Monday, June 11, 2007

Community Organizing and Urban Education X: Is Progressive Democratic Education Undemocratic?

[To read the entire series, go here.]

Progressive reformers at the turn of the century undertook the project of reclaiming citizens from the “human junk” produced by industrialization . . . .

In the short run, as many historians have shown, Progressive reform of the political process narrowed rather than expanded the circle of citizenship. Dewey and most Progressives . . . failed to acknowledge this process of exclusion. . . .

The Progressive movement[‘s] . . . vision of the people, although universal in its claims, was in fact more limited and culturally bounded. New immigrants and African Americans were consigned to the margins, their capacity for assimilation dependent on their slow progress, their citizenship claims contingent.

--Stromquist, Re-Inventing “The People,” pp. 5, 7, & 10

Among progressive educators, today as in the past, the key contribution schools can make to social transformation is through education in practices of democracy. But is this effort to inculcate democracy itself anti-democratic?

Two key points are important to emphasize, here.

First, it is important to understand the intensity of the Deweyan model that nearly all progressive educators look to. In Democracy and Education, Dewey lays out an intensive process of transformation designed to develop individuals who think and interact with the world in a very specific manner. To become democratic, children must learn a complex model of intelligent inquiry. And they must develop a subtle set of social capacities that will allow each engage in a fluid collaboration with each other, drawing out and valuing the unique contributions of each participant.

What Dewey describes is an ongoing process of social development that reconstructs children’s perceptions of and actions into the world in fundamental ways. It involves a deep operation on the workings of their body/minds.

Second, as Stromquist and McGerr and others have argued, this progressive “democratic” individual is not simply a neutral model. Instead, it drew from the middle-class culture that was emerging at the same time at the turn of the 20th century, and that was shared by nearly all prominent progressives. Dewey’s vision of democratic collaboration, for example, was deeply informed by a developing culture of professional dialogue and of educated middle-class families like his own.

It is important to acknowledge that progressives like Dewey were critical of the middle class as well. While their vision was rooted in the cultural practices they were most familiar with, they sought to build upon and improve what the thought was best about it. Thus, the middle-class children in Dewey’s Laboratory School still had much to learn if they were to fully embody the capacities of a democratic society.

Nonetheless, members of the professional middle class were (and remain today) closest to the Deweyan ideal. Members of the working class, and most members of oppressed cultures like those of African Americans and new immigrants had the farthest to go, the most to learn.

Thus, it is accurate in a limited sense to say that progressives sought a society in which everyone interacted more like they and their class interacted. Dewey developed an educational model designed, in part, then, to make people more like him.

Why is this discussion relevant to a series on community organizing?

I would argue that models of community organizing, like the ones I have been discussing in previous posts, embody a much less elaborate vision of democratic practice. In contrast with the kind of deep transformation that Dewey aimed at (and that schools have almost universally failed to achieve) community organizers have much more modest aims.

For purely pragmatic reasons of limited resources, among others, neo-Alinsky organizing groups take people largely as they are. Instead of trying to transform how participants conceptualize the world in deep ways, organizers provide people with a collection of fairly basic tools for making sense of inequality and for bringing disparate groups of marginalized and sympathetic actors together to fight for change.

Organizers also have developed a sophisticated conception of the difference between “public” and “private” perceptions of the world. Unlike Deweyan progressives, they leave the vast realm of people’s “private” understandings and practices alone, aiming only to give people skills for acting in and making sense of the “public” realm. Regardless of who you are in your private world, they argue, when you emerge in public you need to play a particular kind of role that can be learned in much less time.

And instead of asking every single participant to embody the sophisticated skills and understandings that these groups have developed over time, they accept a distribution of knowledge. Highly trained organizers work with less well-trained top leaders, who work with emerging leaders, who work with an only marginally involved mass of participants. They balance out the potentially undemocratic implications of this model by constantly working to stay in touch with the passions and desires of individual participants and by constantly seeking to find new leaders who can be brought up into the power structure.

I am grasping for a way to frame differences between the visions of democratic education embraced by Deweyan progressives and neo-Alinsky community organizers. Perhaps it is useful to distinguish between the educational “transformation” sought by Deweyan democratic educators and the more blunt, if often sophisticated “tools” of community organizers.

The Deweyan side focuses on an elaborate and subtle process of individual transformation. The goal is to change “who” people are in quite fundamental ways.

In contrast, the organizing side strips down what is needed for effective democratic engagement to the bare essentials required to contest unequal power.

In other words, it seems at least somewhat true that organizing sees people as more ready, as they are, for political participation in the democratic polity than do progressive educators who often sigh in despair at the incredible amount of work that needs to be done. And, as a result, organizing may, of necessity, be significantly more respectful of the cultural practices that different groups bring with them to the fight.

By teaching less the education involved in community organizing may, in fact, be more “democratic,” than that of progressives.


Dave said...

I think what you highlight here as a theoretical difference to me seems more closely related to theory and 'a' potential practice drawn from this theory.

Although I am unfamiliar with neo-Alinsky community organizers, what you detail as being part of the work of building better democratic communities for neo-Alinsky thinkers can also be seen as a process that in participating may serve to shift/transform the participants within Dewey's conception of mind/body. In short, operational versus theoretical seems the main difference detailed in this posting.

Aaron Schutz said...

I'm not sure I agree that the issue is operational vs. theoretical. We have extensive empirical evidence of what Dewey was trying to do from the Laboratory School. From my perspective, the difference is as operational as it is theoretical.

Aaron Schutz said...

[Comment by Jim Garrison posted with permission]

Consider this paragraph Aaron:

Organizers also have developed a sophisticated conception of the difference between “public” and “private” perceptions of the world. Unlike Deweyan progressives, they leave the vast realm of people’s “private” understandings and practices alone, aiming only to give people skills for acting in and making sense of the “public” realm. Regardless of who you are in your private world, they argue, when you emerge in public you need to play a particular kind of role that can be learned in much less time.

Dewey accepted a private versus public distinction (in part to preserve the notion of individual unique potential so critical to his philosophy; he even defends the Romantic emphasis on the human interior), but unless you advocate a public versus private dualism, I do not see any way to “leave the vast realm of people’s ‘private’ understandings and practices alone, aiming only to give people skills for action in and making sense of the ‘public’ realms.” People that acquire the skills for public action simply are not the same people they were when they did not have those skills. There are many reasons for this, but let’s keep it basic. These skills involve embodied habits that organize feelings into focuses emotions. For Dewey, habits constitute the self, change the habits and you change the self. Why not just go ahead and admit that you too want to make profound changes in people. That is O. K., educators have no choice. If you and they learn, you both change. Teachers should simply acknolwedge that they want to connect with people and make a difference in their lives. Of course, we should all worry about whether it is a good influence or not; my experience is that we all do some harm to someone. What frees me may not free others and my freeom project could actually block theirs. I think everyone should say the same.

Also, Dewey thought his theory of inquiry a rather obvious refinement of the common sense thinking that people carry out all the time. I agree; people strive to name disruptive situations as solvable problems, they creatively come up with ideas of how to solve them, and they try out those ideas. Refining these dispositions seems a fair enough goal. What about more complex knowlwedge. Well, we might have better social policy if everyone, including myself, understood statistics better. Indeed, contra Walter Lippmann, Dewey thought that we could still have government for and by the people, and not just government for the people administered by technocrats. If the people cannot come to terms with the esoteric knowledge that is need to operate the modern world, they are likely to be victimized by those who do, or claim they do.

Finally, who speaks for “the people” is as much a problem for you and I as for Dewey. I could use arguments very much like yours to turn anyone with commitments to social amelioration into a paternalist. Admit it, you think you know more about some things than the people you are trying to help know—we all do to some extent, or we would have no warrant to intervene, nor could we teach.


Aaron Schutz said...

Hi, Jim. Thanks as usual for your thoughtful response.

You are, of course, correct in an absolute sense about Dewey’s acknowledgement of the public/private distinction and about the inevitable effect of any learning on myriad aspects of individuals across any arbitrary public/private boundaries

My point, however, is somewhat different than I think you are implying.

What I am trying to get at is not the RESULT of an educational approach but the GOALS involved. Dewey aimed for a very deep transformation through his educational approach. And that is partly why it is rarely initiated in any coherent or adequate sense. The goals of organizers are much more limited. And thus it is much more likely that their aims might be reasonably achieved.

It is true that any training in one aspect of one’s life will inevitably reverberate into other apects. And, in fact, organizers do argue that some of their conceptual/practical tools, like strategies for distinguishing between public and private relationships, will be useful to people in a wide range of contexts. But their focus is on helping people learn to take on a particular kind of role in public. How this impacts them in other contexts isn’t as important to them.

As we know, and as Dewey also noted, transferences between skills in one arena to others are not automatic and in many cases pretty limited without careful planning. Dewey tried to make sure his practices of intelligent engagement and deliberation did transfer. Organizers don’t.

To some extent, then, it is not entirely untrue to say, as I argue in my post, that organizers are more accepting of the social selves people bring with them to organizing. They have very limited aims, and whatever else people bring with them is mostly okay.

There is an inevitable paternalism in this, of course. E.g.: “you”/”they” lack something because you/they don’t know what I know or think or act like I do in these contexts. But it is (or at least conceptually can be) a somewhat more limited paternalism.

Thus, I think it is accurate to say that organizers in the neo-Alinsky and other similar traditions are in this limited sense more “democratic” than early progressives like Dewey (and the later Lippman, who actually seems pretty similar in his concerns if not his solutions in this respect). Recent historical work seems to support this conclusion, as well. Organizers do not despair about the amount of change that needs to take place in order for people and cultures and the larger society to become adequately “democratic.” In other words, they accept that everyone arrives at their organizations almost fully equipped to be democratic citizens.

In other words, no, I’m not willing to admit that I, too, “want to make profound changes in people.” At least not to the level that Dewey sought in his Laboratory School.

And I am less convinced now than I was in the past that people need to embody the practices Dewey imagined in order for them not to be “victimized” by those who have or “claim to” have “esoteric knowledge.” They do need to know something, but do they need anything like what Dewey imagined? I am increasingly doubtful. And if this is correct, then it seems, paradoxically, much more likely that we might achieve the kind of society Dewey also desired.

The point is not that the kind of intelligent engagement Dewey argued for would not be valuable in some ways. Instead, the point is that one can imagine an adequately democratic society being developed even if most people don’t think the way Dewey wished. Maybe even a more democratic society.

In general, I think that by embracing Dewey’s vision (and by association that of the early progressives more generally) educators have latched onto an unachievable fantasy, a vision of a democratic society that is simply unachievable by any reasonable standard. Partly as a result, most educators don’t even try.

And, as I’ve argued elsewhere, even when Dewey achieved something like what he was seeking, in the Laboratory School, those who were transformed weren’t really equipped to engage in any kind of coherent social transformation given the way the world actually works. I’m willing to bet, in fact, that children trained in Deweyan deliberative practices are more likely to become social workers than social activists. (Neill found, to his surprise, much the same result from his long-running Summerhill experiment).

This argument is somewhat less true when applied to organizers themselves as opposed to the leaders and participants they work with. The best organizing groups do, in fact, try to foster relatively deep and broad transformations in organizers. But there is usually a significant distinction in organizing training between “organizers” and “leaders”/prospective leaders (which is basically everyone else).

In fact, the limited goals of leader training (and the participant training embodied in “actions”) mean that organizers must be extremely flexible in the way they approach different participants. They have to take them mostly as they are, accept them as adequately “democratic”. They have little choice.

This actually points to one of the limitations of organizing today. Organizing groups tend, in my experience, to be relatively dogmatic about how they approach others. The downside to their limited aims is a tendency to downplay the importance of approaching people from different cultural contexts differently. And this limited responsiveness means, for example, that they often do not deal very well with the tensions created when middle-class professionals come together with lower-income congregations. Often these class issues overlaps with racial tensions as well, as I’ve noted elsewhere in this series. But I don’t think these problems are a _necessary_ result of organizers’ basic attitude towards the “democratic” transformation of others.

Duane Campell said...

Your description of Dewey and progressives is of interest. First, we need to acknowledge that the concept of middle-class and professional classes are complex. The progressives were not specifically working class. And, the working class has changed.
This is important it seems because in analyzing Dewey and progressives you are not raising a closely related issue. Dewey was, in several senses, a socialist. His work in the trial of Trotsky, his opponents in the New York teaches Union, his political advocacy in an election, each tie him to U.S. socialism by the late 30's. Now, socialism, at least that of the Socialist Party and non communist variety, has some basic beliefs. 1. The importance of class and class conflict.
2. A role for ideology.
To go on, I responded on another post to your advocacy of an neo-Alinsky view in the review of the Oaks-Rogers book. I also posted a site that offers a catalogue- so to speak- of several of the major social change strategies currently working; including several neo-alinsky views.
BTW. I have and continue to work as an ally of Alinsky groups.
However, Alinsky- among the several traits- is anti ideological.
I wonder - I do not know- if the differences which you correctly note between a Dewey /Progressive perspective and a neo-alinsky perspective are mixed up in the idea that Dewey was a socialist (ideological) and neo-Alinksy folks are anti ideological.?
Also, I wonder - I do not know- if portraying Dewey as a progressive, which he was, is a complex enough view of his work and thinking. Progressivism changed. The middle class- the professional class- changed.
BTW. I write from a working class perspective, born, reared, and only later joined the 'professions".
my blog is
Duane Campbell

Aaron Schutz said...

Thanks for the comment, Duane.

Dewey was also not ideological, and would not have considered himself a socialist in any ideological sense, although his beliefs certainly resonated in many ways. I think the jump from "Dewey held many views like socialists" to "Dewey was a socialist" is a pretty big one in this context.

My discussion of progressivism and class is too simple, here, of necessity. As a short answer, I would say that middle class culture has not changed that much in the characteristics that I think are important to this argument. In some ways, the distinctiveness of the professional middle class has only intensified. The working class, on the other hand, has fragmented and changed in many ways, although I would argue that there are particular contexts (some labor unions, some long-term non-high poverty communities) where something similar to the kind of culture prevalent in the early part of the century has survived. Again, the key issue here is what particular characteristics of middle class culture one is most interested in. I go into this argument in some detail, with a look at the history of the emergence of social class culture in America at:

Duane Campell said...

Aaron, Thanks for your view.
You state categorically that Dewey was not a socialist. Here is another view. To me this is not settled. I encourage clarification.
This discussion is from another list.

Was Dewey an avowed socialist? We know he was a committed (small 'd') democrat, but is there a necessary conflict between democracy and socialism? Any response to this question needs to be preceeded by a caveat against labels -- especially rigid ones, and ones that are politically tinged. Let me cite Dewey's Liberalism and Social Action (N.Y.: Capricorn, 1935, 1963, p. 60) on this point:

The conditions that generate insecurity for the many no longer
spring from nature. They are found in institutions and arrangements that
are within deliberate human control. Surely this change marks one of the
greatest revolutions that has taken place in all human history. . . . But the
habits of mind and action that modify institutions to make potential
abundance an actuality are still so inchoate that most of us discuss labels
like individualism, socialism and communism instead of even perceiving
the possibility, much less the necessity for realizing what can and should be.

But Dewey leaves no doubt about the need to overcome the (anti-democratic) hegemony of capitalism and corporate power (L&SA, 61):

It demands no great power of intelligence to see that under present
conditions the isolated individual is well-nigh helpless. Concentration and
corporate organization are the rule. But the concentration and corporate
organization are still controlled in their operation by ideas that were
institutionalized in eons of separate individual effort.

How do we overcome this concentration and organization? By education and social action that are not undertaken separately and independently, but together, in concert (61, 62):

The educational task cannot be accomplished merely by working upon
men's (sic) minds, without action that effects actual change in institutions.
The idea that dispositions and attitudes can be altered by merely "moral"
means conceived of as something that goes on wholly inside of persons is
itself one of the old patterns that has to be changed.

This leads directly to what I believe is Dewey's socialism -- the form of economic arrangements to which democracy must be relied upon to lead:

In short, liberalism must now become radical, meaning by "radical"
perception of the necessity of thoroughgoing changes in the set-up of
institutions and corresponding activity to bring the changes to pass. . . .
If radicalism be defined as perception of need for radical change, then
today any liberalism which is not also radicalism is irrelevant and doomed.
But radicalism also means, in the minds of many, both supporters and
opponents, dependence upon use of violence as the main method of
effecting drastic changes. Here the liberal parts company. For he is
committed to the organization of intelligent action as the chief method(62).

If the above seems ambiguous regarding Dewey's view of socialism, we can be quite clear about Dewey's view of unreconstructed capitalism (75):

Because of conditions that were set by the legal institutions and the moral
ideas existing when the scientific and industrial revolutions came into
being, the chief [rewards] of the latter [have] been appropriated by a
relatively small class. Industrial entrepreneurs have reaped out of all
proportion to what they sowed.

Given his view of capitalism, might Dewey have been a Marxist? No:

I am concerned with [Marxism] . . . only as far as it emphasizes the idea of
a stuggle between classes, culminating in open and violent warfare as
being the method for production of radical social change. For . . . the issue
is not whether some amount of violence will accompany the effectuation of
radical change of institutions. The question is whether force or intelligence
is to be the method upon which we consistently rely and to whose promotion
we devote our energies. Insistence that the use of violent force is
inevitable limits the use of available intelligence, for wherever the inevitable
reigns intelligence cannot be used. Commitment to inevitability is always
the fruit of dogma . . . (78)

In the course of objecting to the rigidity of Marxism, Dewey makes a nice
philosophical point:

In spite of the existence of class conflicts, amounting at times to veiled civil
war, anyone habituated to the use of the method of science will view with
considerable suspicion the erection of actual human beings into fixed
entities called classes, having no overlapping interests and so internally
unified and externally separated that they are made the protagonists of
history -- itself hypothetical. Such an idea of classes is a survival of a rigid
logic that once prevailed in the sciences of nature, but that no longer has
any place there. The conversion of abstractions into entities smells more
of a dialectic of concepts than of a realistic examination of facts, even
though it makes more of an emotional appeal to many than do the results
of the latter (80).

If any doubt remains about whether Dewey is a socialist, here is a conclusive
statement. I have taken the liberty of adding emphasis to the concluding sentence:

The alternatives [for what we might do] are continuation of drift with
attendant improvisations to meet special emergencies; dependence upon
violence; dependence upon socially organized intelligence. The first two
alternatives, however, are not mutually exclusive, for if things are allowed
to drift the result may be some sort of social change effected by the use of
force, whether so planned or not. Upon the whole, the recent policy of
liberalism [by 'recent' Dewey refers to a period about 75 years ago, but I
think it can be applied to more current affairs] has been to further "social
legislation"; that is, measures which add performance of social services to
the older functions of government. The value of this addition is not to be
despised. It marks a decided move away from laissez faire liberalism, and
has considerable importance in educating the public mind to a realization
of the possibilities of organized social control. It has helped to develop
some of the techniques that in any case will be needed in a socialized
economy. But the cause of liberalism will be lost for a considerable period
if it is not prepared to go further and socialize the forces of production, now
at hand, so that the liberty of individuals will be supported by the very
structure of economic organization (87,8).

To make John Dewey's social/political views altogether clear, I will close with one last citation, from page 90 of Liberalism and Social Action:

Earlier liberalism regarded the separate and competing economic action
of individuals as the means to social well-being as the end. We must
reverse the perspective and see that socialized economy is the means of
free individual development as the end.


Can there be any doubt that Dewey was a socialist? It's just too bad that the term 'socialist' carries with it, these days, a negative connotation -- which, I
believe, is the result of a longstanding propaganda program generated by the capitalist-controlled media).

Don Arnstine, Sacramento

Aaron Schutz said...

The short answer is: if you define socialist in the way Arnstine does, then yes, it is not entirely incorrect to say that Dewey was a particular kind of socialist. But if your point was that Dewey was an ideologue, then he clearly was not. And I think that was the key issue you originally were focusing on.

Interestingly, Dewey may never have actually read any Marx himself. Recent works comparing Marx with Dewey (e.g., an article by Campbell that I can give you the cite to if you want) argue that they were actually quite similar in many important ways--given more recent non-ideological readings of Marx. Not being much of a Marx scholar myself, I can't really say much either way.

Aaron Schutz said...

I think this link to my "Social Class and Social Action" paper should work (I've put a "return" in the middle so blogger doesn't cut it off):