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  • Habits of Democracy:A Deweyan Approach to Citizenship Education in America Today
  • Sarah M. Stitzlein (bio)

Throughout his works, John Dewey makes deep and intriguing connections between democracy, education, and daily life. His ideas have contributed to both the theory and practice of participatory democracy and, although he actually “had surprisingly little to say about democratic citizenship” directly, his scholarship has influenced the ideas of others working on citizenship education and has provided rich notions of democracy, education, experience, and public life underlying it.1 However, Dewey commentators Michael Eldridge and Robert Westbrook worry that, although Dewey promoted deeper ways of participating in democracy and engaging in social life, he failed to fully explain how to achieve his vision.2 Instead, he alluded to the need for developing democratic habits through “continuous social planning,”3 without detailing what those habits are or how to acquire them.

In some regards, this fits with Dewey’s pragmatist spirit to the extent that he would not want to pin down specific habits or guidelines outside of particular real-life contexts. In examining today’s social and political contexts, we discover environmental elements that both support and work against deep, participatory democracy. Though declining youth political participation has been documented for many years, we’ve recently seen increasing numbers of youth interested in presidential elections,4 participating in political life,5 and discussing important social issues like wars and education reform.6 We have also witnessed a resurgence of citizens taking to the streets in political protest through movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. At the same time, pragmatist Judith Green warns, “dangerous habits of daily living have become increasingly widespread—constant busyness, fashionable cynicism, reliance on experts, willful ignorance of our nation’s history and of current events, materialism, personal greed, and, especially since September 11, feelings of ‘ontological insecurity,’ generalized anxiety, and personal impotence.”7 In a Deweyan voice, Gregory Fernando Pappas adds, “Of all the problems of democracy, the one that strikes me as most urgent today is simply that democracy is not experienced as a task or problem. This happens when it is taken for granted, or worse, when many people have no ideal or sense of how things could be better. Without awareness that there is a crisis of democracy, there is not the felt, problematic situation that can lead to inquiry about how to ameliorate present conditions.”8 The current socio-political environment provides contradictory [End Page 61] experiences for children and adults that may fail to nurture the ways of democratic life needed to keep American democracy vibrant if, indeed, they even notice the crisis of democracy at all.

I will argue in this paper that certain democratic habits should be nurtured through a supportive, formative culture, both inside and outside of schools, in order to best achieve healthy democratic life in the present environment. My aim here is to provide a partial response to the basic criticism of Eldridge and Westbrook—partial insofar as I do so not only in a pragmatist fashion tied to today’s context, but also with a Deweyan spirit of recognizing the importance of not specifying democratic practices too narrowly in advance. I will fill some of the gaps in the picture of democracy that Dewey paints, employ Dewey’s own unique understanding of habits as means for developing and practicing democracy, and suggest some fruitful avenues for citizenship education in today’s social and political context.

Deweyan Democracy

While Dewey had much to say about what good democracy should be, it is wise to begin this inquiry with his warning that democracy “has to be constantly discovered, and rediscovered, remade and reorganized.”9 In this way, democracy itself is constantly changing to meet the changing needs of the people and fit the environment in which it is enacted. As a way of life that is adapted to meet the needs of citizens, were democracy to be pinned down once and for all, it would no longer be useful and would no longer entail the active participation that is integral to its viability.

Rather than merely a formal system of government, democracy, for Dewey, was as...