A Companion to John Dewey's Democracy and Education
reviewed by Colin MacLeod - October 24, 2018
Title: A Companion to John Dewey's Democracy and Education
Author(s): D. C. Phillips
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 022640837X, Pages: 184, Year: 2016
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John Deweys influential, wide-ranging, but sometimes densely argued Democracy and America: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education first appeared in 1916. Since then there have been numerous editions of the book but only one previous companion to Deweys text (Herman Harrell Hornes The Democratic Philosophy of Education, which appeared in 1932). The aim of Phillips new book, then, released 100 years after the original publication of Democracy and Education, is to provide contemporary readers with a sympathetic, accessible, and sometimes critical guide to Deweys work. The book is meant to be read in tandem with Deweys text; it is not, therefore, a stand-alone book that attempts to synthesize, explain, and critically evaluate Deweys views on the aims of education, sound pedagogy, democracy, or broader philosophical themes in epistemology and philosophy of mind. Instead, each brief chapter provides guidance on interpreting the corresponding chapter of Democracy and Education. Since Deweys text consists of a preface and 26 chapters, Phillips book also has 26 chapters, along with a comment on Deweys preface, and a brief bibliographical essay.
Phillips lifelong professional engagement with Deweys work gives him a good vantage point from which to raise questions about the success of Deweys arguments in Democracy and Education. Phillips is certainly sympathetic to many elements of Deweys overall project. He thinks that Dewey correctly diagnoses the limitations of pedagogical approaches that treat learners as passive receptacles for knowledge, and he welcomes Deweys emphasis on education that specifically contributes to the meaningful growth and flourishing of individuals and communities. Yet Phillips is not reluctant to point out the frequent opacity of Deweys prose or his unhelpful allergy to illuminating, illustrative examples. And Phillips wonders, sensibly, whether the enormous growth in complex theoretical knowledge, especially in the sciences, reveals Deweys conception of understanding in science to be naïve and limited.
Phillips companion is also a highly personal book and is peppered with anecdotes about his experiences as a student, teacher, and scholar. These anecdotes are frequently amusing, and they give the book a friendly, conversational feel that seems designed, again in keeping with the spirit of Dewey, to remind readers of the difficulties of teaching, namely teaching in a way that inspires students to master a subject in order to solve practical problems. Phillips childhood Latin teacher appears to have been particularly unsuccessful in engaging the interest of the young Phillips, but there are also more hopeful examples of teachers creatively succeeding in fostering active learning by students.
Readers who expect a précis of Deweys many arguments or a general reconstruction of the character of his philosophical pragmatism and its implications for structuring education in a way conducive to a healthy democracy will be disappointed. However, this is not a limitation of Phillips book; rather, he intends his companion to be an invitation to readers to puzzle through Deweys work themselves and to be active, engaged interpreters who solve the riddle of how to understand Dewey for themselves. This approach to writing a companion seems inspired by Deweys own conception of sound pedagogical practice, in which a good teacher does not simply articulate truths for students to absorb but rather assists students in becoming motivated and active learners by framing meaningful problems for students to address.
This is not to say that Phillips does not offer his opinion about the meaning and merits of various positions advanced by Dewey. Phillips does not shy away from noting problematic leaps of logic by Dewey, and he usefully situates Deweys ideas in relation to various philosophical doctrines that Dewey either embraced or rejected. For example, Phillips draws attention to the important influence of Darwins theory of evolution on Deweys tendency to invoke functional arguments about the purposes of education. Similarly, Phillips notes the influence of Hegel, particularly with respect to Deweys strong rejection of various dualisms and his enthusiasm for a broadly organic conception of society. Dewey was not, it seems, very good at acknowledging the influence of other American pragmatists, most notably C. S. Peirce and Williams James, on the development of his variety of pragmatism. So Phillips gently reminds readers of Deweys intellectual debts but does not take readers on complex detours aimed at explaining the work of other philosophers.
There are, however, two respects in which Phillips book might have been even more useful to contemporary readers of Democracy and Education. First, Phillips could have said more about the ongoing significance of Deweys pragmatist conception of democratic education to current debates and discussions in philosophy of education. Its clear that Phillips does not view Deweys work as a mere historical curiosity that has been surpassed by more recent theorizing. Yet Phillips says very little about how contemporary scholarship in the field engages with Dewey or how it might profit from doing so. Phillips sought to write a book that was not cluttered with scholarly citations, and in general that stylistic decision serves his purposes well. Nonetheless, he could have pointed the reader to more ways in which Dewey offers insights for contemporary theorizing. Second, although Phillips presumably wrote his book before the election of Donald Trump, Phillips missed an opportunity to offer some Dewey-inspired reflections on the urgent need for a reinvigorated conception of democratic education. Dewey argued that education should function in the service of the democratic community, and so be oriented towards helping citizens work together to solve urgent practical problems. In this mission, contemporary education seems, at least in some important respects, to be failing spectacularly. Leading politicians and wide swaths of the citizenry are indifferent or hostile to scientific understanding and, indeed, to truth more generally. Perhaps there is some room in a contemporary companion to Democratic Education to consider how or whether Deweys work has lessons for us to consider about such matters.
Despite these minor quibbles there is much to like and admire about Phillips book. For students who wish to embark on the daunting journey of reading Democracy and Education, Phillips book is a most welcome and successful companion. It is clear, succinct, and well-organized, and Phillips own charming enthusiasm for grappling with Dewey is infectious. It is, in sum, an excellent and valuable companion.