talents, needs, and interests of the individual child must be balanced against a curriculum that is sufficiently rigorous that it can ensure that the child is socialized into a community. But the curriculum must also be sufficiently plastic that it can adapt itself to novel and unforeseen circumstances. Dewey thus rejected the nineteenth-century idea (an idea that is unfortunately still widely held) that the primary function of a school is to serve as a conduit for the transmission of traditions or received values. He thought that the new men and women of his century, the twentieth century, would need more than mere training, and certainly more than simple indoctrination. They would need to be educated in schools that were also laboratories: their schools would need to be places where received ideas were taught, to be sure, but they would also need to be places where such ideas were examined for continuing relevance and where new ideas were tested by means of their application to real-life situations.

What this meant in more concrete terms was that children in Dewey's schools were encouraged to learn thematically. Techniques of memorization and recitation of lists of objects and events would be used, to be sure, but they would be held to a minimum. His children were encouraged to explore fields and relationships among objects and events. Dewey's children were not merely absorbing facts, but isolating, creating, and relating the data from which they would be able to draw novel conclusions. They were criticizing received views, and even more importantly, they were reconstructing them as new information became available

In all of this Dewey rejected the outmoded authoritarian and totalitarian educational systems that had limped into the twentieth century after having failed so miserably during the nineteenth – and that are still in evidence in many places around the globe. He was not particularly interested in teaching his children what to think, since he had great faith in the open-ended possibilities of experience. He was interested in teaching them how to think. He realized that the content of knowledge changes through time, sometimes even radically so. But a good method of learning – learning how to learn – is a tool that endures because it is self-corrective.

It is, perhaps, in the field of social and political thought that Dewey's ideas shine most brightly. His rich notion of democracy as both the root and the flower of successful social inquiry; his profound concern with the ways in which learning is a form of growth and adaptation to novel circumstances; and his commitment to social amelioration through cooperative ventures – these ideas are summed up in what is perhaps his most evocative characterization of democracy. In 1939, a year in which democratic ideals were under attack all around the globe by Fascism, Nazism, and totalitarian forms of Marxism, Dewey chose democratic faith as the topic of a speech presented on the occasion of his 80th birthday:

Democratic faith is belief in the ability of human experience to generate the aims and methods by which further experience will grow in ordered richness. Every other form of moral and social faith rests upon the idea that experience must be subjected at some point or other to some form of external control; to some "authority" alleged to exist outside the processes of experience. Democracy is the faith that the process of experience is more important than any special result attained, so that special results achieved are of ultimate value only as they are used to enrich and order the ongoing process. Since the process of experience is capable of being educative, faith in democracy is all one with faith in experience and education. All ends and values that are cut off from the ongoing process become arrests, fixations. They strive to fixate what has been gained instead of using it to open the road and point the way to new and better experiences. (LW.14.229)

In this admirable passage, which issues such a clear and unequivocal call for humanistic education, Dewey rejects the notion that ideals must, or even can, be imposed on experience from a source outside of experience itself. Authoritarianism and supernaturalism are ruled out as tools for knowledge-getting, for personal growth, and for associated living. Dewey rejects the notion that democracy is a "one-size-fits-all" form of government that can be imported or exported. He refuses to identify democracy with a particular system or a particular content. He characterizes democracy instead as a process of evaluating our experiences, individual and communal alike. In his view, democracy is a tool or method by means of which our ideas about ourselves and our communities can be continually reformed and reconstructed in the light of emerging needs and opportunities. He denies that tools for action are delivered from transcendent or supernatural sources, outside of experience itself. Instead, they evolve out of a rich blend of theory of practice as they are tested against real-world conditions. And perhaps, most importantly, faith in democracy is more or less equivalent with faith in education. In short, Dewey tells us that democracy and education are the methods of value-creation, or what he called, quite simply, "growth."

During the period following the American Civil War, culminating in Dewey's decade at the University of Chicago that straddled the turn of the twentieth century, the United States seemed to many observers to be suffering the effects of a type of rugged individualism that Mark Twain targeted in the book that eventually gave its name to that "Gilded Age." Unbridled business expansion was directed by predatory industrialists. The period was characterized by massive immigration, racial strife, capitulation of federal and state governments to social Darwinist economic principles, feverish activities by various groups of religious fundamentalists who sought to impose their agenda on the wider public, and perhaps worst of all, the economic exploitation of children. In other words, it was a period that mirrors many of the conditions now in place in North America, as well as in industrializing countries around the globe.

During this period, Dewey worked at Jane Addams's settlement house. He performed his educational experiments at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. And he began to collect the ideas that he would later publish as The School and Society. In all this he was becoming keenly aware of a major shift that was taking place within American life. America was moving rapidly from a pre-industrial agricultural culture of wind, water, and wood to an industrial culture of coal, steam, and iron. Agricultural workers from the rural portions of America and from Europe were arriving in America's cities in record numbers in search of employment.

Dewey encouraged the pedagogical technique we now call "problem based" or "thematic" learning.Children who would formerly have had practical training in the daily affairs of agricultural life and instruction in the values of their local communities were suddenly cut loose from those contexts and thrust into new environments. Instead of engaging in occupations that were grounded in community life, and that thus required tutelage by older friends and family members, they were cut off from those traditional sources of learning. Instead, they either became victims of predatory child labor practices or were set adrift in the new urban jungles. Dewey's response to this situation was to encourage school environments in which children would have opportunities to replace those lost relationships with new ones. His idea was that the schools could be communities that would replace the ones that had been forever lost as a result of industrialization and enhanced geographic mobility. His own school would serve as a laboratory for testing these ideas. Utilizing the pedagogical technique we now call "problem based" or "thematic" learning, he assigned projects that started with a specific concrete problem and radiated outward to include broader and more abstract considerations, attending all the while to fields and relations between objects and events.

His children cultivated and cooked their own food. They built small structures. They carded wool and ginned cotton in order to make fibers. From these concrete activities they were led by their teachers to follow emerging lines of curiosity: where were the foods and fibers grown? How were they transported? And how did the commercial networks function that made their movement possible? The children's interest moved outwards from the concrete materials to the chemistry of foods and fibers, to the history of their use, and thence to the geopolitics of their deployment. All of these and many other considerations were carefully designed to link the children to a global context at the same time that they were actively encouraged to consider the effectiveness of received practices and how they could be improved.

Some of Dewey's critics have viewed his pedagogy of this period as an attempt to recover the agrarian ideal of life in a small community. But this characterization fails to withstand careful scrutiny. In fact, Dewey was keenly aware of the possibilities of the new industrial technologies for resolving old pre-industrial problems. Perhaps even more important, he was one of the few philosophers or educators of his time who seemed able to look beyond late nineteenth-century industrialization to the next step: to a time in which his nation's steel mills would become silent and it would be information, not tangible commodities, that would become its dominant cultural factor.

Dewey was fascinated by the growth of the techniques and technologies of his time, then, and he viewed technological development as one of the keys to emancipating men and women from the harsh constraints that had prevented their growth as individuals. But it is also clear that when he argued that ideas and ideals are technological artifacts, he was anticipating the next technological transformation – the transformation to a post-industrial, information-based culture that is a feature of our own century.

More concretely, the central ideas about pedagogy that Dewey worked out as a response to the end of the era of industrial technology are now more appropriate than ever. As knowledge bases grow and as specializations splinter into ever smaller domains, what has been termed "problem-based" or "theme-based" learning will become an increasingly important supplement to more traditional forms of learning. This is because education functions at its best when students are taught to inquire into objectives, and not simply objects per se. What this means is that learning at its best is a rich blend of theme and content.

Dewey's ideas have never been without their critics, and the activities of some of his students and admirers have tended to exacerbate this situation. In her recent book entitled Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform, educational historian Diane Ravitch presents an elaborately detailed case against Dewey and the members of the "progressive education" movement who were inspired by his work. She lists four significant ideas that she claims defined the progressive education movement and that in her view "raised doubts about the value of a solid academic education for anyone."

First, she writes, there was "the idea that education might become a science and that the methods and ends of education could be measured with precision and determined scientifically. This was the basis for the mental testing movement." (Ravitch, p. 60)

But of course as Ellen Lagemann has demonstrated, these ideas were more associated with E. L. Thorndike than with Dewey. In fact, Dewey did not think that education should simply borrow the techniques of the sciences. Instead, he thought that education should utilize the findings of the sciences to help direct its own inquiries. Educational inquiry would, consequently, not be initiated from within the sciences, or even among educators themselves: it would arise within the process of education itself, and only then, once the process of education had set the agenda, would educators utilize the instrumentalities afforded by the sciences.

Regarding the second part of Ravitch's first criticism, the one involving I.Q. testing, the comments of Ralph Ross are instructive: "Two of the vital issues in 1922 were psychological behaviorism à la [John B.] Watson and the widespread use of I.Q. tests. The latter infuriated Dewey, for it treated people only as members of quantified groups and generated the sneering notion among a self-appointed elite that most people were simply inferior. " (MW.13.xiii)

"Experience, that is to say education, is still the mother of wisdom."In fact, Dewey thought that "what is termed intelligence is an acquired matter, due to opportunity and experience. No matter how much innate qualities may set limits, they are not active forces. Experience, that is to say education, is still the mother of wisdom." To this he added that "we shall never have any light upon what are the limits to intelligence set by innate qualities till we have immensely modified our scheme of getting and giving experience, of education. Barring complete imbecility, it is safe to say that the most limited member of the populace has potentialities which do not now reveal themselves and which will not reveal themselves till we convert education by and for mediocrity into an education by and for individuality." (MW.13.294)

Ravitch's second criticism charges Dewey and the progressive movement with holding "the idea that the methods and ends of education could be derived from the innate needs and nature of the child. This," she claims, "was the basis of the child-centered movement." (Ravitch, p. 60)

There is little doubt that some members of the progressive education movement are legitimate targets of her criticism. But this idea was not one that Dewey himself held. In 1902, for example, he had published his little book The Child and the Curriculum. It is highly significant that he used the conjunction "and" rather than disjunction "or" in its title. Here is how he elaborated that very important "and."

Abandon the notion of subject-matter as something fixed and ready-made in itself, outside the child's experience; cease thinking of the child's experience as also something hard and fast; see it as something fluent, embryonic, vital; and we realize that the child and the curriculum are simply two limits which define a single process. Just as two points define a straight line, so the present standpoint of the child and the facts and truths of studies define instruction. (MW.2.278)

Thirdly, Ravitch writes that Dewey and the Progressives held that there was "the idea that the methods and ends of education could be determined by assessing the needs of society and then fitting children for their role in society. This was the basis of the social efficiency movement." (Ravitch, p. 60)

One of the interesting features of this criticism is that it is inconsistent with her second criticism. In her second point, as you may recall, she charged progressive educators with holding that educational methods should grow out of the needs of the child. In this, her third complaint, she charges them with holding that educational methods should grow out of the needs of society and be imposed on the child, regardless of his or her needs. In short, these two criticisms are on their face incompatible.

Dewey, of course, rejected both views as partial and the result of reductive thinking. In 1897, for example, he wrote:

The child is one, and he must either live his life as an integral unified being or suffer loss and create friction... The child is an organic whole, intellectually, socially, and morally, as well as physically. The ethical aim which determines the work of the school must accordingly be interpreted in the most comprehensive and organic spirit. We must take the child as a member of society in the broadest sense and demand whatever is necessary to enable the child to recognize all his social relations and to carry them out. (EW.5.58)

Fourth, and finally, Ravitch charges Dewey and the progressive educators with holding the idea "that the methods and ends of education could be changed in ways that would reform society. Proponents of this idea expected that the schools could change the social order, either by freeing children's creative spirit or conversely by indoctrinating them for a life in a planned society. The first version was the faith of the child-centered movement and the second was the basis of the social reconstruction movement." (Ravitch, p. 60)

Dewey regarded the ultimate aim of education as "nothing other than the creation of human beings in the fulness of their capacities."Did Dewey in fact think that "the methods and ends of education could be changed in ways that would reform society"? He certainly did. But he also claimed that it would not be possible to know in advance what shape such reforms would take. This is because he regarded the ultimate aim of education as "nothing other than the creation of human beings in the fulness of their capacities. Through the making of human beings, of men and women generous in aspiration, liberal in thought, cultivated in taste, and equipped with knowledge and competent method, society itself is constantly remade, and with this remaking the world itself is re-created." (LW.5.297) He then went on to point out the obvious – that the advance of techniques and technology has ensured that social change will continue, and that new problems and challenges will continue to confront all of us, whether or not we wish it to be so.

In the face of an uncertain future, however, he suggested that "it is well to remind ourselves from time to time that education is the most far-reaching and the most fundamental way of correcting social evils and meeting social issues." Social reform cannot be accomplished by legislative bodies or other powerful institutions. It must, instead, be the work "that can only be done by individual men and women, and that can be done by them only as they are themselves developed into full possession of all their potentialities." And it is precisely to "the degree in which education develops individuals into mastery of their own capacities [that] we must trust these individuals to meet issues as they arise, and to remake the social conditions they face into something worthier of [humanity] and of life." (LW.5.297)

Even before his death in 1952, Dewey's ideas had already begun to be eclipsed by events within his own country. In the field of politics there were the anti-democratic effects of the Cold War, which reached their pinnacle with the shameful career of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Exacerbating this situation was the launching of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957, which shifted public sentiment toward a more strictly curriculum- driven educational system. In the field of philosophy there was the incessant quest for foundational certainty launched by the logical positivists and their followers, who by the 1950s were a major force in American graduate schools of philosophy. In the field of psychology, narrow forms of behaviorism were asserting themselves. And in the field of the philosophy of education, partially as a result of Sputnik, there was a growing emphasis on quantification and standardized testing at the expense of attention to the talents and needs of students as individuals.

Dewey's pedagogy continues to be controversial. It continues to be attacked from both the right and the left wings of the political spectrum. Conservatives object to his idea that education should involve what we know as "value creation," arguing instead that schools should be places where traditional values, especially those that involve religious content, should be transmitted without question. Particularly unsettling to Dewey's conservative critics was his support of "secular humanism," which they view as a retreat to radical relativism with respect to moral values.

In 1999, for example, shortly after the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, the vice-president of a suburban Chicago school board complained in print that Dewey's ideas had been responsible for that tragic event. "For the average American," he wrote, "Dewey's name means nothing. But for those in public education, during most of this century it has meant almost everything. Dewey's philosophy of education has dominated the field of learning. We are now paying the price." He then charged that "the seemingly mindless slaughter at Littleton was the acting out of the pragmatic view. If it works, if it feels good, do it. They did."

Despite continuing criticism from both left and right, Dewey's ideas are now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, enjoying a major revival of interest. This is due in no small measure to the relevance of Dewey's thought to the many problems faced by those whose task it is to educate the new global citizens of the twenty-first century. Dewey recognized that the men and women of the twenty-first century will have global involvements, in any case. But what will be the quality of their global citizenship? What kind of men and women will our new global citizens be? Will they be productive or unproductive? Will they honor the old divisions of race, religion, tribe, and culture, encouraging division and fostering strife, or will they seek new ways of compromise, of value creation, of associated living?

Whether or not our new century will see the growth of democratic ideas and institutions will depend to a great extent on the manner in which our new global citizens are educated. Perhaps now would be a good time, at last, to put Dewey's ideas to the test.


In this article, references to John Dewey's published works are to the critical (print) edition, The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1953, edited by Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967-1991), and published in three series as The Early Works: 1882-1898, The Middle Works: 1899-1924, and The Later Works, 1925-1953. These designations are followed by volume and page number. "Later Works 1.14," for example, refers to The Later Works, volume 1, page 14. In order to insure uniform citations of the standard edition, the pagination of the print edition has been preserved in The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1953: The Electronic Edition, edited by Larry A. Hickman (Charlottesville, Virginia: InteLex Corp., 1996). A commonly used alternative form of reference to The Collected Works, used here, abbreviates The Early Works as EW, The Middle Works as MW and The Later Works as LW.

Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000), 60.

Illinois School Board Journal (July-August 1999): 2.

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