John Dewey on Teaching for Democracy

John Dewey on Teaching for Democracy: An Excerpt from Steve Simpson’s newest book Rediscovering Dewey

John Dewey’s most important contribution to American education may not be his insights about experiential education, but his call that American educators teach for democracy. For the next five Friday Lessons, excerpts from Steve Simpson’s new book, Rediscovering Dewey, will take a look at Dewey’s views on 1) democracy and 2) education for democracy. This first excerpt focuses on the role of community:

Richard Rorty compared the Deweyan view of democracy to a town hall meeting. Town hall meetings epitomize a blend of individualism with a sense of community. They are a governmental structure where the needs and wants of the individual matter, but do not take precedence over the needs of anyone else, nor over the needs of the community as a whole.Every person at a town hall meeting is granted equal say and every person is expected to participate. Good decisions are made not only because the institution is designed to come up with good decisions, but also because the people in attendance practice selflessness. The process makes sure that everyone’s opinion is voiced, and individuals accept the decision of the group in part because they believe that their viewpoint was heard and given serious consideration.

Dewey’s vision of democracy then was a collection of independent thinkers brought together for the benefit of the community. Saito called it a “reconstruction of a public space in which individual freedom is realized within a community.” It was to be an overlapping relationship between the community and the individual, neither entity viable without the other. The community treasures and works to protect the rights of the individual, and every individual believes that the welfare of the community and the welfare of others in the community are vital to individual freedom. This relationship, every individual’s appreciation of the community and the community’s respect for the rights of the individual, would be the foundation for a new 20th Century democracy. That is not to say that Jeffersonian democracy ever lacked such a symbiosis, but when people began living and working in close proximity to each other, its importance became increasingly evident. To be a loner in Dewey’s time meant a willingness to let democracy suffer.

A communitarian approach to democracy is more complicated than rugged individualism or, for that matter, more complicated than representative government (if representative government means that most individuals do little more than follow the news and vote on election day). As David Hansen put it;

“For Dewey, democracy constitutes something richer and more generative than its electoral process and system of political structures, as valuable as they are. Rather, ‘democratic life’ constitutes another name for a life of inquiring, communicating, and learning. In Dewey’s outlook, democracy necessitates learning about many things, other peoples’ view and hopes, how to resolve problems as they surface, how to anticipate and plan for possibilities, how to remain modest in one’s claims to truth, how to think about what is good for individuals, communities, and society itself, and more.”

As Dewey himself stated it, every man must share in government affairs on a daily basis, because, “to get rid of the habit of thinking of democracy as something institutional and external and to acquire the habit of treating it as a way of personal life is to realize that democracy is a moral ideal.”


Hansen, D. T. (2006). In D. T. Hansen (Ed.), John Dewey and our educational prospect: A critical engagement with Dewey’s Democracy and Education. Albany: State University of New York Press, p. vii.

Dewey, J. (1988). Creative Democracy – The Task Before Us. In Jo Ann Boydston, ed., John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925-1953. Volume 14: 1939-1941. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 224-30. (First published in John Dewey and the Promise of America, Progressive Education Booklet No. 14 (Columbus, Ohio” American Education Press, 1939.) Quote on page 228.

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