- Why Dewey Matters
…unless education has some frame of reference it is bound to be aimless, lacking a unified objective. The necessity for a frame of reference must be admitted. There exists in this country such a unified frame. It is called democracy.(1937)1
…whether this educative process is carried on in a predominantly democratic or non-democratic way becomes therefore a question of transcendent importance not only for education itself but for its final effect upon all the interests and activities of a society that is committed to the democratic way of life.(1937)2
John Dewey and Civic Engagement
Dewey is admired by those working for civic engagement in higher education in part because his educational philosophy provides the foundation for community-based experiential learning linked to public problem-solving.3 There is widespread reliance on Dewey's "general theories, propositions, and orientation"4 to make the case for how higher education can change to better fulfill its academic and civic missions. Well before there was David Kolb's work on experiential learning theory,5 Barr and Tagg's attention to improving teaching and learning with the identification of a paradigm shift toward learner-centered education,6 the focus on active and collaborative learning and the push for student engagement in the process of authentic learning,7 and before the contributions to our understanding of the learning process from the cognitive sciences8 or our understanding of different ways of knowing from feminist psychology,9 there was Dewey. What the authors of Dewey's Dream,10 a book that brings Dewey's educational philosophy to bear on the academic practices and institutional purposes of higher education, explicitly address is why Dewey's educational thought matters in higher education in at least two ways: 1) how the only way to prepare for democratic citizenship is to practice democracy through education, and 2) how education can contribute to the public culture of democracy.11 The authors sum up the relevance of Dewey's educational philosophy in this way:
Human beings best develop their innate capacity for intelligent thought and action when they purposefully use it as a powerful instrument to help them solve the multitude of perplexing problems that continually confront them in their daily lives—and when they reflect on their experience and thereby increase their capacity for future intelligent thought and action. Intelligence does not develop simply as a result of problem-solving action and experience; it develops best as a result of reflective, strategic, real-world problem-solving action and experience. Dewey emphasized that action-oriented, collaborative, real-world problem-solving education can function as the most powerful means to raise the level of instrumental intelligence in individuals, groups, communities, societies, and humanity.12
Civic engagement practitioners have long discovered in Dewey an educational philosophy legitimizing innovative community-based pedagogy grounded in "the real-world problem solving that Dewey brilliantly theorized" as "the best way to engage [students']… intense, sustained interest and develop their capacity for reflective critical inquiry and collaborative practical action."13
The authors of Dewey's Dream ask the question of how genuine democratic education can come about? Dewey laid a path, with two critical writings, one from 1902, and the other from 1927. In 1902, deeply influenced by Jane Addams and her work at Hull House in Chicago, Dewey wrote what the authors refer to as "the prophetic essay," "The School as Social Centre." What the authors discover in this essay is the argument that schools are educational institutions infused with a potent civic dimension. As such, they can function as a community's civic glue, performing civic functions that call forth active public civic agency in solving community problems to the point where "Dewey predicted that the school-based operations of 'civil society' would be more important than the traditional functions performed by the State in solving 'the difficult problems of life.'"14 Dewey wrote in "The School as Social Centre" that "what we want to see is the school, every public school, doing something of the same sort of work that is now being done by a settlement" house.15 The authors connect the idea of community...