John Dewey, Part Two
America has had its thinkers, but they have been ignored – and John Dewey is a case in point. I once heard a good educator described as “Someone who had a bad case of John Dewey – but got over it.” On other words, he realized that America had rejected Dewey, and so he did too.
This is tragic. Dewey understood us well, and we could have learned from him. The following is from the book Classical American Philosophy, page 334, in a section called The Reconstruction of Culture.
Dewey’s social and political writings focus on the task of creating a genuinely democratic society, a society in which individualism and community flourish. Individual and community, the private and the public, do not stand in necessary opposition; instead, they require each other, and any opposition between them marks not a metaphysical fact but a historical social problem that demands conceptual and political reconstruction.
This reconstructions is needed, Dewey argues, because rapid cultural change has submerged the individual by overturning traditional loyalties and attachments that constitute the basis of real individuality. This reconstruction has been paralyzed by traditional conceptions of individuality as something “ready-made” and in need only of being unrestricted, and so serves laissez-faire economic policies and traditional political liberalism.
These traditional conceptions, blind to their own historical relativity and the developmental character of individuality, once may have served the goals of individuality, liberty, and intelligence, but now, under new conditions, effectively hinder the realization of these goals as they have actual meaning in these new conditions.
I had trouble reading this – because I lack the mental tools, or concepts, to grasp it. Part of me said “This does not compute.” But when I forced myself to look at it carefully, I marveled at how well he understood the situation – especially when he says “rapid cultural change has submerged the individual.”
He did not appreciate the effect of technology (and indirectly, science) on creating this rapid social change. He did, however, remain loyal to democracy, which we have, in effect, abandoned.