In praise of Dewey: He knew how to protect democracy – not by rote and rules but by growing independent-minded kids. Let us not forget it

Nicholas Tampio:

Did you attend a public school in the United States and perform in a school play, take field trips, or compete on a sports team? Did you have a favourite teacher who designed their own curriculum, say, about the Civil War, or helped you find your particular passions and interests? Did you take classes that were not academic per se but that still opened your eyes to different aspects of human experience such as fixing cars? Did you do projects that required planning and creativity? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you are the beneficiary of John Dewey’s pedagogical revolution.

Dewey put forth the philosophy of education that would change the world in Democracy and Education, a book that turns 100 this year. Dewey’s influence is far-reaching, but his pedagogy has been under assault for at least a generation. The United States Department of Education report A Nation at Risk (1983) signalled the rise of the anti-Dewey front, under the somewhat misleading name of the ‘education reform’ movement. The report warns that other countries will soon surpass the US in wealth and power because ‘a rising tide of mediocrity’ engulfs schools in the US. The problem, according to the report, is that US education is ‘an often incoherent, outdated patchwork quilt’. The education reform movement aims to replace that ‘patchwork quilt’ – mostly made by local school boards, teachers and parents – with a more uniform system based on national standards.

  • Richard P. Phelps

    Seems a paradox. Dewey would promote democracy by ignoring democratic process — by centrally imposing on communities a system that he thought would grow democracy.