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  • Solving the Dewey Problem:Where Do We Go From Here?
  • Henry Louis Taylor Jr. (bio) and Linda McGlynn (bio)

Introduction: the Penn Thesis

In Dewey's Dream, through their reflective synthesis of the work of John Dewey and other progressive educators, as well as insight gained from their own experiences, Lee Benson, Ira Harkavy, and John Puckett have outlined a philosophical framework with the potential to unite the progressive movement that is seeking to transform the United States into a socially just, participatory democracy.1 In this manifesto, the Penn Group (Harkavy, Benson, and Puckett) interpret Dewey's dream as the desire to transform the world into a Great Community composed of countries that are truly just, collaborative democracies. Logically and practically, the start point in this global quest is the conversion of the United States into a people-centered, cosmopolitan republic based on the principles of participatory democracy and social justice. The essence of the 'Dewey Problem', then, is how to transform the United States into an authentic participatory democracy. The secret to this task, according to the Penn Group, is the radical transformation of three interactive socio-spatial sites—the university, the public school, and neighborhood.2

Understanding the hierarchical, interactive nature of this trilogy is central to grasping the significance of converting the American university into a civically engaged academy. Following Dewey, the Penn Group also believes that public schools are the best vehicles for problem-solving, imbuing neighborhoods with participatory democracy, and transforming them into socially functional places based on the principles of reciprocity and social justice. To realize this goal in practice, however, the modern university must be transformed into an agent for positive social change. It must abandon its aloof, detached approach to knowledge accumulation and teaching and become engaged in the affairs of its local community by working in tangent with them to solve urgent social and economic problems.

This viewpoint is based on the vision of University of Chicago President William Rainey Harper. Harper believed that the central mission of the American university was to help build a truly democratic society by taking responsibility for the performance of the entire school system within its community. He argued that "through the school system every family in the entire broad land of ours is brought into touch with the university; for from it proceeds the teachers." On the other hand, if the entire school system is not accelerating the democratic process, then the university must be performing poorly, Harper reasoned.3

To put the Harper thesis another way, if the communities surrounding higher eds are replete with underperforming schools, unemployment, violence, dilapidated housing, disease, and hopelessness, then the university is not performing its mission. As former University at Buffalo President, William R. Greiner, said, "It is my firm conviction that the great universities of the 21st century will be judged by their ability to help solve our most urgent social problems."4

Therefore, presuming the correctness of the Harper thesis, to implement successfully the Dewey strategy of using public schools to create socially functional cosmopolitan neighborhoods, the American university must be transformed. The rise of an authentic, civically engaged university, and its direct involvement with the communities that surround it, would trigger a 'progressive' domino effect, which would turn schools and communities into just, democratic, multi-ethnic and cooperative places capable of triggering the social transformation of the United States as a whole. The engaged university is the most strategically placed institution to lead this movement. Realizing Dewey's dream in practice, then, "requires a comprehensive institutional response that engages the broad range of resources of the urban university to solve the strategic problem of our time—the problem of creating democratic, local, cosmopolitan communities," says the Penn Group.5

The purpose of this essay is to contribute to the development of the Penn Thesis by identifying the major challenges that must be overcome to advance Dewey's goal of transforming the United States into a socially just, participatory, democratic society.

Transition to the Civically Engaged University: the Problem of Democracy, the Third Revolution, and the Bloom Problem

Surprisingly, although notions of democracy stand at the core of the Dewey Problem, there is little...


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