This is the third in a series of posts by Steven Simpson author of Rediscovering Dewey: A Reflection on Independent Thinking
Obviously the notion that a healthy democracy requires active involvement by its citizens is not unique to John Dewey. Dewey’s unique contribution may be his belief that democracy thrives only when the institution of education recognizes its role in sustaining democracy.
(from Simpson’s Rediscovering Dewey) Of course Dewey was not the first person to call for a democracy based upon a communitarian form of individualism. Dewey himself credited Walt Whitman as his inspiration. There was, however, a key difference between Dewey and Whitman. Whitman idealistically and perhaps unrealistically expected each thoughtful person to come to an understanding of civic responsibility on his or her own. Dewey, ever the pragmatist, thought that people needed guidance to come to this realization. Wasn’t his notion of the lost individual, after all, that of a serious and intelligent person who sensed a threat to democracy, but remained clueless as to how to respond to it? If democracy needed a society of individuals with a sense of community, then Dewey believed that the institutions of a democratic society needed a systematic approach to encourage individuals to participate in their communities. One such approach, as Rorty pointed out with his town hall meeting metaphor, is a participatory form of government. When the structure of the government is designed to encourage active participation, more people will participate. Another obvious institution is education. In fact, if the governmental system is controlled by those who would benefit from a representative rather than a participatory democracy, the bulk of the responsibility would fall to education.
NOTE: Dewey’s exact words were, “Democracy will come into its own, for democracy is a name for a life of free and enriching communion. It had its seer in Walt Whitman. It will have its consummation when free social inquiry is indissolubly wedded to the art of full and moving communication.” Dewey, J. (1984). The Public and Its Problem. In Jo Ann Boydston, ed., John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925-1953. Volume 2: 1925-1927. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 235-372. (First published as Dewey, J. (1927). The Public and its Problems. New York: Holt.) Quote on page 350.