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John Dewey and Our Educational Prospect: A Critical Engagement with Dewey’s Democracy and Education

reviewed by Carol R. Rodgers - May 17, 2007

coverTitle: John Dewey and Our Educational Prospect: A Critical Engagement with Dewey’s Democracy and Education
Author(s): David T. Hansen (Ed.)
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 0791469220 , Pages: 195, Year: 2007
Search for book at Amazon.com

Lately I have felt like a hypocrite. What I teach and what I believe (that learning should guide teaching, that learners are human beings with great capacity for growth, and that the purpose of school is to educate critical citizens of a democracy) are in harmony. However, what I teach is not in harmony with what my students encounter in schools. My students, future teachers, are working with cooperating teachers who feel the pressure to “cover” immense amounts of material before state and nationally mandated tests, who have no time for projects, who must “keep up” with the other teachers in their department, who dismiss my students’ idealism with “That would never work here,” or, resignedly, “You’ll learn…” And they encounter students whose reason for studying is to pass the test, and who see school as a game they must play to get into college and secure a job, but not more. Learning, growth, and democracy are seldom part of the equation. Why do I bother? I ask myself, in the face of a system which seems so indifferent to progressive principles. I feel like Penelope, weaving ideals only to have them unwoven by schools. But then little has changed in 100 years of schooling. Progressive reforms have had little impact and the structure of school—high school in particular—persists (Tyack & Cuban, 1995; Labaree, 2004).

So, when I was asked to review John Dewey and Our Educational Prospect: A Critical Engagement with Dewey’s “Democracy and Education,” edited by David T. Hansen, part of me wondered, Why write a book about Dewey when a hundred years of having Dewey around hasn’t made a dent in the educational system? Talk about spitting into the wind—and I say this as someone who has spent some portion of her academic life teaching and writing about John Dewey (see, for example, Rodgers, 2002). Then I started to read Hansen’s wonderful collection of essays and I realized that I had asked the wrong question. It’s not, Why hasn’t the system changed? The question is, Why has Dewey endured for so long? Why is he still the go-to guy when it comes to the big questions of teaching, learning, and schools? What is it about Dewey, and Democracy and Education in particular, that still speaks to us, and that, for me, shifted my perspective from a cynical despair to hope? Hansen et al take us on a journey through Democracy and Education that leads us to those places that, for me, seem very hopeful indeed. Their accounts are compelling, accessible (not a word some associate with Dewey), and deeply human. They are useful for scholars of Dewey, students of education, student-teachers, teachers, teacher educators and, might I suggest, students in school who might benefit from a different view of their role as learners and the purpose of school.

Of all the volumes that John Dewey produced in his long life (1859-1952), why did Hansen choose Democracy and Education to explore? In part, Hansen sought to fill a gap that he saw in the literature on Dewey; no edited volume exists that has treated Democracy and Education (hereafter, D&E) exclusively. More to the point, however, is the content of D&E. It deals with large, important questions that pertain to us and “our educational prospect.” Questions like, What is the purpose of education? What is the nature of subject matter? What is the place of the learner in education? What is the role of self in learning? These are by no means the only questions explored in D&E or in this volume. But they are among the questions that rekindled for me a hopefulness in the work I do—we all do—in education, that, as Dewey says, can carry us over the “dead times.”

The book is divided into 10 chapters, which roughly align with the structure of D&E, including an introductory and a concluding chapter by Hansen. The introductory chapter comprises both an “interpretive synopsis” of D&E as well as an overview of the remaining chapters of the book. In his introduction, Hansen manages to take a book (D&E) that frequently causes, in equal parts, consternation, frustration, and inspiration, and make it coherent and accessible. Along with the synopsis of both D&E and the edited volume, he does two close readings of passages from D&E. These lead the reader into and out of the dense meanings that characterize so much of Dewey’s writing. In so doing, Hansen highlights what is so germane to Dewey himself: the importance of inquiry into ideas. That is, he points out that Dewey wrote D&E as a form of inquiry into rather than as an exposition of ideas. Hansen does the same, as do his contributors who stay “close to Dewey’s text” while at the same time tramping around inside his ideas, asking what they might mean for “contemporary educational concerns and problems.”

The chapters that form the body of the book are, for the most part, equally engaging explorations of Dewey’s ideas. They are written in transparent language that invites the reader into Dewey’s world for a carefully guided tour. But it is not a sightseeing tour, as it were, or a brief walk through a gallery. It is more akin to looking closely at a few selected paintings, describing them closely, and then exploring what each might mean. For example, in his chapter entitled, (quoting Dewey), “‘Of all affairs, communication is the most wonderful’: The Communicative Turn in Dewey’s Democracy and Education,” Gert Biesta explores the idea of education as a practice of communication and asks why Dewey “came up with a theory of communication, and not, for example, a theory of instruction or a theory of learning” (p. 29). Education, he posits, following Dewey, is the process of participation in and with the world; communication, therefore, is primary, and education needs to be thought of not as “child-centered,” but “communication-centered.” Meaning, he goes on, is “not to be found in ‘the world’ itself,” but is constructed in interaction with the world, and therefore located in human practices. This theme of mutual participation in the world is taken up throughout the book and explored from a variety of angles.

Reba Page, in her chapter entitled, “Curriculum Matters,” as well as Herbert M. Kliebard in his chapter, “Dewey’s Reconstruction of the Curriculum,” focus on the imperative of interaction with the world, and the reconstruction of these experiences in order to construct meaning that propels us forward into future experiences. Page spins a tale of her infant daughter’s interaction with the rising full moon and the simultaneously setting sun. She speculates about the richness of the moment in terms of learning—the meaning that might be gleaned from an investigation of why we can see the setting sun and the rising full moon at the same time. Subject matter, she goes on to say, is, according to Dewey, “‘the stuff,’ (MW.9.162) or ‘data’ (MW.9.197), that humans both think about and think with” (p. 45). Such subject matter “matters” to us as human beings because it is of the world with which we, together, are familiar.

Kliebard adds that teaching, or method, cannot be divorced from subject matter. It is the arrangement of subject matter. The key, Dewey wrote, is to arrange experiences with subject matter in such a way that the curriculum establishes “the connection between the relatively inchoate but immediate and vital experience of the child [say, with the moon] and the logically organized but rather remote and abstracted experience of the human race [say, the discipline of astronomy]” (120).

In a summary paragraph that I found particularly compelling, Page writes of the necessity of connecting school (which houses those abstracted experiences of the human race) to that vital experience of the child:

In sum, when formal education disguises and covers up the bonds between the school curriculum and societal ideals and practices, youth are left unmoved by, and even disdainful of, the knowledge humans have accumulated throughout history and which we continue to rely on in order to survive. They learn in school that the school’s knowledge and the cultural heritage it translates are arcane, useless, and meaningless, and they turn away to more appealing, yet limited, subject matter in informal education, such as that of their peer group, family, or the media. (p. 54)

Dewey’s imperative to make children’s experiences essential (though not exclusive—child and curriculum are two ends of a continuum rather than opposed to each other) is further explored by Gary D. Fenstermacher in his chapter entitled “Rediscovering the Student in Democracy and Education.” Fenstermacher writes that the student one encounters in D&E is always depicted “as a person, deserving of the deepest respect and most profound consideration” (p. 97). This is not trivial, especially in an age where the person of the learner (and the teacher, who is also a learner) is so often eclipsed by the narrowly defined “outcomes” (versus projects) that person generates. Starting with the notion that the purpose of education is to develop citizens of a democracy, Fenstermacher goes on to explore Dewey’s valuing of the student as someone with a voice, with agency, and with something important, indeed, vital, to contribute. In the world of No Child Left Behind, students’ “interests, voice, and experiences are neither sought not heard” (p. 108). They are “invisible,” he writes, “except as mere objects of our attention and recipients of our plans. To treat them so is to ill prepare them to inherit and advance a democratic nation” (p. 109). Until students are put in touch with the world, where experience becomes central to their learning and the meaning they make of their experiences is solicited, students will accept their passive roles, even to the point of coming to resent their passivity being interrupted.

Other chapters in the book take up other themes, including Dewey’s notions of socialization, where Larry Hickman takes on conventional misinterpretations of Dewey’s stance; teacher education, where Sharon Feiman-Nemser explores the notion of teacher education as the reconstruction of experience; growth, which Naoko Saito compares to Emerson’s idea of perfectionism; and Dewey’s philosophy of life, where Elizabeth Minnich, like Hansen in his final chapter, takes up Dewey’s notion of “interest.” But they all embrace the notion of the learner’s expansive self, which grows in interaction with the world of objects and persons.

In his concluding chapter, which also focuses on Dewey’s concluding chapter, Hansen reinforces the notion of interaction and interest and introduces the notion of the moral self. Dewey wrote that, “Interest in learning from all the contacts of life is the essential moral interest.” Hansen points out that for Dewey, “interest and self boil down to two names for the same fact: ‘The kind and amount of interest actively taken in a thing reveals and measures the quality of selfhood which exists’ (D&E, pp. 361-362)” (p. 165). It is our work as educators to provide situations that engage that interest to those selves who are our learners (and our own selves, I might add). It is nothing less than transformative work. “In other words,” writes Hansen, “the more the self can infuse into a situation, the richer the situation, and the richer the possible incremental transformation of the self. This outcome will be that much more assured if situations increasingly feature greater infusions from the world by way of objects, including other selves enjoying a comparable experience” (p. 173).

What comes through so clearly in this final chapter—and really throughout the book—is the deeply human nature of learning. It is the construction of self, a moral self, and our job as educators is to nurture, challenge, and set that ever-expansive self forth, with open-mindedness, wholeheartedness, and responsibility into the world.


Dewey, J. (1985). Democracy and education. In J. A. Boydston (Ed.), John Dewey, the middle works 1899-1924, Vol. 9: Democracy and education 1916. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Labaree, D.F. (2004). The trouble with ed schools. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Rodgers, C.R. (2002). Defining reflection: Another look at John Dewey and reflective thinking. Teachers College Record, 74(4), 842-866.

Tyack, D., & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering towards utopia: A century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 17, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14492, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 10:40:30 PM

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About the Author
  • Carol Rodgers
    University at Albany, State University of New York
    E-mail Author
    CAROL R. RODGERS is Associate Professor of Education at the University at Albany, State University of New York. Recent publications include (2006) “The turning of one’s soul:” Lessons in race and social justice: The Putney Graduate School of Teacher Education (1950-1964), Teachers College Record, 108(7); (2006) Attending to student voice: The impact of descriptive feedback on learning and teaching, Curriculum Inquiry, 36(2), pp. 209-27; and, co-authored with M. Raider-Roth, (2006) Presence in teaching, Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 12(3), pp. 265-287.
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