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  • The Public and Its Problems
  • Ava Becker (bio)
John Dewey. Edited and annotated by Melvin L. Rogers, The Public and Its Problems: An Essay in Political Inquiry. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012. 190 + xiv pp. ISBN 978-0-271-05570-1. $20.95 (pbk).

I came to this review not as an emerging scholar in political science or philosophy, but rather in language education. As such, the questions that I brought to the text were informed by my disciplinary formation and professional aspirations. I wondered: What benefits might language educators in the twenty-first century derive from reading The Public and its Problems? How might Deweyan reflections on the public, the state, community, and democracy inform or refresh ongoing debates in my field? As I read, it struck me that Dewey’s writings do not feature more prominently in my field despite a great deal of overlap between his beliefs and those of many contemporary language educators and researchers. While the terminology we use may differ, like Dewey, applied linguists affirm the centrality of communication in socialization (chapter 5), and many welcome dialogue aimed at destabilizing monolithic, top-down understandings of identity, community, and citizenship (e.g., chapters 1–2). Melvin L. Rogers’s painstaking editorial work on this classic text is an important step toward making one of Dewey’s “richest meditations on the future of democracy” (1) accessible to multidisciplinary audiences.

Bookended by a handful of choice auxiliary resources (a chronology of Dewey’s life, Rogers’s introduction, notes, and a finely curated bibliographical note), Dewey’s original writing remains virtually untouched save a few instances “where the absence of guidance makes Dewey’s meaning completely uncertain” (xiv). Consequently, Deweyan scholars and novices alike will find value in this edited reprint of The Public and Its Problems. This edition will be of particular use in upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses from disciplines across the humanities and social sciences. However, it is worth noting that it is first and foremost a political treatise, a philosophical text, so while the themes running throughout might resonate with many language educators and researchers (for instance), the book is clearly not aimed at that audience, nor are Rogers’s annotations. Educators looking for a bullet list of practice-oriented recommendations will not find them here, and researchers seeking theory grounded in empirical research would also do well to look elsewhere.

Rogers is not to be faulted for these potential lacunae, however. His objective in revisiting Dewey’s work was to offer “a richer and more useful volume than [End Page 101] currently exists” (xiv)—an objective he unquestionably accomplished. Still, as a language education researcher I wondered if in his attempt not to “overburden the reader” with excessive informational notes (xiv), he did not miss opportunities to venture a few relevant connections to the present historical moment. Such connections would have been welcome, especially in his introduction, and might indeed have taken some of the burden off his diverse readership when attempting to link the text to current realities. Notably, in his own introduction to the book (published in 1946, some twenty years after the lectures were first delivered) Dewey is very much aware of the “intervening events” (35) (particularly surrounding the Second World War), and he frequently refers to the intensifying role of technology in war as he revisits his reflections on democracy initially presented in 1927. In this way, his introduction serves to remind contemporary readers that our thinking and actions are inevitably and profoundly shaped by the victories and calamities of our times; Rogers might have reflected a bit on these changed conditions, thereby bringing the volume more explicitly into current debates about democracy, the public, and the state. Rogers might also have considered including possible discussion questions at each chapter’s end, which would have enhanced this edition’s already obvious appeal as a teaching text.

Nevertheless, what Rogers’s contribution may lack in terms of present- or future-oriented commentary it makes up for in its engagement with the past—an essential component in any twenty-first-century appreciation of Dewey’s work. In his introduction, Rogers writes with the intimacy of an...


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pp. 101-104
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