In this symposium we examine Dewey’s proposals in ‘Democracy and Education’ for democracy as a continual responsibility of school communities in the context of the common school today. Each of the four papers considers whether the ideas expressed in Democracy and Education offer a viable path for the common school or vocational education setting to constitute ‘a means of associated living’ and secure participation in democratic processes. The symposium has as a central theme a reflection on Democracy and Education in 2016 in the UK.
Paper 1: I consider whether Dewey’s ideas are still useful in understanding contemporary schooling. I also reflect on why his thinking received such harsh criticism and is still a shibboleth of progressive ideas for those who advocate a ‘traditional’ approach to formal education. His ideas are complex and nuanced so it is easy to fall into the trap of the dichotomies he was so careful to deny. The four main themes in this chapter are first the role of education in society and how this related to politics and the development of societies more broadly. Second is the nature of the curriculum and how we make decisions about what should be learned in schools. Next is a review of Dewey’s thinking about the psychology of learning as it relates to the individual, which in turn, lastly, brings the focus back to the role of theory in the acquisition and application of knowledge and skills. The aim of this paper is therefore to consider whether John Dewey’s ideas are still useful in understanding contemporary schooling and to reflect on why his thinking received (and still receives) such harsh criticism and rejection, especially from those who advocate a ‘traditional’ stance to formal education. His ideas are complex and nuanced so it is easy to misrepresent them and fall into the trap of the dichotomies he was so careful to deny. There are four main themes in this analysis. The first is the role of education in society and what relation it has to do with politics and the development of societies more broadly. Next, I look at the nature of the curriculum and how we make decisions about what should be learned in schools. This followed by a review of his thinking about the psychology of learning in relation to the individual, which in turn brings us back to the role of theory in the acquisition and application of knowledge and skills. I argue that these are all relevant to contemporary debates about education and schooling and that the reason Dewey’s thinking still resonates is because we have not addressed complexity of the underlying issues in the solutions we have tried or because we have actually moved in the opposite direction from what he advocated. As a result, this has exacerbated some of the problems we were seeking to solve. As one of Dewey’s biographers, Alan Ryan (1997), has noted “at the end of every blind alley we seem to find Dewey” (p. 353). Dewey sees 'philosophy' as a general theory of education and the issue for every society is how it designs its education system so as to support the future cultural growth of that society in a deliberate and democratic way. This sees the purpose of schooling rather differently from the way that it currently operates, which is largely by default rather than design, and as an efficient means to transmit cultural knowledge but in the process to accredit and sort children according to their perceived economic capabilities. What is missing for Dewey is the vision of what we want schooling to achieve at the political and cultural level in terms of the evolution and development of that society.