Dewey, Democracy, Ethics, and Education

At the beginning of our 12th week of class, my American Philosophy class (PHI 216) read John Dewey’s “The Ethics of Democracy,” an essay published in the 1888 edition of the University of Michigan’s Philosophical Papers [see here google books full text]. It’s curious timing for me, since I am also trying to find time to read Martha Nussbaum’s 2010 book Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, which explicitly cites Dewey as an influence and shares his concerns.

Both Nussbaum and Dewey argue for a progressive and humanistic vision of democracy as an ideal to be striven for, and both view education as an essential, or perhaps as the essential, tool or process which can help democracy achieve its aims.

Dewey’s high minded essay could perhaps be faulted for its tendency to assert and stipulate rather than to prove its claims; it is a piece of youthful sermonizing (he was 29 at the time of publication). But its brilliance is clear enough. The essay argues against a “numerical” understanding of “democracy” as if it were simply a matter of giving rule and power to the mass of individualistic individuals. For Dewey, democracy is an ethical ideal. The form of governance that emerges from democracy (for Dewey, “democracy” is not merely a form of government, just as the “state” or “nation” is not identical with “government”) is rooted in an inescapable assumption that such governance rests upon the dignity and worth of the individual personality: “In a word, democracy means that personality is the first and final reality.” Sovereignty originates with the people, revealing that democracy has an ethical core; the idea of the infinitely dignified individual (or in Dewey’s terms, personality) implies the “highest ethical ideal which humanity has yet reached,” an ideal which Dewey freely asserts can be embodied in that classic motto of the French revolution: “liberty, equality, fraternity.” Dewey’s idea of the sovereign personality implies an “individualism of freedom, of responsibility, of initiative to and for the ethical ideal.” Ultimately, this ethical ideal demands progress towards full liberty for individuals, but also full equality and brotherhood: not just under the law, but also in what he terms the “industrial” (we would say, “economic”) sphere of life: “democracy is not in reality what it is in name until it is industrial, as well as civil and political… a democracy of wealth is a necessity.” Having claimed this, he denies, quite flatly, that this implies an allegiance to any kind of socialism or redistribution of wealth. Such a redistributionist idea of economic or industrial equality would threaten to reduce the democratic ideal to a concept of merely numerical mob rule. Equality isn’t quantitative, it’s qualitative. “[D]emocracy is anything but a numerical notion; and… the numerical application of it is as much out of place here as it is everywhere else.”

At this point, Dewey appeals to a progressive ideal informed by a neo-Hegelian concept of evolution:

“What is meant by a democracy of wealth we shall not know until it is more of a reality than it is now. In general, however, it means and must mean that all industrial relations are to be regarded as subordinate to human relations, to the law of personality. Numerical identity is not required; it is not even allowed: but it is absolutely required that industrial organization shall be made a social function.

Clearly enough, such a transformation of society’s economic relations is only possible when we transform people’s understandings of who they are, and of who their fellow citizens are. Human beings are ends, not means to ends. As ends unto themselves, individual personalities are not at the disposal of anyone. They do not exist for the service of a larger economic collective or as mere units in a system of production. Dewey knew that the future transformation of civil, political, and industrial relations, depending as it does on a proper self-understanding, could only happen through a transformation of the educational system; so he spent the majority of his subsequent career working to effect just such a transformation. This was his motive in the establishment of the University of Chicago Lab School, his involvement in Jane Addams’ Hull House, in his participation in the creation of the New School of Social Research in New York, and also in his publication of a long series of treatises on pedagogical theory. His theoretical work became dramatically influential.

Yet, almost a century and a quarter later, Nussbaum now points to an alarming decline in Dewey’s influence. Or perhaps it might be better to say, she points to a reactionary movement against such progressive values in education. Governments and populations everywhere have begun to insist that the first and greatest function of education is to serve what Dewey would call an industrial goal: economic development and growth in GNP. Contemporary public policy focuses on how education can create quantifiable and measurable progress. This manifests, on the one hand, most notably as a tendency to neglect or even de-fund “the humanities” in favor of “vocational” or “scientific” education. For the results of education in the humanities cannot so easily be numerically assessed. On the other hand, it results in the phenomenon of “teaching to the test”: placing an undue emphasis on quantifiable results in the assessment of student outcomes. Such an emphasis threatens to abandon critical thinking as an educational goal, in favor of rote memorization of vocabulary, math, and factual data, but it also produces such monstrous abortions of pedagogical practice as computer assisted grading of written essays on the SATs. Even at the progressive, private Lab School, founded by John Dewey, Nussbaum warns, the “wealthy parents who send their kids to this elite school [are] … impatient with allegedly superfluous skills, and intent on getting their children filled with testable skills that seem likely to produce financial success … [and] are trying to change the school’s guiding vision.”

But Education for democracy cannot be, to borrow Dewey’s term, “numerical.” It should not be “for profit.” It should be guided instead by the ethical ideal without which true democracy simply does not exist. Democracy, the ground of real political sovereignty, is also the ground of industrial life, properly understood. We don’t, to paraphrase Dewey’s words, apply ethics to the “industrial sphere.” Instead, “the economic and industrial life is in itself ethical, … it is to be made contributory to the realization of personality through the formation of a higher and more complete unity among men.”

In comparing this sublime essay of Dewey’s with that of the celebrated Nussbaum, I have found myself a little bit disappointed. Dewey writes like a critical academic prophet, full of philosophical abstractions and idealistic concerns. Nussbaum writes plainly, directly, and clearly. I worry that she sees herself as writing for an academic and popular audience that has not only lost its faith in humanistic ideals of education, but has grown weary of parsing philosophically difficult works. Does she keep her language simple because she perceives that, in the age of cable television, the internet, video games, and the decline of the newspaper, our facility with language has atrophied? Or is she simply a master educator who, having reached a mature 64 years of age, feels no need to impress us with her erudition?

Never mind. She is also brilliant, and that comes through. What sets Nussbaum’s ethics apart from Dewey’s is an explicit commitment to expanding our understanding of the basis of what Dewey merely called “fraternity” without blushing at the ideological freight of such gendered language. Nussbaum makes an interesting argument that begins with a psychoanalytic and social-psychological understanding of child development. Among the goals of education must be an effort to overcome the natural narcissism and aggression of the individual (and of those limited groups of individuals known as cliques, parties, tribes, classes, etc.) by providing an opportunity for children to develop their equally natural capacities for compassion, empathy, and understanding of others, and by cultivating a critical awareness of the myths and ideologies that impinge upon a true self-understanding and facilitate oppression and exploitation of “others.” The humanities in particular are those disciplines which present and explore the human condition in such a way as to help cultivate an awareness of “other people … not [as] … slaves but [as] separate beings with the right to lives of their own” (Nussbaum, 37).

About 2500 years ago, in China, it is reported that the Confucian philosopher Mencius “went to see King Hui of Liang.”

The king said, ‘Venerable sir, since you have not counted it far to come here, a distance of a thousand li, may I presume that you are provided with counsels to profit my kingdom?’

Mencius replied, ‘Why must your majesty use that word “profit”? What I am provided with, are counsels to benevolence and righteousness, and these are my only topics. …

‘If your Majesty say, “What is to be done to profit my kingdom?” the great officers will say, “What is to be done to profit our families?” and the inferior officers and the common people will say, “What is to be done to profit our persons?” Superiors and inferiors will try to snatch this profit the one from the other, and the kingdom will be endangered… if righteousness be put last, and profit be put first, they will not be satisfied without snatching all.

‘Let your Majesty also say, “Benevolence and righteousness, and let these be your only themes.” Why must you use the word — “profit?”

The quotation is taken from The Mencius, a classic of the Chinese educational system, as it appears in a reader that we use in our freshman humanities course at Mars Hill College, LAA 121: Character, which explores concepts of human nature and behavior. If anything, it shows that Nussbaum is in good company. The ancient sages would agree: where profit becomes the supreme motive, we have lost our way, and our society is endangered. We can criticize their pedagogical theories, their concept of hierarchy, order and government, their lack of understanding of the true basis of sovereignty in the dignity of the people, but the Confucians clearly upheld transcendent values that we ourselves have begun to lose sight of. To our peril.

Human beings are not servants of profit. They are not means to an end. Yet the structures of our system, industrial and educational, seem poised to embrace this profoundly anti-humanistic idea, in the name of “development,” or “financial success.” They will not do so consciously; they will do so with the best intentions, but without realizing the implications of their shift of ideals. Insofar as we Americans have allowed the economic bottom line, the concept of profit, to become central to our understanding of educational success, we have not only rejected the true and proper aims of education in a democratic society, we have actually embraced a profoundly anti-democratic conception of our society. Something dire necessarily follows from such an audacious ideological shift. Dare I point it out? Can you afford to ignore my oracle? Our republic cannot survive the abandonment of its democratic ideal. And will not.

what do you think?

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