John Dewey has been described as the philosopher of American Democracy. Inspired in no small measure by his upbringing in a small town in Vermont, which put democratic principles into practice, Dewey was a lifelong advocate for the value of democratic ideals. Nonetheless, he understood that democratic ideals, in and of themselves do not solve problems; rather, they establish the ground rules or general framework within which the solution to problems may be sought. It is for this reason that Dewey devoted so much of his professional career toward addressing educational questions.
After all, if the young did not acquire in school an understanding and appreciation of the procedures involved in applying democratic principles to social life, when would they acquire this understanding and appreciation? In many ways, Dewey simply sought to apply the implications of one of Aristotle’s most important political and educational observations: namely, that citizens need to be educated in accordance with the type of government under which they will live. Without an education that prepared young people with the skills needed for life in a democracy, it is difficult to imagine that a democratic society can endure.
What, we may ask, are the skills needed to sustain democratic principles? Herein lies a major conundrum: it may not be possible to identify those skills, or to discuss them extensively without betraying social, political and philosophical biases. Indeed, even Dewey is widely regarded as a “left-leaning” or “liberal” philosopher by those of a right-leaning, conservative disposition.
However, I would like to suggest that wherever we may be placed on the left-right political spectrum, a commitment to democratic ideals must ultimately imply a commitment to three fundamental moral principles: justice, freedom, and equality. While democracies are not the only forms of government that claim to value these principles, they do so in a unique way.
After all, both Plato and Hitler would have made the claim that they wish to advance a “just” society. In the case of Plato’s Republic, we can identify a society, which explicitly advances justice and equality, but not much freedom. In the case of Hitler, we find a most perverted sense of justice that offers very little freedom or equality: even for those deemed worthy of membership in that society.
Democracies are unique in the manner in which they seek to create a just society by virtue of maintaining a balance between the principles of freedom and equality; too much of one and not enough of the other leads to a serious compromise of the principle of justice. Too much freedom leads to anarchy. Too much of an obsession with equality may lead to an oppressive form of totalitarian control. In effect, it is as if justice, by itself is too abstract of a principle to be applied directly to social life. It is only through an ongoing tension and balancing between the claims of freedom and the claims of equality that a society can be said to be advancing and preserving the democratic ideal. It is our understanding of this ideal, which is constantly evolving. When this nation was founded, slavery was a legal institution and women were not allowed to vote. We have evolved as a society insofar as we have rectified these past injustices.
It would be nothing short of arrogant to assume we have no more growth to exhibit as a nation, which seeks to uphold and advance a just society through the application of democratic principles. Indeed, Dewey’s central educational legacy is the idea that growth and the additional capacity for growth is the only ultimate goal of education.
This is the reason why an education, which prepares students for life in a democracy must cultivate a host of skills, dispositions, attitudes, and values which make growth possible: especially the skills of patience and humility in the face of disagreement, discord, and contradiction. Without these skills, democratic reconciliation is crippled and our collective attempt to balance the claims of freedom and equality is undermined.
Unfortunately, the social, cultural and political polarization in American society is making this task increasingly difficult. Media figures who speak out on political issues seldom exhibit these skills. When democratic reconciliation and compromise are disparaged as weakness and when absolutist claims for truth constantly clashes with the relativist denial of certainty, then a form of political pluralism, which enables democracies to flourish is imperiled. This is a topic, which I hope to periodically revisit.