Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Dewey on Public Education and Democracy

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_485



The American philosopher John Dewey influenced the educational sector of many countries around the world apart from the USA, notably Japan, China, Australia, Germany, Austria, both pre- and postrevolutionary Russia, and Turkey. In Sweden, which will be discussed as an example below, his influence is still palpable in the national curricula. An important part of Dewey’s work concerns the role of education in societal reform and progress: more specifically, in the progress toward a more democratic society. Thus, the formation of democratic character lay at the heart of Dewey’s philosophy of education. For Dewey, this is far more important than teaching children how a democracy works, since the development of a democratic character entails more than knowing a set of facts or rules; it is rather about fostering a sociable and intelligent (receptive and open-minded) individual, someone who can learn not only to vote at certain intervals but to change and shape society in the best possible way for every one of its members. On this view, which still has relevance today, one aspect of democracy is not just as a form of government but an ethos, a culture, and a way of living in a society where people work together for the common good.

Forming a Democratic Character

Dewey is commonly associated with the progressive education movement that started in the USA at the turn of the last century as a protest against pedagogical narrowness and one-sidedness. The movement was pluralistic and related to broader currents of social and political progressivism resulting from societal changes such as urbanization, industrialization, and large-scale immigration. One of the social currents underlying this movement was the changing perception of children and the growing interest in children’s rights. Part of the progressive movement was strongly child centered, maintaining that school should provide children with the freedom to express their true human nature rather than create citizens. Another fraction, which has been called social reconstructionism, emphasized community and society rather than the individual and saw school as central to creating a more just social order, whereas the so-called social engineering strand (or “administrative progressives”) focused on social efficiency and teaching the students to earn a living. It is difficult to place Dewey in any of these categories: for the child-centered educators, Dewey was too academically and socially oriented, whereas the social constructivists thought that he lacked a sense of direction when he refused to blueprint a new social order (Karier 1986). For Dewey, it was enough that school should foster alert, sensitive, and socially competent adults, capable of making sound decisions about the future. These decisions could not be dictated by school or by authorities, since we live in a changing world: “a world which is not all in, and never will be, a world which in some respect is incomplete and in the making, and which in these respects may be made this way or that according as men judge, prize, love and labor” (Dewey 1993). The importance Dewey placed on individual growth was also at odds with the social engineering strand that advocated separate vocational education. For Dewey, manual training was not mere trade training but an important step in elucidating the practical and the theoretical aspects of every subject, and he thought that everyone should have the chance to grow intellectually – not just those destined for an academic career.

Dewey’s philosophy of education has mostly been misunderstood and misapplied. Learning through experience has become mere vocational education, and Dewey’s emphasis on the interest of the child has come to be synonymous with permissiveness. But it is important to remember that many of the practices that Dewey introduced have become more or less mainstream: the practices today called “problem solving” or “inquiry method,” for example. Furthermore, many of Dewey’s concerns still retain their resonance today, as the website of the Progressive Education Network testifies. The principles listed include preparing students “for active participation in a democratic society,” and the principles drafted by the steering committee in 1990 includes the school as “a model of democracy and humane relationships, confronting issues of racism, classism and sexism.” Even if most of the child-centered progressive schools in the first half of the twentieth century comprised private schools, of late these reforms have centered mainly on public schools. But questions concerning the meaning of “democratic” education have been raised, as the progressive schools often are set in homogenous, white neighborhoods. Critics have ascribed the success of progressive schools to the new middle class rather than the model itself, and doubts have been raised whether disadvantaged children are helped by progressive education or rather disadvantaged further (Semel and Sadovnik 1999).

However, in the USA, there remain some successful examples of progressive schools, or as they are called today, “alternative” or “critical” schools, notably Central Park East Secondary School (CPESS) in New York, which enjoyed high levels of success with low-income and minority students. CPESS has been called a critical small school, which attempts to connect with oppressed students and create productive and democratic citizens. One of the obstacles these kinds of schools face is the difficulty to measure dispositions and habits of mind through traditional metrics, for example, the ability to think critically and to form strong personal and professional relationships, something Dewey thought essential for the ability to fully participate in a democratic society. Therefore, it might seem easier to foster a democratic spirit and at the same time meet the politics’ demand of effectiveness with the kind of teacher-led programs that have recently been integrated into school curricula across the country, such as Character Counts!, 11 Principles of Effective Character Education, and KIPP’s Teaching Character and Creating Positive Classrooms. In Character Counts!, for example, students are taught the Six Pillars of Character, i.e., trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. Trustworthiness means here to “stand by your family, friends, and country”; responsibility means to “do what you are supposed to do”; citizenship means to “obey laws and rules,” and so forth (Spector and Prendergast 2015).

Without a doubt, this kind of approach is antithetical to Dewey, for whom the ideal aim of education is the power of self-control. This entails what Dewey calls freedom of intelligence, what we today would call critical thinking, rather than blindly obeying rules or doing what you are supposed to do. The formation of democratic character involves learning how to think, how to form one’s own opinions, and how to fully partake in society. For Dewey, this does not mean that the teacher is less important or that the children should not be required to learn what is on the curriculum; to the contrary, rational freedom and rational intelligence are itself the fruit of objective knowledge and understanding (Karier 1986). For Dewey, there was no opposition between student activity and interest, on the one hand, and the teacher’s authority, on the other. He emphasized the importance of the role of the teacher in identifying the interests and needs of the pupils, as well as imparting to them new learning and objective knowledge. In this process, the child is indeed taught discipline, but the discipline, as well as the interest, is internal to the subject: “To satisfy an impulse or interest means to work it out, and working it out involves running up against obstacles, becoming acquainted with materials, exercising ingenuity, patience, persistence, alertness, it of necessity involves discipline – ordering of power – and supplies of knowledge” (Dewey 1959). This kind of discipline is the source of freedom, since real freedom presupposes the faculties of judgment and self-expression. Since, according to Dewey, learning is an active undertaking, children should be initiated from the beginning into the “mode of associated living” characteristic of a democracy, in which social sympathy and deliberative moral reasoning can develop. Thus, classrooms in a democracy had to be not only communities of inquiry but democratic communities of inquiry (Westbrook 1991).

In Sweden, the Deweyan ideal of democratic education has guided school authorities ever since the Second World War. Dewey can be said to have influenced all Swedish school reforms up until at least the 1970s, and even if the emphasis on democratic education has diminished as a result of more recent school reforms, his ideal of education as a way of imparting democratic values through participation is still manifested, as in a formulation from the national grammar school curriculum guidelines which stipulate that it is not enough that education imparts knowledge of democratic values but should also be conducted with democratic methods and prepare the pupils for active participation in society. The pupils should thus take part in planning and evaluating their education and choose courses, subjects, themes, and activities, so as to develop their capacity to exert influence and take responsibility. The importance of discussion about society’s base values is also emphasized. The Swedish National Agency for Education stresses the importance of discussion where there are conflicts of values, and the efforts of the individual and the collective to listen, reflect, seek, and evaluate arguments, and a collective effort to find the values and standards that everyone can agree on.

This consensus-based model has been criticized for making teachers apprehensive about disagreements. In classrooms with pupils from many different cultural backgrounds, it can be difficult to find agreement. And since the curriculum requires that the teacher should instill democratic values in the pupils “in accordance with the ethics borne by Christian tradition and Western humanism” and emphasizes the Swedish-based values, the ideal of an open discussion can easily turn into a directed one with a right and a wrong outcome.

The idea that there should be a fixed end to deliberation is antithetical to Dewey’s views, since for him education should cultivate a spirit of criticism and the habit of inquiry, rather than conventional idealizations. Because of our need for ongoing evaluation and criticism, we need to foster ongoing inquiry, to harness the potential of lived experience rather than appeal to a singular common good. So a democratic character is not formed by learning a set of truths or even learning how to reason but through practical activities that require listening to others, confronting our own prejudices, and expanding our viewpoints.

Multicultural Society: Broadening Horizons

Opinions about Dewey’s relation to the different values embodied in multiculturalism vary, often due to the usual interpretative problems posed by the complexity of, and transitions in, Dewey’s thought over a long career. But even if Dewey thought that there was an inherent tendency to conflict in multiculturalism, he identified himself as a multiculturalist and rejected the idea of America as a “melting pot.” In a letter to Horace Kellen, the author of the term “cultural pluralism,” Dewey wrote that he wanted to see his country as American, which meant reducing the English strain to “one along with others.” He likened the USA to a symphony, where any assimilation is to and between the different instruments playing with each other, not to some prior Anglo-Saxon orchestration (Eisle 1992). For Dewey, it is essential that communication and openness are mutual, so that no group can force its conception on another. Agreement, on the other hand, does not seem to have any intrinsic value for Dewey; rather, it is the process of communication and learning from others that is important.

Dewey saw schooling as an important tool in counteracting segregation and in promoting communication between different groups, since he saw democracy as grounded in practical concerns and social ties, rather than in abstract ideals or reasoned arguments. Dewey contends that ultimate moral motives and forces are nothing more than “social intelligence,” i.e., the capacity to observe and comprehend social situations, tempered by trained self-control, in the service of social interest and aims. Morality, as well as democracy, is not a thing as much as a way, something that we do. Dewey makes the case that the formation of the desired attitudes and dispositions cannot be achieved through the direct inculcation of beliefs, emotions, and knowledge. Just as children learn through participation in the affairs of the family, school is a place where children learn valuable social skills through interaction. At school they can learn to take different perspectives into consideration and thus acquire greater knowledge than they could achieve at home or in isolation (Dewey 1966). This is why one important educational task is to bring children from different backgrounds together.

The Democratic Practice of Life

Working together, “breaking down the barriers of class, race, and nationality which keeps men from seeing the full import of their activity,” can therefore help us to understand not only the consequences of our own actions better but also to perceive other people, in the pregnant sense Dewey gives the term. Through conjoint activity, we develop the sensitivity that Dewey called “intelligent sympathy,” which he describes as not merely a feeling but a cultivated imagination for what we have in common with others (Dewey 1966). It could be described as a sensitive responsiveness to the interests, sufferings, and rights of others. Dewey thinks that duties and loyalties will naturally grow from these kinds of personal ties and stable relationships.

The idea seems to be that the virtues of the democratic character can be fostered, not necessarily by talking about values but by cultivating friendship and respect through doing things together. As we work together, we create social ties, develop sympathy, and learn to respect each others’ strengths and weaknesses. Genuine cooperation entails listening to others and making compromises in order to find a solution that satisfies everyone – skills that are important in the “mode of associated living” called democratic society. For Dewey, moral knowledge is what is learned and employed in any occupation that has an aim involving cooperation. Shared aims build up social interest and “confers the intelligence needed to make that interest effective in practice” (Dewey 1966). Democracy thus grows from within: from what is local, spontaneous, voluntary, and direct. The sort of communal loyalty and civic-mindedness needed in a democracy can emerge as a natural outgrowth of strengthening and nurturing local ties (Pappas 2008).

This “ethics of democratic relationships” (Pappas 2008) or “democratic practice of life” (Dewey 1993) is what school should foster. If democracy and our choice of how to live were primarily a question of rationally accepting certain principles, then we should indeed primarily address the values that we think underlie our way of life. But Dewey does not assume that there is a specific set of underlying values that cause or direct our behavior; rather, he thinks that important democratic values such as tolerance, sympathy, and openness grow out of an environment in which we work together toward a common goal. For Dewey, lived experience is the only reliable avenue by which to pursue the development of social intelligence and meaningful democracy. Therefore, it would seem that in Dewey’s view, democratic education is better pursued through making pupils from different backgrounds cooperate in different tasks, giving them a chance to get to know each other as they work together, rather than having them sit down to discuss abstract ideals.

Democracy as an Ethical Ideal

A crucial difference between Dewey and other models of deliberative democracy such as that of, e.g., Rawls, is that Dewey does not aim to generate final principles or once and for all overcome the impediments of democracy. For Dewey, democracy should be created anew by each generation, and the kind of democracy he envisions entails difference and an openness for different alternatives. This is why Dewey can perhaps better accommodate Chantal Mouffe’s critique of the deliberative democracy model, which she considers too focused on consensus. Such models, in her view, ignore the positive potential of difference and disagreement. Similarly, Dewey’s ideal would seem to resist Iris Marion Young’s criticism of deliberative democracy models as excluding emotional-imaginative methods and reasons from political discourse.

In Dewey’s view, the good can never be demonstrated to the senses but always involves the will and an interest in what is unseen and incalculable. On this understanding, democracy is an ethical ideal. As an idea, democracy is the idea of community life itself. Such an idea is not, and cannot ever be, a matter of fact (Dewey 1954). Democracy, for Dewey, necessarily entails freedom, fraternity, and equality (Dewey 1993), ideals that may never become facts and that are difficult to justify on a merely rational basis, and even more difficult to measure with standardized tests, but which most would agree are indispensable aims for any ethical society and thus vital for our children to learn.



  1. Dewey, J. (1954). The public and its problems. Athens: Ohio University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Dewey, J. (1959). The school and society. In Dewey on education. New York: Teachers College Press.Google Scholar
  3. Dewey, J. (1966). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: The Free Press.Google Scholar
  4. Dewey, J. (1993). Philosophy and democracy. In D. Morris & I. Shapiro (Eds.), The political writings. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  5. Eisle, C. J. (1992). Dewey’s concept of cultural pluralism. In J. E. Tiles (Ed.), John Dewey: Critical assessments volume II. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  6. Karier, C. J. (1986). The individual, society and education: A history of American educational ideas. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.Google Scholar
  7. Pappas, G. F. (2008). John Dewey’s ethics: Democracy as experience. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Semel, S., & Sadovnik, A. (1999). Progressive education: Lessons from the past and the present. In S. F. Semel & A. R. Sadovnik (Eds.), “Schools of tomorrow,” schools of today: What happened to progressive education. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.Google Scholar
  9. Spector, M., & Prendergast, H. (2015, December 7). Thinking and thoughtlessness in character education. Teachers College Record.Google Scholar
  10. Westbrook, R. B. (1991). John Dewey and American democracy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Uppsala UniversityUppsalaSweden