Victor Nuovo: Children need citizenship tools

37th in a series

John Dewey (1859–1952) was one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. Vermonters should take special notice, for Dewey was a native son. Born and raised in Burlington, a graduate of the University of Vermont, he died in New York City after a long and justly celebrated life. He was buried in Burlington on the university campus.

After graduating from UVM, Dewey became a high school teacher. But moved by an insatiable passion for learning, he enrolled in John Hopkins University as a graduate student. He was awarded a Ph.D. in 1894. He taught philosophy at the University of Michigan for a short time, then moved on to the University of Chicago, where he was a regular visitor to Hull House, and there he came under the influence of Jane Addams.

In 1904, Dewey accepted appointment as Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, where he remained until his retirement in 1930. During this period, and largely because of his presence, Morningside Heights in Manhattan, which is where Columbia University is situated, became the philosophical center of the world. There the intellectual tradition, conceived by Jane Addams, and developed by C.S. Peirce, William James and George Santayana, was brought to completion, if not perfection, by John Dewey.

On a personal matter, I should note that Columbia is my alma mater. As a graduate student, when I was to take my general exams, I was assigned to a faculty office to write them. It happened to be Dewey’s old office, and I wrote my exam at his desk. I passed.

Philosophically, Dewey preferred the labels “empiricist” and “naturalist,” rather than “pragmatist,” to define his philosophical stance, and, in the spirit of William James, he supposed himself situated in a world of pure experience, a pluralistic universe, in which three forces were at work: chance, necessity and the free choice of human persons.

Like James, he had pragmatic interests, which is to say he had a special interest in the practical value of ideas and their use. Like Jane Addams, the ideas he most valued were ones beneficial to society. To this end, he developed a philosophy of education. In his book “Democracy and Education” (first published 1916), whose title no doubt deliberately echoes Addams’s “Democracy and Social Ethics,” he presents the first fruits of this endeavor.

He entitled the first chapter, “Education as a necessity of life,” and argued that education is as essential to life as food, water and the air we breathe. Therefore, no child should go without it. Schools and their educational programs must be fashioned not to serve the interests of an elite or privileged minority, rather their purpose must be to overcome social barriers, they must be open to all, and they must accommodate all. Hence, education must be democratic, inclusive and its chief purpose to provide all children with the knowledge to live productive, useful lives in society. Therefore education should provide them with all the means to take their place in society as responsible citizens. Education must become the great leveler and universal enabler, where equality and social fulfillment is not only idealized but achieved.

This required a change in the methods of education, which had been designed not to fill the minds of students with stale traditions embedded in a social hierarchy. Dewey proposed to engage all children from all parts of society in active pursuits of knowledge. And thus the era of progressive education began.

Classrooms were redesigned. Students no longer were made to sit at desks fixed to the floor and to attend to authority. They were furnished with movable desks, and tables around which they could work together, their active minds engaged in joint projects of problem solving. Learning became an adventure in ideas, and not surprisingly, the ideas that flourished most tended to be liberal ones.

And the children were the chief beneficiaries of this process. For them, education became a free and joyous experience, positive and life affirming. And for adults, there is no more beautiful spectacle to watch than one of children freely expressing themselves. This was Dewey’s purpose, and perhaps his inspiration.

In 1931, following his retirement from Columbia, Dewey was invited to give the first William James lectures at Harvard. The lectures were published the following year in a book entitled “Art as Experience.” I will conclude this essay with a short account of it, for in my judgment it is his best work.

Dewey began by calling in question the practice of putting great works of art in museums, where they are contemplated in silence. He did not propose defunding museums, although he made it quite clear that museums and the industry of fine art are products of capitalism. “Generally speaking, the typical collector is a typical capitalist.”

Instead, Dewey focused on art as a social activity. Poetry, music, painting, sculpture are social activities; they are public works that create community, and even more they bring joy and gladness to the common life. Necessarily, the good society is not only just, it is infused with happiness. Hence, aesthetics along with ethics are made essential parts of political science.

Although Dewey doesn’t suggest it, it surely follows that civil governments should have an officer for art in public places; and commissioning works of public art should be an essential program of every department of public works. This was tried with great success during the Great Depression. We need it now.

Dewey proposed that a theory of art should be devoted to the activities of everyday life, it must explore the aesthetic capabilities of the products and activities of everyday life. Thus a theory of art must be grounded in experience: “A conception of fine art that sets out from its connection with the qualities of ordinary experience will be able to identify the forces that favor the development of common human activities into matters of artistic value.” Thus, the common life is brought into view by a work of art. It’s a good idea. It remains our task to implement it.

Postscript 1: “Art as Experience” is available in soft-cover editions; the best is one published by Southern Illinois University Press. It is the first volume of the Press’s edition of Dewey’s collected works. It’s worth reading, for it is about much more than the academic discipline of aesthetics; it is about life.

Postscript 2: I mentioned that Dewey’s social program was liberal. He considered himself a democratic socialist. Although he supported the New Deal, he voted for Norman Thomas, the Socialist candidate, and not Franklin Roosevelt.

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