John Dewey’s Creative Democracy

John Dewey’s Creative Democracy
The Puzzle of Democracy by Mike Gifford

John Dewey’s short and prescient speech “Creative Democracy—The Task before Us” (1939) contains much philosophical insight for our trying times.

In an illustration of how plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, his biographer Alan Ryan writes:

Dewey’s American was one in which the problems of the inner city were appalling. In the early 1890s homelessness in Chicago sometimes reached 20 percent; unemployment frequently hit one in four of the working population. Disease was rife, and medical services were out of the reach of the poor. … The upper classes were apparently indifferent to the fate of the poor and even to the fate of the working near poor. In the cities the response of the better-off was to remove themselves to the suburbs… (John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism, p.24)

Dewey’s short essay “Creative Democracy” speaks in many ways to the political climate in the United States (and elsewhere). Dewey states:

Intolerance, abuse, calling of names because of differences of opinion about religion or politics or business, as well as because of differences of race, color, wealth or degree of culture are treason to the democratic way of life. For everything which bars freedom and fullness of communication sets up barriers that divide human beings into sets and cliques, into antagonistic sects and factions, and thereby undermines the democratic way of life (227-228).

Democracy, for Dewey, is not fundamentally a matter of voting in free elections, but rather a “way of life” (226).1 Democracy is living together with other people and jointly participating in shaping the nature of the community and world, something he described in Democracy and Education as “primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.” (Chapter 7) Dewey goes on to insist that legal guarantees of civil liberties are insufficient if “freedom of communication, the give and take of ideas, facts, experiences, is choked by mutual suspicion, by abuse, by fear and hatred.” (228)

I find Dewey a congenial, but frustrating influence: congenial because I share Dewey’s optimistic ideal of a highly egalitarian, democratic society in which people pool their intelligence to solve social problems; frustrating because Dewey is usually infuriatingly vague about how this might be achieved. In theory, Dewey constantly eradicates the boundaries between philosophy and the social sciences; in practice, he is mostly silent about how the social sciences can support his democratic vision, as well as how they reveal obstacles to realizing it.

Crucial to Dewey’s conception of democracy is “a working faith in the possibilities of human nature” (227). Though Dewey uses the term “faith”, it would be a mistake to see this as something he accepts without evidence. Rather, faith stands for a moral vision about humanity, autonomy, and democracy. It is not simply something that exists, but something that needs to be brought about – and it can only be brought about if the hold the faith that it can come to be:

The democratic faith in human equality is belief that every human being, independent of the quantity or range of his personal endowment, has the right to equal opportunity with every other person for development of whatever gifts he has. The democratic belief in the principle of leadership is a generous one. It is universal. It is belief in the capacity of every person to lead his own life free from coercion and imposition by others provided right conditions are supplied (226-227).

How does Dewey establish this faith? Dewey claims that he finds its source in his surroundings where these surroundings are “animated by the democratic spirit”:

For what is the faith of democracy in the role of consultation, of conference, of persuasion, of discussion, in formation of public opinion, which in the long run is self-
corrective, except faith in the capacity of the intelligence of the common man to respond with commonsense to the free play of facts and ideas which are secured by effective guarantees of free inquiry, free assembly and free communication? (227)

Rather than focusing on the failures of democracy, voter ignorance, irrationality, corruption, nepotism, blind partisanship, and campaigns financed by the .1%, Dewey insists that everyday life reveals that people allowed to inquire and communicate freely eventually succeed. It is a Millian faith about the free inquiry and progress, combined with a faith in the adaptive power of human ingenuity. Again, Dewey neglects the many cases in which this does not occur and says too little about how to create institutions where “the common man” is able to exercise “his” intelligence.

Nonetheless, Dewey realizes that individuals and spaces “animated by the democratic spirit” need to be constructed. This is why Dewey’s philosophy of education is central to his though. In his autobiographic essay, “From Absolutism to Experimentalism,” Dewey wrote:

Although a book called Democracy and Education was for many years that in which my philosophy, such as it is, was most fully expounded, I do not know that philosophic critics, as distinct from teachers, have ever had recourse to it. I have wondered whether such facts signified that philosophers in general, although they are themselves usually teachers, have not taken education with sufficient seriousness for it to occur to them that any rational person could actually think it possible that philosophizing should focus about education as the supreme human interest in which, moreover, other problems, cosmological, moral, logical, come to a head.

Democracy requires a certain type of citizen:

The superficial explanation is that a government resting upon popular suffrage cannot be successful unless those who elect and who obey their governors are educated. Since a democratic society repudiates the principle of external authority, it must find a substitute in voluntary disposition and interest; these can be created only be education. (Democracy and Education, Chapter 7)

Here is Dewey’s most fundamental and most neglected insight: political philosophy cannot be separated from philosophy of education. Democracy depends on high quality, universal education that allows people to learn to jointly develop and exercise their intelligence in overcoming problems and creating their environment. The failure to do this is the source of much of today’s democratic deficit; it’s only remedy is to remake education as part of a democratic vision.

1 Page numbers refer to The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1953. Volume 14: 1939-1941, Essays

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