If you ask most Americans about the meaning of democracy, you will likely hear the response: “Democracy is when everyone gets a vote.” You might also hear about representative government, “one man, one vote,” or something about elections of executive, legislative, or judicial authorities. The American public thinks that democracy is the political system that the American revolutionaries fought England for—replacing its monarchy with our constitutional “democracy,” and why the United States has been the “leader of the free” world since at least the beginning of the twentieth century. A more sophisticated American will tell you, following Abraham Lincoln, that democracy is government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” suggesting that there is more to democracy than a particular mode of conducting elections.
Etymologically, “democracy” in ancient Greek meant rule by the “demos,” or "people," implying the possibility of participation in “rule” by “regular people,” rather than by the elite, as in an aristocracy or oligarchy. It strongly implies that no particular social class (at least not free white men above a particular age who own property) has any greater right to participation than any other. If we acknowledge that “participation” means more than just voting for elected officials—activities such as actual service in community organizations and political campaigns, on school boards, and in public discussions through newspapers, talk radio, blogs, and other media—you begin to get a sense that democracy doesn’t refer simply to a form of government or a political system but to a type of society.
A democratic society is a society in which each person has an equal opportunity to reach his or her potential. The great American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) explored this deeper meaning in much of his work, most notably Democracy and Education (1916). According to Dewey, democracy is “more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience” (Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:93). For Dewey, who believed that experience is, in a sense, everything, to communicate experience “conjointly,” or through mutual and dynamic participation by all, was to share in experience and thereby to share in growth, or an individual and society progression towards personal and social fulfillment, or the good life.
Democracy, then, is shared progression by all people—all people, not just free white men over a certain age with property—towards the good life, both as individuals and as a society. This progression happens because of conjoint communicated experience. To put it differently, society progresses through communication, which is—in essence—educative:
Not only is social life identical with communication, but all communication (and hence all genuine social life) is educative. To be a recipient of a communication is to have an enlarged and changed experience....The experience has to be formulated in order to be communicated. To formulate requires getting outside of it, seeing it as another would see it, considering what points of contact it has with the life of another so that it may be got into such form that he can appreciate its meaning. Except in dealing with commonplaces and catch phrases one has to assimilate, imaginatively, something of another's experience in order to tell him intelligently of one's own experience. All communication is like art. It may be fairly said, therefore, that any social arrangement that remains vitally social, or vitally shared, is educative to those who participate in it. Only when it becomes cast in a mold and runs in a routine way does it lose its educative power. (Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:8-9)
The implication of this line of thinking is that democracy is not only a form of government, or a mode of social living, but essentially a broad conception of education as the movement of individuals and societies forward, towards….well, towards something better. Dewey believes that the ultimate ends of such movement cannot be determined in advance—that goods, like other objects of experience, are continually reconstructed in the light of ever-changing experience. Since each new experience carries with it the possibility of new insights, knowledge, skills, or attitudes, each new experience contains within it the possibility of new conceptions of goods, new capacities for attainment, and new conceptions of how best to support such attainment by a greater number of persons within the society. Thus, experience for Dewey is inherently progressive…and an education that conduces to progressive experience is inherently democratic.
(By the way, this suggests a new way of looking at the particular role of democracy in the United States. Dewey writes: “An American democracy can serve the world only as it demonstrates in the conduct of its own life the efficacy of plural, partial, and experimental methods in securing and maintaining an ever-increasing release of the powers of human nature, in service of a freedom which is cooperative and a cooperation which is voluntary” Freedom and Culture, 1939; LW 13: 187.)
Further inquiry into the forms of education that are most conducive to “an ever-increasing release of the powers of human nature in service of … freedom” reveals that education can no longer be a simple matter of transmitting the knowledge, skills, and attitudes of the older generation to the younger. Democratic education cannot be static—it cannot serve to limit the young or bind them unnecessarily to traditional ways of seeing and doing. Of course, it also cannot be completely disconnected from tradition…for tradition represents, in some form, the accumulated experience and wisdom of the society. So democratic education must both open access to stored knowledge and wisdom and—at the same time—develop the capacity among the young for critique of that tradition through inquiry, experimentation, and imagination of new ideals and the means for securing them.
It turns out that democratic education is considerably more difficult than a form of education that seeks primarily to induct the young into the ways of the old. Dewey spent considerable efforts during his career to try to outline the principles and methods of democratic education, and remained frustrated that many readers of his works seemed unable to escape the tired dualism of an education that is primarily grounded in tradition and one which is primarily aiming to free the myriad possibilities of each child. The best education, Dewey argued, would take account of both the curriculum—taken from the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of intellectual and social tradition—and the child, with his or her creativity, fresh perspective, and lively imagination.
It is important to understand how Dewey’s concept of democracy connects with this nuanced and hard-to-achieve conception of education. Education cannot be considered apart from the conditions of associated living in the society, and such conditions cannot be considered separate from education. Life rooted in “conjoint communicated experience” is inherently educative; young people in a democracy inevitably grow to become participants in shared activities and shared governance; and schools—as institutions explicitly designed to further education—must necessarily be continuously redesigned to serve—and reflect—democracy.
This isn’t the time or place to inquire further into what schools that serve and reflect democracy look like—nor shall I get drawn too far into the criticisms this particular perspective offers educational policies such as No Child Left Behind (for such analysis, see the Education Policy Blog which I participate in separately from Technopaideia). Rather, this summary of the relationship between democracy and education is designed to provide some background for understanding a sentence I heard at the recent American Educational Research Association annual meeting in New York City (March 24-28). The occasion was a symposium sponsored by the John Dewey Society (JDS) called “Cloistered Scholars and Community-School Engagement.” JDS president Jim Garrison put the panel together to further his notion—shared by others including the JDS Commission on Social Issues, on which I serve—that if scholars paying attention to Dewey’s works wish to do more than talk amongst themselves about arcane issues in the history of philosophy, but wish to further Dewey’s democratic vision in the real world, then they need to find ways to engage publicly in their local schools and communities.
Speaking on the panel were several scholars with impressive credentials not only in scholarship but in public service. Each put their comments in the context of ways in which university scholars can engage in activities which support democratic schools and societies. Mary John O’Hair, associate provost at the University of Oklahoma, described the K-20 project, which aims to link the university closely with schools throughout the state to foster higher quality curriculum and instruction. Derrick P. Alridge, history professor at the University of Georgia, talked about some little-known activities of African-American philosopher and activist W.E.B. Dubois involving the formation of a “People’s College” at Clark University in Atlanta in the 1940s. Carl D. Glickman, professor of educational leadership at the University of Georgia, talked about his career working in various projects related to school improvement, emphasizing the role that generalists can play in bringing together experts from diverse disciplines to work on complex problems often not effectively addressed through the kinds of universal policy prescriptions that emerge from state and federal legislatures or departments of education. Glickman was the one who said, almost in passing, that “Democracy is a learning theory,” which has become the title of this post and on which I will have more to say in a moment.
Perhaps the most interesting speaker on the panel, for me, was Ira Harkavy, who is co-author of a book (wth John L. Puckett and Lee Benson) entitled Dewey's Dream: Universities and Democracies in an Age of Education Reform. According to that book, Dewey’s dream of participatory democracy cannot be realized without the full and conscious participation of schools from preschool to university level, with a special need for universities—which both train the teachers at other levels and set the expectations and content for the curriculum at all levels—to take the lead. This vision, of energizing and transforming schools through the active participation of universities, was one that Dewey took from the first president of the University of Chicago, William Rainey Harper, after Dewey arrived in Chicago in 1894. Dewey took Harper’s idea and gave it a philosophical depth, and also connected it to Jane Addams' idea of schools as community centers. However, when Dewey left Chicago in 1905 and joined the faculty of Columbia University, he abandoned this vision, and turned away from using schools to foster democracy. Harkavy believes that this was a major mistake, and not only contributed to Dewey’s slide into irrelevance in terms of American educational practice, but also to the deterioration of American democracy as well.
Harkavy issued a call to arms for all American scholars to focus at least some of their efforts on promoting democracy in American society. His call is a compelling one. According to Harkavy, the problem of fostering participatory democracy in the United States and in the world at large is the “most singularly urgent” problem of our times, and is related to war and peace, terrorism, violence, and poverty, among other issues. It is also one of the most difficult to solve. Since it is so difficult to solve, working towards a solution will inevitably require new ways of thinking and working that will require new approaches to academic disciplines such as political science, sociology, psychology, public health, and education. And, as most academics know, the most difficult problems to solve are also likely to be the most rewarding to solve: not only in terms of solving a big problem but in terms of the collateral learning that results.
Indeed, according to Harakvy and Dewey, working to solve real and urgent problems is also the best way to learn about the world at large. This is one of the major ideas behind the expansion of the service learning approach to education, and is also at the root of problem-based and inquiry-based learning.
Harkavy described some of the efforts of the University of Pennsylvania to foster participatory democracy by helping the local community schools build curriculum focused on local community problems. By focusing on local problems instead of a seemingly irrelevant or generic curriculum, schools encourage students to become knowledge creators and problem solvers rather than passive recipients of knowledge and, what’s more, they become truly schools of the community, providing both the means and the motivation for parents and other members of the local community to become involved in the schools. Universities, Harkavy said, are the one institution most positioned to support these efforts in schools, since universities tend to endure through changing political times and despite funding variations, and universities have the expertise to help solve problems of all sorts. And, since universities have students—and students learn best by working to solve problems—universities have a natural workforce for helping local schools.
The biggest challenge both for schools and for universities is finding ways to connect the core academic mission of these institutions to the local problems. More effort needs to be devoted to this task. It doesn’t do merely to have students at all levels talk about local problems. Academic expertise, disciplinary skills, and scholarly dispositions must be fostered and leveraged through the changed curriculum. But through engagement in the processes of participatory democracy, students become immersed in participatory learning. In this way, democracy itself becomes an approach to learning.
Carl Glickman had one very specific suggestion for how university instructors can become more democratic in the way they teach, and foster more and better democratic participation. After three classes in each course he teaches, he takes time out to ask the students to discuss among themselves how the course is helping them, and what he, as the instructor, can do to make the course more relevant to their needs and concerns. Most students are surprised that an instructor is taking time to listen to what they feel they need, but it definitely helps his courses improve. The idea, according to Glickman, is to become better at listening to those whose lives are different from our own. By doing so, we move beyond seeing people in terms of single categories and come to see that each person’s perspective is unique, and complex, and that there are many different ways to come to terms with one’s own experience….but that coming to understand the experiences of others helps broaden our own understanding and helps us to learn from each other. Through paying closer attention to fostering better communication with the people around us, we can better participate in their lives, and in the solutions of their problems, thus strengthening local democratic practice at the same time. The main idea is that learning is a matter of making connections between various ideas, and that such connections are more likely with heightened communication among different perspectives, and that as such learning occurs, democracy is strengthened at the same time.
In this way, Glickman tells us, democracy is a learning theory. Learning theories are “attempts to describe how people learn, thereby helping us understand the inherently complex process of learning.” According to this theory, learning is inherently social, participatory, based on the communication of different perspectives, and active. Understood in this way, learning and democracy are simply two sides of the same coin, both leading towards, as I wrote above, the good life.
To the extent that universities can overcome their traditional isolation from daily life…and their traditional “ivory tower” mentality towards their local communities and the concerns of local people…they may find their own missions as centers of learning to be re-energized, and, at the same time, do some good for their own students, faculty, and staff, and for the world at large.