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  • Democracy and the Intersection of Religion and Traditions
  • Sor-hoon Tan (bio)
Rosa Bruno-Jofré, James Scott Johnston, Gonzalo Jover, and Daniel Tröhler, Democracy and the Intersection of Religion and Traditions: The Reading of John Dewey’s Understanding of Democracy and Education. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2010. 176 pp. ISBN: 0773537856. $29.95 (pbk).

This book examines the adoption of Dewey’s ideas on democracy and education across three continents, after contextualizing those ideas in the specific historical space of Dewey’s religious, intellectual background and his response to the social crisis of fin de siècle Chicago. The multi-authored work achieves methodological unity by understanding the genesis and adoption of Dewey’s ideas as a matter of “configurations” that successfully present the many layers of interactions, connections, and tensions between the ideas taken up, the varied backgrounds and situations of individuals involved, the intersection between ideas and practice, and the specific historical forces that act on them. Key issues considered in the chapters include the consistency of democratic means and ends, the relation between religious transcendence and democratic theory and practice, and the transformative nature of democracy. The meticulously researched details bring out the complexity of what happened when Dewey’s ideas travelled beyond North America’s shores, but they offer no simple stories of success or failure. Instead, the case studies leave one with a sense that many questions remain to be answered when it comes to whether or not Dewey’s ideas have worked or can work in different places and at different times.

Beginning with the pragmatic idea of intelligent behavior in an organism’s adaptation to the environment and the “making over of the environment to meet the new demands” on the living individual, Daniel Tröhler shows how Dewey began thinking about social issues in Ann Arbor, MI., but that his views changed in Chicago in 1894, turning from an initial interest in Marxism to “Protestant democracy” as a response to “the perils of the metropolis and modern industry.” Dewey’s conclusion that the prevailing socio-economic problems could be solved through education was part of the “educational reflex” of the nineteenth century Protestant outlook on life and its perils. Dewey did not reject science, technology and industry as the source of misery in the big cities; rather, his understanding of [End Page 187] how the conditions of life had become deviant offered a way to foster democracy in industrial society.

The question of religion takes a back seat in James Scott Johnston’s study of Dewey’s ideas in China, where his admirers were more attracted to the marriage between science and democracy in Dewey’s educational philosophy. Many of Dewey’s followers in 1920s China were involved in a movement to replace traditional Chinese culture, which they blamed for China’s weaknesses and backwardness, with a new culture of science and democracy. During his visit to China, Dewey came to personify these key aspects of modernity. The main lesson Johnston takes away from Dewey’s visit is the need for democratic aims to be served by democratic means; democracy is not a commodity that can be simply “exported” or “imported,” and democratic practices have to be “home-grown.” Johnston’s study of Dewey’s writings about China in American publications such as The Dial and The New Republic shows a divergence between Dewey and some of his Chinese followers, who seemed to think that democracy could be imported to supplant local traditions. Dewey himself understood that democracy in China required “transformation from within.”

While Dewey’s followers in China mostly had little interest in religion (in the Western sense), Dewey’s ideas were introduced into Spain and Latin America within configurations that included complex and powerful religious elements. According to Gonzalo Jover, “a crisis in the Spanish conscience” due to the radicalization of the Catholic Church in the late nineteenth century formed the intellectual background of Dewey’s reception in Spain. The feeling of crisis that led to attempts at national regeneration through education paved the way for Dewey’s ideas; this local context also affected the selective adoption and partial interpretation of these ideas. Jover focuses on...