Thursday, June 19, 2008
“John Dewey and the Necessity of a Democratic Civic Education”.
Carlos Mougan. "John Dewey and the Necessity of a Democratic Civic Education". Publicado en John Ryder and Gert-Rüdiger Wertmarshaus (eds) Education for a Democratic Society. The Central European Pragmatist Forum. Ed. Rodopi. Amsterdam. 2006
The education of citizenship has never been an issue so problematic as it is today. Past ages a less controversial topic due to social and political conditions along with cultural and philosophical entailments. So, in the Ancient World there was a social agreement about the meaning of a "good life" and, as a consequence, the promotion of virtues among citizens was an undisputed necessity. Furthermore, for Aristotle the acquisition of some virtues for citizenship was the measure of a good government. Conversely, in the Modern World the new presence of liberalism split the issues of the good life and political questions, so that the building of a people with civic virtues is no longer a public task. In the first modern treatise of civic education, Some Thoughts Concerning Education by Locke, the acquisition of virtues of "gentleman" is a private task and the responsibility for civic education lies exclusively on the family. The attempts of the Modern World to find a common political frame where every one has their own conception of life, the absence of a transcendent point of reference that provides certainty about the meaning of the good life, and the difficulties to agree on some core of values given the diversity of beliefs, drive in this sense of pushing back the possibility of a theory of educational citizenship. The main liberal authors are not dismissive of the importance of virtue within citizenship. They deem that it is not the role of political theory to form a virtuous citizenship, because it breaks or weakens the moral neutrality of political power that is the main guarantee of respect for the rights of individual freedom. In the Ancient Era because of his theoretical excess, and in the Modern Era because of moral restrictions of the main ways of liberalism, both agree in refusing the necessity to provide arguments for an education of democratic citizenship.
At the same time, the transformation of the political theory and the changing social and political conditions converge in the increasing importance of citizenship's meaning. On the one hand, the political theory understands citizenship not only as a right but also as an active commitment with society. The problem with citizenship is not only questions about how to get for every one the same legal status (as typically characterized by Marshall) and how many rights -even the social rights- that state guarantees to us, but the development of a set of virtues which we need for the maintenance of good political order. So, as Kymlicka and Norman noticed, and many philosophers with them, "the promotion of responsible citizenship is an urgent aim of public policy" (1).
On the other hand, the analysis of sociological authors such as Giddens, Lasch and Beck, corroborates this understanding of the individuals within a postmodern society. In Beck's interpretation the advances of our society do not decrease the risks (2). On the contrary the absence of certainty and security is a core characteristic of postmodern society. The solution for Beck is the development of new cosmopolitan consciousness that entails a new interpretation of responsibility, state and justice. In the same sense, Giddens thinks that doubt is not a scientific requirement but a fact provided by scientific development (3). So modernity leaves in the hands of individuals the great questions about the meaning of life. The trends to abandon oneself to routine and to live as everybody else does are strong and as a result critical thought is lost or fleeting. The solution, again, is to provide the citizenship with the capacities for thinking, deciding and sharing responsibilities. Moreover the relevance of a democratic civic education today is shown because every ethical purpose, whatever it may be, calls for the necessity of a citizenship with some specific virtues. Speaking about genetic manipulation, ecology, euthanasia, or any ethical subject calls for an active citizenship that is responsible and aware.
So, the necessity of an education for a democratic citizenship is a convergent demand of advanced societies. Consequently we also need a theory that makes clear its nature, contents, and boundaries. We can define the theory for a democratic civic education as the theory which contains all the theoretical aspects that converge in underlying relevance and importance to promote the civic virtues and values through the public policies. This theory depends on a definite ethical conception of democracy. In this sense the Dewey's philosophy is especially suitable because his way of understanding democracy supplies the grounding for the development of a theory of education citizenship. The following ideas show some requirements of this theory and the adequacy of a deweyan and pragmatic perspective.
1. The private and the public.
The arguments for a democratic civic education encourage us to push back the boundaries of the traditional and liberal distinction between the private and the public. Concern for the moral education of citizenship set up bridges between moral and political areas, that are refused by some considering that it denies the core of liberalism. From a liberal perspective, good and justice, morals and politics are differentiated. So, attempts to get inside the moral from the political or judge the political from ways of understanding good life would reject the most important achievement of modernity, that is, individual freedom. The rationale for a democratic civic education entails to take care of responsibility for the building of individual's virtues, and as a consequence the choice of a pattern of citizenship, the promotion of a way of understanding what it is a good life not compatible with the neutrality of political power. We can distinguish two strategies defending taking away the political from the moral.
Firstly, from the moral side, maintaining that this division is a result of an engagement with a fundamental liberal virtue: individual responsibility (4). The political promotion of virtues confuses social ordered behavior with moral conduct. This makes virtues impossible because it removes individual responsibility for the choice of right way of living or doing. Public policy has to set up conditions that make possible the good life, that is, the capacity of self-determination. But it should not promote a specific version of the good life because to do so would reduce individual freedom and responsibility.
The argument is not suitable because it seems that we are as much better as worse are the environment. Certainly, honesty, loyalty and solidarity, are worthier when grown in opposite circumstances, but we can not agree that they increase in adverse contexts. But, setting this aside, the most relevant consideration for my purpose is to indicate that this line of argument does not notice the relationships between the conditions of the moral and its contents. The self determination ability is more than a condition of morality an important part of an ideal of human perfection that springs up from the capacity of thinking and doing by one's self. We only need to take in considerations how this idea may be different from other ideals of human flourishing like religious foundationalisms or how critical we can be of a society ruled by the values of the open market and consumerism. In this sense, what many liberal authors have forgotten is the social condition of morality. So, in Dewey's perspective we form our values from the goods socially found. Because virtues do not exist before human interplay and there is not any principle that can teach us from outside the good way, we have to accept that the best choice is using our intelligence to evaluate the best goods socially accepted. We can not determine good or bad without depending on social meanings. If we accept that self determination is a politically valuable ideal then we should admit that it has to be socially constructed and, as a consequence, politically promoted. In Dewey`s perspective self determination means to increase the capacity for moral growth and society has to provide the means for the development of individual abilities. The policies committed with individual values can not be morally neutral.
From another point of view the claims to keep apart liberalism from its moral implications have been argued from a perspective exclusively political. The main reference is undoubtedly Rawls, who has defended a more compelling way the idea of a liberalism free from moral charges. In spite of his ideal that the state it has to be morally neutral, especially with regards to religious beliefs, he had to admit in his book Political Liberalism "that justice as fairness includes a notion of certain political virtues" (5). So, Rawls is not so far away from the necessity to educate citizenship in some virtues, and his attempts to reduce the moral meaning of his position are rationally inconsistent. As J. Gray shows, the position of Rawls is only understandable based on protections of the idea of moral autonomy (6). For example, it is clear from his argument against the right of the religious minorities to be scholarly exempt. Rawls defends that the state has the duty to impose the knowledge of the constitutional and civil rights because everyone has to realize the freedom of consciousness and the possibility to refuse communitarian beliefs. The issue is that the state has a commitment with the idea that the beliefs of individuals are their own choice and not a social imposition. But if this is true, the possibility of a political order without moral commitment is getting impossible and a political order based on moral autonomy appears to be the true meaning of the work of Rawls.
The necessity of a democratic civic education requires a political conception that understands democracy as more than an institutional order; this means attitudes, habits, beliefs, and a disposition to collaborate with others. In this sense, Dewey supports that democracy is a way of life, an attitude characterized by openness, sensibility, flexibility and a certain disposition to face the problems of life in collaboration (7). An expanded meaning of democracy that pushes back the traditional boundaries between the moral and the political is a requirement for the developing theory of democratic civic education and Dewey's philosophy focuses on a moral conception of democracy which supplies important resources.
2. Democracy as a way of individual life
To remark on the relevance of a theory of education for democratic citizenship claims to understand that democracy is not restricted merely to the selecting and making of public policy but that it affects all aspects of individual life. Education for a democratic citizenship needs to start with the idea that individuals are, to a good measure, a social construction. It means to refuse as much of the hypothesis of human being as intrinsically good -the noble savage- as, especially, the supposition that human nature is driven by selfishness or self-interest. The education for a democratic citizenship requires considerate that if citizens are passive, socially apathetic, or economically oriented it is not due to natural mechanism but social and educational conditions. So it has be opposed to the traditional liberal idea of an "invisible hand" that fixes socially the worst drives of individuals as it is expressed in the famous mandevillean sentence: “private vices, public virtues”. Education for a democratic citizenship implies to accept that if individuals are well educated, in suitable circumstances and in a favorable environment they will be responsible, concerned for others and social-minded. So it supposes that virtues, as Aristotle said, are not in nature but at the same time are not against her.
In this sense, Dewey stressed that if democracy is a process through which individuals cooperate in the solution of collective problems then this process has effects on the individuals. Democracy understood as a way of life means aside from institutions the building of subjectivity, the acquisition of ideas, attitudes and individuals habits. So, we can say that democracy for Dewey is basically a question of habits, and habits are in an important way a social construction. The ideas are only real if they are incorporated in habits which drive human activity (8). So, for Dewey, we can only have democratic ideas if we live democratically (9). Dewey makes clear that democracy is superficial if we do not incorporate in our attitudes of daily life habits of considering other points of view, to modify our interests considering others, to refuse the privileges and the exclusivity and to use our intelligence as a main way to get cooperatively the solution of our problems.
Because Dewey understands philosophy as a theory of action, he thinks that democracy is not a theory about power but a vital practice, a style of doing. It includes not only beliefs and thoughts, but also desires, feelings and attitudes. So, democracy can not be interpreted as a requirement of subordination of wishes to our reason. Democracy refers to rationality as much as to our emotional life. The political world starts there where the deeds of everyone affects others (10). Our emotional life is collective and affects others to the same degree that our ideas do. Passions, desires and interests, include a socio political dimension. So, we can judge from a normative perspective ideas and emotions. Selfishness is antidemocratic not due to an analysis of ideas but it indicates an attitude that separates, isolates individuals and makes impossible collaboration and cooperation. For the same reason, the perspective of Dewey may be useful to argue for political concern about increasing artistic, cultural and intellectual sensibility. Music, literature, and the other forms of art are singularly important for the democratic construction of self. The esthetical experience gives to individuals a greater sensitivity, more flexible ways of thinking, of understanding other points of view and to see the questions from new perspectives. The democratic process which gives an externalized voice to everyone within society requires intrinsically the ability to put oneself in the place of the others; this in turn depends on an internal attitude. Dewey´s perspective rejects to consider that individuals can have a political self separated from the rest of our identity. This incorporation of the esthetical dimension in his concept of democracy turns more remarkably the position of Dewey towards a theory concerned with the educational citizenship.
These considerations imply the breaking of the traditional liberal walls that isolate the private from public considerations. Dewey argues against the claims to keep apart democracy from areas classically considered private. Estimating that democracy affects the constitution of all aspects of individuality Dewey’s conception of democracy stands in opposition to the defenders not only of the aggregative model of democracy but also of deliberative currents (11). The meaning of democracy spreads out to all the areas where there is interplay of human beings. But to say that democracy exists wherever we find human interaction does not imply the total politicization of individuals or to consider that democracy is the only or main human good. Democracy is the best way to get to human ends, the final goods.
3. Education for a democratic citizenship and the ideal of self-realization
Education for a democratic citizenship is committed with the liberal ideal of self-realization. So, it is important to stress that a theory for a democratic citizenship has a liberal rationale. It means that it has to be considered that virtues can not be politically imposed and are an individual decision. The democratic state is neither morally neutral nor morally impositive. A political liberal order implies that the institutional arrangements aim to facilitate the development of individual capacities. In this sense the theory of Dewey allows to overcome the dualism that splits individual interest and common good. To understand democracy from the point of view of a theory of action makes possible the coincidence between collective and individual interest. The private interest is socially reasonable because individuals are participating with others in the same enterprise. The coincidence of interests is not something mysterious that comes from outside. Our actions are interconnected from the beginning and the democratic process means to be aware of this connection and to transform it for the individuals benefit.
Moreover, Dewey bound democracy with the idea of growth. Democracy is liberal because its goal is the development and the growth of individuality (12). But, as we noticed, the individual does not have a previous structure which organizes the development in conformity with some rules. Dewey stressed the open character and the malleability of humanity. Because individuality is always in a process of self making, democracy is this kind of process that pretends to increase the potentials of individuals. Democracy and education are two faces of the same process of growth. Growth means that there is not an end, that we can not find a point which is the finishing line. Growth indicates a process without end, continuity and openness. So, Dewey underlines that democracy has a character essentially transformative. Democracy, and education for a democratic citizenship, do not have to be interpreted as a way of accommodating the differences, to fix them allowing to everyone to stand in the same position. If we interpreted democracy in this way, then we should think that there are values which can not be discussed or transformed. It entails an absolutist interpretation of values which Dewey denies (13). A full meaning of education within democracy requires that values that need to be taught spring up from the process of cooperation and may be constantly submitted to a public and critical process. Nothing can be a priori excluded from the democratic process and civic virtues do not have another ground that social test. The opposite is to understand values as absolute realities instead of results of previous circumstances.
In brief, the liberal commitment of a democratic theory which makes the education of citizens the core of its position requires more than negative freedom. The liberal requisite is to set up the right conditions that make possible the growth of individuals. The true plurality is not to maintain the actual differences, but the differences which are a product of an unconstrained experience, not guided by routine, prejudices or authoritarianism. In this line of arguments, Dewey thought that democracy is certainly the social organization according with a metaphysical conception of reality as difference, but not with the blind acceptance of previous state of affairs. To make absolute what is different is an antidemocratic perspective because it deepens separation and the absence of collaboration.
4. Democracy and knowledge.
A theory of education for a democratic citizenship supposes a strong entailment between democracy and knowledge. In this sense, this kind of theory is necessarily post-enlightenment. The Modern Age trusted to get an enlightened public opinion because they believed that scientific advance implied the social distribution of information. Underlying this idea was the conviction that knowledge had some moral qualities, intrinsically good. The building of a virtuous citizenship was considered a by-product of the scientific development. But contemporary reflection on values has destroyed bonds between knowledge and good and consequently the bases for the idea of a virtuous citizenship. Update, this idea requires the open promotion of moral habits and virtues and appears as a characteristic challenge for societies technologically advanced.
So, the core of the new relationships between democracy and knowledge springs up from the Dewey's critic to rationalism and intellectualism of modern philosophy. The contingency, fallibleness, and finiteness of the human learning impose a new interpretation of knowledge and truth. Knowledge is seen right now as an element of the action, and consequently acquires the same characters of cooperative enterprise as democracy. Seen from a theory of action, one and another appear to hold the same inherent structure, sustained by the same attitudes: those that are necessary in a collaboration process. Only where there is free exchange of ideas, attention to the experience, removing prejudice, and external authority, may intelligence and wisdom advance themselves. Democracy and science are intertwined, they reinforce each other. The issue is misunderstood when we think that as the idea of transforming citizens into scientists. Dewey´s proposal is that own attitudes of scientific research spread among individuals. In this way intelligence would be the guide of social life and, consequently, democracy becomes incompatible with absolutism or fundamentalism. In democracy, as in science, the guarantee of truth is not the agreement for itself but the fact of openness of arguments and a disposition to modify ideas in contrast with experience. Finally, science and democracy need the public test of consequences, the attention to facts and to evaluate from them. Democratic and scientific attitude require public reply.
Besides, the spread of intelligence to human coexistence discloses the intrinsic relation of democracy and education. The link between democracy and education is a strong point in Dewey's philosophy. Democracy exists only if it is educative and, by the same token, education exists only if it is democratic (14). Clearly, Dewey understood education has a wider meaning than scholarship (15). Education is essentially communication and every social life is communicative. Rules and laws, altogether with mass media, propaganda, leisure, etc., are educative because they contribute to form habits, and in this way, beliefs, feelings and thoughts. Education is to show how questing for solutions should be a cooperative enterprise. So, we can judge institutions and social organizations democratically, to the extent that helps increase perspectives, empower our capacities and enhance our interests. Understood as growth, the most part of our life is educative because communicates to others and this contributes to form their habits. As it is educationally well known, we can not transmit habits by theory or by words. To build habits demands more of deeds and examples than of words. Furthermore, we can judge the democratic level of a country depending how much their citizens have habits of cooperation, solidarity and see the other citizens as collaboratives and not as competitors.
In brief, the link between democracy and education claims to reject the liberal idea that political order does not need, or demands very few, civic virtues in its citizens. Democracy for Dewey means that individuals acquire personal habits and attitudes. The moral meaning that Dewey sets out for democracy provides the basis for a theory of education for a democratic citizenship.
1. Kymlicka, W. y Norman W.: "Return of the Citizen: A Survey of recent Work on Citizenship Theory". Ethics, 104, 325 - 381. 1994.
2. Beck, U. World Risk Society. (Blackwell Publishers. 1999)
3. Giddens, A. Modernity and Self-identify. (Basil Blackwell. 1991)
4. As for example Den Uyl, Douglas. "Liberalism and virtue" in Public Morality, Civic Virtue and the problem of modern liberalism. (Boxx, W. y Quinlivan G.M. Eds. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2000).
5. Rawls, J.. Political Liberalism. (Columbia University Press. 1993) p. 200
6. Gray, J. Liberty and Human Nature in the liberal tradition. (The British Library. 1979)
7. Dewey, J “Creative Democracy: The task Before Us”. LW 14: 224 – 230.
8. Dewey, J. “The Place of Habit in Conduct”, HNC, MW 14:13 – 60. Dewey spells out in The Public and its Problems (PP), LW 2:335-339 the political and democratic meaning of habits.
9. Dewey, J. PP, LW 2:368
10. Dewey, J. PP, LW 2:328
11. J. Shook, “Deliberative Democracy and Moral Pluralism: Dewey vs. Rawls and Habermas” in Deconstruction and Reconstruction, The Central European Pragmatist Forum, Volume Two. (Rodopi Editions, 2004). Pp 31 – 43.
12. Dewey, J. MW 12:186
13. Shook, ibid, p. 34, and Hickman, L. "Dewey's Pragmatic Technology and Community of Life" in Rosenthal. Classical American Pragmatism. (Illinois, University of Illinois Press. 1999) P. 32
14. Dewey, J. LW 13:294
15. Dewey, J. “Education as a Necessity of Life” in Democracy and Education, MW 9: 4- 7