Feb 17, 2015
Welcome to Mere Rhetoric. Or maybe welcome back, because last week we talked about John Dewey and today we’re talking about John Dewey again. You don’t have to go back and listen to the last week’s episode on Dewey and aesthetics, but if you like this, Dewey part the Deuce, then you migh want to go check out the previous episode on Dewey and the artful life. Today, today thought,we get to talk about Dewey’s political and educational contributions.
Dewey was a huge fan of democracy and of education for democracy. He said, “Democracy and the one, ultimate, ethical ideal of humanity are to my mind synonymous."
One scholar summarized Dewey’s politics in this way: “First, Dewey believed that democracy is an ethical ideal rather than merely a political arrangement. Second, he considered participation, not representation, the essence of democracy. Third, he insisted on the harmony between democracy and the scientific method: ever-expanding and self-critical communities of inquiry, operating on pragmatic principles and constantly revising their beliefs in light of new evidence, provided Dewey with a model for democratic decision making…Finally, Dewey called for extending democracy, conceived as an ethical project, from politics to industry and society.” Dewey was big on democracy. this idea, especially about participation in democracy instead of just representation inspired much of his writing in education. The kind of progressive education that Dewey endorsed was education for democracy, education that focused on making student empathetic and engaged citizens.
Dewey’s most articulate thinking about engaged democracy comes as most good thinking does: in response to an interlocutor whose ideas make our blood boil. For Dewey this was Walter Lippmann. the famous Lippmann-Dewer debates begne in 1922 when Walter Lippmann wrote s book called Public Opinion. In Public Opinion, Lippman says that democracy is demo-crazy--public opinion is actually shaped by adverstisers and demogogues who can manipulate the public into thinking what ever they want. The people as a whole can’t make any decision that hasn’t already been made by sleezy Madison Ave. types. So Lippman says that instead the government should be led by experts, preferably scientitic and objective types who would be immune to propaganda. Instead of democracy romantically conceived, he suggested representation and political experts.
Well this got Dewey’s goat and in The Public and its Problems, he responded to Lippmann’s view of democracy. Instead of relying on experts for democracy, Dewey recommends that “"it is not necessary that the many should have the knowledge and skill to carry on the needed investigations; what is required is that they have the ability to judge of the bearing of the knowledge supplied by others upon common concerns." Sure, he admitted, there could be ignorant publics swayed by propaganda, but the solution was not to toss the baby with the sludgewater--education was what the populace needed if they were to engage in participatory democracy.
The Dewey Lippmann Debate has gotten a lot of press from recent rhetoricians. Search for it on Google scholar and you’ll find over a thousand entries since 2011. In the 2008 meeting of the Rhetorical Society of America, a “lively panel” discussion took place where, according to one witness “Jean Goodwin effectively advanced journalist Walter Lippmann’s critique of the “omnicompetent” citizen against Robert Asen’s John Dewey, who represented hope for collaborative dialogue.” And in the most recent meeting of the Modern Language Association, another scholar pointed out how the Lippmann-Dewey debate relates to the current expert-laden political rhetoric. A recent collection of essays on called Trained Capacities: John Dewey, Rhetoric, and Democratic Practice, Brian Jackson and Gregory Clark, eds. also reminds us of the perrential importance of asking ourselves “Are our citizens trained for democracy? Can they be?” The debate, so it seems, continues.
The kind of education you would need to particpate in democracy includes not just information about the value of nuclear energy or the political history of the middle east: you need to have some sense of how you fit in to a democracy, what the moral obligations you have and what the society can provide you.
For Dewey, America’s ideal model of civic engagement wasn’t a selfish, me-first mentality, but neither was it entirely collective and socialist. In Individualism Old and New, Dewey says it’s time to move past the old, rugged, wild-west homesteader kind of individualism that theAmericans he was writing to could possibly remember, or at least could remember stories of their parents and grandparents. while his audience of early 20th century Americans idealized that kind of independence, they were also increasingly aware of how to connect. The experience of world war have taught them that “Most social unifications come about in response to external pressure” (11) and “personal participation in the development of a shared culture” (17). Defining that interconnectivity against the struggles and hardships of war and poverty may seem intutive but the move from frontier rugged individualism to an individualism that recognizes our interconnectivitity is at the core of Dewey’s political philosophy.“Each of us needs to cultivate his own garden. But there is no fence around this garden” (82).
Now just so you know that last week’s episode on the aesthetic of Dewey wasn’t totally separated fromt his sort of thing, Dewey also talked about how that “shared sulture” happens through art, and how this art educates, cultivating the skills that are necessary for democracy: “The art which our times needs in order to create a new type of individuality is the art which, being sensitive to the technology and science that are the moving force of our time, will envisage the expansive, the social culture which they may be made to serve” (49). Or, another way, “The work of art is the truly individual thing” (81).
Even though this is the end of our Dewey Duo, if you have thoughts about John Dewey’s influence in rhetoric, art, politics, philosophy, or any of the many wonderful things he was invovled in, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Until then, go cultivate that fenceless garden, recognizing the capacity of those around you to contribute to a democracy made whole.