John Dewey is regarded by some as the American philosopher.
“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others….The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” -Winston Churchill
Churchill wasn’t always as unenthusiastic about democracy as these quotes suggest. But I doubt that he was ever as positive about it as the subject of this week’s show, John Dewey.
In terms of impact on society, Dewey was probably the most important American philosopher of the twentieth century. He died in 1952, in his nineties. He influenced not only abstract philosophical issues – he was a pragmatist – but psychology and education and political philosophy. He was a public intellectual, but also a practical intellectual, who worked tirelessly, especially to transform education.
Call the view Churchill’s words suggest the “Settle” view of democracy. Democracy is basically majority rule, perhaps diluted a bit through division of powers and representative government. It’s what we ought to settle for, because the alternative always is, or soon leads to, despotic tyrrany. Ideally, rulers should be just, fair, wise and so on. But let’s settle for a system in which we can avoid tyrants, or at least get rid of them fairly quickly without undue violence.
Dewey’s vision is much more positive. Some form a majority rule may be essential to democracy, but there is a lot more to it, having to do with the processes that lead up to voting. Democracy is about intelligent and civic minded participation; it’s about understanding the wants and needs of others as well as one’s own; it is about cooperation, collaboration, and compromise.
This whole process brings out the best in people. It evokes what’s best in human nature. It’s not just something to settle for, but something to aspire to.
Admittedly, neither the democracy we have now, nor the one we had when Dewey was alive and writing is much like that. But there is a route to making it so, education. Thus Dewey devoted a large part of his mind and energy to improving education, as the way to produce the conditions where a more ideal democracy could arise. Whatever else our education prepares us for, it should prepare us to be active, intelligent, involved citizens.
Still one might wonder if Dewey’s vision a fine ideal for decision-making in a family, or a small town – basically homogeneous communities. But for heterogeneous nation, with all kinds of religious views, economic views, with racial and ethnic groups with different histories and different concerns, with rich and poor --- it seems sort hopeless. Like watching a rugby game and thinking we could transform it into ballet through education. But then, I’m just a gloomy philosopher.