An Anniversary: Democracy & Education

Verdun, the aftermath
2016 is the hundredth anniversary of the appalling battles of Verdun and the Somme on the Western Front and the Brusilov offensive on the Eastern Front (the greatest Allied success of the war; 800 000 soldiers dead).  1916 was the year of the Easter Rising in Dublin, and the first conscription referendum in Australia, the only belligerent country that formally voted against the war.  Soon after that year’s end, the people of St Petersburg revolted, the collapse of the European empires began, and the United States joined the slaughter.

From that history of mire and blood, it’s good to be able to report another anniversary – the centenary of a great work of humanist scholarship.  1916 also saw the publication of Democracy and Education by John Dewey, once a high school teacher, at the time professor of philosophy at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York.
Dewey, when not yet a Grand Old Man
It’s a chunky book in maroon hard covers (I have a copy of the 32nd printing, from 1960), originally published in a textbook series.  It’s subtitled An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, and much of it dutifully expounds textbook themes: theories of knowledge, school subjects from History to Science, educational aims and values, the nature of philosophy, etc.
But woven through that is an extraordinary vision of what education could be, as the expression of a democratic society.  Dewey gives a sophisticated critique of the authoritarian pedagogy normal in schools at the time, and a hard-headed account of what a democratic outlook means in the practical life of schools.  These are the ideas that made the book an inspiration to generations of teachers, and the bible of the progressive education movement.  It’s still worth reading a hundred years later -  and you can’t say that of many textbooks!
If you never read any other part, read the chapter “Vocational Aspects of Education”.  The title sounds monumentally boring.  In fact it’s a brilliant short account of social change and alienation in industrial capitalism, and the role of education in reproducing, and also contesting, inequality.
Dewey could do this not just because he had a short unhappy experience as a school teacher, but also because he had been a very active academic psychologist and philosopher (the two trades weren’t sharply distinguished then) with a practical interest in teacher training and educational experiment.
In his second academic job he had been the key figure in setting up the famous Laboratory Schools at the University of Chicago.  Soon after publishing Democracy and Education he was one of the bunch of dangerous radicals who set up the New School for Social Research, an experimental university in New York. (Both are still running, though they have become less experimental.)
Dewey, when he was
I find it hard to get bearings on Dewey.  He was a socialist of sorts, certainly a radical critic of Gilded-Age capitalism.  He became a unionist, a member of the American Federation of Teachers.  But he left the public sector University of Michigan for the the new-rich University of Chicago, set up by Rockefeller money.  He then went to the Ivy-League fortress of Columbia University.  Well, many academics have contradictions in their lives, who am I to talk?  I’m happy to celebrate the fact that out of the tensions of Dewey’s life came this great inspiration to good education.
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