This paper argues that in ‘Democracy and Education’ Dewey presents a persuasive account of the importance of pedagogy in the promotion of democracy. Dewey recognises the importance of teachers for the induction of young people into the symbolic structures and formal knowledge valued by society but this is only part of the wider endeavour of education in which experiences outside classrooms are also influential. The challenge, therefore, for schools and teachers is to create an environment that is both steadying and integrative whilst providing sufficient impetus for further growth; that is, in short, educative. For education to be educative, what happens inside the classroom needs to more closely resemble the best aspects of informal learning by encouraging active participation in sharing what other people think and feel, rather than the transmission of inert second-hand knowledge. Dewey’s pedagogy encompasses the authenticity of the teaching and learning relationship and anything else risks the separation of mind from activity motivated by purpose, a limitation that will lead to failure:
Before teaching can safely enter upon conveying facts and ideas through the media of signs, schooling must provide genuine situations in which personal participation brings home the import of the material and the problems which it conveys. (Dewey, 1916: 233)
School is a form of social life and to secure education as a force for democracy students and teachers need to interact with modes of experience, from within and from outside the school walls, as members of a community. The interactions of the teacher and students should exemplify in the immediate social life of the classroom the qualities necessary for the well-being of a democratic society. Dewey’s account of how knowledge is created through dialogue and characterised by what we hold in common is central to his analysis of the relationship between education and democracy.
Intelligence, according to Dewey, is the capacity to make practical judgments in problematic situations and furnish 'ideas of things to do’; formal education plays an important part in developing this capacity but only to the extent to which the experience of being educated is itself democratic. ‘Democracy and Education’ is not lacking ‘ideas of things to do’ with relevance for today but we have yet to find a way to realise their potential. Reasons for the slow, intermittent progress are not hard to find, Dewey’s work is open to misinterpretation (by advocates as much as by his opponents) and resisting the tendency to remove the source of creative tension, between learners and content, teaching and learning, theory and practice, by closing down inquiry requires a tolerance of ambiguity. Democracy and Education makes demands on teachers to be active in the spaces that are opened up once dualistic and oppositional patterns of thought are circumvented and the current climate in education is not particularly conducive to such ways of working. Dewey’s ideas are not always easy to follow but they are not abstractions but tools with which to work, experiments in action that can be tested. Rediscovering his writings and considering their significance in the 21st century can still make an important contribution to our understanding of democratic pedagogy; provided we remember that the point is not to imitate but by thinking together generate and experiment to realise the potential of education as a public good.